Alexander Horn

The Empire State Strikes Back

 By Alexander Horn

Writing 111: Writing Seminar

A Czech master composer. A Jewish composer/conductor. A Puerto-Rican playwright. Who are these diverse artists? Why is it that they are grouped together? They are just a few of the many defining musical icons of New York. Over the past 125 years they have shaped not only the cultural identity of the Empire State, but also its social progressiveness. New York City (specifically Ellis and Liberty Island) have always stood as the major gateway to the New World, which consequently created a unique social setting. It is a place where foreigners have made a lasting and enduring impact on the culture of the city. The last time civilization saw such an unprecedented cultural melting pot was Ancient Rome, and, likewise in the Big Apple, immigrants, no matter their background, have the opportunity to climb to the top if they have determination. However, a political climate exists throughout this country where the notion that immigrants can greatly contribute to our society is strongly resisted. The artists and selections that compose my album, New York’s America, are all integral to the canon of New York and American culture. Each selection illuminates a unique story that reflects the spirit of New York. The pieces that compile New York’s America are unified by their ability to capture the identity of New York and its significance in American culture.

Now you must be thinking – what on Earth is the music of Romantic Era Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák, doing in this playlist? His works may seem to be the most abstract in my album; however, Dvořák’s well-spent years in New York not only revealed the beauty within native folk and slave music, but also inspired the creation of his masterpiece that became essential to the soul of New York. Dvořák spent most of his life, and composed most of his works, in the Czech Republic; however, in 1892, he made his way to New York City, where he served as director of the National Conservatory of Music until 1895 (Clapham). This conservatory was ahead of its time because it admitted women and minorities, which was unheard of in that era. Additionally, Dvořák explored American folk music and melodies ranging from Native American tribal themes to slave music (Hurwitz). He integrated their themes into two of his masterpieces, Symphony No. 9 From the New World, and his 12th string quartet, The American. This New World Symphony was premiered by none other than the New York Philharmonic in 1893. The piece features many serene, intimate melodies, powerful climaxes, and the ever so iconic 4th movement that, when interpreted by the New York Philharmonic, is played to perfection. So, this piece is very much part of the identity of New York: written by a foreigner in a progressive conservatory, it captures the melodies of America’s diverse cultures and blends them all into one epic masterpiece. I should also mention that the recordings in the album are performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, while the quartet is performed by the Emerson String Quartet-– New York’s finest string quartet. Dvořák, during his relatively short time spent in New York, created a lasting impact on the classical music canon and forever made his mark by creating one of the city’s greatest treasures.

Of course, Leonard Bernstein did much more than just conduct that single recording of Dvořák’s 9th symphony: he reached a massive audience that expanded beyond the realm of traditional classical music. Bernstein, the child of Jewish immigrants, became an icon in the transition of classical music into the modern era. He served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director for over a decade, during which he reached modern audiences with his Young People’s Concert series – a tradition continued today (Oliver). His fierce passion as a conductor carried over into his composition career when he composed the score for the critically acclaimed Broadway production, West Side Story (Time). This play took the original story of Romeo and Juliet and converted it into a more modern and relevant theme, bringing to light the inner- city conflict between races. Bernstein’s musical passion and genius are apparent in this iconic score, combining both flamboyant and beautiful soundtracks with modern and relatable lyrics (by Stephen Sondheim) in order to reach the diverse audiences that make their pilgrimage to Broadway. The piece included in my album, America, is a satire on the American Dream, explaining how things can be, in reality, more difficult for immigrants: “Everything’s Free in America, For a small fee in America!” (Bernstein). West Side Story’s position as a hallmark of Broadway productions has allowed these messages to be spread to a huge audience. Additionally, West Side Story was converted into film and even standalone audio tracks for the masses to view and listen. Bernstein was such an influential figure in New York culture and his contributions to the growth and development of modern classical productions will impact generations to come. Broadway is a keystone in New York culture and it has served as a launch pad for many important pieces of American culture, as well as important messages, the most recent of which is Hamilton.

Songwriter and playwright, Lin- Manuel Miranda, captures the spirit of opportunity and perseverance in his revolutionary play, Hamilton. Miranda shares a remarkably similar story to that of his founding father counterpart, Alexander Hamilton. Both essentially wrote their way out of a difficult situation because “In New York you can/Be a new man” (Miranda). New York presented an opportunity for these individuals to rise up out of their class and take on influential roles in their respective eras. While Alexander Hamilton used his rhetoric to guide the young nation towards his vision of an idealistic republic, Lin-Manuel Miranda brings this nation back towards those principles and sheds a critical light on the founding father’s strengths and flaws. Miranda did so by completely going against the status quo on Broadway. Hamilton effectively captures the spirit of the American Dream and inspires viewers and listeners to remember and understand the ideals upon which our country was founded, in such a way that is ingeniously revolutionary in its own right. There has seldom been a play that has been so bold and original in its goals and messages (Horwitz). Casting the founding fathers as minorities is both shocking and genius—reminding the viewers that the founding fathers were all immigrants just the same (an especially important message in this time of political turmoil when immigrants are unfortunately being hypocritically shunned). Hamilton delivers this message by utilizing a unique medium in that of New York’s own Broadway musical style. However, Hamilton is not your typical Broadway play; it breaks out of the stereotypical flashy musical numbers, and uses what is essentially the vernacular of modern music: rap, hip-hop, soul and R&B. In Alex Horwitz’s Hamilton’s America documentary, Miranda is directly compared to Shakespeare because no one else has been able to so effectively and cleverly tell history to the masses through the popular medium (Horowitz). By means of powerful visual cues, dramatic lighting, captivating choreography and groundbreaking music, Miranda can reach across many demographics to share his important ideals. Hamilton has etched its place as one of New York’s greatest treasures, and for that reason, several of its pieces are in this album, including remixes by well-known artists inspired by Miranda’s movement.

“Immigrants, we get the job done.” (Miranda)

New York’s America is an assembly of some of New York’s greatest contributions to the world made by diverse artists, intended for diverse audiences. New York celebrates its multicultural identity and sets an example for the rest of the world to follow. Even if the United States is comprised of a population that just voted into office men who are essentially anti-immigration, New York will stand out as a beacon of hope and opportunity for immigrants and foreigners because that is and always has been our identity and purpose. It is a place where an immigrant can rise out of an impoverished situation, achieve glory and send an important message to spread awareness of his people’s struggles and his country’s identity. It is a place where a foreigner can shed light on a country’s hidden beauty, promote progressiveness and craft a masterpiece to celebrate that spirit. This is the beauty of New York.

“If I can it make there, I’ll make it anywhere.” (Sinatra)


Works Cited

Bernstein, Leonard, et al. West Side Story: Original Broadway Cast Recording. Columbia Broadway Masterworks, 1998. CD.

Clapham, John. Antonin Dvorak: Musician and Craftsman. Faber and Faber, 1966. Dvořák, Antonín. Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, ‘From the New World. Signum Records, 2017. Spotify. open.spotify.com/album/1zd0zzkmxSBylOQxomTL4Q.

“Ellis Island History.” The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation. libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-island-history.

Hamilton’s America. Alex Horwitz, director. Thirteen Productions LLC for WNET, 2016.

Hurwitz, David. Dvorák: Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius. Amadeus Press, 2005.

Miranda, Lin Manuel, et al. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording. Atlantic Recording Corporation, 2015.

Oliver, Myrna “Leonard Bernstein Dies; Conductor, Composer Music:Renaissance man of his art was 72. The longtime leader of the N.Y. Philharmonic carved a niche in history with `West Side Story.'” Los Angeles Times, 15 Oct. 1990. articles.latimes.com/1990-10-15/news/mn-1946_1_west-side-story

“Theater: New Musical in Manhattan.” . 7 Oct. 1957. content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,809976,00.html


A Word from Alex

Headshot of Alex HornThe Writing 111 course taught by Dr. Smith sought to explore the intersection of music and rhetoric. Emphasis was placed on the concept of genre and its ability to mold and define a body of writing. The semester’s final project was to create an album of songs linked together by a common theme. We then had to elaborate on the theme and explain the reasoning behind our choices. This creative freedom, granted by the parameters of Dr. Smith’s assignment, allowed me to speak wholeheartedly through the medium of both music and writing. When I first received the assignment, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical production, Hamilton, popped into my mind immediately. Through his music, he told an intensely inspiring story with vastly deep messages. It got me thinking about other compositions that shared the themes of Hamilton.

The setting, New York City, became a recurring theme. This one place served as an anchor for so many different principals fighting for a common purpose. Meanwhile, this work evolved into a homage to my home city while I was going through a bout of homesickness as well as a general disgust for the political climate around the election. I attribute Dr. Smith’s concentration on genre and topic to my development in writing; when the author has a fierce passion behind his topic and message, the voice becomes drastically more vivid. As a Presidential Scholar for the Viola, the music I discussed, especially Dvorak’s work, is important to me at a personal level; in addition, I longed for my home city. I have fond memories from the time I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton in its opening week at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This created a perfect storm for this work to come together, the intersection of my personal life and rhetoric led to, what I believe to be, one of my most passionate works. I very much accredit Dr. Smith for the growth of my writing by enabling this level of creative freedom in a final project; it was truly an ingenious idea!


From Professor Carter Smith

Assignment

Album Essay

I want you to assemble a collection of songs or pieces of music—an “album,” to use a term that’s lost some of its currency—that presents an intellectual idea. Or one, to put it another way, that makes an argument.

Even though you won’t compose the music on this album, you will make authorial decisions that shape it as a text. You will brainstorm and conceptualize the idea that unifies your collection, you will select the songs or pieces to include, you will sequence them in an order that makes the argument most effectively, and, finally, you will articulate the argument that your album makes in an essay that employs the writing strategies that we’ve discussed this semester.

You’re in control of the methods here, including how your audience will experience your album. Consider how the medium (is it a playlist? a CD? a tape? something else?) and packaging might enhance its message.

Bring your album, in whatever form you’ve chosen, to class on 4/5.

Bring to class on 4/12 a focused, well-developed essay of around 1250 words in which you articulate the argument that your album presents.

Professor Commentary

Of the many things to admire in Alex Horn’s “New York’s America,” I think I admire its inventiveness the most. Imagine reading the assignment sheet, which asks you to compose an album that makes an argument–and an “intellectual” argument at that. Where do you go from there? There is a lot of latitude in the assignment, and this essay moves into that space confidently, assembling and analyzing a group of songs about New York to reveal something new to its reader, something unexpected about how music represents the American-ness of this most American of cities. The main idea could simply be thematic (songs about New York), but it isn’t. Instead, it’s inventive, interesting, and as is often the case in essays with interesting ideas, one isn’t entirely sure whether it belongs to the writer here or to the texts that he writes about.

One more thing about invention. This assignment asks the author of the essay to create the album, too. The album version of “New York’s America” is an impressively produced facsimile of a Playbill (a nod to the Broadway roots of some of the music under analysis here) that includes a list of all the songs that the paper might have considered.

Rhetorically, the transitions from paragraph to paragraph are quite strong. And, as a reader, I respond positively to the introduction’s attempt to pique its reader’s interest. About that: is the rapper from Brooklyn (who’s on the album but who isn’t a focus of the essay) Jay-Z? Is it Nas? Like any good essay, this one leaves its reader curious about something. It gives you the sense that the conversation could (and does) continue.

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