Thank You, Sarah Palin

We in American music owe a great debt to John McCain and Sarah Palin. Those two have so cheapened and tainted the word “maverick” that it will be at least a generation, maybe two, before anyone will be able to use the word non-ironically again. And that means, surely, that there will be no more talk about the “American maverick composers.” 

As I’ve written here before, the musicological purpose of the word “maverick” is to legitimize certain handpicked composers despite the unconventionality (as compared with alleged European norms) of their composing methods, and to do so without de-marginalizing all the other composers who share those methods. What we need is for the methods themselves to be legitimized, so that a true pluralism of aesthetics can be accepted into discourse. The “maverick” image of Cage, Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, La Monte Young as lone dissenters – composers who, after all, had teachers, friends, students, protégés with whom they shared ideas and developed their creativity collectively – was always a palpable fiction. And no one who watched Palin vacuously self-identify as a maverick at the end of the vice-presidential debate will ever be able to use the word seriously again, thank god.


  1. brett says

    Amen. I know that Maury Maverick Jr. (a great progressive lawyer and journalist) and his dad (an extemely courageous progressive mayor of home town of San Antonio, who defended Communists back when that was dangerous), are fulminating up in whatever nirvana deceased progressive secular humanists inhabit at the misappropriation of their family name by politicians they would have loathed and worked to defeat. (The term came from Maury Sr.’s grandfather Sam, a Texas cattleman and political leader who refused to brand his cattle.)
    Lou Harrison said that he liked the term because it applied to a member of the herd who nevertheless stood apart from the herd; that is, he was pround to be part of a great classical tradition he revered, but an independent thinker within that tradtion. Here’s how he defined the term in an interview with the American Mavericks public radio program.
    What is a maverick composer? What is that tradition?
    A maverick composer I think is an outsider. The art people have made categories for this. There is a magazine called Raw Vision, and there are books, and there are explorations, but there are whole galleries devoted to the outsider artist. I think [Michael Tilson Thomas] is using “maverick” as outsider artists. None of us really took commissions until very late. I still think of myself as a maverick artist. My newest work is one. Demands a new kind of instrument and a new kind of tuning, new kind of technique and so on.
    Also, I seem to recall that the first performance of Cage’s 4’33” — the very work you’re documenting — occurred at Maverick Hall in Woodstock.
    KG replies: Nice to hear Lou’s definition, thanks. And Hervey White named his hall “Maverick” because he broke away from the local arts group he’d come to disagree with to found it. The irony hasn’t been lost on me.

  2. Tarot Reader says

    Samuel Maverick refused to brand his cattle…Sarah Palin refused to brand her last child as ‘unfit-for-life’.
    By extension, ‘maverick’ came to name any person who does go against the grain…like Sarah Palin does and most pro lifers who happen to be the real rebels of the bio-tech-era.
    Bush too is a maverick when invading Irak and calling for a surge that everybody else condemned.
    In fact, the ‘rebels’ of the day are the conservatives, the evangelicals, the orthodox christians and jews, that is the mystical, the poetic, the deep down artist refusing the flatness of an all-encompassing healthcare systemisation turning everyone into any-body-for-the-cull-and-organ-reaping, the big-rnb-porn-whiter-teeth-thing, the obligatory eco-fascist cult of Al-Gory, the koold heartness of Obama who cares so little for people that he can’t remember the name of the fallen soldier whom he is wearing the bracelet and rules out late-abortion-survivors as mere junk to be disposed of, who is unable, like most ‘liberals’ to think out why some do oppose abortion, organ donation, genetic manipulation and state control over more poetic beliefs…….for in the end, it is down to Art more than some positive ‘truth’ that pepole choose to have children even, especially, when ‘un’convenient…..think Beethoven, think Van Gogh, think Nietzsche, think Holderlin, think WS Burroughs, think Kerouac……think Lovecraft, Poe, Emily Dickinson, Twaine, Thoreau…….All maverick, all pro lifers, all somewhat more conservatives than alleged by critics…I mean really conservatives, really republicans, really artists, really poets, really mystics, really looking forward beyond the herd…standing for freedom and what it takes to be free…beyond the mere cliches of freedom as fed to us by the flat usefulness of things…fighting for a baby-to-be-born
    in advance,
    Merry Christmas-Hannuka (mavericks’festival-s)
    KG replies: So you think Thoreau would have been out there chanting “Drill, baby, drill!”, and rolling his eyes at Al Gore? And Kerouac, Burroughs, et al would have supported Jesse Helms’s crusades against homosexuals and artists as dangers to society? Fine. Thanks for the interesting viewpoint. I’m a Tarot fan myself, and always represent myself with the Death card.

  3. Tarot Reader says

    reply to KG
    Thoreau either would not have used any sort of energy source except logs in his fireplace…or would have understood that drilling makes perfect sense rather than depending ever more on Russia-Iran that he sure disliked as the very epitomisation of tyrany.
    Kerouac may have found nowadays queers very boring and so would Burroughs…since they both disliked witch-hunting and hypocrisy. They would have calmely told anybody asking…to leave kids grow up and that for/maybe because of all its imperfection the mumy-dady option was the best one…to grow authentic rebels, real artists, real libertarians rather than pro-segregation-normated-liberals.
    They poke fun at right-wingers and else bigots but truely loathe scientists(Dr.Benway?)and corporatist-left-wingers. Jesse Helms is less of a danger for the denizens of Cythera than Karl Marx or Jimy Carter…any time.
    with all fauns, from Athos
    Tarot Reader
    KG replies: I’m all in favor of having a rich fantasy life.
    Seriously, though, I would think it would be tremendously difficult these days, as a cultured conservative, to square one’s interest in the great minds of artistic and literary history with the Republican party’s obsessive catering to the various Joe’s – Six-Pack, and the Plumber and so on. The dumbing-down of the Republican party has been widely noted, even by prominent Republicans. The current war to control Iraq’s oil production would have to be far more important than the U.S.’s 19th-century war on Mexico – which Thoreau went to jail for rather than support through taxes – to think that Thoreau would support the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Of course, we know without doubt which way the pacifism of Tolstoy and Gandhi would lean. One could see your point about mystics all having to be Republicans if you assume, as I suppose many on the Right do, that all liberals are scientific materialists – which is not at all the case. But I think Thoreau is pretty well on record as believing that the American wilderness should not be raped by industrialists, whatever the emergency (especially an emergency that the raping would do nothing immediate to ameliorate).
    I remember that after I won an NEA artist’s grant in 1995, my local church in rural Pennsylvania sent out a newsletter, replete with Jesse Helms’s and Donald Wildmon’s Republican talking points, warning that NEA-sponsored artists were destroying the moral fabric of America. The Republicans made me, personally, as an artist, a target of their hatred. It’s impossible for me to see how anyone who loves the arts could condone such behavior.

  4. greybanks says

    Here’s an interesting NY Times article by Jon Schwartz in which he reviews the history of the term and checks in with the current bearers of the torch for their feeling.

    “It’s just incredible — the nerve! — to suggest that he’s not part of that Republican herd. Every time we hear it, all my children and I and all my family shrink a little and say, ‘Oh, my God, he said it again.’ ”
    “He’s a Republican,” she said. “He’s branded.”

  5. Richard Mitnick says

    Does KG think that Leonard Bernstein as a composer might be classified as a maverick?
    KG replies: I don’t think it’s particularly common for a composer to really be a maverick because learning to write music and getting it performed are such social activities, not something you can go off and do all by yourself, as one might write a novel in isolation. Perhaps one could call Cowell and Partch mavericks, since they truly seemed to compose without precedents. Bernstein’s music owes so much to Copland that I couldn’t imagine calling him a maverick, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love his music. His Second Symphony was a very important work for me. I’m curious as to why you ask.

  6. Matt LeGroulx says

    I didn’t realize that Dr. Benway was such a highly regarded scientist and is representative of all others. Come to think of it I vaguely remember my surgeon saying something before my appendectomy about a rusty sardine can.

  7. says

    It’s interesting that maverick is now considered “independent” or “unorthodox.” I’ve come across two different explanations of the original maverick – 1) Maverick’s failure to brand his cattle had little to do with independent mindedness, but reflected his lack of interest in ranching and 2) that he didn’t brand his cattle so that he could claim any unbranded ones as his own. In a way the second version would be a manner of hedging your bets – something that McCain does, but Palin obviously doesn’t. Refusing to be aligned can mean you want to keep all the doors open. In short there is an opportunistic maverick versus an independent type, while there don’t seem to be any indifferent ones.

  8. says

    Best line on the McCain/Palin maverick mess belongs to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times: A maverick doesn’t brand himself.
    KG replies: Exactly. I’m working up a lecture on that pint.