The thundering roar of Niagara Falls as it cascades, foam-flecked and frightening, into shards of mist…
The high-riding sun painting a kaleidoscope of earth tones on the craggy pinnacles of Arizona’s monumental Grand Canyon…
A staccato of street noise reverberating through the glass-and-steel maw of uptown Manhattan…
From the flinty hills of Kentucky to the funky streets of Harlem, America’s distinctive places have inspired generations of writers and painters in their efforts to capture our ever-changing national character.
Now comes an FSU music historian to describe how this country’s high-art composers found a similar muse of place to inspire many of their best known works.
Denise Von Glahn, an assistant professor of music history in the School of Music, says in her recent book (The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape. Northeastern University Press, 2003) that key composers through the last two centuries responded to inspiring natural and man-made places in what she calls their “place pieces.”
Whether they’re penning tone poems to celebrate the pristine grandeur of a national landmark or putting to music a modern city’s singular sounds, the composers Von Glahn chose to include in her study created works that say as much about our nation’s shared values as it does the music itself.
“This (book) is for people interested in American culture, in American music history, in what’s being called cultural geography,” Von Glahn said in a recent interview.
Negotiating its 350 pagesincluding footnotes, bibliography and musical examplescalls for a certain amount of familiarity in those fields, she concedes. “But I was hoping that the book could be appreciated by people without a specialist’s background, too.”
To make her point about place, Von Glahn enlists works by 14 American composers ranging from the early 19th-century symphonist Anthony Philip Heinrich (“the Beethoven of America,” as one music critic called him) to the modernist Edgard Varese, as well as contemporary composers Steve Reich and FSU’s own Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite has become an American icon in its own right, as have Aaron Copland’s ballets and Duke Ellington’s jazz classics. Others such as William Henry Fry, George Frederick Bristow, Roy Harris, William Grant Still, Robert Starer and Dana Paul Perna, while perhaps not as familiar to the general public, contributed their musical postcards of America as a special and distinctive place inevitably morphing from an Eden-like frontier of seemingly endless natural beauty to a world-class urbanized nation.
“I wanted to show the changing sense of what distinguishes America, both to the world and to itself,” Von Glahn said of her choices. “And, for me, it all started with Charles Ives.”
Variously described as a noisemaker, a musical iconoclast, a composer marching to his own beat, most recently critics have called Ives “the father of modern American music.” Ives converted a pastiche of familiar American tunes into tradition-shattering music that championed both his nation and its culture, Von Glahn said.
“He is a national figure who wears his ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ label proudly.”
Bridging the late 19th-century chasm between Victorian righteousness and modern relativism, Ives stood firmly in both camps as a successful insurance executive by day while composing what one reviewer called “exceptionally inventive” place pieces and other musical works in his after hours.
Von Glahn grew up in New York City, but her family spent several of her early childhood years vacationing in the area of Connecticut where Ives had lived. While researching her doctoral dissertation on Ives’ work, she decided to visit his hometown of Danbury, Conn., where she was overcome by the familiarity she felt driving through the countryside.
“Without any recollection of having been here before, I thought, my God, this is one of those spooky moments when you think you’ve been somewhere before when you really haven’t but it’s all familiar to you, ” she said. “I recognized a particular white frame house that I passed, and a rock wall that hugged the road. I knew that view of the Housatonic River. It was comforting, exhilarating and unnerving.”
Several weeks later, Von Glahn recounted what she called “the strange experience” to her father, who told her it wasn’t strange at all.
“He said I had been there during the summers when I was a child,” she recalled. “I stayed in a boarding house that was owned by a relative, and I swam in that very river. And I thought, that place had unknowingly imprinted itself on my very young child’s memory. Here was Ives writing about these places in New England, and he was a New Englander and had lived there all his life. How much more important they must have been to him than they were to me.”
At the time, Von Glahn’s focus was on what she saw as Ives’ undeserved reputation as an isolated, unique figure in our national culture. Upon further reflection, she realized that Ives wasn’t really alone. In fact, his music fit into a larger framework of American high-art music and culture as they grew from their early dependency on European models to something more distinctly American, and from an obsession with natural icons to reaching for the rhythms and sites and sounds of modern city life. As the nation changed, she found, American artists including composers responded accordingly.
Limiting her study to what she called “instrumental music of the high-art tradition,” Von Glahn included only works by composers who exhibited a strong investment in specific environments that inspired them. Several chose Niagara Falls, for instance. But their approach varied greatly depending on the time when they were writing and the composer’s particular agenda.
As the first important American icon, the falls were a favorite subject for 19th-century Hudson River School painters eager to broadcast what was unique about this country.
“These idyllic scenes where it looked like the Garden of Eden were unlike anything people knew of anywhere else,” Von Glahn said. “It also dawned on me that at the same time these paintings were being created there was an early 19th-century composer, Anthony Philip Heinrich, who had written a piece entitled The War of the Elements and the Thundering of Niagara. It struck me that it wasn’t just the visual artists who were commandeering the important natural icons. Here was a composer doing the same thing.”
Digging deeper, she found two other symphonies written within 50 yearsone by William Frye and another by George Bristowthat also had Niagara in the title. In his work written at the end of the century, Bristow suggested religious connotations that others had imposed upon the falls earlier, Von Glahn said.
“This is not whimsy, not just caprice. They were using that icon for very important, very specific reasons. It changed for each one of these composers, but in every case they felt that by using Niagara in the title they could suggest something unique about the country.”
By 1960, Von Glahn said, the image of the falls had changed radically. In his Niagara Falls Suite, Ferde Grofé no longer saw the falls as sacred or sublime. Instead, for him this famous American landmark had become a giant outdoor generator of electricity for an industrialized nation’s insatiable need for power.
“Now it’s no longer the icon of America, an object so fearsome and enormous that people couldn’t get their minds around it,” she said. “It’s Niagara the hydroelectric power plant. And you get that in Grofe’s music.”
In a similar vein, Von Glahn sketches out a transition in the identity of place among succeeding generations of American composers from celebrations of woods, waterfalls and wilderness to urban settings and their human inhabitants. Particularly since Charles Ives–whose piece From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose is based on the dismayed yet religiously comforted reactions of New York City “L” commuters after hearing of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915people have become essential players in the cultural landscape.
Duke Ellington’s Harlem Air Shaft is inspired by the sounds and smells of a big-city apartment complex. Aaron Copland’s Quiet City uses the haunting notes of English horns, trumpets and strings to underscore the isolation and personal longing that often accompany urban living.
Steve Reich carries the theme the farthest in City Life and New York Counterpoint, snapshots of millennial America built around the speech rhythms and cadences of urban residents. Reich’s music was influenced by everything from Bach, Stravinsky and Debussy to Balinese gamelan, African drumming and jazz, but it is wholly American.
Zwilich’s place piece–Symphony No. 4 (The Gardens)—written in 1999 to honor Michigan State University’s botanical gardens—fits right in with Reich’s work as undeniably American, if unconsciously so, Von Glahn said. Inspired by the gardens’ exhibit of threatened and endangered plant species, it also reflects how we as a people have come to understand the need to preserve and protect our natural places rather than simply stand in awe or exploit them.
And how does one judge these American composers of place? Is there any kind of musical yardstick that applies to their work? Do some deserve our ear more than others?
“Judgments? I’m not interested necessarily in the abstract quality of a work except that I wouldn’t have written about schlock. The music would not have been complex and rich enough to be rewarding.”
Von Glahn does admit to what she called “my natural inclination toward 20th century music and art.” Even as a teenager working in a library, she was drawn to volumes devoted to modern art. She pored over books filled with the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro and Jackson Pollack. “Where things were most ambiguous and open to interpretation,” she said. “And somehow, it spoke to me. I loved it.”
Just as she loved at first hearing the work of Charles Ives.
His music vibrates with meaning, she said, her eyes widening at the memory. “It spoke to me. It turns out it doesn’t necessarily speak to a lot of people instinctively.”
Even so, Von Glahn notes that she has waiting lists for her classes in 20th-century music. And more thesis and dissertation students interested in 20th-century topics than she can handle.
“I think it’s a matter of many people having never heard this music,” she said. “ They don’t know what to do with it. Just listen without judgment.”
But fire engines, sirens in a symphony? Dance-hall tunes? Sleigh bells, a lion’s roar? None is particularly weird, she observed. “The whole world of sounds is out there. We hear those sounds, and we live among them. They are all part of our environment, and they locate us. They give us a sense of place. And that, to me, is fascinating.”