Thoughts on American Music

by Gwyneth Walker

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Gwyneth Walker: "Thoughts on American Music"
from the Composers' Panel Discussion at the American Choral Directors
Symposium on American Music - June 29, 2012 Washington, DC

Our topic for discussion today is the question of what makes American music sound "American." What characteristics of this music form a uniquely American language?

It has been suggested that American music sounds "open." There is an openness to the harmonies and textures. I believe that American music-making and American music-makers are similarly open, by which I mean open to new ideas, open-minded.

Here in our country, nearly every town has a community chorus, church choir, school or college chorus. Chamber ensembles such as brass quintets are abundant as well. If a composer such as myself attends a concert and then says to the conductor afterwards, "I think that I have some music which your group might enjoy," the response is usually, "Well then, let's see it!" The conductor is open to new musical ideas. There is open-mindedness. And this an American trait. European ensembles do not necessarily welcome new "musical adventures" quite so readily!

Before our panel discussion started, I was discussing with a colleague the difference between extroverts (composers who frequently attend conferences) and introverts (composers who prefer the solitude of the desk at home to group occasions). I am a true introvert, as well as an "eccentric inventor." I grew up in Connecticut not far from Danbury, the home of Charles Ives. And I feel an affinity with his personality. Composers such as us are not comfortable going out into the world introducing ourselves and our music to conductors. Therefore, we must rely, to a large extent, upon the open-mindedness of the musical world to welcome us and program our music. And although this is a difficult path to follow, it is undoubtedly more possible for us to present our music in the United States than in most other countries. We need to live in a world which is open and adventurous.

One of the audience members has asked about my work, I Thank You God. I composed this music when my mother was dying, and I moved back home to care for her. I did only two things: care for my mother and compose music. There was no time to go out to conferences and promote my music. Therefore, if this song, and others of my works, reached the hands of fine performers (such as Nancy Menk and the Saint Mary's Chorale), it was because the music spoke for itself.And I lived in a country where people were open to listen to new music.

I am the most stubborn Quaker you will ever meet! I have been given a mandate from my faith to compose music. And there is nothing that will stop me! For I believe that music is a gift from God. And by the grace of God, and the good will of musicians such as those gathered in this room, my music, and other worthy American music, will be brought to life. For this endeavor is not about me. It is about all of us together.