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The New York composers’ Forum-laboratory thrived in the second half of the 1930s, its weekly (later, biweekly) concerts a veritable honey pot for the city’s cultural elite. Over the course of five seasons it introduced more than 200 composers, some established, others just emerging, to an audience whose taste for ‘new music’ was excited by the quality of contributions – by the likes of Aaron Copland, Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford and Roger Sessions – and encouraged by the provision of free admission.

No less fruitful were the question-and-answer sessions that followed each concert. Here, discussions typically spilled over into arguments, debates and the occasional riot about the nature of ‘American’ music and the wider issues of race and gender in the country. With tremendous foresight, a stenographer was on hand to record the cut and thrust of New York’s post-concert discussions, the transcripts of which still survive in the national archives collection.

De Graaf makes judicious use of the verbatim transcripts to illustrate the recurring philosophical and practical concerns of composers and audiences striving to reach consensus on the point and purpose of new music. What emerges is a feisty and varied portrait of a generation reaching for modernity through the simultaneous pursuit of a uniquely, identifiably ‘American’ voice and the emerging trend towards cultural pluralism.

Particularly fascinating are the thumbnail portraits of composers that come increasingly sharply into focus and the still pertinent discussions of race, nationalism and gender. In this latter instance, the response to the emergence of the first generation of female composers is both amusing and alarming, the peculiar trope of the ‘man-tone’ – which denied women access to the apparently muscular, male forms of symphonies, operas and string quartets – still disturbingly prevalent.

In all, a fascinating and rewarding survey of a crucial formative moment in contemporary American music.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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