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Blue Suede Views

All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century

by John Rockwell
Knopf, 286 pp., $15.95

John Rockwell’s survey of the careers of twenty heterogeneous musicians in the United States from the 1950s to the present—not in “the late twentieth century” of the subtitle, obviously—reveals far more about the state of music reviewing in this country (Mr. Rockwell is a staff writer who covers both “classical” and “pop” for The New York Times) than about music. Publicity and promotion are Mr. Rockwell’s fortes, not music criticism. To put it bluntly, All American Music reveals its author to be an amateur who does not understand music at a professional, technical level.

Most of the book is devoted to the postwar experimental movements and the musical populism that have arisen in reaction to serialism (“Northeast serialist rationalism”). These include minimalism (Philip Glass); the recrudescence of so-called tonality (David Del Tredici); mixed media (Robert Ashley); musique concrète (Walter Murch—but why not give us an American term?); both traditional and free jazz; rock, art rock, and folk rock; “composition beyond music”; and other goodies. Mr. Rockwell presents these genres evangelistically, with a minimalism of argument that is often no more than the criterion “People like this music.” If these “post-serialists” and “New Romantics” share a common attitude, perhaps it was best expressed by Philip Glass, the most famous of them, who has declared, as Mr. Rockwell quotes him, that Boulez’s Domaine Musical was “a wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music.”

True, Mr. Rockwell claims to be no more by “academic training [than] a cultural historian,” adding, “and I hope it shows.” It does, but disastrously, and in other subjects than music. Thus in the introduction he tells us that

American intellectuals and artists of every sort have felt estranged from the mercantile and bellicose aspects of the culture as a whole since before the republic was born…

and, three paragraphs later, that

the finest American artists and intellectuals have always been attuned to the breadth of American life as a whole.

Yet some very prominent pre-1776 “intellectuals,” including Benjamin Franklin, managed remarkably well in mercantile America, and others, such as Tom Paine, throve on its bellicosity. Moreover, some of the greatest American artists, including Eliot and James, were remarkably ill-attuned to American life on every level. American society, Rockwell continues, overlooking a rich history of religious and especially racial intolerance, was “built upon the very ideals of ecumenicalism and catholicity.” Other examples of his competence as a cultural historian are liberally distributed throughout the book. In Chapter 1, for instance, which could be the last one that demanding readers bear with, the author claims that

artists recoiling from the philistinism of democracy have been common in both Europe and America for centuries, from Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme….

Molière’s target is, of course, a parvenu, not democracy, which was not yet available to be recoiled from in 1670.

The timely, New Right jingoism of the book is still more marked in such cavalier pronouncements as “American intellectuals were crippled by an undue deference to Europe….” Certainly the deference was hardly “undue,” since some artistic and intellectual disciplines were practiced on a lower level in the United States than in Europe until European refugees turned this around. We did not have a literary scholar to rank with Erich Auerbach, an iconographer of the stature of Erwin Panofsky, a composer deserving mention together with Arnold Schoenberg.

Mr. Rockwell’s showing as a music historian is also poor, as examples both sweeping and specific suggest. As for the first, he describes tonality as “the basic organizational principle of Western music” and characterizes it in part by “the modulation away from the home note or key…and back to it.” He should have been aware that the beginnings of Western music and its florescence in the three centuries from Machaut to Monteverdi were not based on the as-yet-unknown key relationships and functional harmony by which tonality is defined. Then, for an instance of Mr. Rockwell’s turning to cases, Gesualdo is dismissed as an “isolated eccentric”—the received opinion, long out of date, of those who are unable to follow the harmonic logic of some of the most original and beautiful progressions in all music. Apart from this, a “cultural historian” should know that three decades of musicological enlightening have populated that musical landscape for us with other chromatic-harmonic explorers, of whom the monodist and madrigalist Sigismondo d’India is nearly as remarkable as Gesualdo himself. (Compare d’India’s fourth “Silvio” madrigal with the settings of the same text by Marenzio and Monteverdi.) And since when has eccentricity been a stigma in an artist? Surely the word suits several of the more interesting figures described in All American Music.

Though Mr. Rockwell’s bogey is “serialism,” he evidently understands little more about it than that it is “complex” and “cerebral”—deplorable attributes in his view—and has had a stifling effect on American music. Now, happily, he can announce that

many of our brightest young composers have begun to question the basic assumptions of the European tradition—to doubt an automatic equation of artistic worth with complexity, for instance….

That the “European tradition” never “assumed” any such inane equation must be obvious, as well as that the abiding concern of the “brightest” artists everywhere is with exactly the opposite problem: to warn against condemning certain kinds of music and poetry simply because they are difficult. Mr. Rockwell seems to be unaware that the attraction of Schoenberg’s music is not in its complexity but in the richness of its musical ideas.

Ernst Krenek, Austrian-born and exercising virtually no influence on music in this country, is not the likeliest choice to begin a volume entitled All American Music. (Many readers will wonder why this chapter, or any later one, was not devoted to Leonard Bernstein, who, more than any other American musician, exemplifies the cross-fertilization between “classical” and “pop” that is Mr. Rockwell’s ignis fatuus.) The justification for including Krenek would seem to be that he embraced the twelve-tone system “unreservedly” and that he represents

Europe in the twenties and thirties, and…America in the fifties and early sixties, [when] serialism seemed a way out of the…tub-thumping of the American symphonists….

The exaggeration here borders on paranoia. In the 1920s and 1930s, Schoenberg did not share the twelve-tone principle with more than a handful of pupils, and the greatest of them, Alban Berg, applied it differently. Furthermore, serialism was as little understood by musicians in pre-1960s America as it is today by Mr. Rockwell.

In connection with Krenek, Mr. Rockwell attempts to define the bogey:

Schoenberg arranged the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in horizontal patterns, or “rows,” and constructed his pieces from permutations of these patterns. This ensured a fashionable sonic abstraction….

What Schoenberg did, of course—unlike Webern—was to compose melodies, not to arrange “horizontal patterns.” (Surely Mr. Rockwell knows the “tonal” harmonization of the twelve-tone theme of Schoenberg’s Variations, op. 31.) And to say that he “constructed his pieces from permutations of those patterns” is to omit the entire creative process, for the permuting—the inverting, reversing, and inverting of the reversing—is largely precompositional. It is also not peculiarly Schoenbergian, having been employed by composers 450 years before him. Finally, to charge Arnold Schoenberg with having done anything because it was “fashionable” is grotesque.

Mr. Rockwell is as innocent of the history of twentieth-century music as he is of its technique. Could Schoenberg, he asks,

still unsure of the principles of the twelve-tone system, have felt so free with the shifting “atonality” of Erwartung without a text as a compass?

Still unsure”in 1909 of principles whose first inklings date from the 1920s? Nor is this a trivial error, but one that exposes a fundamental ignorance. “Shifting atonality” is meaningless, furthermore; and who but Schoenberg himself could say whether he felt more “free” in the atonality of Erwartung or more deeply constrained by inner laws of composition—to say nothing of such outer ones as avoiding octave doublings and the repetition of motives?

Mr. Rockwell provides an impressive variety and scope of misinformation. For instance, he likens the “working dynamics” between Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince to those between Strauss and Hofmannsthal, though the Americans planned their pieces together, and the Middle Europeans through the deliberations of correspondence. Moreover, while the “introverted” (Mr. Rockwell’s word) partner in the Broadway team is the composer, it was the librettist in the Bavarian-Austrian one. Further, Mr. Rockwell, back to his bugbear, tells us that

the arrival of so many distinguished composers from Europe in the late thirties…indeed, nearly every principal figure in twentieth-century Central European musical modernism…provided the catalyst for the post-war serialist reaction.

Yet Hindemith, the only major Central European arrival besides Krenek in the late 1930s, had no connection with serialism, while Schoenberg himself, who had come toward the beginning of the decade, was writing exclusively tonal music at the end of it. The two principal figures in Central European musical modernism, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, did not emigrate. Incidentally, Mr. Rockwell believes that Schoenberg “returned to religion—in his case, Judaism—in part as a reaction to the Holocaust….” In 1933?

Mr. Rockwell’s misuse of language is another considerable impediment. Subjects and verbs often disagree, and pronouns are misrelated (“A record company with many artists can afford to take chances as long as a reasonable number of them actually sell records”); contradictory words are juxtaposed (“these pieces purl rapidly past”); and jargon supplants clear and simple language, as when “musical Americanists” turns out to mean “American composers.”

Mr. Rockwell taketh away more than he giveth. Thus Milton Babbitt, after being safely praised, is charged with having fathered a generation of “unthinking clones.” The “achievement” of Elliott Carter is ultimately said to be “flawed by a lack of inner clarity and expressive directness,” and Ralph Shapey, though ambiguously admired as a “loner,” is far more strongly derided as “self-righteous.” Shapey is credited with one of the book’s most important opinions, “Great music is not for the masses,” but this proposition does not receive the discussion that it warrants.

Give and take-back judgments are also meted out to Keith Jarrett, whose best solo improvisations are “wonderful” music but whose “scores sound not only received but dated”; and to Frederic Rzewski, Mr. Rockwell’s representative “political composer” (Attica, Thirty-Six Variations on The People United Will Never be Defeated), invidiously compared here to Bob Dylan, whose music “says more about everyday life in this country than Frederic Rzewski will probably ever know. And says it more ‘artistically’ as well.” David Del Tredici, though he writes music “that players and the public genuinely like,” is demolished when Mr. Rockwell quotes Erich Leinsdorf’s verdict after he conducted Final Alice: “In my personal opinion [it is] totally without merit, parlaying the major-sixth chord into a fifty-eight minute work….” Clearly Maestro Leinsdorf’s appetite for music of “unlimited” repetition in tandem with an extremely limited emotional range is in need of education.

Even John Cage receives less than his due, especially since the “site” composer Max Neuhaus, who has a chapter to himself, began doing “his thing” long after the master had tried it. (Neuhaus sets up “an electronic-music generating system in a public location and let[s] the audience come upon it,” in, for example, a grate in the middle of Times Square, from which “a rich organ chord” mixes with the din of the city.) In fact, the main feature in the Cage chapter is a digression on Henry Cowell, which Mr. Rockwell should expand into a full study, since he believes that Cowell “will eventually take his place as one of the great American composers.” Cage’s “tapestries of boredom” are even more boring than the “abstractions” of Babbitt, Rockwell writes, but no matter, since Cage’s greatest influence has been “through his prose.” With less surprise than seems to have been intended, we read that “Cage’s attempts at a stream-of-conscious flow of word-plays and allusions hardly match the poetic clarity of Joyce.”

Mr. Rockwell is at his best with such jazz artists as Ornette Coleman and such rock stars as Neil Young. (Canadians might object to the inclusion of their native son as “All-American.”) The latter even inspires what sounds like a confession:

Rock critics…come most often from a literary background rather than a musical one, and hence feel uncomfortable with musical description and analysis.

Whether or not Rockwell meant this as an apologia, the passages on pop are as devoid of adequate musical exegesis as are those on serialism. Thus the folk-rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is said to have “specialized” in “innovative harmonies and song structures,” but in what ways these harmonies and structures were innovative is never divulged.

For this reviewer, the book’s only enjoyable moments occur in the chapter on the “performance artist” Laurie Anderson, whose lyrics “Walk the Dog” are quoted in full. Here is an excerpt:

I turned on the radio and I heard a song by Dolly Parton. And she was singing:
Oh! I feel so bad, I feel so sad. I left my Mom and I left my Dad.
And I just want to go home now.
I just want to go back to my Ten- nessee mountain home now.
Well, you know she’s not gonna go back home.
And I know she’s not gonna go back home.
And she knows she’s never gonna go back there.
And I just want to know who’s gonna go and walk her dog.
   (Her dog.)

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