Review: Americas: Essays on American Music and Culture, 1973-1980 by Peter Garland Print

garland(American Music Volume 4, Issue 3, Fall 1986; revised March 2013, 2022)

The Fist-Shaking Iconoclast

Fourteen essays comprise Americas. There are short pieces on “American Piano” and “American Percussion.” There are tracts about literary nomads Paul Bowles (whose Selected Songs Garland issued in 1983), Jamie de Angelo, and B.. Traven. There are lengthy discussions of Conlon Nancarrow, Silvestre Revueltas, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison. And there are three travel journals written in Mexico, an autobiographical respite from his cause. In general, the book shakes its fist on behalf of the experimentalist radicals of American music and their attacks on American musical propriety as if the New World has rejected our best and brightest composers.

Garland’s thesis seems to be that a monolithic enterprise controls and stifles composers. Because of this, they often leave the country and its musical authoritarianism to find themselves. I agree: we’ve lost a few good ones for lack of homegrown interest. But Garland’s persuasiveness falters because he oversimplifies and sees culture only as an adversary to his romanticized and individualist idea of how one's culture should behave. An angry young man, he disregards interplay of society, history, music tradition, and personality, suggesting that the true composers work in isolation—the more isolation the better.

It’s majorly troubling that he assumes, and falsely so, that personality exceeds culture. This view has no social conscience, no relational viability, no sense of collective effort: what else is music but composed and improvised works, played by musicians and passed to audiences. Garland’s myopia elevates a kind of artistic libertarianism where the artist becomes the all-inclusive author and arbiter of culture. Perhaps the best example of this is his homage to Nancarrow’s player piano experiments. He views Nancarrow’s exploration of the canonical ratio 61:62, which no performer can play, as a libertarian ideal. As such, Nancarrow doesn’t need anyone—players, listeners, critics. Without an audience, I’m afraid there is no art.

Garland disagrees. The artist begets the art no matter how unperformed the person's work may be. That is the meaning of the American iconoclast, Garland’s hero. He believes the “good” artist will not compromises and, instead, disrupts Western music traditions, which he defines simplemindedly as conformity to that tradition. The author does not see that worshipping male individualism paradoxically helps shape the same unchanging cultural authority he wishes to rebuke. He leaves unanalyzed how the mainstream culture fosters and may enfold its own dissent.

To hammer the nail on the head again: saying that culture drives its best away and assimilates the rest into some gulag of style is fallacious. This may be true of the greatly unloved Edgar Varèse. But what of Aaron Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Marc Blitzstein, Roy Harris, Gunther Schuller, George Crumb, and Steve Reich, each with radically different styles and audiences who also synthesize many musical ideas and forms in original ways—and remain part of, not separate.

What of women, minority, and popular composers, many of whom redefine the dominant music culture as they express their individuality while their music still sounds “American"? Duke Ellington exemplifies this: his music is his culture, a collective recasting of traditional and new musical resources. Ellington’s largesse contains not only black and white idioms, at times, at odds with each other, but also their hybridization. His suites, baroque-like compilations with jazz harmony and controlled improvisation, satisfy, as Leroi Jones writes in Blues People, “sensuous white liberals” and make of the Washingtonian our first “thoroughly American” composer (along with, I would add, Charles Ives).

Take Garland on Partch. While the author reminds us how much Partch’s Pythagorean just intonation and minimalist surfaces makes Western listeners uncomfortable, he misses the interrelations between popular and primitive musical values. Garland fails to examine the way radical composers and other musicians might link up. In San Diego, I have witnessed performances of Partch’s music—the elegant handmade instruments, the players speaking and dancing—and the effect suggests a collective that sticks close to the non-virtuosic physical reality of collective or tribal performance and unity

It depends on how you see culture: antagonistic to the individual or in support of him. Garland’s method of looking is always half empty, arguing that Partch has lost relevance because the establishment under-appreciates him. On the contrary. His collectivist sensibility equates to much pop music where the ethic of a transitory sound and ritualized gathering is prized.

Had Garland not lumped all experimenters together as “revolutionaries,” based solely on their anti-Western musical languages, or had he argued that Partch, Nancarrow, and Cage are American precisely because their anti-authoritarianism finds a voice in every contemporary composer, none of whom, in my listening, is a slave to the traditions Garland despises, he may have found room to link culture to personality, musical form to alien sounds. With a more dialectical approach, and one less confrontational, his argument would be truer. In mislabeling individualism as superior, Garland sets up a straw man: who’s going to disagree that the composer of original works is not more than the composer of ordinary works. It’s tautological.

Just because American orchestras don’t play much new music doesn’t mean that the music they do play is bad or inferior or unimportant. If we’re going to move in new musical directions, then we need to build bridges, as we always have, from the old venues to the new forums. But such spans are hindered because Garland, as petulant as he is, shames them into being. I’m certain there’s a sympathetic audience that would like to know why a few American composers, especially the expatriates, so relish their unwarranted loneliness. Garland adds to his loneliness the opaqueness of his own judgment.