Reasonable minds could easily argue about what constitutes American concert music: definitions, if attempted, often fall to a push/pull against centuries of European tradition. But certain pivot points suggest, at least, that such a thing exists. Specific moments of departure in the 20th Century represented something more than adapting Old World idioms: the expansiveness of Aaron Copland, drawing wide horizons like Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctly American architecture; Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff staking claim as the New York School; the twin minimalisms of Philip Glass and Steve Reich; the new opera movement spearheaded by Robert Ashley; the electric energy of the Bang on a Can composers (Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolf).

From left: Scott Wollschleger, Jason Cady, Paul Pinto © Leilehua Lanzilotti, Nina Roberts, Ben Semisch
From left: Scott Wollschleger, Jason Cady, Paul Pinto
© Leilehua Lanzilotti, Nina Roberts, Ben Semisch

New York has been the seat of serious music in the United States for most of its history. If you could make it at the Academy of Music, Astor Place Opera House, The Town Hall, Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, you could make it anywhere. In a virtual landscape, however, the game has been changed. Online distribution has eclipsed the need of the esteemed concert hall and, to a degree, the importance of locality. But the city is still a bastion of creativity, and such composers as Jason Cady, Paul Pinto and Scott Wollschleger (a Generation Xer and two Y’s) are crafting New York identities, working in themes that are distinctly, inextricably, American, presenting music not in those hallowed halls but in the Brooklyn theatre Roulette and smaller rooms such as JACK, and Spectrum. In their hands, learning from the pilgrims of American music while breaking from the traditions of other lands continues to be key to crafting new national idioms.

From left: Jason Cady, Calder Craig, Alize Rozsnyai in <i>Candy Corn</i> © Reuben Radding
From left: Jason Cady, Calder Craig, Alize Rozsnyai in Candy Corn
© Reuben Radding

‘Minimalism is now over 50 years old, but it is still relevant today’, Cady said. ‘Atonality made so much possible, and by that I don’t just mean obvious developments like serialism, but other music like indeterminism, and even a lot of electronic music. In a similar way, minimalism made a lot of music possible. The tonality of minimalism, as far as generalizations can be made, is more in line with the kind of modal harmony that was happening in jazz at about the same time. Snobs dismiss Philip Glass, but I love his music. His early music was as groundbreaking as Schoenberg, or Partch, or Cage.’

As a co-founder of New York’s Experiments in Opera, Cady has helped to craft space for new approaches to the tradition (even if the organization doesn’t have a space of its own). He came to composing with broad interests and experience, having played in hardcore punk and free jazz bands, learning steel guitar and reeds before settling on synthesizer and long-form composition. His operas borrow thematically from science fiction movies and crime novels and find inspiration as much in popular music as formal tradition.

‘Notated music has always relied on vernacular music as a wellspring of inspiration’, he said. ‘Americans have invented so many genres: jazz, funk, country and western, gospel, rock, hip-hop, blues. American composers not only draw from this history, but also on the spirit of discovery that created it.

‘I don’t believe that music is a “universal language”’, he continued. “I think music is a form of cultural expression. But I’m not sure what culture I fit into. I play a country instrument, but I don’t feel comfortable around the country scene. Opera and, to some extent, new music are affiliated with the “one percent”, and coming from a working-class background, I often feel culture shock in that kind of environment.’

Setting, of course, can quickly establish the cultural context of an opera. This summer, for example, the fledgling New York Opera Fest, is presenting four half-hour operas based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, a key moment in the gay rights movement, as well as an oratorio taking its text from the American Constitution. Likewise, the placement of Cady’s operas establish them as undeniably American, and not just coastal America. His podcast opera Buick City, 1 AM tells the story of a woman traveling back in time to solve the murder of her father, an auto worker in Cady’s real-life hometown of Flint, Michigan.

‘I believe that setting matters,’ he said. ‘Too many American stories take place in New York and LA, and places like the Rust Belt get left behind. The water crises brought Flint to the attention of many people, and I wanted to show a larger context of Flint and its history. The Flint sit-down strike in the 1930s—which my great-grandfather took part in—strengthened the UAW and led to unionization across the US. And while Buick City, 1:00 AM doesn’t explicitly delve into that history, the background of the story was that the American Dream started dying during the Reagan ’80s specifically in the city that had largely given birth to it. The death of the father in Buick City, 1:00 AM was an allegory for the death of the working class.

‘All the dialogue in Buick City, 1:00 AM is spoken’, he added. ‘A critic in The Financial Times argued that it wasn’t really an opera because there wasn’t enough singing. That’s okay. I don’t mind if people don’t think it’s an opera. I didn’t actually call it an “opera”, I called it a “podcast opera.” I could say that I was influenced by the singspiels of Mozart, but it’s more honest to say that after Robert Ashley, I’m not worried about using the word “opera”, especially when it comes to speaking, as opposed to singing. I composed and thought of the dialogue scenes as music, just as much as anything else I compose.’

Scott Wollschleger © Emily Bookwalter
Scott Wollschleger
© Emily Bookwalter

Diversity of influence isn't exclusive to the American melting pot culture, of course, but it often seems inherent to it. For Scott Wollschleger, it's not just the nation's music and history, but the landscape itself. Wollschleger finds inspiration in America’s indigenous music as well as its natural and industrial vistas. Three of his works—Gas Station Canon Song, American Dream and We See Things That Are Not There—were recorded by the trio Bearthoven on the 2019 album American Dream.

‘I think blues music has moved me the most,’ Wollschleger said. ‘I recall a Mississippi Fred McDowell anecdote where he was talking about his singing in quasi-unison with his guitar lines and said "If you pay attention, what I sing the guitar sings too, and what the guitar say, I say" This middle-voiced approach to music making, as something neither active nor passive, has deeply influenced my musical thinking. The experimental tradition of the New York School has made a significant impact. Their D.I.Y. attitude was beautiful, and it inspired me to start a new music ensemble where we presented live concerts of contemporary music around New York City for almost 10 years. I enjoy many forms of so-called American music. American pop reminds me of dying, but I still listen to it often because it’s often really amazing. I very much admire how addicting Taylor Swift’s music is.

While the nation’s horizons inspire his music, however, Wollschleger is hard-pressed to define his country’s character.

‘I sometimes think that America does not really exist,’ he said. ‘National identity for me is fundamentally a form of false consciousness. But what does exist is a contradictory and schizophrenic mythos that feels “American”. It can be both violently oppressive and radically liberating. America, as a myth, surrounds us and passes through our bodies. I find myself inside of it. Images of McDonalds, nuclear war, and beautiful cornfields simultaneously transverse our souls. My work engages with America on this mythological level. For example, my recent album, American Dream, was written in response to the apocalyptic events of 2016. The music reflects contradictory feelings of doom, hope, optimism and despair. American Dream oscillates in a non-dialectical way between the very serious and the very silly. This post-ironic attitude is maybe American. The idea of place influences my work all the way from the monolithic abstraction that is “America” down to the dystopian strip mall parking lots I’ve driven through many times in Erie, Pennsylvania.’

Paul Pinto in <i>Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office...</i> © Photo by Ben Semisch
Paul Pinto in Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office...
© Photo by Ben Semisch

Like Cady and Wollschleger, Paul Pinto finds inspiration as much in American popular music as he does in the formal classical tradition. As a singer, he has appeared in several of Ashley’s operas and worked with the composer in his final years. The influence of Ashley’s oratory and monochromatic music is apparent in Pinto’s own compositions. His staged works include Thomas Paine in Violence, which casts the American revolutionary as a Godlike figure delivering unheard and unheeded messages, and a bitingly satiric, scored political debate, co-written with Jeffrey Young, bearing the title Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office on a Platform of Swift and Righteous Immigration Reform, Lots of Jobs, and a Healthy Environment.

‘I grew up with R&B and got into hip hop much later,’ he said. ‘Those genres have my favorite type of harmonic momentum. That is, in some cases, absolutely none. Just jam on that chord for four minutes and talk fast over it. In other cases, it's just a flurry of sixth chords and ninth chords, full diminished, blah blah blah, just kind of hinted at by a keyboard while someone tries to convince me to have sex with them or why they're sorry they wronged me. It's just like butter. I draw a lot of satisfaction from words as a vehicle for bravado and virtuosity.’

In addition, he says, there’s a tension between the songs and the nation’s realities that he finds compelling. Asked what it is about hip hop that he finds inspiring, he responded, ‘I guess the dichotomies: a great society built on many contrasting utopian visions, the simplicity of our myths with the complexity of our language, the grating feeling I get when I'm simultaneously thinking "look at all this cool stuff and all these different types of people" alongside "shit, we really should know better".’

Defining the nature of American classical music, however, is not so simple for Pinto. Asked if there was something particular tying contemporary music together in America, he responded. ‘I don't think there is a form, but I think we've tried to make one. I think American composers of concert music have tried to make something unique. Sometimes we feel real good about it, and other times we find some German or some Peruvian doing a similar thing and wonder "Really? I didn't know anyone else would do it that way."

‘That came off as cynical,’ he was quick to add. ‘Sorry. It's not cynical. It's that we think we're really clever and bold. I think that confidence—thinking we're really clever and bold—is enough to actually spur on the creation of a lot of really unique sound, especially using our American language.