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The Stillness of Copland: The Dance of the City

Illustration by Vitoria Mendes

When composer Aaron Copland is still, he is deadly still. One daren’t move when in the presence of such stillness. And yet, within seconds, you feel like you can dance. This is a particularly welcome sensation given that the city doesn’t stop dancing. Today, that dance is often a vulgar one of demolition, gentrification, alienation and corporate dominance.

Copland is only worth listening to in the city when nobody is around. This makes listening to him at night essential. I would like to apologise to those who are unable to take such night travels. The absence of people on the street is often disturbing and in some cases, this absence poses a threat. Spontaneity in the city is, of course, essential too.

Walking with Copland at night, however, can sometimes be troublesome. He moves so quickly between bouts of joy and sadness that it is hard to keep up. It is, I think, easier to simply let him roam ahead of you until he eventually returns. Unfortunately, a general mood of nostalgia is normally required and so this whole venture may be distasteful to some.

Nostalgia is quite important with Copland, at least with the Copland most people know. Nostalgia seems to be considered a regressive tendency in our time and place. It is associated with the rural and the supposedly deceived: the Brexit voter and the Trump voter. This distaste for nostalgia is somewhat justified given the difficulty in being proud of a colonial or imperialist past.

These political uses of nostalgia are particularly bad PR. This is especially pertinent to us as art historians. Are we not peddlers in nostalgia to some extent? Memory is inherently subject to nostalgia, given our tendency to remember the best parts of life and mentally block the worst.

For example, when going to a typical British country house, do displays recognise that often the wealth of those individuals who lived there was built on imperial traditions? Trade in tea, sugar, coffee, and slaves are all suspended so that we may view the artistic or architectural enterprise of the patron in a separate world outside of the context of the time. This, of course, brings up the commonly asked question - can art live without context? Or more dramatically, can art live without history?

The Abstract Expressionists would emphatically tell you yes. Their work, particularly the one of the colour field painters, attempted to transcend history and reach the sublime. Yet, their moment of importance in the 50s saw the dawn of perhaps the most influential social movement in living memory, that of the civil rights. Can you reach the sublime in these works without being pulled back by the horrific reality of Jim Crow laws? A critical eye might even suggest that the work of the Abstract Expressionists purposefully ignored these facts and the memories they left behind.

Yet, in direct opposition to memory, there is contemporary history - a documentation of events based on the pursuit of absolute truth. For this reason one might perhaps suggest that the best contemporary historians would be those who suffer from PTSD and other forms of trauma that induce the repeated revisiting of negative memory regarding events deemed worthy of historical recording. From this distinction, we see that history seeks to banish nostalgia. They are the two interpreters of the past and I would argue that it is our job to move between them and mediate them to some respect.

Underneath Copland’s nostalgia lies a cutthroat modernity. This is largely evident in his early works but peeks through at times in others. If we wished to see a historical view of Copland we would see that modernity and nostalgia are balanced. But why seek a historical view when walking through a city?

As the bastion of sometimes worryingly dehumanising and lonely urbanism, is the city not where nostalgia needs to be peddled the most if we are to seek a balanced framework in which to live?

Suggested listening for Copland (favourite picks) in no particular order:

  1. Red Pony Suite: II. The Gift

  2. The Tender Land Suite: I. Introduction

  3. Quiet City

  4. 3 Latin American Sketches No.3, Danza de Jalisco

  5. Appalachian Spring: VIII. Coda. Moderato


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