MUSIC / Whoever called it the shock of the new?: When it comes to New Music, the New World lags far behind the Old. Adrian Dannatt reports from New York

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The Independent Culture
The innate conservatism of New York's concert-going public can never be underestimated. European notions of Manhattan's musical hotbed of innovation are based on a misunderstanding; the New York represented on the Continent is exactly that funky, tonally and aesthetically democratic city which the concert halls of 'Skinny Island' reject, yet we think of as inherently American. New Yorkers only want to hear Romantic European standards, a strictly enforced pre-1900 repertoire, while the rest of the world perceives Gotham as a groovy riot precisely because the composers who could never get a residency back home have to travel abroad.

Thus the New York Philharmonic mounting a season of 'Modern' American composers, entitled with more than a twist of provocation 'American Eccentrics' and conducted by the legendary German maestro Kurt Masur, was a local breakthrough.

It is hard for anyone in the London music world to imagine that Ives' Three Places in New England could constitute adventurous programming, but Avery Fisher Hall, with its largely suburban, middle-aged subscription audience, has to tread more carefully than most. Certainly during the last and most exciting part of Masur's 'Celebration Concert', Henry Brant's Desert Forests, with the octogenarian composer smacking the piano to an improvised beat, the bouffant women and their real-estate husbands sitting directly in front retained a look of pained horror, fingers in ears, throughout. This is one of the ironies of 'Modernism' in America: the composers are often decades older than the audiences who react with shock to their work.

The outrage in Brant is his spatial rearrangement of the orchestra, grouping the string section all in one corner, with trumpets behind on the balcony, trombones positioned on the other side and high woodwinds right at the back, with their own conductor. Even if this is a logical use of the space dating back to St Mark's Cathedral in Venice, not to mention any New Jersey quadraphonic car stereo, it was treated as a wild novelty in concert. Nobody paid attention to the aural and spatial dynamics, rather they whooped in amazement at the joke value, as if this were a Hoffnung one- liner rather than a serious attempt to redefine the geometry of sound.

The fact is Brant, the only living composer for this concert, had produced a 'loud' piece, which in popular imagination is synonymous with Modernism. Other works fared better; not only did they all have hints of tonality but their authors were safely dead. Thus nobody could object to Ives' New England pictorialism or even to Carl Ruggles' Sun Treader, whose world premiere was in Paris 1932 but which was first played in the US in 1966, when Ruggles was too deaf to fully hear it.

This season was based on the world of Henry Cowell and his ground-breaking magazine of 1927, New Music, which he began the same year he met Ives. The first issue of the magazine featured the score of Ruggles' Men and Mountains and, after hearing the Philharmonic rendition of Sun Treader under Masur's hypnotic, batonless propulsion, there could be no doubt about the importance of Ruggles' struggle with US bombast and European Futurism.

The third work in the programme, Wallingford Riegger's Study in Sonority (1928), deliciously inched out by the required 10 violins, suggested some of the currently modish Monotonal Transcendentalists, Gorecki or Part. Equally Sun Treader blasts away like the best of those rockesque Yankees heard in a chamber concert as part of the same season - John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and radical Terry Riley. His piece In C (1964: 30 years ago, godammit]) has become the classic anthem of the Drone Generation, taking the entire blame for inventing a movement as detested as 'Minimalism'. When even Charles Ives can make manicured New York nails move towards their tympanic cavities, it seems a shame that 'eccentricity' still had to excuse the vibrant, native music of an otherwise so-brave nation.