View from the West: American Mavericks on Public Radio



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

After much grousing and bellyaching about the pathetic state of affairs at PBS, at least in their music and performing arts programming two columns ago, and the decline of music programming at public radio stations with the ever increasing all news and talk formats in a column sometime last year, a small, but significant ray of hope has flashed. Minnesota Public Radio in collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony has produced a 13-week radio series devoted to modern and contemporary American music entitled American Mavericks. As some of you already know, the series is underway in a few markets—it started as early as April of this year in some areas—but will enter most program schedules later this summer. If your local public radio has not yet scheduled this series, you and your comrades in arms would be well advised to call them and urge them to carry the series.

Using Michael Tilson Thomas‘s American Mavericks music festival under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony as a kind of musical and aesthetic springboard, the series focuses on American iconoclasts and downtown types. The former includes Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, as well as Ruth Crawford Seeger, George Antheil, and Carl Ruggles, not to mention John Cage, Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow, while the latter includes the usual suspects: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, John Adams, and Glenn Branca among others. One program is given over to jazz musicians and jazz inspired/inflected works by Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, James P. Johnson, and John Zorn. Some may argue that Aaron Copland, David Del Tredici, Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Joan Tower, and William Bolcom are hardly mavericks, yet their music also appears in the series. With information and contributions from the likes of new music champions and advocates Kyle Gann, Charles Amirkhanian, Vivian Perlis, and Tilson Thomas, you know that series will be provocative and fascinating.

While many NewMusicBox readers will already be familiar with much of the material presented in American Mavericks, the importance of this radio series is not that it preaches to the choir. Rather it reaches out to a new audience that might not otherwise have any contact with modernist and experimental music, American or otherwise. Like Ken Burns‘s public television series that have generated so much attention and acclaim, the producers of American Mavericks set out to reach a new audience for new music.

The producers very cleverly engaged singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, who has long had an abiding interest in new music, to host and narrate the program. In interviews early in her career she often mentioned the influence of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich in her work. Indeed, Glass later invited Vega to contribute lyrics to his song cycle, Songs from Liquid Days. Her easy going, down-to-earth manner is complemented by her intelligence, which makes for a great combo, a kind of pleasant, almost familiar gateway for new initiates into the world of experimental music. By choosing Vega, many listeners already familiar with her work, or at least her reputation, will identify with her as someone whose taste, integrity, and intelligence they admire, yet, at the same time, is rather like a peer, one not brought up in the world of classical music, but willing to help them navigate the rocky waters of music that is at times difficult and challenging.

The series is devoted largely to discussion of the music, featuring Vega’s narration and interviews with composers and musicians. A good deal of time is spent with Tilson Thomas who is very knowledgeable, articulate, engaging, and a fine raconteur (rather like Leonard Bernstein, though not quite as personable), as well as some archival material such as Cowell’s famed recollection of hearing Ruggles play the same dissonant chord over and over again, for minutes on end (he recalls fifteen minutes here, but other versions by Cowell suggest Ruggles hammering away at the same chord for over an hour), giving it “the test of time!” Music serves to capture the listener’s attention and then Vega and company discuss the composers and their work with the music serving as a backdrop.

Perhaps too much air-time on too many programs is devoted to the most popular composers such as Adams, Glass, Reich, or the towering figures, as well as ear-catching iconoclasts such as Ives, Cage, Partch and Nancarrow, at the expense of lesser known composers, but the program had to balance the need and desire to attract as wide an audience as possible, with depth and breadth.

To their credit, the producers have filled the gap somewhat with interviews available on the American Mavericks website with composers whose work has not had the tremendous exposure and acclaim as the aforementioned, helping to lead the way to a larger, more diverse, and more obscure cadre of musicians. Web interviews include those with Anthony Braxton, Wendy Mae Chambers, Ushio Torikai, John Morton, Henry Gwiazda, Alison Knowles, Nick Didkovsky, and Pamela Z, among others and are linked to specific themes of the various programs.

At the website there are opportunities for chatting, listening, and working with sound. As I write, one can play with a virtual Rhythmicon, an invention made by Leon Theremin in consultation with Henry Cowell to accommodate and make viable the then otherwise unperformable rhythmic constructs—polyrhythmic, polymetric, and beyond—dreamt up by the composer in his ground-breaking and very influential book New Musical Resources. One can also sample and “play” a substantial number of Partch’s gorgeous invented instruments. The rather cheesy graphics put the composer/builder himself in action on some of his instruments as you move your mouse or tap on your keyboard. I am not certain how well the sound is reproduced online (my tiny and chintzy speakers could not begin to replicate the subterranean tones of the Marimba Eroica), but where else can the intrepid performer play Partch’s one-of-a-kind instruments? A pioneer in spatial music, Ives left open a variety of possibilities for the realization of sound and its location in space in his gorgeous philosophical conundrum made music, The Unanswered Question. Those who log-on to the American Mavericks website can re-mix the work’s simulated surround sound to alter and sculpt acoustical space as was intended, at least conceptually, by the composer.

In the weeks ahead, you will be able to play a virtual version of Cage’s amplified cactus fitted with a contact microphone and sounded by plucking the needles. Another page will offer a gallery of instruments invented by Arthur K. Ferris (What? No Trimpin?? Admittedly, he’s Dutch, but he makes his home in Seattle.)

Additionally, the Web radio portion of the sit streams audio and offers dozens upon dozens of compositions by a wide range of composers, including many otherwise unavailable recordings of the San Francisco Symphony performing at the American Mavericks festivals and other concerts. For the neophytes, the styles are broken down into two broad categories: “Smooth” and “Crunchy.” There are also rare film clips, interviews, and artworks by and about the composers to peruse and investigate.

One caveat: A few factual errors, as well as subjective opinions presented as fact crop up from time to time. As many of you already know, Cage’s 4′ 33″ was not scored for piano as is clearly implied in the radio series (Vega states that the “keys” are not touched). Rather, Cage left the instrumentation undetermined. While David Tudor gave the work its premiere at the piano, it was not scored for the instrument, yet American Mavericks perpetuates the myth. No, Steve Reich did not study with Berio at Juilliard; instead, it was at Mills College in Oakland. And these cropped up in just the first installment of the series. One might suggest that it is petty to quibble over bits of trivia, but the producers and writers should have been more meticulous in their research.

Though it is a small step in the resurrection and re-institution of new music on the public airwaves, it is a significant and important step that hopefully will be followed up. On the one hand, American Mavericks is a bold and smart step on the part of Minnesota Public Radio and the San Francisco Symphony. The product and presentation is intelligent, listener friendly, provocative, thoughtful, and compelling. On the other hand, it is but a small gesture in the championing, proselytizing, and, yes, marketing of new music. American Mavericks just might open a door for experimental music in public broadcast media, but it is up to more producers and local music directors and programmers to step up to the plate and push the boundaries. At the very least, it is up to public broadcasting, especially radio, to offer up programming where the music discussed in American Mavericks can be heard. My desperate hope is that composers, musicians, producers, and music lovers will respond and that the public airwaves will accommodate more new music.