ALL AMERICAN MUSIC: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century by John Rockwell

ALL AMERICAN MUSIC: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Twenty brief essays by the eclectic N. Y. Times music reviewer (""I new love all kinds of music, and want to share that love as best I can"")--each one focusing on a living, usually-young American composer, but branching out (with mixed results) to more general culture-issues and art-trends. Rockwell begins with four influential elder statesmen: serialist Ernst Krenek, representing the European emigrants who ""encouraged a pedantic, rootless academicism in a whole generation of American composers""; Prof. Milton Babbitt, whose own work transcends the clichÉs of serialism but who, with others, has inspired a ""mountain of unlistenable academic exercises""; Elliott Carter, whom Rockwell admires but twits for careerism, ""a lack of inner clarity and expressive directness,"" and ""obsessive knottiness' (his success suggests the ""too ready equation in our culture between complexity and excellence""); and John Cage--patron-saint of all the loner-eccentrics whom Rockwell goes on to salute. Among them: mixed-media pioneer Robert Ashley; now-popular ""minimalist"" Philip Glass, a longtime Rockwell enthusiasm (""a steady evolution has helped define his public image and lend coherence to his work in a way that vacillating eclectics can never achieve""); ""performance artist"" Laurie Anderson, a trendy Soho chanter whose talk/song texts contain ""abrupt, glancing intimations of the erotic, the political and the cosmic""; electronic composer David Behrman; ""environmental composer"" Max Neuhaus (water whistles in swimming pools); and soundtrack-artist Walter Murch, whose track for THX 1138 is ""a floating cloud of realistic and electronically altered or generated effects"" Unsurprisingly, then, more conventional serious music gets relatively little attention here: Rockwell likes the feisty neo-Romanticism of Ralph Shapey (but seems to like his bitter anti-Establishment self-isolation more than the music); David Del Tredici's successful return to ""unashamed tonality"" gets faint praise--along with musings on the dangers/joys of writing to please an audience. And Rockwell is best, in fact, on the problematic artistry of jazz/pop creators--Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, Latin dance-music king Eddie Palmieri (with intriguing Mozart parallels)--while paeans to rock-artists Neil Young and The Talking Heads are less persuasive. (And a piece on Stephen Sondheim is by far the weakest in the book: vague, wishy-washy, seemingly under-informed on Broadway-musical history.) In all: densely allusive, frequently idiosyncratic short-takes--unstylish but informative, occasionally provocative fare for those already familiar with Rockwell's territory.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 1983
Publisher: Knopf