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Electric Guitars Amp Up New Classical Music

Some of the 200 guitarists who took part in Rhys Chatham's <em>A Crimson Grail </em>at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival in August 2009.
Some of the 200 guitarists who took part in Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival in August 2009.

Not very long into our online discussion of what makes an American symphony great, we started asking for suggestions of benchmark works on social media. And critic Will Robin responded nearly instantaneously:

Will's prompt got me thinking. Glenn Branca renders his music on a huge scale: Many of his signature works are long pieces scored for extremely loud forces of alternately tuned (and often rebuilt) guitars that straddle the boundaries of where one genre ends and another begins. The results sound bracingly fresh, but I'd argue that Branca is in certain respects honoring a longstanding American tradition.

Going on a century ago, classical composers signaled modernity — and, frequently, their own American identity (either native-born or adopted) — by interweaving the sounds of jazz into their own work. Just think of Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, or Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera from 1928 or Ravel's Piano Concerto from 1931. Those sounds were strikingly new and perhaps even impudent — just the way the electric guitar began affecting the classical environment in the middle of the last century.

I wonder if, a hundred years from now, our descendants will look back at music written in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and say that a real marker of modernity, and American ingenuity, in classical music was the use of electric guitar (which, after all, was an American invention). If that happens, here are a few candidates for inclusion in the canon.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.