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.

1 comment:

Tim Wirth said...

Nice post! I like the exciting language.

"closer to the soil than to the heavens"

That's an awfully nice reminder to anyone doing anything. Let us celebrate the rational alongside revelation!

I'm very interested in hearing the Paul Bunyan piece.