What is the American Sound? An inside look at Aspen Music Festival’s summer theme | AspenTimes.com

What is the American Sound? An inside look at Aspen Music Festival’s summer theme

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Another large crowd gathered in August 2018 at Benedict Music Tent to hear the final concert of the Aspen Music Festival.
Photo courtesy Grittani Creative

When Aaron Copland sat down to write the ballet “Appalachian Spring” in 1944, he was already well on his way to creating music that most of us would recognize as iconic examples of an “American Sound.”

He had started his career as a composer with pieces that traded in jagged musical lines. He admired Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud, but he also borrowed from that wellspring of uniquely American music, jazz. Those pieces earned the admiration of academics, but they didn’t pay the bills during the Depression-era 1930s.

Looking for something that would resonate with audiences, he found ways to anchor his music that reached out instead of pushing people away. After a visit south of the border, he wrote El Salon Mexico in 1935, a fantasy that quoted liberally from Mexican dancehall tunes. Soon came the ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo,” which riffed on familiar cowboy songs, tweaking the tunes to modernize them, and framed them in open harmonies and snappy rhythms.

But “Appalachian Spring” would be different. Playing with the intervals and harmonies of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” Copland opened the work by creating a unique chord, two simple triads superimposed. Building up from the bottom, it’s A, C-sharp, E (which anyone who’s played guitar will recognize as an A-major chord), over which he suspends a B, then an E, and finally a G-sharp.

Because of how that chord builds so slowly, each additional note rings against what we already have heard. It’s dissonant, but our ears welcome it, like jazz, because it’s unfolding so logically. What we hear is vastly more complex than how it looks on paper. This is why the “American sound,” more than just cowboy songs and Shaker tunes, uses simple musical ideas and opens them up to create a spaciousness that lets us absorb it as something at once familiar and exciting.

Here in Aspen we have heard the music of contemporaries who shared Copland’s American sensibilities as the music festival celebrates the theme “Being American.” Among them were Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Samuel Barber’s concertos for violin, cello and piano, and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” They all feel inherently American.

You can also hear echoes of Copland’s open, brash style in classic film scores for westerns including “Red River” (Dmitri Tiompkin), “The Magnificent Seven” (Elmer Bernstein) and a long list of Italian made “Spaghetti westerns” scored by Ennio Morricone, who showed that this “American sound” could travel. It’s easy to hear Copland’s influence in John Williams’ music, as in scores for the “Star Wars” franchise, “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman.”

But it would be a mistake to limit the “American sound” to this.

For one thing, minimalism. Its gradually expanding forms and reliance (at least at first) on consonance rather than harsh dissonances fit right into the same origins. This form of music from American composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams in the 1970s and 1980s could join jazz and Copland’s style as distinctly American. (Of those three, Adams, who once called himself “an American vernacular composer,” has strayed the furthest beyond those original confines.)

Even more significantly, music from new composers over the past several decades has come from those who, unlike the Eastern Jewish immigrants Copland and Gershwin, openly embrace their cultural origins. Vijay Ayer’s jazz and Indian backgrounds fused in “Radhe, Radhe: Rites of Holi,” heard July 27, and you could hear Vivian Fung’s Chinese and Southeast Asian history in a new quartet played by the American String Quartet on July 24. Bassist and composer Edgar Meyer’s “New Piece for Orchestra” christened the music tent for the summer June 28 with jazz and bluegrass roots showing through his classical style.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what it is about this music that feels American. Maybe it’s the freedom and swing of jazz. Maybe it’s an American directness, or a reflection of how un-self-conscious we can be about our origins when we are at our best. But we can hear it, clearly.

For further examples, tune your ears for the Aspen Philharmonic’s Aug. 7 concert when Nicola Benedetti plays jazz great Wynton Marsalis’ violin concerto on a program that includes Copland’s majestic Symphony No. 3. In “Of Love and Longing,” to be heard Aug. 10 on guitarist Sharon Isbin’s recital with soprano Jessica Rivera, composer Richard Danielpour channels his Persian heritage in setting the words of the poet Rumi to music of erotic exoticism.

Bringing things full circle on Aug. 13, violinist Robert McDuffie, a longtime champion of American music, plays John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata. This early work by the son of a New York Philharmonic concertmaster has overtones of Copland — whose original version of “Appalachian Spring” is on the same program. The links continue.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years.