The Bromance of Carlos Chávez and Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (back) and Carlos Chavez (front).

Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez have an odd relationship, most notably in the similarities with their education and career paths. Robert L. Parker states in his article Copland and Chávez: Brothers-in-Arms, “there is no logical reason why their careers should have been so alike,”1 however alike they were and because of those similarities it seems they became each others best friend, at least in their respective music circles. After their initial meeting in the early 1930’s, the two exchanged many letters as well as promoted each others works in their respective  countries. It began with Copland through his ten concerts in the Copland-Sessions where Chávez’ works were performed in New York, London, and Paris. Soon after, Chavez accepted a post in Mexico as music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México where he was then in the position to return the favor to Copland.

However, for the purposes of this class, the importance of this friendship is about more than their similarities in character, education, and career. In 1934, Chávez wrote the following to Copland,

We had this summer a lot of Honegger, Hindemith, etc. etc. stuff here, and let me tell you that there are simple unbearable for me, that are artificial, full of literature, bad literature, and worse possible taste, I cannot stand them any more, they should shut up for ever, so much the better…

I find this personal comment on European literature rather funny. So much of our conversations in class contribute the sense of “high class” music to European culture and styles. Yet, here Copland and Chávez are seeing it as bad, almost grotesque by Chávez’ description. Chávez goes on to say the following:

… I got the Little Symphony [sic]; and let me tell you what I thought: well, here is the real thing, here is our music, my music, the music of our time, of my taste, of my culture, here it is as a simple and natural fact of my own self, as everything belonging to oneself is simple and natural.2

From this I was able to conclude on two things. One, that Coplands and Chávez’ musical tastes derive from their sense of “American Music.” (I am using this term to categorize both North and Central American Music) Although they live in two different countries, they both derive their music from folk traditions that are geographically very close to one-another. This likely contributed to their distaste in the aforementioned composers pieces.

Two, Chávez makes a very conniving argument on the authenticity of music. So much of our class is trying to define authentic music, understanding that we likely never can. However, when music is composed with respect to the origins of its inspiration, the music belongs to itself, simply and naturally. The physical, educational, or cultural background of the composer is less important when he or she is composing out of respect to their sources. If we can allow of that mindset, then the music begins to define itself, not the composer.

 

1 Robert L. Parker, Copland and Chávez: Brother-in-Arms (Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1987), 433.

2 Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Works of an Uncommon Man (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1999), 222.

Sources

  1. Parker, Robert L. “Copland and Chávez: Brothers-in-Arms.” American Music 5, no. 4 (1987): 433-44. doi:10.2307/3051451.
  2. Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland : The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
  3. Schaal, Eric. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/copland.phot0014/. (Accessed November 06, 2017.)

Why 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence might just be about as American as music gets

While considering which art music composer to dive into this week, I became overwhelmed with the infinite details that envelope one of the course’s essential questions,

“What is considered to be true and authentic American music?”.

After nearly 2 1/2 months of research and lectures I still feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of what defines the American sound. Take MacDowell, for example, who felt that he was capturing the true essence of the American landscape by banking on the romanticized notion of the “dying” Native American tribes. Or Gershwin who, while successfully transcribing the musical idiom of jazz into a symphonic setting, borrowed extensively from traditional blues, folk, and jazz genres, creating pieces defined by a diverse and hazy collection of backgrounds and identities. Even artists practicing extended techniques, such as Henry Cowell, relied on East Asian influences amidst his tone clusters and “vanishing chords.”

 

This thought process ultimately led me to the year of 1952, where American experimental composer John Cage composed a piece of music entitled 4’33“. Equally famous as controversial, the piece centers around three movements (intended for any instrument or combination of instruments) that consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. While at a surface level this piece could easily be described as a joke (or even be seen as an early example of what the kids are now calling “memes”), I think that Cage’s intentions behind it could potentially bring the silent work to the forefront of that dreaded and loaded essential question.

Live Performance of 4’33”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4

In a series of revised letters and interviews by Richard Kostelanetz, Cage introduces and defines the purpose behind 4’33”:

“You know that I’ve written a piece called 4’33” which has no sounds of my own making in it…4’33” becomes in performance the sounds of the environment.”

Rather than writing for the sake of originality, Cage composed a piece that does not will any sounds from the composer or the audience, ideally causing both to merely become observers of their surrounding environment. It exemplifies a motion towards the music found behind “nothing” and the acceptance of non-intentional sounds in an artistic setting. While other American composers, including the aforementioned, have borrowed and elaborated on musical elements from a diverse background of sound (often resulting in an unintentional act of cultural appropriation), Cage was the first American composer to create an artistic space that captures an “environment” of sound void of any racial or ethnic infringement.

This is not to say that Cage could consider himself free of any cultural breaches throughout his career (or that this component of composition is intrinsically negative), but 4’33” is an interesting example of a composer temporarily distancing themselves from that reality. Unfortunately, Cage himself deemed 4’33” an unsuccessful attempt at making a non-dualistic structured piece of music (as he created and determined certain set “bounds” of the piece), but it certainly is, if not anything else, a commendable example of how music listeners should take a step back from the world of symphonies and sonatas and enjoy the natural, indeterminate sounds of the world around them.

Sources

Joelyhberg. “John Cage’s 4’33”.” YouTube. December 15, 2010. Accessed November 05, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the sounded self: john Cage and the American experimental tradition. Univ. New Hampshire Press, 1998.