The history of the Pan American Association of Composers is interesting and brings insight into the accomplishments and struggles of its members. Founded by Edgard Varese in 1928, the association’s goal was to focus on promoting and supporting the music of its members, exclusively composers who were citizens of North, Central, and South America. More importantly, they wanted to encourage a wider appreciation of the “new music” they were writing and wanted it to become distinctively music of the Western Hemisphere, free of European influence. Through their efforts, these brave composers were able to have their music heard on an international level and even though they received mixed audience reviews, the Pan American Association of Composers was able to expose the world to the music of the Americas, gradually gaining appreciation as time passed.
Alongside Varese, notable members included Henry Cowell, Carlos Chavez, and Charles Ives, among others. During the short six years that this organization was productive, its members were able to organize concerts in New York, Europe and Latin America that featured the music of at least sixty different composers. The first years of the groups existence were slow and its efforts were hardly recognized by the public and press. Nearly three years after the first concert, the group finally began to present concerts regularly with the help of the young composer-conductor-pianist, Nicolas Slonimsky. Slonimsky was so impressed with the new music he was encountering in America and I think, more than anything, he believed in its ability to revolutionize the musical world. Not only did he enjoy this “new music” but he insisted on performing it everywhere, whether people liked it or not. With concert numbers dwindling in the United States, the PAAC sent Slonimsky to Europe with only scores, no musicians, to try and spread their music elsewhere. The European tours were the most significant events to happen in the PAAC and the concerts did attract attention, despite negative and flippant reviews. I think people were just in awe and expressed curiosity at the different sounds that were being produced by these composers they had never heard of before. These tours are a great example of how even though their music wasn’t well-received, they were able to fulfill their mission of simply exposing their new concepts to others in the world. In 1932, Slonimsky returned to Europe and presented a broader repertoire under the PAAC, including thorough program notes on composers and their compositions, probably hoping for audiences to reach a greater understanding than before. To everyone’s dismay, the performances were still not well-received by most listeners. They felt tortured as they sat through two-plus hours of “new music” and most found it “senseless”.
As with most things, it took time for the world to appreciate what was called “the music of the future”. I applaud these inventive composers for putting their music out there but I think they could have approached it in a different and more beneficial way. Instead of creating programs full of “new music”, I feel like they could have gently exposed the world to it by programming a couple of works each concert alongside pieces that had already been accepted by listeners. I can imagine how hard it must have been for people to sit through a 2-hour concert full of new sounds that seemed odd and unmusical; I don’t think I could even do that today, having been exposed to some of it previously. However, whether liked or disliked, the PAAC was able to promote the composition and performance of their music, and develop a greater appreciation for the music that was being produced in the Americas. Without this organization, these composers would not be the men and women we learn about today and we would probably know nothing about the “new music” they were brave enough to write.
Griffiths, Paul. “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.
Grimes, Ev, and Nicolas Slonimsky. “Conversations with American Composers: Ev Grimes Interviews Nicolas Slonimsky.” Music Educators Journal 72, no. 7 (1986): 40-43. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/3396599.
Perlis, Vivian. “Pan American Association of Composers.” 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/20797.
Root, Deane L. “The Pan American Association of Composers (1928-1934).” Anuario Interamericano De Investigacion Musical 8 (1972): 49-70. doi:10.2307/779819.