Skyscrapers

By Judith Tick

Written for the concert American Originals, performed on Nov 17, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the 1920s, that glittering decade of melting-pot ambitions, American classical composers acknowledged the irresistible appeal of popular culture as a way to be “American” in the concert hall. Among those pioneering this trend was the Chicago-based John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951). After the successful “jazz pantomime,” Krazy Kat (1921–based on a famous comic strip character), Carpenter composed Skyscrapers (1923-24) as a portrait of “the many rhythmic movements and sounds of modern American life.” Blending vernacular idioms (like blues and ragtime) with modernism (including bi-tonal harmonies, asymmetric rhythms, and collage textures), he supplemented a classical orchestra with a mini-Paul Whiteman-jazz band, adding banjo, high-hat cymbals and snare drum, two pianos, xylophone and three saxophones.

Skyscrapers began life as a prestigious commission from Serge Diaghilev, who delayed a decision on production just long enough for Carpenter to cut loose. Carpenter then mounted the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1926. In the next two years Skyscrapers received additional performances, including one in Munich in 1928. That same year a shortened concert version went to Paris with Serge Koussevitsky, surviving a few decades before falling into undeserved obscurity. The performance tonight is a rare treat because it recreates the complete original ballet score, including the choral parts typically omitted from concert performance.

Skyscrapers is structured as a large, exuberant, episodic rhapsody, flanked by two sober shorter sections. Although the ballet scenario was worked out after the music had been composed, Carpenter planned from the beginning to capture the dynamics of Americans at work and at play. He opens and closes with a depiction of a futuristic work-world in city-noir style, its chaos and demands symbolized by a stalking skyscraper, provocatively described as “huge and sinister…a stark and ominous skeleton of black and red.” Here trumpets bleat like automobiles, pianos and xylophone pound the pavement, smoke and steel sulfurate through strings and winds. All this frenetic activity culminates in the “Song of the Skyscraper,” a primal pseudo-Native American (“Indianist”) theme introduced by French horns.

Happily we leave these mean streets for the playground of vaudeville. The locale of most of the piece is an “exaggeration of the Coney Island type of American amusement park, complete with all its gay and tawdry trappings and a preposterous moon.” Here we encounter music to partner sideshows, a merry-go-round, and a prima donna called “Herself.” The dancers wear blackface, and one of them is a “strutter” from that let’s-pretend world of “darktown.” Like Gershwin, Carpenter could produce the big-deal tune, the totally endearing, sometimes brash popular melody that could turn on a dime into something else. Like Ives, Carpenter intersperses burlesqued quotations from popular song, including Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground,” an 1890s ragtime song, “When You Ain’t Got No Money Well You Needn’t Come Around,” and “Yankee Doodle.” A dream-sequence of a sleeping janitor includes a choral lullaby sung to a text of “Africanist” nonsense syllables which Carpenter naively intended as a “throw-back to negro plantation life: ‘Manola Bola, manola monabolo.’” Other musical details, like slapstick rhythmic vamps and pointed orchestration, add irony to the whole.

In Skyscrapers, Carpenter shows how much the machines of work and play share the hard-edged ambience of modernity– steel beams, elevators, roller coaster tracks, and ferris wheels traveling upward and onward into uncertainty. Skyscrapers may not sparkle with the street-smart optimism of Gershwin, but it captures the gritty intensity of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago mixed with Broadway pathos. As Elliott Carter wrote, “In spirit close to the Reginald Marsh and Dos Passos pictures of the American 1920s, [Skyscrapers] evokes just as keenly as they do that boisterous brutal era of the mechanical heart.”