Just Another Rhumb Line

One of the more true truisms of music history is that the most recognizably American style of classical music, the neo-Classical tonal populism invented by Aaron Copland, was a reaction to the economic crisis of the Great Depression, that Copland wanted to write music that would be more simply perceived by a mass audience. This is not to pick at the scab of the Complexity Wars (which is simpler—Appalachian Spring or Webern’s op. 24? Conduct through the Copland before you answer) but to note that the idea of simplicity as a solution to societal problems is, I think, a particularly American thing, one no doubt ingrained in each of our psyches by a steady flow of subtle agrarian, back-to-the-land mythology in American culture. Think of it this way: in reporting about the current economic crisis, the number of stories I’ve read implicitly based around this narrative—

Due to technology, financial instruments became too complicated for investors to truly understand what they were investing in

—have far outnumbered those based on this narrative—

Due to deregulation, greedy bastards acquired the legal cover to be even greedier bastards

—a narrative that, on one level, implies that the problem was too much simplicity.

In fact, you might be able to make the case that all societies react to crisis by attempting to simplify, but that the peculiarly American quirk is that the perception of simplicity is more important that the substance. To use another musical example, the 12-tone method, historically contemporary with post-WWI European crises, can be read as a conceptual simplification of the late-Romantic dissolution of tonality that was already underway before the war.

I was thinking about this today because at the historical moment, that penchant for a movement towards simplicity in the face of crisis seems to be on a collision course with that other sure-fire historical pattern, artists tending to react against whatever style is prevalent during their formative years. In other words, the current lets-pretend-its-not-a-Depression would predict a musical shift towards more simply-perceived populist styles, but those styles have been ascendant for some years now (consider Steve Reich’s Pulitzer in light of that prize’s stylistically slow reflexes). Since the generation of composers that were in rebellion against modernist complexity are now The Establishment, one might expect their disrespectful youngers, crisis or no crisis, to swing the pendulum in a different direction.

It’s fun to try and decide if a faster musical evolution has lapped a historical cycle, or the other way around—or if artistic and societal patterns are really on parallel tracks, and we only perceive a connection between them because, well, as human beings, that’s what we like to do. Maybe we’re due for a resurgence of chance music and aleatoricism—not bringing order out of chaos, but getting used to the idea that chaos is the only order we’ve got.


  1. <>which is simpler—Appalachian Spring or Webern’s op. 24? Conduct through the Copland before you answer<><>Damn. Straight.

    Dude, I think you just won the Complexity Wars.

  2. How do you resolve the truism of the “particularly American” preference for simplicity in solutions with the truism that the Neue Sachlichkeit, Socialist Realism, and French neo-classicism were all roughly contemporary to, if not precedents for, the American style? The example of Ives showed that Americana elements need not be housed in simple texture, so the more critical question (it seems to me) is why Copland made the turn from the radical style of his earlier works, The Organ Symphony, for example, and to what degree did this turn to nationalist elements represent — paradoxically — an international style?

  3. Daniel: I think it’s a case of going with or against the flow—the New Objectivity and Socialist Realism were both explicitly revolutionary movements, whereas Copland’s Americana was basically a move towards a more apolitical art than he had been doing up until that point. (Certainly there’s leftist sympathies to be found in all of Copland’s music, but it’s far less overt as time goes on.) The way I’ve always perceived it, especially in relation to the French neo-Classic influence, is that, for Stravinsky and <>Les Six<>, neo-Classicism was, in context, a bad-boy kind of stylistic move; for Copland, the neo-Classic/Americana hybrid was a retreat from his own bad-boy period (the Organ Symphony, etc.) Why did it work? I think that one reason might be that, in America at the time, the <>popular<> perception of European music was still late Romanticism, especially as it spread via Hollywood; maybe Copland’s French-Russian cowboy music was both new enough to sound like a break with the past but familiar enough to fill a populist vacuum. (Compare with, say, somebody like John Alden Carpenter—not new enough—or Ruth Crawford Seeger—not familiar enough.)

    I think what’s particularly American about such perceived simplicity is that it’s posited as a <>return<> to a state before complicating change, as a way to neutralize societal change rather (as with the New Objectivity, especially) a way to catalyze it.

  4. Matt:
    I was about to respond and agree with Daniel, but I see you responded and answered most of my points. Not long ago I went to a friend’s show at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and was treated to Hanns Eisler’s ‘proletariat’ music, which, I’m surprised to say, could not have been duller if it’d been penned by Khrennikov. <><> Many who should know better still don’t understand American music of the 30’s: John Rockwell once (I’m paraphrasing from memory) denigrated Roy Harris’ symphonies as “cowboy movie music” –but cowboy movies weren’t really using such music when Harris wrote his ‘Symphony 1933’. And Rockwell was writing in the NYT. (Harris is a real problem for some people. And John Alden Carpenter’s work may be beyond hope: I can’t envision a contemporary conductor who won’t try to make the music sound ‘cute’ and ‘dated’ …which some of it isn’t.)<><> The question of which way composers may sedway into may be decided, in the end, less by crisis management than on software. (See Sequenza 21’s August back-and-forth on this subject at http://www.sequenza21.com/forum/?p=93 ). <><>In the same way we have a totally different piece when Nancarrow’s piano pieces are transposed/played by Ensemble Moderne and others, the improvement of computers’ playback sounding systems may end up with composers writing in one style for public performers, and in another for their ‘computer orchestras’. I’m not sure that Milton Babbitt, who liked to talk about his writing a Broadway show score and also about walking out of a computer room ‘with the performance on a tape under his arm’, would disapprove of this. <><> On the question of politics: as Denis Mack Smith wrote in his book about Modern Italy (he’s an excellent writer, and has a sense of humor that sneaks in when you don’t expect it), it was when the Italian congress jumped from 70% lawyers to above 90%, with all the resulting red tape, that made Mussolini’s ‘simple solutions’ so attractive. It’s a depressing thought.

  5. Matthew, the Neue Sachlichkeit and Socialist Realism were both retreats into simplification from more radical earlier moments, including Expressionism and Futurism respectively, and were, politically, quite explicit distancings from the revolutions of the ‘teens into a more institutionalized form of work (the name of the Mexican “Party of the Insitutionalized Revolution” captures the idea well). These moves are directly paralleled in Copland’s turn from the radical music of the 1920’s, in which his music could be programmed alongside Varese or Cowell or Riegger, to the populism of the 1930’s, in which he now shared the hall with Roy Harris. The turn in all of these cases is from a small and isolated avant garde to a “popular front” with strong institutional support and ID. In Copland’s case, we also had the relatively rare phenomenon — in the US — of artistic populism actually becoming popular, but the identification of his music with the New Deal era is so complete that it is difficult not to hear this as his most political period. Copland’s own turn away from active politics doesn’t really come until the McCarthy era, in which the broad alliances of the New Deal (including the CP’s support for Roosevelt’s programs) were no longer sustained, when not actively depricated. It is _only_ at that point that Copland’s public persona and compositional work become “apolitical”, whether testifying in Washington or in the 12-tone works. At this time, there was certainly revisionist de-politicisation of his Americana music by both Copland and his supporters, but this does not remove them from their origins in a political moment that was at once statist, leftist, populist, nationalist, and aesthetically conservative and simplifying.

  6. <>we also had the relatively rare phenomenon — in the US — of artistic populism actually becoming popular<>I think we’re obliquely converging on a similar place. That’s exactly part of the point I was trying to make—”simple” populism falls on more fertile ground in American crises than in crises elsewhere. (If you expand the idea of “populism” to encompass more commercial art, it’s not that rare at all in America, I think—the evolution of Hollywood from the 60s to the 80s being an interesting case study.) The movement towards simplification in post-WWI Europe came from a similar political place, but it was an effort to disrupt the status quo, the prevalent nationalist mythologies. Copland was trying to prop up a nationalist mythology, admittedly from a leftist perspective, but hardly as revolutionary as 1920s Europe. (Even “North Star,” which gave him so much grief later, was far more pro-Allies than pro-Communist.)

    The comparison for me is between the career of somebody like Eisler, a pariah in America, and that of Copland, being commissioned for “Lincoln Portrait” (which is a long way from <>Grohg<> or even <>Statements<>) and the like. I guess what I’m getting at is that all the simplifying movements we’ve been talking about might be musically/aesthetically similar, but in crucially different relationship—both in creation and reception—to the contemporary political structure, mainly because we Americans have such an odd approach to the whole simple/complex question.

  7. <>The turn in all of these cases is from a small and isolated avant garde to a “popular front” with strong institutional support and ID.<>I think this captures the important feature these otherwise disparate developments share. It’s the old dilemma: the ostensibly revolutionary social forces have conservative tastes in the arts (Brecht and Piscator never drew working-class audiences in the same numbers as Hauptmann and Schiller at the Volksbühne), while artistic revolutionaries generally appeal only to (what the Popular Front derided as) petty-bourgeois trendies. Sidney Finkelstein, the CPUSA’s musical authority in the Cold War era, praised jazz (“a people’s music”) but attacked bebop; Alex Ross recounts the story of Stefan Wolpe solemnly counseling Morton Feldman to compose for the man in the street,” as though the man in the street–possibly excepting Jackson Pollock who happened to passing under Wolpe’s window at the time–were humming snatches of Wolpe in the shower.

Leave a Reply