Author: Will Robin

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry

In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”

One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.

Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.

What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.

In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

Protesters waving banners directly in front of police covered with shields.

We know that music is not enough. No artistic response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor can adequately address the capaciousness of these injustices. But what does “more than music” mean? Is it the non-musical activities that many are engaged in right now – donating to bail funds, protesting in the streets, raising awareness that black lives matter, fighting to defund the police? Or is it about attempting to uncoil the racism that is tightly wound into our musical institutions, whether that be petitioning symphony orchestras to program African-American composers, calling on conservatories to center black music in their curricula, or diversifying the personnel and repertoire of new-music ensembles? It certainly can’t just be posting black images to Instagram. As I absorbed the constant proliferation of information and advice on social media, I knew I wanted to hear from artists I believed in, who have been thinking deeply, and for many years, about the role of musicians in enacting social change. Here are some of their thoughts.

Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z, George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan, Nathalie Joachim

Top row: Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z;
Bottom row: George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan (photo by Arielle Pentes), Nathalie Joachim (photo by Eric Patrice O’Brien)

Marcos Balter, composer

I am still being paid my full salary as a tenured professor, and none of my commissions have been canceled. So, I have made a commitment to spend as much of my income as possible on donations to worthwhile causes, especially bail funds and organizations that push for legislative changes regarding police brutality against black individuals. I have also been donating my time advising several music organizations on initiatives that not only show solidarity but also promote concrete change while examining their own culpability.

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it.

Accountability is key right now. You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it. And, I’ve been mentoring and teaching black composers, and fundraising for initiatives that combat the innate racism in classical music for a long time now. As a black composer, none of this is charitable for me: it’s a duty and a matter of survival. This is not a movement, and we should not conflate what is in the news with what is new. It’s old, very old, and it needs to end.

Eun Lee, clarinetist and founder of the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished theme this year is “Red, White, and Blues,” and it’s all about civic engagement and voting rights. If anything, all of this is just creating a doubling down, because voting is one of the few tangible things that people can be doing, either making sure that they themselves are voting, or making sure that other people are registered. Also, the census is huge right now, particularly for communities of color. What’s really important is to take a step back and look at the macro picture, and think through, how did we get here? What are the underlying causes? There’s this phrase flying around a lot for coronavirus, that the disproportionate impact on black or minority communities is due to “underlying health conditions.” Well, what were the conditions that created the underlying health conditions, and what can we do to start picking away at that? And it’s so unsexy, but the census helps a lot.

How did we get here? What are the underlying causes?

There’s this analogy that I’ve used, of a car, to represent different levels of music engaging with social justice. Level 1 is the hood ornament, and that’s a lot of what people are responding to, when there have been deservedly negative reactions to Blackout Tuesday, and these large organizations all of a sudden assuming these stances and posting these things. Because it feels like that hood ornament, where it’s superficial, you don’t really know what’s behind it or what’s going to come out of it. Level 2 is the engine in the car. The car is still parked, but there’s actually some undergirding of it that is the ethos of whatever work that you’re trying to engage in. By and large, The Dream Unfinished has been at the engine stage: our board is incredibly diverse, our staff is incredibly diverse, all the musicians that we contract, all the composers that we feature. So in that sense, everything that it’s made up of is reflecting it, but it’s still not actually doing the work. Level 3 is when the car goes into gear and you’re moving things. It’s only really been recently that, as an organization, we’ve found ways where we can get to moving the car. One of the hopes that we had for this season was, when we were planning on doing live chamber concerts, program them all in communities that have had historically low voter turnout and having voter registration available at each of these events. So that it’s not just a concert about something, but you can actually do the something at the concert.


Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.  I have been trying to not get Covid19.  I have been trying to figure out how to parent/work from home/stay healthy/make money/make art. I have been trying to temper my personal devastation of watching the insanity of a reality show that our country’s non-leadership currently embodies as it quite literally tramples on the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs that founded this country, and that attracted the immigrant ancestors of those non-leaders here in the first place.  And I am understanding more clearly the idea that fundamental change means exactly what we are seeing happen – everything must be upended because it is all designed to perpetuate the things that we are once again reacting to, and will continue to do so for another 400 years, if we are fortunate enough to not destroy our species and planet in the meantime.

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.

In terms of supportive actions within the music world, I think we need to stand back and have a more thorough conversation on all sides of the issue.  Classical music, as an art form, is rooted in western European traditions.  I think it is fair to say that most of the institutions that brought the art form to this country were primarily interested in simply bringing the work closer to American audiences.  That is not a fault, just a reality.  So to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps.  Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first, assuming that is what is wanted from patrons (i.e. all of us) who have been happily partaking of what these institutions have offered thus far anyway? Perhaps, once the particular institutions that want to make those connections have done so, then we can have the conversation about who is being heard or presented.

IMO, a better way to deal with the question of representation is to remember that art is about communication, and specifically about an individual artist communicating through their art.  What and how they choose to communicate should matter most.  And institutions should stand firmly behind their choices of whomever they invite to the table, and patrons can then decide with their wallets.  After all, art is also not free, regardless of who is making it.


Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

I’ve been feeling saddened, overwhelmed, and frankly exhausted by the news of late–especially in light of the situation we’re all already bearing. But I don’t think I have anything constructive to offer outside my heartfelt appreciation for those who have had the courage and initiative to take some kind of action or speak out against injustice.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers—or even artists in general—are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field. I suppose there are people in every field who are stronger than others on that count. And, it’s also true that the same racial and gender imbalances that exist throughout our society are clearly present in “the world of new/classical music,” even though I think a lot of presenters and organizations have been making efforts to change that.

But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any solutions or advice to offer here. Other than, I guess, keep working at making those changes. Keep aware of those issues and keep trying to think of ways to counter them.


George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

A creolization of the field is needed.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

Being on the street is very, very important: people are standing up for our rights, it’s a super vulnerable moment in our country right now. But I’m also thinking about the different roles everybody can take on, whether it’s a role as a healer, or a role as an organizer, or someone who can share information.

I’m working on an opera with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Other collaborators are Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Helga Davis, Sharan Strange, Sunder Ganglani, and Matthew Morrison. It draws from histories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a black Shaker eldress from the 19th century named Rebecca Cox Jackson. Now that we’re resuming the project, we’re also processing what’s happening right now, what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all these recent killings from police or vigilantes. The themes behind the opera are freedom, spirit, love, home, and sanctuary. But we’re also trying to figure out what the process is. There’s the end goal of writing an opera, but we are also all discussing as a group how this process can also be something where we can directly help people.

The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now.

People need to eat and they need somewhere to live. There’s the illness. Our country is on the brink of fascism, people are trying to fight for the survival of the country itself, and people are trying to survive from this virus that, had the government taken the precautions, didn’t have to get to the point it is at now. The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now. My way is always through music: what is it through music that can be done? Or among artists: where we can look out for each other and make sure that people have what they need to survive?


Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the families who have lost someone. Not just the most recent families, but also the families that have to relive their own trauma every time something like this happens. As a society, especially in this moment of constantly sharing these videos over and over, we forget that these are families that have lost someone. Not enough time is being spent honoring the fact that they are people who have been lost. Not enough time is being spent creating beautiful space and open space.

This moment, in every sense — not just this racial moment, this economic moment, this health crisis moment — all of the things that are happening to all of us in this time are about revealing who we actually are. In a way I feel like it’s a blessing because you cannot change until you have a reckoning with yourself. You can’t. Anybody who’s deep into therapy knows that that work is really hard and ongoing and it’s not, “I went to therapy for four months and now I’m cured!” It’s an ongoing, lifelong commitment to continually reckoning with who you are. And not shaming yourself for who you are, but seeing yourself for who you are, and seeing what you can do to better manage being a person walking through this world. What can you do to be better?

I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are.

Honestly, I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are, and to make a commitment, in this moment, as Americans, to come together and continually, day after day, week after week, reckon with who we are. It’s not about shaming you for your past or all of the things that you should have done. It’s about seeing what you haven’t done and to take whatever the steps are for you to make a change for yourself.

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

I hope that everybody in our industry is really thinking about how to come out of this changed for the better.  Not in this every-man-for-himself hustle, but in a way that allows us to create an infrastructure that supports all of us. We have to care about one another, we have to see one another, we have to embrace everybody that is a part of this community.

If you look through time, almost every major artistic movement that has happened in every field has coincided with some major change or event that has happened in the world. We have always been called to respond, to be first responders for our communities; it is so important for us to see ourselves as that now. To lean into it, and to lean into one another.

Uncomfortably Serious and Disarmingly Fun: The Irreplaceable Matt Marks

[Ed note: On May 11, 2018, the composer, performer, and new music organizer Matt Marks, 38, died unexpectedly in St. Louis. Testimonials from friends and colleagues sharing reflections on his humor, candor, and inspiring work as a music maker have poured in across social media where Matt was a vibrant, pull-no-punches presence. Perhaps illustrating the far reach of his impact, many of these messages were prefaced with variations of “I only met him IRL once, but our friendship here meant so much to me.” Online and off, Matt Marks was a point of community connection, and the absence of his voice—especially in the days leading up to the annual New Music Gathering he helped to found—has been difficult for many. Reflecting on this vital role he played in the field, Will Robin offered to share this interview he conducted with Marks in 2015. Spending a bit more time in the company of Matt’s conversation seemed a perfect way to celebrate him. Acknowledgments to Ted Hearne for the title inspiration.—MS]

As a historian of the recent past, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to speak with the musicians whom I study. Most of the composers and performers I interviewed for my dissertation on the so-called “indie classical” scene were in their late twenties to early forties; I never thought to worry that a subject might pass away before we could talk. That one of them died last week is an unfathomable tragedy, from which the world of new music is still reeling. Matt Marks seemed like the kind of composer who would simply exist forever, whose presence would always be palpable. From his work as a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, to his heartfelt and hilarious compositions, to his organizational efforts with New Music Gathering, to his sardonically prolific Twitter account, it was impossible to overlook Matt or his essential role in the new music community.

In September 2015, I spoke with Matt in the sunny Brooklyn apartment that he shared with Mary Kouyoumdjian, a fellow composer who would become his fiancée, and their menagerie of adorable pets. I was primarily interested in his role in the scene around New Amsterdam Records, the label that released his first album, which was a main subject of my dissertation. The condensed interview transcript that you read below thus focuses primarily on Matt’s life, and less on his music; I hope that the many tributes that we will surely be reading in the coming weeks equally emphasize his compelling artistry. But what I think it does address, importantly, is that community doesn’t just “happen”: it requires the tireless labor of people like Matt to make it happen.

For me, despite—or perhaps because of—the incisive humor and postmodern irony that swirled through his music and writing, at the core of Matt’s work was a willingness to be publicly vulnerable, and to provide his listeners and readers with a sense of his entire self. This is maybe why it’s so hard to feel his absence, especially for those of us who primarily knew him virtually. His sometimes-insightful, sometimes-stupid, always-entertaining tweets are all still there; his music is so insistently written in his own voice, with his own voice. All you have to do is check your timeline and cue up his Soundcloud, and there he is again. On our screens, in our ears, in our presence.

Here is our conversation.

Matt Marks, a.k.a mafoo

Will Robin: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background, up until college?

Matt Marks: I don’t come from a musical background. My dad owned an auto place and my mom worked with him. It was very much a car family: my brother was into cars, worked with them, my dad raced cars, all of that. I’m from Downey, California, so like L.A. I started taking piano lessons in second grade and got pretty into that but was never really a pianist-pianist, just played and had a good facility for it. And then in sixth grade I started French horn. When I got into high school I started getting more serious with horn, and actually the first big thing I did was—kind of out of the blue—auditioned for the LA Philharmonic High School Honor Orchestra, the first year they did that. I won first chair French horn. That kind of gave me a big ego boost, to “Oh, maybe this is something serious.” I joined more orchestras around there and did a bunch of playing: it was very much horn, horn, horn, classical music, Mahler, everything like that. In high school, I had my Stravinsky thing; I listened to The Rite of Spring and had my mind blown. That was a big thing for me, hearing The Rite of Spring. At this point, I was still pretty ignorant of new music or new music groups, or whether that could be a thing.

I went to Eastman. I did my undergrad there in horn. Like a lot of classical musicians, I started off trying to be really good at my instrument, and not necessary being like, “I’m going to win a job,” but just like, “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Practicing horn a lot, playing horn a lot, and trying to win auditions and placements at Eastman, stuff like that. My sophomore or junior year, I played the Ligeti Piano Concerto and that kind of blew my mind, and that was this thing for me of like, “Holy shit, this is a new type of music that I don’t even understand yet.” I did a rare thing for me, which was I took the score to the library and was like, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this because it looks really hard.” And then I got lost on the first page. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” Which is funny, now, because I listen to it and I’m like, “This is such an easy piece,” [hums and snaps the rhythms] but for some reason there was so much going on in the 12/8 and 4/4 stuff that I couldn’t follow it. I practiced it and learned it: in the horn part there are a lot of microtonal partials and stuff like that, which is something I eventually got kind of into. Within two to three years, I went from “Holy shit. What the fuck is Ligeti? How do I do this?” to then soloing on the Ligeti horn concerto at Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of that, and that was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first gigs. That was my senior year, so that would have been 2002.

WR: What was your involvement at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound, which developed out of Ossia, the student new music ensemble at Eastman?

MM: We came to New York, did that [Miller Theatre concert], and it was a success. I think we got a good review. So that was the first kind of like, “Oh, man, maybe we can actually be a thing.” At that point, there was Kronos Quartet, there was Eighth Blackbird, there was California Ear Unit, and a bunch of string quartets. And from my perspective, all the other chamber groups were people who tried to play CMA [Chamber Music America], and tried to just be a chamber group and play colleges, and play hard music or whatever, or French wind quintets or whatever, or brass quintets—I was very plugged into brass quintets, and that was pretty bro-y. What’s your instrument?

WR: Saxophone.

MM: Oh yeah, sax quartets, you know, all that shit. And there’s something really beautiful, but also kinda bro-y about traditional chamber groups—I don’t know, whatever, there’s probably something bro-y about new music groups. When we started, Alan [Pierson] and Gavin [Chuck] were like, “We want to make this a real thing, an actual group with members.” And I was like, “Sure!” But I also had no idea whether that would stick or what. I graduated and then went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music for a year, so I was like, “Sure, if you want to fly me down to play some gigs, okay,” and they did. And that was our first year where we had somewhat of a season, and it was weird because I was in London the whole time so I would just periodically fly back. I left and moved back to the states, first to New Haven and then to New York. I moved to New York in 2004, and from then on it was kind of like, “Okay, now I’m here” and it was actually a pretty interesting time to be in New York for new music groups and shit like that.

You know, I’m your typical composer narcissist so I can just keep talking about myself: feel free to stop me.

I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever.

WR: What was it like starting out in New York?

MM: It was pretty shitty for a few years. I knew just a few people in the city, and I was like, “I guess what I’m supposed to do is try to hound gigs, just make friends with horn players and brass players and bro out, and try to get gigs.” And I did that to a certain extent, but it was never really my thing. I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever. So I pretty soon off decided that wasn’t the track for me, or at least I tried for a while and was like “I don’t have the heart for this. This is not my thing.” It took me a couple years, but I started meeting more people who were involved in new music. I eventually went to Stony Brook for a master’s in horn. At that time, I was starting to write music more—mainly electronic music and weird noise music on my sampler, and building my confidence for like, “Maybe eventually this will be something that’s not just on my headphones.”

At that point, there were maybe about seven Alarm Will Sounders living in the city. We started playing together and doing our own things. I started playing with Caleb [Burhans] and stuff. [Soprano Mellissa Hughes] was like, “Oh, you’re making music. You should keep doing that, and I’ll sing on some of it.” So we started working together. And after a few years, we had A Little Death, Vol. 1, my weird pop opera. That just came out of my weird sample pieces and pop pieces, and having an actual good singer to sing on it. I had that and recorded it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with all that material. Around that that time I started writing more for instruments—Mellissa, myself, and James Moore started this weird chamber group called Ensemble de Sade. It was basically this S&M-themed chamber ensemble, but it was also kind of satirical and making fun of itself. This was at that time when – I guess we’re still in that time – when classical music was all about tearing down the borders between audience and performers. Performers were trying to dress more casually, inviting people from the audience to join them. And we were generally into the idea, but we had this idea of being this satirical ensemble that was the opposite of that, like “Fuck that, there should be more distance! The audience is beneath us and we’re the top, and they’re lucky to be here!” So we put on a couple performances where we all dressed in tuxes and we were all super slick looking. We came out and we would be mean looking, play shit and finish and just leave, and not even acknowledge the audience. We had this dominatrix who would instruct the audience when to clap, and they weren’t allowed to clap unless she told them. We had all these restrictions on them—they had assigned seating, they couldn’t sit near their friends, they were really far from each other. I had been reading a bunch of Marquis de Sade at the time, and so this idea came from 120 Days of Sodom. The audience was seated, and they were super restricted and couldn’t talk, and if they did she would yell at them—she had a switch and shit. And then we had this separate section that was a VIP section with friends of ours. We let them sit there and we let them talk, and gave them food and wine. Some of the people who came were pissed about it, but some were like, “OK, I’m in a theatrical thing.” We did a few of those and that was pretty fun, and through that, basically, Ensemble de Sade and Newspeak, the two of us formed the New Music Bake Sale.

Marks on stage

Marks on stage with Mary Kouyoumdjian (left) and Lainie Fefferman
Photo by Tina Tallon

WR: What appealed to you about New Amsterdam Records—which released The Little Death, Vol 1.—and its scene?

I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it.

MM: It’s less of a scene as in like, everybody’s going to the same concerts all the time and hanging out, and bro-ing out. It’s more that they tapped into something interesting that was happening in the mid/late 2000s that seemed pretty cool. And it’s funny, because we talk about it in the past tense because maybe it’s not as much of a thing anymore? But I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it. I like this idea of classical music, or pop music written by classical musicians, that is a little bit more immediately appealing to people who aren’t trained to understand how classical music works. That doesn’t mean I think that that’s the only music there should be or anything like that, but I think that the people involved in New Amsterdam are all people who are very interested in pop and involve it in their work in some way. Some people more explicitly than others, I think. Some people take ideas from pop music and involve them in music that’s clearly written in a modernist tradition, or in a classical tradition. And some people like me are more explicit with it, where it’s like, “We’re going to make music that’s pretty much like pop, but with influences from outside of pop.” I think that’s interesting, and it was a unique movement or scene or whatever for a while. I think it got pigeonholed by a lot of people outside of New York and also in New York as being like, “Oh, we’re going to make classical music more fun – or more accessible.” I think a lot of people think that it was really focused on accessibility, or trying to be hip.

WR: What were the early New Amsterdam shows you performed in like?

MM: The vibe at that time at a lot of these things was playing for people or going to their shows to support them, but also, “Oh, this will be genuinely good so I’m going to go check this out.” With Little Death, when we did it and I had the small choir, I think I paid them $100 or something like that. I don’t know if that’d be possible now. That was 2010, and those people are now touring all over the world and shit, or teaching at USC. There was something kind of special about that. We got like a hundred bucks for it, but it was a day’s work and it was fine. I do feel a little bit like it’s gotten a bit spread out though: there’s not the same feeling of everybody’s going to come to everybody’s show and everybody’s going to play on everybody’s show.

WR: How has the new music scene changed since you’ve been active in it?

MM: I’ve been in New York eleven years as of September. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit disconnected from it, mainly because I’ve become more involved in my own things, and I’m also kind of a horrible homebody. It’s hard to get me to go out. In the event I have children of my own, I’m a little worried, because I won’t go to any shows. I always find a reason to miss shows. What are the scenes right now that I think are cool? I really dig the vibe of Hotel Elefant, Mary [Kouyoumdjian]’s scene.It’s a good mix. They tend to be younger—late 20s, early 30s. I guess I like that vibe a lot because, similarly to how I was maybe five years ago or whatever, people are just willing to try shit out and do things, and they aren’t necessarily worried about like, “Okay, this many rehearsals means I need to get paid this much and blah blah blah.” There’s a lot of vitality with younger people, because even though they have less economic freedom, they’re just down to do weird shit.

WR: What are the most interesting things you’re seeing these days?

MM: I think San Francisco will be seeing more cool stuff. The fact that we did New Music Gathering there was really interesting. There’s a ton of stuff happening in San Francisco, and when we were there, a lot of it came on our radar and we were like, “Oh wow, this is great.” We’ll see what happens in Baltimore, but I know that there’s a lot happening there. Part of what we’re trying to do with New Music Gathering is to be like, “Hey, there are all these really great scenes. Let’s go to these places.” Rather than just be like, “Let’s do it in New York where we live.” Let’s go to these places that have these interesting scenes and shine the light on them and let them show the world what they’ve got, and also have other people there too.

WR: What do you think is the significance of the entrepreneurship rhetoric that’s become a significant part of the discussion in classical and new music?

MM: It’s a tricky thing, because I do think that it’s really important to think creatively about how you’re going to run the business that is either yourself or your ensemble or your label or whatever it is, and I think people are getting better at doing that. And I think that’s something that sadly hasn’t been really taught at schools at a practical level. Schools have their entrepreneurship program or arts leadership program which, if you’re a horn player and you’re there to play the horn, you just don’t engage with. I would have gladly foregone taking the mandatory humanities class that I didn’t care about at all to take a class on how to put on a show, how to program a concert, how to schedule rehearsals. That could be a fucking semester class, just scheduling rehearsals. The most stress in my life is about scheduling rehearsals, promoting things. That’s terrifying, and I just learned it from being in New York and doing it the wrong way for ten years. That said, I don’t think you can think too capitalistically with it. Classical music, I don’t know how well it would ever survive as something that is purely capitalistic, purely something people just spend money on.

WR: Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MM: Who do you want me to talk shit about?

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders: Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson
Photo by Tina Tallon

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.


Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.

William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

Imagining Community at Bang on a Can’s First Marathon

Bang on a Can poster
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

“Your ideology cannot write the music for you,” declared composer David Lang in a 1988 Letter to the Editor, published in the New York Times. Lang was responding to a profile of composer Charles Wuorinen, in which the elder serialist railed against the dangers of populism, minimalism, and multiculturalism. In a strong rebuke, Lang chastised Wuorinen for his doctrinaire attitude and the stranglehold that serialism had maintained on American composition. He wrote:

We must recognize that a composer’s world is divided into two major activities: writing the music and associating with those who think and write similarly. Such associations may consider themselves schools of musical thought, and members may be proud of their membership, and they may actually believe that their way of composing is the only legitimate way. It is easy to see that if such a school gets in power it might try to remake the musical world in its own image.[1]

Lang signed his letter “Artistic director, Bang on a Can Festival, New York, N.Y.” A month before it was published, Lang and his colleagues Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had curated the second annual Bang on a Can marathon on the Lower East Side. And in the twenty-eight years since that letter, Bang on a Can has grown into a multi-faceted umbrella organization that sponsors marathon concerts, an All-Stars ensemble, and the Cantaloupe record label, not to mention a summer festival, marching band, commissioning fund, and State Department partnership. The expansion of Bang on a Can—from its first scrappy marathon in SoHo in 1987 to its presence at Brookfield Place near One World Trade Center today—is remarkable in an age of arts austerity. And the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to Lang in 2008 and Julia Wolfe in 2015 might confirm that it is a movement, if not a school, currently in power; one could similarly argue that Bang on a Can has remade the musical world in its own image.

What might that image be? From the beginnings of Bang on a Can, the collective emphasized community. If for Wuorinen, serialism represented the only legitimate way of composing, then for Lang and his colleagues, community might have represented the only legitimate way of being a composer. The “About” section of the organization’s website declares “Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found.” Or, as Wolfe told an interviewer in 1995:

When David Lang, Michael Gordon, and I found ourselves in New York in 1986, we didn’t see an exciting outlet for our music. Things were very polarized—academic music uptown, with audiences filled with new music specialists, a very critical atmosphere, and everyone in tuxes, and downtown, another uniform, black t-shirts and another serious pretension. Neither side was really fun, and there was a whole new generation of composers who didn’t fit in anywhere.

We wanted to provide a place for new music in society. It wasn’t like other art. People knew who the new painters were, the writers, the filmmakers. But music was perceived as this really elitist thing—academic, clever, scientific, inaccessible. Nobody cared if people came to the concerts. And the music reflected that. It got so removed from life. It was important to us to find a new audience.

So we decided to make a happening. As a joke, we called it the First Annual Bang on a Can Festival. We didn’t think there’d be another one. We put pieces together that were really strong and belonged to different ideologies or not to any ideology, defying category, falling between the cracks.[2]

It is worth examining, then, how exactly that communal ethos came about. If you’ve kept up with our NewMusicBox series, you have already read about several ways in which community is enacted in new music: in the activities of experimental collectives, in the privileging of listening practices, in the aesthetics of avant-garde operas, and in the labor of administrators. Equally essential to the construction of community is the creation of a shared history: a rhetoric and a narrative about who the community is, and what its values are. And in order to create a new kind of community, Bang on a Can had to overplay its hand. Community had to be performed; it was not enough to bring people or musical styles together, they had to be continually emphasized, made a part of the story and eventually the history of the institution.

Bang on a Can’s first marathon, at the Exit Art gallery in SoHo in May 1987, represents an origin point for the kind of community that the founding composers sought to build. So for this essay on new music and community, I’d like to briefly meditate on one particular time slot in that marathon, which has played a perhaps oversized role in the history of Bang on a Can. At 11 p.m., Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer is followed by Steve Reich’s Four Organs–total serialism juxtaposed with early minimalism, uptown next to downtown.

Bang on a Can program

The music of the first Bang on a Can marathon was, as a whole, fairly eclectic: John Cage’s Ryoanji and George Crumb’s Black Angels, Igor Stravinsky’s Agon and Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation, Lee Hyla’s In Double Light and Lois V Vierk’s Manhattan Cascade. But Reich next to Babbitt wasn’t just a natural result of this mixing of musical styles; it represented a strategic move, one that constructed a specific mission for the nascent organization. In a New York Times review of the 1987 marathon, critic Bernard Holland observed that “the program was arranged with contrast in mind. Thus, as the organizers note with satisfaction, Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer rubbed shoulders with Steve Reich’s Four Organs.”[3] [Emphasis mine.] Bang on a Can not only placed these pieces into juxtaposition, they performed that juxtaposition, making it unmistakable to their audiences. Babbitt himself was certainly aware of his odd-duck status at the concert, as archival audio of his introduction to the Vision and Prayer performance reveals. Following healthy applause, Babbitt slyly remarks:

I’m delighted to hear that my reputation hasn’t penetrated this far downtown, even though I went to school right around the corner. The quiet little piece of mine which you’re about to hear, Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape, is almost certainly the oldest piece on the program – I say almost certainly because we have no chronologies on the program, but I’m almost certain because it’s almost certainly written before many of the composers on the program were born.[4]

And for the Bang on a Can directors, the Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition also had aesthetic implications. As Wolfe put it in 1995, she and her cohort sought out music that fell between the cracks. But they also attempted to program music that they felt represented strongly disparate idioms. In her 2012 dissertation, Wolfe describes the Reich/Babbitt encounter—or non-encounter—of 1987:

Reich entered as Babbitt left, or possibly Babbitt left as Reich entered. There was clearly no interest in meeting on either side. At that point, to our knowledge, no one had programmed the music of Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich on the same event. Babbitt and Reich represented two very different points of view, American Modernism and American Minimalism, or what was called Uptown and Downtown. When Babbitt introduced his piece he joked, “sorry I got here late, but I got lost––Iʼve never been this far downtown before.” At that first marathon concert we embraced this clash of disparate philosophies. We wanted contrasting musics––powerful in their own right regardless of style or aesthetic.[5]

Wolfe titled her dissertation “Embracing the Clash,” and that early “clash” became an all-encompassing metaphor for Bang on a Can, extending out into its programming of non-Western music, rock, and free improvisation. Indeed, the word “eclectic” has clung to the institution more closely than perhaps any other descriptor (the first marathon was billed as an “eclectic supermix,” a phrase that has endured in the organization’s marketing). It is also striking that Wolfe recalls Babbitt as having said that he had never been that far downtown, given that—as Babbitt actually remarked in his introduction—he went to school right around the corner. But the downtown of the 1930s, when Babbitt attended NYU, was quite different from that of the 1980s; it is unsurprising that, in associating Babbitt with the uptown world for which he was later known, Wolfe assumed the composer’s geographical purview did not include SoHo.

The Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition, though, wasn’t only about clashing. It was about resolution: imagining a new kind of new music community, one that would bring together two disparate scenes. As Lang told Kyle Gann in 1993:

When we started BoaC, we looked around and the concerts we saw weren’t exciting. If you went to hear Speculum Musicae, there was invariably one composer doing great stuff in an ugly language, and the others were bad composers working in the same ugly language. Same thing Downtown: there’d be a free, sonic piece by a really good composer and a bad sonic piece right behind it. Pieces were being grouped by ideology, not quality. We thought, “What would happen if you had the best academic piece, the best static piece, the best minimalist piece, the best improv piece, whatever, all next to each other?” At the first festival we played Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer next to Steve Reich’s Four Organs. Musicians knew that if they liked one they weren’t supposed to like the other, but the audience didn’t know that.[6]

Stepping past ideologies, placing oneself not only not within an uptown or downtown camp, but also beyond any squabbles between them, became a core mythos of Bang on a Can. It’s notable that neither the Reich nor the Babbitt was released on the early Bang on a Can albums on the CRI label, which drew from live recordings of the marathons; thirty-five minutes of music within a twelve-hour concert became essential to the history of the institution, not as a tangible sonic document but as a story. Programming Reich alongside Babbitt imagined a musical world in which uptown and downtown were irrelevant, a community that Bang on a Can went on to create in its image.

Bang on a Can poster

Many factors contributed to a sense of community at the early Bang on a Can marathons: a cohort of Yale graduates, beer for sale in the back, composers informally introducing their pieces, the motto “Come and go as you like, or stay all day.” But symbolic gestures create communities as well. And this is, in a way, an ideology, if not the pernicious kind that Lang suggests about Wuorinen. Ideology is part of what constructs communities, sustains them, and keeps them together. The ideology of Wuorinen foregrounded a narrow conception of art music as privileged above other styles and genres, what Lang called in his Letter to the Editor “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad”; the ideology of Bang on a Can is that of, as its website declares, “building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders.”[7]

will robin

Will Robin

William Robin is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Two days ago, he defended his dissertation “A Scene Without A Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the Twenty-First Century,” and in the fall he will begin an appointment as assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. In spring 2015, the Journal of Musicology published his article “Traveling with Ancient Music: Intellectual and Transatlantic Currents in American Psalmody Reform,” which reassesses the Europeanization of American sacred music at the turn of the 19th century by examining the impact of transatlantic travel. Robin is a regular contributor to the New York Times, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

1. David Lang, “Body Count,” New York Times, 26 June 1988.

2. Julia Wolfe, quoted in program brochure for Great Performers at Lincoln Center Bang on a Can All-Stars, 15 March 1995.

3. Bernard Holland, “Music: The Bang on a Can Festival,” New York Times, 14 May 1987. Emphasis mine.

4. Milton Babbitt, spoken introduction at Bang on a Can Festival, 11 May 1987. Author’s transcription of archival audio materials from WNYC archives, printed with permission of WNYC.

5. Wolfe, “Embracing the Clash” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2012),

6. Lang, quoted in Kyle Gann, “After Ugly Music,” Village Voice, 1 June 1993.

7. Lang, “Body Count”; Bang on a Can, “About Us,”

From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on the Boston University Tanglewood Institute

I acquired my first orchestral scores in the Tanglewood gift shop, at the age of seventeen. A student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, I purchased the last copy of the Brahms symphonies the day before the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a Brahms cycle under James Levine at Tanglewood’s legendary Koussevitsky Shed. A geek-cellist friend, alarmed at the prospect of listening without a score, offered me $200 for it; I declined. This was a new experience, a worth attached to music that I had not encountered before.

Many a college essay, I’m sure, has included a variation on a similar anecdote: “Gazing up at the stars while listening to [insert canonic symphony here], I realized that music was my true calling.”

Mine certainly did. NewMusicBox readers can probably recall similarly seminal, early memories of summer music festivals in high school or college, experiences of communing with nature and other young musicians that helped drive them to be the composers or performers they are today. But beyond the pat clichés of staring at the stars while listening to Brahms—for me at least—there was something more powerful at work: an expansion of musical consciousness and igniting of an intellectual curiosity that made me want to study music for the rest of my life.

I attended BUTI—affectionately known as “booty”—in the summers of 2005 and 2006; I played saxophone in the wind ensemble, a four-week program that ran alongside similar programs for high school-age composers, vocalists, pianists, and orchestral musicians. Those eight weeks are powerfully etched into my memory.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

Today, that program is in a certain amount of danger, and thus this article; I write less from a “Save Our Classical Music Institution” perspective but rather out of an obligation that is both personal and historic. The stories of young musicians at BUTI are stories that are crucial to the narrative of music in the past half-century. Cutting BUTI or relocating it from its current campus would be a sad erasure of a rich legacy that stretches back forty-five years and encompasses the early careers of many prominent musicians.

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Eagle reported a few of the issues at hand with the future of the BUTI program, which is run by Boston University (unlike the Tanglewood Music Center fellows program, which is facilitated by Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony). BU is currently reviewing their financial stake in the program and its future—both as part of the larger university and as directly connected to Tanglewood itself.

Sam Solomon—a percussionist who participated in BUTI in high school and today teaches at BU and BUTI—has recently begun to speak out publicly about the issues in order to draw attention to the dangers of altering the program. I communicated with Phyllis Hoffman—a professor of voice at BU and the executive and artistic director of BUTI—who let me know that the BUTI and BU administration are working closely together to offset the budget problems; she wrote to me that “there is a strong recognition of the excellence and importance of BUTI.”

That said, the current facilities—located on the beautiful West Campus, within walking distance of Tanglewood’s main grounds—are in need of overhaul and can’t currently accommodate all of the programs that BUTI offers. Fortunately, the Eagle recently confirmed that BUTI will definitely continue next summer. But serious investment is required, and BU is reportedly considering moving the program from Lenox to Boston.

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

That would be a huge mistake. In her study The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape, Denise von Glahn writes of the particularly American relationship between music and place, the “unique way in which music of the cultivated tradition expresses, defines, and celebrates place.” Tanglewood has already been similarly inscribed into American musical history. Nico Muhly, a BUTI alum, has written It Remains To Be Seen, a lovely, loving orchestral work that pays tribute to his wistful nighttime walk from the Tanglewood main grounds back to West Campus following a concert. Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul was inspired by the composer’s memories of hearing the Boston Symphony play outdoors when he was a Tanglewood fellow (though not in BUTI). The Tanglewood experience has become part of this grand American tradition of tonalizing space, a place-based muse.

I asked several prominent alums of BUTI to help paint a broader picture of what BUTI, the program and the place, meant for them, and how their early experiences as high school fellows made them the musicians they are today.
Nico Muhly, composer

It was just amazing…For me the West Street campus is just so romantic and lovely, and site specific, and being that close to the grounds is amazing, and walking to the grounds is amazing….There’s nowhere else like that.

It’s that sense of continuity. For instance, one of my other friends I met that first summer, Dan Bauch, went on to the Tanglewood Music Center and went on to be a timpanist in the BSO. You can hear the same music by someone who, when you were a sixteen-year-old, you sat on the lawn and listened to The Firebird with; [he’s now] playing it with that orchestra 15 years later—it’s such a magical thing.

One of the things that people talk about, even just on the BSO side of it, is that it’s not just great music-making—it’s the whole culture of being there and the whole intergenerational chilled-ness. It’s so important for young musicians to see that. It connects to people, but it also connects to the idea of musical community.

This last summer I volunteered for a week and did master classes and taught lessons. I did the same thing two years ago. I go up as much as I can.  If I can volunteer at BUTI, it literally makes my summer. For me it’s not a summer unless you go to Tanglewood, and I’ve done crazy shit, like a couple years ago I flew back from, like, Singapore or something just to go. It’s not just fun, I think it’s vital

Molly Yeh, percussionist and food blogger

An earth shattering Mahler 5, a terrifying but triumphant Copland 3…While my love for music led me to BUTI, it was my time at BUTI that made me love the music world and desperately want to be a part of it. It was there where I met many of my very best friends, where I learned how to change a timpani head and work with composers on new works, and where I got to know Tanglewood as one of my most favorite places on earth. My BUTI summers were the first flaps of the butterfly’s wings in my career as a percussionist.

My bonds with my peers at BUTI, both professional and personal, still hold tight today, however it is also important to mention that my interactions with the Tanglewood Music Center percussionists also had a profoundly enriching effect. To this day, I consider a few of them to be my most valuable mentors. With their encouragement and support, I had extra confidence in my college auditions, and I’ve since had the opportunity to play with them in orchestras around the world. Having the TMC percussionists as role models during my years at BUTI was a unique and unforgettable experience that I would not have gotten at any other music camp.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but when I’m old and crusty and dying, the montage of my adult life will open with Mahler’s Adagietto playing to a memory where I’m dancing with my three best friends, barefoot on the Tanglewood grounds. Laughing, frolicking…and then taceting in tears until the next movement. Without a doubt, these were some of the happiest moments of my life.

Sam Solomon, percussionist and faculty member at BU and BUTI

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of BUTI for 13 years: three as a student, and now ten as a faculty member. In and of itself, it is a top-notch program with top-notch faculty, but what sets it apart from other great summer festivals is the location. The students are provided an unparalleled education on top of that offered by the Institute because of their access to Tanglewood concerts, rehearsals, and masterclasses, as well as the community of musicians that spend their summers there. All of the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center, and visiting artist concerts expose these young minds to dozens of conductors, composers, and performers.

For me it was revelatory. I was a BUTI student nearly 20 years ago, and every musical experience I have had since is filtered through the education I received there. I am still in close contact with many of the students that were with me those summers, all of whom are at the top of their fields, playing in, composing for, soloing with, or conducting major orchestras, touring with successful chamber ensembles, teaching at top-tier music schools, and even in high-level music administration positions.

Nadia Sirota, violist and daughter of Robert Sirota, who taught composition at BUTI (Nadia did not herself attend the program)

Hanging around BUTI and Tanglewood laid the single most-impactiful groundwork for my becoming a musician. Without a doubt. There was a true respect for music-making that pervaded the place, not music-making as industry but as art. There was a joy to the program. I remember all of my dad’s little composition students hanging out at our house and having barbecues. Composers, performers, and audience members are all thrown together in this little town. Everything feels vital. Also, musicians that are 16 years old get to consort with musicians who are 23 and musicians who are 63. The whole musical ecosystem is temporarily housed in one zone. It’s like a terrarium.

Judd Greenstein, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records

Having friends who, like me, knew they were composers, that they had already discovered their passion and were pursuing it at a high level, was extremely encouraging and gave me a sense of being part of a supportive community even before we all wound up in New York together, years later. The other important experience was getting to interact with really great older composers. That’s where I first met David Lang, and Sofia Gubaidulina visited, which was incredible, even in translation. I remember her talking about silence. It was one of the most profoundly important musical education experiences of my life, as was David’s talk. Especially so because I was with Nico [Muhly] and we could talk all day about what they said, as teenagers, when you really are learning so much.

It’s really my relationship with Nico that has meant the most to me. When you have a good friend in a challenging creative field who you’ve known for a long time, whom you meet at such a young age, it gives you a lot of confidence. Like, whatever else people may say, I know that we get each other and what we’re trying to do. I recently found some letters that we sent to each other where I was basically complaining about all the things that I wound up trying to address in the world of music, later on, with NOW Ensemble and New Amsterdam and Ecstatic, and which I’m still trying to address. Having friends with whom you can share those thoughts, and who agree, and where you’re supporting each other, is invaluable. Now I have many of those friends, of course, but Nico was the first, and BUTI is the avenue that made it happen.

Logan K. Young, editor-in-chief, Classicalite

Growing up in a small Southern town, attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute was my first real, extended exposure to a world-class symphony orchestra, with every attendant benefit therein. I was 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school with an even fresher beard. Sure, I had been to Spoleto. I had studied trumpet at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Brevard Music Center, and I had just finished a week at the Conductors Institute of South Carolina. But BUTI truly was a different experience in an altogether different land. (I never will forget the 24-hour-plus Greyhound ride from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Lenox, Massachusetts!) I had no formal training in composition beforehand, but as soon as I got off that bus, I was thrust into hard lessons with Richard Cornell and Julian Wachner, intense classes with Steve Mackey and the late Lukas Foss. Of course, the Festival of Contemporary Music was its own great teacher, too. If I’d never heard Copland or Bernstein performed live by anything other than a per-service orchestra, I certainly had never heard any Leon Kirchner in person, much less a thing like Satie’s Socrate. And when I bought a double-CD of Tod Machover’s Valis at the gift shop on the grounds of Tanglewood proper, well, it’s no hyperbole to say that my life was changed forever. Come college, I would go on to summer at places like Banglewood and, stranger still, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, but none of those would have been possible were it not for the invaluable training in the most solid fundamentals which I received at BUTI. Granted, I write more about new music now, but again, if BUTI didn’t exist back then, my life would sound a lot more dull. I’m a better musician, writer, and overall person for having taken that Greyhound to Lenox; I sincerely hope the brass don’t shut the place down.

Jeffrey Beecher, principal bass, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and member of The Silk Road Ensemble

I attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute as a 14-year-old in 1997.   While I had some experience at other music programs under my belt, I remember feeling a little scared when I arrived in Lenox, not knowing what I was in store for.  From the moment I arrived at BUTI, I knew I had found a very special place.  I was immediately struck by the impressive level of talent and dedication coming from the other students.
I was inspired to meet young musicians who not only excelled at their instruments, but passionately debated the best recordings of Mahler symphonies, were floored to rehearse and perform the great orchestral masterworks (Nielsen 4!!), and who eagerly attended the Boston Symphony’s Shed concerts like rock shows.

All of this was greatly influenced by the location on the Boston University campus.   To be that close to the Tanglewood grounds afforded me unparalleled access to the pros.  It also inspired the dream of a long journey: with hard work, I might one day be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.   And with even more hard work, I might get the chance to play in a professional orchestra?!

I am extremely grateful to say that I am living that 14-year-old’s dream—I perform as professional musician in a phenomenal orchestra and a world music ensemble.  As a teacher, I get to pass on the traditions and generosity of spirit I learned at BUTI to today’s aspiring young musicians.

In August 2010, my relationship to BUTI came full circle when I performed with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma at the Tanglewood Shed.  Feeling nostalgic, I gave a quick shout-out to the BUTI students in attendance.  As a youthful cheer exploded from beyond stage left, I was thrilled to observe that the vitality and passion of those students was just as impressive as it had been to me thirteen years earlier.

Missy Mazzoli, composer

It was vital to me to see as much music as possible.  I saw two or three concerts a day, plus rehearsals.  I remember seeing Peter Serkin in a rehearsal with the BSO, Anonymous Four, Van Cliburn, and John Williams conducting the premiere of a new orchestral work, among many others.  I was only seventeen but managed to meet Mauricio Kagel, Elliott Carter, Joan Tower, Bright Sheng, John Harbison, and Aaron Kernis that summer as well.  These were among the first living composers I met, believe it or not.

The location near the Tanglewood campus is absolutely essential to the power of the program.  Many of the best experiences I mentioned had to do with the fact that for the first time in my life I felt that I was being treated as a professional.  The ability to walk on the same grounds as the BSO and the chance to meet the top contemporary composers made me feel that I was on my way to having a life as a musician.  For a girl from small-town Pennsylvania, this was absolutely essential to my feeling that I could go on as a composer.

Timothy Andres, composer

I didn’t know a lot of kids my age who were interested in the same things I was. That first summer at BUTI was the first time I could meet other 14-year-olds who were obsessed with Ravel; no longer a social disease, my obsession made me popular. It wasn’t an education so much as a combination of osmosis and moral support. It confirmed my desperate need to be part of this thing—to be a musician was a real possibility, and if not exactly attainable, at least conceivable. And it was the beginning of my attachment to a place that would continue through college (when I returned for the Tanglewood Music Center) and my professional career (we recorded Home Stretch in Ozawa Hall).
It’s an integral part of Tanglewood and the larger music world, and its survival is vitally important to young musicians.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Molly Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

I myself have many memories of great performances, but perhaps more importantly, many memories of the value that my peers placed on those performances; thus, the $200 offered for that Brahms score! That value was in part a kind of cultural cold war that I engaged in with my fellow high schoolers, a battle over knowledge of the canon. I was a classical saxophonist with a very light schooling in the orchestral rep, and phrases like “Bruckner Four” and “the Meistersinger Prelude,” tossed off with such ease by other musicians (well, let’s be honest, brass players) endowed me with a peculiar kind of inferiority complex.
I tried to catch up, learning as much as I could as fast as I could. Following my first BUTI summer in 2005, I spent my senior year of high school fastidiously reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of the great composers. I returned in 2006 with the lingo, knowledge, and constant quest for new information about music that undergirds my research today. At age seventeen, it felt very good to know who Brahms was and why it was so special to hear Levine lead a full cycle of his symphonies. (New music, I should say, remained a bafflingly unknown element; I wish I had taken advantage of the offerings at the contemporary festival. And to this day, I regret most of all opting out of hearing the famous performance of Histoire du Soldat narrated by Babbitt, Carter, and Harbison.)

I could list the many concerts that inspired and overwhelmed me. But it was the overall sense of the environment and the coming-together of several generations of musicians—from high schoolers to college-age Tanglewood Music Center players to tenured members of the Boston Symphony—in a single place that was unique. With immense pride, I watched close friends rise through the ranks each summer, ascending the professional ladder amid the pines. A percussionist, Kyle Brightwell, was an early star in my first BUTI summer. By the next summer, he was already subbing with the TMC orchestra. This past August, I visited Tanglewood and saw Kyle pound away at the big drum in The Rite of Spring, as a tenured member of the Boston Symphony’s percussion section.

That sense of lineage, and the opportunity to forge an early relationship with musicians that will be maintained over the course of a lifetime, cannot be underestimated. Sitting outside the Shed and listening to Brahms, I can gaze up at those same stars today—as can Muhly, Andres, Mazzoli, Beecher, Young, Sirota, Yeh, and Solomon—and imagine a musical past and a continuity extending into a bright future.

Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms

“For here is true style!” declared Charles Seeger in 1939.[1] Several years after abandoning his career as an American ultra-modernist composer, Seeger had discovered the shape-note hymns of 19th-century tune books like The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp.

Seeger’s proclamation marked the origins of a lineage of American musicians who sought out a maverick impulse in native hymnody, forging connections between the rule breaking of Revolutionary-era composers like William Billings and the rule breaking of the 20th century. From Seeger to his contemporaries William Schuman and Henry Cowell in the 1940s, through John Cage and William Duckworth in the 1970s and 1980s, to young composers like David T. Little and Gabriel Kahane today, the American shape-note tradition has been a steady source for reexamination and inspiration.

Tracing the appropriation of this strain of American hymnody in the 20th and 21st centuries is an intriguing tale, but it requires a bit of historical parsing before it begins.

In the decades preceding the American Revolution, a style of native sacred music developed in the colonies. Protestant churches across New England began singing from books of hymn tunes published in America by local musicians like William Billings, Jeremiah Ingalls, and Andrew Law, rather than the European standards of previous songsters.

Many of these American composers were not professionals (Billings worked as a tanner) and had no European musical training. American composers wrote each individual line of a three- or four-part hymn separately, developing an unconventional style full of “mistakes” like parallel and open fifths. And if the open fifth was the emblematic sound of the so-called First New England School, then the boisterous fuguing tune—in which, after a conventionally homophonic setting of a hymn text, singers rollick through a fast, imitative second verse—was its emblematic form. The freedom of the American Revolution had its own sonic markers, its own distinct musical style. Hymns like Billings’s “Chester” became Revolutionary anthems; Paul Revere engraved Billings’s first songbook, the New England Psalm-Singer.

Paul Revere's engraved frontispiece for Billings's New England Psalm Singer

Paul Revere’s engraved frontispiece for Billings’s New England Psalm Singer (1770).
(The complete book is available for download from IMSLP.)

But elitist musicians and clergy soon sought to replace that rustic native style, and Billings was gradually phased out in favor of European alternatives. Right around the same time, another pioneering development occurred in American music. In 1801, William Little and William Smith published The Easy Instructor, the first hymnal to utilize shape notes. The shape-note system assigned different note heads to specific solfège syllables, so that singers could develop a simple, visual method for sight reading music.
Shape Note Rudiments 1 of 2

Shape Note Rudiments 2 of 2

From the 1860 edition of The Sacred Harp

As an educational tool, shape notes caught on quickly. But as native hymnody was forced from New England by Europe-minded reformers, so too were shape notes. In the first few decades of the 19th century, shape notes and Billings-style congregational music moved out West and South, becoming a local tradition in states like Alabama and Kentucky, whose musicians published their own tune books.

The music of those compilations was Billings-inspired, but also incorporated folk and gospel traditions. Thus, the most famous shape-note tune books like The Southern Harmony (1835) and The Sacred Harp (1844) were commercial products, printed in large quantities and distributed widely, but also part of local folk culture.

Singing from tune books like The Sacred Harp is an intriguing experience. There is, for starters, the unusual sound of music inspired by both the South and the First New England School. Then there is the singing of the shapes: since the early 19th century, singers would first read through the tune on solfège syllables for practice before adding its Biblical text. Finally, the shape-note practice itself has its own oral culture that creates a unique sonic space. Participants sit in a square, facing each other, and belt the hymns at the top of their lungs. It’s loud and entirely participatory—there’s no audience to speak of.

The Early Revivalists

White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands

The first edition of George Pullen Jackson’s White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (published in 1933). The book was subsequently re-printed by Dover Publications (1965) and Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2007).

The composers who drew upon these customs had a more conventional, concert hall audience in mind. Seeger and his contemporaries learned of shape notes—almost entirely unknown to the Northeast for more than a century—via the musicologist George Pullen Jackson. Jackson’s 1933 White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands launched the modern revival of The Sacred Harp and the cultures of the deep South that sang from it, which Jackson referred to as a “lost tonal tribe” of “fasola folk” (an unfortunately primitivist description).[2]

Charles Seeger was one of those re-discoverers, as was his wife, the great composer and ethnomusicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger. In 1937, Crawford arranged a set of twenty-two American folk songs for piano; in a preface to the compilation, Crawford drew strong parallels between the shape notes of the past and the modernism of the present:

Curiously enough, there is part-singing widespread through the southeastern states, and has been for the past hundred years, which revels in these characteristics of “modern music.”[3]

As Judith Tick has pointed out, Crawford adopts the Bartókian conception of the vernacular—abrasive and modern rather than simple and folksy. In seeking out this forgotten repertory, she unveils a past canon of modernists.
Other American composers would do the same. Virgil Thomson once remarked:

When you reach down into your subconscious, you get certain things. When Aaron [Copland] reaches down, he doesn’t get cowboy tunes, he gets Jewish chants. When I reach down I get Southern hymns.[4]

Thomson’s subconscious reaching manifested in his score for the 1937 W.P.A. film The River. In the mid-‘30s, Thomson met George Pullen Jackson and heard his field recordings of Southern singers. Soon after, the composer acquired a copy of The Southern Harmony and began toying with utilizing a few of its hymns in his music.

The River mixes shape-note hymns alongside references to various other American popular idioms. As Joanna Smolko points out in her dissertation, Thomson not only drew upon five different hymns, but also retained their musical language, emphasizing the unusual harmonies (due to their line-by-line composition, tunes are often built on stacks of fourths and fifths) and “mistaken” voice-leading of parallel fifths and octaves. When the film’s narrator describes the post-Civil War destruction of the South, Thomson weaves in the doleful hymn “Mount Vernon”; he retains its sober fuguing tune as well, setting it delicately in the winds.

Pare Lorentz’s film The River (released on February 4, 1938) has been posted to YouTube by the Pare Lorentz Film Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Public.Resource.Org.

Aaron Copland also reached down and found Southern hymns, though with a tinge of the Jewish heritage to which Thomson alluded. In 1951, Copland visited Israel for the first time and embraced a latent Zionism. Around the same time, he began researching American folk music for his set of Old American Songs and read Jackson’s work.

In the Old American Songs, Copland harmonized the tune “Zion’s Walls,” printed first in the shape-note book The Social Harp. In the piano accompaniment, Copland preserved the original’s piquant pentatonicism. He also scrubbed out the references to Jesus in the original hymn text, conflating the Zion of the text with contemporary Israel and, somewhat unusually, wrapping together Southern hymnody with his own Jewish identity.

Grounding the restoration of shape-note hymnody in contemporary national issues, however, was par for the course in Copland’s day. Following Jackson’s research, various musicians resurrected the so-called “white spirituals” in a grand celebration of Americanism in the World War II era, a tale documented in Annegret Fauser’s recent study Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II.

Beginning in the late 1930s, scholar-musicians like Carleton Sprague Smith and Elie Siegmeister created a mythic American musical past for a patriotic present. Siegmeister toured across the country with his American Ballad Singers, an ensemble that purported to perform “native American songs” that forged “a link between American music and the struggle for freedom that has never been broken.”[5] Fauser relates this trend to a broader, international interest in cultural archaisms in the 1930s, a search for national roots in American art.

Implicit in this development was a whitening of folk music. Fauser writes that the “turn to an archaic heritage during the war years brought about a silencing of the African American idioms that had been appropriated—though not always without controversy—by musicians in the 1920s and early ‘30s as markers of an American identity.”[6] On a more global scale, Fauser also points out that the turn towards the Yankee tunesmiths of the First New England School were part of a worldwide neoclassicism: Billings was the closest thing we had to a Monteverdi, the American Ballad Singers our early music movement.

Composers took up this cause not just by performing the old hymns anew, but also by dramatizing their musical processes via the appropriation of the fuguing tune. Imitating Billings was the name of the game. Otto Luening wrote a Prelude to a Hymn Tune by Willing Billings (1937, published in 1943); William Schuman composed his William Billings Overture (premiered in 1944 in an open-air wartime concert); and Ross Lee Finney provided a Hymn, Fuguing, and Holiday that recast the Billings tune “Berlin” (perhaps an ironic use of the name of the German capitol in 1943).

Fuguing tunes represented an archaism that functioned as wholly American, a polyphonic canon but one viewed as distinct from any European counterpart. In a written introduction to a series of punchy orchestral variations on “Chester” (part of his New England Triptych), Schuman called Billings the “father of New England music” whose music “gradually fell into disfavor.” It fell into disfavor because it was outpaced by imported European music—a powerful connection to the past for American composers asserting a national school.

The grand champion of this inheritance was Henry Cowell, who over the course of twenty years wrote eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes for various ensembles. (Ten of his twenty completed symphonies also incorporate aspects of the form.) Cowell solidified the connections between archaic past and modernist present, imagining an unbroken line from Billings to Ives in the same manner as Crawford.

In an introduction to the first Hymn and Fuguing Tune, written for symphonic band, Cowell wrote that the work was:

written in a manner which is frankly influenced by the early American style of Billings and Walker. However, the early style is not exactly imitated, nor are any of the tunes and melodies taken from these early masters. Rather I asked myself the question, what would happen in America if this fine, serious early style had developed? [This work] which uses old modes [and] open chords…is a modern revision of this old style. [7]

In the 1940s, Cowell was transitioning away from his more severely experimental style, and this “fine, serious early style” offered a different path. Cowell’s modality and lack of accidentals imitate the open sound of the Southern Harmony tunes, and shape this far-reaching but neglected repertoire.

Notable here is also that Cowell conflates Billings with the Southern composer William Walker. Walker, born half a century after Billings, wrote shape-note hymns and compiled The Southern Harmony (Sidney Cowell, Henry’s wife, introduced him to Walker’s music and The Southern Harmony; Henry probably gained knowledge of Billings, as many of his contemporaries did, in Clarence Dickinson’s 1940 publication of three of his fuguing tunes). This amalgamation of Southern and New England traditions still marks discussions of shape notes and The Sacred Harp today. The midcentury modernists didn’t distinguish between these separate strands of hymnody, instead imagining a single trajectory that could reach into the present.

Bicentennial Celebrations

Following the wartime resurgence was a 30-year lull. The next major revival of shape-note and Yankee hymns took place in the years around the American Bicentennial of 1976. The national celebrations of the Revolution were the motivation for a great deal of early American music scholarship; they also inspired many new compositions. Alongside a slew of commissions from various institutions, academic initiatives paved the way for a grand return of hymnody. In the years surrounding the Bicentennial, Americanist organizations like the Institute for Studies in American Music, the Sonneck Society for American Music, New World Records, and Recent Researches in American Music emerged—all participated in resurrecting Yankee or Southern hymnody. (The American Musicological Society also launched a critical edition of Billings’s music.)

Just as in the 1930s, these scholarly ventures fueled composition as well. Numerous bicentennial works, from Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest to Elliott Carter’s A Symphony of Three Orchestras, emerged in the mid-‘70s. In 1974, six major American orchestras, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts, commissioned several composers to write Bicentennial works, including one by John Cage.

Cage Apartment House

In 1995, three years after John Cage’s death, Mode issued the recording he supervised of Apartment House 1776.

In creating his Bicentennial work, Apartment House 1776, Cage investigated various strands of the American past in an attempt to dramatize the multiplicity of communities from two hundred years ago. Four singers represent the Protestant, Sephardic, American Indian, and African-American musical traditions, accompanied by instrumental music based on the Yankee tunes of Billings and his contemporaries such as Andrew Law and Supply Belcher.

In an attempt to “imitate that old music rather than copy it,” Cage was forced to reckon with his distaste for harmony. (You can’t really deal with hymnody any other way.)[8] Cage tinkered with various methods of subtraction, removing individual voices to create ghosts of the rustic harmony, eventually settling on chance procedures to expand and contract certain notes. The result, Cage said, was that:

The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way.[9]

The explorations of Apartment House 1776 led to several subsequent works based on the First New England School, including Quartets I-VIII, Hymns and Variations, and Thirteen Harmonies. (For a particularly enchanting recent interpretation of Cage’s hymn settings, listen to the 2010 Wergo album Melodies and Harmonies, performed by Annelie Gahl on violin and Klaus Lang on electric piano.)

In Some of the Harmony of Maine, an organ work in which three assistants pull out random stops, Cage plays with the echoes of thirteen hymns extracted from a 1794 tune book compiled by Supply Belcher. The occasional fully-voiced major chord appears wholly alien; the bucolic repetitions of the fuguing tunes sound frozen in time, shells of their former selves.

Cage, though, did not seem to demonstrate an interest in shape-note tune books; he stuck strictly with the earliest era of native hymnody. Shape notes returned to the American concert hall in another work inspired by the Bicentennial, albeit five years later: William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony. Duckworth was the first to not only draw upon the harmonies of the shape-note tune books, but also the actual manner in which they were performed: unlike the music of Thomson or Copland, Southern Harmony actually includes the shapes themselves.


In 1996, Lovely Music, Ltd. released a recording of William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony performed by the Gregg Smith Singers.

Duckworth’s engagement with shape notes grew out of a post-Bicentennial awakening among folk revivalists. Neely Bruce, the composer, conductor, pianist, and American music scholar, had started his own choirs to sing shape notes at Wesleyan College, and he commissioned Duckworth to write a choral work. (Bruce has incorporated shape notes into his own music as well.)
Duckworth had childhood experiences singing shape-note hymns in rural North Carolina, and had reencountered the music in the singings that Bruce led. While on sabbatical, he engaged with the original Southern Harmony tune book as a whole:

I would begin each day by singing through Southern Harmony a line at a time for an hour or more. At first I did it to familiarize myself with the music, but by the third or fourth time through it became more of a meditation.[10]

Book I of Duckworth’s Southern Harmony—he composed four books, with twenty pieces total—opens with the plaintive hymn “Consolation,” set in straightforward homophonic fashion. The music then transitions into a wistfully repetitive gloss on the tune, with the singers intoning the shape-note solfège syllables instead of its solemn text. The modular repeats of the syllables—Duckworth reiterates short phrases several times before moving on—recalls the post-minimalism of the composer’s earlier Time Curve Preludes, but also hints towards an even more intriguing predecessor. There is a looming work in postwar American music that also utilizes singers quickly repeating solfège syllables: Einstein on the Beach. Here, Duckworth conflates two separate streams of American maverick music, equating Glass’s repeated syllables with those of William Walker’s shape-note compilation.

Shape Notes in Brooklyn

Today’s young musicians don’t seem particularly interested in the Billings strain or the patriotic fervor of the Yankee tunesmiths and the Bicentennial that renewed them. They are, instead, children of the 1970s revivalists—the most literal example being folk singer Sam Amidon. Amidon’s parents actually sang in the Word of Mouth chorus, a revivalist group whose 1979 Nonesuch album Rivers of Delight brought shape notes to national attention; today, he performs his own quirky reworkings of shape-note hymns.
Composers Gabriel Kahane, Matt Marks, and David T. Little have connected musically with the written artifacts of the shape-note heritage—the books and tunes themselves—as well as contemporary oral cultures. You can sing from The Sacred Harp in meetings in most major American cities today and connect with a vibrant community of singers on the website Now that Sufjan Stevens does it, shape-note singing has lost the archaic significance it had for Seeger and Cowell and has instead become just another unusual strain of Americana.

In Marks’s pop opera The Little Death Vol. 1, released as an album on New Amsterdam in 2010, shape notes function as a kind of disruptive speaking-in-tongues. Towards the end of the song “Dear,” soprano Mellissa Hughes sings part of “When God Dips His Love in my Heart,” a Baptist hymn, and then begins singing the shapes of “What Wondrous Love Is This,” a staple of the Sacred Harp repertoire, over an electro-pop accompaniment. It’s a wholly irreverent appropriation of the tradition—Marks wrote in an email that “I really just wanted to mix shape-note singing with J-Pop style beats and synths”—and demonstrates the versatility with which today’s composers play with the past. Here, there is no attempt to erect a canon of American music stretching across the centuries; “Wondrous Love” merely fits into the eclectic narrative that Marks shapes.

Kahane’s use of shape-note hymnody, though, does resonate with some of the democratic zeal of the 1930s renaissance, especially since it is in the context of dramatizing that very historical era. In the midst of Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, a work composed for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra which draws on the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide series, Kahane quotes a description of Sacred Harp singing from the Alabama guide in a spoken text. The score then instructs the orchestra players who accompany Kahane, to stand and belt out the fuguing tune “Marlborough,” singing solfège shapes followed by words.

Kahane’s score refers to this as a “Sacred Harp hymn,” though the nomenclature isn’t quite accurate; “Marlborough” dates back to 1793 and was composed by Abraham Wood. (It just happens to have found its most prominent place in The Sacred Harp.) This conflation of the First New England School repertoire with its role in the later shape-note tradition is a common one today. In an interview, Kahane told me that the “the populist and democratic nature of shape-note singing” meshed with the broader message of his Guide: “There’s something about how unadorned it is that I find really moving.” That democracy, too, can be found in the music of Wood, who drummed in the American Revolution.

David T. Little found a different kind of energy in the unadorned quality of shape-note singing. As part of a 2012 multimedia concert focused on 19th-century Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn Philharmonic performed Am I Born, Little’s extensive cantata that takes the shape note hymn “Idumea” as a point of departure. Little had become fascinated with the brash singing style of Sacred Harp revivalist groups, which he once called “death metal for choir.” In an interview with I Care If You Listen, Little said that he “followed some of the part-writing rules of The Sacred Harp,” writing cadences that leave out the third and playing with parallel fifths. (Little actually wondered if he himself was a descendant of William Little, the co-inventor of the shape-note system.) The choir opens by singing a visceral setting of the doleful “Idumea” (its first line is “Am I born to die?”), and Little’s buzzy, post-minimalist orchestral writing channels the furor of the Sacred Harp experience.

David T. Little - Am I Born (opening page)

The opening page of David T. Little’s Am I Born. © 2011 by David T. Little and reprinted with his permission. (Click image to enlarge.)

“Idumea” is a Southern classic, probably derived by composer Ananias Davisson from a folk song and first printed in Davisson’s The Kentucky Harmony, one of the earliest Southern shape-note tune books. Intriguingly, though Little mimicked aspects of the shape-note tradition, he actually sought out a source that does not fully embrace that sound. The earliest printings of “Idumea,” from The Kentucky Harmony to the first edition of The Sacred Harp, are written for three voices. The dominant sonority of its beginning, on the word “Am,” is the open fifth of Billings tradition. But more recent revisions of The Sacred Harp added a fourth voice, replacing the open sound with full triads; Little’s setting of “Idumea” retains that fourth voice, making the hymn less pentatonic than conventionally tonal.


The opening of the three-voice version of “Idumea” from the 1860 edition of The Sacred Harp.
(The complete 1860 edition as well as a later 1911 edition is available from IMSLP.)

When Seeger declared that The Sacred Harp represented a “true style,” he was equating the uncanny part-writing of three-voice Southern hymns with the modernisms of his era. But with that fourth voice, Little’s “Am I Born” points towards a new modernist tradition, built not on some archaic American past but on a living present. In absorbing the style and sound of Sacred Harp as sung today, Little’s generation recasts a vibrant tradition for a new audience, pointing towards a true style for the 21st century.


1. Charles Seeger, “Contrapuntal Style in the Three-Voice Shape-Note Hymns.” The Musical Quarterly 26, no. 4 (Oct., 1940): p. 488.

2. George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Hatboro: Folklore Assciates, 1964), pp. 4 and 160.

3. Quoted in Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 242.

4. Quoted in Joanna Ruth Smolko, Reshaping American Music: The Quotation of Shape-Note Hymns by Twentieth-Century Composers (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2009), p. 16.

5. Quoted in Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 144.

6. Fauser, p. 146.

7. Wayner Shirley, “The Hymns and Fuguing Tunes,” in The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium, edited by David Nicholls (Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997), p. 96.

8. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), p. 297.

9. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 90.

10. Quoted in Smolko, pp. 172-173.

Sounds Heard: Ernst Krenek—Complete Symphonies

Mere months after fleeing Europe for the United States, the composer Ernst Krenek visited the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon. “I was moved to tears hearing the tolling of the bell on a gunboat that passed by way down on the Potomac,” he wrote. “What a world of strength and beauty was irrevocably lost to us who are walking around among its august remains.”

That Washington moment might seem strange for an Austrian-born composer of Czech descent, but Krenek felt the gap between past and present as acutely in Mount Vernon as he did in Vienna. His hometown, and the locus of the culture he had held most dear, had succumbed to the Nazis and was no place for a composer of jazzy operas and atonal music. “I had become a preferred target of the rapidly increasing barbarian tribe of German supermen,” Krenek wrote in his memoirs.

Today, those memoirs languish practically unread at the Library of Congress. Though penned in English, they have only been published in an out-of-print German translation. The memoirs aren’t even listed in the library’s catalogue. (An intrepid librarian discovered them for me in the stacks.) Call up ML95.K83, and you will come face-to-face with a large box containing over a thousand typed pages, divided into six tattered envelopes. Each envelope bears the label: “This must not be opened before fifteen years after my death.”

Krenek was a man of many contradictions in a century full of them. He hoped to succeed Mahler as a great symphonist, but became best known for an opera about jazz (the 1927 Jonny spielt auf). He was rejected by the Nazis for being a radical and by the postwar avant-garde for being a conservative. Constantly adapting to new circumstances, learning new musical languages to fit the times while pushing to new creative heights, Krenek seemed one step behind the curve, unable to catch up with the speed of the 20th century.
Reading the memoirs while listening to a new boxed set of the composer’s five symphonies—recorded over the past two decades by the North German Radio Philharmonic Hanover and released in May by CPO—helps rekindle Krenek’s world of strength and beauty, revealing the tumultuous life and searing music of an unjustly overlooked composer.

Krenek’s life and music inform us about the cultural heritage of Vienna, but perhaps more importantly about what happened to that legacy when Hitler forced a generation of artists and intellectuals into exile. Two of Krenek’s five symphonies were composed after he arrived in the United States, and they reflect his turbulent years as a émigré. Though some exiles felt, as Arnold Schoenberg famously put it, “driven into paradise,” in the case of Krenek it was a paradise in which his name, once heralded in the 1920s, was largely and unfairly neglected.

Krenek began writing his memoirs in 1942 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He thought himself near death, and fervently documented in English his childhood in Vienna, his twenties in Berlin, his return to his home city, and its downfall in the 1930s (born in 1900, Krenek died in 1991, making him an almost exact contemporary to Aaron Copland).

The memoirs move at a luxuriously slow pace, but are rife with insights into the cultural life of 20th-century Europe. In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was seen as a “local lunatic, a pure crank of no significance”; in Germany, Paul Hindemith obsessed over miniature trains; and in France, Igor Stravinsky insisted that Krenek eat salad with olive oil to gain the affections of women. Unfortunately, the memoirs conclude in 1937, leaving scant details about his American life.*

The memoirs also provide a gaze into Krenek’s own multifaceted identity, one that would acquire even more intricacy when the composer went into exile. “I am neither Czech nor German, and being Austrian appears to practically every living person as an artificial abstraction,” he wrote.

Krenek’s five symphonies mirror the complexities of his persona and the upheavals of his life. His First Symphony premiered in Berlin in 1921, heard by Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius; his Fifth was premiered in 1950 by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony, and heard by, well, the residents of New Mexico.

In his early twenties, having relocated from Vienna to Berlin to follow his teacher Franz Schreker, Krenek composed his first three symphonies. They are a remarkable feat: over two hours of seething, post-Mahlerian grandeur, written in under two years. The First Symphony, a single movement broken into eclectic sections, is murkily atonal, with sudden fugal outbursts—a young man demonstrating his command of traditional counterpoint. The Third is a lighter work, though it still packs a punch.

Of this early trio, it is the Second Symphony that most intrigues. In 1922, Krenek fell in love with the youngest daughter of Gustav Mahler, Anna, whom he married and divorced in less than a year. Krenek dedicated his Second to Anna. He writes in his memoirs of his skepticism towards the idea that personal matters could inspire great music, but this symphony is one of his most towering works.

Hovering between Romanticism and modernism, it is a weird piece from its very opening, an ethereal duet of violins and plinking celeste. The music rises to massive climaxes that suddenly dissolve into mist before chaotically rushing forward to the next explosion. There is a sardonic streak throughout, channeling the other great post-Mahler symphonist of the day, Dmitri Shostakovich (who himself may have been inspired by Krenek’s music). One hears a fully formed musical personality—Krenek’s lifelong balancing act between reverence and cynicism.

The 25-year break between the third and fourth symphonies did not bode well for a composer hoping to succeed Mahler, as both symphonist and family member. But Krenek abandoned the genre when his opera career took off with the success of Jonny spielt auf, which briefly made him one of the most famous composers in Europe. Combining elements of jazz and late romanticism, Jonny was a surprise hit at its Leipzig premiere in 1927, and went on to tour Europe. A tale of a black jazz violinist who helps liberate a composer from esotericism, it became a kind of fable for the wild culture and loose morals of Weimar-era Europe, and a pioneering work in the cutting-edge genre of Zeitoper.

In the wake of sudden fame, Krenek found himself at what he called an impasse, unwilling to continue down the path of populist opera. He turned towards Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, ideas of which he gleaned from the composer’s disciples, since he was not allowed into the Schoenberg’s inner circle after a nasty battle earlier in their careers.

Neither the jazz-celebrating Jonny nor his subsequent twelve-tone turn ingratiated Krenek with the Nazis. Thugs disrupted performances of his music in Vienna and Munich, and rumors that he was Jewish (he wasn’t) led to cancelled concerts. Krenek had the unique position of being a composer who could be indicted as both an American-pandering populist and a mathematical formalist: the very ideal of the Nazi conception of degenerate art.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1937, Krenek was in Brussels. He frantically applied for a visa and sailed to the United States. Over the next decade, he moved from university to university, started cranking out his memoirs, and composed a startling amount of music.

The final two symphonies, written in Albuquerque and Los Angeles in the late 1940s, harken back to his youth in Berlin. Despite Krenek’s engagement with twelve-tone techniques throughout his American career, both works are freely atonal, and less forbidding than much of his later output.

The Fourth is elegiac, even Copland-esque in its opening woodwind lament, though it still retains Krenek’s quintessential acerbity. As in the earlier symphonies, moments of utter weirdness puncture the music, like a lurching crunch of brass in the finale, a bleak revision of the Fanfare for the Common Man.

If the Fourth represented Krenek’s attempt to make his style more accessible, he didn’t tweak it enough. It premiered at Carnegie Hall, but the present recording is the first performance of the work in nearly sixty years. The Fifth, Krenek’s briefest symphony, reclaims some of the classicism of his earliest works, ending with a mordant fugue that recalls his first attempt in the genre.

Another fifty years passed, and Krenek wrote much music—electronic pieces, operas for stage and television, choral masterpieces like the Lamentio Jerememiae Prophetae—but not another numbered symphony. He dabbled in American themes: Santa Fe Timetable, a choral work setting the names of various train stops between Albuquerque and Los Angeles; a ballad of the railroads; a set of George Washington piano variations.

Despite his love for American culture, Krenek continued to feel like an outsider. The kind of writing which might have gained him an audience in the United States—the blend of lush early modernism and jazz found in Jonny—remained behind, part of the lost world of late imperial Vienna.

Living in its august remains, he pressed onward and adapted to his new home, even if it was less welcoming than the old. His music went unheard; it is worth resurrecting.

*Those interested can consult John L. Stewart’s 1991 biography of the composer; Claudia Maurer Zenck’s German-language study Ernst Krenek, ein Komposer im Exil; Krenek’s own 1974 Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music; and two generalized studies, Driven into Paradise and A Windfall of Musicians.

Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

Hanns Eisler’s Palmström—for speaker, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin (doubling on viola), and cello—is easily mistakable for a better-known work. Thirteen years after the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, at the request of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed a companion piece for the same instrumentation (minus piano) as that modernist masterpiece. Pierrot itself is a deeply ambiguous work, full of biting satire and mocking seriousness; Palmström takes this a step further, parodying the parody. The forty-five second “Notturno” mimics the bloodrush of Schoenberg’s “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”), but with comically low stakes:

Palmström takes paper from his drawer.
And spreads it artfully round the room.
And after he’s made pellets out of it.
And spread it artfully, and at night.
So that, when he suddenly awakes in the night,
He hears the pellets rustle and a secret terror
Strikes him
Of the spectre of wrapping-paper pellets.

Besides being a fine bit of Second Viennese School homage, Palmström is an early participant in a hundred-year musical heritage, one still unfolding today: the Pierrot ensemble. Composers from Philip Glass to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Missy Mazzoli have all written music utilizing slight variations on Schoenberg’s original Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. Some grapple with the legacy of Pierrot Lunaire head-on; others creatively misread the work. Many ignore Schoenberg’s piece entirely and take the instrumentation as a given—a modern updating of the string quartet or piano trio.

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy, as this essay will do, reveals a story of artists grappling with modernism and tradition, but also with practical realities. The Pierrot ensemble acts as a panorama of the musical 20th century, and one that bridges us into the 21st—earlier this year, the Pierrot-derived group eighth blackbird took home their second Grammy.

Pierrot Lunaire Excerpt

This excerpt from the score of “Madonna,” the sixth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, shows the first occurrence of a quintet consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It has happened many times since then. (The public domain score of Pierrot Lunaire is downloadable from IMSLP.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. We traditionally think of the Pierrot ensemble as a miniature orchestra—the grand Romantic afflatus stripped down to its bare bones—but Schoenberg actually did the opposite in Pierrot Lunaire. He originally planned the work, a melodrama comprised of 21 short texts by Albert Giraud, for speaker and piano. In the process of composing, Schoenberg asked actress Albertine Zehme to add a clarinet—a reference back to Brahms’s chamber music, if anything—then a violin, a flute and, finally, a cello.

Maximizing the musicians’ potential, Schoenberg requires the flute to double on piccolo, the clarinet on bass clarinet, and the violin on viola. He utilizes the novel instrumentation in various, smaller groupings throughout the work, and the combinations match the spirit of each song—the hooting piccolo and clarinet of “Der Dandy,” the sickly, limpid solo flute of “Der Kranke Mond.” And if Pierrot Lunaire’s Pierrot ensemble is a miniature orchestra, it is a miniature cabaret orchestra, adding a populist snarl to Schoenberg’s hyper-chromaticism.

Pierrot Lunaire premiered on October 12, 1912, and immediately caused a sensation. Schoenberg knew he had a hit, and the work had a run in Berlin before the musicians embarked on a five-week tour of twelve cities. Artistic responses followed quickly. Sabine Feisst has documented the work’s impact in America, which was immediate: Universal Edition published a pocket score in 1914, which inspired Henry Cowell’s 1915 Red Silence, a Japanese-influenced monodrama for speaker, flute, violin, cello, and piano. Charles Griffes followed suit with the similarly exoticist Sho-jo and Kairn of Koridwen of 1917; evidently, when American composers heard sprechstimme, they thought druids and samurai.[1]

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg sought out companion pieces for the Pierrot instrumentation to fill out an evening concert: thus, Palmström, but also Anton Webern’s re-orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for a Pierrot contingent (1922-23). With Webern’s piece, we see one of the earliest examples of an instrumental Pierrot ensemble, with the role of the speaker removed—a precedent (though a virtually unknown one) for many later works which would abstract the concept of the ensemble entirely, removing the elements of melodrama to focus strictly on the possibilities of the instrumental combinations.

For the next several decades, works for Pierrot ensemble pop up throughout Europe and America. The American premiere of Pierrot, in 1923, was a major event with a wide impact. Cowell felt the Schoenbergian influence again, leading to his 1924 Four Combinations for Three Instruments (playing off of Schoenberg’s shuffling of instruments); Carl Ruggles wrote his Vox Clamans in Deserto, for mezzo-soprano and a more expansive chamber ensemble than that of Pierrot Lunaire.

Then there are early examples of the Pierrot ensemble as a convenience, a choice made as much for financial practicalities and logistics as artistic vision. In a fascinating article published in the volume British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, Christopher Dromey discusses re-discovering the Pierrot ensembles of a young Benjamin Britten, who apparently “reveled in the romanticism” of the original work, and scored several films for Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit for its instruments.[2] His 1936 score for the film Dinner Hour may be the first instance of what today is called the “Pierrot-Plus,” with Pierrot instruments augmented by percussion. The day-to-day reality of the Film Unit meant that Britten often gathered random assemblages of musicians—Pierrot as pick-up band.

Still, these are not the pieces you think of when you think Pierrot ensemble (if you even knew they existed). They remain outside the repertoires of the major Pierrot groups, like the Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Fires of London. The real cottage industry of Pierrot music would come with the codification of the ensemble, the transformation of an unusual instrumentation into an institution.

Fast-forward to 1967. In London, young composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies banded together with several instrumentalists to form the Pierrot Players. Their first concert consisted of Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Antechrist, and Birtwistle’s Monodrama, with the new pieces scored for Schoenberg’s configuration as well as percussion (the true dawn of Pierrot-Plus). Reflecting back on the ensemble in 1987, Maxwell Davies said that:

The Pierrot Players were founded because the performances Harrison Birtwistle and I were receiving of our music in the sixties were less than satisfactory—under-rehearsed and uncommitted….There emerged a group of friends, willing to spend many hours of unpaid time with two inexperienced conductors, rehearsing difficult new works. Thanks to The Pierrot Players/Fires of London I learned the basics of instrumentation as never before, and the rudiments of theatrical craft—not to mention, out of frightening necessity, how to conduct….The group has been the most important music experience of my life to date. [3]

The founders felt that tying their legacy back to Schoenberg would also connect them to Schoenberg’s own tradition of new music concerts in Vienna’s short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances. Here, Pierrot becomes a kind of foundational text, the modern moment around which one can fashion an ensemble to progress Britain’s contemporary music scene.

The Pierrot Players’ seminal early work is Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a heaving gloss on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire swapping out moonstruck female reciter for crazed baritone (and adding percussion). Like that of Pierrot, the instrumental ensemble acts as a psychological manifestation of the work’s insane protagonist. Maxwell Davies takes it a step further, noting that the instrumentalists are “projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King’s own psyche.” (The musicians performed from within cages at the premiere.)

Where Pierrot Lunaire built upon the antiquated device of melodrama, Maxwell Davies crafts a full-on pastiche, juxtaposing several hundred years of historical references. The instrumentation becomes a kind of desiccated relic—the flute and clarinet mimic wind consorts, while the piano bangs out a “smoochy” country dance; the baritone quotes Handel’s Messiah over a Baroque harpsichord (yes, Maxwell Davies ups the ante on Schoenberg’s doubling, giving us a dual-duty keyboardist), singing alternately “in style” and “like a horse.” Figurative deconstruction, as the king’s madness reaches its forte, becomes literal destruction: Maxwell Davies indicates that the violin should “break apart.”

This maximalizing snapshot is only one aspect of the Pierrot ensemble’s grand postwar history. With the inception of the Pierrot Players (disbanded and reformed as The Fires of London under Maxwell Davies’s direction in 1970), as well as other groups around the same period—the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1970, Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble in 1972, the New York New Music Ensemble in 1975—the format is set in stone. As those groups actively commissioned and encouraged young composers, the Pierrot ensemble transitioned from a scattered tradition of Schoenberg-inspired works to a key player in new music.

With this shift, we see works emerge which tiptoe around Pierrot Lunaire while utilizing its core instrumentation—anyone writing for the ensemble was aware of Schoenberg’s piece, but many composers wished to avoid the association of Viennese modernism, abstracting the instruments from their Expressionist origins.

We see this in the slew of new works that accompanied the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969. For the 80th birthday of Alfred A. Kalmus, who ran the London wing of Universal Edition and championed contemporary music, twelve composers wrote pieces for the Pierrot Players in his honor. The result, A Garland for Dr. K, is a series of short, mostly pointillist experiments by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Bernard Rands, and others for the Pierrot set-up. (Berio’s The Modification and Instrumentation of a Famous Hornpipe as a Merry and Altogether Sincere Homage to Uncle Alfred, a goofy riff on Purcell, stands out among the pack as sounding particularly not like post-war Pierrot ensemble music.)

That these works stood alongside the Maxwell Davies shows the burgeoning interest in music that took advantage of Pierrot Lunaire’s instrumentation without reprising Schoenbergian melodrama. (None utilize a vocalist.) This echoes, loosely, what Boulez wrote in his famous 1952 polemic “Schoenberg is Dead”: that the late composer’s music, despite its explorations of new musical languages, displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”[4] A Garland scrubs Pierrot of its hyper-Expressionist roots, putting it in line with the pure, mathematical abstraction of the postwar generation.

Pierrot, of course, did not die. Works utilizing the ensemble to back a mad narrator coexist alongside ones that treat the instruments as a modern day string quartet. As we move towards the end of the century, this trend continues. Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, a 1983 BBC commission for The Fires of London, is a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance. A review of the premiere noted that Carter “averred that Pierrot Lunaire and the legacy of expressionism had little importance for him as he was dreaming up fresh deployments of [Maxwell] Davies’s personalized, Schoenberg-inspired ensemble.”[5] Carter’s skittish instrumental writing is an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot—it begins with a Haydn-esque joke, with the instrumentalists pretending to warm up. (His divisions of the sextet into duos, though, does echo Schoenberg’s chamber-groups-within-the-chamber-group concept.)

Carter seems to be deliberately stepping around Pierrot. Other composers forget it entirely, treating Pierrot’s ensemble just like any other. Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 makes a Pierrot-Plus ensemble the miniature orchestral accompaniment to a solo viola.

Joan Tower, who co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served as its original pianist, has written several Pierrot-scored works that have no particular connection back to Schoenberg. Tower re-arranged the 1977 Amazon for full orchestra (Amazon II), indicating that her original Pierrot instrumentation may have been merely a practical matter; her 1980 Petroushkates, another Da Capo work, pays homage not to Schoenberg but to Stravinsky (along with, strangely enough, ice skating).

These two pieces also demonstrate that there’s nothing odd about writing a tonal Pierrot piece—we shouldn’t forget about the Da Capo commissions of Philip Glass and John Harbison. Just because Schoenberg wasn’t terribly lush doesn’t mean that his ensemble can’t be.

The Pierrot parody genre, launched by Eisler, trudged on as well. Donald Martino, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Notturno is a classic example of postwar Pierrot ensemble music, ends his From The Other Side (for flute, piano, cello, and percussion) with a movement titled “Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schönberg.” A tango slides into the opening piano lick of Pierrot Lunaire’s “Mondestrunken,” and a czardas erupts into a section titled “The Wrath of A.S.” with shouts of “Nein!” under the piccolo trumpet solo from Petroushka. In The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams mocks an Austrian woman by accompanying her sprechstimme testimonial with a Pierrot-esque subgroup in the orchestra.

Perhaps the best bookend to the Pierrot tradition is Martin Bresnick’s 2002 My Twentieth Century. Another Da Capo commission, My Twentieth Century is what Bresnick calls a “descendant of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—without the chanteuse and in a more vernacular musical and poetic idiom.”[6] Its title is a sly annexation of musical modernism, utilizing the Schoenbergian ensemble for an alternate history of the past hundred years. A laid-back series of piano chords opens the piece, soon joined by gauzy strings repeating short, postminimalist patterns. The musicians themselves alternately intone Tom Andrews’s text: “I played hopscotch in the twentieth century. I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.” Just as the music steps around modernism, the text transforms the 20th century from world-historical to personal, giving weight to individual actions instead of grand narratives. Pierrot Lunaire is a piece of extreme economy and brevity, doing the maximum with the minimum; Bresnick transforms economy into expanse, suggesting in his open harmonies the sparse lyricism of Appalachian Spring. The instruments blend, rather than prick.

And where is the Pierrot ensemble today? Its most famous proponent is, of course, eighth blackbird. Timothy Weiss, who heads the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin, brought together several conservatory students in 1996 to tackle the more difficult works of the Pierrot lineage—pieces like Martino’s Notturno or Charles Wuorinen’s New York Notes. The repertoire of eighth blackbird quickly expanded to include pieces like Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, Wendell Logan’s Moments, and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Bairns of Brugh. The blackbirds even tackled one of the earliest Pierrot configurations—Webern’s arrangement of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony.

This origin story points out a crucial aspect of today’s Pierrot tradition: the ensemble did not perform Pierrot Lunaire for the first five years of its existence. Whereas the Pierrot Players centered their repertory around Schoenberg’s piece, by the end of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s ensemble stood on its own, independent of the work that launched it into existence. Asked why the Pierrot configuration has endured so long, eighth blackbird’s flutist Nicholas Photinos wrote in an email:

Many reasons: it’s a great, small, economical mini-orchestra. It can have the sweep of an orchestra, the groove of a rock band, yet is small enough to be a finely tuned sports car like a string quartet. I think one of that orchestration’s greatest assets, and what sets it apart from other standard small ensembles like string quartets and woodwind and brass quintets, is that there is so much variety of timbre, so the ear never gets bored. Though of course, a composer can also write in a way to achieve a great blend across the group.

Today, eighth blackbird tours Pierrot Lunaire regularly in a theatrical production with soprano Lucy Shelton.

Their commissions include works as varied as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Steve Mackey’s Slide, and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire—a concerto for Pierrot-Plus plus orchestra.

Most of these new Pierrot works don’t tackle the historical legacy directly, and many have that rock-band groove. In 2012, the burden of Schoenberg’s status as founding father seems to have been lifted. Not every string quartet needs to refer back to Haydn; not every Pierrot ensemble needs to refer back to the Second Viennese School. Instead, Pierrot Lunaire hovers in the background—in its centennial year, the moonstruck clown has taken a back seat in that finely tuned sports car.



1. See Sabine Feisst, “Echoes of Pierrot Lunaire in American Music,” in James K. Wright and Alan M. Gillmor, eds., Schoenberg’s Chamber Music, Schoenberg’s World (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009), pp. 173-192.

2. Christopher Dromey, “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Pierrot Ensembles,” in Matthew Riley, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (London: Ashgate, 2010), p. 230. Dromey has written a full-length study of the Pierrot ensemble tradition, which will be published later this year by Plubago.

3. Peter Maxwell Davies, quoted in Grenvile Hacox, “The composer-performer relationship in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies,” in Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones ed., Peter Maxwell Davies Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 200.

4. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 394.

5. Paul Driver, “‘Triple Duo’ and ‘Image, Reflection, Shadow,’” Tempo 146 (September, 1983): p. 53.

6. Martin Bresnick, Program Notes for My Twentieth Century” accessed from Martin Bresnick’s website on May 4, 2012.

Many thanks to Frank J. Oteri, who has taken on the herculean task of compiling a massive and comprehensive list of works which utilize the Pierrot ensemble or its variations.