The Misunderstanding Of American Music
By Jonathan Yardley
"Eurocentrism" is an unpleasant coinage from the high-water mark of political correctness that, mercifully, is spoken and written rather less these days, as PC itself beats a slow and disorderly retreat and as Europe reclaims at least part of its central place in our culture. As one who takes a traditional view of Western culture, I welcome this. Yet the influence of Europe on this side of the Atlantic has never been wholly benign, and perhaps nowhere have its insidious effects been more pronounced than in our native music and our evaluation of it.
That thought is provoked by the appearance in the current issue of National Review of a provocative piece by Jay Nordlinger about a new 10-CD set, "An American Celebration," in which are collected several dozen works by American "classical" composers, recorded over the years by the New York Philharmonic under various conductors. The set's title makes its celebratory purpose clear enough, but as Nordlinger correctly asks: "Does American music deserve it?"
His answer is that, though some individual pieces are interesting and/or admirable, what is "most striking about 'An American Celebration' is its relative paucity of great music: music that will endure, that can stand on its own, without the ministrations of special tenders." By this last he means "the affirmative-action mentality of some in organized music" who insist that compositions be performed, recorded and praised simply because they are the work of Americans. This, Nordlinger says, may honor our "heritage," but "Americanness is not nearly enough; it is a woefully insufficient credential."
In all of this Nordlinger is absolutely right; the lucidity and passion of his argument are exemplary. Yet he backs, however unwittingly, into the trap (in which American music has been caught from its earliest days) of defining music in European terms. If it is true, as he says, that there is ample reason "to rejoice that our musical heritage, like our larger national one, flows from every nation, and certainly from Europe," then it is also true that there is reason to lament that we have always permitted Europe to set the limits within which "serious" music is contained and that as a consequence we ignore or belittle what is genuinely serious and genuinely original in our own music.
"Music," Nordlinger writes, "as has long been observed, is a nation unto itself," but few composers or performers of what passes for American "classical" music have fully grasped that. Instead they have devoted almost all their energies either to imitating European music or to rebelling against it. However diligently they may have striven for Americanness--viz., what Nordlinger calls the "ethnomusicological earnestness" of much of Aaron Copland's work--it has always been within the framework of the European tradition.
There's nothing original about this complaint; "pale imitation" is, or should be, essential to the vocabulary of any American music critic. But if on the one hand we are too aware of, not to mention too defensive about, the deficiencies of our home-grown music by comparison with the masterpieces of Europe, on the other hand we are too slow to recognize what is good in our music, to redefine our notions about musical seriousness so that they embrace American genres that do not conform to European tastes and standards.
If American "serious" music is with rare exceptions pallid and jejune, American "popular" music is to an astonishing degree alive, innovative and ambitious. Unlike American concert-hall music, which almost without exception is self-conscious and stylized, American popular music (with occasional and unfortunate exceptions) is devoid of pretension and affectation. It is "popular" in the deepest sense of the word: It is the people's music.
Which of course is precisely why it has gotten so little respect. Even now, as "popular culture" specialists in the universities root around for thesis subjects and make claims of artistic legitimacy for anything they lay their hands on, there's something opportunistic and patronizing about the undertaking. As anyone knows who's read much of the literature of "popular culture studies," the scholarly standards the academy expects in writing about high literature and art are often completely abandoned when "popular" art is the subject.
Yet surely there can be no question at this point in our history not merely that, as the cliche has it, American popular culture is this country's one real contribution to world culture but that the best of it deserves to be judged by the standards not of commerce but of art. To see "American music" solely in terms of Copland and Ives, Rorem and Corigliano, is to limit one's vision to a tiny section of a vast panorama. By the same token, to see, say, Louis Armstrong or Harold Arlen or Keith Jarrett or Randy Newman or Billie Holiday or Miles Davis as somehow smaller and less consequential than any of the aforementioned is completely to misunderstand what "American music" really is.
Truth to tell, if one were to put together a 10-CD set that was a real "American Celebration," the New York Philharmonic would play at most a tiny part in it: perhaps a performance, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, of "An American in Paris" or "Appalachian Spring." The rest of it would belong to men and women few of whom would have any way into Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, where the Philharmonic plays, except a ticket bought at the door.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company