The history of classical music in America is as innovative and diverse as the people who form the fabric of our country.
From the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the minimalist musings of Steve Reich, over the past century American classical music has grown to encompass many different styles and identities. Perhaps its greatest hallmark lies in its unwavering sense of possibility—as wide-ranging as American music may be, it is united by the thrill of discovery.
In celebration of Independence Day, we asked each of our Second Inversion hosts to share one of their favorite pieces from an American composer.
Florence Beatrice Price: Fantasie Negre (Sono Luminus)
Lara Downes, piano
Fantasie Negre is such a cool piece, a fascinating mix of romantic era Western European influence and African American spiritual—it’s almost as if Liszt visited the American South and immediately rushed to a piano to interpret the melodies he heard. Fantastic gospel-like moments seep through dazzling displays of technique. It’s even more impressive when you think about all the things Price had to overcome just to compose: a black woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, she attended New England Conservatory in 1906 but had to pass as Mexican in order to avoid abuse. Though she returned to Arkansas and married, she moved her family to Chicago to flee lynchings; her husband eventually became abusive and she filed for divorce, a rare step for a woman of her time. Despite these difficulties, her prodigious talent produced 300 works in her lifetime.
– Geoffrey Larson
Steve Reich: Come Out (Nonesuch)
Daniel Hamm, voice
In 1966, Steve Reich took a four-second audio clip and spun it into one of the most harrowing musical works of the 20th century. Come Out takes as its basis a mere scrap from an analog tape interview of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager who was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1964 (one of what would come to be known as the Harlem Six). In the clip, Hamm describes the horrific police brutality he faced behind bars. But the police would not take him to the hospital unless he was bleeding—so he ripped open one of his bruises and “let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”
Come out to show them. Reich gradually loops, phases, and transforms these words beyond recognition over the course of 13 minutes, transporting the listener beyond language and into the dizzying and devastating reality of the situation at hand. Over 50 years later, we find ourselves still spinning in the same tape loop, Hamm’s words still echoing in the race relations of today. – Maggie Molloy
John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White (New Albion)
Barbara Chapman, harp; Apollo Quartet and Strings
Many artists have long recognized that one of the United States’ most powerful attributes is its natural landscape and the massive scale thereof. However, this essential characteristic of the country has been something that many American composers have neglected (or at least struggled) to incorporate effectively into their music, focusing instead on human-centric cultural or traditional elements.
John Luther Adams breaks that mold, using the beauty, power, complexity, and scale of the American landscape itself as the inspiration for much of his work. Going further, Adams lived in Alaska, that state that perhaps best encapsulates the awesome power of the American landscape, for many years. He has managed to forge a unique and engrossing musical language that transports listeners to mountaintops, ocean shores, and glacial snowfields. – Seth Tompkins
Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)
Nico Muhly is an American contemporary composer whose mission is to gnaw at the edges of classical & rock/pop. Mothertongue is a fun example of how he melds genres, combining the intimacy and beauty of chamber music with a conceptual pastiche that adds fidgety energy to the mix. In the first movement, “Archive,” Muhly accomplishes this by incorporating the beauty of Abby Fischer’s voice speak-singing a jumble of numbers and places which, turns out, are all addresses where Muhly & Fischer have lived.
In “Hress,” the frenetic third movement, found sounds (pouring coffee, crunching cereal, etc.) create a morning routine. Don’t expect “Hress” to evoke a lazy Sunday sunrise, though. As the music picks up it’s clear these are the sounds of someone either hungover or extremely jet-legged going through the motions to get out the door and on with the day. Mothertongue proves Muhly has a knack for finding the sweet spot between concept and emotional connection; he’s corroding classical boundaries and inviting the next generation to explore his musical Pangaea. – Rachele Hales
Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy (New Amsterdam)
Rivers of Sound Orchestra
I love this music! I’ve never heard anything like it. ElSaffar has fused together a lot of different musical traditions in this, but what stands out to me most are the jazz and the Middle Eastern sounds. ElSaffar is the child of an Iraqi immigrant and an American. He was born outside of Chicago, and grew up listening to his dad’s jazz collection. His first musical training was in a Lutheran church choir. Iraqi music came later for him—in 2001 he used the money he got from winning a jazz trumpet competition in to go to Iraq and study something called maqam music, and he spent the next five years studying with Iraqi masters in the Middle East and Europe. Anyway, I love how these traditions come together in his music so effortlessly to make something new. – Dacia Clay
Another version of this article was published on Second Inversion in 2018.