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Topic: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

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  1. #1

    Question Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Hey folks - I got a prompt from someone to start a thread here about "Orchestral Americana" and posit a few assertions and questions - to see where other people "draw the line". I wrote a quick blurb about it - or at least my take on its origins and extentions - on my web site. It was an attempt to answer a question I get asked quite a bit, but as usual, it has done as much to spur more inquiries as it has answered.

    So here are some questions off the top of my head"
    • Does an orchestral piece only qualify as "Americana" if it draws from the well-known catalog of patriotic melodies and themes?
    • Is it limited to tonal music only (so none of Aaron Copland's serial music qualifies)?
    • Does it have to be created within a certain period, or are there compositional/arrangement techniques that say "Americana"?
    • Does John Phillip Souza's music count as orchestral Americana?
    • Do you have to be an American to write "Americana"?
    • What makes a contemporary orchestral work *not* Americana to you?


    I'm sure there are other (perhaps better) questions that can (and should) be asked - but now that I've been asked to post this starter, I'm really curious about what people think. It seems that a lot of film music would fit comfortably within the realm of "Americana" depending on how the definition is chosen, whether or not the stylistic association is intentional. Perhaps we should broaden the conversation to ask if people even think about musical styles any more when they compose...

    ...thoughts?
    Houston Haynes - Titan Line Music

  2. #2

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Hmmm... first I'd ask what exactly "Americana" is... but it seems you do that with your questions really And if you have to ask... if there is no set definition, I don't see any reason you can not decide where to draw the line yourself... After all, you must define it before it will have much of a meaning.

    What I've always found funny is how some famous American patriotic tunes have come from other countries... like America's national anthem tune is believed to have come from ... Britain!

    Edit: (some more things to say) ... I don't think anyone sits down and says "Now I'm going to write some Americana!" Certainly one could say "I hope I write something original," or "I hope I can create my own 'style' " or "I hope I sound like John Williams". I think all composers strive to write something somewhat original, because if they don't... well, then they're not really writing, they're copying. However, if it were totally original, it would probably sound horrible, i.e. you'd still use our good old 12-tone key system, you'd probably use harmony in some fashion, etc.

    If I were to define "Americana" ... (in correlation with your 6 bullet points)

    1) Yes, though "well-known" would be subjective/relative to the listener
    2) No
    3) No and some of the time (your use of the word "or" doesn't make sense to me)
    4) Yes
    5) No (assuming by "American" you simply mean legal American citizen ... especially since most Americans are really from Europe)
    6) Strictly non-Americana would be music that goes against #1, which is the most important. If a piece of music draws up imagery of, say, China, it would not be Americana. This is again totally up to the perception of the listener of course.

    In this way, if the Marriage of Figaro overture should someday become the American national anthem (we can only hope), and it caused future generations to think of the country America, it would become Americana.

    This also implies that "Americana" to one is not the same "Americana" to another, just as "good music" to one is not the same as "good music" to another. But this is the case anyway since there is no set definition of "Americana"

    There we go
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

  3. #3

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    "The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is
    be an American and then write any kind of music you wish."

    Virgil Thomson
    US composer, conductor, & music critic (1896 - 1989)

  4. #4

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Quote Originally Posted by SeanHannifin
    What I've always found funny is how some famous American patriotic tunes have come from other countries... like America's national anthem tune is believed to have come from ... Britain!
    Ha - and a drinking song at that!




    So the Virgil Thompson quote and the quote about the teachings of Nadia Boulanger might be construed to be at odds. Do you really *have* to be an American to compose in an Americana style - or does it have enough 'legs' today for it to be identifiable regardless of who wrote it?

    On the flip side - there are people that argue Gershwin's "American in Paris" is not truly Americana, per se, because the compositional elements are so distinctly European.
    Houston Haynes - Titan Line Music

  5. #5

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Quote Originally Posted by Houston Haynes
    So the Virgil Thompson quote and the quote about the teachings of Nadia Boulanger might be construed to be at odds.
    By my definition, Virgil Thompson would be wrong...

    Hey, nice to see another website that uses Mambo
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

  6. #6

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Quote Originally Posted by SeanHannifin
    By my definition, Virgil Thompson would be wrong...
    I didn't say he was right, Sean... lol. But hey, ya gotta admit he has some seniority...

    Personally, I lean in the direction that there is no "American" music, per se.

    I think Houston raises the most salient of inquiries when he wonders "if people even think about musical styles any more when they compose..."

    David
    www.DavidSosnowski.com
    .

  7. #7

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Quote Originally Posted by etLux
    I didn't say he was right, Sean... lol. But hey, ya gotta admit he has some seniority...
    Well, just by my definition, he's wrong It depends on what definition you use. It just seems to me he's defining it differently, which isn't inherently wrong by itself.

    Quote Originally Posted by etLux
    I think Houston raises the most salient of inquiries when he wonders "if people even think about musical styles any more when they compose..."
    I'm certain some composers do, especially film composers when the director is looking for a certain style. However, "Americana" is probably not one of the commonly understood 'styles' because it is not currently well-defined.
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

  8. #8

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    Quote Originally Posted by SeanHannifin
    3) No and some of the time (your use of the word "or" doesn't make sense to me)
    Well - my question pointed more to "is Americana defined by a period in which it's composed or by thematic choice?"

    Quote Originally Posted by SeanHannifin
    5) No (assuming by "American" you simply mean legal American citizen ... especially since most Americans are really from Europe)
    HA! Another good point - though my family goes back in the US to the time when North Carolina was simply defined as "Carolina" (one of my forebears signed the charter with King Charles himself), I too have no illusions that Americana was not created in a vacuum. In fact - I go to great pains to illustrate how Americana had quite a few direct and indirect international influences - just as the reference music from which "Americana" is so often defined is most often sourced from different countries. (mostly European)

    Quote Originally Posted by SeanHannifin
    6) Strictly non-Americana would be music that goes against #1, which is the most important. If a piece of music draws up imagery of, say, China, it would not be Americana. This is again totally up to the perception of the listener of course.
    A really good point - Americana can be more defined by what it's *not* than what it *is* in my view. I would consider the music to Brokeback Mountain to be very Americana - even through the composer is Argentinian.

    So - another question - does Aaron Copland's "El Salon Mexico" qualify as "Americana"?
    Houston Haynes - Titan Line Music

  9. #9

    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    To me the word "Americana" as applied to music means a fairly specific use of folk/western/country traditional music from American history as its thematic base. So, it's stuff like Copeland's Rodeo, Appalachian Spring and most of Charles Ives' popular works, even if made more dissonant in the end. Not all American writing (in fact, not much of it) is Americana, and Americana doesn't have to be written by an American. I suppose music that simply emulates traditional melodies can also qualify.

  10. #10
    Senior Member rpearl's Avatar
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    Re: Orchestral Americana - where do *you* draw the line?

    It's funny that Copland comes up so much in this topic. As I point out to my students, Copland's music has become "the sound" of what might be called Red State America - it's use in the beef commercials certainly give it that flavor. The irony, of course, is that the music we take for the most American - even the most middle American was written by a gay, Jewish guy, raised in Brooklyn, and educated in France! In a way that IS what makes him American. I think before we define American music, maybe we should define Amercan. Whoo boy, that'll be fun...



    R. Pearl

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