Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Happened to America?

I've always been interested in the past. I'm constantly imagining what it would be like to live in certain eras or years. As an artist, the best way to bring that alive is to see what people saw in the past. So the most efficient and fascinating way to explore past worlds is visually, through footage.

Naturally, the past that is easiest to relive in my position is recent American past, so the times I'm most interested in are simply America from about the time of WWII to 1980. Exotic and strange to me, yet familiar enough to comprehend and put into context.

This interest has led to a philosophy, a largely aesthetic one, that goes by the slogan, "What happened to America?" I did not invent the slogan. But that fact proves right away that there are others who subscribe to it. The slogan was invented by my friend while we were watching "Breaker, Breaker" a Chuck Norris movie in which he plays a truck driver. Apparently it was filmed in 1977 and it features lots of those 'flat-nosed' semi cabs. While watching we were both taken aback at how much cooler everything looked back then. My friend exclaimed, "What happened to America?"The proper annunciation is to say the phrase with some disgust, but also exclamation. Suddenly my philosophy had a voice.

I mean, what happened to America? Every era since WWII in America looks so good, has so much personality, takes so many chances. What do we have today? Boring fearful style and bad rehashes because we can't think up our own looks. I'm not a particular fan of the 1980's, but the era had it's own look that could be great at times. If I had to put a number on it I'd say things stopped looking good around 1992 or 3. The age from about 1954 to 1978 is the real hot zone for me.

I realize that part of this idea can be chalked up to a sort of nostalgic way of thinking (even though I was born in 1980). Perhaps in 2034 I'll realize that the 1990's and 2000's were very distinctive looking times with as much beauty and aesthetic charm as any time. But, I don't thinks so. I also wonder about other connections with the philosophy. Isn't the pop music era of 1954-78 also better than anything we've had since? I mean, when Weezer and Radiohead are your era's rock geniuses, it seems to me you're digging at bedrock with your fingernails. And I look at it historically, too. The 50's were not boring! Historically they were a very interesting time, a very definite and beautiful age. The 60's were extremely exiting and chaotic. The 70's were more cynical, but also an important, definite era. The 80's had their flavor too, but they start to feel a little like a bad version of the 70's. The 90's are definitely a lame version of the 80's. The 00's take that sort of postmodern blandness produced in the 90's and makes it the new battle cry of the millennium. More like whimper.

Can you believe how cool 1950's rock 'n' rollers looked? Hippies were insane in the greatest way. Boy, everyone lost it as far as style and fashion goes in the 70's and I love it! What happened to America?

It might also be mentioned that the way collective memory works, how we all understand an era to be, doesn't fit neatly into decades. I'd say the 50's are really 1953-1963. The 60's, 1964-1972. The 70's 1972-1981. And the 80's, 1982-1992. After that it really doesn't matter.

I can really dig old footage of any kind. A great book about what things looked like in the suburbs of the 1950's is a photo book called "Suburban World". It is a collection of photos by a totally non-artistic amateur photographer in Bloomington MN, a growing Suburb between the 1950's and 60's. His name is Irwin Norling and he's great at being there and documenting things as they were with no ambitions to color reality. Being there is 97% of photography, no offence to photographers who's compositional and technical talents are always important. If you think 1958 in a Minnesota suburb is not dark and subversive, take a look at this book.

What else does a guy like me enjoy? I recently satisfied my desires for a hotter America with DVDs. I got a whole lunchbox full of old educational filmstrips. Boy are they beautiful, scary, hilarious, and fascinating! Does scratchy 35mm film ever look great! No one would even attempt to make a filmstrip with cars who talk safety in a cloudy heaven-like set. Nor would anyone now make a filmstrip with a talking chalkboard stick figure named chalky who teaches manners. It's the world's loss.

I also got a season of the show Emergency. I always enjoyed firefighting and rescue squads from childhood, so the show is mega entertaining for me. But the price of admission is paid by the street scenes and vehicles alone. And how about those outfits and hairdos? And the fire trucks and rescue squad---hot! Maybe it's just the technicolor, but those trucks seem to be painted a very, very bright scarlet which no longer exists. What happened to America?

Friday, February 13, 2009

American Variations

I'm a composer, but I've been out of the game while in school. Well, I did write a piece for solo cello entitled Paul Bunyan about the Minnesota Born giant lumberjack (sorry Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin). Since I've gotten out, I've written some works here and there, but this past summer I started writing a series. I sometimes think American music, from a traditional sense, is ignored for its power and directness. Various composers from the new world have tired to create highly American music. With this series, I throw my hat into the ring.

Perhaps trying to be American with classical music seems too cute or an inherently patriotic act, but I chose to focus on it because it is my heritage, my surroundings and is a fairly untapped area for musical inspiration. Some hyper-American composers of the past include Ives and Copland.

While on tour in Great Britain my college orchestra played a work called Variations on America, by Ives. Perhaps our conductor had a bold sense of humor, but the work was theme (America, or 'My country tis of thee') and variations in which Ives tries very hard to assault the theme in any and every way possible. We Americans can take it, we're used to it, but the tune 'America' is also 'God save the Queen' over in Britain. Luckily, the British are known for their sense of humor.

The point of this story is that Ives is not a subtle or elegantly witty composer. He slaps you in the face with what he is doing and strives for sure attention. Similar to many children, he doesn't seem to make a distinction between positive and negative attention. That is not to say his America is not a good piece. In fact I recommend it (the orchestrated version is fun) but his sledge hammer wit gets old fast. Perhaps there is something too brutishly American about his attitude.

Copland is a finer artist who seeks the subtleties of the orchestra. Rather than impress with his concepts and audacity he tries to carefully refine a style of American music that is urbane and populous. His work tends to sound more urbane and corny, though. He is what I call a Romantic legacy composer. After the Romantic period, the stylistic momentum of classical musicians slowed down. What followed was a long period of minor styles and mutations based on the way music was in the late romantic period. Despite Stravinsky and Cage, most orchestras and even classical musicians are still in the Romantic legacy period. Copland certainly is, and his American style, though inspiring at times, boils down to a slightly corny and modernized version of Romantic classical music--sort of like an American Franz Lehar.

The landscape between these approaches is vast. I decided to take my own likes and instincts and mix them with great American tunes. Part of what turns me off about music of the Romantic legacy type is its focus on big. Everything is long, huge in scale, composed of many movements and for many instruments. So, I took my Baroque aesthetic and composed these works for violin and cello, each a single movement of theme and variations.

Speaking of corny, the theme that prompted this whole series is 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett.' Perhaps not a great American folk tune in the traditional sense, it fills the bill for a person born in 1980. To me this tune (and its great lyrics) is American myth-making at its best.

Second, I used Turkey in the Straw. I've always enjoyed this tune and was egar to compose variations on it. I think of is as a fiddle tune, but it started its popularity as a minstrel tune. Its lyrics were often changed, sometimes to versions of questionable taste. Its a buoyant tune with a call and response section and great cadences.

Third I remembered a true fiddle tune I liked, Arkansas Traveler, and decided to do variations on it. This is a total fiddle tune with jumpy rhythms and quick phrases. Very fun for string players and great to work with as a composer.

A tune I've always wanted to do variations on is Yankee Doodle. For me few pieces are more American. Ironically, it was composed by a British man. Originally it came out of the seven years war, but the version with the lyrics we are familiar with started during the French and Indian wars when a British officer observed unkempt colonial American soldiers. Yet somehow, this tune is synonymous with America. Perhaps deflecting criticism in such a way is what makes us who we are. The tune is just the right mix between gallant march and silly romp. I had some fun of my own with it.

Currently (and perhaps lastly) I'm doing variations on 'Simple Gifts". Copland made this Shaker dance tune world famous in Appalachian Spring. His version, a clever exercise in orchestration with respect for this unusually powerful tune is nice, but misses the point. The tune is simplicity itself and its lyrics preach the power of the simple things in life and the freedom simplicity brings. I'm trying to keep these ideas in mind in my variations. The tune is kept more intact than in my other pieces, and I try not to forget that despite the cantabile charm of the tune, it was meant to be a dance song, not a languid hymn. I feel the simple orchestration of violin and cello rings true for this piece, closer to the soil than to the heavens.

I'm Back!

This blog is back and open for business. Originally, I created this blog in Grad school as a forum for art writing. When I got out a school, I stopped writing on it. Part of it was that no one seemed to be reading it, which left me little motivation. But, I also realized that a visual art blog can be constricting. I have many interests which I rarely get to write about that I will now discuss here. For instance, I sometimes write CD reviews on amazon.com just because it is a forum for writing about music which people actually read. Now I will write about music and other topics here!