“We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”
It’s good to be back home after a marathon jaunt to three conferences in three different North American cities these past two weeks—the 2009 general assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) in Toronto, the 2009 Conference of the League of American Orchestras in Chicago, and the 2009 Conference of Chorus America in Philadelphia. I’ve already said quite a bit about IAMIC on these pages last week, and even shared a brief tidbit from Chicago. But I’m still trying to wrap my brain around Philly. There was a lot of information to process.
My most vivid experience during the Chorus America conference was attending the world premiere of David Lang’s new choral work Battle Hymns which was transformed into a site-specific staged event held at the First City Troop Armory. (Unlike armories in other cities which have been de-accessed and have subsequently morphed into popular concert venues, Philadelphia’s armory houses a still-active military unit.) The members of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (with whom I’ve been enamored ever since I dragged two carloads of friends down with me to hear them perform Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion a few years back—one of my holy grail pieces) were all dressed up in army fatigues. They began singing in the back entrance way of the armory, and over the course of 20 or so minutes marched up to the front of the audience, all the while maintaining Lang’s coolly detached yet thoroughly emotive music thanks to Alan Harler, who was equal parts conductor and traffic cop. At one point the chorus even surrounded a segment of the audience. Only a week before I had experienced R. Murray Schafer’s The Children’s Crusade which required the audience to move around the action in the rooms of an old warehouse. That was an inventive alternative means of presenting a dramatic music experience, but not nearly as ominous as being surrounded by a singing army in a space that houses a real one.
However, the comment from the Philadelphia conference that still remains strongest on my mind is something British composer Bob Chilcott said during an open workshop with the New Jersey Youth Chorus: “American music is vertical; European music is more linear/horizontal.” At first this seemed too easy, as well as a trigger for memories of the classic early 1960s sci-fi TV program The Outer Limits; you know: “We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”
But since then I’ve kept on thinking about it. Is this somehow true? Chilcott explained how European music evolved from Gregorian chant created for specific venues where it was important for a long melodic line to carry in order to be heard. To this day, the long line is the goal of most European music, which is perhaps why directionless pointillism was so short lived there and why minimalism has still failed to become an acknowledged musical paradigm in some quarters. On the other hand, American music evolved out of homophonic hymns and to this day emphasizes layered surfaces, which is why everything from John Cage’s twelve simultaneous radios to multilayered hip-hop has thrived on this side of the Atlantic.
Of course, it is possible to create and discern sonic experiences both vertically and horizontally, and indeed the vast majority of European and American music does both at the same time. But might being more attuned to one over the other be the distinction that separates our musical cultures? Might being more attuned to these nuances in creation and perception make us more capable of transcending them? Or should we be celebrating the difference?