In Conversation with Denise Von Glahn
An interview with the author of The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape
Molly Sheridan: In the book, you connect some of your discussion to the visual art ideas popular at the time. Is this connection to finding inspiration in places something that goes in and out of fashion? When is this most popular?
Denise Von Glahn: I think for musicians in America, finding inspiration in place has always been there because the American place was such a remarkable place. It was so very different from what was valued in Europe. In Europe in the 19th century—and that’s when we’re really starting to talk about having a musical culture—it was cities that appeared to be the source of cultural energy, but in America at that time, we didn’t have cities as cultural centers so we couldn’t compete. What we did have though was a remarkable natural place. We had a diversity of geography that was unlike anything in Europe. So we made what was a wilderness and what many might have thought of as wild and unattractive into our asset. We privileged the natural place and we connected it with Eden. In America I think there’s always been a fascination with the natural place because it was the thing we had in aces early in our culture.
One of the very first composers I talk about, Anthony Philip Heinrich, what does he latch onto? Not a city. He latches onto Niagara Falls. I think he had a number of agendas. He wanted to identify himself as an American and there was no better way to do that than to identify with some iconic place, but it was also the way America distinguished itself from Europe. It had nature in variety, and grandeur that Europe just couldn’t compete with.
Molly Sheridan: Your book gets into great detail when it comes to talking about specific musical examples to illustrate your larger points, so I’m curious, is there a specific musical vocabulary that you started to see emerging in America that was used in relation to these new American natural elements?
Denise Von Glahn: I don’t think a distinctly American musical vocabulary, no. In my discussion of the Hudson River school of artists there were distinctly American places being depicted but the artists actually used some very European techniques and ways of representing those American places. I believe that there were iconic places that composers wanted to talk about. The first one that I noticed was Niagara Falls and of course that was a place that was not only energizing and inspiring to composers, it was inspiring to poets and writers, and painters, to people making bread boxes and curtains for stages in theaters [laughs]… it became the most important visual symbol of America early on.
Molly Sheridan: Where would you say today is the place that is a focal point for artists following in this tradition?
Denise Von Glahn: I think since 9/11 there has been an effort to recapture some of the earlier 19th century iconic places—a lot of visuals of the great vistas of America. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon, because of what they immediately suggest to people, those places now have also become symbols of America. I am not sure that there is a consensus anymore about what one place might signify America. I think that still when people are looking for visuals to accompany any kind of speech that is intended to rouse patriotism, you will see Niagara Falls, you will see the Grand Canyon, and the mountains and plains, so those initial iconic places still have a lot of cache, but the nation isn’t as geographically restricted as it was in the 19th century; we aren’t all coming out of the Northeast with the same kinds of values. I would imagine for Americans coming up from Mexico that a very different kind of natural place would have meaning to them. So I don’t think there’s one or even a few natural places that would really speak to all Americans now in any way comparable to the way Niagara spoke to Americans in the 19th century or the way New York City spoke to them at the beginning of the 20th.
Molly Sheridan: Talking about the sheaves of wheat and perhaps the sort of nostalgia that goes along with that…as a society in general most of us have significantly less contact with the nature around us and more experience with suburban and city environments. How has that affected composers writing today? Is there a trend to the sentimentalize it?
Denise Von Glahn: I think some of it is a nostalgia for the way people imagine life was, but I think too that there’s a new sense of the value of nature. Now we are concerned with preservation, hence the environmental movement that really got started in the 1960s. I think our interest in nature is now not quite as naïve or as incomplete as in was in the 19th century. Now we look at nature as a very precious commodity that we could destroy and so our musical responses to it are informed by that awareness. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Symphony No. 4 The Gardens is a prime example. That piece could not have been written 50 years ago. It would not have that same sensitivity. But when she wrote it at the very end of the 20th century, that was how people were thinking of nature. I was so grateful to stumble upon that piece and then to have the privilege of speaking with Ellen Zwilich on a number of occasions about what those gardens suggested to her. It was eye-opening to me and it was a wonderful lesson about our morphing relationship to nature. We can no longer take it for granted and Ellen Zwilich’s Symphony says that in no uncertain terms. That kind of sensibility is very much a product of the 20th century and never would have occurred to writers on nature in the early 19th century.
Molly Sheridan: You might assume when we’re talking about something so concrete as a place that we can all visit that there might be an almost unavoidably programmatic aspect to this music. Do you talk about composers inspired by these connections but their music doesn’t necessarily sound like it?
Denise Von Glahn: Absolutely and one of the distinctions I hoped to make in the book is that these pieces were not necessarily programmatic. In fact all of the composers with whom I spoke—Robert Starer, Dana Paul Perna, Ellen Zwilich, Steve Reich—were very clear that they were not writing programmatic works. They were writing pieces that had been inspired by places, and there’s a difference. What I was hoping to show was that America as a place or as places had the power to inspire art and that with that inspiration, and with that resulting artwork, we learn something about what nature means at that moment in time. I’m looking for how an artist is inspired by a place and responds to a place and then how their artwork reflects that place back to us. And since in America we were so caught up with place as defining the nation, I found it interesting to see how the different interactions with places actually told us something about the different ways we think of ourselves as a country. It’s a circuitous route but I also think that it’s a very clear one. We can see what we think about ourselves by listening to music about place, by looking at paintings about place, by reading poems about place. We learn something about ourselves as individuals, we learn something about the creator of the artwork, and we learn something about ourselves as a nation.