The Austin Chronicle

Our Country Mapped in Music

Understanding the cartography of the concert hall

By Robert Faires, March 19, 2004, Arts

You begin below the Mason-Dixon Line, where dusty, red clay roads cut through the rolling farmlands of black earth, and lush, green woodlands are broken by broad brown rivers. Traveling northward, you wind through the Appalachian Mountains, landing in the wilds of western Pennsylvania as winter releases its grip on the land and the mist that lingers around the foothills burns away to reveal forests of dark green and pastures like soft carpets. Turning to the east, you make your way into the City That Never Sleeps, ending your travels among rivers of traffic flowing through concrete canyons, steel spires scraping the sky.

The astonishing thing about this journey through the eastern United States – besides the fact that you can make it in less than two hours without ever leaving your chair – is that you're seeing all those landscapes with your ear. George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Austin composer Donald Grantham have managed to evoke the distinctive characters of New York City, Appalachia, and the South, respectively, through music, using tools of their trade – melody, rhythm, tempo, harmonics, and the like – essentially to "map" these parts of our country.

In programming Grantham's Southern Harmony, Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, and Gershwin's Second Rhapsody together for Austin Symphony Orchestra's March 19-20 concert (along with Maurice Ravel's not technically American but decidedly American jazz-inspired Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major), music director Peter Bay has given audiences an opportunity to hear in a concentrated way how some American composers have described an American sense of place through a musical score.

Of course, these artists were following in a well-established tradition of painting landscapes musically – think of the lush countryside realized by Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony – and in Grantham's view, their efforts are essentially like those of their predecessors in Europe. "I think Copland and Grofé in Appalachian Spring and The Grand Canyon Suite were doing something very similar to Beethoven: musically depicting and characterizing specific locales and specific seasons or states," he says. Still, many composers in this country, Copland foremost among them, were intent on finding ways to express what was specific and unique about America in musical terms. Gershwin was one whose search led him to the city, and his music, says Grantham, "seems to be more of a reflection of his own time and place: urban jazz/popular music in the Twenties and Thirties."

Bay agrees that jazz was significant in giving many American composers a handle on a national sound. "I think it actually starts with jazz. Obviously, what predates jazz was spirituals, songs of enslaved Americans, Native Americans, [but] jazz seems to have been the kind of music associated with America that not only took hold here but took hold internationally."

Jazz ... It was hot, it was new, it had those varied rhythms, that percussive propulsion, that looseness and constant reinvention with musicians changing elements of the music and making it up as they went along – and what was all that if not American? Gershwin was able to use that musical form's qualities to reflect those qualities in us as a nation, specifically as we built a modern metropolis. The Second Rhapsody, which Gershwin thought was one of the best things he'd ever written, was "meant to be a portrait of New York City as an emerging skyscraper city," notes Bay. It originated as music for a movie called Delicious, which featured an eight-minute orchestral sequence. "It backs up a panorama of New York City," says the conductor. "In fact, the opening few notes are supposed to mimic the rivets of skyscraper jackhammers. At one time, Gershwin was thinking of calling it Rhapsody in Rivets."

Jazz was great for mapping the city, but what about the rest of America? What about those rural landscapes, the rolling rivers and green valleys, the great plains, the ranges and deserts of the West? Composers attempting to capture those regions in music turned to the past, to music that was popular when those parts of the country were being settled. For example, Copland, says Bay, "was one of the people who, in trying to define an American sound, basically did what Dvorak did, what Smetana did, what many other nationalistic composers did: He turned to folk music. Cowboy songs. Hymn tunes. Many of these ideas came from folk-song books. He had these in his library and if he was to write a ballet about Billy the Kid or a rodeo, he would open up these books and look for cowboy songs or Western songs and made them part of the piece."

That approach is the same one Donald Grantham took in composing Southern Harmony. His 1998 work – which in just a few years has become one of the most performed pieces in the wind ensemble repertory today – is drawn from an old songbook by that title, published in 1835 by one William "Singin' Billy" Walker. "A choice collection of tunes, hymns, psalms, odes, and anthems," as its title page reads, the book was stocked "with groceries and tobacco" in general stores across the American frontier, where it sold 600,000 copies prior to the Civil War. Grantham found the feel of the region in the sounds of the songs from that time, with their peculiar use of the shape note approach, nontraditional harmonies, and "modal or pentatonic rather than major or minor scales." In creating his orchestral piece, he included original tunes from the songbook but presented them in various ways: in a diatonic fashion (the first movement "is in pure A major, with no chromatic alterations," he says); in motifs derived from the original tune but with a complementary musical texture presented simultaneously with the shape note tune ("'Exhilaration' is an old revival tune that sounds like country fiddling at a square dance. I set it for three solo violins with the rest of the orchestra providing clapping accompaniment"); and in combining shape note tunes ("the final movement, combining 'The Soldier's Return' and 'Thorny Desert,' is the most extended movement and the one that gets furthest from shape tradition").

As Grantham makes clear, it isn't just the music you choose that maps a musical landscape, it's what you do with that music. Bay points out that part of Copland's success in creating an aural sense of vastness, the kind we associate with Monument Valley and Kansas prairies and Appalachian Mountains, can be traced to the way he spaces notes in a chord. "It's often called open spacing," says the conductor. "You have a plain old C-major triad: G-G-E. He might put the E in the bass, the C about an octave and a half higher, and then the G could be up in the stratosphere. So you get a plain old C-major chord, but the way it's spaced sounds new and open. And I've heard it said that the open space of the chords reflects the open space of our country."

Indeed, there's a majesty and a grandeur in a Copland chord that instantly conjures images of the great outdoors – and of nowhere but America. And from the moment he first sounded it, its power to evoke spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties has been embraced almost universally by the public and his colleagues alike. "He ought to be credited with creating what we now know as the symphonic sound of the West," says Bay. "Before Copland, no one was really writing in this way. Since Copland, every single Western score in the movies or on television is aping Copland. Elmer Bernstein in The Magnificent Seven. Even someone like Dmitri Tiomkin, who's Russian-born. Where does he get the sound from? He got it from Copland, copying Copland's methods of using simple triads and just ordering them in this way that it creates this Western sound."

Size matters in discussing America as mapped by its composers just as it does in discussing the country geographically. So said Copland himself in one of the many comments he made about American music during his lifetime. In his biography of the composer, Howard Pollack quotes him as saying, "It's very hard to define the kind of American national music we created. We used actual American musical materials, and jazz-derived things were a strong part of it. But more important was a kind of atmosphere, a very direct singing quality suggestive of a very big country and expansive emotions. No little miniatures. We attempted to write big-sounding, healthy-sounding music somehow reflective of that aspect of America." end story

The Austin Symphony performs Donald Grantham's Southern Harmony March 19 & 20, Friday & Saturday, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, visit

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