The term “maverick” comes from the American southwest in the days before the American southwest became associated with cultural hubs like Santa Fe.

We’re talking 19th century, when the southwest was a renegade region known as Texas.  Samuel Maverick was a mid-century landowner and politician who fought for Texas’s independence from Mexico.  His later habit of leaving his cattle unbranded, whatever his reasons, delivered his name into the popular lexicon as a term for someone who goes his own way, who refuses to follow the crowd.

In recent decades, the word has found some traction as a moniker for composers who stand outside of – and even actively avoid – historical tides.  This usage is` really no more awkward than any other, but it poses problems for anyone who feels that cities are the most natural breeding grounds for innovative work.  It’s difficult to expand the definition of “maverick” to include people who gravitate to large urban centers, places where one must subscribe to myriad small and large social conventions in order to survive.

In the case of new music, it can often feel like branding is everything.  Certainly the people who do the branding, the ones who decide what is important to our culture, live in cities, not off by themselves in the wilderness. It’s easy to imagine an enormous number of unbranded calves that simply go unnoticed by history.

It makes sense to me, as someone who is neither a maverick nor an urban dweller (at least not at this point), to celebrate artistic accomplishments regardless of their source.  There are certainly composers who head off into the cultural wilderness and create work that is insightful and enduring.  Likewise, there are composers who cluster into cells of like-minded artists and show us things we never could have seen otherwise.  The former we could call mavericks; the latter await a more suitable term.

4 Responses to “Urban Mavericks”
  1. Kyle says:

    “There are certainly composers who head off into the cultural wilderness and create work that is insightful and enduring. Likewise, there are composers who cluster into cells of like-minded artists and show us things we never could have seen otherwise.”

    Since Cowell, Cage, Feldman, Harrison, Partch, Young, and the other alleged Mavericks worked closely together and influenced each other, it has always seemed to me that they belong in your second category, and that your first category, however blessed by Michael Tilson Thomas, is virtually a null set.

  2. Lawrence Dillon says:

    Would you put Ives and Nancarrow in the first category?

    You make a good point, and it fits with the implication I was making (maybe a bit too subtly) that most true mavericks go unnoticed, almost by definition.

  3. Kyle says:

    Knew you’d ask. Ives made an intense study of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms in order to figure out how to make *American* tunes suitable for symphonic development. Though he perforce created in isolation, once he met Ruggles, Cowell, Becker, and Harrison he became loyal to them and close, in his way; hell, he shared an apartment with fellow music students from Yale until he got married. Nancarrow took most of his rhythmic ideas from Cowell’s New Musical Resources, and stayed in touch with Carter and Cage throughout his “lost” years, refusing their attempts to help him get his music out. Later became friends with Peter Garland, Gordon Mumma, Ligeti, Julio Estrada, and so on. There are no mavericks, it’s a false category created to allow the establishment to legitimize certain hand-picked American composers who use “non-European” composing techniques while still marginalizing all the other similar composers. I’ve been fighting it for many years.

    http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2008/02/my_longyear_musicology_lecture.html

  4. Lawrence Dillon says:

    Kyle, I remember this lecture well – I forwarded it to several people. But I think there is a difference between someone who refuses to engage in approved contemporary trends and someone who has no influences. Mavericks are unbranded – but they all have mothers (to reference a theme for the day). But as you say, there is nothing peculiarly American about this idea. In fact, though branding didn’t originate in this country, it’s safe to say that is has flourished here as nowhere else.

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