A Musical Mix
Whether hugely popular or under the radar, American musical styles draw inspiration from different countries and cultures.
When it comes to music in the United States, it’s the age of the hybrid,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page, “and I don’t see us going back.”
A professor at the University of Southern California and a celebrated journalist, Page has studied many forms of American music during his career. He has seen first-hand how diverse the influences that shape those music forms can be.
From jazz to blues and soul to rock ‘n’ roll, many popular global styles of music have grown out of African and European musical influences, uniquely fused within the culture and geography of the United States. Jazz innovators like trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and rock ‘n’ roll legends like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley all embody that fusion in their own unmistakable ways. Yet, according to Page, a lesser-known genre of American music, equally fueled by diverse influences, may have had just as significant an impact, not just in the United States, but around the world.
Minimal music, maximum impact
Created in the early 1960’s by American composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, minimalism is a form of music that focuses on drones and repetition, similar to many varieties of Indian music. As Page describes it, the music tends to be consonant and experimental, hypnotic and meditative. “As a radio D.J., when I used to play works by Reich and Glass, I would get calls from people telling me that the record was stuck,” says Page with a laugh. “Back in the 1970’s, minimalist music sounded like music from Mars.”
Like other quintessential, American-born styles of music, minimalism was created from a unique alchemy of cultures and influences. “Steve [Reich] used to say that his great influences were [Russian-born composer] Igor Stravinsky and bebop jazz, and he was also working with percussionists from Ghana,” says Page. “Philip Glass was greatly influenced by Indian music and Terry Riley worked with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha Khan. They were all influenced by so many global styles of music.”
Since its early days as “music from Mars,” American minimalist music has influenced a huge array of popular music styles around the world, from jazz to pop to hip-hop. The American rock band of the 1960’s, The Velvet Underground, for example, drew direct inspiration from the work of minimalist composers, specifically when it came to the use of drones and repetition, says Page. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis also drew directly from the minimalist style for his album “On the Corner” and beyond.
Page describes how a great portion of today’s popular music—hip-hop, pop, electronic music and more—is based on the use of loops, seconds-long snippets of music or drum beats that are then repeated over and over, forming the bedrock of a song over which singers and other instrumentalists perform. “I see a direct connection between minimalism and the widespread use of loops today,” says Page. “Whenever you listen to the hippest, most current music, you can often hear pure Philip Glass influences and, therefore, everything that influenced him, all the way through.”
While influences from Africa, Europe and Asia have all fueled the creative evolution of American music—rock, jazz, minimalism and more—the musical culture of Latin America continues to play a key role as well. “Whether you’re talking about salsa, tango or other styles, music from Latin America has had a huge influence within the United States,” says Page. “Music from Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club is just one case. Though it started in the 1940’s in Cuba, the music only came to the U.S. when the musicians were older, in the 1990’s. Tons of young people in the U.S. have adopted that genre and continue to play it in this country. I like it enormously.”
Around the world
Connected by airplanes, cell phones and the Internet, an increasingly globalized world has its clear benefits when it comes to music, says Page. “We all know so much more music that we would have never encountered before the Internet,” says Page. “For me, recently, it’s been Korean pop bands, some of which are very good.”
Page has noticed a shift in global musical diversity in the context of India as well. “Thirty or 40 years ago, if you were in an Indian restaurant in a sophisticated city, you wouldn’t hear anything but sitar music,” he says. “Now, you hear interesting, rhythmic Indian pop, which is influenced by music from the United States, Europe and elsewhere. I think, it’s great that there are musicians and producers in India who are madly in love with pop music, taking it all in and putting their own stamp on it.”
Page is thrilled that in the United States and around the world, diversity in music and musical tastes appears to be thriving. “People like what they like, regardless of where it comes from,” he says. “Everywhere in the world, everybody listens to so many different genres and styles—and that’s a very good thing.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.