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Composing the American Frontier


A nation's topography can be linked to its identity and to cultural expression in the arts. In the case of the U.S. — a vast and variegated land plentifully supplied with open space and sky — the "West" has exercised a central fascination and influence. Composers of American concert music, however, were late to discover an iconic West. It wasn't until the inter-war decades that Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris effectively defined a Western idiom of symphonic speech. It was — and is — as spare as the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Mojave Desert. Shunning the cushioned textures of traditional European practice, the musical idea of the West is lean, unadorned, uncluttered. The voices of American chords are widely spaced. American textures are simplified. American harmonies do not drive toward an urgent goal; rather, they relax toward a condition of pastoral stasis or nostalgia.

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Joseph Horowitz