Greg Sandow

America Slow Dance and 12-Tone America

Greg Sandow

America Slow Dance and 12-Tone America

About the Piece

These are little pieces, the first one just a minute long, the second one two minutes. To me they sound friendly, expressive, and — especially the first one — playful.

I played some games writing them. 12-Tone America turns "America the Beautiful" (or a bit of it, anyway) into 12-tone music. America Slow Dance makes the song sound like a 1950s rock & roll ballad, the kind I danced to when I was in seventh grade. Maybe there's a connection, since in the 1950s, 12-tone music was big.

12-Tone America moves quickly! Blink, and it's lyrical. Then it's abrupt, then it's dark, and then it ends peacefully.

For America Slow Dance, I had to wrestle “America the Beautiful” into the chord progression standard in 1950s rock ballads (I, then VI, then II or IV, then V). Midway through, I pulled an old pop music trick, jacking the key up a half step. Which normally sets up a big climax, but I made it calm the music down.

How the 12-tone piece works: I constructed a row, which — combined with a transposition of its retrograde — gave me the first four notes of the tune. They jump out three times, each time followed by one of the blink-and-you'll-miss-them sections, the lyrical, jagged, and dark ones. Each is a free fantasy, built from the leftover notes in the forms of the row that gave me the tune.

Then comes the peaceful conclusion, in which you'll hear repeated low E flats. These are a tribute to Webern, my favorite 12-tone composer, whose Variations for Piano has repeated low E flats at the end.

I love these composer’s games. But they matter only if you care about them. And they wouldn't matter at all if the pieces weren't good to hear, if they didn't sound (at least to me) friendly, expressive, and playful.

About Greg Sandow

I’ve been a composer, long ago a singer, and also a critic, one of very few with a national reputation for writing about both classical music and pop. In recent years my specialty has been the future of classical music, which I’ve addressed as a writer, a public speaker in the U.S. and abroad, as a teacher and as a consultant, and by doing projects with major orchestras. Since 1997 I’ve taught graduate courses at Juilliard, one on the future of classical music and the other about how to speak and write about music. My favorite music includes both bel canto opera and Bob Dylan. And I think classical music can close the gap between itself and the rest of the world in part by accepting popular culture as its equal — an idea, in my view, that ought to be obvious, if you spend time outside the classical music world.

More: As a critic, two of my specialties were opera, and the far edge of new classical music, in a landscape where Steve Reich and Philip Glass ranked as established masters. For awhile I also passed as an authority on hiphop, and was the first journalist ever to write about the important gangsta rap group N.W.A. Two of my happiest moments as a journalist were when I persuaded Ice-T not to say homophobic things at his shows, and when I inspired the Pet Shop Boys to create one of their slyest, most masterful songs, their mashup of Frankie Valli and U2.

My writing appeared in the Village Voice, once New York’s most important weekly paper, in the Wall Street Journal, and in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, a now-defunct daily where I was chief pop music critic. I was also music critic and Senior Music Editor at Entertainment Weekly. Among my public appearances have been keynote talks at conferences in Australia, the Netherlands, and the US; commencement speeches at Eastman and the Longy School of Music; workshops given at League of American Orchestras conferences; and many panel discussions, with organizations ranging from major orchestras to a hard rock and heavy metal convention.  

As a composer, I’m not always active, but when I do emerge, I’ve had notable success. In the past I’ve written four operas, all successfully performed (though one only in workshops), and I had an evening of my music at the Music Center at Strathmore. Plus performances by (among other organizations) the Pittsburgh Symphony, the South Dakota Symphony, and the Fine Arts Quartet, which gave the first public performance of a string quartet I wrote as a surprise birthday present for my wife, and was first heard in our living room.

My wife is Anne Midgette, formerly the chief classical music critic for the Washington Post (and an outstanding one, which isn’t only my opinion). We live in a big house in DC with our 9 year-old son, who has no use for classical music, but who discovered Billie Eilish before I did.

Score Photos by Laura Migliorino
Score Photos by Laura Migliorino

About Discovery Composers

As the artistic director of Center for Musical Excellence, I am always on the look out for new and undiscovered talents.  They come to me, sometimes, by my colleagues’ recommendations and other times through young artists’ own research about our organization.  Tyson Davis and Andrew Bambridge are currently on our roster of CME Young Artists, whom we mentor.  Patricio Molina is a CME alumnus. Theo Chandler, Ji-Young Ko, and Daniel Newman-Lessler applied for our Grant program, and I got to know their work through that process. I decide on young artists when I notice a deep passion and drive within them, plus a certain kind of sparkle in the personality and lots of humility.  In addition to musical talents, I believe these are the qualities that will take the young artists far.  CME’s motto is "Moving Musicians Forward".  I’ve chosen our Discovery Composers based on these qualities,  whom we felt we could easily move forward.

- Min Kwon