Friday, June 01, 2012

Locating That Yankee Sound

THE ESTIMABLE Tim Rutherford-Johnson (aka The Rambler) reviews a performance by the Jack Quartet and writes of John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts: "The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music..." While that "Appalachian pastoral" phrase will probably be grocked without much of a second thought by readers familiar with the Cage quartet and some of the more famous items in the American mid-20th century repertoire as referring to a certain style of writing, mostly diatonic, sometimes pentatonic, and occasionally jerked about by some tactical chromaticism,  friendly to open fifths and milder clusters (those vertical structures just on either side of a simpler triadic harmony), with some emphasis on writing for strings (and for those strings some preferences for open strings, natural harmonics, and reduced or no vibrato), and featuring a lot of shared attacks in which one or more instrument quickly drops off allowing others to sustain. This style is exemplified by Copland's score to the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring.  The funny thing about this label is, of course, that Copland's music isn't particularly Appalachian (he himself said that he thought neither of Appalachia nor of Spring while writing the score which had the working title of only Music for Martha) and the musical source material Copland actually quotes in the piece (most famously the tune "Simple Gifts"*) is Shaker, and though the Shakers had short-lived settlements in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, they were basically an upstate New York and New England sect. (The Cage Quartet does earn some additional affinity to the Copland in that each movement is associated with a season and a place, in this case the fourth movement, a Quodlibet in which the melodic materials shared throughout the quartet are most conjunct and lively, is  associated with Spring; unfortunately I can't remember where it's supposed to be Spring in Paris or America...)  BUT WHEREVER THE ORIGINS THERE IS INDEED this particular Americana style, with plenty of precedents (from the generation of Billings onward), which became a concert music staple with two pieces of music: Charles Ives's cowboy song Charlie Rutledge, which was premiered at a Copland-Sessions concert with Copland — then very much a francophile modernist — himself as pianist and Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1927-28) which was first known in its piano four-hands arrangement by John Kirkpatrick. (Of course there is that other Americana style, that initiated with Roy Harris who, like Copland and at Copland's enouragement, came through the Boulangerie, but whose music is characterized by a more lushly sustained melodic style, more in debt to Sibelius than to Stravinsky, for whose music Harris had little attraction, but that is another story.)
* The use of this particular tune has been much maligned, especially by those in the pro-complexity camp.  However, I'm not entirely convinced that the Shaker notion of "simple" here, in the context of a sublimating sacred dancing tune, can be readily mapped to our everyday contemporary use of the term. 

1 comment:

Kraig Grady said...

Cage's Quartets I-VIII based on Billings work fits nicely in here too.