Notes from the underground

This Sunday, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Aaron Copland, Champion of the American Sound.” I have a few thoughts on the way this article presents the “American Sound” and its relationship to Copland. This whole line of thought is particularly appropriate for this Thanksgiving week; also covered in this column will be music you can play with turkey legs, the compositional structure of the CBS football theme music and why our national anthem just stinks.

Here’s a quote from Copland himself: “Make it more American in spirit, in that the sentiment isn’t shown on the face,” Copland says. “More cool. The music by itself is warm. You don’t have to help it.” That’s from a rehearsal of the chamber version of Appalachian Spring, played Friday by members of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra in a fine performance.

If we think of the “American Spirit” (not the cigarettes), we think of individualism, personal liberty and equality. This is obviously a weighted claim, but I think it sums up the common attributes that America has claimed as its own in the past. Even most of the worst moments or periods in American history involve the application of these attributes to a repressive segment of the population. What would this “spirit” mean in music? I would think that it would give the individual performer more license for expression, not less, as Copland is requesting. Think about jazz and rock n’ roll, two distinctly American musical forms. Both are grounded in improvisation, or at least in a sense of freedom for each performer. The mixing of African-American and European-American musical traditions has led to a combination of freedom and discipline that has resulted in what I would call the “American Spirit.”

It is interesting to note that techno music, which has its roots in Europe (Detroit, actually. Ed.), is a return to the “European Spirit” in two ways: first, the emphasis on the downbeat instead of the offbeat – think of the bass drum in a standard house song hitting every beat, and contrast that with the offbeat emphasis of a Count Basie tune. Second, the freedom in performance that America has reintroduced to non-folk music has been lost with the substitution of machines for performers. While this is nothing new, as electronic music has been around since at least the 1940s, its use in this context has a European sensibility to it as it emphasizes regular structure over extended techniques.

Getting back to Copland, it is hard to see how his emphasis on letting the music speak for itself is an American trait. It is tempting to view him as the embodiment of the American spirit because his music has created a sound that is associated with this country. But this claim seems to rest, as Cornell West might say, on pudding. These terms are so loose and subjective that it’s important not to assume they’re true because they sound like they make sense. I’m not trying to argue that Aaron Copland is anything but a great American composer. But I don’t know why his music captures the “American Spirit” any more than that of Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, David Kechley or Kenric Taylor ’00.

I’m not the Arts Editor (though I will be in about 40 days), but I still hear rumors about what’s being printed in the Record. I hear that Jeremy Faust is enamored with the Libby Larsen piece that was played in this past Friday’s Berkshire Symphony Orchestra concert. If this is true (and even if it’s not, I suppose), I have to voice my dissenting opinion.

Many of the players I spoke with before the concert warned me that I was going to hate the piece. I didn’t despise it in the same way that I did that horrible piece about the paintings of crazy people from last year, but I think Andrea Mazzariello put it best – those who disliked it recognized on some level that the piece rested, as Cornell West might say, on pudding. Or that might be that it was all pudding, no turkey, or some other strange colloquialism. The bottom line is that the piece had some decent colors but said absolutely nothing about anything, and that’s what you hope for in art.

And that’s American, baby. Have a great Thanksgiving!