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Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music. By Catherine M. Cameron. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. ISBN 0-275-95610-5 (cloth, alk. paper). Pp. 163. $55.00.
Defining a historical context for American experimentalism is the primary objective of the two volumes examined in this review. Despite their common goal, however, these books differ markedly in their methodology and interpretation of this movement in American cultural history.
Anthropologist Catherine M. Cameron proceeds with an ethnography of the experimental music movement in Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music. Her fieldwork consists of first-hand exposure to innovative music at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, an institution with a rich history in experimental music. These experiences are supplemented by a survey of writings by American experimentalist composers and musicians in an effort to arrive at a "systematic presentation of the native's point of view" (xii). The objective of Cameron's book is to show how social and political forces helped shape a musical revolution in the United States.
The author applies notions of "abandonment" (a form of fundamental and thoroughgoing musical change) and "apostasy" (religious renunciation) to describe the spirit behind the American experimentalist movement (5). The words of iconoclast Harry Partch begin the book: "Perhaps the most hallowed of traditions among artists of creative vigor is this: traditions in the creative arts are per se suspect, for they exist on the patrimony of standardization, which means degeneration." Cameron likens experimentalism to a musical protest movement, in which a group of American composers rejected European musical traditions. Certainly this observation has merit. It may, however, lead us to underestimate the contributions of European immigrants--such as Edgard Varese and Leo Ornstein--to the development of the movement. It is also important to note that radical composers have often retained some form of connection to tradition. For example, Henry Cowell's advocacy of Arnold Schoenberg's music is a case in point; likewise, John Cage continued to acknowledge Schoenberg's influence throughout his life. The American experimentalists had important ties to the European historical avant-garde. (See David Nicholls, American Experimental Music, 1890-1940 [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 190-91.) Perhaps most important, looking at experimentalism as an oppositional activity may obscure those aesthetic assumptions that it affirms, such as the discovery of the unknown through the exploration of new musical systems and materials and the valorization of "process" over "product."
Cameron surveys several aspects of experimentalism. But her principal focus is on the "musical class struggle" that precipitated the rise of the experimentalist movement. Chapter 2, "Conflict and Competition in American Music," maps this terrain, beginning with the early postcolonial period in American history and ending with the …