Book explores Cold War and American music

Western News file photoMusic History professor Emily Abrams Ansari explores the complex dynamic of the advantages of the Cold War for American composers – as well as the challenges they faced as a result of this ideological conflict – in The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War, recently published by Oxford University Press.

 

For American composers seeking a unique, American sound, the reverberations of the Cold War were palpable. As Emily Abrams Ansari sees it, the tension between the East and West transformed the nation’s music as it indelibly affected those who produced it.

The Music History professor explores the complex dynamic of the advantages of the Cold War for American composers – as well as the challenges they faced as a result of this ideological conflict – in The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War, recently published by Oxford University Press.

“American composers, dating back to the 19th Century, were interested in writing classical music. But they didn’t want it to sound just like Beethoven and all of the other European composers,” Ansari said of the emergence of musical Americanism.

“They wanted to come up with a sound that was distinct and, in some way, reflected America. Some of them turned to American popular music for inspiration, incorporated jazz into their music, or different American folk music. Some of them were much less self-conscious about it. They thought just by being American composers, their music would sound American because they lived in America. Some of them would try to abstractly reflect American landscapes, or maybe, American personality.”

Deliberate or not, these traits were often heard and “diagnosed” in the music American composers were creating, she added. In the Sound of a Superpower, Ansari sheds light on the shift of patriotic American attitudes between the 1930s-50s by examining the lives and works of American classical composers, which she sees as reflective of an ideological shift.

“In the 1930s, it was possible to be extremely patriotic while also being a communist,” Ansari noted. “By the time you get to the 1950s, that, of course, is no longer possible in the United States. If you were a communist, you were seen to be anti-American, pro-Soviet and on the other side – one of the bad guys.”

Whether you were a composer or not, you didn’t even have to be a communist to be seen as potentially dangerous to your country. Those on the left, and progressives, generally, ran the risk of being associated with the communist camp. A number of well-known American composers fell into this camp, she explained.

“Aaron Copland is a famous example. The music he wrote in the 1930s was very much inspired by the United States and sort of presented a vision of what America could become, in a way. It was very much informed by his progressive politics and this music became extremely famous and well-loved by many Americans,” Ansari said.

“But come the 1950s, he became known by a number of prominent anti-communists and was called in front of Sen. (Joseph) McCarthy’s committee to investigate un-American activities. He was dealing with being considered this great musical patriot and then, suddenly, he was being accused of un-Americanism.”

Ansari’s book looks at the lives and works of left-wing composers who dealt with this new environment, but also more right-wing Americanist composers who were able to thrive in the socio-political landscape generated by Cold War tensions.

“The ultimate picture is a complicated one. It isn’t just a straightforward story of ‘the left-wing composers suffered and right-wing composers thrived.’ Right-wing composers were also able to use the Cold War to their advantage because the U.S. government became interested in the Cold War, in promoting musicians to promote American culture and its benefits as an alternative to the Soviet Union culture and society,” she explained.

Some left-wing composers, who were strongly criticized by anti-communists, several years later, were sent abroad by the State Department as representatives of American music and were celebrated and promoted, Ansari added.

Composers with leftist politics found opportunities to ensure the survival of musical Americanism thanks to the federal government as it used American music as a Cold War propaganda tool. By serving as advisors to cultural diplomacy programs and touring as artistic ambassadors, they brought their now-government-backed music to new global audiences.

Some with more right-wing politics, meanwhile, flourished in the new ideological environment, by aligning their music with Cold War conceptions of American identity.

Ansari is currently working on a project that explores similar themes in a different environment. In partnership with Amanda Grzyb, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, she is conducting research on music of the civil war in El Salvador, exploring the refugee experience by way of music while recording protest folk songs from the period.