Eclectic Styles and American Classics

“In the 1970s and '80s it took a lot of courage for a young composer to write pop-influenced tonality,” says Brian Connelly, a guest artist on NOVA’s February 12 concert. “It was a sure-fire way to be dismissed and derided by the serious critics and the powerful academicians who could make or break a career.” Yet in the early 1970s, two young composers in Michigan chose to take such a risk, forging a style deeply influenced by ragtime. Connelly, a close friend of the two, will bring their music to the stage of Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

William Bolcom was born in Seattle in 1938; William Albright was born in Gary, Indiana, six years later. Both were trained in the modern style of composition then in favor at American universities and conservatories, had lessons in Paris with Olivier Messiaen (a composer featured in NOVA’s December 4 concert), and were hired in the early 1970s to teach at the University of Michigan. It was around this time that ragtime, an old strain of American music, began to see a revival. While living in New York in the late ‘60s, Bolcom had begun to play and record ragtime, and he would soon begin to write his own. Albright, too, began to experiment with the form.

The popularity of ragtime at its inception, around the turn of the twentieth century, is best attested by an anecdote about commercial music sales. When Scott Joplin published his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, musicians typically sold the publication rights for a one-time lump sum of $25. Unsatisfied with this arrangement, Joplin negotiated a deal that would earn him a 1¢ royalty on each copy sold. “The Maple Leaf Rag” sold only 400 copies in its first year; by 1909, however, the work had sold well over a million copies, and it would provide Joplin with a comfortable income until his death in 1917. The syncopated rhythms and infectious melodies were a major precursor to jazz, yet the popularity of ragtime itself would wane with time.

Bolcom and Albright’s interest in ragtime dovetailed with a sudden spike in mainstream popularity the genre experienced in the early 1970s. This was due, in large part, to the inclusion of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in the soundtrack of the 1974 film The Sting. Suddenly, a syncopated style that had been the domain of black musicians at the end of the nineteenth century was sharing space on the pop music charts with the biggest hits of rock and roll. As Connelly notes, to write music influenced by an idiom that was so popular (in both senses of the term) was essentially at odds with the academic musical tendencies of the time. 

Connelly sees in the work of both Bolcom and Albright a tradition stretching back much farther, to one of the most important modernists in the history of American music, Charles Ives. The son of a music teacher, Ives grew up steeped in the musical traditions of the American North-East. He was born in Danbury, CT, worked as an organist in New Haven, attended Yale, and had a successful career as an insurance salesman. Through it all, he developed one of the most unusual voices American music has ever known. The upcoming NOVA concert will feature two of Ives’s works: the Piano Trio, and the Violin Sonata No. 4. Both Bolcom and Albright, Connelly told me, are, like Ives, “astoundingly literate. They fully absorb the traditions of––but are not limited by––the musical ‘establishment' of their times.” And, like Ives, both “put enormous pressure on themselves to write the most imaginative, emotionally direct, and exquisitely crafted music.”

The upcoming NOVA concert will also include Albright’s “Hymne,” from his Flights of Fancy for organ, and Bolcom’s Black Host. Inscribed in the score of Black Host is a Lord Russell quote: “In the daily lives of most men and women, fear plays a greater part than hope: they are more filled with the thought of possessions that others may take away from them, than of the joy that they might create in their own lives and in the lives with which they come in contact. It is not so that life should be lived.” At a time when fear threatens the very cultural diversity upon which both our nation and our arts have depended for so long, both Russell’s quote and this concert are a reminder that America’s identity––artistic and otherwise––has always been a reflection of the rich variety of her people.

––Kamala Schelling