A Portfolio of Two Essays

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The two essays in this portfolio share a concern with how American composers have defined themselves in the 20th century, focusing specifically on Steve Reich and Henry Cowell. Both composers have demonstrated an acute awareness of their status as mavericks, and have alternately contributed to or discouraged that perception in how they publicly present themselves and their work. These essays explore the ways in which these narratives have arisen from specific compositional decisions in their works, whether justifiably or erroneously. “Stepping Back Into Western Tradition” explores the compositional and philosophical importance of Eight Lines as it relates to Steve Reich’s development as a major voice in American music. While critics and commentators quickly recognized that Tehillim heralded a new era in Reich’s artistic career, Eight Lines met with a more tepid reception after its premiere. However, Eight Lines prefigures many of the most striking breakthroughs of Tehillim, embracing extended melodies, non-process-based formal structures, and allusions to Reich’s Jewish identity. Eight Lines’s composition also coincides with a shift in Reich’s public presentation. Reich has drawn comparisons between Eight Lines and Josquin des Prez’s Missa L’homme Armé Sexti Toni, reflecting a Reich’s inclination throughout the 1980s to realign himself with the Western canon. Though closer analysis of canonic devices in Eight Lines shows this claimed connection to Josquin to be exaggerated, Reich’s allusion points to his perceived significance of Eight Lines within his compositional output. “Appalling Noise” examines the the parallel careers of Leo Ornstein and Henry Cowell, and how each used the tone cluster as a means of defining themselves as “ultramodernist” composer-pianists. Both men’s fame was based on similar pianistic spectacle, and both elevated the tone cluster beyond its representational origins. However, though Ornstein’s use of tone clusters precedes Cowell’s, it is Cowell who remains associated with the technique. Discussion of precedents by Charles Ives, Charles-Valentin Alkan, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, and of Ornstein’s and Cowell’s piano works from the 1910s through 30s, demonstrate how Cowell approached the tone cluster with unprecedented nuance.

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Eight Lines; Henry Cowell; Leo Ornstein; Steve Reich; Tehillim; Tone Clusters; Musical composition


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Ernste, Kevin M.

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Bjerken, Xak
Harris-Warrick, Rebecca

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D.M.A., Music

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Doctor of Musical Arts

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dissertation or thesis

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