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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.