Monday, January 12, 2009

Male American pioneers


As the credit crunches who is going to pass up the opportunity to explore lots of composers for less cash? Budget-priced CDs receive a lot of attention, but budget books are also well worth investigating. 20th-Century Composers is an excellent series from innovative publisher Phaidon. They were originally published in the 1990s and are now reappearing at bargain price. The twenty-five titles range from Bernstein and the Beatles through Minimalists to Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze and György Ligeti, and on to Erich Wolfgang Korngold portrayed by our own Jessica Duchen.

Seen above is American Pioneers by Alan Rich which I picked up for £6.95 in Blackwells in Edinburgh (egregious strap-line 'The Knowledge Retailer'). The book is, as you would expect from a leading art publisher, a visual as well as textual delight, with art direction by New Yorker cover contributor Jean-Jaques Sempé. The main profiles are of Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse, Henry Cowell John Cage and Harry Partch , but there is also substantial coverage of Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and, interestingly, Colin McPhee, who featured here recently.

My main criticism of an otherwise excellent book is the short thrift given to female composers. Ruth Crawford Seeger (seen below) has one brief mention, and that is only as wife of Charles Seeger. Pauline Oliveros also merits a single one line reference, while Amy Beach, Joan Tower, Meredith Monk, and others are conspicuous by their absence. The criticism of neglecting women composers can also be levelled at a book published twelve years after American Pioneers, Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. As the invaluable Pandora Guide to Women Composers points out:
Ruth Crawford (Seeger) composed some of the most experimental and innovative American music of the late 1920s and early 1930s ... Amy Beach is one of the few women composers to have found a place in mainstream histories of music ...
Returning to their male counterparts and looking back over time, Alan Rich's observation in his Epilogue is interesting:

It is difficult to pinpoint any one American composer today as the direct descendant of those pioneering figures. Two who qualify might be Henry Brant, Montreal-born of American parentage in 1913, and therefore contemporary to John Cage, and the Missouri-born James Tenney (born 1934), although both composer's music is still not nearly well enough known.'
Since those words were written in 1995, both Henry Brant and James Tenney have died. Alan Rich notes that, at the time of writing, there was only one recording of James Tenney's music available. That has changed, and an excellent double CD by musikFabrik on the hat[now]ART label not only includes Tenney's Forms 1-4 but also works by Varèse, Cage, Stefan Wolpe and Morton Feldman. In the same series are CDs of Tenney's Solo Works for Percussion and Music for Violin and Piano.

The poor coverage of female American pioneers can be partially rectified by listening to BIS' 2002 The world of Ruth Seeger which is still available, as is Naxos' disc of her chamber and vocal music. DG's excellent Ruth Seeger portrait, performed by Overgrown Path regulars Schoenberg Ensemble, New London Chamber Choir, and James Wood, is now only available as a download. Pauline Oliveros is much better represented in the catalogue, as are Amy Beach, Joan Tower and Meredith Monk.


More words on 20th century music here.
The image of Ruth Crawford Seeger above was created by me by sampling the DG album sleeve. CDs mentioned in the article were bought at retail price. in the article were bought Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

2 comments:

Garth Trinkl said...

In my opinion, American composer Gloria Coates can certainly be mentioned as being in the same league as James Tenney, Joan Tower, and Meredith Monk.

I recall Richard Taruskin fairly extensively covering Meredith Monk, as well as mentioning some other American woman composers, in the final volume of his Oxford History of Western Music. (I seem to recall Monk receiving more in depth coverage than, for example, Sofia Gubaidulina, or perhaps Kaija Saariaho; although I could be wrong on this.)

Pliable said...

Gloria Coates -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/01/contemporary-composers-bigger-picture.html

http://home.wanadoo.nl/eli.ichie/coates.html