The Pan American Association of Composers: A Gravitas Towards the American Contemporary

Edwin Cordoba

The Pan American Association of Composers (PAAC) was an organization founded by Edgard Varese in New York in 1928 with the intention of advancing “experimental contemporary music” in the United States, Latin America and Europe. Membership was small but was unique in that it was the first organization of its kind to encourage composer cooperation between continents- furthermore, it was the first organization to encourage the performance of American music outside of the United States. The PAAC seemed to have developed in a climate that was against the established European standard. This climate, perpetuated by nationalist composers, was exemplified by the executive board of the PAAC. A closer look into the executive board- Edgard Varese, Emerson Whithorne, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and Carlos Chavez – reveals a striking truth in similaries: all of these individuals had a distinct interest in America and were champions of contemporary music.

First off, all five executive members had a self-interest in America. Carl Ruggles was born and raised in Massachusetts, worked in New York (where he made his connections with the PAAC), taught in North Carolina, spend his summers teaching in Vermont and ended his musical career with a teaching post at the University of Miami. Emerson Whithorne was born in Ohio where he studied and made his musical debut, traveled to Europe, but then returned and settled in New York.  Henry Cowell was born in California where he developed his virtuosic violin skills, then moved to Iowa. He eventually returned to California where he founded the New Music Society of California in 1925 and continued to vanguard projects to advance American music through Journals, organizations, concerts and interviews. Edgard Varese and Carlos Chavez were the only two in the executive board that were NOT born in the United States. They were, curiously, born in Paris and Mexico DF ( respectively). It’s interesting that those places of birth are representative of the PAAC’s geographic mission statement (to “advance contemporary music in the US, Latin America, and Europe).

Musically, all five executive members also shared a passion for contemporary music. Carl Ruggles was an associate of Charles Ives in the 1920’s and 1930’s and strove for new conventions in music with his nontonal, polyphonic tendencies.   Emerson Whithorne’s music had a tendency towards impressionistic music, but later displayed a pervasiveness of polytonality. His flavor of American music was revolutionary without using trite jazz devices. Edgar Varese composed music characterized by rhythmic complexity, use of percussion, free atonality and forms not principally dependent on harmonic progressions. Finally, Henry Cowell’s music advocated the systematization of modernist techniques and trans culturalism. All advocates for a new music and against the status quo.

These two elements combine to create a force to be reckon with. By dissecting the similarities between the biographical aspects of this executive board, it is obvious that Nationalism in the early 20th century roots from very similar experiences and attitudes towards European music.

 

Bibliography

Root, Deane L. “The Pan American Association of Composers (1928-1934).” Anuario Interamericano De Investigacion Musical 8 (1972): 49-70. doi:10.2307/779819.

Paul Griffiths, et al. “Ruggles, Carl.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 28, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/24117.

Paul Griffiths. “Varèse, Edgard.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 28, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/29042.

Charles H. Kaufman. “Whithorne, Emerson.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 28, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/30227.

David Nicholls and Joel Sachs. “Cowell, Henry.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 28, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249182.

Vivian Perlis. “Pan American Association of Composers.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 26, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/20797.

 

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