professor zoom

musicology at a distance

Alright, so Paula and I have been cooking something up; you might have already seen all the buzz on social media.


Are you a weirdo who is really into musicology/ethnomusicology/music theory? Not-so-alternately, is that your profession? Are you stuck at home and looking for something to watch in the late afternoon that’s not The Bachelor or Chernobyl? Then #MusicColloq might be the thing for you! And if you have a paper you’d like to present, you can sign up here.

So far, a surprisingly large number of people (or…bots?) have shared our announcement on social media, which means that the first one of these will *hopefully* work. We’re using

 legend zoom ez GIF

which seems like it will work pretty well? Who knows.

And now Paula has made an awesome website:

And follow us on Twitter too:

And now, for a *newsletter exclusive announcement* (that I’ll be posting on Twitter five minutes after I send this out, but this is a scoop): I’ll be giving the first #MusicColloq paper!

Remember all that blather about New Music America about a week ago? Well I’m going to go ahead and test-drive our new platform with my paper on NMA and Bang on a Can that was originally for the MIT festivals conference that’s been cancelled.

Here’s the abstract:

“These impresarios have an insight, a point of view, a vision,” the Village Voice critic Kyle Gann wrote of the recently-established Bang on a Can festival in 1989. “BoaC isn’t splintered by the favors to repay, the factions to satisfy, that have diluted New Music America and made it so disappointing (if necessary).” In the late 1980s, contemporary music was divided into two festival experiences in the United States: the upstart Bang on a Can, a twelve-hour marathon concert held in downtown New York since 1987; and the establishment New Music America, a massive, multi-day endeavor that rotated between major cities since 1979. These two festivals offered competing visions in a moment of transition for American new music.

Drawing on archival research, interviews, and reception, this paper compares three key aspects of the festivals circa 1989, when both were held in New York. First, I consider how they offered different definitions of “new music” as a genre: New Music America represented a scene of experimental improvisers and composer-performers that critic John Rockwell dubbed a “post-literate vanguard,” whereas Bang on a Can advocated for composers who wrote conventionally notated works for virtuoso classical musicians. Second, I compare the distinct “festival cultures” each institution provided: New Music America dispersed its offerings over many events in multiple venues, thus fragmenting its audience, whereas Bang on a Can empathically sought to create a singular audience experience through its marathon format. Finally, I examine the governance of each festival: the nimble Bang on a Can was run out of the kitchens of three young composers (Gann’s “point of view”) whereas New Music America was organized by a rotating committee and attendant bureaucracy that served many constituencies (Gann’s “factions to satisfy”).  The success of Bang on a Can, which grew into a multi-million-dollar organization in the 1990s, alongside the decline of New Music America, which held its final iteration in 1990, reveals how different festival formats structured contemporary music at the close of the twentieth century.

So, tune in tomorrow, Tuesday, at 4pm ET — BY CLICKING ON THIS ZOOM LINK — to hear me give a paper online. There will be time for Q&A afterwards (not 100% sure yet how we will moderate that, we’ll see how many people show up). And then, if it works, we’ll have papers perhaps every weekday at 4pm!

As far as teaching-at-a-distance goes, I don’t know if I have much to add since my initial thoughts. Asynchronous-ity — a word I didn’t know to use in my last post! — seems to be the way to go. I’m going to start pre-recording lectures asap (fortunately UMD gave us an extra week of spring break to get ready), and we’re going to use discussion boards for Friday discussions (rather than some kind of live meetings as I suggested last time).

My TA and I decided to dump Cunning Little Vixen — I know, I know — in favor of La Traviata (I know, I know) for our opera-to-watch related to our capstone project. It’s mostly because both of us have a lot more experience teaching Traviata so we can take old materials and make them online, rather than generating new Vixen lectures. I’m retooling the “experimental music” unit entirely, expanding it into “avant-garde/modernist” music and basically regurgitating old lectures I’ve given on Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Crawford, Pamela Z, etc. I don’t have time to generate new lectures, and I need material that works easily for distance learning. It is a compromise.

We are stuck at home, going out to mostly take Georgia on walks. But she, too, deserves more intellectual stimulation (I expect she will make guest appearances in some of my online classes, and perhaps even in #MusicColloq). So we bought her this silly puzzle and she’s mastered it already!

Charles Wuorinen died. He was a composer of incredibly rich and brilliant music, and a complicated person. I profiled him back in 2018, and I was asked to write his obituary when he passed. You can read that here. You should also read Tim Page’s obituary, which is the kind of writing I will aspire to my entire life.

time to go mobile

teaching in an emergency

You should not take my advice! Let’s say that up front. Or, rather: what I talk about here in this newsletter — about teaching, about book-writing — is less about “best practices,” than my practices, which are occasionally based on something I read somewhere (“best practices”), something someone told me (“someone else’s practices”) or something I figured out that seems to work (“stuff”). But I do think it’s worth talking about what I’m planning to do now that UMD is going to go online due to COVID-19 — we’re taking an extra week of spring break (classes cancelled), but when we resume on March 30 we’re online-only until April 10, and possibly until the end of the semester.

And I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this, that I thought it would be useful to share. But with a caveat: these are just my random thoughts and ideas, which I hope are useful, but which may be totally wrongheaded in all kinds of ways. Call me out on it, please. Drag me on Twitter if you must. I’d like to learn about what I’m doing wrong, too.

So what I talk about here reflects some of what I’ve been learning in various places — UMD’s Keep Teaching resource, twitter threads, Chronicle articles, and conversations with my colleagues — and what I’m specifically figuring out for me to get through the rest of the semester and for students to learn something. And what I’m talking about here is going to be primarily relevant to music history classes specifically (music theory, for example, is going to have to do things totally differently).

I’ve decided to rush this one out because I’m seeing a lot of conversations online about what folks are doing to reimagine their work in new spaces, and have a lot of thoughts, and didn’t feel like writing a 40-tweet-thread.

First, a few basic things I’ve been thinking a lot about:

We have an obligation to make it as easy on students as possible.

I have to assume, amidst the chaos that is unfolding right now, and will likely only increase, “learning about opera” is not first on my students’ minds, nor should it be. They are traveling, worried about themselves and their families, and may be returning to homes that can not easily accommodate what they will need to continue their studies. I don’t want to overburden anyone with elaborate tech needs, new assignments or learning objectives, or anything else. I’ll be sending out a survey to establish a sense for what students have available to them (what tech they have, what time zone they’re in, etc); make communication as clear as possible; and be very clear that I will be accommodating to whatever circumstances students find themselves in and whatever exceptions or exemptions they may need.

We have an obligation to make it as easy on ourselves as possible.

No one is prepared for this; my colleagues who are not as tech-savvy as I am are going to have a lot of work to do to even get fully set up on Canvas (our online learning platform). “Doing a crap-ton more extra work midsemester to make my course online” was not on my To-Do list for this spring. I don’t anticipate faculty getting end-of-the-year bonuses for the extra work we’re going to be putting in. People have articles due, books due, lives to live.

I’m in an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged position as faculty to make this transition: I’m tenure-track, I have an easy teaching load, I’m young and healthy, I don’t have childcare needs, I have a home that will be extremely easy to teach-from-home in. Getting everything online will be additional work and mean additional frustrations, but it does not mean a massive change in lifestyle that more contingent workers, many of whom have children who are now also at home, are going to have to reckon with.

We all have many, many obligations that we have to attend to outside of our coursework. So whatever we do as faculty, whatever our position is, we should work to minimize the amount of additional labor that this will require; this is not the time to innovate, but the time to compromise.

We have an obligation to make this as easy on graduate student workers as possible.

I’m in an extraordinarily lucky position to have amazing graduate student teaching assistants for my lecture courses. They, too, now have unanticipated additional work to balance alongside coursework, dissertations and theses, research projects, personal lives, etc; they may also have just had conferences that were crucial for their professional development cancelled (and may also be suddenly losing hundreds of dollars because of that).

My goal in making this transition is to assign to TAs as little additional work as possible. We need to be honest: most of our work as faculty, and most of the work of graduate student workers, for the rest of the semester is going to be acting as glorified tech support, facilitating students to be able to use the online tools we’re setting up for them. That’s going to mean a lot more emailing, which is more hours of work, and TAs are often the first point-of-contact for this kind of communication from students. As such I’m going to strive to add no additional grading to my TA’s workload as we make the transition to online, and try to lighten the load as much as possible.

Our teaching, and students’ learning, is inherently compromised by this.

I think online teaching is pedagogically viable and can be great; I have no problem with online coursework being part of the modern university, although I do have qualms with its potential to eclipse in-person teaching in the (inevitable?) dystopian future. BUT we are in an emergency situation, and whatever we all end up doing will not be “online teaching” as it has been done by those who fully imagine a course online and have many weeks to prepare and execute it. Instead, it will be a compromise that cannot but make our teaching and our students’ learning lesser than it would be if we were not disrupted. This is not a model for the future: it is fundamentally inadequate, and we are inherently not serving our students as we should be under normal circumstances. We need to studiously document these inadequacies. At the end of this little awful experiment, as faculty we need to assert to administration that this cannot happen again, and that this will not be the future of the university.

Okay, enough with the moralizing. Another thing I’m thinking a lot about:

I’m minimizing “live” online instruction as much as possible. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect 50 students to be able to watch a lecture in real-time at 1pm on Mondays and Wednesdays (not to mention the 200 or 300 that some of my colleagues teach). Inevitably at least 20% will have tech issues, time zone issues, or other issues; I also don’t see a clear reason why me-speaking-live is better than me-speaking-pre-recorded. In-person, I do active learning exercises in lecture; these don’t translate easily to an online forum, and even if they did, it would take a significant amount of work to get them working well.

As such, I plan to record short-ish lecture segments (10–15 minutes) that will alternate with links to musical examples, readings, etc. These will be merged with the reading/listening that I already assign in advance of lectures, which were previously followed by a short multiple-choice quiz. So an online “lecture day” on Cunning Little Vixen might look like this chain of tasks available on Canvas:

  • Read a New York Times article on Janacek

  • Listen to the opening of Cunning Little Vixen and the Queen of the Night Aria, and think of how they are similar/different

  • Watch a PanOpto recording of Prof Robin speaking for 15 minutes, with slides, introducing Cunning Little Vixen (yes, our lecture recording system is called PanOpto, it’s hilarious)

  • Watch/listen to another musical example

  • Watch another PanOpto recording of Prof Robin

  • Take a 5–8 question multiple choice quiz (that will grade itself) based on everything covered in this

Given that it’s a music class and we do a lot of in-class listening, it makes more sense to me to record short segments so that they can alternate with listening examples rather than talk for 50 minutes; it will also hopefully minimize the amount of video editing I have to do, as if I talk for 50 minutes into a microphone I will inevitably curse and sweat a lot more.

This is the potential plan for Monday/Wednesday lectures. I’m still trying to figure out Friday discussions, which are run by a graduate student TA. But I don’t think it’s reasonable or productive to ask 10–20 students to be able to be active on Webex or Google Hangouts for 50 minute discussion sections; inevitably the TA would spent most of the time fielding tech issues from students who got kicked off the network, etc. So I’m thinking instead that each section will be divided up into 15 minute chunks, with 3–5 students who sign up for each chunk and then actively participate in a Webex/Google Hangout session for those 15 minutes. This will ideally also lessen the teaching burden for the TA — preparing for multiple 15-minute lessons rather than 50-minute lessons — and get everyone to actually participate, as opposed to 15 people sitting in silence while 3 people talked.

The real problem, for MUSC 130 (music appreciation), is that, if you’ve been reading the newsletter, you’ll recall that I totally redesigned the course to focus on active learning and activities and ways of thinking about music that are fundamentally about the in-class experience, in lecture and discussion. This was particularly going to be the case in the second half of the semester, literally beginning next week. Here’s what the rest of the semester was supposed to look like:

So: a lot of guest visits; a two-week focus on a live production of The Cunning Little Vixen; a large-scale unit on experimental music that revolved on in-class performances of post-Cagean scores and culminated in students workshopping and performing their own experimental scores. All of this is no longer viable.

For the opera, it’s not too difficult to reimagine: I’ll give my week of Vixen lectures, and the capstone project — in which students were supposed to write about seeing the Maryland Opera Studio’s production of the opera — will probably remain mostly the same, but they’ll write about a production of the opera they can watch at home streaming through our library databases.

I cannot do the experimental music unit anymore; it is not feasible to scale online given the time constraints. A lecture on Cage would have involved performing 4’33”; a lecture on Oliveros would have involved us all performing Sonic Meditations. We had a day on soundwalks! That does not work with COVID-19. Most of these lectures were, by the way, brand new to this semester, and I haven’t yet created them. If I had a summer and a grant to reimagine this online, sure, I could figure it out and make it amazing, but I don’t.

So, yes, I am going to compromise. My plan is to retain some of the guest stuff if possible, by recording Skype conversations that students can watch (I use Call Recorder for that). Otherwise, I am going to dip into my pool of preexisting lectures on modernism and the avant-garde, and retool Unit 3 to focus on contemporary music broadly considered: I’ll instead talk about Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Pamela Z in a more conventional lecture format. The capstone will likely be some kind of take-home exam, like it was for our first unit.

This is, for me, a HUGE bummer: I really put a lot of thought into how this unit would fit into the broader course goals and represent a creative culmination of what we had been learning. Instead, we’ll be doing some more basic (and, admittedly generic) kinds of learning about music.

It is what it is. We need to make this easy on everyone.

More soon, as I figure out whether anything that I’ve written above will actually work.

Her love of sticks knows no bounds.

what i know, and what i don't

or, perhaps, what we know, and what we don't

I wrote this newsletter on an evening Amtrak trip to New Brunswick for this conference tomorrow, and figured I might as well send it off to your inboxes now and see what happens. Happy weekend!

Some of you might share this particular kind of paranoia; I’m not sure. But I spent a lot of time in graduate school regularly Google and RILM and ProQuest–ing various names and terms surrounding my dissertation topic, under constant fear that there was something already out there I had missed, some intrepid musicologist who had already published on my topic, and here I was, foolishly researching a dissertation on “indie classical” that had already been written by someone else. Anyway, it turned out to be fine.

Related to that is another kind of fear, or paranoia, or something, which is that, towards the end of any project – a journal article, a book, etc –– I tend to start thinking “Well, how much of this is actually new or important, anyway? Doesn’t everyone already know this?” It’s partly because a slippage between “everyone” and “actually just me” starts to emerge; I start taking my own research as “standard wisdom” even though literally no one besides me, the readers of this newsletter (thank you, dear readers), and like seven other people knows this information yet, or at least knows it in the way that I’m conveying it in what I’m writing. As I internalize the “new narrative” that I’m hoping to argue for in A Piece of Scholarship, I end up forgetting that it’s significantly different from the “standard narrative” that other people do know.

Anyway, all of that is to say that I still don’t really understand New Music America, and I wish I did, and I hope someone else does. New Music America isn’t the topic of my book – hopefully you know that by now! – but it does get a solid eleven pages devoted to it in Chapter 3. And it is half of the subject of a paper I’m giving next week at MIT at this rad music festivals conference:

In my paper, I hope to convey to those attending the conference that I know a lot about New Music America. Projecting confidence is important! But I’m hedging a bit, because I don’t know a lot. Or rather, I know a bit, but not enough, and every time I learn more it feels like my understanding of what it actually was slips further away.

This might seem odd, given that I've spent the last half-decade researching another new-music festival held right around the same time as NMA, and and that, once my book is published, it will have what is, to my knowledge, a more sustained engagement with NMA than any other academic work.

Some basic stuff that I know, and that’s not all that hard to find out: New Music America started as New Music, New York, when The Kitchen put on a nine-night spectacle of downtown music in June 1979, one that stirred controversy, incited a lot of press, and represented a major endeavor for the SoHo musical world. Visit the web resource my grad seminar put together last semester on Beth Anderson’s Report from the Front for more on that. NMNY spawned NMA, which traveled to different cities annual in the 1980s, and ended in 1990. I read a lot about both NMNY and NMA by necessity, because in Bang on a Can’s early years, it was often contrasted against NMA, especially by Kyle Gann, who inveterately critiqued the old festival in order to herald the new one. E.x.:

So I’ve read a lot of reviews of the NMA festivals, and read Iris Brooks’s 1992 New Music Across America summary book, and just recently discovered the astounding resource that is Michael Galbreth’s website, which includes full programs for many of the festivals. All in the service of making sure that my ten or so pages of information about NMA in the book is as solid as it can be.

But NMA seems harder and harder to pin down, the closer I get to it. This conference paper I’m presenting starts to pick at what it was about, and how it differed from Bang on a Can in terms of aesthetics, ideology, governance, and structure. Aesthetically, for instance, I argue that New Music America represented what John Rockwell called, when writing about Glenn Branca, a “post-literate avantgardism” of musicians who worked in improvisation, electronics, and post-Cagean (aka “downtown”) creative activities that did not center around the conventional musical score. That’s in clear opposition to the founders of Bang on a Can, who primarily created detailed, somewhat-conventional scores to be executed by classically trained musicians. Bang on a Can promoted composers who wrote for performers; New Music America promoted composers who were themselves performers. Simple, right?

But then you dive deeper into, say, Bang on a Can, and you see a lot of composer-performers on the festival. And then, the more and more you (and by you, I mean me), dive into New Music America – even after you’ve written the freakin paper and the section in the book chapter! – you are just faced with so much information and so many different kinds of music- and art-making that it seems ridiculous to draw any kind of conclusion at all.

An example might help. I was trying to find more information about New Music America’s 1989 festival, a massive tenth anniversary bash hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music that sprawled across New York City, and so decided to just go ahead and order a used copy of the program book online. This is what the schedule looked like:

Like: what??!!!! It’s an insanely diverse lineup. I had read previews and reviews of the ’89 festival and thought I had a decent grasp on what happened, but: how do you even get a decent grasp on all of this??? It’s hard enough to summarize a single Bang on a Can marathon. Everyone who attended must have had a radically different experience. (Iris Brooks writes, in her book, “When the Festival returned to New York in 1989, it became a mad dash around the city while trying to be everywhere at once. Searching for random movement and trying to turn chaos into a geometric design left many exhilarated but with sore feet and pounding headaches.”) The various curatorial forces that put together something like this clearly had a lot of ideas; simply sorting through what happened, when it happened, why it happened could yield a dissertation. And that’s just one festival, one year––and that it took place in NYC means it’s probably one of the easiest NMAs to research.

The 1982 Chicago festival had music by Alvin Lucier, John Cage, and Robert Ashley on boats. On boats!

There was a concert at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in which Kirk Nurock’s ensemble interacted with the animals!

And I assumed NMA was something the downtown scene revered, but then you have Zorn saying this, in the ‘89 program book!

As tempting as it might be, and though it might be extremely on brand, New Music America won’t be my Book 2––I’d be an idiot to write my first book about a new music festival in the 1980s and 1990s, and write my second book about a new music festival in the 1980s and 1990s. But I do think it’s worth asking what questions would need to be asked, what research would need to be done, to fill in what’s missing from what we know about this roving festival, or at least start to put all the pieces together. This is how my musicological brain thinks; if you want to undertake this project (or know someone who already is!), let me know. Alternately, if you want to apply to UMD for graduate studies in musicology and make this your master’s thesis or PhD dissertation project, I would love to advise it.

One could imagine, given the rotating nature of NMA, the most productive version of this project could be multi-sited, with scholars in each relevant city undertaking local research, to build towards some kind of edited volume or online database. Those scholars would interview local organizers and participants; visit the archives of hosting venues, local granting agencies, etc. to amass a documentary record; look at news and media coverage; try to piece together reconstructions of what the performances were, how they were organized, who attended, and how it affected the cultural life of the city. (And where are the archives of the New Music Alliance, the organizational committee which oversaw all of the New Music America festivals?)

Who’s in? (I’m kidding; but maybe in, like, two years when I’ve cleared my current projects off my plate, I’ll be serious!)

Georgia and the bunnies, follow-up:


teaching, book, etc

So I wrote a bunch about how people should blog/newsletter more about their teaching, and here I am, teaching, and not regularly doing that. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. So: a brief teaching update!

We just wrapped up our first big unit in MUSC 130 (music appreciation) on symphonies, covering a bunch of Beethoven 5, a little bit Dvorak 9, and a moderate amount of Price 1. It went well, I think! Right now, the students are doing their first of three “capstone” projects of this semester, each of which is pegged to a big unit (symphonies, operas, experimental music). This is the most straightforward of the capstones: a take-home exam that asks them to talk about musical meaning in the symphonies we’ve learned. Here’s what the last few weeks have looked like:

My goal was to move from a basic understanding of the sound of symphonies to getting into how knowing biography and social context affect how we hear Beethoven, and then using those frameworks to understand Dvorak/Price, the relationship between them, and their relationship to American culture. I wrote already about my framework for musical meaning; I think it’s worked decently well thus far, and the exam should hopefully give the best indication of how they parse this out and make it effective. We’re moving into opera this week, which I’m tackling differently: we’ll spend two weeks going over the basics of opera in-general — a day on arias, a day on what-opera-is, a day on what-opera-singing-is, and a day on what-opera-staging-is, before spending two weeks on The Cunning Little Vixen, which the Maryland Opera Studio is performing.

One new thing I’ve experimented with this semester is in-class polling — clicker questions — via the Turning Point app, which UMD has integrated with all of our other stuff. I definitely think it’s way cooler than the students do — they seem to be extremely used to it, whereas it’s new to me — but it’s been useful to gauge understanding on various issues. Basically, I can ask a question in a Powerpoint slide, and students get out their phones and answer it, and the answers will appear on my slideshow in real time. (It acts as a way to measure participation/attendance too.) Sometimes I’ll ask a multiple choice question to review what we’ve been talking about, or prompt a discussion. My favorite (again, this is probably extremely basic to people who already do this, but novel to me!) thing it allows for is word cloud responses, so I can ask a question like “Describe the sound of this music” and everyone gives one-word answers that become a word cloud. Unfortunately I haven’t saved any of the wordclouds we’ve done so far, but this is what would looks like (please replace all of the hilarious sample words in your mind with more relevant ones):

Anyway, it’s a useful exercise for abstract symphonies: play two minutes of wordless music, and ask everyone to describe it in one word, and then talk about what’s going on in the music that leads a large percentage of people to say things like “dark” or “intense” or “happy,” etc.

One through-line with the symphony unit — that’s also one of the things I like talking about — has been unpacking the cultural significance of the symphony as a genre, from Beethoven through Price. That means talking about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s epochal review of Beethoven 5, but also talking about the cultural weight that the Beethovenian symphony took on in 19th century America, why people even cared that Dvorak came to the United States, and ultimately why the symphony (as opposed to jazz and blues) was a vehicle that black intellectuals cared about during the Harlem Renaissance. We go from this quote:

to this quote:

Which I enjoyed, and which indexes something important, I think. We’ll see what happens with opera!

We’ve been doing a lot of different stuff in public musicology thus far: writing program notes, practicing preconcert talks, blogging, exploring what makes good podcasts good. So far it’s been pretty fun, and seemingly useful. More on all of that soon, I think!

I’m in a “do lots of random stuff” phase of late book. Which is to say: right now the manuscript is with my editor for her thoughts and revisions, and after that I’ll do one more edit, and then I prepare to send the “final manuscript” to Oxford. After that, it goes into production, copyediting, proofs, etc; I’m not 100% sure what the timeframe is on that — I don’t yet know when it will *come out* — but it means we’re basically entering the final stages. So I’m prepping things for the “final manuscript submission” phase which requires… a lot. Such as:

  • Permissions for all images, and all archival material. This is almost entirely done, with a couple errant photos that still need to be tracked down.

  • High-res version of all images. Also almost done, although some images have been hard to track down.

  • All kinds of front matter and back matter, including acknowledgements (which will be long!), lists of all the figures, etc. This still needs to be tackled.

  • Abstracts and keywords for every individual chapter of the book and for the bigger book; I’m working on this today.

  • Filling out a lengthy marketing questionnaire which includes writing various promo descriptions of the book, discussing audience and competition, people who I want to potentially blurb it, and cover thoughts. This will take a while!

  • Putting all of this stuff, and probably some other stuff I”m forgetting, into an organized series of folders to actually send.

Every step I get closer to the end, a new thing presents itself. But we’re almost there!

Maybe this will be the promo-oriented blurb? Or maybe not? Thoughts?

As the twentieth century came to a close, American composers contemplated their cultural relevance anew. After decades of academic and experimental music seemingly aimed only at fellow specialists, minimalism and neo-Romanticism began to reach a broader public. Could it last? Many institutions––from upstart festivals and granting organizations to record labels and major presenters––hoped so, and sought out new audiences for new music in the 1980s and 1990s. In doing so, they fundamentally changed the landscape of avant-garde music in the United States.

Amidst these developments emerged a scrappy festival called Bang on a Can, which presented eclectic and irreverent marathon concerts of contemporary music in downtown New York. Overseen by the young composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, Bang on a Can soon grew into a multifaceted organization with a major record deal, in-house ensemble, and standing gig at Lincoln Center.

Bang on a Can sought to recapture new music’s lost public, and succeeded. But they did not do so alone. Surveying the industry of American composition at century’s end, this book reveals how new music turned towards the marketplace, as classical music looked to contemporary music for relevance, record labels scrambled to reap profits from its newfound popularity, and government funding was imperiled by the Culture Wars. This turbulent but idealistic moment made new music what it is today.

Since my last newsletter, I did another passthrough of the book, revising a bunch of stuff based on feedback from the Bang on a Can folks (which has been an interesting and helpful but complicated process that I probably won’t write about publicly, tbh) and from peer review. The peer reviewer suggested beefing up my conclusion a bit, which I did, and also made the very wise suggestion of creating some kind of appendix chronology that can help the reader track what’s going on year-by-year. I did that, too, and I like it! Here’s a sample (missing part of 1991 and 1992 for fitting-in-screenshot-reasons):

I had a great visit to Bowling Green last week where I gave a talk tied to Chapter 4 of the book, on multicultural arts funding, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Group for Contemporary Music, Bang on a Can, and the Culture Wars. I also had a really fascinating conversation with the DMA students about the state of contemporary music; many thanks to Ryan Ebright and his department and fam for hosting! I’ll be giving the same talk this weekend as a keynote at the Rutgers musicology grad conference — the program looks awesome! — this coming weekend, and a couple more times this spring.

Here’s a story about Georgia and bunnies.

footnotes to a profile

Tonight, about a quarter-century years later than it should have, the full New York Philharmonic plays a piece by Tania León. I profiled León for the Times last weekend, in advance of the Philharmonic premiere, part of their Project 19. Sometimes when I do a Times piece I’ll have an accompanying Twitter thread of extra bits I found during research, but now that I have this newsletter, this seems like a good place to talk a little bit about that, and about what my process is when I approach a profile like this.

I should have known León’s music for longer than I have—I first got to know it well from teaching A La Par in music appreciation, as it’s part of Mark Evan Bonds’s Listen to This textbook. A few years back, I spoke with her over the phone about her opera Scourge of Hyacinths, for a piece on operas by women; it was a fascinating interview but also a frustrating one for me in some ways, because I couldn’t quite figure out what she was after when she talked about “the human race.” I hadn’t done the reading, honestly. Now I have, and it’s clear that she approaches the issues of race and gender through consistent invocations of a global concept of humanity, and global citizenship, one that is steeped in her personal experiences. (Marc Gidal has a really interesting article on how she navigates multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and universalism that shaped how I see this now.)

In summer 2017, when I was in New York doing book research, I knew I wanted to talk to León, to get her perspective on new music in the ‘80s and ‘90s. By that point, I had read a transcript of her extraordinary 1998 interview with the Yale Oral History of American Music project, in which she discusses her position with the New York Philharmonic, not long after it concluded. I was very interested to hear what she made of John Duffy, a figure who seemed to me to be an advocate for underrepresented composers in his work with Meet the Composer; she confirmed that he was a champion of her music and that of other women composers and composers of color. It was a rich and fascinating conversation, and helped me began to piece together the story of her relationship with the NY Phil, which directly followed a period I was intensely interested in, that of the Horizons festivals and Meet the Composer’s orchestral residencies of the 1980s and early ‘90s. You can read my take on Horizons ‘83 and the residencies here. The part that’s absent from that article, but is present in this NewMusicBox one, is that David Lang served as a Revson Fellow assisting the NY Phil/Meet the Composer composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman in 1985–86 (Scott Lindroth preceded Lang). As Lang recounts it, it was an interesting but also demoralizing experience, grappling with the infrastructure of the Phil and a lot of apathy towards contemporary music. Lindroth, Lang, and later León spent a lot of time sorting through dozens of scores that had been mailed to the Phil, cataloguing them and writing letters to their composers; some of the scores had languished for years without a response. It was a lot of grunt work that seemed to make clear to Lang in particular that the orchestral world was not a viable path.

As the Meet the Composer national residencies came to an end in 1992, the money put forth by the Revson foundation for the assistantship still existed, and Duffy encouraged the Phil to keep up the program: that was how León came aboard. Duffy’s goal was that the residencies would lead to permanent resident composers endowed at major orchestras, but it didn’t really pan out; orchestras weren’t willing to pay for them, especially in the wake of the early 1990s recession. (See K. Robert Schwarz.) What that meant is that she was an assistant, so to speak, without anyone to assist to, as the major residencies were no longer happening (David Del Tredici served as the final NYP resident until 1990). She was then upgraded to the vague position of “new-music adviser,” and led some significant institutional efforts and outreach/educational programs, including the American Eccentrics festival. But it was a fraught time: the orchestra didn’t play her music despite some promises and the fact that her picture seemed to keep showing up on programs and brochures—offering some kind of cosmetic diversity for the orchestra without them actually committing to it. African-American composers put León on the spot for not championing the community, without realizing that she didn’t have a lot of power behind-the-scenes; the Phil had already gotten a lot of flack from the black community for the all-white-and-mostly-male Horizons ‘83 festival. Schwarz’s article gets at some of the tensions:

So when the Phil announced that they would, belatedly, commission León for Project 19, I thought a persuasive angle for a piece had emerged: what would it mean for León to return to the orchestra, especially since one of the people she worked closely with there, Deborah Borda, had returned as well? And how relevant was the exclusionary past of orchestras that try to be inclusive today?

With that as a potential angle and a successful pitch to my editor, I did what I’ve now been doing for a long time for profiles: read a lot and listened a lot. I typically get all the scores by the composer that my university library has, and listen to all of the available recordings I can: even if I don’t end up talking about a lot of individual pieces in any given profile, I want to have as full a sense of the composer’s work as I can. (This was, as I mentioned in the article, slightly difficult as many of León’s recent works have not been commercially recorded; fortunately, her publisher provided me with recent scores and live recordings.) I read everything scholarly and non-scholarly about the composer that I can, every major news story, interview, journal article, etc. In the case of León, there are a few academic articles and interviews in books — she lists some of those on her website — and some very intriguing older interviews, like this one. A lot of the composers I write about have done amazing, longform interviews for NewMusicBox with the great Frank J. Oteri, including León. I try to get as many older interviews as I can, to track how the composer talks about themselves over time. I found this interesting statement in a 1989 EAR Magazine, for example:

My approach — and this is an idiosyncratic one, I didn’t train as a journalist! — is to go into the interview knowing everything I can about the composer, to help guide what kinds of questions I want to ask and what I want to learn. We spoke for a couple hours at the NY Phil archives’ office about the whole arc of León’s life, and what became clear to me quickly that the past tensions with the orchestra were much less interesting than actually telling the story of that life and what it’s meant. There haven’t been any articles in the last decade or two that I’ve found that really examine who León is as a person and musician and how she developed her identity, and her story’s so engaging that it quickly overshadowed my original plan (which is still there, a little bit, but really isn’t the main thrust of the article). Afterwards, I also spoke with the great Alejandro Madrid, who’s writing an awesome biography of León right now, who helped put some of her ideas into perspective.

I’m very happy with how the piece turned out, and it seemed to have gotten pretty good reception online, too; plus, the photographs by Caroline Tompkins are fantastic, and the archival shots are excellent too.

In other news, the semester is off to a great start! My revamped approach for MUSC 130 seems to be working well; at least, I’m enjoying teaching it a lot more. We’ve got the Spektral Quartet & Nathalie Joachim visiting next week (they’re playing at ArtHouse, you should go!), which is pretty exciting. And the public musicology seminar is great — all of the students have now started their blogs, which have been pretty interesting, and everyone wrote program notes for our large ensemble concerts too. Next up we’ll be talking preconcert lectures and podcasts. More on both classes in the newsletter soon!

Speaking of blogging, my call-to-blogging-arms seems to have propelled a few folks to the world of blogs/newsletters, as Steve Smith summarizes here. Keep it up, friends!

Also, I just got the “developmental” peer review back on my full manuscript, and it was very positive, which means full speed ahead! I’ll be tackling revisions in the coming weeks, and preparing the final manuscript, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about that here.

Finally, tell your students, tell your friends, tell your students’ friends and your friends’ students: the Bang on a Can media workshop is back!!! This summer, four fellows will work with the great John Schaefer as part of Bang on a Can’s summer festival at Mass MoCA. Our previous fellows have found it to be a life-changing experience — literally, one of them, who just wrote her debut review for *Pitchfork*, just said this!

Alas, I won’t be able to join John this summer, though I’ll be back 2021.

Finally, Georgia.

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