View From the West: Swing Your Partner ‘Round and ‘Round’—Banjo Anyone?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

With all of the interest in and investigation into world musics, from scholarly studies to the integration of non-Western styles, forms, instruments, and compositional techniques to popular world fusion styles, it is curious that more composers have not tapped into uniquely American musics. The appeal of various world music styles, especially non-Western styles, has become widespread and it is quite understandable. There is the allure of the exotic, the unfamiliar, and the curious. Instrumental timbres offer a new and broader palette to composers. Characteristic rhythms often present a higher degree of complexity and sophistication or a different approach or concepts (additive rhythms as opposed to the sub-divisions of the beat in Western music.) Melodies may be in just intonation and incorporate microtonal intervals, and unique formal design or compositional constructs may be present. Even the function of non-Western music can differ. Rather than creating music as art and entertainment, music may be seen as part of rite, community, sacrament, or everyday life.

Certainly, the influence of Native American culture and music has begun to make itself known and felt in recent years, whether in the faux, new age-y, touchy-feely presentations of ceremonies, dance, and music turned into pop performances as seen recently on PBS or the work of composers such as John Luther Adams and Daniel Lentz (who is of Native American extraction.)

However, what I am suggesting in this column is the use of instruments found in American folk and vernacular culture such as the pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, Dobro, mandolin, Appalachian dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, banjo, or ukulele, and even washboard, whiskey jug, washtub bass, and Jew’s harp. These instruments of the American vernacular tradition offer a different and broader sonorous palette to the composer.

In addition, each of these instruments is identified not only by its timbre, but also by idiomatic and characteristic techniques most often associated with regional and/or historical styles of music. For example, banjo techniques include finger style with finger and thumb picks, as found in bluegrass; rapid strumming, as in Dixieland; and “frailing” and/or “clawhammer” techniques (some regard the two as synonymous, while others discern a difference) found in so-called “old timey” and folk music. Each technique is associated with its own style or styles and both style and technique could be fodder for the thoughtful composer.

Why is it that of the few composers to use the banjo, one is George Crumb in his Night of the Four Moons? Another is Jo Kondo, a Japanese composer. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two composers who have written for the pedal steel guitar—Chas Smith (who plays the instrument) and Sasha Matson—and only one who has composed for the Dobro (again Smith).

A while back, I wrote a column on the appropriation of rock elements into the classical lexicon with an emphasis on the electric guitar. The electric guitar is used with increasing frequency, though it too is hardly a staple. Still, both the Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band and the Bang on a Can All-Stars feature the guitar as a central player, and others, including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Steve Mackey, Scott Johnson, and numerous other composers have written for the instrument often. The classical guitar has been around since the 19th century, albeit marginalized and characterized. Recently, it has been served by a repertoire from mostly second- and third-rate composers such as Mauro Giuliani, Fernando Sor, Manuel Ponce or Federico Moreno-Torroba. Still, the instrument is no stranger to contemporary composers.

On the other hand, the steel string acoustic guitar, though not a uniquely American instrument, is seldomly used and is hardly considered a legitimate instrument. Like all guitars, the instrument can provide melody, accompaniment, and even a kind of bass figuration. The steel string guitar, in a manner that parallels that of the electric guitar, offers a rather wide range of colors and sonorities. Whereas the classical guitar has variants of relatively subtle shades of color (spruce versus cedar tops, Indian versus Brazilian rosewood, and the like) there are significant differences in body type and construction in steel string guitars: the classic dreadnaught, jumbo, single, double and triple ought sizes, archtop with f-holes, and the unique Maccaferri guitars (made famous by Django Reinhardt) and resonator guitars (Dobros and National guitars, with their metal resonators and grills). These different types and styles of guitar offer very different timbres, sustain, attack/decay envelopes, and idiosyncratic character. The steel string guitar has a tradition of multiple techniques, from flat-picking to fingerstyle, with and without finger and/or thumb picks, with fingernails or with the flesh of the fingertip. Additionally, string type makes a tremendous different in timbre: bronze, phosphor bronze, flat wound versus round wound, silk, and steel strings all dramatically alter the instrument’s sonority from smooth and velvety to robust, bold, and brilliant to bright, brittle, and jangly.

What about the slide guitar? Like the pedal and lap steel guitars, it offers a pitch continuum. Certainly with the host of guitarists able to play new music, a significant number play or could relatively easily learn slide techniques.

Of course, one obvious drawback to some of these instruments is the availability of performers who can read music and also have an interest in new music. That being said, Stravinsky and others were able to track down virtuosos on instruments such as the cimbalom (a Hungarian hammer dulcimer, one of many variants of the hammer dulcimer) which appear in several of his works (Les Noces, Renard). Harry Partch certainly was not reluctant to write for instruments that no one had ever played before. Stephen Scott composes works for bowed piano then teaches them to an ensemble of students at the university where he teaches. If these composers found solutions to the problem of finding adequate, even virtuoso performers on unorthodox instruments, so can others (i.e. you). Even if there are relatively few performers, they can be ferreted out and it seems a shame that these instruments, with their unique color and character, remain little used.

Overtone singing has become the rage, at least since the 1980s. David Hykes has made a career out of overtone singing and it is a technique that many vocalists know and employ. The musical progeny of Pandit Pran Nath alone, including both La Monte Young and Terry Riley, among a host of others, speaks of the influence on non-Western vocal techniques and styles. Yet where does one see the influence of American slave field hollers (outside of popular/vernacular styles such as the blues shouter) or the yodeling style of Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers and Hank Williams? Similarly the flat, straight, and nasal vocal timbres in old time, bluegrass, and other folk and country styles offer as viable an alternative to bel canto singing as overtone singing, Eastern European, Asian, Indian, and other exotic styles and techniques of singing.

Even the jazz and rock drum kit seems to be avoided by composers. Is it due to some kind of lowbrow inference or less than classical status? Why not have the percussionist use feet as well as hands? The high-hat cymbal, with a distinctive character and sound all its own, seems to be perfect for the classical percussion battery. Jazz musicians understand the subtle beauty and sophistication of brushes, but they are not often found outside of jazz. As composers have explored the many possibilities in the world of percussion—dating back to Edgard Varèse‘s Ionisation and further widening with the West Coast Percussion School in which composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison used brake drums, rice bowls, string drums, bull roarers, and other unorthodox instrument and devices—techniques from the rock and jazz world seem to have been left in the lurch.

How about the blues harp (harmonica, for those not familiar with the colloquial name for the instrument) with the now standard technique of cupping the microphone and harmonica in the hands? Isn’t it time that we heard a power chord not only from an electric guitar but from an amplified, heavily distorted string quartet? Sure, Crumb’s Black Angels is for amplified string quartet, but the sound is pusillanimous when compared to Metallica, Korn, or King Crimson.

In other cultures, indigenous, often ancient instruments are either used or are used as a source of inspiration. Japanese composers throughout the twentieth century have composed works for koto, gagaku orchestra, shamisen, taiko drums, and a host of other indigenous instruments. There are so many works for these instruments, it is almost as if it was unthinkable that they not compose for these instruments.

Many Scandinavian composers have drawn inspiration from the hardingfele (or hardanger fiddle), with its sympathetic strings and brittle, steely tone, and the kantele, the Finnish zither. Of course, Aaron Copland drew inspiration from American fiddling, as found in the square dance, as well as the music of the Shakers and so-called shape-note notation and its attendant musical style with open harmonies and bucolic melodies. But the style of Appalachian Spring or Rodeo is so romantic and quaint that perhaps it created a barrier for future composers. Is it that Copland’s brand of Americana is deemed somehow embarrassing, trite, or crass? Didn’t Charles Ives teach us a thing or two about the virtues of traditional American music?

Why all of this searching around the globe for new instruments, timbres, and techniques and ignoring of the wealth of the same here in America? Is there some kind of self-loathing when it comes to our vernacular traditions? This is in no way an indictment of those wishing to study and discover non-Western music, but it seems odd, even foolish, that we ignore the riches that surround us. I know, the grass is always greener on the other side, but honestly…