West to East: The Migration of American New Music

Brett Campbell on November 24, 2009
New York, New York, a hell of a town: arts capital of the world and epicenter of American postclassical music since at least the days of George Gershwin. Think of the composers who lived and worked there from the 1940s on — Cage, Cowell, Thomson, Copland, Bernstein, Rorem, all the way down to younger generations like Bang on a Can, Nico Muhly, and the New Amsterdam composers. It’s almost easier to compile a list of major composers who aren’t from the Big Apple.

Or ... is it? In fact, a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa. Curated by Berkeley’s own John Adams, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s revelatory West Coast/Left Coast festival, which opened Nov. 21 and runs through Dec. 8 (and even touches San Francisco next spring), offers clear evidence that, in contemporary music at least, the sun rose in the West.

Asian Gaze and Self-Invention: Henry Cowell’s Legacy

This Sunday night’s concert by L.A.’s Piano Spheres focuses on the music of Henry Cowell, along with keyboard works by some of his musical descendants, ranging from John Cage to Daniel Lentz. Along with Other Minds’ recent Cowell series, it’s a reminder that Cowell was the source of so much contemporary American music. From experimental techniques on the piano, to the use of found instruments (especially percussion), to his open-minded appreciation of the music of Asia and other non-Western cultures, Cowell established the template that his successors would explore for the rest of the 20th century. Moreover, he spread the word throughout the land, both as a teacher (in his native San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City, where he moved permanently in 1940) and as what his pupil Lou Harrison called “the central switchboard for two or three generations of American composers,” as mentor, publisher, and genial connector.

Cowell’s students Harrison (who was from San Francisco) and Cage (from Los Angeles) followed him to New York, though Harrison returned to the West Coast after a decade. They helped implant Cowell’s ideas in New York’s roiling hotbed of postwar compositional creativity. Cage lived in New York for so long that the city is often credited as his main influence, but even he attributed the inspiration for his celebrated innovations in prepared piano (which actually happened in Seattle, before he moved east) and in chance music to Cowell and his California years.

Inspired by Cowell, Harrison and Cage formed the West’s first percussion ensembles in the late 1930s in San Francisco. That tradition of creating your own instruments (from Asian and American Indian instruments and even junkyard items like brake drums and flower pots) inspired generations of subsequent composers, particularly those who craved independence from academic and orchestral institutions. Philip Glass has said he admired the independence that Cage (an early mentor) personified, and those percussion ensembles, along with jazz combos, helped inspire both Glass and Steve Reich to form their own independent ensemble in New York a generation later. That legacy extends down the years to Bang on a Can, So Percussion, and other composer-centric and percussion aggregations.

Harrison credited Cowell with his lifelong interest in Asian/Western musical marriages, which reached their full flowering in his post-1960s compositions for Javanese gamelan and other Asian instruments, and which continue to influence later generations of composers, not to mention the dozens of gamelan orchestras in the U.S. The L.A. Philharmonic will play Harrison’s gripping Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (he wrote another with gamelan), which owes as much to Brahms as to Asia, in this weekend’s concerts, with the powerfully intense Italian pianist Marino Formenti as soloist. Music historian Joseph Horowitz goes so far as to suggest that it might even be the greatest American concerto.

Harrison was one of the first composers to declare the West Coast’s aesthetic independence from the European mainstream. As far back as the 1950s, he was saying that West Coasters weren’t afraid of beauty and melody (which then were in ill repute in fashionable East Coast musical circles), and that their closeness to nature influenced their art.

Harrison often attributed Left Coasters’ Asian gaze to the fact that we face the Pacific and Asia, while New Yorkers look to Europe, and that was certainly true of Cowell, Cage, and Harrison himself. If he is, as often claimed, the father of world music as we know it, then Cowell must be its godfather. Whether they know it or not, composers who today have far greater access to the music of other cultures than these two did owe both these giants a tremendous debt.

American Mavericks

Cowell, Cage, and Harrison are often rounded up — as though it were possible to corral such independent spirits! — under the rubric “mavericks,” implying a fondness for self-invention foreshadowing indie rock bands. Another Californian included in their nonherd is the iconoclastic Harry Partch, who created his own instruments and tuning systems, as his friend Harrison did. As a result, it has been difficult for some of their finest works to worm their way into the general repertoire, since they require original instruments or specialized reconstructions. (Happily, WC/LC presents Partch’s US Highball in a Green Umbrella concert on Dec. 1, sharing the bill with a renowned representative of the L.A. rock scene who crossed over into “classical” composing, Frank Zappa.)

Partch’s rugged individualist image may actually be more potent than his actual music was. The microtonality that he and Harrison espoused continues to inspire intrepid composers. John Adams, for one, himself used microtonality, in works such as his affectionate 2003 tribute to Harrison, Terry Riley, and the West Coast itself, titled The Dharma at Big Sur, which he composed for the opening of L.A.’s Disney Hall and which returns there in a festival performance conducted by Adams with soloist Leila Josefowicz, Dec. 5 and 6.

That work obviously also celebrates the Beat poets, writers, and “jazzers.” And jazz and other improvised music is a big part of the West Coast’s musical influence, most recently in Adams’ City Noir, which nods to California cool jazz and film-noir scores. In these explicit citations, you find the characteristic evidence of a true artistic scene — self-consciousness, just as Gershwin originally titled his breakthrough work Second Rhapsody, New York Rhapsody; in Duke Ellington name-dropped Harlem; and in seemingly every artistic cohort in the history of Paris that has incorporated that evocative name into their work.

Microtonalists and Minimalists

The next generation of Bay Area artists to exert major influence on modern music were associated with Oakland’s Mills College (founded in 1852) and the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which became the core of Mills’ experimental music program that, over the years, has included Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and other important composers.

Much experimental music came out of the dance department at Mills and other Bay Area studios, by composers including Harrison, who worked as a Mills dance accompanist and composer. Terry Riley and La Monte Young, the granddaddies of minimalism, were associated with choreographer Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop in the early 1960s and wrote some of the first minimalist pieces for it. Adams and the L.A. Philharmonic have already devoted major attention to this particular subset of West Coast influence in its amazing 2006 “Minimalist Jukebox” festival.

While minimalism, the most fruitful and culturally pervasive postclassical musical movement to emerge after World War II, is often associated with three New Yorkers — Reich, Glass, and Young, who, along with Riley, were in the city during the critical early phases — “Minimalist Jukebox” reestablished the style’s West Coast origins. Young probably derived his famous long tones from the hum of power lines in his Mountain West childhood, and his penchant for modal jazz from his high school days in L.A., where he was a bandmate of Eric Dolphy and played with avant-jazzers such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.

Young and Riley were studying at UC Berkeley when Young created the first minimalist works in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both were influenced by Indian music, as well as by jazz. By the time Riley and Young moved to New York (the latter permanently), the minimalist esthetic was already established.

In 1964, Riley, who was born and still lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills, wrote that sturdy prototype of pulse minimalism, In C, in California. One of the players in that first ensemble — who contributed its crucial pulse-idea — was Steve Reich, who grew up in both New York and Los Angeles, and who was studying with Luciano Berio at Mills College at the time. He lived in the Bay Area from 1961 to 1965.

“I went out to the West Coast for the classic reason: to get away from family and the pressures of New York,” Reich recalled recently. “On the Road had just been published; San Francisco was in the air; I liked the climate, both physical and psychological. It was a way to get away and make a fresh start.” At the city’s famed Jazz Workshop, Reich heard John Coltrane’s trailblazing modal jazz, the area’s Asian musical influences, and Young’s and Riley’s early minimalism and that other crucial ingredient of early minimalism: the tape-music experiments at Mills, which he put to good use in his early Come Out. Reich returned to New York ready to compare notes with his old Juilliard School of Music classmate Glass and really get minimalism going.

Northern Lights, but Southern Exposure

Those early minimalist experiments quickly spread up along the West Coast, as well. Around that time, and a few hours north, in Seattle, the Cornish College music and dance departments were being re-created in the image of Mills and with explicit influence from both Cage (who perpetrated his first piano preparations while a dance composer at Cornish) and Harrison. When Alan Hovhaness moved there, the Northwest gained another voice for West Coast ideals. And though that prime purveyor of new music, the Kronos Quartet, has long been based in San Francisco, it, too, started in Seattle, where leader David Harrington grew up. Although the West Coast/Left Coast festival is avowedly a California-centric event, West Coast music ranges beyond the Governator’s reaches, all the way up to Alaska, where Harrison protégé John Luther Adams has lived and composed for decades.

The Bay Area has continued to produce adventurous new music since the heyday of Cowell and his proteges. For example, composers associated with New Albion Records have created accessible yet innovative sounds for decades; curator John Adams (who once recorded for the label) gave two of the finest, Paul Dresher and Ingram Marshall (who's since moved back east) deserved places at the festival.

But for all the Bay Area’s influence on contemporary classical music earlier in the century and the compelling new sounds emerging from its composers today, it has unquestionably been surpassed since by its big, sprawly rival to the south. L.A.’s history of new music stretches back to the pre-World War II, European refugees, led by Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg (who taught both Cage and Harrison) and reinforced by film composers such as Erich Korngold. Even Gershwin and Copland ventured out to Hollywood briefly, and laureate L.A. Phil Music Director Esa Pekka Salonen has seen his own once-thorny compositions happily mellowed.

A more influential Southern California scene emerged in the 1970s, surrounding the California Institute of the Arts (affectionately called CalArts), in Valencia. Composers such as Carl Stone, Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz, Chas Smith, and others built on the achievements of the first minimalists and achieved popularity (though still minuscule by pop standards) outside the tiny academic circles of most new music. Many of their works appeared on the influential Cold Blue record label, started by Jim Fox. Until the rise of the Internet, such distribution mechanisms were vital, and they’re still important, even in the age of artist-owned and artist-marketed recordings.

Despite his long residence in Berkeley, “I have my best audiences in the world here in L.A.,” John Adams told me, praising the long-standing open-mindedness of the Philharmonic’s leaders, its contextual programming, and what he calls its “hip and interested” audiences.

Reich concurs, saying, “With all due respect to my best friend MTT — and the San Francisco Symphony under MTT is one of the best musical institutions around — it’s not a music community for freelance players of any size whatsoever. Los Angeles has this unbelievable pool of unbelievable musicians, many of them working in the studios. If I want to get a shot of musical energy, I go down to L.A.,” which he groups with New York and London as one of the three great centers of new music.

From This Moment On ...

As the West Coast/Left Coast festival demonstrates, despite their variety, the West Coast spawned the most fertile tropes of postwar new music — minimalism, world music, microtonality, DIY (do-it-yourself) instruments, and independent attitudes.

The question now, as always in new music, is “What’s next?” What do our Left Coast musical institutions need to do to nurture the continuing growth of West Coast music? As composers increasingly write for forces beyond the standard Western orchestra or chamber ensemble, are orchestras — even the in-touch ones in L.A. and the Bay Area — the wrong place to look for such nourishment? With the Internet giving composers and listeners access to practically any music, do such geographical distinctions as north and south, east and west even matter anymore? Where will “the scene” shift next — the Internet? Whatever the answer, the vitality of West Coast music shows no signs of slackening.

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