Links for the week

Deeptime has a huge review of the forthcoming Kode9 and Spaceape album.

Soho the Dog picks at the musical differences between America and Europe. As a European, I’ve got to say this does feel abou right, and I’ve often thought much the same – there’s a whole tabula rasa thing in America that we just can’t begin to imagine, but then we’ve got history and tradition and all that cool stuff so let’s call it even – but I’m also naturally suspicious fo such generalisations. Can anyone point me to (or better, make themselves) the counter argument – that actually American music is much more preoccupied with historical ancestry, and that European composers mostly don’t bother engaging with the past? That’d be cool, thanks.

And WFMU has the audio from a recent illustrated talk given by Negativland’s Mark Holser.

One thought on “Links for the week

  1. There definitely is a counter-argument to be made, though it seems to me to be a less satisfying overgeneralization. Certainly American composers before the Great War were much more concerned with the past, although it was the European past—Macdowell, Parker, Mason, Beach, they were all working in a Brahmsian and post-Brahmsian style. They get criticized for ignoring the indigenous music around them, with the usual reason given to be a certain amount of national insecurity in comparison with the great European canon. But I think there’s also the case to be made that they were using that as a template to try and figure out what American music should sound like, since it wasn’t all that obvious—there’s native music, there’s popular music, there’s various traditions brought to this country via immigration, and they’re all getting stirred together. (There’s a good argument to be made, for instance, that ragtime owes as much to the piano music of Chopin and Schumann as it does to African-American folk music.) Ives is really the first composer to try and move past this and strike out for the frontier, albeit using a “modernist” vocabulary borrowed from avant-garde Europe.

    And I think there has always been a concern with the past among American composers, but for about the past century, the folk tradition has become way more important than the learned, highbrow, academic (choose your epithet) tradition. This holds across genre and vocabulary boundaries, too. And, unlike Bartok, for example, composers in America are rarely collectors—they’re not so interested in the origins of indigenous music as they are in appropriating that stylistic reference as a cultural touchstone.

    The big European counter-example that springs immediately to mind is the Darmstadt school, although the late Romantic shadow of Schoenberg hangs over that. The one interesting example I didn’t work into the original post was Nyman—one of the original minimalists, but unlike American minimalists, he’s more likely to borrow materials from the European classical tradition than from Indian music, or Balinese music, or other indigenous traditions. (I’m thinking in particular of his score to “Drowning by Numbers,” which is essentially Mozart-based minimalism—I can’t imagine any American minimalist in the 60’s or 70’s taking that route.)

    Where I think European composers have really adopted this no-look-back idea is primarily in electronic and dance music. I’m not going to pretend to know a lot about that, but my sense is that, in those genres, Americans have been taking their cues from across the Atlantic for some time now. (My sense could be wrong—I’m no longer of an age and energy to keep up with the ins and outs of most genres.)

    An important caveat: I think the argument only works well for experimental composers (sometimes referred to over here with the unfortunate title “mavericks”). There’s always been a healthy stable of American composers working within and engaging with the European tradition—Foss, Harbison, Shapey, Wuorinen, to name a few—but, again, they tend to be classified as somewhat less authentically “American” then Reich, Adams, Cage.

    It’s kind of fun to debunk my own argument! But I’ll hide it here in the comments lest people think I’m wishy-washy.

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