What is American Musical Culture

ImageI recently found myself engaged in a conversation with another musician about American musical culture. We started out talking about classical music, but soon observed that classical music was no longer at the center of American musical culture. I say at the center because early in the twentieth century when large numbers immigrated to America from Europe, they brought their Western European art music culture with them, and this culture permeated many aspects of American musical life, from fledging symphony orchestras, to light operatic fare, to the programs of concert bands directed by the likes of Sousa and Fillmore.

With the 20th century advancing towards its conclusion, and the dawning of the 21st century, America was being increasingly populated by immigrants who did not hail from the Western European art music culture. With this new generation of Americans came ethnic music traditions that culturally identified a diverse population. There was no single dominant musical tradition, as had been the case with the Europeans, but a rich tapestry of more traditional and popular genres. As a result, people tended to less frequently identify with a single continental tradition, but instead with national and regional cultures.

The question then arose, what is American musical culture? Musicians as diverse as Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Steve Reich were named as representatives of an American musical culture. But they alone could not represent one national culture, both because they were too diverse and because they underrepresented, or failed to represent too many American ethnicities. In the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Russians showed their national pride by showcasing the music of Tchaikovsky. Though this is certainly not all there is to Russian musical culture, it is, none the less, a musical tradition that Russians in general identify themselves with. In the realm of classical music, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland and perhaps even Charles Ives once held similar prestige with Americans, but in the mixture of musics being actively made in America today, such unification seems unattainable, and cultural identification with the traditions of Western European art music upon which all of those composers depended for their works, is increasingly uncommon.

With no single entity with which to identify as a nation, what is American musical culture? To say that American musical culture is defined by diversity is true, but inadequate. Such a definition does not give cultural identify much of a chance. Instead, I propose that American musical culture is comprised of four identifiable idioms. These can be broadly identified as ethnic, classical, popular, and jazz. Any definition of American musical culture that avoids any of these seems conspicuously incomplete. To the extent that these cultures interact and influence each other, there is at least a partial unification between them—a unification that enriches each without sacrificing their integrity. While some would prefer one would prevail as the defining national culture, it is likely that all cultures benefit from their coexistence within the plentiful cultural environment that is America. If there can be one unifying element it would be this: it is all music, and people everywhere express what cannot otherwise be expressed in their music. Those expressions unify us all.


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