Cover image for American experimental music, 1890-1940
American experimental music, 1890-1940
Nicholls, David.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge [England] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Physical Description:
xiv, 239 pages : music ; 26 cm
General Note:
Revision of author's thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Cambridge, 1985.

Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML200.5 .N55 1990 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



From the end of the nineteenth century a national musical consciousness gradually emerged in the United States as composers began to turn away from the European conventions on which their music had been modeled. It was in this period of change that experimentalism was born and America subsequently became, as it still is, a major source of new musical ideas for European musicians. David Nicholls considers the most influential figures in the development of American experimentalism, including Charles Ives, Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell and the young John Cage. He analyzes the music and ideas of this group, explaining the compositional techniques invented and employed by them and the historical and cultural context in which they emerged. The book is thus an important contribution toward our understanding of some of the most challenging music of the twentieth century.

Author Notes

David Nicholls was born in 1966 in Eastleigh, Hampshire, United Kingdom. He studied English literature and drama at the University of Bristol. When he graduated he won a scholarship to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. He appeared in plays at the Battersea Arts Centre, the Finborough, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Birmingham Rep, and had a three year stint at the Royal National Theatre, understudying and playing small parts.

During this period he took a job at BBC Radio Drama as a script reader/researcher and he developed an adaptation of Sam Shepard's stage-play Simpatico with the director Matthew Warchus. He also wrote his first original script, Waiting, which was later optioned by the BBC.

Simpatico was turned into a feature film in 1999 which allowed him to start writing full-time. I Saw You won best single play at the annual BANFF television festival. He has been twice nominated for BAFTA awards.

His first novel, Starter for 10, was featured on the first Richard and Judy Book Club. His other novels include The Understudy, One Day, which won the Galaxy Book Award, and Us.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Choice Review

It has taken a British author to write a truly insightful book on the early American musical avant-garde. Except for the work of John Cage, little of the experimental music from the first half of the 20th century has had the critical attention it deserves. Most writers have expended their critical energies on Schoenberg and his associates, in part because that music analyzes so much better. The results are neat, precise, designed for the classroom, the textbook, the journal article. Not so the music of Charles Ives and those later iconoclasts included here--Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Carl Ruggles, Charles Seeger, and Cage. Nicholls has done yeoman service particularly in his painstaking analyses of the complexities of Ives. The analyses are thorough, fully documented, clarified by copious examples, graphed, and outlined. Nicholls takes seriously all of the music considered here, even the wildest, providing searching studies of the musical texts and intelligent commentary on their rationales. One emerges from a perusal of this book with, perhaps for the first time, a real grasp of the issues involved in American experimentalism and the impulses that propelled the experimenters. The book is rich in musical examples, clearly printed, handsomely done up. It contains notes, an index, and appendixes devoted to a bibliography, musical editions, and recordings. Although not a book for casual browsing, it more than repays one's application in its solid scholarship and sympathetic presentation of a body of music both challenging and historically important. Larger public libraries in addition to upper-division undergraduate and graduate collections. -F. Goossen, University of Alabama

Table of Contents

1 Introduction: the new and the experimental
2 In Re Con Moto Et Al: experimentalism in the works of Charles Ives
3 'On Dissonant Counterpoint': the development of a new polyphony, primarily by Charles Seeger, Carl Ruggles and Ruth Crawford
4 New Musical resources: radical innovation in the music of Henry Cowell
5 'The Future of Music: Credo': the development of a philosophy of experimentation in the early works of John Cage
6 Conclusion: unity through diversity
Select bibliography
Appendix: musical editions and selected readings