Too often overlooked, the work of American composers has had an impact on the world’s musical landscape
CLASSICAL MUSIC in the USA has been overshadowed by the overwhelming influence of African American music, which began more than a century ago with ragtime and jazz, and continues today with soul and hip hop. But there have been great composers of classical music in America.
To begin with, American classical music was very conservative, following German models. Then one man caused a revolution. His name was Charles Ives. Before the first world war Ives wrote amazing pieces in which two or three tunes in different keys might be happening at once. Here’s an example. It’s the second piece from his Three Places in New England.
With Ives, American music broke free from Europe. Many later composers followed Ives’ example, trying out all kinds of wild ideas. Henry Cowell experimented with using ‘clusters’ – thick chords that sound like they’re being played with fists instead of fingers. Listen to this excerpt from his work for the piano, Tiger.
Notice how there are two different kinds of music going on at once: the ‘normal’ music in the strings, and the ‘clusters’ in the piano. Henry Cowell inspired the American John Cage, who was probably the most original composer in the history of classical music. At first he tried to reduce music down to pure rhythm, writing music for percussion instruments including drums made from car brakes!
Cage went on to invent a new instrument, the ‘prepared’ piano. He did this by taking a normal piano and fitting bits of metal inside to change the sound.
Later, Cage created musical pieces using the element of chance. For example, he wrote some by throwing dice to see where the notes should be, and another that used astrological star charts…
These days, American classical music is a little less wild, but it still has a special kind of energy. Here’s an example of some music by America’s best-known living composer, John Adams. It’s called A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
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