One of a Kind

In a society SoundTrackswhere the bottom-line rules, the sun rises and sets with the Dow Jones, and the word “culture” is often preceded by the modifier “pop,” the life of an American composer is a bit of an aberration. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, success doesn’t guarantee an abundance of money, and people with an abundance of money, often don’t care to hear anything new. The truth is that what most Americans identify as American music (R&B, rock, pop, rap, country, folk) does not include the classical music tradition. Therefore, those who choose the path of a composer in the United States are inherently strong-willed mavericks, going against the grain of their culture. While Michael Tilson Thomas has a specific idea of what constitutes an “American maverick,” I would argue that each and every American composer is a true individualist, a part of a small community of risk-takers, marginalized by the corporate heartbeat of the US. The 40 recordings that we received this month spotlight many musicians who have truly crafted their art with a unique approach to music making.

Simply by being a female composer in the 1920s and 1930s, Ruth Crawford Seeger undermined the gender roles that were imposed upon Americans at the time. More importantly, however, the wild atonality of her music established her as one of the key figures in the development of a classical music tradition in the States. Henry Cowell, a giant in the realm of mavericks, invited Seeger to publish the final four of her Preludes and her Study in Mixed Accents in the New Music Quarterly, which was a key publication for the distribution of “maverick” music. These pieces along with many others appear on a recording of Crawford Seeger’s complete solo piano music performed by Jenny Lin, allowing you to hear how the composer’s music evolved into an original voice.

A few decades later, the musical landscape of American music was forever changed by the music and philosophies of John Cage, who is represented this month by a recording of his music for saxophone, an instrument that is kind of an American maverick itself. A late work by his “New York School” ally Morton Feldman, the delicate almost 2-hour Violin and String Quartet, receives its premiere recording by violinist Christina Fong and the Rangzen Quartet. And Reflections collects a decade’s worth of chamber music ranging from a piano trio to a duet for toy piano to prepared guitar by Bernadette Speach, a one-time Feldman student whose music carries on the anti-tradition tradition of the New York School.

While retro instruments have intrigued many composers, another contingency has found inspiration in brand new instruments. The realm of electronic music attracts maverick composers from all walks of life who want to experiment with a whole world of new sounds. Earnest Woodall uses his virtual instruments to meditate upon the work of eleven different painters resulting in a potpourri of styles and sounds on his aptly titled Pictures in Mind. With his most recent works, Puriya Dhanashri and the three-CD set Bhimpalasi, Michael Robinson fuses raga music with traditional Western orchestral instruments and computer-generated sounds. As if this weren’t original enough, each recording comes with a one-of-a-kind cover made by Robinson himself from paper imported from Japan and India. Aarktica, the brainchild of Jon DeRosa, takes a more ambient approach to electronic sounds and timbres on …or you could just go through your whole life and be happy anyway, while Amnon Wolman uses computer-music along with the poetry of Rita Dove to create the sparse music theater production Thomas and Beulah. And a true outsider in every sense of the word, Kenneth Gaburo is represented this month by Five Works for Voices, Instruments, and Electronics, which includes a solo piece for trumpet mouthpiece. During his lifetime, Gaburo prided himself on not being associated with any movement or scene.

Speaking of scenes, there seems to be an influx of free improvisers in the Baltimore area. An art form that is everything experimental and nothing conformist, these musicians answer to no one, making use of homemade instruments and the most extreme ends of the sonic spectrum. Key members of this scene include saxophonists Jack Wright and Bhob Rainey who documented their off-the-cuff experiences on the improv road via such CDs as Double, Double, Signs of Life, and Places to Go.

But the true mavericks remain those that broke the mold, with a style that is deeply personal, that makes no concessions. People like Lou Harrison, a former student of Henry Cowell’s, who’s works for keyboard (particularly for harpsichord) are collected on a new recording featuring Linda Burman-Hall. And we can’t forget about the composers who appear on Cold Blue, a re-release of the 1984 LP featuring the music of such mavericks as Ingram Marshall, Chas Smith, Peter Garland, and Daniel Lentz, who’s contribution “You can’t see the forest…Music” is scored for “three speaker-drinkers with three wine glasses (with mallets) and red wine?”

Kitty Brazelton, a trailblazer in the postmodern downtown scene, combines her classically trained roots with her punk side and a deeply personal expressionism on a new recording of varied instrumental works titled chamber music for the inner ear. Joining Kitty in the fight to reject categorization, guitarist Bruce Arnold combines the twelve-tone system and jazz on a recording of offbeat, original tracks.

In a country obsessed with brands and marketing consultants who specialize in branding, the term maverick to refer to our American composers seems all the more appropriate. While originally maverick was used to refer to an unbranded range animal, now it seems more appropriate to refer to an unbranded artist—all of those composers out there that cannot be neatly packaged into a heading at Tower Records. The ones that have the power to inspire, excite, and confuse audiences all at once. Why do I think that all American composers are mavericks at heart? Well, considering we can’t even agree upon a name for the type of music written by these folks, this music is anything but part of a conformist tradition.

Other SoundTracks This Month: