Classical Music in the USA – 9 – American classical music going forward

Woman holding music player listening with earbuds home, plant in background

Until now, my survey of the history of American classical music has been in large part a recitation of specific composers and what they did and when. I had the luxury of reporting on history’s existing judgment, and the freedom to occasionally suggest, openly or by inference, that some composers are more important than the consensus opinion, and others less so.

Now we come to uncharted waters. I want to suggest to you four trends that appear important to me, keeping in mind I am no oracle.

  1. Movie music is often classical music. In the middle 1900s, when movie music was generally performed by symphonic musicians, it was often considered a cheap knockoff of “the real thing.” Even now, writers of concert programs and CD liner notes expect us to be surprised that movie scores by Prokofiev and Honegger and Copland sound perfectly good in the concert hall. Hollywood composers like Erich Korngold and Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann all yearned for concert hall acceptance. Today we have an opposite example. Kevin Kaska (1972- ), set out to be a soundtrack composer, wrote cinematic overtures to get noticed, and now finds himself in demand for the concert hall. Perhaps the proliferation of non-classical soundtracks provides a new backdrop that spotlights the classical musicality of other scores. I also note that we now get more classical music from CDs, streaming and radio than from the concert hall, which makes it easier to hear, for example, the music of video games as classical music.
  2. Fusion and third stream efforts proliferate. When George Gershwin and others ventured to write jazzy music for symphony orchestra, critics felt entitled to subject their efforts to an ethics investigation. Now, impeachment having failed, we are free to evaluate the latest effort simply on its merits. So we have Jake Shimabukuro (1976- ) commissioning an ukulele concerto from Byron Yasui. We have Mark O’Connor (1961- ) composing a classical fiddle concerto, while classical bassist Edgar Meyer (1960- ) jams with Bela Fleck and composes what amounts to bluegrass chamber music. Fleck and Meyer and their friends also perform Bach. As for the original concept of third stream music, another product of that thinking has been fusion jazz, and classically-inflected progressive rock. Members of Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, who had been doing this from 1970, have lately been dying off, but we see their descendants in American bands like Snarky Puppy, The Bad Plus, and Animals as Leaders, which came out of Dallas, Minneapolis and Washington D.C., respectively.
  3. The orchestra of the future will be able to play anything. The concept of the wind band, an orchestra without strings, is nothing new. But there has been a proliferation of university band programs, of recordings by college bands, of classical repertory arranged for band, and of band concerts that effortlessly cross over from classical to jazz to rock. At the same time we have seen the Kronos Quartet and the Turtle Island String Quartet performing classical works and jazz on the same program. In the 19th century the rapid improvement of orchestral skills had a great impact on what was composed. It’s going to happen again, I think, as we get symphony orchestras that can play jazz. If the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble can play “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s not so hard to imagine a future New York Philharmonic playing Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
  4. The balkanization of music formats reduces our shared experience. In the late 1960s and pre-disco early seventies – I graduated from high school in 1971 – there was still top 40 radio, even though the stations in Baltimore and Washington D.C. were down to 20 current hits or fewer, and the station I worked for in Annapolis competed by playing a even shorter playlist. The point about “top 40,” or whatever the actual number, was that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, only a rock station. WCAO Baltimore and WPGC, the Washington D.C. station, played electric rock, acoustic rock, soul, even country and novelty records, provided they were monster hits. When I was in high school WCAO played Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Chicago, Kinks, but also “MacArthur Park” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Nine to Five” and all the top Motown. By the end of the 1970s this had changed. There was adult contemporary, urban contemporary, album-oriented rock, full-on progressive, and disco. Even “oldies” stations split into pre-Woodstock oldies, classic rock, and “the greatest hits of the seventies, eighties and nineties.” We didn’t know what we had until it was gone, but no longer could you be sure your fellow high school students were listening to substantially the same music you were. Now it’s more so. People listen to music streams that discern personal tastes and gradually produce a You format, uniquely yours, by extension not necessarily similar to the music streams of many or any of your friends. This breaks down format barriers, which can be good, but it also breaks down shared experience, which can be bad.

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