One of the most interesting aspects of this month’s discussion concerning the historical assessment of American music, is how this concern has its own deep history, a history which has played a considerable role in forming our musical community. Asserting the legitimacy and enduring value of American music has actually been an ongoing concern, even a battle, for at least 80 years. For composers such as Copland and Cowell back in the 1920s and ’30s, the struggle to see the music of their contemporaries performed and published was very much a struggle with the weight of history, and with the inertia which prevented their work from having certain kinds of access and opportunity—and from being taken seriously.
Those composers did things like form the American Music Center. We can’t overestimate how hard people like Cowell, Copland, Wally Riegger, Otto Luening, Marion Bauer, and others worked on behalf of the idea that American music belonged—belonged in concert halls, belonged in print, belonged in history. This is a history which deserves greater telling, in the manner of Rita Mead’s wonderfully detailed Henry Cowell’s New Music, which provides a picture of the roadblocks and the extraordinary critical disdain American composers faced.
What it teaches us is that the path to historical recognition is complicated and sometimes never righted, like a persistent social injustice. Ask Ruth Crawford or Wally Riegger if you could. And it is a myth that “the cream always rises to the top”—Conlon Nancarrow became known almost in spite of the arbiters of “quality” (and his fringe advocates Peter Garland and Tom Buckner can say, “I told you so”). I presented a James Tenney retrospective in New York in 1991, and must say I would have thought that eleven years later, his music would have found much wider circulation than that little concert at Greenwich House. Does he have to wait for people to jump on a Centenary bandwagon?
So, the reference books and the historians are not the only culprits here in molding our history. Actually, those of us in the world of “action”—performing, presenting, publishing, recording, teaching, advocating, writing and critiquing—play a huge role in creating the events and the cultural ecology which history chooses to document. We can point out the oversights of the New Grove, but these are perhaps not so far removed from the oversights of our musical establishment. This is why we need an activist AMC, why we need community, and why we need to never stop the dialogue.
In a culture in which history seems to be less valued, less studied, and less heeded, we need to remember. A culture which loses its collective memory loses its soul. In our field, we have a family tree, we have relatives named Johanna Beyer and Julius Eastman, and Art Tatum. The more we remember, the better the next edition of the New Grove will be. Defining, creating, and codifying music history is an ongoing process. And we are on the edge of history, where it is made.