Play through The Tides of Manaunaun
So who's the Great American Composer?
Obviously, this question is half-meaningless. How does anybody quantitize quality? 'Better than' is a very nearly useless term in art, because the qualities of great artists differ so much from one another that the differences make them very nearly incomparable.
All we can do, meaningfully, is talk about the individual qualities of great artists and what makes them great. Even if you want to talk about qualities different artists share in common, the way they go about those qualities is so different from one another that it's impossible to draw a meaningful comparison. If you want to talk about spirituality in American music, then the transcendental chaos of Charles Ives is obviously very different from the simple-spoken austerity of Aaron Copland, which is very different from the mantra-like mesmerism of Philip Glass, which is obviously very different from the oracular opacity of Bob Dylan. It sheds so very little light on them to talk about what's better and what's worse.
So let's do it anyway...
Obviously most people would start with three names: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Charles Ives....
(play in the background) I love all three of them, but poor Gershwin didn't live to see 39. Great as he already was, we'll never know whether Gershwin could have become the American Mozart or Beethoven who bridged popular and classical music forever. What he packed into his miserably few years is astonishing, and one day the world will hear again the twenty-eight other musicals than Porgy and Bess which mostly collect dust now, not to mention the songs, the solo piano pieces, and those few orchestral works that appear on concert programs with regularity oh so mind numbing. But we never got to see Gershwin age, his music is as much the boisterous liturgy of the Roaring Twenties as Fitzgerald is its rambunctious bible, but Gershwin's take on the rest of the American story is terra incognita.
(play in the background) Obviously we know Aaron Copland's take on the American story - that pastoral, almost spiritual soundscape, containing those huge, open fifths and fourths which seem almost like a sonic incarnation of the limitless open space and opportunity in the American continent, worshipped in their different ways by American settlers and Native Americans alike. And that's not the whole Copland either! On either side of that prayerful music from the Roosevelt era is the harsh, confrontational music of a gay Jewish socialist who could only write music to please the American audiences who hated people like him for so long. But whatever the reason, Copland never reconciled those two sides of his musical personality. He was a mentor to many great American musicians, Leonard Bernstein most famously but dozens of others too, but he was a gatekeeper to as many more. To Copland, even Gershwin and Ives were amateurs, and no matter how visionary, any composer who didn't write music as flawless as Copland's was an amateur, unworthy of an academic position or performances. If he'd been willing to express that conflict in his soul more openly, either as a person or as a musician, he might not have found he had much more to say, and his ability to compose past sixty wouldn't have dried up.
(play in the background) And then there's Charles Ives - who probably has the best claim of the three. He's a composer for a future we still haven't caught up to with an all-inclusive vision of music as something where so many forces jostle together in so many dimensions that every time you listen is a completely different experience. It's music whose function is completely different from European music, a more democratic music for a country with a more democratic ethos. An ear accustomed to the orderly kingdom of European harmony will hear only the ugliness of American chaos, but those of us conversant in his musical language can hear the beauty in his dissonance. And yet, just like the country of whom he was such a magnificent example, there is a lot of ugliness in Ives too - his music was made of quotes, and while he was a Connecticut Yankee WASP whose life was understandably distant enough from the black experience that he never quoted African-American songs, he yet found space in his music to quote Stephen Foster, the songwriter beloved of Southern minstrel shows. His political beliefs were so reactionary they almost seem progressive - in 1920 he campaigned for a constitutional amendment that is a forerunner of today's movement for Direct Democracy, but in his interpretation was a means to severely limit the power of government. But as democratic as Ives's conception of music was, his entire world was nevertheless the world of New England WASPS, scarcely different from Hawthorne's or Dickinson's - the world of barn dances, holiday parades, parlor entertainments, church hymns, town meetings, and minstrel shows, all of it refracted through the brain of a musical genius with the financial means to develop his talent fully. But when the idyllic world of the New England WASP began to die after World War I, Ives's inspiration died with it.
Some younger musicians who might listen to this podcast would probably suggest a further three - Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, the 'Holy Trinity' of American Minimalism. And while I'm not an uncritical admirer of any of them, I do wonder if there are arguments to be made for all three, but let's let the dust settle on their careers before we attempt any kind of definitive assessment on their music. And then, of course, there are the non-classical composers, who might in fact have a still much stronger claim to musical eminence than anything at all which happened the tiny realm of American classical music.
Any kind of artistic endeavor is extremely hard, and the demands placed on any kind of artist are herculean for any number of reasons this podcast would elaborate upon. How much harder are these demands in a country for whom the means of expression, a means like classical music, is not endemic in the country's experience?
(Symphony no. 11 Last Three Movements) So allow me make one other suggestion for a candidate.... a candidate with a vision for music as radical and as inclusive as Charles Ives, but who developed his vision over the course of an entire lifetime, and was open-minded enough to the experience of others to always let new influences give him more to say; who grew up not in the homogenous and rigid confines of small-town Connecticut, but in the radically inclusive environs of San Francisco Chinatown, where Asian-American children were his friends and playmates, and whose extremely Californian music was suffused with a respect and love for Eastern culture with which he had intimate acquaintance from the earliest age. A visionary composer who mentored a whole battery of other musical visionaries, not from the then quite safe confines of academia, but from the extremely insecure world of music publishing and journalism. Thanks to Henry Cowell, we not only have the music of Henry Cowell, but the discovery of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, and the list of composers for whom Cowell was a consequential mentor is almost like a who's who of North American musical visionaries: Edgard Varese, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Leo Ornstein, George Antheil, Colin McPhee, Carlos Chavez, Lou Harrison and even John Cage. Arnold Schoenberg so esteemed Cowell that Cowell travelled to Schoenberg's composition class in Berlin to guest lecture - in 1932 no less! In the 20s, Bela Bartok just happened upon Cowell practicing his piano music on an ocean-liner and asked Cowell for permission to use Cowell's techniques! And yet this peer of Schoenberg and Bartok is, relatively speaking, utterly forgotten. (turn up music, play to its conclusion)
That's a 1950's recording of the then-named Louisville Orchestra played by Robert Whitney. You just heard the final three movements of Cowell's Eleventh Symphony - entitled 'The Seven Rituals of Music.' It's a miracle of a piece which in twenty-one minutes takes us through the seven stages of an entire life cycle, and posits the kind of music which accompanies each stage. First you heard the fifth stage, the ritual of magic and imagination, which I can only suppose signifies maturity. Then comes the ritual dance which prepares for war, which I suppose means the war of old age. And then, the seventh, final movement, unmistakably a kind of dirge. I don't know whether the piece takes its cue from Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, but six years after its release, the psychologist Erik Ericksen released his once extremely famous volume, Identity and the Life Cycle, which posited that a life is lived in seven stages. Cowell, the musician, got there before the intellectual did. But no matter what or where the inspiration's source, this is the kind of deep musical vision you get from Henry Cowell.
(Symphony no. 13 "Madrassa") What you're hearing now in the background is the second movement of 'Madrassa', his thirteenth symphony, played by the San Francisco Composer's Chamber Orchestra conducted by Marc Alburger. It was written in the mid-50s, a period when the US State Department promoted the achievements of American culture by sending its intellectuals to speak and teach in other countries in an effort to win the hearts and minds of third world intellectuals that was simultaneously Machiavellian and not un-noble. Cowell spent these years living in Japan, India, and Iran, the result is a very clear and respectful dialogue between East and West.
Much ink has been spilled about cultural appropriation in our day, and it's obviously a very important point in a world where one culture has a centuries long history of exploiting another for financial benefit. But what are artists, most of whom are Progressive with a capital-P, supposed to do with all the wisdom and beauty we've learned from other cultures? When we have tools at our disposal that can inspire audiences to greater respect for distant people they view as threats, are we supposed to keep these secrets to ourselves? Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's impossible to put it all back in. We are all now in the same ecology, and unless global catastrophe gets us there, there's no separating the world again into isolated cultural evolution. The choice is to either regulate the dialogue of culture so that different cultures can be accorded the kind of respect an artist like Cowell gives them, or to demand that artists segregate the material of other cultures out of their own creations so that the material of other cultures can stay the exclusive property of the part of the world in which it was developed - and that's an impossible demand that can only lead to further ignorance of other cultures, and therefore to further exploitation. (turn up and play to the end of the movement)
So far as I know, there are still a number of symphonies which are unrecorded. While I was preparing this podcast, I couldn't find recordings of pieces with titles as promising as 'A Burlesque of Billboards,' 'Cauldron of Fire,' 'Creation Dawn,' 'Dance of Evil Hands,' 'Domnou, the Mother of Waters,' 'A Fairy's Dance' 'Fire Cycle', that's just A through F. I still have no idea if any of them are any good at all, but you can't tell me that with titles like that, at least some of them won't be amazing! Cowell wrote twenty-one symphonies, and even now, almost all of us have no idea about some of them and their quality. And even of the ones we have, we are not exactly spoiled for choice with Cowell performances, and that's a problem for every unknown composer.
(First movement of the Concerto for Koto and Orchestra cadenza in background) Music does not happen on the page, it only happens in the air, and it often takes a brilliant performer to crack the music's code. There's a lot of music out there which seems incredibly boring in certain performances, but then a performer comes along who makes sense of it and newer generations never understand why older generations ever had a problem with the music. This is why it's important for every concert to always play a piece the audiences may not immediately understand, because someday, some performer or writer will come along to hear the music who will understand it, and will be able to explain it to you, and pretty soon you'd be unable to imagine your life without that music. Such was once the fate of nearly every composer you've ever loved. But meanwhile, a lot of Henry Cowell's music is still unrecorded. Cowell, like many composers, was far too productive to be entirely consistent. But who cares? At his often though not always achieved best, this is clearly a symphonist whose work can rival Charles Ives and even Sibelius and Shostakovich and Mahler in its depth. Those other three have a never ending stream of recordings made, yet Cowell lies almost unheard. It's only by hearing them all that we can determine what's great and what isn't. (turn up and play to the end of the movement)
That instrument is the Koto, a Japanese instrument rather like a zither. The soloist in that was Kimio Eto, accompanied by, believe it or not, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1964. That recording the first movement of Cowell's Concerto for Koto and Orchestra is from its world premiere performance, and Kimio Eto was nearly as legendary a figure of world music in the postwar period as Ravi Shankar would be few years later.
At the beginning of this podcast you heard a similarly visionary 'The Tides of Mananaun,' played by a young Turkish pianist named Elif Onal. From the video she seems like she still might have been in conservatory, and she even outplayed Stefan Schleiermacher in a piece that demands reservoirs of concentration and energy.
The way Cowell gets these famous sounds is by his musical invention, the 'tone cluster.' There are a number of ways to achieve a tone cluster on the piano, sometimes it's done with the fist, and sometimes you play itplay with your forearms, from your elbow to your wrist, and sometimes even to your fingertips. Cowell is, in fact, very specific about which notes are struck. In his own words, he said it was basically a way of fitting more notes into a chord. Here is one of the most blatant of his tone cluster piano pieces 'Advertisement,' in which the vast majority of the piece is played with the fists. I have no idea why it's called 'Advertisement,' except maybe it's a way to advertise his technique. Here's 'Advertisement' done by another young pianist named Mary Prescott: (Advertisement).
And now here is Stefan Schleiermacher brilliantly playing a piece mostly with his forearms and elbows. 'The Tiger', based on William Blake's poem of the same name. Listen to this brief and famous poem, and listen to all the things Blake says about the hand and shoulder, the fearful symmetry, the dread hand the seizes the fire, the wings, the twisted sinews, the hammer, the chain, the furnace, and when you hear the music, imagine how the pianist has to contort themself into shape to play this incredibly taxing piece of music. (the poem) (the music)
There's another important Cowell technique of which he is the inventor: going inside the piano s strumming the strings directly without pressing any keys. It seems amazing to me, but no composer that I know of ever thought of it before Cowell. Here's the result of that, a piece from 1929 called 'The Fairy Answer.' Here's what Cowell himself had to say about the piece:
"The Fairy Answer was composed after a visit to my grandfather's place in Kildare. An old gardener took me to a certain spot--a glen--and he said 'I hear you're a musician now' and I said 'Yes' and he said 'Well if you'll play your music in one end of the glen, the fairies will come out and answer you from the other end of the glen with their own.' And he looked at me rather quizzically and he said 'Of course if you're very materialistic you might think it was an echo. But then in order that you should know it was not an echo they always change the music about just a little bit so that you will know it's they themselves.'"(The Fairy Answer)
And then there's The Banshee. I could swear that Ingmar Bergman used this piece in the final act of Fanny and Alexander but I can't find any corroboration for that on this internet. Anyway, this is probably Cowell's most famous work. I needn't elaborate with a description of banshee actually is, though a proper description makes this piece four times as haunting. What's important here is how sophisticated the technique is to get those extremely human-like wailing sounds. The piece requires a second person on the stage to press down the piano's damper pedal. That person is sitting where the pianist normally would, while the pianist themself is standing over the piano's body. I'm now going to read you part of the preface in which Cowell by which Cowell instructs his pianist in the various techniques. Pianists always notate which finger should press which key with the numbers 1-5, so Cowell came up with a second methodology of letters to indicate how the pianist should use his fingers.
A: indicates a sweep with the flesh of the finger from the lowest string up to the note given.
B: sweep lengthwise along the string of the note given with the flesh of the finger.
C: sweep up and back from lowest A to highest B-flat given in this composition.
D: pluck string with the flesh of finger, where written, instead of octave lower
E: sweep along three notes together, in the same manner as BI'm going to spare you, this goes all the way to L. Some of the instructions include to play with the fingernail, play with the flat of the hand, and my personal favorite direction
H: sweep back and forth in the manner of C, but starting at the same note from both above and below, crossing the sweep in the middle.As Krusty the Clown would say (What the hell was that?). but here is a recording from an unnamed music performer, probably Schleiermacher but maybe the composer himself, playing this disturbing, and incredibly difficult piece. (The Banshee)
A lot of music is just too subversive for a typical classical audience, and some is even too subversive for the average concertgoer at the Bowery Ballroom or the Filimore. In an art gallery, if you are mystified or disturbed by a piece of art, you can always move on to the next piece. But live music holds you captive, it is a hypnotic art of suggestion where the musician dictates the soundscape to your ears. If you find the experience unpleasant, the only options are to walk out, disturb the music, or simply don't go in the first place. In the classical music world where Schoenberg and Bartok still provoke walkouts a century after their musical revolutions, how prepared would an 85 year old whose subscribed to their local symphony for sixty years be for this?
(Atlantis: Movement 6)
That was from Atlantis, this movement is called 'The Pleasure Dance of the Sea Soul,' but all nine movements have exactly these kinds of vocal noises. I suppose you could call this piece a cantata, but it's pretty obvious what are they 'incanting?...' It was played by the American Symphony, conducted by Leon Botstein, and those extremely brave 'singers' are Heather Buck, Elise Quagliatta, and Jonathan Hays.
(Hymn and Fuguing Tune #2 in background) And yet right alongside this music is the Hymn and Fuguing Tunes, any of the ten of which could be mistaken for something by Copland or Barber. These are melodies of a style that could be sung just as easily to lyrics about Christ in a Congregationalist Church, and improvised upon on an organ by an American Bach.
The greatest artists do not just express in one vein, they express all of life in all its many moods and states. Neither tragedy nor comedy is alien to them, loftiness mingles with vulgarity, influences from the globe's farthest reaches are present along with what they experience directly in front of their eyes. The genius of some people, problematic as the concept clearly is, self-evidently exists, and without it, we would still be rubbing sticks for fire. Some rare people see possibilities in every new scrap of information that other people never would, and perhaps there are far more of them, from a far more diverse group of people than the world of the arts ever before believed, but they are self-evidently there, and the more of them we ignore, the more our world is contented by watching the shadows on the wall. (turn it up until end)
We're going to end this program with 'The Harp of Life', played again by Stefan Schleiermacher. It's probably my favorite Cowell piece. There's clearly a kinship with Debussy's famous piano piece, The Sunken Cathedral, but this could never be written by anyone else. It's both completely avant grade and completely melodic, it connects us to humanity's distant past at the same time it hurls us into the musical future. It's an encapsulation of all of Cowell's techniques, and uses them to create a piece of music so powerful that how could this composer not have a place in the pantheon among the very greatest? This is music.
(The Harp of Life)