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Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s
Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s. Carol J. Oja. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 493. $39.95.
Carol Oja has been examining twentieth-century American musical culture for over two decades. Numerous publications attest to the breadth and depth of her interests. Her newest work is a seasoned scholar's understanding of one aspect of these larger explorations and a model of thorough research; the result is unquestionably solid. The title's verb "making" foretells something of the complex project Oja undertakes; modern music did not just happen in America, it had to be consciously shaped from a musical culture bound to nineteenth-century European traditions and forged from a national culture not fully aware of its own rich and original resources. The realization of this process required the efforts of dozens of people--composers, performers, patrons, teachers, and critics--over many years. Oja takes us inside the struggles and strategies, and invites us to witness the formation of modern American music. On the way we learn much about the convergence of modernism, nationalism, and internationalism, and the blurring of distinctions between "high" art and "popular" art.
The book is organized as a series of studies, some of them focused upon individuals--Leo Ornstein, Edgard Varèse, Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford, Virgil Thomson--and others upon groups of musicians working around a single common idea: chapters on "Engineers of Art," "A Forgotten Vanguard," "Women Patrons and Activists," and "Neoclassicism," for example. These relatively self-contained investigations are one of the book's great strengths. Readers are introduced to chapter-length studies of figures and ideas heretofore relegated to anecdotal treatment or footnotation in music history texts. Oja emerges as a champion of the less-celebrated players and movements, unafraid to question myths and chip away at sacred categories. She exhumes the American Music Guild as an important force for American composers prior to the League of Composers (1923). She reinvigorates our thinking about George Antheil and deepens our understanding of the self-appointed "bad boy" of music. She also makes a strong case for the importance of Paul Whiteman as a leading force behind the crossover movement energizing symphonic jazz. Readers are forced to reconsider long-held assumptions regarding the origin and depth of the schism that existed between the International Composers Guild and the League of Composers, two competing arts groups who sponsored new music concerts. Her discussion of critics Paul Rosenfeld and Olin Downes reminds us of the degree to which the loudest media voices construct our understanding of events and create a lasting historical record, regardless of completeness or even veracity. Oja perhaps makes too much of Rosenfeld's flowery style when she prefaces quotations from the famous critic with lines such as "a typically extravagant assessment" and "embroidering a characteristic profusion of images" (248, 276). No thoughtful reader will hold her responsible for his verbal excesses, and the near-apologetic, embarrassed tone makes one wonder why she relies so heavily upon his writing. She seems to do so not because of his writing style primarily, but rather because of the keenness of his insights and the power he exerted as a near-lone champion of modern music in America. Her chapter on "Visionary Critics" leaves one to wonder anew at just how quickly the personal preferences, prejudices, and agendas of a few writers become the larger public taste.
On the way to illuminating musical modernism, Oja sheds light on concurrent developments in literature, science, and philosophy. She addresses Henri Bergson's "vital impulse" and his charge to "always follow your inspiration" as it manifests itself in Leo Ornstein's spontaneous musical aesthetic, as well as the then-current interest in the "fourth dimension" to writers, painters, scientists, and composers in the early years of the twentieth century (16). While never addressing at length the political environment that colored the interwar years, she does examine the [End Page 550] ways in which anti...