Schoenberg’s Punk Rocker: The Radical Transformations of Dika Newlin
Anyone who knew her would agree that multifaceted composer, musicologist, teacher, Schoenberg disciple and punk rock singer Dika Newlin (1923-2006) was one of the most brilliant, eccentric people they ever encountered. Her extant works certainly deserve to be rediscovered. But for her multimedia pieces, it is almost certainly too late.
[Ed. Note: July 22, 2017 will be the 11th anniversary of the death of multifaceted composer, musicologist, teacher, Schoenberg disciple and punk rock singer Dika Newlin. One of Dika Newlin’s many students, University of North Texas Music Reference Librarian Donna Arnold, re-examines her mentor’s extremely unusual career trajectory and makes a case for reviving her work though it will be difficult if not impossible to do so in some instances.—FJO]
Anyone who knew her would agree: Dika Newlin (1923-2006) was one of the most brilliant, eccentric people they ever encountered. A musical prodigy and all-around genius, she garnered attention early. Arthur Farwell was her composition teacher when she was six years old. At age eight she composed a piano piece, “Cradle Song,” which made such a favorable impression on conductor Vladimir Bakaleinikoff that he orchestrated it and performed it with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1935. Bakaleinikoff took a strong interest in the young composer’s development, and urged her vehemently to study with Arnold Schoenberg, although he had no connection with him.
Arranging such study would be difficult, but with her bachelor’s degree in hand by age sixteen (1939), she received vital support from her parents and others that made it possible. Since she was so young, she was accompanied by her mother as she enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, where Schoenberg was on the faculty; she studied composition in depth with him, and completed her Master of Arts degree in 1941. She described these early achievements and provided candid descriptions of her years with the master in her 1980 book, Schoenberg Remembered; Diaries and Recollections (1938-1976).
After her composition studies, she proceeded to earn Columbia University’s first Ph.D. in musicology under Paul Henry Lang, graduating in 1945. Although the project she wanted to pursue was controversial at the time and far outside his bailiwick, Lang supported her research, and her ground-breaking dissertation, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, was published as a book in 1947. As she modestly noted in Schoenberg Remembered, “it became something of a classic.” Such spectacular achievements were just the beginning of what was, to say the least, an unusual career. Soon after, she founded Drew University’s music department in 1952.
This remarkable woman created a sensation wherever she went, but no description comes even close to conveying what it was like to see her in action. Dika (she preferred to be called by her first name) was on the faculty of the University of North Texas, then known as North Texas State University, from 1965-1973. While there she touched many lives, bringing a bizarre mix of brilliant learned discourse and over-the-top radicalism to a student body that was very ready for her and a faculty that definitely was not. Years later she would become even more radical by embracing punk rock.
How does someone go from being a teenaged protégé of Arnold Schoenberg’s to being a disruptive punk rocker? That outcome was actually the culmination of a long process of radicalization. A description of her various phases as pianist, scholar, composer, teacher, and militant iconoclast may shed some light on her bizarre transformations.
Dika studied piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, and could definitely have been a full-time concert pianist had she so desired. Instead of focusing on performance, however, she established herself as a musicologist, composer, and teacher. Recognizing her gift with languages, Schoenberg selected her to edit fifteen of his essays, which were published as the book Style and Idea in 1950; she translated three of them from German to English to his satisfaction. She published a constant stream of scholarly articles, mainly on Schoenberg-related topics.
Not surprisingly, in her compositions she used the twelve-tone technique for many years. The University of North Texas Music Library holds scores of seven of her pieces, one very early and the others from the middle of her career. The early one is a trio for piano and strings, composed in July and August of 1948. The other six are songs for solo voice and piano which were composed in 1968. All of these works are based on twelve-tone rows.
In Schoenberg Remembered, she quoted excerpts from her diaries which hint at how she eventually came to diverge from the serial method. Her recollections make it clear that Schoenberg had a very forceful and controlling personality, and domineered his protégés unmercifully. Although they revered him and were anxious not to offend him, they all struggled to devise some means of breaking away and being themselves.
Even after Schoenberg’s death in 1951, Dika seems to have taken years to step out of his long shadow, if in fact she ever did. Although he was no longer physically present, the force of Schoenberg’s persona haunted her for the rest of her life. Dika’s branching out into multimedia, electronic, and computer music was certainly one way she could display her independence, even while speculating that the master himself might well have been interested in possibilities afforded by the new technologies, had he lived to explore them. It was in the late 1960s, a peak time for radical composers to go in new directions and do things that had never even pertained to music before, that she began to embrace an avant-garde that went far outside the bounds of the serial composers.
As Max Mathews was pioneering his use of the computer to generate musical sounds at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Dika was one of the elite group of composers who was allowed to create computer music there in the early 1970s. (Since I was one of her students at the time, I heard news of her work directly, although she never divulged any technical details within my hearing. It is not widely known that Mathews was inspired to use the computer to produce musical patterns when he attended a piano recital of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music that Dika performed at Drew University.)
At North Texas State University, Dika was officially a musicology professor, but she also taught composition. She taught multimedia workshops and so-called modern harmony classes in which she actively involved her students in many controversial and unusual projects and performances. Her faculty recitals were extravaganzas in which she premiered the computer music that she was creating at Bell Labs. Such activities blended well with the university’s newly established program in electronic music, for its director, Merrill Ellis, had persuaded Robert Moog to build his second-ever synthesizer for him and his students. Unfortunately, however, Dika and Merrill Ellis did not get along well, and to my knowledge, never collaborated. Nevertheless, numerous students studied with both of them, and utterly failed to care that their respective mentors were at odds.
Dika managed to offend and outrage administrators, composition faculty, and musicology faculty alike with her unvarnished iconoclasm and contempt for academic pedantry, and the more she did so, the more adamant the students were in dearly loving and admiring her. One time at a faculty meeting, the music dean was railing against improper sexual relations among faculty members and Dika wreaked havoc by jumping up and asking, in her penetrating voice, “Well, does that mean we have to go to New York to get laid?” Students still relished reports of that incident years after it had happened.
Stick-thin, she dressed and behaved with utmost eccentricity. For instance, she might wear ugly, vividly colored print dresses offset by electric blue tights and tennis shoes. Her wild, wavy hair would often be a different color than its natural dark brown. While no one might guess it from casual observation, she was actually very shy, and although she was unfailingly kind and supportive to students, it was usually very hard to talk to her. She was uncomfortable and inept with small talk. I always felt that she was essentially quite lonely. She lived in a modest frame house near campus. She never drove a car, so she walked everywhere she went. She never volunteered any explanation as to why she chose not to drive, and we students were too shy to ask her about it. She loved cats above all else, and had many.
In Denton, Texas, she became a cultural icon and folk hero not only to music students and students in general, but also to hippie radicals who were not part of the university. They all came to her concerts, which were always packed; if someone arrived late, it was standing room only. The novelty of her computer-generated sounds and visual imagery in the School of Music’s darkened concert hall created an all-enveloping atmosphere that kept audience members of that time spellbound. Sometimes the works were enhanced by activities of live performers, such as members of her modern harmony class. In contrast, some of her pieces had no computer sounds or visual imagery at all, but instead featured live performers in action. (I was sometimes one of them, and what we were doing usually had nothing to do with music as we knew it. I was part of an ensemble known as the Sure Why Not Group, which was often complicit in Dika’s shocking escapades.)
Most such pieces were satirical takes on Dika’s exalted reputation as a Schoenberg disciple or the meaningless pomp and pretense in musical academia. She programmed them between computer pieces, or occasionally even next to works for traditional instruments. Perhaps the most memorable one was called Serial Music. Of course, when they saw that title on the program, audience members were expecting a twelve-tone work. Instead Dika entered the stage carrying a box of Rice Krispies and sat down at a small table. She proceeded to pour the cereal into a bowl, pour milk on it, and eat it with a spoon in front of a microphone. The snap, crackle, and pop, combined with her chewing, provided the sonic experience.
Audiences for contemporary music of the time were frequently subjected to music for tape, in which electronic sounds emitted from reel-to-reel machines, or taped electronic sounds accompanied people playing traditional instruments. Composers were trying to find their way with the trendy new electronic possibilities. Quite often such pieces were dismally boring, and audiences did not know what to do about them. Should you applaud a tape recorder?
Dika’s work entitled Tape Music was a biting satire on that situation, and I, in company with other members of the Sure Why Not Group, participated in it. It involved her standing and tearing off pieces of cellophane tape in front of a microphone, during which we co-presenters, showing our mounting disgust, eventually stopped her by wrapping her with duct tape till she could no longer move her hands or arms. We then led her off-stage.
After she left North Texas she took a short hiatus, and then moved on to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where from 1978-2004 she spent the rest of her career. It was there that she joined forces with some of her students who had a punk band called Apocowlypso, and she became a familiar figure on Richmond’s punk club circuit. She had always been in touch with what her students cared about, so it is not surprising that she took an interest in their punk band. She kept me informed of these activities in the annual correspondence she and I exchanged after she left Denton. Interestingly, several of her performances are currently preserved on YouTube. She also became involved with an alternative film maker named Michael Moore (not to be confused with the much more famous film maker of the same name), and starred in some of his very odd films and videos. I was informed of some of those in her annual correspondence, especially the film called Murder City.
What was Dika trying to say with all of those radical performances? There was a great gulf between her and the traditional musicologists and composers, and opponents only saw her as a useless crackpot and all-around liability. Proponents saw her as the remarkable genius she truly was, but often went overboard in approving and applauding everything she did. The truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes.
Dika’s wild antics might well have been her contemptuous response to the pain she felt from the lack of attention to her serious compositions. As a child prodigy and young adult she worked very hard to attract favorable attention, and as the “Cradle Song” story attests, she succeeded very well in getting it. But after the novelty of her prodigious childhood wore off, such attention eventually dried up, and she never attained the status or received the recognition that her gifts merited. Recently I became aware of an article in a little-known journal, American Composers Alliance Bulletin X, 4 (December 1962), in which musicologist Konrad Wolff gave a very insightful review of a number of her compositions for acoustic instruments, finding much to praise. He provided a thorough list of her works; my searches show that by now, hardly any of them are readily accessible. In several cases, one copy in a distant archive is the only source. Perhaps tellingly, she began her ultra-radical phase only a few years after such obscure notice seems to have been all she would get. With her ever-more-bizarre multimedia and punk antics, Dika was showing us that she was relentlessly determined to attract attention, no matter what it took to get it. Once she was at her most radical, it is doubtful that she cared about favorable attention anymore; she just wanted attention. In her inimitable way, she most certainly got it.
Dika’s proponents have always looked at her through rose-colored glasses, and publicly, at least, she looked at herself that way too. Beneath the surface, however, the reality was far more complex. Despite her always upbeat facade, and despite her considerable accomplishments as a teacher, musicologist, and composer, there are more than a few tragic aspects to her life and career. Her demise provides an example. After an accident in which she sustained a broken arm in 2006, she was taken to a nursing home. Once there she quit eating, and died with only film maker Michael Moore and his wife to look after her at the end. She was survived only by an elderly distant cousin and her cat, and there has apparently been no news of what happened to her estate. Sabine Feisst’s article, “Dika Newlin: 1923-2006), a Remembrance” (NewMusicBox, July 24, 2006), provides these details. If her estate was in disarray, many important treasures may have been lost.
Dika Newlin’s extant works certainly deserve to be rediscovered. But for her multimedia pieces, it is almost certainly too late. To my knowledge, there were no video recordings of any of them. Thus, they remain only a special and most unforgettable memory for those of us who witnessed them live or participated in them. The University of North Texas Music Library holds sound recordings of many of them; these may be the only extant examples of her computer and multimedia music. We shall endeavor to make them publicly available if at all possible.
[Ed. Note: When this article was originally published in July 2017, it stated that all the photos herein were taken by the article’s author, Donna Arnold. It has since come to our attention that all of these photos were actually taken by Dr. Theodore Albrecht. We apologize for this accidental mistake.]
Donna Arnold was once a musicology student of Dika Newlin’s at what is now the University of North Texas. Although not a 20th-century specialist, she became involved in several of Dika’s unforgettable radical performances. The long-time music reference librarian at the university’s large music research library, she enjoys answering questions on a wide variety of musical subjects for diverse local, national, and international patrons. Her eclectic research and personal musical interests, which range all the way from Schubert and 17th-century lute music to Russian choral music and classic country and bluegrass, enliven her work.