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Chapter 13: The Late 20th Century and American Music

The American musical scene since the Second World War has been dominated by popular styles. The introduction of radio, television, inexpensive recording and playback equipment, and new forms of electronic technology has changed the world of music in almost every way. You can now listen to music twenty-four hours a day without ever going to a concert.

The composition of art music has become largely an academic concern. Hundreds of aspiring composers of "serious" music enroll in conservatories as composition majors and then go on to earn doctorates in composition in university schools of music. Their goal is usually to obtain a position teaching music theory and composition in a college or university that will encourage them in their creative work. Academic composers write thousands of compositions every year and then work very hard to get them performed. If they are fortunate, they will have students and colleagues who will perform their music at the schools where they teach. The most fortunate ones—very few in number—will succeed in getting a professional symphony orchestra to program one of their works.

George Crumb

George Crumb (born 1929)

Biographical Sketch
Born in 1929, George Crumb is one of the most widely performed American composers today. Originally from West Virginia, Crumb studied at George Mason University, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and the University of Michigan. He retired from the University of Pennsylvania after 30 years of teaching and currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife of over 50 years. He has won both the Grammy and Pulitzer Prizes for his music that many describe as profoundly humanistic.

Crumb's music is eclectically rich. He is often known for compositions that use graphic instead of traditional forms of notation, and for the extended instrumental and vocal techniques employed which result in unusual and interesting timbres. Examples of this can be found in An Idyll for the Misbegotten where the flute performer is asked to sound like a dove and align vibrato with a written rhythm. In another example, Ancient Voices of Children, a soprano is asked to sing into a piano that has its sustain pedal depressed. As the strings of the piano vibrate, overtones begin to sound and the result is a delicate ethereal sound. Also in Ancient Voices of Children, Crumb uses instruments not often heard in concert music. In the profoundly moving fourth movement, "Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño" (Each Afternoon in Granada, a Child Dies Each Afternoon), percussionists play chromatic harmonicas and a performer plays Bach’s Bist du bei mir on a toy piano.

As noted in Ancient Voices of Children, much of Crumb’s music mixes different musical styles from traditional concert music to protestant hymns to folk music to music from eastern traditions. His works often includes theatrical elements such as staging, lighting, and costumes. George Crumb composes music that creates engaging dramatic experiences and challenges audiences to think about concert music in new ways.

Some of Crumb's best known compositions include:
    Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
    Black Angels (1970)
    Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971)
    Lux Aeterna (1971)
    Makrokosmos Vol 1 & 2 (1972-73)
    An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1986)
    Mundis Canis (1998)

Even this rarified atmosphere has been radically changed in the last decade by the introduction of electronics. Composition students are now expected to master music technology: for music notation; for generating and synthesizing sound; and for computer-assisted instruction. Graduates of theory/composition programs now bring to the classroom the ability to oversee an electronic music studio and to maximize its potential for instruction of students.

Popular styles have been invading the world of academic music for a while now. [We have already observed how popular and folk music influenced art music in every period of music from the Medieval Period to the 20th century.] Music that was once regarded as degenerate at worst and unworthy of scholarly recognition at best is now taught in major schools of music.

This is Crossover Music, and it is one of the most important phenomena in late 20th century music. Crossover is not just happening in academic settings. Distinguished music venues like the Ravinia Festival have been featuring pop music for a long time. Even the most traditional symphony orchestras now have a pops series. Of course, these programming changes have come about as much from economic pressures as from societal changes.

But, Crossover Music is not restricted only to combinations of pop and art music. An increasing number of composers incorporate music of non-western cultures into their western art compositions. For example, three well known composers from the second half of the Century – Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Lou Harrison and John Cage – all incorporated elements of far Eastern music and philosophy into their compositions. Significant composers today also utilize sounds from African music and Andean music (to cite just two musical cultures) into their music.

Jazz and art music also are used together in composition. In the first half of the Century George Gershwin wrote several beloved compositions in this style: the Opera, Porgy and Bess; the Rhapsody in Blue, the overture, An American In Paris. Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky also wrote significant compositions that blended the sound of jazz with art composition. In addition, some of the most successful composers of serious music have deep roots in popular styles. Leonard Bernstein is the best known example. Everyone knows his music for West Side Story though few are familiar with his symphonies. More recently, William Bolcom, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Music, has become a highly successful composer of symphonic and operatic music. His operas have been performed in recent seasons at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and his symphonic works are regularly featured on the programs of major symphony orchestra. One has only to hear a few bars of his music to be aware of the influence of American popular styles.

There are still many successful composers who operate outside this sphere and work in widely divergent styles. Pierre Boulez, a Frenchman who has held major conducting posts all over the world, is highly regarded both as an interpreter and a composer of serious music. Much of his music is written in a serial style in which all of the primary elements of the composition that are variable (melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, tone color) are created in a row or matrix, similar to Schoenberg's 12-tone melodic row. This enables the composer to exert maximum control over the performance. A logical extension of this conception is that the music is taped or written and performed on a computer or synthesizer. This allows the composer to exert total control over the performance of his/her work. Electronics, indeed, play an important role in Boulez's creative work, as they do in the work of another serialist, the American Milton Babbitt, but not all of their compositions are electronic.

At the other extreme stand the composers who favor chance music. The American composer John Cage is the best-known representative of this style. Composers such as Cage believe that all sounds should be part of the musical spectrum and, thus, a composition should allow for free expression not only by the performers, but by the audience as well. Performers in some compositions by Cage are given instructions simply to make any sounds they wish within a defined spectrum for a given period of time. That, then, is the piece.

In the last twenty years the art music establishment has seen the erosion in interest in art music among general listeners. In part this is because of the complication of much of the music composed in the 1960s and 1970s and because of the lack of music education in schools. The dominant cause, however, is the mass marketing of popular music and the dominance of the popular music industry by large corporations which simply has squeezed out art music from the public radar. This is known as the "Wal Mart" effect. Composers of art music have reacted to this trend by establishing new styles such as Minimalism that simplifies musical expression into small units that are incessantly repeated. Important composers working in this style are John Adams, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.

Women composers have finally come to the forefront of composition in the last two decades. Ellen Taafe Zwillich, who is featured in your textbook, has won a Pulitzer Prize for her work as has Shulamit Ran, a Chicago composer who has taught at the University of Chicago and had residencies at the CSO and the Lyric Opera. Joan Tower, Pauline Oliveros, Chen Yi, and Augusta Read Thomas have also enjoyed a lot of success; their works are regularly included in the programming of major symphony orchestras.

Of course, the future of symphony orchestras and opera companies has been the subject of a lot of discussion. Critics charge that these venerable institutions of art music are obsolescent, calling them museums of ancient history. But critics don't buy tickets, and performances by the best orchestras and opera companies are usually sold out. It's hard to get a ticket to the most popular concerts, and not just pops concerts. The economic boom of the last two decades has provided the middle class with more money for entertainment and a taste for the finer things; and art music is still regarded as one of the finer things in life.

The experience of attending concerts of art music is not for everyone. Yet, there is a sufficient number of passionate admirers of it to fill concert halls and opera theatres, both here and in Europe. The Lyric Opera in Chicago has sold out its performances for many years, even those of contemporary operas. The Salzburg Festival in Austria routinely sells out all its performances at ticket prices that stagger the imagination.

People love music. They love theatre and literature and dance and painting and sculpture. Good times mean available money for the enjoyment of entertainment, and serious music is above all entertainment that stimulates the mind as well as the heart. Sure, more people attend professional wrestling than the opera, and more people watch MTV than listen to WFMT; but there is a segment of the population that wants fine art and is willing to pay for it. Be part of that segment.

The same cultural needs that drive people to attend church or synagogue or go to the university also impel people to attend the symphony and the opera, and also keep books of fine literature and poetry in print and put new paintings on gallery walls. Fine art is part of the life of an educated person, and that's why music appreciation is part of your education at Lewis University.


Chapter 13: Music for Listening