Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition



Kyle Gann
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

READ and watch a conversation with Kyle Gann.

Let us look at two classic anecdotes of American music. The Boston tanner William Billings (1746-1800), described as “a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person,” was the most active American composer of choral music in the 18th century. His relationship with his Boston neighbors was marked by respect from certain circles and antagonism from others. In response to one of his concerts, local wags tied two cats together by the tails and hung them from the sign of his tannery, presumably to allow them to duplicate the perceived effect of his music. Unversed in European counterpoint, Billings relied more heavily on simple consonances than his Continental counterparts, and was at one point criticized for not using enough dissonance. In response, he wrote a brief but remarkable choral song entirely in dissonances of seconds and sevenths, to a text of his own:

Let horrid jargon split the air
And rive the nerves asunder;
Let hateful discord greet the ear
As terrible as thunder.

Even after more than 200 years, the piece shocks the ear with its joyous disregard for resolution. Zip ahead about a century and a half, and we find composer Henry Cowell dropping in on his friend Carl Ruggles. Cowell’s own words for the scene cannot be bettered:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

To this pounding of Ruggles’s dissonant chord, let us add two (pardon the double pun) strikingly resonant parallels: the six-year-old (in 1880) Charles Ives looking for a sound on his square piano to imitate the bang of the bass drum in his father’s band, and finding that only clusters played with his fist did the trick; and the twelve-year-old (in 1909) Henry Cowell playing clusters with his entire forearm in his The Tides of Mananaun, relishing the swirl of clashing overtones that resulted.

From such poundings on pianos and yowlings of cats American music began. Specifically, it sprang from a delight in sounds not found in “correct” European music. Such legends, with their delight in rebelliousness and transgression, are a far cry from the origin story of European music, by which Pythagoras heard four hammers hitting an anvil in the perfect concord C, F, G, C.

Americans, having first come to this continent in rejection of Europe’s social structures, turned to nature in their novels and paintings, and continue to do so in their music. For many, many composers, a return to nature means taking acoustics and particularly the harmonic series as source material. A significant number of the seminal American composers have staked their artistic claims on some constructed paradigm of “naturalness”: Cage’s randomness, Oliveros’s breathing, Reich’s natural processes, Partch’s natural scale, Branca’s rock vernacular stripped down to its basic strum. Most natural of all: banging on the piano keyboard, so beloved of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Young, Garland.

If it is difficult to find the common thread among all these musics, it is because the American classical tradition gives rise to tremendous individuality, which is both its glory and its curse – curse, because audiences and critics have trouble seeing a tradition whose adherents are so remarkably different from each other. Partch’s music sounds nothing like Cage’s, nor Feldman’s like Nancarrow’s, nor Ashley’s like Branca’s. The gulf that separates Chopin from Wagner is dwarfed by America’s musical panorama. Yet what else would you expect from a culture that so deifies individualism? Why would a classical music tradition grow in America that did not reflect the people’s most basic values?

Most troubling of all—now that the American classical tradition is here, in all its multigenerational maturity and multidimensional splendor, and has already shown itself capable of having an impact on other musics of the world—why has its very existence been so difficult to accept?

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