Banging on Pianos:

The Permanent Nature of the American Classical Tradition

By Kyle Gann

This article was written for an American-music issue of Gramophone that never appeared because the publishers decided it didn't have enough commercial value. Anyone interested in publishing the article in a paper publication should contact the author.

Let us look at two classic anecdotes of American music.

The Boston tanner William Billings (1746-1800), described as "a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person," was the most active American composer of choral music in the 18th century. His relationship with his Boston neighbors was marked by respect from certain circles and antagonism from others. In response to one of his concerts, local wags tied two cats together by the tails and hung them from the sign of his tannery, presumably to allow them to duplicate the perceived effect of his music. Unversed in European counterpoint, Billings relied more heavily on simple consonances than his Continental counterparts, and was at one point criticized for not using enough dissonance. In response, he wrote a brief but remarkable choral song entirely in dissonances of seconds and sevenths, to a text of his own:

Let horrid jargon split the air
And rive the nerves asunder;
Let hateful discord greet the ear
As terrible as thunder.

Even after more than 200 years, the piece shocks the ear with its joyous disregard for resolution.

Zip ahead about a century and a half, and we find composer Henry Cowell dropping in on his friend Carl Ruggles. Cowell's own words for the scene cannot be bettered:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer's voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. "I'm trying over this damned chord," said he, "to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings." "Oh," I said tritely, "time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value." "The hell with time!" Carl replied. "I'll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it'll stand the test of time, all right!"

To this pounding of Ruggles's dissonant chord, let us add two (pardon the double pun) strikingly resonant parallels: the six-year-old (in 1880) Charles Ives looking for a sound on his square piano to imitate the bang of the bass drum in his father's band, and finding that only clusters played with his fist did the trick; and the twelve-year-old (in 1909) Henry Cowell playing clusters with his entire forearm in his The Tides of Mananaun, relishing the swirl of clashing overtones that resulted.

From such poundings on pianos and yowlings of cats American music began. Specifically, it sprang from a delight in sounds not found in "correct" European music. Such legends, with their delight in rebelliousness and transgression, are a far cry from the origin story of European music, by which Pythagoras heard four hammers hitting an anvil in the perfect concord C, F, G, C.

Can we, then, draw the conclusion from these beginnings that there is an American classical music tradition distinct from that of Europe?

The Permanent Split Among American Classical Composers

Historically, this question has received two answers: "obviously no," and "obviously yes." "Obviously no" seems based in common sense and general public perception. By and large, American composers write string quartets and symphonies, which were forms inherited from Europe, and they use European notation, instruments, and orchestras.

"Obviously yes" is the more rebellious and argumentative answer. Certainly it is a simple matter to find techniques and devices in the works of individual Americans (John Cage's chance processes, Harry Partch's 43-tone scale, Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano accelerations, La Monte Young's drones, Steve Reich's phase-shifting) that have no European antecedents. The more polemical task is to prove that all these anomalies are part of an American tradition, that there is a continuity to the madness of so many isolated figures. It is the lack of a public perception of this continuity that gives "obviously no" its aura of common sense.

The compromise answer is attractive, and was most famously stated by Virgil Thomson: "American music is whatever is written by American composers." The formulation is so generous that one yearns to adopt it; it absolves us of the necessity of determining which American composers are more "American" and which more "European." Unfortunately, such a libertarian view - as level playing fields tend to do - has worked greatly to the advantage of the stronger side against the weaker.

From the beginning the American composer has labored under an assumption that crippled his or her creativity: any innovation, any departure from European precedent, tends to be interpreted as a technical deficiency. So interpreted by whom? By those who see it as their business to uphold European tradition - that is, not by the public, but by critics, music professors, orchestra musicians, and others who have vested interests. Amazingly, this is still almost as true today as it was a hundred years ago.

The composers who write orchestral and chamber works based in European forms - one might mention Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and more recently John Corigliano and John Harbison among many, many others - are widely regarded as normative. Those who invent their own tunings or instruments, like Partch, or notations, like Cage, or structures and ensembles, like Philip Glass, are assumed to be technically deficient; if they had been trained well, they would write "real" music. Such composers are marginalized as "tinkerers," "eccentrics," more generously as "experimentalists," less generously as "not serious" and even (as Gunther Schuller calls them) "the kook composers." And most of all: "amateurs."

And so the more precise answer to the above question is that there is a split - and always has been a split, and perhaps always will be a split - in American music between the composers who see themselves as continuing the European tradition and who are regarded as mainstream, and the composers who see themselves as outside the European tradition and who are regarded as colorful amateurs. In practice, unfortunately, Thomson's definition takes a more sinister form: "American music is whatever is written by American composers, some of whom are professionals and others amateurs."

The historical continuity of this split is much easier to demonstrate than the continuity of any single American tradition per se. The composers regarded as mainstream in 19th-century America were John Knowles Paine (1839-1906, who taught at Harvard), George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931, New England Conservatory), Horatio Parker (1863-1919, Yale), and Edward MacDowell (1860-1908, Columbia University). All were educated in Germany, and all championed the "modern Romantic movement," meaning Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. Their works today, such as Parker's Hora novissima and Chadwick's symphonies, are listened to, if at all, patronizingly, and rightly so. They may have been "professionals," but they were imitators.

The Americans who didn't study in Europe are a more colorful bunch. After Billings, Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861) was our next eccentric, writing flagrantly programmatic works such as Barbecue Divertimento and The Ornithological Combat of Kings. Though born in Bohemia, he moved to American in 1810 and didn't begin composing, self-taught, until 1818. The equally irrepressible Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) studied in Europe, but with the radical, academically unacceptable Berlioz rather than the doctrinaire Germans. Decades before multiculturalism, he worked African and Cuban idioms into a Chopinesque piano style. We even had composers who didn't study in Europe, yet wrote in European genres: George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898), our best home-grown symphonist; Amy Beach (1867-1944), the first American to visit Europe not to study, but to promote her own music; and Arthur Foote (1853-1937), who drew on the influence of American Indian songs.

A look at these 19th-century distinctions is instructive, for we are not so close to their politics, and can see them more objectively than the composers of our own time. Billings's music has survived in rural hymnody, the piano works of Gottschalk have always remained popular, and audiences and performers get a charge from Heinrich's music when it is revived. Less often acknowledged is that the symphonies of Bristow, the piano concerto and mass of Amy Beach, and the chamber music of Arthur Foote offer a sincerity and authenticity that raises them above the works of Chadwick and Parker in musical interest.

Nineteenth-century American music, and its continued 20th-century reception, offer a clear moral: going to a distant and presumably culturally superior continent to gain a foreign polish tends to result in pompous, dry, intrinsically timid and imitative music, whereas staying closer to home and following your inborn instincts at least gives your music sincerity, and possibly a liveliness that will not lose its appeal.

The question remains, however: do the "amateurs" really form a tradition?

An American Classical Tradition Strikes Back

As prolegomena to answering this question, let's turn to a telling sequence of events in mid-20th-century music that went unacknowledged until the last few years.

In 1917-1919, while studying with musicologist-composer Charles Seeger, the impressively precocious Henry Cowell wrote a book later published in 1930 under the title New Musical Resources. Cowell's premise was that the methods previously applied to pitch, melody, and counterpoint could also be applied to rhythm and harmony. His material starting point was the harmonic series.

John Cage studied with Henry Cowell in the 1930s. His subsequent articles reveal many debts to Cowell's book.

In 1952, Cage made his first trip to Darmstadt with the pianist David Tudor. The pair had an enormous and controversial impact on the group of composers there who had grouped around the young mavericks of serialism, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

In 1955, Stockhausen wrote a ground-breaking (or so it was considered at the time) and influential article, "How Time Passes..." for the prestigious German periodical Die Reihe. In it, he outlines global procedures for applying to tempo and rhythm the types of structure that had previously been applied only to pitch.

In 1963, Boulez followed with his own book Penser la Musique Aujourd'hui, a systematic rethinking of the premises of music including new ways to structure rhythm, tempo, and harmony.

For much of the last 40 years, Stockhausen's and Boulez's treatises have been better known and more widely discussed than Cowell's book, which has been out of print for most of its existence (from 1935 to 1969, and from the mid-1970s to 1996). The resemblances of Stockhausen's and Boulez's layout of ideas to Cowell's, however, are strikingly coincidental to anyone willing to look at them.

Perhaps Stockhausen and Boulez, working out parameters for a new conceptualization of music, simply stumbled across the same lines of thought Cowell had earlier. But in issue V of Die Riehe in 1959, Darmstadt composer Mauricio Kagel - one of the more open-minded members of the Boulez-Stockhausen circle - highly praised New Musical Resources, calling it "still relevant forty years after it was written," and alleging that "even today, Cowell's reasoning can be reconciled with the newest problems of serial music." He further promised a full review of the book in an upcoming Die Reihe article. That article never appeared.

Stockhausen was editor of Die Reihe. Is it possible, as British musicologist David Nicholls has eloquently suggested, that he didn't want readers to learn that some of his most central ideas had been anticipated by, perhaps even stolen from, an American predecessor? We are further left with the conundrum that Americans influenced by what was going on in Darmstadt in the '50s and '60s, such as Elliott Carter, were actually receiving a reflected influence of ideas that had come from Americans, Cowell and Cage. Aside from Kagel, not a single European of the period hinted at a debt to Cowell, nor even gave him credit for anticipating many of serialism's reconfigurations of musical structure.

Could anything speak more eloquently of the unfair handicaps the American tradition has struggled under than that, once it scored its first big impact on the development of European music, that impact was fed back to us as the latest thing from Europe?

The Tradition at Home

To suggest that Henry Cowell had an impact, however indirect, on late-20th-century European music, however, is still not to prove that there is a specifically American tradition. To do that, we need to trace the relationship of New Musical Resources to composers back home.

In 1927, Cowell received from a friend a copy of Charles Ives's Concord Sonata, and realized that Ives had anticipated, by several years, the tone clusters and rhythmic complexities Cowell had outlined in his book. Though Cowell had earlier based his reputation on his invention of tone clusters, he graciously ceded precedence to Ives ever afterward.

The composer who most applied the lessons of New Musical Resources was Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), who (following Cowell's offhand suggestion) bought a player piano to make possible the rhythmic complexities Cowell had only dreamed of. The effects Nancarrow pioneered - different tempos at once, gradual acceleration, phase-shifting of different phrase-lengths and ostinatos - were all forecast in Cowell's book. To the end of his life, diagrams taken from New Musical Resources hung on the walls of Nancarrow's Mexico City studio.

Harry Partch (1902-1974) read Cowell as well, but determined to go further than Cowell in accurately working with intervals smaller than European music had allowed. Seeing Cowell's ideas through to their logical ends required him to invent a 43-pitch-to-the-octave scale and build special instruments to play it.

The rhythmic structures that John Cage developed in the 1940s were at least partly inspired by Cowell's arithmetical divisions of rhythmic form. From the composers already mentioned, one could easily trace a family tree to every American composer of the "eccentric" or "experimental" persuasion. La Monte Young (b. 1935) was vastly impressed by Cage at Darmstadt; without Cage's silent piece 4'33" as an example, it is difficult to imagine Young coming up with his seminal work Composition #7 1960 (the pitches B and F# "to be held for a long time"). Pauline Oliveros's accordion meditation and group improvisations replace the silence of 4'33" with the human breath as a rhythmic archetype. The text-operas of Robert Ashley use an open rhythmic structure reminiscent of Cage's rhythmic forms in Sonatas and Interludes and other works of the 1940s.

The more audience-friendly forms of minimalism associated with Reich and Glass have not been much associated with the Cowell school of experimentalism, but in fact, Reich's tape loop phasing in Come Out fits hand-in-glove with Cowell's use of rhythmic loops. The free rhythms of Morton Feldman (1926-1987) owe a debt to Cage, and he saw himself as belonging to an American "amateur" tradition along with Ives and Cowell. "An amateur," Feldman wrote, "is someone who doesn't force his ideas down your throat."

In the late 1970s Rhys Chatham (b. 1953) and Glenn Branca (b. 1949) began using the materials of rock to write massive works for multiple electric guitars; Chatham had been Young's piano tuner, Branca calls himself a minimalist to this day, and both went heavily into experiments with alternate tunings. John Luther Adams (b. 1953) was excited in college by New Musical Resources; to this day his major works such as Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing are marked by Cowellian cross-rhythms. Mikel Rouse (b. 1957) studied Schillinger technique, also an interest of Cowell's with many overlaps, and uses in his operas (Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland) the kinds of large-scale cross-rhythms Cowell suggested.

The pedigree could be continued indefinitely: James Tenney, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Janice Giteck, William Duckworth, and David Rosenboom, among the older generation, Michael Gordon, Eve Beglarian, David First, Lois V Vierk, Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, Bernadette Speach, Henry Gwiazda, Nic Collins, Joshua Fried, Ron Kuivila, and Jerome Kitzke in the younger. When interviewed, all of these people trace their musical lineage back through a line that includes at least some of the following names: Ives, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow, Partch, Varese, Young, Oliveros. That these composers perceive themselves as part of a tradition cannot be doubted. Nor can it be denied, except for two reasons: 1. ignorance, and 2. a desire to keep this tradition hidden from public view.

The Tradition Characterized

What can we call the tradition? Lately it has most often been called the American experimental tradition, though many composers object to the word "experimental." In New York City and other urban centers it is called "Downtown" music, as opposed to "Uptown" music which is Europe-centered: an accident of Manhattan geography and performance-space politics. I myself prefer to call it simply the American classical tradition - as opposed to the European classical tradition, Indian classical, Japanese classical, or any other.

Why is it important to perceive a tradition at all? To protect each of the composers involved from being seen as technically deficient against the background of a normative European tradition. The American classical tradition makes its own demands, against which recent European composers themselves seem deficient in originality, clarity, and authenticity. It is unfair to criticize a man who's made a delicious omelette for having failed to make a cherry pie instead, and it is necessary to understand the tradition to know what American composers are trying to do and when they've succeeded.

What demands does American classical music make?

Originality, individuality, and authenticity above all. Rhythmic sophistication, too, usually; ever since Cowell and Cage, large-scale structure has tended to rely on rhythm, rather than on harmony as in European music. Text is rarely sung in the conventional European manner, but is instead spoken, sublimated into electronics, intoned in rhythm, crooned in a lighter folk song style, or whatever. The tradition is nearly always marked by an eclectic approach to different cultures and a willingness to import devices from Indian music (Young, Glass, Terry Riley), Javanese (Giteck, Lou Harrison), African (Reich, Rouse), Japanese (Vierk), American Indian (Garland, Kitzke), jazz, and - yes, even European music.

Americans, having first come to this continent in rejection of Europe's social structures, turned to nature in their novels and paintings, and continue to do so in their music. For many, many composers, a return to nature means taking acoustics and particularly the harmonic series as source material. A significant number of the seminal American composers have staked their artistic claims on some constructed paradigm of "naturalness": Cage's randomness, Oliveros's breathing, Reich's natural processes, Partch's natural scale, Branca's rock vernacular stripped down to its basic strum. Most natural of all: banging on the piano keyboard, so beloved of Ives, Cowell, Young, Garland.

If it is difficult to find the common thread among all these musics, it is because the American classical tradition gives rise to tremendous individuality, which is both its glory and its curse - curse, because audiences and critics have trouble finding tradition in a repertoire whose examples are so remarkably different from each other. Partch's music sounds nothing like Cage's, nor Feldman's like Nancarrow's, nor Ashley's like Branca's. The gulf that separates Chopin from Wagner is dwarfed by America's musical panorama. Yet what else would you expect from a culture that so deifies individualism? Why would a classical music tradition grow in America that did not reflect the people's most basic values?

Most troubling of all, now that the American classical tradition is here, in all its multigenerational maturity and multidimensional splendour, and has already shown itself capable of having an impact on other musics of the world - why has its existence been so difficult to accept?

July, 2000

Copyright 2000 by Kyle Gann

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