everything needs to change

I’m not feeling particularly inspired to write newsletters these days. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor remain freshly enraging — Taylor’s killers have still not been charged. If you can protest, protest. If you can donate, donate. DC and Maryland do not have cash bail, so I’ve been giving to Black Lives Matter DC’s legal defense fund. I’ll be giving to them again on Monday for my birthday, and encourage you to do as well. Educate yourself about defunding and abolishing the police; start with Mariame Kaba.

Based on my social media feeds, a lot of people are thinking not just about changing the nature of policing in our country, but also about how to change their own worlds, to commit themselves to anti-racism where they live and work. Good. My world -- music academia, music criticism, classical music, the (white) musical avant-garde -- has devalued black music, black culture, black liveness, for centuries. To rectify this only begins with diversifying your repertoire, programming music by composers from underrepresented groups. It will be about centering black music and black culture in curricula and supporting black folks on campuses. That means, as Loren Kajikawa articulates (read his article), a necessary push beyond the genre boundaries of classical music in curricula, an understanding that music schools and departments need to upend their white supremacist roots and take seriously popular music, jazz, non-Western music. And by seriously, I mean that these musics should flow through every part of your department, not just as a bit of extra sauce in your music history sequence. And, as we teach beyond classical music, we need to foreground how white supremacy has always shaped the American vernacular (see Matthew Morrison).

Some of this work is easier than it looks (this is all easy!). Over at NewMusicBox I spoke to several musicians about what to do right now, and Nathalie Joachim foregrounded this:

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

But we should also be frank about where the difficulties lie: there will be pushback from some who ground their understanding of music-that-matters in music that they know, that their teachers taught to them and that their teachers’ teachers taught to them. This makes a lot of sense: they have devoted their lives to a project that they think is broad and powerful and universal, and may only now be learning that it is in fact narrow, and limited, and exclusionary. (That “they” is also a “we”; I am fully implicated in this, having thought this way for much of my life and am still learning, un-learning, re-learning.) It will be work for studio teachers to learn works by black composers that they can teach, in-depth, to their students; it will be work for music theorists to learn to teach black popular music within a traditional sequence; it will be work for directors of large ensembles to find ways to collaborate with musicians across traditional genre boundaries. I am sympathetic to this work, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But I am much less sympathetic to those worried about it than I am to the labor that black scholars and musicians have been doing for a long, long time to teach everyone else how to be better. Have you read Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans? You should.

Our work should have started a long time ago; it's far past time to start now. Challenge your colleagues, your professors, your students, yourselves. 

I did want to fire off a short newsletter because this forum may go dormant for some to-be-determined amount of time, because I am going to be a dad very soon. Like, any day now. We’re very excited! (Georgia is, too; she loves kids.) So, four more quick things before I leave you for a while:

  • My book is in production with Oxford, and it will likely be published around January/February!! (There’s another Bang on a Can online marathon tomorrow, tune in!)

  • I wrote a piece for 21CM about the importance of public musicology; it’s a short thing aimed towards non-musicologists, so it doesn’t go full-force into my whole “what’s the deal with public musicology” rant that I give to grad students in my seminar. But it does unpack some of the underlying values I consider when I think about this term and why it’s useful; and some of the reasons I give to students about why it’s worth pursuing as part of their scholarly work. At some point I’ll probably write a 10,000 word journal article about public musicology, but this can serve as a quick-read stopgap for now, I suppose. (I had an enlightening and humbling discussion with Matthew Morrison about the limits of #publicmusicology on Twitter this week.)

  • Book #2 is going to be a collaboration with my amazing friend Kerry O’Brien: Minimalist Music: A Reader, a co-edited volume now under contract with University of California Press. We’re re-telling the history of musical minimalism through source documents: rare archival documents, well-known manifestos, previously unpublished interviews, Voice reviews, etc. It will shed new on your favorite figures and a lot of musicians you’ve never heard of. More on that soon.

  • Season 1 of my podcast, Sound Expertise, will launch sometime in July. Stay tuned.

I leave you with the words of George Lewis:

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

And the music of Courtney Bryan:

manuscript: submitted

It’s done! It’s done.

Submitting the final manuscript is a weird process. Because, as far as I can tell, no one outside of people who have already done it (and editors) really knows what it is — if you had asked me a year ago what step in the book-writing process “Submitting the final manuscript” is, I would have no idea. After all, in the last couple years I’ve submitted to my publisher (Oxford UP) a proposal and two chapters; a full manuscript for peer review; and a full manuscript for my editor to give feedback on. After this “final” version, I’ll get a copyedited manuscript to look at and correct (so that’s, I guess, the final final), and after that, I get a PDF of proofs to look at, correct, and index (that’s the final final final?). And who knows, maybe there’s another step in there I don’t know about.

So, the final manuscript: basically, it’s your full book, with everything super-duper-done and as final as you want it to be, with the understanding that there is a little bit of wiggle room in subsequent backs-and-forths (copy-editing, proofs) to make some changes. I went into it thinking, okay, if this were printed out and stapled together and handed out at bookstores, I would be okay with it, even if it it looked like it was written by a crazyperson because it was printed out and stapled and handed out at bookstores.

I am pretty good at being done with my writing and simply “letting go” when it feels right to — I’ve done enough different kinds of public writing with hard deadlines that it’s impossible not to be — but it was still hard to be done with this. One of the final stages turned out to be one of the most rewarding: my wife and I took turns reading the manuscript aloud to our unborn child, which was fun. It helped me catch a LOT of mistakes: I always tell students to read their work aloud, but usually when I supposedly do it, I’m more half-reading aloud — if you actually read it out loud, especially to another person, or have them read it, you will notice a lot of stuff! It also meant that my whole family (Georgia listened, sometimes) now knows my book pretty well!

Anyway, as to what a final manuscript is. Because it’s not just Chapters 1–7, plus introduction and epilogue.

Here is what Oxford asks you to submit, when you submit your final manuscript (you can read their full submission handbook here):

I will not bore you with a Borges-esque list of everything that this included for me, but it’s a lot.

First off, there’s a ton of additional writing that’s not just “the book itself”: within the “manuscript elements” there’s the acknowledgements (very hard to write!), the bibliography (okay that one’s obvious), the title page and table of contents (thankfully, unlike a dissertation, you don’t have to kill yourself formatting this), the photo/figure captions (this can take a while to figure out!). Then, outside of the “manuscript,” there’s also abstracts that you have to write for every chapter and the book (for online purposes), and a ton of information about publication in an author questionnaire — from your own short bio to your synopsis of the book for marketing to your thoughts on the cover to your thoughts on blurbers and potential reviewers (as in, post-publication reviews, not peer reviews). This, too, takes a long time.

Then there’s all the non-writing stuff! Gathering permissions for all images and archival stuff, which I’ve written a bit about in the past; making sure all your photos and figures are high-resolution, correctly labeled, and formatted; and a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten by now. My Dropbox folder titled “William Robin, Industry submission” contains 94 items. 94! Only 9 of those are chapters of my book (7 body chapers, 1 intro, 1 epilogue).

But now, now, now it’s done. Well, for now, at least, until I get those sweet sweet copyedits. The team at Oxford is working on a production schedule right now, but the potential plan for publication is very likely spring 2021. Less than a year from now, my book will be in your hands! If you choose to buy it. Crazy stuff.

Here’s the table of contents, btw:


So what else is going on? I wrote a piece for the Times a little while ago about the 1918–19 flu pandemic’s effects on musical life in the United States. Honestly this is probably a topic that some enterprising grad student should seize for their dissertation, because it’s pretty shocking that there is virtually no existing scholarly literature on the topic (as far as I can tell, nothing at all on the influence of the influenza pandemic on music-making, here or elsewhere, besides scattered discussions in WWI books and composer biographies). The robust historical literature on the flu mentions various influenza blues songs, the closure of theaters, etc., but there’s definitely a lot more to dig up: I only looked at a couple periodicals in-depth, Musical America and the Musical Courier (issues from the 1910s are available on Google Books and Hathi Trust; CNTRL-F “influenza” in a 1,200 page PDF and you can find lots of stuff!). There was a ton of stuff I couldn’t fit in the piece, stuff I wanted to follow up on. Lots of dangling threads. Doug Bomberger, author of the great recent book “Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture,” also helped fill in some gaps, and supplied a few great archival nuggets like this advertisement:

Capitalizing on a potential trend toward listening at home, the nascent record industry marketed Edison phonographs.

The semester is officially dunzo, and my public musicology seminar students put together some really awesome projects. Not all of them are publicly online yet, but a few great ones to share thus far:

  • Allie Pecoraro and Allison Coe’s COVID-19 Performing ARTSchive, an online archive of materials related to the pandemic and the performing arts (with contributions from Nicole Steinberg) http://covid19-artschive.com/home — lots of fascinating material to explore, including oral history interviews, handwashing memes, and more.

  • Syneva Colle’s podcast Cello Century: each episode explores a different 20th century cello concerto. It’s a really good podcast, and you should subscribe now. https://cellocentury.buzzsprout.com — the new Shostakovich episode is really superb (and maybe the first time that one of my students has done something on Shostakovich that doesn’t resort to the “tragic hero” cliches).

  • Patrick Allies’s video series "Renaissance Sacred Music in 100 motets,” short and fascinating videos on Renaissance motets. The initial Byrd video is great, and there are more to come!

I’m particularly proud of the students for coming up with creative alternatives to initial project ideas that required some live performance/talking aspect, and for being able to do such compelling work under hellish circumstances.

As for my music appreciation class, it went fine post-pandemic — better than I could have hoped in some regards, worse in others. I held a final class day live on Zoom, for those who could show up, and it was nice, and also sad. I’m extraordinarily grateful to my teaching assistant, Meghan Creek, who also just won our outstanding TA award!

Colloquium: Music Scholarship at a Distance is done, for now. It was really, really great: we presented around 35 papers/panels in the first weeks of the pandemic, and built a really engaging and vital community over Zoom. In a lot of ways, it was actually better than the conventional in-person conference format. I have a bajillion thoughts on why it worked and what lessons can be taken from it; Paula and I may co-author something soon-ish with advice for your own virtual conferences. We may revive the project in some form down the road, so keep your eyes peeled.

What next, for this newsletter, now that the book is out of my hands for a bit? I’ve been thinking about doing a series on “things that didn’t make it into the book and I hope people rake me over the coals for not including in reviews,” so perhaps that.

And after this book? Well, besides the way-more-important-than-all-of-this baby, two projects: one is a book I’m working on in collaboration with an awesome scholar and friend, which will become less secret in the near future. The other you should hear in the coming weeks. It’s a podcast, called Sound Expertise, and it will launch soon.


past = prologue

A couple weeks ago, Bang on a Can announced that they were calling off a big project: Long Play, a multi-day festival in Brooklyn in May. It was to be — and hopefully will be, in the future! — a major new initiative for the organization, a kind of NYC-based Big Ears. I wasn’t planning to attend — what with the baby coming in June — but I was very excited to hear about it. I even had a placeholder sentence in my book’s epilogue about it! (Bang is also putting their archives online in early May, which is going to be very exciting! I’ll probably newsletter about that.)

Anyway, coronavirus has done its thing, and there’s no festival this year. But they scrambled to do something meaningful instead, as Bang on a Can always does, and on Sunday at 3pm they’re returning to their perennial marathon format, but all-online, and from-home. It kicks off with Meredith Monk and concludes with Vicky Chow playing John Adams, with around six hours of music in-between. I’m pumped. Here’s the link.

As it turns out, this isn’t the first time that Bang on a Can has had to change its plans last-minute. Story time! Way back in June of 1991, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe were all set to present their fifth festival — concerts by Glenn Branca and Arnold Dreyblatt, performances of Harry Partch’s The Wayward, and the marathon — at the R.A.P.P. Arts Center, a multipurpose, dilapidated venue on a rough block on the Lower East Side.

(I got this amazing photo from Michael Gordon; flanking Gordon and Wolfe are the members of PianoDuo.)

R.A.P.P. had been the festival’s home for a few years, but it also became the site of a significant local controversy in the early ‘90s. The center was owned by the Catholic Church, and the previous fall, R.A.P.P.’s founder and producer, Jeffrey Cohen, had staged “The Cardinal Detoxes”––a play about a real-life bishop who had killed a pregnant woman while driving inebriated. Cohen was courting controversy: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York attempted to shut down the play and even padlock the theater (very strong “Cradle Will Rock” vibes!!), as Cohen had signed a morality clause in order to rent the space. The church succeeded in evicting R.A.P.P., but had agreed to honor existing contracts with organizations subleasing the venue, including Bang on Can. But as the festival approached, the Archdiocese stated that the center’s auditorium needed repairs and was unfit for use, and they kicked them out.

Here’s some local coverage I found at the NYPL a long while back:

Bang on a Can scrambled, and ended up hosting the concerts at La Mama and Circle in the Square. According to a grant application I found in the NYSCA archives, they lost about twenty grand in the process. Here’s an excerpt from Kyle Gann’s Village Voice review of the festival.

“We are starting again from zero,” Cage said. It seems newly relevant, especially because there’s a broader context to this minor avant-garde vs. Catholic Church tiff, which I have a whole book chapter about, and for which this incident serves as an introductory anecdote. In the Voice, art critic Richard Goldstein mentioned the Archdiocese/R.A.P.P. battle in the context of the obscenity court cases against Robert Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew; in this period artists faced hostility from the religious right and Republicans in Congress, a phase of the Culture Wars that began in 1989 with assaults on the NEA from Jesse Helms and culminated in the 1995/96 slashing of the Endowment’s budget by 40% and elimination of support for individual artists. There were significant effects on new music, too. All will be told in the book.

The arts were endangered in the 1990s, and they’re in danger again: the tendency in how we view the past, these days, is to look at how “eerily prescient” or “eerily reminiscent” certain episodes are of our current moment, whatever that may be. But in cases such as these, it’s not just that “this random old thing is newly resonant,” it’s that the past is continuous with, and prologue to, the present. We are living with the world that the 1990s created for us, an era of privatization of public goods that has left us without the social safety net we need to survive a global pandemic. But it’s not just about healthcare: the late twentieth century featured the decimation of a not-nearly-robust-enough public funding system for the arts in the United States. Unlike other peer institutions, Bang on a Can endured through those lean years -- it was their first decade, and they actually grew -- and I now know a lot of reasons why. (The book is almost done.)

I don't have much of significance to contribute to the what-the-arts-will-be-like-when this-all-ends question, if this all ends. Zach Finkelstein is the most astute chronicler of this moment. But I am wondering: who will endure today?

Anyway, I’ll be watching the marathon, excitedly, on Sunday, over at The Road to Sound. Georgia may join as well; she had fun on campus today.

i couldn't think of a title for this one

so what? i think that's fine, right.

Well I managed to go almost a month without a new newsletter, which was decidedly not the point of starting a newsletter. If only there was something going in the entire world that provided a solid justification for not wanting to write online for a month. HmmmmmmmMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

This will be a short one.

I love this new trend of releasing art while also providing some kind of COVID-specific framing.

“Hey, unprecedented times: I See You. You Are Acknowledged.”

I can’t really blame anyone though; it’s not easy to figure out how to bring art into the world right now. It’s an insane time to do anything besides, apparently, bake sourdough. (No, we haven’t, yet, but we did pick up some free yeast off of someone’s porch via a Facebook group today. Weird times.)

Classes have been proceeding….fine. I’m very lucky I can teach my appreciation lecture course entirely asynchronously, and that my public musicology seminar works pretty well via Zoom, although it’s clear that everyone is exhausted all of the time. Today will be my first teaching day in sweatpants, I managed to make it several weeks wearing jeans.

The public musicology students are developing some very cool projects — podcasts, video lectures, other stuff — that I may share with y’all when they’re done.

The book is entering its final stages. Nearly all of the “extra-stuff-you-don’t-realize-you-need-to-do-until-you-do” is done: acknowledgements, abstracts for every chapter, long questionnaires from the marketing team, *almost* all permissions forms signed. My amazing editor, Suzanne Ryan, has read and given extremely helpful feedback on about half the manuscript; once she wraps up I’ll begin making my final edits. Hopefully I’ll submit it to Oxford in May! We’ll see.

We have now presented nineteen papers on Zoom as part of Colloquium: Music Scholarship at a Distance! 19! It’s been pretty great in terms of attendance (we get anywhere from 30–100 people) and in terms of the quality and diversity of the research presented. If you haven’t tuned in yet, you should — we’re taking a break today but have papers on Anthony Davis, Milwaukee wind bands, and Gojira coming up this week. It’s been really awesome, and working with Paula is the best.

Personal news, in case you missed it on Facebook or Twitter — Georgia’s going to be a big sister in June! We’re extraordinarily excited and, yes, also a bit terrified given what’s going on in the world. But all will be well.

Here’s some more top-tier Georgia content:

Anyway, I feel incredibly lucky to be safe and healthy in a house with a loving partner and an awesome dog and a family that is also safe and healthy, with a stable job. I don’t really have anything useful to offer you about art-in-pandemic-times. Some people think streaming concerts is great! Some people don’t! What would Beethoven think? I don’t know!

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: https://musicscholarshipatadistance.com/

And follow us on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/MusicDistance

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.

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