The brand-new festival celebrating American music at the Kennedy Center is hardly a new idea. Look through orchestra schedules this season, and you’ll find all manner of American festivals, including some of the vernaculars — jazz, folk, even hip-hop — that fit the popular perception of “American music” more readily than anything you’ll find in a concert hall. The twist of the week-long SHIFT festival, which starts Monday, is that it focuses on American orchestras — this year, from North Carolina, Colorado, Atlanta and New York (the chamber orchestra The Knights). The festival grew out of the Spring for Music festival, held at Carnegie Hall in New York from 2010 to 2014, whose egalitarian premise was that a low ticket price ($25 per seat) and varied repertory would lure new audiences. It didn’t. SHIFT’s co-presenters, the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, are hoping, with their combined marketing muscle, to change that.
What is American music? And, perhaps more to the point, why do we care so much?
“I remember being asked in Prague not so long ago, ‘What is your obsession, you Americans, with American music?’ ” said Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which will perform at SHIFT on March 31. “The only answer I could give . . . was: It’s because we don’t know who we are, and so we’re endlessly fascinated, because there are so many things that make up America . . . so much to wrestle with and balance and try and understand. . . . I was kind of defending our self-obsession.”
Indeed, the most telling thing about the question “What is American music?” may be simply that we keep asking it and asking it and asking it.
Each festival represents a slightly different answer. The San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas have celebrated the composer-as-maverick: outsiders as varied as Lou Harrison and the Grateful Dead. The SHIFT festival is focusing on how orchestras present the music, featuring not only concerts but also distinctive outreach programs. The Boulder Philharmonic, for example, will lead a nature hike in Rock Creek Park on March 27.
Another “American” element of SHIFT is the democratic approach represented by that $25 ticket. The idea of the orchestra as a democratic institution may seem odd today, when we associate it with elitism, but in the early days of this nation, many people saw a symphony, made up of many people playing together and thus a tangible form of democracy in action, as the quintessential American art form.
We tend to think of American orchestral music as a relatively recent phenomenon. “Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and John Cage leap to mind,” Spano says, “as somehow defining a distinct American music from European tradition.” In fact, though, American composers began writing American symphonies in the early days of the nation’s history.
In an illuminating book called “Orchestrating the Nation,” about American orchestral composers in the 19th century, Douglas Shadle demonstrates that many of the features of American orchestral concert life today — the inferiority complex with regard to Europe; questioning what American music is or should be — date back 200 years and more. American composers, although often successes with the public, had to fight so hard with the prejudices of the Eurocentric gatekeepers — the conductors, the presenters and, especially, the critics — that their music was not able to take root. For generations, American audiences have been taught that Beethoven is greater than American works. When it comes to orchestral music, resistance to the new is part of our national musical DNA.
Shadle can’t fully make a case for these forgotten works as lost masterpieces. Some of the pieces he describes, created in the name of finding an American voice, sound like curiosities now: a “Santa Claus Symphony” by William Henry Fry (1853), or a sprawling 14-movement “Hiawatha: An Indian Symphony,” by Robert Stoepel (1859). In an effort to be distinctively American and to create music that every listener could understand, composers took up American subjects and instrumental sound effects (drums standing in for gunfire in musical depictions of the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance), only to come under fire from critics who felt that program music was a lower form than abstract music. But when a composer did write abstract music, it was often seen as too derivative of European models. That dynamic hasn’t entirely disappeared.
Many of the 19th-century composers have been forgotten (although some of their music is now being revived on, to name one example, Naxos’s “American Classics” series). And many 19th-century assumptions about American music have survived into the 20th and even 21st centuries: American music is still often viewed as lighter than European music, more illustrative and more populist. The tension between populist American music and “absolute” American music was as alive in 1876, when John Knowles Paine was praised for writing an “abstract” rather than programmatic symphony, as in 1971, when Leonard Bernstein was criticized for folding Broadway and rock elements into his hybrid “Mass.” Only in recent decades has it started to soften.
“These days, there’s a discernible generational American thing going on,” Spano says. “I think of the composers I’m most closely associated with,” and he names a few: Jennifer Higdon, Osvaldo Golijov, Adam Schoenberg and Christopher Theofanidis, who wrote “Creation/Creator,” a multimedia work involving projections, vocal soloists and several choruses that the Atlanta Symphony is performing at the SHIFT Festival. “I always thought of them as very different from each other. [But] they share some things. Writing tunes, for one thing. There is a renewed interest in melodic contour. They all use tonality in some way, even if not in a traditional sense. And they’re all influenced by popular or world music, or both.”
It’s not only 19th-century American work that’s neglected. Last summer, the Aspen Music Festival and School (where Spano is also music director) focused its summer season on midcentury Americans in the hope that turning the spotlight on Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Peter Mennin and others might help bring them back into the repertory. Similarly, Leonard Slatkin worked hard for years to turn the National Symphony Orchestra into a distinctively American, national orchestra; but those efforts seem to have left relatively little lasting mark on the institution.
Of course, focusing on orchestras glosses over the powerful emergence of non-orchestral American musical expression. Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and Philip Glass — who did evolve into a prolific symphonist later in his career — were leaders in making important new work performed by their own, non-orchestral ensembles, and many young composers have followed in their footsteps.
Take Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013: her piece “Lo,” which the North Carolina Symphony will play at SHIFT on March 29, and which she wrote at a residency at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington in 2015, is her first-ever work for orchestra. Shaw, 35, born in North Carolina, trained as a violinist and also sings professionally. She doesn’t have a career in Europe yet; but she has collaborated with Kanye West.
“Lo,” she says, is “a kind of conversation with American optimism and how it expresses itself in music.” But it’s not a deliberate attempt to be American. “The orchestra,” she says, “is a very particular kind of wood to carve from, and has a whole tradition with it. If I write something that sounds like [Aaron] Copland, that’s intentional. It’s a conversation with Copland.” But it’s not about a national identity. “When I’m writing music,” Shaw says, “I try to block those conversations out as much as I can.”
In the 19th century, there was much debate about what authentic “American” music might sound like. In the 21st century, we have a whole catalogue of examples. Yet stereotypes tend to persist. Copland has been effectively embraced as our national composer, mainly on the strength of “Appalachian Spring,” and his work is often said to evoke American landscapes. Bernstein offers syncopated athleticism and a stylistic melting pot. Ives is a maverick; Cage, an iconoclast. “American” music is new and bracing, yet also lithe and melodic.
Some are more precise. In 1948 Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic, identified a couple of specific compositional tics he felt were distinctive to American composers (“the nonaccelerating crescendo and a steady ground-rhythm of equalized eighth notes,” for the record). Yet Thomson was the least prescriptive of observers. “The way to write American music is simple,” he wrote. “All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.”
The SHIFT festival features the Boulder Philharmonic on March 28, the North Carolina Symphony on March 29, the Atlanta Symphony on March 31, and the Knights on April 1, with free outreach events on other days. Tickets are $25; residency events, like the Boulder Philharmonic’s nature walk on March 27, are free.