Discoveries of America

Over at aworks—just in time for Columbus Day—Robert Gable had an interesting comment this past weekend, a gloss on Steve Smith’s reactions to winning the Deems Taylor award (congratulations, by the way—anyone who can go from death metal to King Crimson to Korngold [as he did recently] and maintain not only sanity, but a high level of intelligence and empathy, deserves as many awards as there are). Steve wrote:

And truthfully, it works both ways: Knowing Mozart’s music doesn’t require me to know Schnittke’s, but knowing Schnittke’s music enriches my engagement with Mozart’s.

And Robert responded:

This is so wrong *grin*. Every year that I listen to Ives/Cage/Reich, I lose my ear for European music. I need to be precise here; I’ve probably listened to Sibelius more recently than any other non-American composer but it’s all those German/Austrian guys, circa 19th century, that I no longer relate to. I never expected that.

They’re both right—the more you know about Mozart (or Mendelssohn, or Beethoven, or whoever he’s channeling at the moment), the more you appreciate Schnittke. But enjoying Cage or Reich doesn’t really require any knowledge of past repertoire. (I’d disagree slightly about Ives, who was more engaged with 18th-century Romanticism than he likes to let on.) I don’t think this is just a function of quotation or stylistic games, either; I think it’s an American/European thing.

Think about it: the experience of most European music is enriched by a knowledge of their predecessors, even when there’s not an overt link. You know Chopin better if you know Bach. You know Debussy better if you know Wagner. You know Mahler better if you know, well, just about everybody, really. In the modern era, too: Britten and Purcell, Webern and Isaac, Barraque and Beethoven, to name a few. But most recognizably “American” composers never really fall into this category. (The one obvious exception is Bernstein, an omnivore of Mahlerian dimensions. Copland and Stravinsky? Nah.) Consciously or subconsciously, both the composers and their listeners are continuing this country’s long tradition of trying to surpass the old world by ignoring it.

In Europe (WARNING: large but entertaining overgeneralizations directly ahead), the usual path to cultural innovation is to first engage the past head-on and demonstrate its alleged obsolescence. Manifestos denouncing the present state of artistic affairs are common. Scandalous premieres abound (point being, they wouldn’t be all that scandalous if they weren’t being presented as the modern equivalent to the great works of yore—to have a scandal, you need a crowd that can be scandalized). The goal is to challenge and defeat the history of art on its own turf. Over here, though, the usual way is to pretend that the past doesn’t exist, that the culture is an empty page on which the artist can inscribe anything. Cowell’s early music comes out of left field with regard to the musical culture of its time. Cage as well—there’s no effort wasted on explaining what he did and didn’t learn, or unlearn, from Schoenberg. He just starts putting music out there. Think of Philip Glass: trained in a European vein, he completely erases that aspect of his musical thinking when he turns to minimalism, withdrawing and trashing his entire catalog. What’s interesting here is the blank-slate aspect: the ideal seems to be that of the fait accompli, sprung full-grown from the forehead of new music, as it were.

There are plenty of American composers that don’t fit this description, of course, but they tend to be thought of as more “European” than the others. Elliott Carter, for instance: even now, in his grand-old-man-of-American-music phase, I never read anything about him that doesn’t see fit to mention how much more popular he is in Europe. Given the relative cultural landscapes, I’d bet that Steve Reich is more popular in Europe than he is here. But it’s not pertinent to Reich’s music, which is perceived as more authentically “American.” The difference? Carter’s music engages the European “modernist” past (albeit from an American perspective). Reich’s ignores it. It’s the American way.

I’ve been reading Henry Adams’ huge History of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison Administrations. Most of it has to do with foreign policy—specifically, in the midst of the Napoleonic upheavals in Europe, America’s struggle to remain neutral and above the fray. It wasn’t just a tactical move, or an economic concern. Government officials saw the United States as historically beyond the old European ways, and were afraid that any contact with European quarrels would somehow taint and infect the ideals of the new nation. Old habits are hard to break: witness our long-standing and, unfortunately, current addiction to isolationism followed by rash unilateral action. But it’s the same tendencies that give rise to the American artistic habit of staking your claim out on the aesthetic frontier and not looking back. Me, I’m a backwards-glancing omnivore; if anybody ever sees fit to write about my music, expect qualifications about my relative popularity here and abroad. But my appetite happily encompasses Reich and Cage and Feldman and all the rest. It’s too bad we can’t make sure people with an ahistorical bent go into music instead of government.


  1. In Berio’s excellent book of Harvard lectures “Remembering the Future” Berio expresses his very negative opinions on Feldman and Cage by criticizing the lack of contrasting material in Feldman’s work and calling Cage’s antics clownish and stupid. To Berio their renunciation of the tradition is irresponsible and nihilistic.Berio does however off up his particular biases in attempting to come to terms with the European tradition by extending and transforming it, without renouncing it. Personally, I’m not sure that Berio “gets” Feldman and Cage. Most likely due to misunderstandings about American culture.

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