Tag: Musicology

A Few Things You Might Not Know About Vivian Perlis (1928-2019)

Two caucasian women and a man at a concert

Most NewMusicBox readers probably already know a few things about Vivian Perlis. She founded Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) after interviewing dozens of people who knew and worked with Charles Ives. Using those interviews, she wrote the award-winning book, Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. She later conducted interviews with some of America’s most prominent composers, including extensive work with Aaron Copland. Their interviews became the basis for his autobiography, which Vivian co-authored. She co-produced documentaries about John Cage, Eubie Blake, Copland, and Ives. Musicologists Carol Oja and Judith Tick commented that Perlis was “an intrepid chronicler of the American musical experience and has done so by honoring the voices of those whose story she tells. She has accomplished this as an amiable powerhouse, fusing the roles of scholar, archivist, administrator, fundraiser, film-maker, and writer—not to mention wife, mother, and professional harpist. In the process, she established Oral History of American Music . . . forging a hybrid field and an equally visionary and distinctive professional identity.”

Here, perhaps, are a few things you might not know about Vivian Perlis:

Her career in oral history almost ended before it began.

Vivian was in a serious car accident as a young child. She sustained injuries to her face that required multiple surgeries. Her mother was concerned these injuries might prevent young Vivian from speaking properly. It’s emblematic of Vivian’s determination that she not only spoke, but made a career out of having conversations – and that these recorded conversations contributed mightily to American music history.

She grew up with a Theremin in the house.

Vivian’s father had a wide range of interests and accomplishments. He ran his own company, the Applicator Brush Company and was an inventor who owned a patent related to artist brushes. He played a number of instruments. He made delightful sculptures out of matchsticks. And he became a master of origami. Well before science fiction movies brought the theremin to popular attention, her dad brought one home for the family to play.

She was a master of disguise.

Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down.

Her first interviewees for the Ives Project were some aged, conservative people in Danbury, Connecticut. Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down with these Yankees. She wore white gloves and no makeup, and she forced herself to drink tea rather than her preferred coffee.

She played a gig with Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys at the Electric Circus in the East Village around 1971.

Vivian was an accomplished harpist who played with the New Haven Symphony. When the country rock band Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys needed a harp for one of their pieces, Vivian got the gig. She performed at the legendary hippie haven, Electric Circus, wearing an outlandish mini dress and a flowing hair piece. She probably left her white gloves in Danbury with the Ives interviewees!

She met Mel Brooks, who had a big crush on her.

Vivian would regale us with the tale of meeting Mel Brooks when she was in Los Angeles. Apparently, they hit it off. Surely Mel recognized Vivian’s ready sense of humor. She mentioned that Mel would call every so often, and if her husband, Sandy, answered, he’d berate Sandy for staying married to Vivian when she was indeed Mel’s true love. It seemed all in good fun. Anyway, Mel Brooks didn’t stand a chance. Vivian and Sandy were a dazzling couple. By all accounts, these two very good-looking, intelligent, and cultured people shared a story-book romance and marriage.

She foraged for mushrooms with John Cage.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers. She befriended him and documented his work at a time when it was more often embraced by artists and choreographers than by musicians. While making the engaging documentary, I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying It, Vivian traveled to France where she filmed Cage’s hunt for mushrooms. She described in mouth-watering detail the gourmet meal they shared after presenting Cage’s bounty to the local chef in Fountainbleu.

She managed OHAM with kindness and compassion.

We hired a young mother to work at OHAM. One afternoon, she sat down on the office couch and fell deeply asleep. I surreptitiously nudged her, trying to coax her awake before Vivian, the boss, discovered her slumbering employee. Before I succeeded, Vivian noticed, and said, “Poor thing. She’s got three young kids at home. She must be tired. Let her sleep.”

Another person was hired for a job requiring a great deal of flexibility and multi-tasking. It quickly became apparent that this person was not at all suited to such work. Vivian found a way to restructure everyone’s assignments and to find a job that was perfectly suited to this employee’s skills and temperament. Would this be the approach to management taught at business school? I don’t know, but I do know that it inspired fierce loyalty and a highly productive work force.

She was a voracious reader.

Vivian was a fast and voracious reader. One of the last books she read was John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? It sat on her bedside next to The Daily Zen Journal, a book written by her grandson, Charlie Ambler. And it was near Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a great yet demanding book she purchased when well into her final illness. Powers’s moving and ambitious work, The Time of Our Singing, was one of Vivian’s favorite novels.

She envisioned herself in service to the composers she interviewed.

An example of this would be her extensive work with Aaron Copland, a gay man born in 1900 who had been persecuted by Joseph McCarthy. Understandably, Copland refrained from discussing his sexual orientation in the interviews. It would have been unthinkable and somewhat tawdry for someone in his position to discuss this matter publicly at that time. The Copland/Perlis autobiography, which was based on these interviews, was later criticized for this omission — an easy judgment to make decades after the interviews, when societal norms and gay pride had changed the way the world viewed homosexuality. Vivian was aware of Copland’s homosexuality, but she made the hard choice to refrain from this subject and stood by her decision to serve the composer’s wishes.

She was open to new adventures.

At an age when many are contemplating a quiet retirement in Florida, Vivian joined her longtime friend, Wes York, and his husband, Bob Scrofani, in traveling far and wide to music festivals, art galleries, botanical gardens, and parties. I joined them for a meal before a Composer’s Portrait concert at Miller Theater. The fabulous food, fine wine, and animated conversation inspired my exclamation, “This is such convivial company!” Without missing a beat, Bob replied, “That’s because we’re the ConVivians!”

She recognized the magic around her.

Vivian savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her.

She returned from a concert and gushed about the marvels of this particular performance: “Such artistry! Such thrilling and innovative compositions! An unforgettable evening!” A colleague later mentioned that he went to the same concert, and it was only okay. I always felt that these alternate realities revealed a lot about each person. Vivian had a zest for life and a lively imagination. She savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her. Wouldn’t we all prefer to go through life that way? Those who were privileged to know her or to read her scholarly work and insightful interviews continue to benefit from her embrace of joy, culture, and good living.

Vivian Perlis outside a building at Yale.

New Horizons, Old Barriers

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

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

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

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


Meet The Composer

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

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

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

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

Horizons and the New Romanticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

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

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

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

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

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

press conference for Horizons

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

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

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

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

William Robin

William Robin

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

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving

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

In 1977, one year after Karin Rehnqvist arrived in Stockholm to attend the music education program at the Royal College of Music, she was given the opportunity to lead a newly formed amateur choir Stans Kör (The City’s Choir). Its members were young—the oldest was 26 years old—and Rehnqvist herself was just turning 20. She had virtually no experience leading a choir, although she had been an avid choir singer in her small hometown of Nybro since early childhood. Hardly any of the members had sung in a choir before, and no audition was required. As one former member put it, “We were a bunch of people that you randomly could have picked off the street.” Only a few members could even read music; scores were used almost exclusively for learning the text. Rehearsals were time-consuming, as Rehnqvist typically first sang or played each part on the piano, and the singers imitated her. The members were so inexperienced in following a conductor that it wasn’t even possible to perform a ritardando or an accelerando during the early months of rehearsals.

The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence.

Despite its musical shortcomings, the choir had its strengths. The choir’s culture emphasized personal engagement and support—members socialized and some, including Rehnqvist, even found their future partners in the choir—and the choir was also democratically organized, with its members taking an active part in decision-making. The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence during the fourteen years Rehnqvist led it. The group was willing to try just about anything and, as it turned out, there was a huge advantage to the tedious rote-learning approach that their lack of musical background required: by the time the members were ready to perform a piece, they had it memorized. Most of their performances came to incorporate theatrical elements and should be better understood as shows than concerts. Although a musically far-from-excellent group, the experience would have an enormous impact on Rehnqvist’s compositional output for the rest of her career. At the time, she had no idea, as her early plans did not include becoming a professional composer. She just needed a job and took advantage of an opportunity.

Karin Rehnqvist

Karin Rehnqvist conducts her own Here Is the Music! for the inauguration of the new Royal College of Music buildings in 2017. Photo by Lena Tollstoy.

Here’s a brief example of what a Stans Kör show looked and sounded like by the late ’80s. It’s from Tilt&Mara,[1] given in multiple performances in the Stockholm House of Culture (Kulturhuset) 1988–89. The first excerpt is from a romantic choral piece that’s part of virtually every Swedish choir’s repertoire, Killebukken by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, which sets a Norwegian poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson about a child with a pet lamb (with the morbid ending “gain weight, mom wants you in the soup”). Sweden has a strong choral culture, encompassing church choirs, university choirs, and a few professional or semi-professional groups linked by a common aesthetic: a work like Killebukken is to be performed in a standard mixed-choir set up, standing still on a podium focusing on the intonation and the perfect, homogeneous choral sound, and of course, there’s typically no humor. Stans Kör performed it differently:

As you can hear, even after ten years in existence, the choir sounds far from perfect, but it has something else—an attitude and an artistic vision. The Tilt&Mara show attracted a larger audience than virtually any other choir in Stockholm at the time and received multiple newspaper reviews.

Another example from the same show illustrates the group’s creativity in their choice of repertoire and their ability to create stunning results with limited means. In their performance, Rehnqvist’s interpretation of Francesco Cangillo’s futuristic poem “Canzone pirotecnica” (which was intended to be performed and even includes dynamic markings, but no rhythmic notation) was enhanced by employing flashlights and stage lighting.

Such an adventurous choir attracted creative musicians over the years—not only singers, but also composers, arrangers, and instrumentalists, and several connections and ideas would stay with Rehnqvist throughout her career. (A career that’s still going strong by the way; she’s turning 60 this year and is as productive as ever, having recently completed commissions from the German contemporary music group ensemble recherche in Freiburg and the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future pedagogical commission project.) Her style has been consistent through the years, firmly anchored in Swedish folk music—an interest shared by virtually no other Swedish composer born after 1945. Her collaboration with numerous women folk singers made her adapt the style and mode of performance in an innovative manner—for example, the non-vibrato sound production and use of micro-intervals—as in her breakthrough piece Davids nimm (1984) for which she transcribed a Swedish traditional song, a polska, backwards and expanded it into a three-part composition for three women (two sopranos and one alto). She has also embraced motherhood in her work and emphasized how important her three children have been to her compositional output, including composing songs to texts by them. Other works are explicitly feminist, in particular Timpanum Songs—Herding Calls (1989) for two folk singers and percussion. In this piece she quotes misogynic Finnish proverbs about women to turn them into powerful feminist statements.[2]

Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces.

In a large number of her works—both choral works and chamber compositions, for professionals and amateurs alike—she continues the practice of staging the performances, often by very simple means, such as employing a lighting designer or requiring simple choreography or acting from the musicians. Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces. An approach she took a few times with great success was to combine existing works, add a few connecting movements, and present a staged performance. Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the Angel with the Fiery Hands, 1990–2005), for example, is a collection of choral compositions to which she added a few new pieces featuring voice and instruments. As with the Stans Kör productions, the choir had to memorize the repertoire for this almost hour-long performance. The result is visually quite striking, as in Ling Linge Logen, performed by the choir La Cappella, conducted by Karin Eklundh.

One of her most innovative works, När korpen vitnar (When the Raven Black Turns White, 2007), for folk singer and chamber group, is also semi-staged with very simple means: the instrumental ensemble has to memorize a few sections so that they can become active participants on stage, as they join together with the singer to depict the witch hunt process in Sweden during the 17th century—one in particular during which 91 people, mostly women, were decapitated and burned in the biggest peace-time execution in Sweden’s history. In this work, she connected her strong feminist strand with her interest in folk singing and folklore.

Movement 2 “Recitative for a downhearted cow” from When the Raven Black Turns White. Ulrika Bodén, voice, The Nordic Chamber Ensemble.

This piece was part of a larger outreach project, Häxbrand (Witch Fire, 2008), in which Rehnqvist collaborated with folksinger Ulrika Bodén, the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sundsvall, and students from Mid Sweden University. The students—who were education students and not music students—came up with ideas such as “The Witch’s Flight Theme,” which were translated into musical gesture and arranged into a complete work. The reason for engaging future teachers was to awaken their interest in music. The idea was that if art music and other cultural institutions are to reach the children in schools, teachers’ attitudes toward culture are crucial. As Rehnqvist put it, “The idea is that composition is not a divine intervention but a craft and that the teachers should take the child’s way of working.”

There is another important effect of Rehnqvist’s many years of outreach, beyond developing her own creativity: she gained a reputation as being an approachable team player, which resulted in a number of commissions, including several for children’s and girls’ choirs—especially her work with Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir, a choir at the Adolf Fredrik music magnet school in Stockholm—in which she was able to develop her feminist approach into an expression of girl power, as in the ironic introduction to Hörru Veckorevyn, a piece that mocks the body-image obsessions in teenage magazines: “Don’t kill love by eating chocolate, have licorice. Leaner thighs, eat algae. Do you also want a sexy ass, take a cold shower.” In her children’s opera Sötskolan (The Beauty School, 1999), the main character—eleven-year-old Bella—has to overcome demands to become well-behaved and pretty in time for her mother to remarry.

In several works, the results went beyond the theatrical and political: In the musically stunning Light of Light (2003) for girls’ choir and symphony orchestra, the clear, shimmering, perfectly-in-tune and vibrato-free choral sound set to texts from the Book of Proverbs and the Swedish hymnal contrasts the dark orchestral texture. This is simply a type of work she would not have written without her collaboration with children and young adults. In her work for children she shows that she takes them seriously; she believes they are able to deal with difficult existential questions, often about life and death.

Rehnqvist also received a large number of other engagements, such as guest lecturing and leading composition workshops with children and high school students. One such workshop, which became particularly well known, included a capstone experience of students writing for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. These engagements were much needed since she worked exclusively as a freelance composer until 2009 when she became professor and head of composition at the Royal College of Music, a job she secured to a large extent thanks to the experience she gained through her large-scale projects and teaching outreach. During her time there, she has continued to develop the composition curriculum through projects and interaction with professional and amateur ensembles and musicians inside and outside the institution. Virtually everything the composition students produce is done with a particular ensemble and a set performance date in mind.

She didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

The amateur path Rehnqvist started on became an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship. And in contrast to her generational colleagues, she was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist). On the contrary, she is proud of it. After numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

Given that Sweden is a country with a population of only some ten million and an extensive public network of public support for artists, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons between Sweden and the United States. But two of the main takeaways that could be applied to both countries are that: 1) there can be immense benefits to working outside the institutional framework of a major arts organization or a university; and 2) there should be no stigma associated with working with amateurs. Creative impulses from outside the “classical” mainstream can be liberating. In Rehnqvist’s case, her on-going collaboration with Stans Kör contributed to the development of an artistic vision tied not to virtuosity and musical perfection, but rather to accessibility and engagement. These ideals are evident throughout her career, notably in her embrace of the idea of writing for a range of specific rather than idealized performers and ensembles.

Indeed, the Rehnqvist case suggests that success feeds success and support can go both ways: composers who embrace and support their own communities can gain something incredibly valuable from it.

Per F. Broman

Per F. Broman is professor and associate dean at Bowling Green State University, College of Musical Arts. He has published extensively on Swedish music, including the chapter “New Music of Sweden” for New Music in the Nordic Countries (Pendragon Press, 2002), a monograph on composer Sven-David Sandström (Atlantis, 2012), and an article about the reception of ABBA during the 1970s (Journal of Popular Music Studies, 2005).

A shorter version of this text was originally read at the New Music Gathering at Bowling Green State University on May 7, 2017, in a session titled “Support.” It incorporates material from my forthcoming biography on Rehnqvist, published in Swedish by The Royal Academy of Music and Atlantis.

[1] The title alludes to two pieces performed, Rehnqvist’s TILT and Mara Mara Minne by Arne Mellnäs.

[2] See Rebecca Sleeman’s dissertation “Feminist Musical Aesthetic in the Choral Music of Karin Rehnqvist” (University of Iowa, 2002) and Per F. Broman, “Gender, Ideology, and Structure: Pedagogical Approaches to the Music of Karin Rehnqvist,” College Music Symposium 44 (2004): 15–27.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

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

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.

Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works

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

In a 2015 interview, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the non-profit service organization OPERA America, conveyed his optimism for the future of American opera:

Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors, and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons…We now have an American opera repertoire.

OPERA America was established in 1970 by professional opera companies for opera companies. While their professional company membership today continues to predominantly feature traditional opera companies in North America, they now offer artistic services to a wider range of nontraditional entities that operate within and beyond the field of opera. As a national organization, it makes sense that OPERA America’s current mission statement prioritizes the creation and excellence of North American works especially. But OPERA America was not always devoted to new works. In fact, this priority only developed after the organization’s first decade in response to critical changes in the field. OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they designated a landmark suite of grants to cultivate new music theater collaborations.

American opera’s previous heyday occurred in the 1960s when the Ford Foundation commissioned 22 works, two of which were produced by the Metropolitan Opera, one each by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and 11 by the New York City Opera. Familiar titles include Robert Ward’s The Crucible (1961), Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). These new operas had mixed reception among audiences and singers, who often preferred 18th- and 19th-century standard repertoire. Opera houses also found that the new works required more costly preparations, such as extra rehearsal time for roles that singers usually never had an opportunity to perform again. Although the Ford Foundation successfully extended the American opera repertoire, their commissioning program was not sustainable and it ceased when the money ran out. Thus, during OPERA America’s formative years in the early 1970s, U.S. opera companies encountered a relative downturn in financial support for new works.

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra

By the late 1970s, a cohort of progressive opera and theater administrators reached beyond the boundaries of opera by galvanizing grants for collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts debuted the Opera-Musical Theater program in 1979, which enabled interaction between opera and theater companies that previously had been assigned to the separate divisions of music and theater, respectively. The NEA Opera-Musical Theater program’s advisory board listed diverse figures, including opera company general directors David Gockley and Kurt Herbert Adler, opera composers Thea Musgrave and Carlisle Floyd, musical theater composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and theater producers Hal Prince and Stuart Ostrow. Although the Opera-Musical Theater program successfully funded premieres and fostered new works in their early stages, this program alone did not enact the transformation OPERA America professionals were pursuing. In the early 1980s, productions of new American operas by U.S. companies remained limited: 1981 saw four world premieres in the United States, 1982 had seven, 1983 had five, and 1984 had only three. At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances.

It was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields.

A network of arts professionals, including Rockefeller Foundation Arts Director Howard Klein and impresarios Harvey Lichtenstein and David Gockley, believed the solution was to look beyond opera establishments to the vital world of experimental music theater, most successfully represented by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Many of these music theater artists were active in the Downtown New York scene—Glass, Wilson, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, and Lee Breuer—but others, including Paul Dresher and George Coates, worked in San Francisco. They had little or no contact with U.S. opera companies at the time. OPERA America President David DiChiera contended that “it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”

OPERA America initiated new undertakings to address these issues with the help of Klein and Ann Farris Darling, director of the NEA Opera-Musical Theater Program. In August of 1983, Klein, Darling, and OPERA America Executive Director Martin Kagan and President David DiChiera held a three-day meeting in Detroit with 32 participants: composers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, and opera house general directors with experience in new opera and related music theater works. The invitees were strategic: the meeting planners specifically wanted to bring together artists from the worlds of opera and musical theater. All attendees considered the particular limitations or opportunities that influenced opera companies in the creation of new American works. They brainstormed methods to minimize the artistic and monetary risks that determined whether or not a company would commission new operas.

Klein believed that opera companies ought to observe the theater world for inspiration: “Unlike theater, which nourished playwrights through workshops and productions, opera had no farm team for creators.” This issue, along with the time and money needed for commissions and productions, drove Klein and others to set up a support system for creating new works titled “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” (hereafter OFTEAB). The program offered three types of grants: Exploration Fellowships (allowing personnel to see new works and meet artists), Team Building Grants (funding artist/administrator meetings for potential works), and Development Grants (subsidizing creative costs for commissions and productions).

Money was only part of the problem.

Yet even as OPERA America personnel launched OFTEAB, they were not convinced all opera companies would take advantage of its grants. Consequently, OFTEAB’s first project director had the key duty of visiting and interviewing opera company administrators across North America to diagnose the reasons why they did not program new works. Their hire, Ben Krywosz, was a stage director who had experience with innovative music theater creation through the National Institute for Music Theater at Minnesota Opera. After meeting with dozens of opera companies, he noted in his final report that “money was only part of the problem. In fact, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.” In order for OFTEAB to work, Krywosz felt these companies needed to broaden their horizons and mission statements to include the creation of new operas. Some companies resisted OFTEAB, as they were not keen to change their approach. “Playing a pro-active role in challenging the field’s assumptions about the operatic form,” Krywosz explained, “was seen by some in the field as a subversive activity, inconsistent with OPERA America’s broader goals of supporting opera.” The Detroit meeting participants had predicted this issue, which is why OFTEAB’s funding, namely the exploration fellowships and pre-commissioning grants, functioned as educational outreach for general directors who were unfamiliar with emerging artists and new processes of creating music theater.

For more details about the particular works that resulted from OFTEAB and the risk-taking arts administrators involved, see “Funding Opera for the 80s and Beyond: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire” in the Spring 2017 issue of American Music.

The influence of “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” on the American opera landscape became clear by its completion in 1990. Nontraditional opera companies, among them the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group in New York City, now appeared as OPERA America member organizations, which continued to grow in number throughout the 1990s. The annual number of American opera premieres had also increased throughout the decade (e.g., 1998 had 31). In fact, this rate has remained constant to the present day: an average of 30 works premiered each year between 1995 and 2015.

The above average of 30 new works per year resulted from a 2015 OPERA America study that tracked the numbers, names, and composer demographics of North American world premieres over the past 20 years. This document offers a useful window into the organization’s more recent institutional priorities. For instance, the report found that only 71 (11%) of the 589 works premiered during this period have had more than one production. OPERA America’s programs have triumphed with the rise of annual premieres, yet most of these works have not entered the operatic canon with revivals. The exceptions belong to composers Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, who according to the report enjoyed the highest number of revivals: Adamo’s Little Women (1998) had 66 and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) had 42. Philip Glass followed with 25 revivals (of multiple operas) and the highest number of world premieres (12 operas). Another area of concern for OPERA America is the lack of gender diversity. Only 41 out of 373 total composers were female. Today OPERA America has addressed this gap by facilitating a Women’s Opera Network and new grants for female composers.

Despite these achievements, Krywosz looks back at the 1980s as “heady times” compared to today, in which new works are more common. He assessed the situation over email in 2014: “Most of the work is fairly staid, new wine in old bottles, and we are headed dangerously toward a rather boring convention of naturalistic prose librettos, set in an arioso/recit style that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of the power of music-theater.” Today Krywosz continues to advocate for boundary-crossing works over in Minnesota as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater, where he works as a producer, director, and dramaturg of new operas and other forms of music theater. Some may perceive OPERA America’s mission of reaching “within and beyond the opera field” as empty talk, but Krywosz points out “there is a contingent within the organization (Beth Morrison, Paul Dresher, HERE, etc.) that [is] more adventuresome and can’t be discounted.”

At the same time, as John Pippen argues in a previous article in this series, “New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people.” Perhaps the same could be said of new American opera. Debates over its future highlight a complex web of expectations concerning not only the importance of radical artistic vision but also the commercial realities and conventional operatic norms of larger institutions that cannot afford to fail in the same way that smaller organizations might.

Returning to Scorca’s point at the beginning, if “we now have an American opera repertoire,” what kind of repertoire is it? In addition to Beth Morrison Projects, American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater aim to shape this repertoire from the ground up. A range of small organizations, Opera Parallèle and The Industry among them, also champion contemporary opera and music theater, and their influence has radiated outward: Opera Parallèle’s artistic director Nicole Paiement is now a principal guest conductor at The Dallas Opera. Such larger institutions continue to sprinkle new works into their programming, often working with arts incubators and shouldering costs through coproductions. But the “American New Opera Machine” still has its downsides: Frank Pesci, for instance, recently described the challenges emerging artists face when trying to break onto the American opera scene. As the field continues to work for change, the legacy of OFTEAB remains at OPERA America with its New Works Forums, Exploration Grants, and Audience and Repertoire Development funds.

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf will begin a new position this fall as a program analyst at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program. Her research, featured in NewMusicBox and American Music, examines the interplay between administrators, artists, and performing arts institutions during the late 20th century. Previously, Metcalf was a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In Support of New Music

How is new music supported?

At the third annual New Music Gathering this past May, a panel of musicologists suggested a variety of answers to this question. In ideal scenarios, new music is sustained at multiple levels: financial, social, aesthetic, and emotional. Over the next few months, we’ll share case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American operas, as well as the interpersonal relationships and ethics that nourish new music communities from Chicago to Stockholm. We’ll also look at where support falls short, and explore what lessons these failures offer.

Thank you to NewMusicBox for hosting this series, to New Music Gathering for creating a space for productive dialogue, and to our families, friends, and institutions for supporting our scholarship.


What Do You Think? By John Pippen
How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works By Sasha Metcalf
In the 1980s, OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they decided to take action. But the need for financial support was only part of the problem.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House By Ryan Ebright
How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera? You don’t—you do it yourself. But it takes a network of support. Ryan Ebright explores the personal connections and professional collaborators that allowed Steve Reich and Beryl Korot to self-produce their first video opera The Cave.

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving By Per Broman
Karin Rehnqvist was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist), and after numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself. The amateur path she started on actually showed itself to be an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship.

New Horizons, Old Barriers By Will Robin
Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

The Opportunity of Electroacoustic Musicology

A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)

I want to start this post with a challenge to my musicologist colleagues (I hope there are musicologists reading NewMusicBox), but it is really a call to action for us all. The exploration of electroacoustic music, its historical and social dimensions, is long overdue. In fact, as so many pivotal figures pass away, I cannot fathom why there has not been a rush to collect primary source material, let alone to interpret it. The lack of this activity spurred the creation of the Video Archive of Electroacoustic Music and gave the collecting of oral histories urgency when my wife and I started in the 1990s. Much as we both care about this work, we are no longer able to collect these oral histories, yet this work is increasingly important today. It was alarming to us at that time that no one had captured the stories of electroacoustic music’s pioneering composers and engineers.  Though aware of the great work being done by Vivian Perlis at Yale, we knew that no one had yet filmed the stories of figures such as Bebe Barron (composer of experimental electronic film scores and collaborator with John Cage, Earle Brown and others) who was very ill. Neither was there much about the founders of any of the first studios in the USA, including the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, San Francisco Tape Music Center, University of Illinois studio, and Bell Laboratories. We rushed to capture what we could, given scant resources and the many other demands on our time. We were certain then that whole careers could be made mining these materials if only someone could preserve the stories. And today there remain untapped opportunities to do critical archival work, to interpret the stories, and to study the music itself.

Engineer Bill McGinnis in the electronic music studio in his home.

Bill McGinnis, the first engineer of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (before Don Buchla came in). Photo taken in 1998 when we interviewed him in his home studio in San Francisco.

Twenty years since we began our collecting, electroacoustic music is still essentially unclaimed territory—especially outside of its popular music dimension. It seems ironic that, in a time when we fetishize even the most mundane activities and record them with our phones, there is still such little effort made to capture and interpret this pivotal transformation of music.  There have been a few modest bright spots, including the conference on the late electroacoustic works of Luigi Nono at Tufts that I was pleased to participate in this past March. Alas, this seems to be the exception, which leads me to revive my speculations on some of the forces that have delayed the development of a subspecialty in electroacoustic musicology. I write this with the hope that things may be poised for a change and that some of you will take up the challenge.

Composers and musicologists still do not communicate with each other very much or very well.

Why then has this work been slow to start, and what might change the situation? For one thing, composers and musicologists still do not communicate with each other very much or very well. This is true even at my own educational institution, where relations between programs are excellent and we actually all like one another.  I contend that there is still too much of a separation, often due to historical animosity and unfortunate, longstanding battles over turf.  These are destructive and if we do not put them to rest and start doing more to think as one profession, we will continue to fade into irrelevancy. I do not object to the study of popular music, but I do not subscribe to an idea, gaining in currency, that turning to the study of popular genres is the path to relevancy in music education. Instead, I propose that a more robust conversation about musical ideas and the creation of new work, the kind of conversation found in all of the other arts, is essential. Such a profession-wide conversation is currently lacking. I mention this larger issue here because there are lots of dimensions to electroacoustic music that make it fertile ground for engendering a lively and productive scholarly argument of the kind we desperately need.

Another factor to consider is the technology of electroacoustic music, which presents both opportunity and obstacle.  On one hand, the novelty inherent in the constant flow of new music hardware and software products is attractive to a broad segment of the technology-worshiping public.  The energy of invention around this marketplace is alluring, lending a pseudo-scientific legitimacy that other music does not enjoy. Old technology—say, a violin—becomes invisible to us, but this means that instead of being diverted by the instrument itself, we are more likely to engage with the music. The violin is very little changed over its several hundred years and has ceased to be a novelty, so we are able to ask instead: what new musical ideas can this instrument express? In fact, fewer people than ever study the music itself, which is part of a larger problem, but this also explains something about why we are stuck in the starting gate with electroacoustic music.

My relationship to cars is a pretty good analogy to how I’ve worked with synthesizers: They look shiny, sexy, and inviting at first, but once I drive one a little, it becomes just a way to get from point A to point B—at least until something goes wrong.

The obsession with the devices of electroacoustic music is as much a problem for composers as it is for scholars. Music by definition is highly abstract, and thinking in music is hard, even more so when there are frequently no scores to consult.  It is much easier to become immersed in the features of some new “toy.” The non-abstract, concrete aspects of music hardware and software make these much easier to relate to than music itself.

I confess that the allure of the first synthesizers in the 1960s was one of the things that drew me into composing electroacoustic music. At the time I was in high school, I had been composing for a couple of years and quite accidentally was lent an ARP Odyssey synthesizer. I had heard Mort Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon and was frustrated not to be able to get similar results from this keyboard-reliant minisynth.  Over the subsequent years, as I was introduced to many other analog synthesizers from Moog, Buchla (the one used by Subotnick), Serg, EML, and others, and each time found I was working against rather than with the differing architectures. I really wanted the machine to become almost invisible and to allow me to make the music I was hearing. My relationship to cars is a pretty good analogy:  they look shiny, sexy, and inviting at first, but once I drive one a little, it becomes just a way to get from point A to point B—at least until something goes wrong.

Still, as a steward of one of the remaining Buchla 100 systems, I have an acute awareness that the history of the technology is also in need of attention. There are many stories that need to be told through this lens: How is it that the Buchla and the Moog are fundamentally similar, yet so different? What are the relationships among the musical approaches composers take and the idiosyncrasies of particular technology? I am ultimately, however, much more interested in the music that this technology allows us to create, and I imagine that at least some musicologist colleagues would be, too. But if there is little work being done on the history of the instruments, there is even less addressing the music itself. For perspective, consider again how a historical change in our relationship to the instruments is part of this mix. It would seem odd to point out that there is a much larger body of work on the piano music of Mozart than on the evolution of the piano, yet in electroacoustic music, this balance is reversed. All of the energy in the room is constantly sucked up by the vast and ever-expanding array of new products, and so little is left to consider what is being achieved musically with these tools. I think we all recognize this phenomenon, but that recognition has not changed anything much in the forty years I have been in the field.

Closeup image of an old patch-cord synthesizer

Electroacoustic musicology, far from being a narrow subspecialty, could develop as a broad range of investigative possibilities, many organically interdisciplinary in nature.  The relationship to the history of science and technology is perhaps the most obvious, but there are many other linkages.  And as much as I argue here for this work as a branch of so-called “art music,” the connections to the world of popular music represent the richest pathway between the academy and the larger public.  Having collected the oral histories, I often feel too that one especially ripe approach would be ethnographic.

It would seem odd to point out that there is a much larger body of work on the piano music of Mozart than on the evolution of the piano, yet in electroacoustic music, this balance is reversed.

As I mentioned in my previous post, electroacoustic music inhabits a network of communities, some organized around institutions and others around compositional approaches or particular technologies.  If one adds the recognition that there is a large body of music without notated scores, the similarity to the world of the ethnomusicologist is inescapable.  Ethnographic work though is only one possibility of many.  The field is wide open and accessible on multiple levels to any ambitious and pro-active scholar who is willing to eschew the conservative canon in favor of a somewhat more recent and— arguably—field-changing history.

(Don’t) Leave it to Bieber

concert crowd

Ezra Koenig in particular immersed himself in courses [at Columbia] which examined inequalities in the global fashion and music industries. He took two courses, “Imperialism and the Cryptographic Imagination,” and “Plagiarism, Parody, and Postcolonialism,” where, in his words, he learned how “relationships between imperial powers and colonized peoples could involve lots of codes.” Koenig transferred these interests into a broader awareness of how western clothes reflected the histories of their colonial others….He infused his interests in music, fashion, and colonialism into his senior writing project, a collection of short stories written around the same time Vampire Weekend formed. This collection he titled “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”
—David Blake, “Bildung Culture: Elite Popular Music and the American University, 1960–2010” (Ph.D. Thesis, Stony Brook University, 2014)

Some incautious words in my second posting have caused consternation from readers; I didn’t mean to put up a sign post back there saying, “Hey, you’re a racist.” Let me begin this final dispatch by clarifying (but in no way retracting) my claim that those who frame the history of the musical present by categorically denigrating contemporary commercial popular music in favor of art music are holding on to a crude cultural distinction that mimics structural racism in America. I did not choose my verb lightly (“denigrate, v. ‘to blacken, defame,’ from de- ‘completely’ (see de-) + nigr-, stem of niger ‘black’ (see Negro)”); whatever the race of the artist writing or performing this music, its difference from the classical and avant-garde art music of the West is rooted in the influence of the African diaspora. To trash that difference, even though far too much easy money has been made off it by bland Caucasian exponents, is to rubbish an entire cultural patrimony; it’s about as ham-fisted as claiming that because you last heard Pachelbel’s “Canon” while on the massage table, all European art music is designed to put you to sleep.

I’m not saying you can’t hate some pop music; I’m just saying you can’t, in the presence of a practicing postmusicologist, hate on all pop music just because it is popular, disguising elitism as self-pitying pride in new music’s marginalized market position. When I have articulated the above in public, I have been dismissed with another dreaded “N-word”—neoliberal—and accused of market fundamentalism, which, in this context, seems like a rather high-pitched way of claiming I don’t understand that music ought to be judged according to what Karl Marx would call its use value, not as an object whose prime justification is to be exchanged for currency.

Elite Popular Music and the Culture of Self-Fashioning

Never mind that socialist analyses of use value are both badly out of date and not simple to pin down when the commodities in question are cultural, like music; the underlying question—what is music for?—actually has little to do with the market as arbiter of value. Most debates over the “value” of new music take place within a scholastic ambit defined by the values of the university; the great virtue of David Blake’s work, which I’ll be glossing for the rest of this post, is that it considers the university not just as the kindly employer that cut Milton Babbitt’s monthly paychecks, but as a key incubator and determinant of 21st-century America’s omnivorous elite music culture.

Linking the Germanic ideal of education as self-fashioning (Bildung), a characteristic of the liberal arts university since the 19th-century, to the explosion of musical youth culture since the 1960s, Blake identifies, with oxymoronic élan, a new cultural field he calls elite popular music. This is music that uses the sounds and forms of entertainment music, but is both made and consumed as part of a general project of self-fashioning through art that the great expansion of college education made available, in principle at least, to the entire American middle-class. Accepting the centrality of an elite-yet-popular music centered around the values of both rebellious youth and traditional higher education resolves so many awkward class- and race-based anomalies in the study of contemporary musical taste that it amazes me nobody else seems to have thought of it before.

The early chapters of Blake’s thesis are archival and historical, focusing on the records left by ’50s and ’60s university students and their professors as they brought American music from outside the literate tradition onto campus. The musical practices in question (folk revivalism; Aboriginal song) were “popular”—i.e., vernacular, of the people—but resolutely non-commercial; in retrospect it is not hard to see how encounters with this kind of musicking could be incorporated into a high-minded ideal of liberal arts study as a path to self-realization.

Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, Blake shifts methodological gears, analyzing the distinctive urban geography of the “college town” and the socio-economic opportunities it offers denizens during, after, or entirely aside from undergraduate life on campus. As he notes, most histories of the “college rock” scene in Athens, Georgia (birthplace of Pylon, the B-52s, and R.E.M.), go along with post-punk mythology and simply ignore the influence of the college itself as tastemaker; evidently all that the University of Georgia provided to these D.I.Y pioneers was a non-profit radio station to listen to and a steady supply of frat house gigs to play at. Blake, on the other hand, puts the university and its “liberal arts disposition” at the center: inside the town-gown matrix of the college town, the elite ideal of music as a vehicle for artistic self-expression and the populist drive for commercial success fuse, giving rise to a distinctive, if depoliticized model for an “alternative” mass culture:

The liberal arts disposition encourages musicians to pursue rock as a form of self-expression, valuing its critical purpose over its commercial worth. Yet the tension between disinterested study and career requirements manifests itself in the complex negotiation over rock music’s purpose as self-development or as a career. Success in college rock scenes like Athens stemmed not from actualized alternativeness or political resistance, but through pursuing self-development while maintaining enough commercial success to sustain the endeavor.

A Bildungsroman from an Omnivore
As Blake arrives at the 21st century, he turns directly to sociology, identifying Brooklyn hipster bands like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors as exemplars of what Richard Peterson influentially dubbed the “omnivorous” style of cultural consumption. Sociologists of taste generally agree that this omnivore stance (“I like all kinds of music”) has replaced the older model of distinctive taste as a marker of dominant class attitudes toward art. (The one exception they usually note is older, still univorous devotees of Western art music and jazz.) Recent studies have refined the omnivore hypothesis, parsing the field of musical taste into multiple orientations and levels of voracity; but I am not aware of any persuasive theories about why elite class taste has shifted so dramatically. (Of course, technology and media have made it much easier to be an omnivore; but that does not explain why liking “all types of music” is a sign of status now, to the point that most upper middle-class people under 50 claim to, even when they don’t, really.)

Blake points out that, while Brooklyn is hardly a college town, both Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors count as baccalaureate projects on the part of their founders: Ezra Koenig developed his Afro-pop meets Baroque aesthetic while working on a senior paper at Columbia; David Longstreth dropped out of his music degree at Yale and then dropped back in again while Dirty Projectors evolved from dorm-room tinkering to a twenty-five person rock operatic ensemble. The university connection has usually been featured in a story of déclassement: that Ivy League education was wasted on a budding countercultural rock star, right? Longstreth, at least, has played into this trope, claiming to be an “autodidact” and rejecting Yale’s music programs as primarily interested in “preserving old things, establishing canons.” Underneath the studied pose of the amateur, though, Blake can still see the effects of university training: despite his “distaste for academia,” Longstreth’s omnivorous musical tastes, and the inner-directed intellectual scaffolding he tends to erect around them, epitomize the academy’s “liberal arts mission of self-discovery through musical engagement.” Vampire Weekend is a less strenuously intellectual band; still, in a 2013 interview quote that Blake grabbed for his chapter’s epigraph, Ezra Koenig told critic Jon Pareles that “if people could look at our…albums as a Bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.”

Koenig and Longstreth are, technically, commercial popular musicians. But, as David Blake has done us the real service of arguing, their kind of popular music was nurtured, at least in part, by the university and its values. Those within the university who care about new music can no longer ignore the world of commercial pop by assuming that no one in it takes music seriously as a liberal art. Studying Dirty Projectors or Vampire Weekend can, if done right, advance the liberal arts project of self-formation just as effectively as research on Mahler or Messaien might have done for previous generations.

Envoi: Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head

So don’t just leave it to Bieber. Blake doesn’t make this point, but I will: it is the hunger to account for Koenig and Longstreth, not the fear of having to swallow too much Britney and Justin, that should determine the menu when we sit down to the postmusicological banquet. Orthorexia can be a debilitating scholarly disorder.

The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

“[eighth blackbird] were really cool, really nice. They really made me feel like an equal, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not an equal.”
—Composer Jeremy Sment, ca. 2007, as quoted in John Pippen, “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2014)

So, enough about how not to do the musicology of the present—on to those new paths I promised when I began this series. In today’s post and next week’s, I will present for your approval highlights from two recent musicological studies that, in my opinion, break methodological ground on their way to some mind-opening hypotheses about the structure of the contemporary art-music world. As we’ll see, each marshals an unusual array of evidence toward a new, counterintuitive conceptual parsing of today’s musical culture. In both cases, the framework can be boiled down to a single oxymoronic phrase that encapsulates the power of a fresh musicological idea to shake up long-held positions within the world of those who care about new music.
Disclaimer: These two vignettes are not the result of a systematic search through the newest literature, nor do they anoint one-of-a-kind musicological geniuses. (I don’t work for John D. and Catherine T.) These are two excellent young scholars doing interesting work of a kind being nurtured at many top institutions of higher musicological learning. But not my own institution—I thought it would be poor form to single out my own advisees or blow my own departmental horn. (Sorry, y’all at UCLA. Here’s an inside joke to make you feel special.)

The Ol’ Pomo Ro-Sham-Bo
Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors
To readers familiar with contemporary battles over contemporary aesthetics, the phrase “postmodern avant-garde” may sound odd, like a bad opening move in the extended game of rock-paper-scissors that often seems to monopolize trapped new music players: avant-garde smashes modern; modern cuts postmodern; postmodern covers modern; repeat until exhausted. This three-handed game is quite complex: postmodernism can be understood as both a negation and an extension of modernism; as either a (historicist, eclectic) reaction to the asperity and self-reflexivity of modernist aesthetics, or an even more radical resistance (by anti-art gesture) to entrenched aesthetic hierarchy and traditionalism. But the postmodern thereby re-enacts the historical revolt of the early 20th-century avant-garde, which deliberately shredded the pretensions of both traditionalism and modernism. And yet…that “avant-garde,” as its name reminds us, is also an affirmative desire, to be part of a (small) vanguard at the forefront of culture—the same desire that postmodernism, defining its essential position as belatedness, denies as a dangerous utopian fantasy. Ro-sham-bo.

In this context, talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

You Had to Be There

“Postmodern avant-garde” is the coinage of musicologist John Pippen, whose freshly minted doctoral dissertation is built around a detailed cultural ethnography of the new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Pippen has done what any musicologist must do if he or she wants to escape from the endless ro-sham-bo of modern vs. postmodern: he has gone out and done actual research on the world of the people and institutions trying to survive playing new music. The originality of his work inheres in its detailed look at a single new music presenter as the group attempts to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of commissioning, performing, and promoting new music inside a small musical world still dominated by the canonical “classics” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pippen has read concert reviews and their marketing materials; he has also interviewed the members of eighth blackbird, worked for them, attended concerts and rehearsals, talked to composers from whom they have commissioned, and even handed out questionnaires at a large public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His description of eighth blackbird’s world is thus “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense) than most; it allows him to grasp some of the most deeply rooted contradictions in contemporary musical life.

Pippen is not interested in asserting a causal relation between the modern, the postmodern, and the avant-garde, nor is he trying to fit these stances into an old-fashioned evolutionary narrative of works and styles:

Though I am not advocating for a complete abandonment of structuralist views, I do believe there is more to music than an accounting of the sonic qualities of works and their historical origins. Rather than simply summarize a series of aesthetic trends observable in new musical works, therefore, I have attempted to approach music as both object and practice.

As would any careful ethnologist, Pippen accepts that his informants are trying their best to find a “correct” mode of practice while harmonizing the conflicting imperatives inherent in their personal preferences and cultural position (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has famously called the habitus). In this case, eighth blackbird’s “struggle” (explicitly named as such by one of its members in conversation with Pippen) is to balance the tensions between a performing ethos and a concert world still dominated by modernist ideas (virtuosity, the work, progress, structural listening) and the reality of a post-industrial knowledge economy dominated by superficiality, image making, emotional work, commodification, and branding.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sextet

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
Photo by Luke Ratray

The tensions and contradictions are real. Pippen has been witness to some goofy interactions, as when the ensemble uses social media to create an illusion of nerdy intimacy with their followers:

One day in 2011 Tim Munro, the member generally in charge of the group’s publicity, shot video of Yvonne Lam and Nick Photinos as they worked out the bowing for a particular phrase, and posted the video on Twitter with the caption, “First bowing conversation of the season!”

This kind of promotionalism, in which eighth blackbird—a set of uncompromising new music virtuosos whose very name references one of the canonical moments of mid-century modernism—presents itself as “your friendly neighborhood sextet working hard—but always happily—as they get ready for their next sensational show,” might well be a turn-off for musical intellectuals. Pippen is not entirely taken with it either. He’s the one who recorded the self-deprecating comment from composer Jeremy Sment at the top of the page, evidence that just being “cool” and “friendly” does not erase hierarchies of power within the field of cultural production. I myself would add that presenting the hard, repetitive work of mastering difficult music as a kind of “fun” also fits into a neoliberal pattern where cultural workers exploit themselves under the sign of “doing what you love.”

The Struggle is Real

Crucially, Pippen is not particularly worried about whether the musical works eighth blackbird performs are themselves aesthetically progressive or reactionary; he sees the forces acting on the group as more eclectic than that, as “a particular mixture of modernist aesthetic goals, postmodern desires for accessibility, and fundamental concerns about the financial realities of the new music field.” This last concern is not one usually encountered in narratives of style history. In fact, this isn’t really a story about style at all; although Pippen uses the more compact term “postmodern avant-garde,” what he has uncovered is the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity.
A music historian of the old school would use the actions of eighth blackbird (and reactions to them) to determine whether there is a future for new music, and, if so, what part of the musical past such a future might most resemble. If that turns you on, go for it. The game of rock-paper-scissors is never ending. But the musicology of the present, under whose flag I have taken the liberty of enlisting John Pippen (if you disagree, please blame my reading, not his work), is less interested in declaring winners and losers in the game of history, and more sympathetic to the dynamics on the field of play at a given moment. Pippen’s summary take on eighth blackbird’s postmodern brand of avant-gardism seems, to me, very humane:

Here we find not the “anything goes” attitude described by [critics of postmodernism]. Rather, we find an acknowledgement of failure, a recognition of controversy and, in spite of all this, an ongoing commitment to the presentation of “difficult” music. This is not abject relativism. This is struggle.

Right on, brother. In my final post, I’ll feature another fascinating oxymoron taken from a recent study of the way university culture has figured in the development of late 20th-century musical taste. What would it mean to conceptualize an “elite popular music”? And would that concept help us navigate the dangerous passage between high and low musics in a post-hierarchical, omnivorous era of cultural consumption?

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!