American Mavericks is in full swing here in New York City. I have some mixed feelings about Monday’s San Francisco Symphony concert — I’m not sure what John Adams was thinking when he made Absolute Jest, and it’s hard to square Jessye Norman’s substantial career with a performance of John Cage’s Song Books — the audiences have come out, and the orchestra continues to impress me as the finest in the country. The precision, blend and weight of their sound in Ameriques was astonishing. The Tuesday program was one of the great events of the year, with Carl Ruggle’s Sun-Treader, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ Concord Sonata. From weighty, dissonant Neo-Romanticism to spacious, still, delicate pointillism and the polyphonic riot of Ives, played with such musical expression — there’s no other orchestra that can do this. Top flight groups like this play the classics beautifully, but Tilson Thomas, his imagination, curiosity and his knowledge and understanding of the range of musical concepts means that a program like this not only works, but astonishes. Sun-Treader is a great work, and has been recorded exactly two times, both under this conductor’s baton. This group also made a tremendous recording the of Ives last year, and I have never heard a finer performance of the Feldman piece, with Emmanuel Ax at the keyboard, hauntingly shadowed by Robin Sutherland. When an orchestra can play the quietest sounds with a exactitude of attack and pitch and fullness of sound like this, the silent spaces in between grow broader, deeper, more profound. Rare playing and a truly rare program, all of us in the hall may never hear these pieces again in concert.
San Francisco is one of the pioneers in matching their content (their programming and playing) with digital media (their own record label, the Keeping Score program), and this festival has lots of extras for those who can attend and even for those who can’t. Go to Q2 for archived audio, check out the above documentary or one about MTT’s grandparents, who were leaders in Yiddish theater, and, if you’re patient, wait a few months, because the orchestral concerts are being recorded for release on the SFS Media label, meaning brilliant, beautiful discs of Adams, Ruggles, Cowell and more.
We Americans may not know much about history, but we love it nonetheless. Without a basis in facts, that love boils down to the same messy, insoluble arguments people have about things they like. History becomes nothng more than a matter of competing tastes — some of the major genres are The Founding Fathers, the Civil War, The Greatest Generation, I Like Ike, Camelot, The Summer of Love, Fear and Loathing and Richard Nixon, The Apotheosis of Saint Ronnie and Permanent 9/11 — which is dreary enough in normal circumstances but truly abrades the soul every four years.
We also like to think that Americans are some special race, sprung up from the soil of North America after careful, diligent tilling, planting and watering from the Christian God himself. We’re special, there’s never been anyone like us, no rules for me but many for thee. We’re not the end of history, because history never ends, but we act as if we are from someplace outside of history. Is it any wonder that Scientology can be invented and achieve such success here, where it’s all about finding the ideas that the most suckers will spend the most money on?
This is the culture war, but that label is misleading, because it implies that those fighting it aggressively give a shit about culture. Their atavism is that, through most of human history, a small group of men with money and power have ruled society, and that’s how everything should remain. If it’s difficult to reconcile the American conservative claims to both freedom and restrictions on personal liberty, realize that conservatism is about preserving long-standing, inherited power and privilege, nothing more, and that holds true for Andrew Sullivan as much as for Jim DeMint. They have no ideas, all they have is fear that someone, somewhere, might end up with the advantages they have. This is culture as commodity and limited resource, to be defended from interlopers.
Want a good, mordant laugh? Imagine the culture warriors reading Hawthorne or Whitman, watching Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, listening to something other than Christian Rock — or imagine them realizing that the creator of popular American classical music was a gay, cosmopolitan Jew. They accept music as something that reinforces their prejudices and preconceived notions, which perversely makes them the same as people who listen to and write about pop music without realizing that music is an art that encompasses an almost incomprehensible range of styles and ideas, and that it’s as old as human beings.
There is so much American music, though, and it survives despite the ignorance and abuse of political anger and market depredations. American music as a product and expression of the true, fundamental elements of this culture is as messy and wide-ranging as the history of the country itself. One of the most important keepers of its flame, Michael Tilson Thomas, is bringing it to Carnegie Hall this week, on the tour of his revived American Mavericks idea. MTT put together the first such festival at the beginning of his tenure in San Francisco, and if it’s legacy would have been nothing more than the memories of the concert-goers, it would have held an indelible place in American musical history.
The Mavericks idea is essential to the full flowering of American music as the force in the 20th century, supplanting the long and deserved influence of Central Europe. Schoenberg’s creation of atonal compositional technique and his decamping to Los Angeles are more and more clearly, in retrospect, the last gasp of the supremacy of German musical culture, with a final spasm, after that country itself had been destroyed in WWII, of international ideological influence akin to that of Communism. American music has styles but it has never been much of an ideology, because at the core of it is the specifically American cultural idea of the crackpot, the person tinkering at the margins of whatever field they are in, oblivious to conventional wisdom and accepted norms.
The first notable American crackpot was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the wild man from Louisiana (a place in the American imagination that always seems foreign). The greatest and most important was Charles Ives, one of the handful of people without whom this country would not be what it was. Ives of course was featured in the first Mavericks festival, the symphony playing his extraordinary “Holidays“ Symphony, while Lou Harrison read Ives’ introductions to each movement from a chair on the stage. Ives will be in Carnegie Hall too, in Henry Brant’s orchestration of the Concord Sonata, a compendium of the composer’s musical and social values.
It’s those values that make Ives so important. Musically, he was the son of a crackpot band leader, but Yale tried to iron that out of him, as it currently irons democratic and egalitarian values out of our political leaders. American writing had made it’s national mark early, but musical culture looked to Europe for everything, and had for over a century — there is a fascinating collection of 18th century overtures on the Naxos label, weird early classical pastiches of Mozart, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” marches and other popular tunes of the era, not great music but great to hear for a window into the ideas and values of the time. 100 years later the leading composer was George Chadwick and the avatar was Brahms. Ives wrote some solid but uninspired Brahms while at Yale and after, but when he finds his own, true American voice, it’s by becoming a crackpot. While he at times struggled with the technical challenges of conveying his ideas in compositional language, his thinking was unbound. By looking at his country as it was and as he wanted it to be, and by both loving and fighting the legacy of his father, he became Prometheus, freeing the song and music in all men in a profoundly democratic way.
To get from there to here took time, effort, thought, obsession. There’s a visual cognate in the reopened American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bourgeois objéts of the 18th and 19th century mix with important portraits in a European style, the lovely, delicate Impressionism of Childe Hassam and the great genre paintings of Homer and Eakins. Those two artists mix a sense of American muscularity in physical, intellectual and commercial activity, an encompassing Whitmanesque sense of what they see around them but with more diffidence and sober demeanor than the poet. There’s a quality to the canvasses, especially Eakins, that seems to confront the viewer, to stare back with an implicit sense of pride and challenge, as if to say “you didn’t think these were good enough, did you? And now I care not what you think.”
To Ives, family man, church organist, businessman, living in the world, society was what mattered, and music was inherently a social activity. His multiple musics in “Central Park in the Dark” are the sounds of the noise that all sorts of different people are making, and when he made all those voices musical, like in his String Quartet No. 2, there are multiple songs in the same space in time. JACK Quartet played that Sunday, along with pieces from two other true crackpots, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Steven Mackey, in a neighborhood concert at Abrons Arts Center, in a great performance. They found the underlying values in the music, giving the discontinuous form a continuity of musical thinking, and it’s also no small thing to hear Ives played with so much technical assurance and such a big, beautiful sound. That’s one of the strengths of Hilary Hahn’s disc of the Ives Violin Sonatas, some of his finest pieces. It’s one of those recordings that gets better with every listening. I had some reservations about what sounded like her reticence or discomfort with some of the music, but with more exposure that turns out to be a very personal way into Ives’ mysterious mind and sensibility. She teases out bits of memory she understands, and plunges through those she doesn’t — this is no criticism, there is really no one who could understand the whole scope and scale of Ives’ mind, and that makes the music so fruitful to perform and record. One thing that is clear, and was clear in her lovely performance at the Stone last year, is that she appreciates music as a social activity. When I studied Ives in graduate school, we sang several of his favorite hymns and patriotic songs before we listened to a note, and with composer and Ives biographer Jan Swafford leading, we did the same before Hahn’s performance. This puts you in the mind of the composer, where making music with your neighbors, even badly, is an inherent part of American life.
America has been singing for centuries. There were two discs of American vocal music issued last year that tell the story in both reach and detail. on Rose of Sharon , Joel Frederiksen and the Ensemble Phoenix Munich tell the story in social, liturgical and political music from 1770 to 1870, a century that put this country on the cusp of what it was to become. Beyond All Mortal Dreams collects a cappella choral music from roughly the last 100 years, works in the liturgical tradition that reflect the ritualistic aspect that is really the main outpost of social music making in contemporary times. They are great recordings in their own right, an have the added cultural depth of European’s looking towards these shores and showing us how much they love our music,.
I hope all this comes across as sympathetic, and not academic. It’s not hard to find faculty members who look down on the music for its technical problems and general non-conformity, The professionalization of creative careers has been a weird curse of the 20th century. Some of the greatest composers in America taught, and some of the most important teachers were able composers, or some combination of the two. I love the Neo-Romantic/Modernist music of William Schuman, Peter Mennin and David Diamond, Roger Sessions was an important teacher and symphonist, Howard Hanson ran the Eastman School of Music, conducted American music on many recordings and wrote solid, lovely and utterly predictable symphonies — all of which have been given excellent recordings by the Seattle Symphony, and Naxos has been reissuing that series. Walter Piston wrote some great pieces, many acceptable ones and important textbooks. Some of them have Ives’ force, none have his wonderful mess. There are limits in the academy.
So students should be thrilled to hear, amidst the thrilling programming of Cage, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Morton Feldman, Varese, Henry Cowell, and even Harry Partch (and others), Carl Ruggles great orchestral work, “Sun-Treader.” Ruggles, rivaling Partch as the crank among crackpots, wrote little more than a dozen pieces in his life, lavishing obsessive patience on each. He wrote what he wanted, proudly dissonant works that are deeply human, exuberant, brilliantly crafted and full of the rough edges that can make even the most sonically challenging works compelling. “Sun-Treader” was the opening piece for the entire 1996 festival. I was excited that night, and even more so when I got to Davies Symphony Hall. I had been living in San Francisco since 1992 and had been seeing the Symphony at least a dozen times a year, and was sensitive to both the makeup of the usual crowd and its variations. It was stunning to see so many new faces heading to their seats, faces I recognized from new and avant-garde music events in the Bay Area. Everyone was champing at the bit, thinking, like me, that they never imagined that they would be hearing Ruggles in person in their lifetimes, and also knowing that MTT is a master of the music. The opening burst from the stage like artillery fire, and no one in the audience made a sound, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. It’s a masterpiece, the music, the kind of thing that reaches into an essential part of the soul and makes you glad to be experiencing life in all its ups and downs. After the last notes, there was that marvelous, and rare, moment when the audience sat in silent contemplation of what they had experienced. Then, not really an ovation but a throaty, passionate, sustained roar. A barbaric yawp, from all of us to all of us.