Note: The following article by Bernard Holland appeared in the New York Times in response to my book American Music in the Twentieth Century. In reprinting it here, I have to add the caveat that I believe that, despite its generosity, it misrepresents my book in one small respect. Throughout the book, I stress that one cannot extract any kind of unifying feature of American music by cataloguing musical characteristics. The unity I perceive in American music is a unity in the social conditions under which it arises, which encourage a certain range of responses very distinct from European music, African music, and so on. Nevertheless, I liked the article, especially the concluding point that American music often arises from a fusion of other influences - which is true of so much Downtown music. - Kyle Gann

Coexisting and Colliding the American Way

By Bernard Holland

The New York Times

May 31, 1998

Europeans negotiating the maze of townships that make up Greater Pittsburgh might be puzzled to find each with its own police force wearing distinctive uniforms and driving different squad cars. Redundancy multiplied many times would surely be the charge. Think of the wasted resources, the jurisdictional incoherence.

It's not surprising that Americans do the same in a lot of fields, even music. The idea of one recognizable American music dances in the head but quickly crumbles into many pieces. American classical music, like rhythm and blues, is just a suburb among many, resembling more the Beaver Falls police station than Pittsburgh's fortresslike downtown slammer.

Yet isn't it interesting how well these police stations coexist? Anywhere else in the world, minor civil wars would long since have broken out. America, burdened with so much multiplicity, still manages to be the most prosperous and politically benign large nation in the world. Perhaps Greater Pittsburgh somehow thrives because of all those inefficiencies, not despite them. And if there is indeed a hidden American genius that peacefully pulls separate neighborhoods together, maybe American music has something similar.

American Music in the 20th Century (Schirmer Books), by my colleague Kyle Gann at The Village Voice, hopes so. Gann isn't looking for the one American music that bears the standard for all others, but he thinks that by peeling away extraneous attributes of music in many sizes and shapes, he will find a common American-ness.

There is an undercurrent of urgency. Gann is a composer himself, writing in a genre imperfectly called classical music. (What about "nonvernacular music" as a substitute?) Gann and his cohorts are getting it from both directions. As long as they write for symphony orchestras, opera houses and traditional concert settings, they remain colonists. The instruments and formats these institutions use are products of other people's thoughts and tendencies, summations of their histories: namely, European histories.

This accumulated tradition used to be an advantage when classical music was sitting pretty at the top of a pyramid. People performed and wrote popular music using much the same language as classical musicians. The concert world played major league franchise to popular music's farm team. Roughnesses and banalities from below were weeded out.

But American classical music is not necessarily a destination anymore. From one end, Europe still plays mind games with classical music's head, and from the other, the immense force of music from Africa has cut it off at the legs. Popular music has a separate language now, with many fewer words in common.

Even the techniques are different. Two examples from concerts this year: Alan Feinberg, a concert piano virtuoso and new-music specialist, struggling mightily with the technical demands of chord-hopping Tin Pan Alley style; more recently, the wonderful trumpeter Wynton Marsalis cooing Stravinsky in ways the composer might not have understood. Two worlds once interdependent are not so happy in each other's company anymore.

Gann is understandably fearful of European cultural oppression and the inferiority complexes it has caused. His fears are justified by the vast mediocrity most American concert composers continue to offer. It is a mediocrity supported not by Americans in general but by philanthropic cultural minority, and that without much enthusiasm. The distinguished American musicians who cry, "Treachery," when music patrons in this country send their money to worthy Europeans should remember the example of Detroit, which survived not by appealing to the driving public's patriotism but by building better cars.

So if American classical composers are increasingly marginalized, nature may just be seeking the normal order of things. Also new from Schirmer Books is Daniel Kingman's revised "American Music: A Panorama." Kingman's survey gets the values right. Of his 400 pages, 100 go to classical music and opera, the rest to folk music, black music, the Latino and American Indian traditions, country, blues, soul, rock, church music, musical theater, pop, ragtime and jazz.

We shouldn't be too discouraged. If America has produced only one Charles Ives and no Beethovens, some of our citizens manage to cheer us up: a nice collection of partial visionaries and inspired cranks who may be ointing to some future as yet unknown. There are the inventors (Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch), the grouches (Roger Sessions, Ralph Shapey), the children of rock (Philip Glass, Steve Reich). Above them hovers our own musical metaphysician (though arguably not a composer at all), John Cage.

The important events in American music do seem to share a common formula: put two old and very different things on a collision course, and something new often appears. It happened when ragtime and the European Jewish sensibility met (George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Vernon Duke). It also happened when African music was confronted with European instruments, scales and tunings (an entire blues tradition). In rock-and-roll, black power meets white power (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry).

American classical music has been more a matter of accommodation than of collision. It may still consider itself the custodian of our musical genius, but that, I think, is wishful thinking. Gann and his colleagues have every right to survive and prosper, and to pursue whatever avenues they choose. I just wonder how much room new classical music in this country has to maneuver. It can keep propping up its existing audience for a while, but its jurisdiction, already limited, is shrinking. Maybe that elusive American-ness Gann seeks is the ability to be small and get along with one's neighbors.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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