It took the 2008 election to get me to actually look up the derivation of the word maverick. I knew it meant a nonconformist and was the name of an old TV show with James Garner and a movie you may have once seen on an airplane, but what it really means is an unbranded range animal, usually a motherless calf who has separated from the herd. The name refers to a 19th century Texas rancher, Sam Maverick, who was known for his stubborn independence, famously manifested in his refusal to brand his cattle.
It’s a nice American word, and a good one for a particularly American musical character. Though you find countless visionary geniuses in the history of European classical music, you don’t find too many of the lone wolf, deemed-a-crackpot, do-it-yourselfer variety. Okay, Gesualdo and Schoenberg I might give you, but American music has an amazing number of composers who went their own way and stayed the course through isolation, scorn and ridicule. Charles Ives may be the godfather of isolation, and Harry Partch the patron saint of doing-it-yourself, but we have divine crazies going back to the 1770s, when the lame, one-eyed, snuff addict and tanner William Billings wrote his tone clustery chorale Jargon.
So, to me, to be a Maverick composer, you build your own vehicle and find your own way with it. The lineage of the American Mavericks I’ll be featuring proceeds, for the most part, from Ives, Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford and Henry Cowell, through John Cage, Harry Partch and Lou Harrison to Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. They found new ways to write, new instruments to write for and followed untried roads to get their music heard. And of course they’ve had tremendous impact on independent-minded listeners and some of today’s composers who we will also hear.
I’m not sure the "maverick" label fits as well on current-day composers, though. It used to be that there was one way, you either went through the academies and the major concert organizations or you were in the cold. But now, due to a few handy paradigm shifts in the ways music gets out there, a composer can be independent and as off-the-wall as you please from the get-go and find an audience to whom they need not explain a difference. It’s like we’re all mavericky now. Which is a very cool thing, since now all that worrying energy can go somewhere else. And among those we can thank for this peace of mind are the American Maverick composers. They sold insurance and drove cabs so that you could listen more freely.
Starting March 8, Hear Phil Kline weekdays from 8-10 AM and 6-8 PM on Q2 Music. For more information on American Mavericks, visit q2music.org/mavericksl.