Ives, Varèse, Cowell, and Cage, four composers influential on the American music scene in the 21st century, are the principal players in American Pioneers. Ives and Cage get top billing, though, as Alan Rich aims to show how a genuine "American" classical idiom rose during the closing years of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ives comes across as a true original; in England they would have called him "eccentric." Cranky, obstreperous, and in some ways indifferent to actual performances of his music, he rates as a kind of musical Thoreau.
When Cage studied with Schoenberg, the redoubtable founder of the Second Viennese School told Cage that he was more of an inventor than a composer. Cage took the comment as a compliment, and his experiments with unusual methods of producing (or not producing) sound support Schoenberg's opinion. Cage is on record as claiming that "everything is music." Though he treats Cage sympathetically, Rich acknowledges that certain aspects of Cage's music and philosophical pronouncements leave him open to a charge of charlatanism. For a reader trying to understand the intellectual undercurrents of later 20th century music (and indeed the whole world of art), the detailed discussion of Cage's thought and methods is invaluable.