The American Experiment

Tonight's program features a new arrangement of Dvorak's "American" Quartet by Sarah Darling, who writes a bit about it here. Enjoy! 

I remember clearly the first time I heard the phrase "The American Experiment." I was overseas at the time, living in the Netherlands. It was eye-opening to think of my country in that way, as a thought that was slowly coming to life, something hugely idealistic and bold and new that still (after two centuries!) seemed to the older countries as if it was taking its very first breaths. An experiment is dynamic, not static; something that you participated in. America's something that you do. 

Tonight, A Far Cry is playing a concert of music inspired by that idea, and by the vast landscapes of the West. A central part of that program is Dvorak's incredibly well-known and universally beloved "American" Quartet - which has, for better or worse, been arranged for string orchestra by yours truly. Talk about an experiment! Take a piece that everyone can sing, and that everyone played when they were 14, and that everyone has strong ideas about - and see if there's even more to be found in there! It would be ridiculously audacious to even try, except that hey, that's the point. 

In making an arrangement, figuring out when to use big forces and when to use small forces is part of the game. When to let a single voice carry the group, and when to support the thought with the lush sound of an entire section - and how to transition between the two. Some of my wilder ideas, like adding one player in after another in a certain spot, got nixed by the group at large. Heck, that's democracy at work (another aspect of our fine country) and 'twas probably for the best. Once we started workshopping the arrangement together, all sorts of extra ideas started blossoming, and some of them were fantastic. 

The trickiest thing to "experiment" with is adding a bass part into the whole mixture. Adding a lower octave where one was never originally there is sort of like giving the work a high-functioning exoskeleton. It's a little different from building the skeleton in from scratch (as you'd do if you were writing an orchestra piece) and yet, functionally, every piece of music has an implied bass part, whether visible or invisible. 

(Paradoxically, the piece on the program that comes right before the Dvorak, William Grant Still's "Mother and Child" also has a nearly invisible - yet incredibly powerful - bass presence. To make it come to life, we have to really dream the harmony into being together. If Still's not known to you, you can say hello here - he was one of the very first African-American composers, prolific and profound, and his gorgeous music should be much, much better known!) 

Returning to Dvorak, though - his "American" story is an amazing one. The A Far Cry program notes cover it beautifully, so I won't go into much detail, but the simple fact that a Czech dude came to this country with the intention of discovering what music made it "tick" is one that I still find extraordinary. One the one hand, who would dare? Maybe only an outsider. Dvorak in America, listening to spirituals, listening to native songs, listening to birdsongs(!), taking in the rich tapestry of shared experiences that already defined the country at that time. A lonely man reaching out to an entire country in friendship, while missing and longing for his own.

Still, he kept at it, and made something exquisite. In a way, there's nothing quite like those few but magnificent compositions that he wrote in dialogue with America, like the New World Symphony. A perfect storm of different musical impulses and traditions, coming together in a charged moment to create works that are incredibly unique. 

Maybe the question "What is American music?" is American music - who knows? For sure, that question challenges and inspires us to keep experimenting. Let's see what happens next. 

All my best, 

Sarah