A “Virtual Séance” with the Founders of the American Music Center
7. What is American Music?
HARRISON KERR: If this half-civilized nation of ours is ever to possess a presentable culture, we can scarcely afford to lose one sincere composer of idealistic music.1
OTTO LUENING: …Hanson said he wanted the indigenous American thing, from the heartland, the rugged Iowa touch…2
MARION BAUER: The idea of listening to music just for patriotic reasons…wouldn’t help develop an American school…because we have to cultivate an understanding and a high standard; not only of music but of contemporary music. It is unfair to compare our composers with the old masters. They should be compared only with the present-day modernists of Europe.3
OTTO LUENING: In American music today there’s a terrific amount of differentiation, a variety of styles and approaches. And that’s the American story: this enormous, broad thing.4
QUINCY PORTER: If we grant that [the composer] has been given his tools, and has acquired a wide base as a musician, how does he go about writing American music? My feeling is that he makes no conscious effort whatever to be American, but that he writes whatever seems to ring the bell most resonantly in his own musical consciousness. If he has been brought up in this country he will be influenced by his environment to write in certain ways; listeners who hear his music may find that these ways of writing music strike a sympathetic note. There many be something fresh in his music which rings true to the listener. We shouldn’t try to guess what will give this effect. We should necessarily expect echoes of jazz, though influences from jazz may run strong in the composer’s blood, and he may find in them elements which become a genuine part of his music.5
HOWARD HANSON: I’m intrigued by…what I call good jazz, you know, I mean imaginative and with color and form and rhythmic ideas.6
QUINCY PORTER: We shouldn’t need to expect to find influences of Negro , cowboy, southern or [American] Indian folk-tunes , but it may easily be that our composer has discovered in them material which strikes real fire in him. A real composer is not an arranger. If he takes elements from jazz or folk music it must be because he has developed or inherited, somehow or other, an intuition which makes him capable of giving them a new validity, or of shedding a new light upon them. His music may or may not contain spottable American characteristics. The important thing is that he must end up by contributing music which is vital to himself and, hopefully, to others, and that this music must be so well written that it will be successful in conveying to the audience his intentions.7
MARION BAUER: I have not used [American] Indian music or jazz as a basis on which to write, and I do not know that anyone can say that my work is definitely American. I hope it is definitely a reflection of my own cultural background, environment and personality.8
AARON COPLAND: A certain plainness of statement I would think of as being an American character…I think of it partly as a sort of directness of expression. That’s one thing – a kind of open face, in a sense noncomplicated sound. If it’s touching it is touching in a comparatively simple style, rather than in an intellectual German or even French way. Of course the most obvious way is the rhythmical side…I think of it also as a kind of rhythmic sense that we have, probably through familiarity with jazz rhythms at an early age, which seems to me to give us a somewhat different sense of rhythmic excitement that the Europeans. Other than that I don’t know…9
2. Cited from “Otto Luening at 85″ an interview with Otto Luening by Brooke Wentz, broadcast on WKCR-FM 89.9 New York NY on June 11, 1985 and subsequently published in Musical America (November 1985).