Tag: forgotten composers

My Search for Ben Weber

Ben Weber was an enigma. He was a twelve tone composer whose lushly harmonic music is often described as tonal. He was a deeply serious, intellectual artist in the metaphysical mold of Schoenberg and Busoni. At the same time, he was famous in artistic circles for his impromptu, hilarious yet oddly poignant drag performances of opera performed for close friends at his West Village apartment.

Weber’s music was performed and recorded by the most distinguished conductors and performers of his day—Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Trampler, William Masselos, and Joseph Fuchs, among many others—but at the end of his life, his music was not in fashion, less often performed, and many of today’s musicians have never heard of him. Times change, fashion comes and goes, but Ben Weber’s music is timeless—and unique in the canon of 20th-century American music.

Ben Weber’s music is timeless—and unique in the canon of 20th-century American music.

I met Ben Weber in 1974, when John Cage suggested that I approach him about taking me on as a composition student.  I worked with him until his death in 1979 and after writing an article about Ben for the American Composers Alliance (in conjunction with a concert of music by their founding members, one of whom was Ben Weber), I realized that I needed to write his biography—that this was something important, and that my close connection with Ben as his good friend and his last student made me the right person to do so. I feel very fortunate that so many of Ben’s close friends and colleagues—Ned Rorem, Anahid Ajemian, George Avakian, Cho Wen Chung, Bethany Beardslee, Don Bachardy, and many others—have been willing to spend time with me sharing their memories about Ben. A good example of how moving these experiences have been for me is the several hours I spent with Ned Rorem talking about Ben. None of the acerbic quality that comes out so often when Rorem writes or talks about other composers was present in our conversation. It was filled with real love. He said that Ben was perhaps one of the only composers that he truly called a friend, and that Ben’s music “is always beautiful.”

I got to know Ben very well in the four years that I worked with him, but now, talking with so many people who knew and loved him and his music, reading his letters and researching his life and work, I’ve become even more aware of his extraordinary complexities. My book is about Ben, but it’s also very much about this journey—my search for Ben Weber.

His music is all twelve-tone based, but his New York Times obituary read “Ben Weber, Tonal Composer.”

As a composer and as a personality, Ben Weber was a unique study in contrasts. His music is all twelve-tone based, but his New York Times obituary read “Ben Weber, Tonal Composer.” As described by Ned Rorem in his article “Thinking of Ben” (first published in Christopher Street: The New Magazine; and subsequently reprinted in Rorem’s 1983 collection Setting the Tone: Essays and a Diary), “[B]y standards of cinema or sauna, Ben was not fetching in person…yet he had stance and variety and could swerve through the room with grace.” Ben famously remarked, “I’m certainly not Marilyn Monroe, but compared to George Perle, I am glamorous.” And he really was—even when I knew him in the last years of his life, not in good health, overweight, bald, almost a recluse in his dusty, dark Upper West Side apartment, but yes—still glamorous. The fascinating contrasts that Ben presented in his music and in his person are what I’ll try to describe in this article.

Ben Weber in a wig with Seymour Barab playing a cello and an unidentified woman.

Ben Weber in a wig (right) with Seymour Barab playing a cello and an unidentified woman on the left (date of photo unknown).

In the 1950s, Lazare Saminsky, the legendary composer and cantor of temple Emanuel-El in New York City, commissioned a series of choral pieces from New York composers. Ben Weber’s contribution is a setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which might stand as his artistic credo:

Only who with the dead has eaten
of the poppy that is theirs,
will never again lose
the most delicate tone.

In “About Ben Weber” (ACA Bulletin Volume 5, no. 2, 1955), Frank O’Hara writes: “Like the poems of Rilke in which we experience an open, complicated and knowing sentiment while we read, but when we have stopped reading realize that what has actually moved us is a mystery…this music informs us, and its composer, of those things which we are just able to know.”

There’s a beautiful poem about Ben by John Cage, written just after Weber’s death in 1979.  (B.W. 1916-1979 Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, no. 30, 1979) Cage thinks of Ben in his one-room garden apartment in the West Village, where he copied music for a living, cooked fabulous meals for his friends, and wrote his music. The poem ends with the lines:

A mesostic using the name WEBER

Ben moved to New York from Chicago in 1945, settling on West 11th Street in the West Village, the epicenter of New York bohemian life, where he soon became an integral part of the New York music world. Ben had a unique quality that could bring people of very different perspectives together. His personality and his music won the friendship and admiration of such diverse artists as David Diamond, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Paul Goodman, Frank O’Hara, and Henry Miller. It’s hard to think of another composer whose music is loved by both the arch- anti-twelve-tone composer Ned Rorem and by Milton Babbitt, the epitome of a serial composer. When Edgard Varèse heard Ben’s Bagatelles for piano, he called him up and asked to meet him; they shared many evenings at Ben’s apartment and Varèse’s student, the brilliant Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung, studied autography with Ben and also became a close friend.

David Diamond, spoke about his first meeting with Ben. Ben noticed a book of German philosophy that Diamond had with him, and to David’s amazement, immediately began sharing his thoughts about the book and its meaning. David spent many evenings with Ben, talking for hours about poetry, philosophy, art, and music. And then Ben might tell a story about an encounter with the handsome repairman who came to fix the telephone!

He staged elaborate dinner parties for small groups of friends. Ben loved to shop for exotic spices in the stores near his West Village apartment, and his menus were the stuff of legend. Bethany Beardslee showed me one of his recipes that she still keeps in her recipe collection; a letter from his close friend, the avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos says that Robert (the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s long-time partner) is still talking about Ben’s shrimp curry. When I was finishing a commission for a new piece, Ben remarked that writing a piece of music is sort of like making a dinner party. For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes!

For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes!

Milton Babbitt, in his article “Memorial for Ben Weber” (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 17, No. 2 Spring/Summer 1979), described Ben’s dinner parties as “spirited social gatherings…lively professional meetings of performers, composers and others in or close to music, most of whom probably have seen little of each other since Ben ceased providing the place, occasion and reason.”

So many people I spoke with rhapsodized about those dinners. There’d be lots of wide-ranging talk about music, art, and poetry. Besides many composers and performers, poets such as Paul Goodman, Edwin Denby, and Frank O’Hara were frequent guests; when he was still living in Chicago, Ben attended a reading by Henry Miller and afterwards he and Miller went back to Ben’s apartment and talked until dawn. (Perhaps Miller was also a guest at one of the New York dinners.)

After dinner, Ben would disappear behind a curtain, emerge in a wig and costume and perform a scene from Salomé or Tosca. So many people that I’ve interviewed, both gay and straight—Ben didn’t just do these drag performances for his gay circle—wax poetic about these performances. Edward Field, now in his nineties and writing and speaking like someone in his twenties, is a celebrated poet and writer on gay life. As a very young man, he met Ben when they were both in residence at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, and he talked to me about how wonderful it was to experience these performances. He’s also written about them in his memoirs. Anahid Ajemian premiered several of Ben’s seminal pieces, including the Sonata da Camera, written for her and her sister, the legendary pianist, Maro Ajemian, and the Second String Quartet, commissioned and recorded by the Composers String Quartet, in which she played first violin. Anahid was Ben’s very close friend and she was often a guest at his dinner parties, but when I asked her to describe the drag performances, words failed her—she said they were something absolutely unique—very, very funny but at the same time, something more: in an offbeat way, a real and caring homage to the music. Robert Beavers was there when Gregory Markopoulos filmed Ben doing a drag performance for Galaxie, Markopoulos’s iconic film of collage portraits of New York artists. I talked with Robert about being there—it’s so many years ago, he said, but he so clearly remembers Ben’s performance as something unique, and so glad that it exists on film.

This wasn’t drag as performed at a gay club.  It was something very different. I think it’s apt to use that untranslatable French word, spirituel to try and evoke what they must have been like—incredibly funny; in the truest sense, witty; but on a level that conjures the sublime.

Don Bachardy in his studio holding up one of his portraits of Ben Weber.

Don Bachardy in his studio holding up one of his portraits of Ben Weber.

The painter Don Bachardy painted several beautiful portraits of Ben. He got to know Ben in the 1960s, when Ben had moved uptown and wasn’t giving parties much anymore. I talked with Don in his beautiful house in Santa Monica, overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. He sat in the same chair that he’s sitting in in the famous David Hockney portrait of Don and his life-partner, Christopher Isherwood, the British writer whose Berlin Stories inspired the musical Cabaret. The house is full of wonderful paintings by the couple’s many artist friends. Hanging in pride of place at one window is a beautiful, framed score of Ben Weber’s.

Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known.

Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known, and he and Christopher Isherwood certainly knew many singular people. He tried to describe the qualities that made Ben so unique: his combination of profound seriousness, deep melancholy, and then those sudden, unexpected moments of humor that would catch Don completely off guard—he’d be talking very seriously about music or poetry, and suddenly switch to a completely different voice, imitating some opera singer—or, in an instant, his whole expression would change and he’d take on a wildly devilish demeanor. Don regrets that he never asked Ben to do one of his drag performances for him. “He wasn’t doing them anymore, but he probably would have done one for me if I’d asked. Ben in drag would not have been like anyone else.”

A framed score of music by Ben Weber is mounted on the one of the windows in Don Bachardy's home.

A framed score of music by Ben Weber is mounted on the one of the windows in Don Bachardy’s home.

Weber’s music is of the highest seriousness, but it’s also elegant, gorgeous, effortless in its effect—and often light-hearted. Like Schoenberg, Ben certainly “heard the music of another planet.”

Ben was one of the first Americans to take up Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique, and his Bagatelles for piano from 1940 are the first published twelve-tone pieces by an American composer. Ben worked as secretary and copyist for Artur Schnabel when he first came to New York, and he told me a wonderful story that seems to relate, albeit unconsciously, to where Ben would take his twelve-tone explorations. There’s a note at the bottom of the first page of the music that says, “N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg.”  When Schnabel was reading through the music, he paused as the end of the first piece and said to Ben, “But there are only eleven tones here! You should amend your note to say, ‘N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, except for the first piece which is in the eleven tone system of Ben Weber.’ ” Ben probably never made that “mistake” again, but in a humorous way, this story shines a light on his completely original and unexpected way of writing twelve-tone music that was admired by both Elliott Carter and David Diamond.

Ben didn’t adopt the twelve-tone system as a way of creating intellectual complexity or to, as Ernest Krenek notoriously put it, be “freed from the tyranny of inspiration.”  He told me that starting work on a row was like walking into a dense forest—at first it’s all a blur, and then your eye picks out a beautiful tree here, a bird over there, a hidden flower. His twelve-tone writing was an integral part of his search to enter unknown realms.

I think that’s why Frank O’Hara quotes Rimbaud’s famous line, “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”) in his beautiful essay about Ben. Rimbaud made this strange use of the third person verb form coupled with the first person pronoun to try and explain his poetic process, and O’Hara felt that it related strongly to what he heard in Ben’s music: “There are composers springing to mind whose work cries again and again. ‘I am myself!’ but Ben Weber is not one of them… Je est un autre.” O’Hara saw that Ben, like Rimbaud (and of course like Ben’s favorite poet, Rilke) “makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains” (from The New Yorker review of Rimbaud’s letters).

Ben constructed rows with which he could create bittersweet, unexpected harmony.

Ben constructed rows with which he could create the bittersweet, unexpected harmony that’s so much a part of the spell that he weaves with his music. Here’s the statement of the row at the opening of his Intermezzo, a piano piece that takes you on a sort of psychedelic, Brahms through the looking glass adventure.  The row is constructed in a way that allows him to resolve the piece with this beautiful—ultimately tonal—ending.

Intermezzo begins with a major third. Major and minor thirds are prominent in Ben’s music. Major thirds can feel melancholy and minor thirds, joyous. Perhaps this relates back to Brahms, one of Ben’s favorite composers. The music theorist Siegmund Levarie (with whom I studied music theory as a private student, and who was also an admirer of Ben’s music) said that Brahms was the first truly modern composer who, unlike Schubert, did not treat major keys as happy and minor keys as sad. And this is central to Ben’s music and to who he was as a person: nothing is just one thing. Everything is both/and, happy/sad, deeply serious/incredibly funny, brilliant sunlight/enveloping darkness. Even the way he morphs the 6/8 time into some sort of duple meter just before the ending of the Intermezzo seems part of this constant dichotomy.

Dolmen, commissioned by Newell Jenkins for his Clarion Orchestra, also begins with thirds—the first two notes of the row is a minor third which is spread across the full orchestra.

The tone row for Dolmen: A F# G# B E Bb C F D C# G Eb

The tone row for Ben Weber’s Dolmen.

Ben described the piece to me as an evocation of “a world without people,” and Virgil Thomson, to whom the work is dedicated, said it was “the saddest music he’d ever heard.” Ned Rorem remarked on its “disconcerting string glissandos” and Ned’s description of Ben’s melodies as “true airs in that they billow toward the sky… serpents splaying upward, evolving into birds that swoop ever higher, then curve back upon their many selves and ease to the ground” certainly applies to this strange and wonderful work. It’s also a great example of Ben’s highly contrapuntal sections that move into semi-contrapuntal and finally entirely homophonic moments: near the end of the piece, the strings divide into four and five parts each. (Ben was a great admirer of Strauss’s Metapmorphosen. We studied that work intensely in one of my lessons as I was beginning work on a piece for string orchestra. I think his love for that music and its beautifully elaborate counterpoint is evident here.) After that, repeated sixteenth-note chords begin to be heard, first interspersed with contrapuntal passages in the other instruments, and then as the very tonally based chords that conclude the music.

There’s also a lightness of touch and a sly, humorous elegance in Ben’s music. It’s very present in his 1963 Prelude and Nocturne for flute, celesta, and cello. He had used a similar combination of instruments—trombone, celesta, and cello—to very different effect in his 1952 score for the avant-garde filmmaker Willard Maas’s film poem Image in the Snow. Flute, celesta, and cello is an instrumental combination that only Ben would have conceived of and used in this way to such sublime effect.

The piece opens a window on a magical world, and the final moments of the Prelude are Ben at his most lyric, mystical, and unexpected. Then there’s the sly humor. The piece is dedicated to his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and Ben said that it was inspired by an evening they’d spent together. I have no idea whether Ben and Frank had a sexual connection, but I think of them at Ben’s apartment: Prelude, dinner and brilliant conversation and Nocturne, what happened after dinner. Notice the Nocturne’s unusual and evocative opening tempo, Notturnamente, and the metronome marking ♩=69. The poet Edwin Denby said to me that Ben “was the only twelve-tone composer with a sense of humor.”

And finally, Ben was a romantic in the fullest sense of the word. He loved Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and when we studied the score at one of my lessons, he took special note of the romantic anguish that Schoenberg depicts so powerfully in the scene where King Waldemar loses his beloved. I think Ben connected with that unbearable sense of loss because he too had lost his first great love, a man killed in the Second World War, just before he was about to move to New York to live with Ben.

You can hear all of his romantic passion in his Concert Aria After Solomon (first performed by Bethany Beardslee, who, in her memoirs, credits Ben and this performance with starting her illustrious career as an interpreter of new music), especially in its final words, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!”

Ben Weber opened up worlds for me, as a composer and as a human being. He was only 64 when he died, and I was shocked by his death. I never thought he’d be gone so soon.

In my search for Ben Weber, I’m finding myself.

There was so much complexity to him as a man and as an artist, and I probably couldn’t really appreciate all of it as a 22-year old. It’s a wonderful experience to be connected to him again, and to all those wonderful people who knew him. In my search for Ben Weber, I’m finding myself.

Darkness and light. Humor and mystical otherworldliness. It’s all there in the music, and in the last lines of the Rilke sonnet,

Only in the dual realm
do voices become
eternal and mild.

Ben Weber, seated at the piano, wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Schoenberg’s Punk Rocker:  The Radical Transformations of Dika Newlin

[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.

Dika in a Pierrot costume

Dika in her Pierrot costume

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.

Dika Newlin outside Chilton Hall

Dika outside Chilton Hall

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 Newlin eating a sausage

Dika eating a sausage

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.

A private recording of Dika Newlin’s composition Fido Flew Away from her live performance at North Texas State University (which is now the University of North Texas) on November 16, 1970.

[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 at the piano.

Donna Arnold (photo courtesy of the author)

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.