Monday, November 04, 2019

Joseph Horowitz responds to Anne Midgette's assessment of a Lakota Music Project performance

I tend to not read WaPo a ton but I sometimes read Horowitz' blog, so I saw this.

in response to this.

Midgette thought it was unfortunate so much of the concert was music by white guys depicting Native Americans via music rather than music by Native Americans.  Specifically, Arthur Farwell came up, a composer whose work Horowitz has been discussing at his blog this year alongside Harry Burleigh and questions as to the extent to which Porgy in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess can be considered a stereotype.

The general theme I'm reading in his blogging and writing for magazines is that Horowitz is reassessing and urging us to reappraise composers who have been either neglected or regarded as in some way lightweight by serious music writers writing about serious music. 

Farwell, a white man who adapted and drew inspiration from Native American music and who was one of the key figures in a mainly forgotten Indianist movement, is probably a hard sell in the early twenty-first century because his work can be and has been regarded as cultural appropriation.  A comparable range of criticisms don't seem to have been leveled at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha cantatas even though the British-African composer's choral works could be construed as a double whammy of cultural appropriation for the sake of orientalism in an arch-European style and for drawing upon the poem of Longfellow, which is about an American Indian who is a fabrication for poetic effects.  Now to actually dismiss Coleridge-Taylor's cantata cycle on such grounds seems like too blunt and lazy an ideological move to me and I've got Native American ancestry by way of my dad.  The thing is, Arthur Farwell is in some ways easier to level these kinds of criticisms against because he was a white guy, so it may simply be easier to blame the white guy for cultural appropriation than the black guy for cultural appropriation because the Longfellow poem is pure fantasy whereas Farwell adapted Native American songs into his works.  That might be a bit ironic but so it seems to be.

Yet the thing that Midgette doesn't mention that I think is worth mentioning is that before we get too set on insisting what is and isn't Native American, Native musicians and composers have pointed out that there isn't really a generic "Indian" sound.  For that matter, the first published musical work using Western notation by a Native American we have on record is Indian Melodies by Thomas Commuck, a shape-note hymnal with songs suitable for use in the Methodist Episcopal church, of which Commuck was a member.  If you were to hear one of the hymns from Commuck's shape-note hymnal you might think you were listening to something that didn't sound like American Indian/Native American music at all.  Several of Commuck's melodies, which he described as either original compositions or melodies drawn from tribal practices, can sound like they would fit snugly into the inner movements of a Haydn string quartet.  I'm thinking of the melodies "Quapaw" and "Pequot" in particular.  "Menominie" is a melody that sounds like it would be part of a variation movement in a Haydn-era string quartet. 

A good number of the tribe we know of now as the Nez Perce converted to Christianity through the missionary efforts of some Presbyterians.  A good number of Alaskan Native people are Eastern Orthodox.  If people harbor ideas that Native Americans should subscribe to some kind of not-Christianity religious beliefs would the Christian hymns of Commuck have to be set aside?  Not really, not right now, because only specialists in Native American music would even know who Thomas Commuck is. 

I've been listening to some of Arthur Farwell's music and it's not bad.  It might not be "brilliant" and maybe it's a bit on the shlocky side for post-Stravinsky tastes but the Polytonal Studies are intriguing to me.  Farwell did more than write music as part of an Indianist movement and perhaps advocacy on behalf of his music may be hamstrung here in 2019 if his work is defined strictly through his association with the Indianist movement.

Horowitz overplays things a bit with the title "America's Forbidden Composer".  Farwell's not forbidden but I get the point being made that people on Twitter could declare Farwell's work should never be played because a white guy presuming to depict Native American people and life shouldn't be given a platform, which gets me back to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha cantata cycle.  Are we then supposed to ban the performances of a British-African composer's most famous works because he used a Longfellow poem about an imaginary American Indian? 

Horowitz mentioned, "The only present-day Native-American Farwell authority of whom I am aware is the pianist Lisa Cheryl Thomas, who admires and performs him."  It's Thomas' recordings I've been listening to and, so far, I'm enjoying the recordings.  

One of the troubles with a review like Midgette's, and I'm going to just put my cards on the table as someone whose dad was Native American and whose mother is white, in popular level journalism and music writing it can be perilously easy to forget that some Native American tribes have had extensive histories of inter-tribal and inter-racial marriage.  Alexandra Harmon has written in Indians in the Making of how many of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest favored such marriages as part of diplomatic and political life.  David Treuer and others have written about how Native Americans who didn't accept or comply with policies involving land, relocation and reservation creation ended up not being regarded as really Indians by the federal government even if they could establish tribal lineage.  For that matter, Treuer wrote in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee how contemporary tribes in some cases disenroll members with blood quantum bona fides as part of land consolidation activities.  

In other words, a white music journalist wishing that there was more non-white music in a concert dealing with Native American themes is not hugely surprising but the actual history of Native American clans, tribes and nations is not really something that can be distilled down to a generic set of identifiers.  There are more Calvinist Native American descended people out there than you might expect, for instance, from depictions in the arts and entertainment industries.  

Now I've been making this point over and over again at this blog but Americans in music and musicology in the concert music traditions have been bristling, and frankly with cause, at what they feel can be a hegemonic influence of the German musical legacy.  This was something that Arthur Farwell was pretty plainspoken about, which Sudip Bose discussed recently in an article at The American Scholar:

...Through this fledgling enterprise, Farwell published his first major work in 1901: the American Indian Melodies, 10 piano pieces drawn almost completely from source material in Fletcher’s book. Over the years, Farwell would reimagine the pieces in different guises, scoring three for baritone and piano in 1908. One of these, The Old Man’s Love Song, which evokes both the sunrise and the soft autumnal glow of a tribal elder’s final years, he set again in 1937, this time for eight-part mixed chorus. In the hauntingly beautiful version for baritone and piano, the singer declaims his lines boldly, as if in defiance of the passage of time, yet he also delivers more pensive phrases, which sound like nostalgic sighs, or rays of dying sunlight. Conjuring up sensations of wistfulness and loss, The Old Man’s Love Song is steeped in a languid atmosphere enhanced by the chromatic harmonic writing in the piano part, which is reminiscent at times of Wagner. I find this stylistic tension to be telling, given Farwell’s feelings about the pervasiveness of Germanic influences on American composers at the time. Since “our national musical education, both public and private, is almost wholly German,” he wrote,
we inevitably, and yet unwittingly, see everything through German glasses. … Therefore the first correction we must bring to our musical vision is to cease to see everything through German spectacles, however wonderful, however sublime those spectacles may be in themselves!
On the evidence of his early work, Farwell may have wished to cast off his German models, but he could not yet forget the alluring harmonies of Parsifal and Tristan. 
Bose concludes with the following:
It’s a tricky thing—trying to come to terms with Farwell in our time. His perceived flaws provide detractors with enough justification to reject him out of hand. To them, it doesn’t matter what his music sounds like, or what part it played in the evolution of classical music in the United States. To them, Farwell is simply a white man who made a living at the expense of marginalized peoples. This, I believe, not only misrepresents the composer and his intentions, but it also uses the politics of our current moment to form loose judgments about a very distant time. We could easily continue an argument that raged in various forms for much of the 20th century, about the universality of art and its power to transcend politics. But I would also like to assert that Farwell, despite his keenest ethnographic instincts, was not an ethnographer. His principal aim was not to document Native music, and certainly not to compose it. Rather, he was writing classical music—an anti-modernist classical music, rooted in diatonic harmony and sonata form, that he felt best represented America.
Listen to The Old Man’s Love Song, or Inketunga’s Thunder Song, or any number of Farwell’s piano pieces. Seek out his post-Indianist pieces, too, the late Piano Quintet, for example, and especially The Gods of the Mountain. Reject this music, if you wish, for aesthetic reasons. But to cancel him on extra-musical grounds is, at best, to willfully ignore a pertinent chapter in American musical history and, at worst, to give in to the basest kind of anti-democratic impulse. Whether or not Farwell had the right to use the melodies that made up a portion of his work is a valid question, but it by no means should be the only one. 
Although the core criticism could be taken as being that not enough Native Americans were participating in the concert Horowitz was part of, his response seems to be dealing with the question of Farwell's reception history.  That makes sense in terms of what I've seen him writing about with respect to Burleigh and Gershwin, for instance, but Midgette's comments about the plethora of white people talking about Native American anything may have been a matter of what people call the "optics" of the situation.

But then ... since I'm being a bit of a gentle gadfly here, had it not been for Ida Halpern recording the traditional songs of the Nootka, for instance, those songs would have been lost completely.  At some point, particularly in any academic context, the reality that preserving Native American cultural practices has at various times involved white people is hard to escape.  

Now someone might decide that Farwell's music is too vaguely impressionist to differ from a Debussy or that Farwell is going to remain a marginal musical figure, just as someone might decide that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, as immensely talented as he was, was too indebted to a basically late Victorian choral style modeled on Charles Stanford to seem "real" to American audiences either in terms of sounding like what we're told black music is supposed to sound like by American music journalists and academics or by those who would argue that non-Native people should not be making multi-hour cantata cycles on an imaginary Indian in a poem invented by Henry Longfellow.  But as Rose has pointed out, to do so is to judge artists and writers of the past on the basis of criteria for purity in use in our own age.  The question that I have not seen brought up yet is the matter of cultural appropriation between Arthur Farwell's use of melodies and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's use of Longfellow.   The latter composer was hardly the only, let alone first, person to draw on Longfellow's imagined Hiawatha for musical inspiration.  

If Horowitz wanted to play hardball he could point out that the kinds of arguments made against giving Arthur Farwell any kind of hearing on the basis of cultural appropriation or the presentation of a false sense of Native American life could be even more trenchantly leveled at the African British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor for writing three cantatas on Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.  Horowitz could even ask whether or not the white American composer has been held to a more stringent standard than the black British composer has been in attempts to revive and reassess their respective bodies of musical work.   Of course there are a lot of reasons to not want to play hardball but I'm mentioning all of this because if people are behaving on Twitter as I suspect they might be, the complexities of a Farwell or a Coleridge-Taylor in writing music inspired by the songs of American Indians real and imagined are probably not best served or studied on Twitter to begin with.  

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