Tag: history

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.


Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.

In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.

Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

Great Moments (for me) in Chicago New Music History

Chicago History

When I arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1984, I registered as a returning scholar in composition at The University of Chicago. At that time, the first incarnation of New Music Chicago published a monthly newsletter mailed to its more than 300 members about activities in the Chicago area. By 1985 I found myself elected president of American Women Composers-Midwest and vice-president of New Music Chicago. While I was president of AWC-Midwest, we produced 18 events in one year, with the two most important events being concerts at Kennedy King College featuring six African American women composers—including a full orchestra performing Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor—and a concert of AWC-Midwest composers presented in Washington, D.C.

I have experienced score selections where the guys would throw out any score submitted by a female and I would sneak them back in.

During my New Music Chicago days, I remember having 600 scores in my living room submitted for their annual new music festival, out of which we had to choose some 30 scores to be performed over three days. One of my fondest memories of NMC days was having Ralph Shapey take charge of the selection committee. He was so full of energy and ran the fairest way of judging scores I have ever experienced. With other committees I have experienced score selections where the guys would throw out any score submitted by a female and I would sneak them back in again. Also with Shapey, we never conversed about the scores with each other as we listened. We each wrote down our own honest opinions and then compared notes after a group of several scores had been evaluated. We were almost always in agreement.

Another wonderful moment was the three-year existence of NEMO (New European Music Overseas) in the ’90s motivated by a young composer from Belgium while he and his wife lived in Chicago. Pierre Boulez became our honorary president. Peter Gena was artistic director; he is a composer from the Art Institute of Chicago and was organizer of New Music America on Navy Pier before I arrived in Chicago. I was the chair/work horse, so to speak. We had the financial support of the Goethe Institute as well as the French and Italian Consulates. Goethe Institute brought in some wonderful groups of musicians and composers, as did the Italian Cultural Institute and the French Consulate. We presented Chicago composers along side our European colleagues. It was a very exciting time and attracted much critical and audience attention for newly composed music on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble through the years

As founder of CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in the fall of 1987 with my husband Philip Morehead (and not affiliated with a university), I performed/organized more than 250 concerts. Janice Misurell-Mitchell and I were co-artistic directors of CUBE for the next 20 years. Christie Miller, a clarinetist, continued to run CUBE for the following five years. Our main focus was to feature the music of living Chicago composers, but we also included important composers from the United States, Europe, and beyond. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, named Janice and me as Chicagoans of the Year for our creative/innovative programming, a wonderful and unexpected honor. Under Christie Miller’s leadership, we honored Gunther Schuller with a portrait concert at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, M. William Karlins at Pianoforte Chicago, and important opera composers Thea Musgrave at the Merit School of Music and William Bolcom at the Elizabeth Stein Gallery in the Chicago Fine Arts Building. We were very fortunate to have many performances on WFMT Live from Studio One and wonderful critical coverage from John von Rhein of the Tribune, Wynne Delacoma of the Sun-Times, and many reviews from Ted Shen in the Tribune and the Reader.

The AACM may be the most important musical development in Chicago.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has existed for longer than all of us and I believe may be the most important musical development in Chicago of all, in my personal opinion. Fifty years ago, a group of South Side jazz musicians found themselves backed against a wall. Clubs were closing, radio stations were going pop, America’s musical interests were shifting elsewhere. If these Chicago jazz artists had given in to inevitably changing musical tastes, jazz might have devolved into a nostalgia bath or succumbed to the commercial excesses of the fusion era that followed. Instead, the Chicago musicians created the AACM, invented original musical languages, created intriguing new instruments, crafted novel ways of penning scores, and otherwise defied long-standing presumptions about how music was supposed to be made. And though they didn’t necessarily intend it, their breakthroughs opened the door to new ways of creating, staging, and perceiving music. Chicago and the rest of the musical planet will celebrate the AACM’s 50th throughout this year, a fitting response considering this organization’s global profile and impact.

I am so proud of Chicago and the many new music groups that have since come into being and are flourishing today. Ear Taxi is a wonderful festival event bringing together the many groups that make Chicago an amazing creative place to be.

Patricia Morehead

Patricia Morehead

Patricia Morehead, composer, and oboist, is the founder and former artistic director of CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. She is past president of the International Alliance of Women in Music and American Women Composers Midwest. She made her Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1977 and has concertized actively in Brazil, Canada, Europe, China and the USA. She recently retired from her positions on the adjunct faculty of Columbia College, Chicago, and Dominican University, River Forest, and she was for 17 years leader of the Composers Forum at the Merit School of Music.

Whither Los Angeles? New Music in Tinseltown

Like many Southern Californians, my personal history has been touched by echoes of Los Angeles’ pop culture past. Family stories include the composer of “When you Wish Upon a Star” babysitting my father, my great-grandfather playing the latest Hollywood hits (as well as Klezmer) on clarinet, and another great-grandfather lured by the promise of Columbia Pictures—not as an actor, but as an electrician. However exotically portrayed, the pop industry’s machinations here are quotidian, a bread and butter background for many who call this place home. And, perhaps like many composers who grew up grumbling about this pop culture backdrop and who are now witnessing the flowering of an LA new music community, I am wondering how we got here.

For this series on new music in LA, I’d like to investigate and invite feedback on the role of the composer in this city in particular, and trace the background of this cultural phenomenon—from the days of European émigrés who took to Hollywood with varied levels of enthusiasm, through the dystopia of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (our “peculiarly infertile cultural soil, unable to produce, to this day, any homegrown intelligentsia”), through today, a Los Angeles that seems poised to define new music in America, or at least a new way of presenting it.

So, what exactly is going on here? While the LA Philharmonic has been lauded as a bastion of institutional innovations since the middle of the last century, these experiments have always seemed, to me, to occur in a vacuum, hardly touching the larger cultural landscape. Now, a grassroots new music community (or as “grassroots” as anything which is tied to higher education can be) is in a true dialogue with the larger artistic culture, and the promise of the LA Philharmonic to make Los Angeles a contemporary musical destination seems to have finally taken root. An LA aesthetic has emerged, and I can’t help but notice a bit of pioneering Wild West in the raucous brew. Simultaneously collaborative and independent, the film set of our city seems to foster a wild creativity that grows everywhere, rather than privileging the genius-hero myth. There’s an undeniable energy afoot, and as the same core musicians bounce from project to project, it’s inspiring to watch a collective style evolve: finally we seem to have moved from our oft-maligned laidback attitude to something more bright-eyed and vital.

It’s hard now to find a week in which you can’t hear something new—really new—in Los Angeles. wild Up and The Industry present ever-more spectacular feats as they expand the boundaries of what opera and intermedia collaboration can be. Inventive new music series are springing up across the city, from WasteLAnd to MonkSpace, People Inside Electronics, Equal Sound, the Wulf, and on and on and on. And many of these groups are “entrepreneurial”—not under the auspices of major institutions, but rather informing them. wild Up has teamed with the LA Phil for the Grand National Composers Intensive, and the Industry is teaming with the LA Phil to develop unique opera projects. More importantly, these concerts and organizations are having an impact on the national conversation about the potentials of new music, as Alex Ross noted in his 2015 new music roundup which included a disproportionate number of Angeleno composers.

It wasn’t always this way. It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles was once a backwater called “Queen of the Cow Counties” for its role in supplying the much wealthier and more developed San Francisco with beef. Or that half a century later the city had turned from “toughest town in the West” to a roaring dream factory, its very existence sold as part of the mythos. If America is a place that went from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization, the Los Angeles of the early 20th century must have seemed an intensification of this phenomenon.

In other cities, the impact of the past might be taken for granted, its influence fluid, but more or less publicly circumscribed. In Los Angeles, the past is oddly prominent in the undying appeal of Hollywood, and yet in other places, seems completely hidden, subsumed by our zeal to tear down or pave over, as gentrification’s disruptions rip the past apart. In a city simultaneously private and public, how can we tell what parts of the past belong to us all, and what is only part of a single story? Does the dream factory affect new music at all, aside from being a source of session work or editing jobs? I’d argue that it does, and that the unique cultural ferment of Los Angeles, its Wild West emphasis on individual freedom, its raw cultural melting pot comprise a subtle but crucial backdrop to our experiments on the musical frontier.

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer is a composer, improviser, and bon vivant from Southern California. She studied composition, improvisation and electronics at Mills College, and continues to follow the promise of new music wherever it leads.

Listening to Social Life in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Inside the Tecumseh Theater
Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

Moonshine Festival, New Straitsville

I walk among a crowd of people at the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville, Ohio. It is Memorial Day weekend, signaling the beginning of summer. The festival celebrates the town’s notoriety as a place where much illegal moonshine was (and perhaps still is) made and sold. It is an industry that arose here in part as a response to the underground fires that ended coal mining in the late 19th century. I walk up and down Main Street recording the sounds and voices that pass by. There is a Johnny Cash recording playing in the background, and I listen to people selling and buying t-shirts and funnel cakes and onion petals.

I hear: electricity buzzing, chains clinking, clapping, laughter, motors, coughing, yelling, a baby crying, a car radio, wood hitting concrete, hissing air, dog growls, sighs, birds, trucks revving, banging, pounding, a dog sniffing, and sneezing.

I hear many fragments of conversations from the people I pass by, too. They unfold something like this:

I said no! –– Good blowin’, honey! –– Ah, you know what I didn’t bring?
My grandfather… –– Onion petals, oh yeah! –– That’s crazy.
Wasn’t nothin’ we didn’t do when we was kids, wasn’t nothin’.
Video games are half off! –– Some of them boards out there…
He took it, put another one up there… –– Hodgey! –– You can walk with Sarah.
For our safety and your safety… –– This one’s 5 bucks! –– I told her…
They go fast? –– Yeah, a little fast. –– I’m not doing that!
Shit, I’m down there… –– Just waitin’ to hear the fire trucks.
Yeah, we’re doing good, getting ready to head out of here.
Now, I got two things… –– They’re probably all the way down at the end.
What do you wanna play?

A parade begins, mostly made up of local fire trucks, a few muscle cars, and a host of festival queens from around the state. The announcer’s singsong baritone voice provides a running commentary as he introduces each queen: “And here’s our very own Moonshine Queen… That is one serious dress you’ve got on right now…” The festival and parade highlight some of the ways the region remembers and defines itself. For example, the queens get their names from local industries, histories, and attractions such as the “Railroad Festival,” “Old Settlers Reunion,” “Ohio Hills Folk Festival,” “Coal Festival,” and “Indian Mound Festival.”

New Straitsville Moonshine Festival

I continue to listen and walk toward a parking lot where there are a number of temporary carnival rides. As I move away from the parade, its sounds do not disappear all together. Instead, they merge and overlap into the noise of machinery, chains moving, and mostly empty cages whirling overhead. A man yells to me, “Hey, hey, hey! You ready to play? I’ll let you win today!” There are only a few children on the rides, and the attendants look bored as they latch and unlatch their riders. A child yells above the din of machinery, “I wanna go on the rocket! I wanna go on the rocket!” as another says, “Hey, can you buy me a wristband?”

Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee

Now, I am in the middle of the Tecumseh Theater, a large opera house in Shawnee, Ohio. It is late morning in late December, and sunlight pours in on bare walls stripped down to the wood laths. There are old signs, a few chairs, and a piano on each of the building’s three floors. The theater is partially restored; residents of Shawnee have worked for decades to protect and hold the building up.

I stand in the theater and listen. I strain to hear the past and present of this place together, what Don Ihde refers to as using an “aural imagination.” I walk up on the empty stage. Remarkably, the faded, tapestry-like curtain under the proscenium arch is mostly intact. Looking out into the empty theater, I think of the dances, bands, small-town operas, and movies that all took place here. High school graduations happened here, too, and a 1925 program from the Little Cities Archive tells of the music played at the ceremony, a mix of ceremonial music and chamber pieces. The floor creaks beneath my feet, and I hear basketball games that also took place here in the same year. Crowds cheering, feet squeaking, the ball pounding––the scene is much more raucous than the more formal graduation.

Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Several dozen folded up theater seats surround an old upright piano. I wade through them and pluck the piano’s strings, since most of the keys are not working. The sound of the strings’ attack and decay fills the room, and I imagine the “Preliminary Triangular Music Contest” that took place here in 1925. Two high school orchestras compete against one another––Shawnee vs. Junction City––and in my mind I hear each tuning up. A jumble of violins, saxophones, piano, coronets, trombones, and drums clash in an Ivesian cacophony. I listen for laughter, gossiping, feet shuffling, and polite clapping. After each orchestra plays through their selections, judges tally scores, and cheers and stomping are heard from the balcony as Shawnee wins, 5-3.

Associations and Traces

These examples of social life in the Little Cities offer two places and many different events across time, loosely held together through listening. Bruno Latour argues that the “social” is “a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements.” And, speaking about Appalachia in particular, Kathleen Stewart states that it is “…a place that is at once diffused and intensely localized, incorporated into a national imaginary and left out, intensely tactile and ephemeral as the ghostly traces of forgotten things.” These “associations” and “ghostly traces” aren’t clearly defined or stationary. Instead they form a jumble of connections always in a state of movement and transformation, akin to sound. A sonic understanding of the Little Cities brings together the sounds of the communities that live there today, and the remnants of the communities that once were there.

As I listen, family roots also become a non-linear thread connecting past and present. I think of my grandfather, who was almost certainly participating at all of the events that took place at the Tecumseh Theater in 1925. Archival documents show that he was performing in the orchestra, graduating from Shawnee high school, and playing basketball as the team captain. Yet I am suspicious of the nostalgia associated with connecting family to place. Author and activist bell hooks warns against this, but she also finds a way to locate “a space of genuineness, of integrity” between past, present, family, and place. She states, “Using the past as raw material compelling me to think critically about my native place, about ecology and issues of sustainability, I return again and again to memories of family.” This sense of wariness and return acknowledges our own subjectivity, yet also offers a way to navigate between uncritical nostalgia and impersonal stereotype. I carry these personal traces and fragments and bring them together in a collage of sound, text, image, and interaction—an archive of ideas and contexts that do not stay put but are continually changing, emerging, and dissipating.

Close Listening: Music and Power

Electricity Substation

Over the last three weeks, I’ve written about music and its relationship to the economy, genre, and race. In my final Close Listening post, I’ll focus on power distribution within the music industry.

Who holds power in the music industry, and how did they come by that power? I’d like to get at these questions via historiography. A consideration of the construction of the history of music is extremely important as we take stock of those who hold power and the culture with which they surround themselves.

History is a constructed, ever-changing branch of knowledge—one that often suffers at the hands of historians’ biases (see, for example, this recent piece in The Atlantic), and one that absolutely affects the distribution of power in our culture. I believe one can draw a direct line from music history’s exclusion of women composers to the lack of parity in the programming of music written by women composers. That is, the criteria by which we decide if a person’s musical legacy is handed down to subsequent generations is the same criteria by which we decide if a person’s music is programmed on a concert or recorded for an album.

Let’s take for an example the 1920 American supplement to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. As my friend Anna-Lise Santella, senior editor for music reference at Oxford University Press, informed me over email, this supplement contains quite a lot of female representation, much more than is found in subsequent editions. (She also noted that the supplement was published the same year American women gained the right to vote.) What this means is that someone, or a group of someones, made the decision to exclude many of the women represented therein when preparing future editions; the situation was not, “there aren’t any women to feature in our dictionary,” it was “these women don’t deserve to be in the dictionary” (largely a result of profession bias*). As Anna-Lise put it to me, not only do we need to write women (and people of color) back into our music history, we need to examine the system of exclusion that has plagued and continues to plague music historical publications.

History requires evidence, she continued, which is heavily reliant on archives—which, when meting out limited funds, will favor those with a higher public profile. Prior to the mid-20th century, the only people really allowed to have a high public profile were white men (see also: the Great Man theory). Even today, the other of the two “art” music positions with the highest amount of perceived power (along with the composer) is the conductor, with the top positions routinely going to men. (I’ve written about this before.)

Thankfully, within the new music scene we can already see signs of the erosion of the Great (White) Man ideology. Nonetheless, systemic bias is nowhere near its death throes and we all need to be vigilant against it. Send me a press release for a concert or festival or recording comprised entirely of male composers and I will likely grimace at my monitor and click delete.

Listen, I’m saying nothing here that hasn’t already been said; in the past month, I’ve stumbled upon half a dozen articles that address this very issue (e.g., this other Atlantic article dealing with systemic bias in the STEM fields) and probably half a dozen more are being written as I type this. The point here is to make aware those who might not realize they hold power, and to rally all of us to use our power as consumers, concert programmers, and so on, in the service of equality. Do you program concerts/festivals? Do you write music reviews? Do you buy CDs? Do you run a record label? Do you attend performances? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you hold power, and you should be taking proactive steps against systemic bias. Program, write, purchase, and attend outside the white male box (nothing but love for my many white male musician friends). Be mindful of what you vote for with your dollars and your attention.

* In a follow up message, Anna-Lise elaborated on this point:

I don’t think women were necessarily excluded as a gender but that the categories that got them notice in the supplement were later deemed not a focus for Grove…In particular, there are a lot of educators in the supplement— that was an area of music where women were dominant. But we have very few educators, male or female, in the dictionary today. And while performers still appear in Grove, obviously, there is not as broad a representation as there was in the 1920 supplement, which was more narrowly focused geographically and could accommodate more types and amounts of activity. Composers fared better overall, but a lot of women who were performers first and composers second (whether by design or by reception history) have fallen out of the dictionary…I think part of redressing the issue is taking a look at how we are evaluating who gets included in our histories, what things we think are important and influential.

As a parting thought, I would like to thank those who commented on my “Music and Race” post. You highlighted the need for an intersectional approach to the issue at hand, and gave me some great listening/research recommendations, which include:

T.J. Anderson
Renée Baker
Chicago Modern Orchestra Project
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)
Chicago Sinfonietta
Bill Doggett Productions
Center for Black Music Studies at Columbia College

It Ain’t Us, Babe


I imagine [musicologists Leonard] Meyer and [Richard] Crocker on a stroll through wooded countryside. ‘We have passed through the forest,’ says Meyer, ‘and now we are lost in a multitude of trees, with no prospect of finding our way out.’ ‘This is no multitude of trees,’ replies Crocker, ‘it is a forest like the last one. And if you will just follow me, I shall show you the path into the next forest.’
Leo Treitler, “The Present as History,” Perspectives of New Music 7-2 (Spring-Summer 1969): 22.

What kind of a story is music history, anyway? Why do we tell it? Does history actually exist in some objective way, in the world, ready to be reported on, or is it, rather, a construction, a framing device we use to reduce the radical contingency of “one damned thing after another” to the comforting story of cause and effect? Can you ever really see the forest for the trees?
All these questions and more are considered at length in the article from which the pastoral episode above is taken. It was a review of four synoptic surveys of music history, written for an audience of new music composers and theorists, but from the perspective of a musicologist who studied the oldest of old music. Leo Treitler might, at first glance, have seemed like exactly the kind of Germanic camp follower about whom Joseph Kerman had twitted American musicology in 1964; what could this guy, whose area of research was chant repertories in 11th- and 12th-century Aquitaine, possibly have to say about the writing of contemporary music history?

History as Runaway Train

But Treitler’s Germanic inheritance included serious training in historiography, the philosophical study of historical writing as a discipline, and he was ready to drop some Wissenschaft on these suckaz. His review shows, ineluctably, how each historical survey constructed an arbitrary “motor” of spurious causality and then set it in motion, mass-producing explanations for changes in musical style that might otherwise seem too random. As the late-’60s present approached, Treitler demonstrates by unkind quotation how the sheer momentum of these historical narratives had enabled historians to ride roughshod over the actual complexities of recent compositional trends (atonality, serialism, chance operations). In their hands, history became a runaway train demolishing the station at which it was supposed to arrive.
Steam locomotive enters tunnel
Treitler advised his readers to beware of musicologists bringing hegemonic narratives to discipline the chaos of the contemporary: “Systems of history, which are invented as useful and even necessary ways of lending coherence to the varieties of artistic expression, end by dictating how art shall be.” Surely this is not what today’s composers want from music historians! Because all we can really offer in that line is the cold comfort of tautology. The newsworthy compositional trends of the present will be those which exemplify whatever cycle of cause and effect we have all agreed can explain the past. But how will we know those are the newsworthy composers and trends? Because the agreed-upon narrative of cause and effect points to them. In this musicologically “totalitarian” version of the present—Treitler ironically notes that it represents “the highest refinement of the historian’s technique”—today’s art is reduced to nothing more than the shadow of yesterday’s ideology.

Philology and the Canon

OK, fine, respond the composer’s advocates, so maybe you shouldn’t try to cram us into the Big (Historical) Picture. But couldn’t you at least do some on-the-scene reporting—you know, dig up some facts, find interesting documents, make performing editions, help rescue potentially great music from obscurity? Isn’t that what musicologists do?

Well, it’s what musicologists mostly used to do, and proudly. The academic discipline of musicology was founded on the model of scientific philology, the study of classical Greek and Latin texts, and what still comes to mind when one says “musicology” is time spent in exotic archives with unpublished sources; the ability to read ancient or personal musical scripts; systematic knowledge of paper, ink, watermarks, and copying techniques; and the discovery, dating, and transcription of hitherto uncirculated musical works. The idea that scholars should serve art by devoting themselves to curating a “canon” of authoritative classical texts was imported into musicology right along with the forensic techniques of classical philology. This is why musicologists spent all that time in the archives—not, as it might seem in retrospect, to enlarge the performer’s repertory. New old pieces to play were just a fortunate byproduct of the real goal, which was to serve Genius by assembling a canon of authentic Masterworks.

An alert reader will have guessed that the use of archaic capitalized nouns and the past tense in the paragraph above is a tease for this (not very surprising) reveal: most musicologists—especially those interested in contemporary art music—no longer believe that philological curation of a canon of musical artworks is their defining job. Let’s get practical for a minute: in the era of Finale™ and Sibelius™, copy machines, laser printers, and PDFs—when the typical composer’s “archive” is a thumb drive or a DropBox link—can’t the textual study of music be democratized? Rather than a musicological priestly caste assembling masterworks, it is today’s performers and composers, who have a pragmatic interest in situations where interesting or historically significant new music is not available in usable texts, who should do this work. And if they want to anoint new geniuses so be it; let us joyfully accept the priesthood of all believers.

Pop Triumphalism and the Necessary Postmusicologist

Me, I’m more of a Social Gospel type. And what I am going to argue by (other people’s) example in the following posts is that the musicology of the present can fruitfully take wide-ranging, decentered socio-cultural analysis of new music as a goal, loosening the death grip of cause-effect history and canon worship. This point has been made eloquently and repeatedly over the last three decades by the prime movers of the cultural turn in musicology, first among them Susan McClary. That bend in the path did not at all strand the field in “gender studies” of the masterwork canon (although there was, of course, some work to be done there)—in fact, the question of how musicology might approach present musical life was central to its initial appeal. Although McClary is no more a specialist in contemporary music than was Leo Treitler, she dropped some new musicological science back in the late 1990s for those who want to study it:

I take as my model the great medieval theorist Grocheo, who impatiently pushed the “purely musical” speculations of Boethius to the side in order to produce a socially grounded inventory of the many distinct music cultures flourishing in Paris around 1300—an inventory that included explanations of the preferences of the aristocratic and ecclesiastical elites, the laboring classes, and even hot-blooded youths. What would our histories look like if we took note of the many kinds of music surrounding us—observing differences in social function and technique, to be sure, but acknowledging them all nonetheless as parts of a shared universe?

There has recently been something of a backlash against these home truths under the guise of resisting “pop triumphalism.” Implicit in McClary’s position, we’re told, is the danger of intellectual capitulation to popular music’s market hegemony, allowing its economic dominance to set the agenda of cultural criticism and analysis. Devotees of “minority” non-commercial musics like classical, jazz, and avant-garde have sensibly retreated from borderline racist positions that denigrate commercial popular music as “trash” or “crap.” (Well, except when it’s U2.) But, they now ask, can’t we be left in peace to tend our own gardens? Is there no place for a considered elitism? A retreat from the marketplace?

Well, says the musicologist who once published a piece called “Elvis Everywhere,” actually no, there isn’t. For one thing, at least three generations of new music composers have ceased to see the musical world this way. (I borrowed my title from what was at the time a brand-new string quartet by American composer Michael Daugherty.) It is no longer even news, as it seemed to be in the mid-1990s, that “popular” styles like indie rock and hip-hop have more artistic credibility for the average reader of, say The New Yorker, than the sound of the downtown avant-garde. Vernacular music is, by now, so interwoven with remnants of the Western canons of art music and jazz that today’s hard-working and adaptable composers don’t even expect special credit for knowing and loving it all.

The pervasive influence of popular and non-Western music on contemporary composers inscribes new music in different and larger cultural narratives. Even if we refuse Treitler’s pitcher of historiographic Kool-Aid and persist in trying to fit the present into (some kind of) history, we will have to work in the shadow of the triumph of pop. And models of causality and style change based in a segregated canon of “classical” music are just not going to cut it.

And, so, at the half point of this four-part exploration, let me return you to that bar in New York City where two philologically inclined composers are asking themselves where all the musicologists went. Had I been there, I like to think I’d have gargled my best Bob Dylan: It ain’t us, babe—It ain’t us you’re lookin’ for, babe. What you really need is an interdisciplinary team: maybe a musicologist, but also an ethnomusicologist, someone who does popular music studies, perhaps a media scholar, someone familiar with current debates on race, colonialism, and culture. Let’s roll all that and more into one byline: the postmusicologist. (Thanks to Asturian postmusicologist Maria Vázquez González for the term, and the excellent Tyson Reaction meme which kicked off this series.) In the next two installments, some preliminary adventures of this new action figure. Till then, keep on changin’ the paradigm!

The Musicology of the Present

One night in New York City after a concert I was having a drink with my fellow composer Larry Polansky. He was talking about the musicological and restorative work he was doing on music by Johanna Beyer and Harry Partch, I spoke of my analytical writings on the music of Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse. Finally, Larry said, ‘Composers are now doing the work that musicologists used to do, while the musicologists are all off doing gender studies.’
—Kyle Gann, Rey M. Longyear Lecture, University of Kentucky, 2008

If I’m going to be a musicological guest blogger for NewMusicBox, I thought, I’d better come up with something fresh and relevant to its readership. I’ve written on the cultural significance of minimalism, music that was still new (and terra incognita for musicology) when I started researching it; I’ve also stood back at least once and lobbed spitballs into the fray over the “death of classical music,” arguing that the ubiquity of the trope means, among other things, that we inhabit a post-canonic musical world in which challenging new music might not be where you expect to find it. (Like, here, for instance.)

But this seems like the perfect venue to take up a challenge laid down by composer-journalist-scholar Kyle Gann, who in 2008 tasked a generation of music historians with having “dropped the ongoing narrative of composed music.” Failing to follow the example of the great Leonard Meyer, who composed his 1967 study Music, the Arts, and Ideas as a preliminary sketch for an art music “history of the present,” we became caught up in gender, sexuality, performance practice, popular music, post-colonial theory—anything to allow us to study the same old music in a (fashionably) new way, and delay setting out across the treacherous, shifting sands of postmodern musical historiography. The trained professionals weren’t doing what composers like Gann needed done; so this self-declared amateur had to do it himself. (And brilliantly, too, as anyone who has read his work can attest.)
This is an old complaint, and it has some merit. Musicology, at least in the U.S., has its deepest disciplinary roots in music history, and a particularly documentary, evidence-hungry form of “scientific” history at that. Almost exactly 50 years ago, the American musicologist Joseph Kerman drily noted that his colleagues were still following “the true objective path which the German scholars stamped out generations ago,” and gently suggested that perhaps the time had come to loosen up and stray a bit toward a critical engagement with the present. He tweaked a conservative field in which even the canonical composers of the 19th century were a little too fresh for serious academic work:  in the year 1964, the American Musicological Society, he noted, had “more Wagnerians than any organization west of Seventh Avenue—but no professed Wagner specialist.”

Kerman himself was no partisan of avant-garde music, but, as a critic, at least he was interested in what was going on around him; most professional musicologists were not. They were serious historians, and believed it impossible to study the present with the scientific rigor their own teachers had taught them to bring to the past. Musicologists of middling age can still remember when living composers were completely off-limits; and it is true that, even after musicology underwent its critical turn, the innate bias toward the past remained. But as the 20th century fades in the rear view mirror, a new generation of musicologists is beginning to change the conversation. Contrary to what today’s composers might think, these new musicologists are not afraid of new music, nor do they think contemporary composition is of little consequence. The AMS is presently being asked by some of its younger members to charter a study group devoted to “classical music as a contemporary practice,” alongside those already devoted to gender studies, politics, philosophy, popular music, the environment, etc.

Not Dead Yet

But don’t get your hopes too far up; I’m afraid the musicology of the present might not look very much like the musicology developed in and for the past. However useful it might be for contemporary composers to be professionally historicized, musicologists who turn their attention to the present moment will not necessarily bring along with them their trusty narrative-machines, ready to process yesterday’s news into tomorrow’s historical truth. Meyer’s musical “history of the present” was, I would argue, not a way to keep on writing music history, but a way to deal, once and for all, with its End, in much the same way philosopher Arthur Danto would later deal with the “End of Art,” by which he meant not the end of art production, but of a certain kind of historical narrative about the cultural significance of art production.

For the professional historian, schooled deeply in this collapse of the master narratives of modern art, perhaps even conscious of having played some small part in their deconstruction, it is a little late in the day for composers and their advocates to demand another chapter of the old familiar story:  pre-classical, classical, mannerist; minimalist, postminimalist, maximalist; lather, rinse, repeat. The bafflement with which contemporary composers have read the final volume of the recent Oxford History of Western Music stems in part from this frustrated desire for more stories (about them); Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.

So what would a post-narrative musicology focused on the present actually look like? Probably not very much like traditional music history. One can’t do better here than recommend a very practical 2012 collection of essays on method, Doing Recent History. In the tartly titled lead, “Not Dead Yet,” editor Renee C. Romano notes that her own historical research on U.S. black-white intermarriage, a story which lies largely within living memory, is often not even recognized by many of her readers as “history”; she’s more usually filed under political science or sociology. She still feels like a historian, but admits that the experience of writing in the present tense has repeatedly sent her back to rebuild the intellectual foundations of the very histories she sought to extend. If a music historian chooses to work on music that is not yet part of settled history – not dead yet – she might face the same risk, but I submit that if one is eager to find a new path, this could be an historic (sorry) opportunity.

New Paths

In the posts that follow, I’m going to borrow a tactic from Robert Schumann. Rather than blow my own horn, I’ll point out a couple of the new paths—new sociological and cultural frameworks within which to understand some issues in the production and consumption of new art music—implicit in the most recent work from emerging musicologists. This will be really fresh stuff that you can’t find (yet) on the scholarly equivalent of Pandora or Spotify. But first, in next week’s installment, I’ll offer a cautionary look at some of the methodological pitfalls that await when one tries to extend traditional narrative strategies of music history into the present. Can the old paths even lead us through the art-musical present, that undiscovered country where the composers, performers, and historians are, first and foremost, not dead yet?


Robert Fink

Robert Fink

Robert Fink is a professor of musicology at UCLA and president of the U.S. Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US). He is the author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, and writes on popular music, contemporary art music, opera, and politics, and “classical” music in a post-canonic era. The noted scholarly reference source Buzzfeed recently proclaimed his lecture course on the History of Electronic Dance Music the #1 “coolest” class at UCLA. (James Franco’s screenwriting class came in at #7, so that’s pretty unusual.)

2008: NewMusicBox Snapshots—Nine Images for Nine Years

Radical Connections: Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh

Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh

Phil Lesh and Elliott Carter
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Though you might not ordinarily connect these two composers, there are some surprising musical links between them, supported by a friendship of many years. This conversation between them originally aired on Counterstream Radio in 2008, but you can listen again now.
In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables

Erik Spangler and Du Yun

Erik Spangler and Du Yun
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The DJ may be the custodian of today’s aural history, according to DJ Spooky, but the turntables hadn’t been given much attention in the academy in 2008. Erik Spangler set out to correct that oversight.
A Subtle Analysis of Composer-Performer Resentment
In which Jeremy Denk, on the advice of his therapist, airs his serious grievances and irrational peeves with new music.
Dispatches From the End of the Jazz Wars
White flag behind barbed wire in smoke
Darcy James Argue suggests that perhaps the fissure between neoclassicists and progressives doesn’t seem as pressing when jazz itself is on the ropes—unity in the face of adversity.
Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide
Women have made tremendous strides toward parity with their male colleagues in the field of composition, but we’re not all the way home just yet. In 2008, Lisa Hirsch took the field’s pulse on this issue.
Crash Course: American Serialism
12 for serialism
Matthew Guerrieri delved into American serialism, exploring the work of a host of composers—Babbitt, Wuorinen, Powell, and more—who set out, by the numbers, to make music modern.
Making an Asset Out of Your eSelf
The references to MySpace and Classical Lounge may now be obsolete, the power of social networks continues to grow and the concepts herein as outlined by composer Alex Shapiro remain relevant and useful.
Picturing Music: The Return of Graphic Notation

Section from Will Redman's Book

Section from Will Redman’s Book

An exploration of unconventional notation as presented in the anthology Notations 21, released in 2008.
Acoustic Ecology and the Experimental Music Tradition

path into the sunset

Photo by Molly Sheridan

Today’s acoustic ecology encompasses a much more expansive domain of intellectual activity than would have ever been claimed by its original practitioners. David Dunn tried to pin down some definitions.
Nine images for nine years, and a video to grow on, as we remember a remarkable colleague we interviewed in 2008 and lost this year.

Additional NewMusicBox @ 15 Posts

2006: Walk Right In, Sit Right Down

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A chair is a terrible thing to waste, and in 2006 any and all vacancies were weighing heavily on our minds.

It’s not that we didn’t already know we had an audience problem, but we couldn’t fundamentally agree on what the root cause actually was. Could it be the Monty Python-worthy stagehand sketches being enacted in our concert halls? Would it be best to run away to a more relaxed outdoor venue?
Perhaps an outright ambush was in order.

Venue was a central variable in the new equations, that’s for sure, and long-term solutions meant more than just locating a cooler landlord with a liquor license. Yet setting aside the trappings left even more essential questions on the table. Perhaps we had gotten a little too friendly with our genre neighbors and were diluting the whiskey rather than expanding the guest list. Or maybe we were looking at the wrong urban role models and, with our eyes glued to the shoreline, were missing the inspiration to be found in the Heartland. It was time to play hardball. There were some tough truths to be spoken, but were we ready to hear them?
NewMusicBox homepage 2006
Or maybe this boat had already hit the iceberg and we should just make sure the monks had copies of our scores for safe keeping before our culture went up in flames. And for all those getting judge-y about Pops programs? “Thanks for sending us your fleeing concert hall patrons!” they shouted back. “Your close-mindedness will complete your downfall.”
Admittedly, all this handwringing over ticket sales was a convenient distraction from our more personal career frustrations in an industry where it’s too easy to be almost successful.

Sorry, sorry, I’m getting bleak—and we’re not even close to the economic challenges of 2008 yet! In many ways things were still the same as in years gone by. We were still exploring technology and getting giddy over the advancing opportunities for creative music making. We were still arguing over the continued existence of the Uptown/Downtown divide. We were still struggling to come up with the perfect title.

And on the up side, we were singing our own songs and singing them proudly! (But only once we had legally cleared permission to set the text, of course.) Big bands and small electronics were turning ears and inspiring composers. Keeping things fresh and optimistic, the whippersnappers were reporting in on their first experiences with major orchestras. Colin Holter began graduate school and took us along for the ride. He would write a weekly column for the next six years (right up to his doctoral dissertation defense) and poke sticks into a number of beehives during his tenure, but he would never miss a deadline.
Not. Once.

2005: The Friends and Family Plan

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If 2004 had a genre-busting vibe, by 2005 we were embracing friends old and new as barriers cleared. And we worked on our relationships: with our colleagues, with our kids. The problem was that the harder we hugged, the more ridiculous settling on a meaningful genre name became.

Not that it was all peace and love just yet. Judgments were made about music and meaning and history, and we questioned those doing the judging. And then we questioned those who questioned those doing the judging. It was a somewhat confusing time, but rather than take our concerns to a psychologist, we tried visiting a psychic.

We also questioned our elders with adolescent conviction. We wrestled with Cage like we wrestled with our dad. We questioned taking tuition from so many would-be composers if there would never be enough jobs for them. We looked at the music we studied in the academy and found that the frame needed some adjustment.

Not to be left out, Frank J. Oteri and I interrogated each other. Once we launched a redesigned version of the site on our 6th anniversary, we had a little fun publicly debating our previously in-house-only arguments. Like any family, we continue to have these perennial disagreements—over everything from the value of negative criticism to the necessity of the Oxford comma. But ultimately, we are a team—which has translated into countless moments of shared high comedy and nail-biting anxiety (often simultaneously). For instance, when Frank got stuck in some epic traffic that year while trying to get back from a sneak premiere of Joan Tower’s Made in America, I headed uptown to cover his interview with Brian Ferneyhough with zero preparation aside from the list of questions Frank had relayed over the phone. Mr. Ferneyhough was incredibly gracious and understanding of the situation, and I remain grateful for his patience and generosity that day. Despite my trepidation, we ended up having a really great conversation! An education about music from the creators themselves—there’s really not a more illuminating path to take.
NMBx redesign 2.0
For all I learned that day, there were actually quite a few bits of advice and guidance on offer that year. In a time before Kickstarter, you used to have to do all the heavy lifting on individual fundraising campaigns yourself. And if you didn’t have your own lawyer on retainer, sometimes you had to tighten your tie, lint-roll your jacket, and play that role as well.
But it wasn’t all about administration, of course. That was just to keep fuel in the artistic engine and the lights on in the studio where experiments with extended techniques and microtonality could happen. There was advice on how to work well with a record producer and a look inside how our ears were working with our brains. Honestly, though, I might have gotten the most caught up contemplating the accordion’s various reed ranks and tone colors—fascinating stuff and I do not even play the accordion…yet.
And though it might seem as if all that technological excitement of 2004 fell off the radar, the questions at the intersection of music and digital delivery were actually getting much more complex as the novelty of what we could do careened into what music was worth and how we were going to pay for it.
On a personal note, The Friday Informer, a column I wrote highlighting the best of the new music internet, kicked off on September 30 that year. I would regularly spend my Thursday evenings with 60-some browser tabs open until May 2008, by which point social media made my delayed weekly endcap obsolete.