Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Music Rant

(this started as a piece on John Adams's new work - City Noir - and ended up as a Leon Wieseltier type ramble - shudder - you've been warned...)

With Steve Reich and John Adams, we finally got it. American composers whose talent cannot be kept down by the pressures of the world. And it only took us a hundred-fifty years of trying.

(The fifth movement of Leonard Bernstein's Symphony no 2. The Age of Anxiety. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The pianist is Kirill Gerstein.)

As a young man, Leonard Bernstein wrote music of ever-increasing personality and wide-ranging influence in both the classical and popular worlds, the final result being West Side Story. But the moment he hit forty his gift clammed up. and his appointment to the New York Philharmonic made him choose a side between classical and popular, and he was never able to draw inspiration from skating the dividing line ever again.

(Charles Ives singing his own 'They Are There.')

Charles Ives, exhausted by the work of maintaining of an insurance company he never wanted to be part of, abandoned composing in his mid-forties and spent the next thirty years wondering why he should continue writing wonderful music when no other musicians had the foresight to appreciate it.

(The piece in which Aaron Copland found his voice: El Salon Mexico. Leonard Bernstein conducting.)

Aaron Copland discovered his mass appeal in the mid-thirties, but by the early fifties had lost the public that gave him inspiration. His gift exhausted by an America that couldn't allow for the fact that the most American-sounding of composers could also be a Communist.

(Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue himself in 1927)

George Gershwin, perhaps the most gifted of them all, looked to be one of those musician too gifted to ever be pigeonholed by any man-made force. And yet, as for Mozart and Schubert, providence seemed content to give the world only a taste of what he could do.

(Back in the late 70's when it looked like Philip Glass was the future of all American music.)

Philip Glass and Steve Reich, doomed to be incorrectly remembered as musical twins by history, finally broke the mold and gave themselves full and lasting careers which they began as enfants terrible and end as living treasures. But at what price for Glass? Glass dresses up the same minimalist cells that he did forty years ago with the exact same harmonies. Only the orchestration is different.

(After the War. The final movement of Steve Reich's Different Trains - describing, among other things, the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of World War II.)

Steve Reich on the other hand has developed completely in a lifelong trajectory of an art that gets richer as he gets older as no American composer ever did before. The ideas of "Its Gonna Rain" expanded and ripened over the years into "Different Trains" and the "Daniel Variations." Phases and sampling that began merely as cool ideas made into towering statements of awesome complexity.

(The defining moment. The end of John Adams's Harmonielehre. With this piece classical music again became an artform that yielded no quarter in either intellect or it's ability communicate instantly. Adams's original champion Edo de Waart conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.)

And John Adams, eleven years younger and eleven years less exposed to the worst of the Boulez compositional wars, felt eleven years more comfortable with classical traditions. I once sat in a lecture with Steve Reich in which he declared to a room full of students "The orchestra is dead. Man, fuck the orchestra!" But whereas all Reich's pieces are for eclectic instrumental combinations that sound like a funkified L'Histoire du Soldat, Adams takes the reins of the full instrumental pallette. Orchestration hasn't been this fun since Richard Strauss and Ravel. Reich's idea of tonality is much closer to Miles than Mahler. Adams occupies the middle ground between them. Adams is the giant who is relaunching classical music as a popular artform, but he's standing on Reich's shoulders. As the New Yorker critic Alex Ross puts it: "Tonality is dead" says Arnold Schoenberg. "Like hell it is" answers John Adams.

...And it's only taken a century and a half to produce composers we can talk about like this.

Being any kind of musician in America is a dangerous thing, but it's even harder to be a classical musician - an outcast among outcasts. The most American music has always been made on the assumption that nobody would help you make it. John Lee Hooker may not have been able to read, but all he needed was three seven-chords to make history. Woody Guthrie traveled the breath of the country with nothing but a guitar on his back and depression-era hospitality to see him through. Bill Monroe grew up practically an orphan, only saved by the music his "Uncle Pen" would show him. Yet in the same generation of those three, was it even possible to be a classical composer of integrity without getting your voice taken away from you?

Mind you, it isn't hard to be a American composer per se. If you play by the rules and do everything your teachers tell you to do, the university system will coddle you from birth to grave. You can spend an entire lifetime making music of the same irrelevance your teachers always made, and make quite a good living at it. But don't expect that your hexachords and matrices will give voice to the place you grew up in, or the generation from which you sprang. To do that, you have to write music which connects to people, and that is something at which whole world - from businessmen to politicians to music professors to rock musicians to blue-haired old ladies - seems to want you to fail. Adams and Reich, both Ivy League elites in their youths (Adams - Harvard, Reich - Cornell), quickly saw the dead end they were approaching and got off their gravy trains before they derailed - Reich to 1950's Greenwich Village of Coltrane and Mingus, Adams to the 1970's Haight Ashbury of Jerry Garcia and Allen Ginsburg.

To do what Beethoven did - to write your music down into permanent record - is a dangerous thing in a country where the prevailing wind changes direction much too quickly even for most musical improvisers to capture. America is too large a country to know what it wants, and too small a country to be told what it wants. A classical musician cannot be self-sufficient. To be successful, not only must he spend 10,000 hours of his childhood honing his craft, but he must depend on hundreds of others who did exactly the same. In the days of aristocrats and patronage, there was always a source of money and privilege. Craft was honed to perfection, and then some.

By the time of Haydn and Mozart, the rules of what made great music were so strict that everybody else's music sounded the same. Perhaps Mozart is the greatest composer of all time. But if he is, it's because he took a series of rules from which individual expression was impossible for anyone else, and bent those rules to sound as though they could express anything in the universe.

And then came Beethoven, who said to hell with rules both musical and social, and to hell with patronage. And there began the great long century in which the musician was King. Every great composer of the 19th century knew the rules as well as any Boccherini or Cimarosa. But they all knew how to break them, and each broke the rules in their own unique way.

The musician's personality was the key, and to express it, music became bigger, longer, louder. But then something changed...

Electronic amplification. One electric guitar manned by Chuck Berry could make a louder noise than Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand. The rules of music had to be rewritten, and assumptions that we developed over a period of a thousand years had to be reexamined.

Expectations were not seen since over seven hundred years ago in the Age of the Troubadors. Musicians were not only the sole performers of their own work, but also the composers, the producers and the distributors. They wrote their own lyrics, and the two sides of songwriting were seen as inseparable tasks. It was the single greatest example of everything that was both lost and gained by the decline of European dominance. Once upon a time, musicians dealt purely in harmony and rhythm. And maybe Reich and Adams are the beginning of an era in which they will again.

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