Dika Newlin (1923-2006): A Remembrance

Dika Newlin (1923-2006): A Remembrance

Dika Newlin, American composer, pianist, writer on music, educator, punk rock performance artist, and actress passed away in Richmond, Virginia, on July 22, 2006.

Written By

Sabine Feisst

Dika Newlin
Photo by Michael D. Moore

Dika Newlin, American composer, pianist, writer on music, educator, punk rock performance artist, and actress passed away in Richmond, Virginia, on July 22, 2006.

I met Dika, an important Schoenberg student and scholar, through my research on Schoenberg in the late 1990s. First we corresponded about Schoenberg matters and I was touched by her generosity and readiness to help with a variety of Schoenberg related questions. In May 2001, I met her in person at a conference at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna. I was struck by her unusual appearance and strong personality. With her bright orange dyed hair, youthful clothes, and plateau sandals, her powers of recollection and eloquence, this petite and delicate 78-year old woman instantaneously became the star of this event despite the presence of other important figures in the Schoenberg world including Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria, and his former teaching assistants Leonard Stein and Richard Hoffmann.

Having acquainted myself more thoroughly with her scholarly and creative work, I met her again in Richmond in May 2005 conducting a six-hour interview, which was videotaped by filmmaker Michael D. Moore, Dika’s most important artistic collaborator since the 1990s. While Dika had become physically much frailer (never fully recovering from broken hip surgery in 2003), she was as alert and lively as ever. A supreme raconteur, she vividly and untiringly recalled her upbringing, music studies, and Schoenberg stories, wearing a Schoenberg T-shirt on this occasion. She passionately talked about her teaching career and her own diverse creative activities, spontaneously bursting into song or reciting poems and her own song lyrics.

It is not easy to categorize Dika’s life and work. On the one hand she was a very active scholar, composer, and performer of serious music earning recognition in the classical music world. On the other hand she was a punk rock performance artist and B-horror movie actress who puzzled and shocked audiences yet enjoyed a devoted cult following as a counterculture icon.

Dika was not only one of the pioneers of Schoenberg research in America, providing important early literature on Schoenberg in English, but also one of the first female Schoenberg scholars (sometimes meeting the resistance of her male colleagues). Her study, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, was the first dissertation in musicology at Columbia University (1945) and one of the first dissertations in musicology devoted to a living composer. Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg was soon published as a book (King’s Crown Press 1947, revised Norton 1978). She also authored Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections, 1938-1976 (Pendragon 1980), a sincere memoir of her studies with Schoenberg. She edited Schoenberg’s essay collection Style and Idea (Philosophical Library 1950) and translated several important French and German books on Schoenberg into English.

Her compositional oeuvre includes three operas, a chamber symphony and concerto, a piano concerto, and numerous chamber, vocal, and mixed media works. While Dika’s compositions from the 1930s and early 1940s feature extended tonality and classical forms and techniques, many works from the late 1940s through the 1960s exhibit the use of serialism. From the ’60s on, she also explored multimedia approaches, electronics, computer composition, group improvised composition, and minimalism. Trained by such famed pianists as Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, Dika also pursued a career as a concert pianist performing music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. In addition she performed as a vocalist giving as recently as 1999 a costumed performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in her own English translation in Lubbock, Texas.

In the mid-1980s, inspired by her students, Dika discovered popular music as a means of artistic expression. She became active as a punk rock singer and keyboardist performing together with Virginia Commonwealth University students and alumni in such Richmond-based alternative rock bands as Apocowlypso. She performed rock standards and her own eclectic pop songs featuring her own socially and politically conscious lyrics and a fusion of rock, punk, jazz, and classical elements. Her vocal style is spirited and intentionally raw, influenced by cabaret traditions and Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme. She recorded several albums including Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin (2Loud!Records 2004). In the 1990s Dika also emerged as a playwright and actress in collaboration with filmmaker Michael D. Moore (not to be confused with the Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11), who specializes in alternative film: music video, documentary, and B-horror movies. Moore captured Dika as a leather-clad punk rocker, scholar, and social critic in his hybrid film Dika: Murder City (MDM Productions 1997), which won awards at film festivals in Orlando and Chicago. She also played eccentric characters in Moore’s B-horror films starring, for instance, as a telephone psychic who encounters a malformed alien space baby in Afterbirth.

Born in Portland, Oregon, on November 22, 1923, Dika grew up in Michigan as the only child of an intellectual couple. Both of her parents were college professors. Dika was a child prodigy graduating from high school at age 12, receiving her B.A. from Michigan State University at age 16, her M.A. from UCLA at age 18, and her doctorate from Columbia at age 22. In addition to her studies with Schoenberg (with whom she worked as a teenager), she studied with other towering musical figures of the last century: composer Roger Sessions, pianists Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, and the musicologist Paul Henry Lang. She taught at Western Maryland College (1945-1949), Syracuse University (1949-1951), Drew University (1952-1965), North Texas State University (1965-1973), and Virginia Commonwealth (1978-2004) using Schoenberg’s textbooks on harmony and counterpoint and unconventional teaching methods. Dika was an influential teacher. Her students include the composers Roger Hannay (1930-2006) and Michael Bates, and the musicologist Theodore Albrecht. She is internationally renowned for her contributions to Schoenberg scholarship always striving to mediate his art to a broader public, and she has been celebrated as a cult personality in such venues as People magazine.

Having experienced complications from a broken arm and rejecting food and a feeding tube for ten days despite the tireless assistance of her two devoted friends Michael and Colleen Moore, Dika died at the Imperial Plaza’s Manor Care facility in Richmond. She is survived by an elderly cousin in North Carolina and her cat Spot.


Those Others are So Boring: My recollection of Dika Newlin

By Elizabeth Keathley
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

<p=small>I had been intrigued by Dika Newlin long before I met her. Early in my graduate school days I had read her candid memoir, Schoenberg Remembered, whose irreverence and vernacular tone has rankled other (mostly male) Schoenberg scholars (“Schoenberg dismembered,” I’ve heard it called). The photo above the author bio depicted a woman full of conviction that she was entitled to speak as she pleased: unruly hair above a wide, toothful grin above a flamboyant leopard-print blouse—”Who IS this woman?” I thought.

<p=small>Although I had hoped to meet her at an international Schoenberg conference in Los Angeles in 1991, I discovered that she had not been invited. Her former UCLA classmate, Leonard Stein, then retiring from the directorship of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, responded to my inquiry with an off-handed, “Well, you can’t invite everybody!” as we stood in the dining room of Schoenberg’s house on Rockingham Ave, where Dika used to come for composition lessons.

<p=small>Ten years later, at a symposium of the new Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, I finally met Dika, by then quite thin and frail in appearance, but dressed in a vibrant purple satin blouse that created a jarring contrast with her deep orange hair. Other Schoenberg pupils also attended this symposium, including Leonard Stein, who was more sedate than I had remembered him, and Richard Hoffmann, Schoenberg’s amanuensis. But the Viennese media glommed onto Dika, interviewing for the newspapers and taping for TV, and she played the role of media darling to the hilt. The symposium audience was delighted when Dika shuffled to the piano to demonstrate the four-note motif of Schoenberg’s second chamber symphony, which she had incorporated into the theme song for a horror film, Five Dark Souls.

<p=small>Dika was delighted that I had written a paper about her for the symposium and was eager for me to see her lastest work, including a documentary by her collaborator, Michael D. Moore (Dika: Murder City), culminating in a concert by Dika and her rock band, Apocowlypso; and a Sci-Fi spoof (Afterbirth), in which she plays a medium and sings an original song, “Alien Baby.” The words “alien baby” comprise the chorus, but the song begins with the Stefan George text Schoenberg used for the fourth movement of his second string quartet: “I feel the air of other planets…”

<p=small>Dika and I spent a great deal of time together during that symposium. We walked together between the symposium and the hotel (she never wanted help crossing the busy street), dined together, and had nice long talks about Schoenberg, music, teaching, and cats, among other things. Not merely her knowledge, but also her thoughtfulness, and the way she put those thoughts together into complete paragraphs—as though she were writing rather than speaking—impressed me deeply. I sensed that her celebrity at this symposium was some small recompense for her years of marginalization by the academic music establishment, but even more than that I sensed an enviable confidence in her self as an interesting and worthwhile person. She gloated a little that she had received more attention than either Stein or Hoffmann, and when I asked her how she accounted for her greater celebrity, she laughed, “Oh, those others are so boring!”

<p=small>Although her final years were marred by poverty and poor health, Dika Newlin nonetheless had friends and admirers, was a local icon in Richmond, and had the courage to ignore convention and do the things she found meaningful. Would this were true for us all.