new year, new syllabus

happy new year! I resolve to…continue sending out this newsletter.

I interviewed the amazing Linda Shaver-Gleason for The Log Journal; I hope you read it, and Joshua Kosman’s tribute too, and all of her writing on her blog.

The book is basically on hiatus right now — if you recall, the manuscript is out for peer review, and I anticipate getting feedback in February. In the meantime, I’m prepping my two courses for spring 2020 at UMD: music appreciation, which I wrote about here and will wrote about more soon, and a graduate seminar on public musicology. Let’s talk a little bit about that.

I last taught the public musicology seminar in my second semester at Maryland. I was an absolute rookie — there’s nothing stranger than flipping roles around the seminar table — and created a monster syllabus that was less of a This Is Good For Teaching syllabus than a This Contains Everything I Think Is Relevant To Public Musicology syllabus. Once the class was over, I disseminated it online; you can read it here. At the time, I was thinking a lot about how “public musicology” was an overused and under-theorized phrase, and so I saw compiling a syllabus as a way to make a statement about what I imagined public musicology to be, and what I would want someone learning about it to know and do. It was, in essence, Syllabus As Manifesto.

In that sense, it seems like it was somewhat effective: Tamara Levitz linked to it in her recent Current Musicology article; when you search “public musicology” it comes up in the top ten.

But sprawling lists of things to read do not necessarily make for an ideal graduate course as a learning experience. The syllabus was over-stuffed, and had some structural flaws in how the assignments played out over the course of the semester: the students had too much to read, too much to do, and not enough time to let their final projects (the creation/execution of a major public-focused project) to develop. I weighed the first half of the course towards theory and the second towards practice, which in effect meant we spent too much time talking about stuff and not doing stuff.

So I’m working on a total syllabus rewrite, making a syllabus that’s less about capturing-everything-that’s-important and more about doing focused dives into specific topics and skills. Each week we’ll learn about a different way of doing public music scholarship, and most of the time we’ll also try it out for the next week. They’ll still do the big final project, but will work on it over the entire second half of the semester rather than cramming it into a few final weeks. I’ve pulled back a lot on theorizing, and pulled back even more on looking at non-music public scholarship; I had been leaning too heavily on wanting students to become Los Angeles Review of Books-like public intellectuals (an impossible task in a semester, anyway), partly because of my own biases in what kind of public scholarship I like. We’ll do thinkpieces and cultural criticism, but we’ll also talk about (and meet with people who do) cultural preservation, museums, educational initiatives, preconcert lectures, program notes, and more. The students will also each maintain a blog/newsletter through the semester in which they’ll talk about their learning process — kind of like this newsletter! We’ll be reading a lot of Linda’s work, of course.

This is my third time teaching a grad seminar, which at Maryland include our MA and PhD students in musicology/ethnomusicology, but also include MM and DMA students from elsewhere in the School of Music. As I’ve done these I discover more and more that it’s useful to give more guidance in terms of what students should bring to the table when they arrive at seminar; if I simply list a bunch of readings and then expect students to be prepared to discuss them for 2.5 hours, there will be a decent amount of of hemming and hawing and silence. Silence is fine in discussion — it’s useful and productive! — but it often takes me a few weeks to realize that it’s good to give more clarity about what students should bring to the table each week. Now I’m trying to pre-empt that via the syllabus itself. Here’s a sample week:

Week 2: Public intellectuals + blogging (2/3)

What is a public intellectual today?

What is a public?

  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics”

Why blog?

Blogs to peruse (we’ll divide these up -- read at least 5 posts and get a sense of what the blog’s about):




When you come to seminar:

  • Be prepared to discuss different perspectives on the role of the public intellectual today, and Warner’s theory of publics/counterpublics + have 2 discussion questions ready

  • Be prepared to discuss, in-depth, the blogs that you examined

  • Begin setting up your blog website, and be prepared to talk about it

Last time around, I provided a giant list of blogs and no indication of what to actually do with them. As I remember from my grad school days, when you get a giant reading list without guidance, the instinct is often to do as little as possible. This is a totally understandable and necessary survival skill in grad school: you are faced with an enormous amount of work every week, and the strategic thing to do is to prioritize the essentials. Learning to skim is part of learning to be a scholar. And, professor-by-professor, expectations can vary widely: sometimes you’d get a massive reading list and the prof would ask detailed questions about each reading, down to the individual page; sometimes the prof would seemingly not remember what had even been assigned, and the discussion would be driven entirely by student interests. Instead, this time around I’ll assign each student 2 or 3 blogs to check out, with specific instructions to report back on.

Here’s another sample week, which I worked on this morning. Previously, I told students to check out a bunch of cultural websites like The New Yorker, LARB, New Inquiry, etc. That’s not a lot of guidance, and I don’t remember anyone having much to say of significance about their findings. (Again, not their fault; I take the blame for not thinking through the learning outcome implications of what was assigned.) Instead now I’ve just made a list of specific pieces—all music-focused—that we can delve into more deeply to understand what goes into a timely op-ed/thinkpiece/essay. Also, if you have recommendations of public-oriented essays by music scholars written for major press outlets that aren’t listed here, let me know! (As you can see, I’m short on ethnomusicologists right now.)

Week 7: Thinkpieces/op-eds + final project (3/9)

What do timely music scholarship op-eds/thinkpieces look like?

What are strategies for writing op-eds?

By the day before seminar:

  • Pitch a “thinkpiece” aimed towards a specific mainstream publication: in fewer than 200 words, describe the article you want to write (“what’s it about?”), its significance and impact on a general reader (“why should we care?”), its fit within the mission of the platform (“why should we publish this?”), and its timeliness (“why should we publish this now?”).

When you come to seminar:

  • Be prepared to talk about all the op-eds/thinkpieces in detail: not just their content, but their structure, and how they balance incorporating scholarly thought alongside public-oriented writing

  • Be prepared to talk about your pitch, and have read your colleagues’ pitches

  • Be prepared to talk about initial ideas for your final project!!! 

After they pitch their piece, they’ll actually write it, of course.

I’m excited about the course; I’ll probably newsletter about it more soon, and maybe link the full syllabus when it’s done. Of course, writing about what you hope happens in a course has almost nothing to do with what actually happens in the classroom, so we’ll see if any of this actually works!

In other exciting news, we moved! We now live in an cute rental house in Silver Spring, which means that Georgia has a fenced-in backyard in which she can frolic/eat sticks.

She’s also had some pretty great visitors, including her aunt Bonnie

And her new friend Lucy

Finally, we kept up our Christmas Day tradition of visiting FDR’s Fala

Hope you’re having a great 2020, more soon!

a new article

I’ve got a new journal article out! It’s called “Horizons ’83, Meet the Composer, and New Romanticism’s New Marketplace,” and it’s in the new issue of Musical Quarterly. You can read it to free (no paywall) here; I recommend reading the PDF, because that’s the way it’s meant to look. If you want the cliff notes, check out my Twitter thread:

If you’ve been following the newsletter, some of what I discuss in the article should sound familiar. It’s a version of Chapter 2 of my book, but with Bang on a Can basically scrubbed out — it’s about the NY Phil’s Horizons festival in 1983, and Meet the Composer’s backing, and the idea of New Romanticism. The final section, which deals with what New Romanticism excluded — women and composers of color — I didn’t end up having room for in the book (and is a little bit of a tangent from what the book’s about).

I think everything I have to say about the content of the article is *in* the article, and I hope you read it. It’s very much written—as the book is—in a style that should be accessible to anyone who is interested in the topic.

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about process.

First, the research process.

One thing that’s tricky with regards to my research process is that I have a terrible memory for certain things. Process is especially tricky for me to remember — I have a hard time remembering where some of my ideas originated, or how they developed prior to where they are today. (One of the reasons I’m doing this newsletter is to create more of a paper trail for myself.) When I go back and look at passages from my dissertation, I’m often surprised by them — once stuff is written down, I tend to forget about it. So I don’t really remember how I first got to thinking about Horizons and Meet the Composer as important developments in new music. My original dissertation plan was to focus on new-music institutions from the ‘80s to the present, with case studies on Bang on a Can, Bedroom Community, New Amsterdam, and yMusic. By the time I wrote the diss that changed a lot — it ended up being about post-2000, and mostly New Amsterdam and yMusic — but at some point during the research it became clear that Horizons and John Duffy’s MTC were key precursors for Bang on a Can. I did some forensic musicology of my email inbox and dissertation folders, and I’m guessing I started to factor in Duffy’s importance around 2015, likely after reading interviews with David Lang, and Lang’s great Horizons essay. By the time Duffy passed away in 2015, I was very interested in Meet the Composer’s history — perhaps spurred by the fact that its name had been resurrected for a podcast — and attended the heartfelt memorial service held for him at Roulette. At the time, I was really preoccupied with thinking about the style wars of the late twentieth century — I think about them less now — and it seemed significant that the memorial gathered together the likes of John Corigliano, Steve Reich, Muhal Richard Abrams, Tania León, and others.

Similarly, this picture — which I got later, from the booklet that MTC created for its Orchestra Residencies Program — seemed significant.

Philip Glass and Charles Wuorinen are theoretically mortal enemies in the style wars, but there were institutional contexts that brought them together—with Billy Taylor, too. (Howard Klein is a fascinating figure, who admittedly gets short shrift in my book; read Sasha Metcalf for more.) If we don’t overlook the institutional contexts, I reasoned, maybe we can find something new to say about new music in this period.

I also wrote a bit about Duffy’s importance for the 2016 redux of Symphomania, when the relationship between orchestras and new music was very much on my mind. There ended up being about a paragraph about Meet the Composer in my dissertation. In the course of thinking about the relationship between dissertation and book, I began to think a lot more about MTC, because I recognized that the dissertation and the book would not be the same thing: the book (1980s/90s) would be a prequel to the dissertation (2000s–2010s). If a book were to focus on the emergence of Bang on a Can, it would need to have a crucial pitstop at the Horizons festivals. When I assembled that list of archives for the book research I conducted in summer 2017, I was looking for MTC/Horizons documentation, and I found a lot of it: first, at the NY Phil’s amazing archives (thank you, Barbara Haws!!), then at NYPL’s Jacob Druckman collection (thank you, NYPL librarians!!), then in MTC’s own archives, which are held by its successor NewMusicUSA. The first two publicly are publicly accessible; for the third, I visited NewMusicUSA’s headquarters and spent a few days sifting through a few dozen boxes they had pulled from a storage facility for me. (Many, many thanks to Ed Harsh and NewMusicUSA’s staff!!) I took photos of hundreds of pages of documents — the NY Phil has digitized much of their collection, but not the Horizons materials — and spent fall 2017 writing a massive Book Chapter #2 on Duffy, Meet the Composer, Horizons, New Romanticism, and Bang on a Can. The first draft clocked in at like 120 pages or something. There was a lot to cover. It ended up being the first chapter of the book I wrote.

As I whittled the chapter down (it’s now a tight 49 pages), I saved the long version to whittle down in a different way, into a journal article. If I excised the Bang on a Can context, it could tell a story independent of the book, and develop areas that didn’t feel wholly relevant to the book — like a longer discussion of New Romanticism as concept, and the protests that Raoul Abdul led against Horizons’ discriminatory programming. (I discovered Abdul’s role in the NY Phil’s archives — all of his correspondence and newspaper articles around the issue, telling the full story, were in a folder together.)

Second, the article process. I knew I wanted to submit a “big journal article” related to my book, and given that this chapter got done first, and dealt with issues that could be easily extracted from the larger book context, it made a lot of sense. Prior to this article, I’ve had three journal articles published — on early American hymnody in Journal of Musicology, on indie classical in the Journal of the Society for American Music and on yMusic and neoliberalism in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (all available here). I spent a while thinking about what journal would be a good fit, and realized Musical Quarterly, which has a strong focus on musical institutions, would be a good fit. So as I whittled down the Big Chapter into a More Concise Article, I tailored it to MQ’s style guide (which yes and ewww, meant endnotes rather than footnotes). I sent it to a couple friends and got very helpful feedback before I sent it to the journal.

Do you know what happens when you submit a journal article? Basically, you choose a journal, send the article to the journal, and an editor (usually a fellow scholar) looks at it and chooses 2–3 other scholars who work on similar subjects to send it to. Then it’s peer review time: they read it (without knowing who wrote it) and write reports about its contents, noting whether it should be accepted to be published by the journal; be significantly revised and resubmitted (and then usually sent back out for peer review); or if the journal should reject it entirely. The peer review process is supposed to take around 8–10 weeks for most journals; sometimes it’s quicker, often it’s much longer.

There are a lot—a lot—of horror stories about peer review. Probably more horror stories than happy stories. You’v probably seen memes about “Reviewer #2,” the mythological scholar who writes some kind of scathing/annoying/self-aggrandizing peer review report that is not only useless, but often actively inhibits the career of a younger scholar. That said, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with journal submissions thus far in my career. My previous three articles all had fairly reasonable turnarounds as far as review timeline went — all three were “revise and resubmits” — and the reviews were almost always encouraging and helpful. Some of that has to do with, I think, the fact that I’m not writing on stuff that a lot of people have already staked a claim over — if I were to wade into the territory of, say, 19th century opera or Renaissance madrigals, it’s likely that a senior scholar in that area would have a lot more to say about how my work was lacking.

Anyway, I submitted the MQ article in January; it was sent out to peer reviewers in February; it was accepted in May (yay!); I received a copyedited manuscript in October and offered my own responses/edits; I got proofs (basically, an almost-final version of the article as a PDF that looks like it does in the journal) a couple weeks after that, and sent in corrections to them; and it was just published last week. That’s a very fast turnaround — definitely the shortest timeline I’ve had for an article — and I’m really grateful for the MQ editorial team for their great (and remarkably quick!) work. I’m also really grateful to the NY Phil archives, who let us publish, *for free*, some really amazing photographs.

One more thing about process. One does not get paid for writing musicology journal articles, in case you didn’t know this. (One also doesn’t typically get paid for peer reviewing journal articles.) The idea, in theory, is that it’s part of your regular intellectual work as a scholar, and that if you work at a research university — as I do — your salary goes towards the labor of journal article-ing. For me, that’s actually true; it’s not, though, for adjunct professors who are paid per-course and do not receive any kind of funding towards research. But they publish nonetheless, out of career necessity and out of the fact that it is a vital service that scholars offer to the world: the generation of knowledge!!! So that’s a broken part of this system.

The extremely broken part of this system is that we live in a bullshit corporate capitalist world in which we generate new intellectual ideas for free — sometimes, as in my case, with my salary coming from the public (I’m a professor at a public university) — and they are edited by non-profit journals, and then they are hidden behind paywalls that charge the public anywhere from $30 to $1000+ to read them. These paywalls are run by for-profit conglomerates that make massive amounts of money despite contributing very little to this ecosystem; if anything, they inhibit our research, rather than make it more possible. If you are an independent scholar or adjunct or at a smaller university, you or your library may not be able to afford multi-million-dollar subscriptions to journal databases, and you are thus shut out of doing crucial research. We need to put pressure on journals, academic societies, and publishers to embrace open access approaches, and to look to alternative, publicly accessible models instead of a garbage system that extracts profits from our unpaid labor.

All of that said, a tip for those who are working in the broken system but want to make sure that their articles can still be read: for the journal articles I’ve published thus far, I’ve asked the editors if they would request the publisher to make the article open access, at least for a limited amount of time. I’ve made this pitch by citing my number of twitter followers and public presence, and that it would be good publicity for the journal. Almost everyone has said yes, which is why you can read my MQ article. It obviously seems to work, as my new article is now MQ’s most popular read.

This isn’t a solution to the structural problem, but it at least can help make sure that your work gets read.

We started letting Georgia onto the couch, and she’s feeling pretty good about it.

creating experimental music

"music appreciation" edition

It’s been a minute! A few weeks, at least. The problem with doing a newsletter about your book is what to do with it when you’re not working on your book. There are a few small tasks in the works right now — mostly tracking down photo permissions — but while the manuscript is with reviewers, serious book work is on hiatus.

So instead I figured I’d talk about the other thing that’s occupying a lot of my brain space right now, which is redesigning one of the main courses I teach at Maryland: MUSC 130, aka “Survey of Music Literature.” That’s a fancy name for what is essentially an entry-level music appreciation course for non-majors (it’s also required for music minors). This coming spring will be my fifth time teaching the class, and I’m doing a much-belated full overhaul. In the past, I taught it as a chronological survey of Western classical music, using Mark Evan Bonds’s Listen to This textbook; this time around, I’m going sans textbook, and moving away from a survey focus into three big units on symphonies, operas, and experimental music. In a future newsletter I’ll talk a bit about why I am making some of these (again, long overdue) changes, what I’m hoping for with the new class, and the framework of “musical meaning” I’m attempting to develop as an overarching scaffold for the course. But for now I thought I’d talk a little bit about what I’ve just finished working on for the course, which is the big “capstone” project for the final, five-week unit on experimental music. Plus, it’s thematically relevant, at least, to the newsletter’s main focus.

I posed this question on Facebook recently, and got some helpful responses from various folks.

I’d already been thinking a lot about what an assignment like this would look like — getting students who are not music majors to create a piece of music (a text or graphic experimental score) that could be performed by their colleagues. One way to do it is to make it a relatively small assignment — provide very loose guidelines, see what they come up with, and then perform it in class. That would work well with a seminar-size class, I think, especially in a liberal arts environment. But MUSC 130 is a medium-size lecture course — 50–70 students, with Monday/Wednesday lectures and Friday discussion sections — and tends to draw a pretty disparate array of students, both STEM and humanities majors. I wanted to also make the assignment something bigger, that represented a culmination of what we had learned about experimental music over the preceding weeks, and didn’t just feel like something they could rush and/or not take seriously. Plus I wanted them to feel empowered to do something creative (“I get to be a composer and create a piece of music!”) while also workshopping it and feeling that it had a clear assignment structure (“I’m a bit intimidated by creating something from scratch but want to try it and get a good grade so would like some steps for what I need to do to succeed!”).

So here’s what I’ve come up with, so far — note that I haven’t proofread any of these documents yet!

Assignment description

Feedback form

Example scores


Let’s talk through those four components.

Leading up to the assignment, we’ll learn about composers like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and Wadada Leo Smith, and look at a lot of different experimental text and graphic scores. They’ll perform Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations, Wolff’s Stones, and similar scores in their discussion sections, and get some hands-on time with score collections like Women’s Work and An Anthology of Chance Operations.

Then for the assignment, over several weeks, they will: create a score; workshop that score in performance with fellow students (in discussion section) and with friends (at home); revise that score; and write an accompanying essay about it. For the university’s mandated final exam slot (we have to hold a “final exam” then), we’ll all get together and perform some of the finished scores.

Here are the instructions I’m giving them as far as creating their score goes — I haven’t yet decided if it’s too much info, but my hope is that if I give the students enough questions to launch their thinking processes, they won’t get too bogged down in the “How do I create brand new music from scratch?” quagmire:

Your score can take any form you wish: a set of written instructions; a hand- or computer-drawn illustration; some combination of the two; or something else!

Some tips for brainstorming what your score––and the resulting sounds it can generate in performance––might be:

  • Start by thinking about what you like about the experimental scores we’ve looked at in class. If you want more examples of experimental scores, consult Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations and An Anthology of Chance Operations.

  • What sounds do you want your performers to make?

    • Consider what melodies, rhythms, etc. might be involved in your piece.

    • Consider instrumentation: what are the “instruments” you want to use? Can your score be executed with what we typically have on us (our voices, our hands, our clothing?), or does it require extra instruments (like rocks)?

  • Is there an overarching theme behind your piece?

    • Do you want the sounds to be entirely “abstract,” or do you want there to be some “extra-musical” meaning that could be personal, political, historical, etc?

  • How will you convey to the performers what they should do?

    • Will the musical idea you want to convey work best via a simple set of text instructions? Or do you need additional information conveyed by an illustration of some kind?

  • How much creative freedom do you want to give the performers?

    • There are a lot of ways to approach this: you can give poetic instructions of varying degrees of vagueness (from “Make sounds” to “Make sounds with stones” to “Make soft melodies, in unison rhythm, with stones”)

    • Your score could even consist entirely of an abstract illustration that the performers have to figure out how to interpret -- but it shouldn’t be so abstract that it’s a puzzle to figure out.

  • How long do you think your piece might last?

    • Your instructions should be able to facilitate a performance that lasts at least a couple minutes. 

    • Think about how flexible you want time to be: could your piece be performed over many hours, or only in a few minutes? 

    • How will you convey your idea of the piece’s length in your instructions, or will you not?

As you create your score, keep in mind:

  • You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Don’t go crazy trying to think of a musical idea that no one has ever thought of before, or reinvent music. Small creative ideas, and relatively narrow parameters, can open up a world of musical possibilities!

  • Don’t plagiarize from existing experimental scores! Prof Robin knows the repertoire pretty well; feel free to draw inspiration from experimental music, but don’t rip it off.

  • Think about how your score might fit into the tradition of experimental music.

  • Try to distill your score down to the essence of what you want: if you give your performers too many instructions, it can lead to confusion.

  • Make sure it’s self-explanatory: if someone 100 years from now were to perform it, would they be able to understand all of your instructions and create a performance within the rough parameters you want?

  • Remember the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid! Less complicated sets of instructions make it easier for performers to understand them, and can lead to more creative results.

I also wanted to make sure that they got to work through these scores in performance, and think really carefully about what a revision process would look like, based on how those performances went — how they could refine the instructions/language they used to convey to the performers what to do. Ideally, these scores would be “self-explanatory,” such that the composer did not need to be present for the performers to execute some version of their vision. We’ll see how that pans out. But I did create a feedback form so that they have written-down responses from performers to take into account — they will have to gather a group of friends to perform the piece at home and get feedback from them, which they will have to address. (The feedback form also serves to demonstrate to me that they did, in fact, perform the score outside of class.)

I also decided to create a couple example scores, which I annotated for the students (see the Google Doc), to point out various things they should be aware of as they work. I do think these would be fun to perform, so may try one out in class:

Here are two examples of experimental scores that Prof Robin quickly thought of:

Sock Music

Look at the socks of the person seated next to you.

Imagine what sound their socks might make.

Make that sound using your mouth or your hands.

Your sound can last for a very long time, or a very short time.

Listen to another sock sound.

Look to the socks of another person in the room, and repeat.

Continue until it feels like all of the socks have been sounded.

Squiggle sounds

Look at these squiggles.

Take a new piece of paper, and draw your own squiggle; it should not be the same as these squiggles, but it should not be too different, either.

Sing the sound of your squiggle.

Carefully rip the piece of paper apart, while thinking about the shape of your new squiggle, and listening to the sound it makes.

You now have two pieces of paper––one with your squiggle and one that is blank. 

Repeat from the beginning, but with your squiggle as the old squiggle, and your blank paper as the new paper.

Stop when the pieces of paper are quite small.

Finally, I’ve gone rubric-crazy for the first time ever this semester, after realizing it makes sense for a class like this. It’s again, for this assignment in particular, a way of balancing creativity and structure, and will also hopefully help create consistency in grading among my (awesome) graduate student teaching assistants.

Anyway, that’s it for now! If you have any thoughts at all on this assignment, have done anything like it in the past and have suggestions, or think it’s stupid, please let me know! I really have no idea how it will go, having done nothing quite like it before, and not yet knowing what this crop of students will be like.

More on other MUSC 130 redesign stuff soon!

Georgia had a great Thanksgiving with her auntie Bonnie.

But it was also exhausting.

archival riches

OK, it’s time to tell you about something that I still can’t believe exists, and which I want to share with you. And which you should share with anyone you know who might be interested.

Three years ago, I started putting together a giant list of potential archives I thought I needed to visit for researching my book. I was applying to a grant from Maryland — one that I very gratefully received! — for summer 2017 research funding, and was trying to figure out where I needed to go. The New York Public Library was definitely on the list, for its significant and relevant collections including Jacob Druckman’s papers, the archives of EAR Magazine, Pauline Oliveros’s materials, and a lot more (all of which turned out to be very useful for my book). Another was the NY Phil’s archives — again, great, and again, extraordinarily helpful for my book and my forthcoming Musical Quarterly article. There were materials at NYU’s Downtown Collection that I visited, materials at BAM’s archives that I did not. There were various private collections that I wanted to check out, some of which I did — Petr Kotik generously let me poke around the S.E.M. Material’s old binders. Then there were a bunch of places where I wasn’t sure what the archive entailed, whether it was publicly accessible, or whether it would be worth visiting. I probably still should go check out the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust materials in Rochester, as they were an enormously important granting organization for new music.

One of those question-mark-archives was that of the New York State Council on the Arts. NYSCA is the state version of the NEA — it actually preceded the NEA, and served as a kind of model for public arts granting — and it funded a lot of new music, from the New Music, New York festival to Composer in Performance, the precursor to Meet the Composer. I had also read Charles Wuorinen’s complaints about how, in the late ‘80s, NYSCA had cut funding to the Group for Contemporary Music and other ensembles because they failed to program music by black and women composers. And what do you know? In Albany, apparently, the New York State Archives had a collection, comprising 1,853 feet, titled “New York State Council on the Arts Grant Application Files.” It listed files for the Group for Contemporary Music, for Meet the Composer, for Speculum Musicae, and, yes, for Bang on a Can. A trip was in order.

And then, for a variety of reasons, a trip didn’t happen. Fortunately, as it turned out, the New York State Archives will, for a fee, scan this material and make it available to scholars on request. I started to place some pretty hefty orders — all material that they had on file, from around 1980 or so to 2000, for about a dozen different organizations related to music. Over subsequent months, the digitizations began to trickle in, and I refined my orders a bit, requesting more specific years and a smaller list of organizations. They charge $.25 per page for scans, which sounds like a lot, but it also means that you can get 600 pages of scans for about $150. In theory, it’s a lot cheaper (and easier) than going to Albany, requesting the documents be pulled from offsite storage, and taking those photos yourself. Luckily, I was able to secure funding from UMD.

Over the last couple years, I have obtained about 6,000 pages of scanned grant materials related to New York State Council on the Arts funding from 1980 to 2000 for Bang on a Can, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Speculum Musicae, Experimental Intermedia, Group for Contemporary Music, and Meet the Composer. I cannot overestimate how significant these materials have been to my research, and potentially to anyone working on music in the late twentieth century U.S.

Each file that I have obtained has included the likes of:

  • Extremely detailed estimated and final budgets for each organization, as well as financial audits.

  • Bios, program descriptions, staff listings, and other basic organizational info.

  • Lists of all concerts programmed and audience numbers for attendance at those concerts. (!!!!!)

  • Descriptions of audit meetings held between state council officers and members of these organizations (e.x. what David Lang said to NYSCA about Bang on a Can in 1988).

  • Actual audits of concerts held by these organizations: essentially, longform detailed reviews written by freelancers hired by NYSCA — many that I’ve seen were written by Steven Swartz (including his audit of the very first Bang on a Can marathon).

  • Grant adjudication: comments by NYSCA staff as well as comments from anonymous peer panelists (including their infighting) about whether or not to award the funding. (!!!!!!!!)

  • All kinds of other supplemental information, correspondence, brochures, etc etc.

If NYSCA awarded a grant to a composers or institution you study, that means there’s likely a fat archival record for it, comprising anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred pages. Meredith Monk? Check. Steve Reich? Check. Check out their annual reports if you want to know.

I have had access to Bang on a Can’s internal archives for several years now, but the NYSCA materials have opened up a vast amount of information that I had not seen before — especially regarding Bang’s very early years — that have fundamentally reshaped aspects of my narrative about the organization.

Here are some things I’ve been able to figure out, for my book, because of this incredible source:

  • How many people attended new-music concerts in the ‘80s from various organizations, from Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia loft to Speculum Musicae’s uptown shows.

  • Detailed descriptions of what happened at these concerts, and who was there, from auditors. These are often much more precise than New York Times reviews (and often better written). E.x. Swartz on a 1986 concert at Intermedia: “About 15 listeners attended; about 1/3 were student age, the rest 30ish. It was an informally-dressed group, hirsuite and thoughtful.”

  • Complete descriptions of the annual incomes for a half-dozen organization I’m tracking in my funding chapter. I can see how public, individual, corporate, and foundation funding fluctuates in the two decades I’m study; most remarkably, I’ve traced Bang on a Can’s increasing budget through a period in which most of its peers were foundering. I can break down Bang on a Can’s annual income in terms of all of its revenue streams, and figure out what its greatest sources of new revenue were in a time during which public funding was being cut. If you were at AMS, you saw my big “Bang on a Can budget graph,” which is drawn from hours of synthesizing information from these NYSCA reports, and will be in my book.

  • I can get a sense for how the Culture Wars budget cuts of the ‘90s affected individual new-music institutions, and how they tried to justify resources for themselves in a period of arts austerity.

  • I have a rich insider picture of attempts to enact multicultural arts policy in the ‘80s and ‘90s — what Wuorinen was complaining about — and how the Group for Contemporary Music pushed back against NYSCA’s advocacy, and how other organizations grappled with it. This forms a large portion of my funding chapter, and is also the basis for this talk I’ll be giving at SAM and at Bowling Green in the spring:

    25–29 March. “Multiculturalism, Neoconservatism, and New Music’s Marketplace Turn amidst the Culture Wars.” Society for American Music national conference, Minneapolis.

    “Are you apprehensive about what the politics of ‘multiculturalism’ is going to mean to the future of our civilization?” asked a 1990 mailer for The New Criterion. The neoconservative journal was seeking out new subscribers amidst the Culture Wars, a referendum on the role of government funding of the arts. And though the focal point of right-wing ire was visual artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, the Culture Wars and conservative attacks on multiculturalism had significant consequences for American composition, which have not yet been scrutinized by scholars.

    This paper examines how the Culture Wars were refracted in new music, through an analysis of a major debate around the New York State Council for the Arts. In the early 1990s, the Council introduced program guidelines advocating for grantees to take a multicultural and audience-focused approach, which incited indignation among musicians such as the neoconservative composer Charles Wuorinen. Drawing on archival research, interviews, and reception, I trace how these changes in government funding shaped the differing fates of two new-music institutions: the decline of the Group for Contemporary music, a pioneering ensemble co-founded by Wuorinen that emerged during the ’60s wave of funding for academic new music; and the ascent of Bang on a Can, a market- and multicultural- friendly organization that expanded dramatically in the early ’90s. Examining the intertwined paths of these two institutions, I argue, reveals the decline of Cold War logics that shaped midcentury American modernism and the rise of a marketplace turn in American composition.

  • I have detailed descriptions of each of these organizations talking about their purpose, and what they do, and how that changes over time.

  • I have a sense for what NYSCA’s staff and panelists wanted to fund, what they fought about funding, and what they didn’t want to fund.

    And, honestly, that’s only scratching the surface of what’s there.

In theory, if one had a lot more time and research $$ available, one could pull materials for dozens of new-music organizations and construct a massive, empirical study of the economic history of new music in the late twentieth century U.S. I don’t know if I want to do that, but the information is all out there.

Plus: All of the material is publicly available, and no specific permissions are needed to quote from any of it, which is incredible.

I want to get the word out there about these archives, because they are a potential gold mine for researchers, and I had no idea they existed. I’m obviously not the first person to figure this out — it’s all hiding in plain sight — but as far as I can tell, they haven’t been used by other musicologists. (PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong!)

And though you do need to pay for the scans, they’re much less financially prohibitive than a lot of trips to archives, and require little work. Look at the finding aid to see what’s there (and consult annual reports to confirm what years might be relevant); email with a potential request; wait several weeks/months while they prepare the materials; and then pay for it, and download the PDFs. I am extraordinarily grateful to the staff at the archives for preparing these materials for me, to NYSCA’s Ronni Reich for pointing me in the right direction, and to UMD for supplying research funds to obtain it.

Baltimore folks: I’m giving a talk at Peabody next Tuesday — my spiel on Bang on a Can and the record industry in the 1990s

Georgia’s birthday was this week! We adopted a year ago on Monday, and they told us she was around 1, so we're calling it her second birthday. Here’s one of the best pics of her, and of anything, ever:

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And here’s her enjoying her birthday treat:

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post-conference vibes

So, first off, the big news: the book is in! I sent the full manuscript to my editor last Wednesday, the day before heading to Boston for the annual American Musicological Society (AMS) conference. It is now off my plate for some TBD amount of time, as it undergoes peer review. In the coming weeks, I’ll focus on some book-related matters like permissions, and other research projects, and teaching stuff. (I’m redesigning the music appreciation course I teach for next semester, so there’s a decent chance that I’ll be talking pedagogy in this newsletter soon enough, we shall see.)

In other news: the AMS meeting was really, really great.

80% of that can be accounted for, I think, in getting to see a lot of my friends whom I haven’t seen in a year (since I skipped the Society for American Music conference last spring). Seeing grad school and other friends is easily the best part of AMS, and I think it’s probably the main reason that most other folks want to attend.

5% of what made the Boston meeting great was that I thought my paper on Bang on a Can and the post-Górecki record industry in the ‘90s went well, and I got some good questions afterwards. It was part of an excellent panel with Andrea Moore and Marianna Ritchey, and the papers worked well together. The great Zoë Madonna livetweeted the whole thing:

The other 15% of what made AMS great was a bit more nebulous, and much more important than the other 85% of why I had a good weekend. A lot of people kept saying that it felt like a different AMS, in a good way, and I’d agree. As a scholar, I’m not one to lean into Zeitgeist-y forms of analysis — some people saying something felt unusual doesn’t always mean that it actually was unusual. (“This is a great time for new music!” is a statement that one can make in 2018, 2008, 1998, 1988, 1978, etc etc., but that doesn’t mean that one time is a greater time for new music than any other; you need more data points.) But there seemed to be a growing consensus that something was in the air. And a few things stood out to me:

1) Maybe the most interesting line-up of papers being presented since I’ve attended AMS. Look at the program; lots of cool stuff! Hardly any of it was directly related to my research, but so much looked, and was, really fascinating. Chalk it up to the great work of the program committee, and also to the fact that, two years ago, we thankfully switched to 20-minute papers. I didn’t see a lot of papers, but the ones I caught were really excellent: Dale Chapman on Warner, Nonesuch, and corporate financialization; Alexander Cowan on eugenics, Spotify, and; Victoria Aschheim on David Lang’s the public domain; Emily MacGregor on Kurt Weill and, well, trains; Braxton Shelley on gospel ontologies; Amy Coddington on gender and ‘90s rap on the radio. There was a lot of stuff I really wanted to see but couldn’t, most especially Tammy Kernodle’s keynote, which overlapped directly with my own panel. And then there was Marian Wilson Kimber’s amazing elocution recital, which I caught a bit of, though alas not the fan portion.

2) A different vibe. Can’t really articulate what this was about, but everyone seemed friendly, and everyone was talking about how it seemed like a friendlier AMS. A prominent scholar told me that he had brought a suit and tie, as he usually does, but decided not to wear it since things seemed more casual than previous years. There seemed to be more tweeting than ever. (I mostly wasn’t reading it; I’m steering mostly clear, still, these days.) I had a lot of really great conversations with grad students about their research. I heard a lot of generous but still inquisitive questions asked after papers. I also went trick-or-treating with my nephews on Thursday night, which honestly may have just given the weekend a bit more of a pleasant glow for me personally. Also, I got the most incredible, kind, amazing gift ever: a sampler made by Destinee Siebe, based on this Twitter thread. It will hang in my office forever.

3) A changing AMS. The business meeting that wraps everything up on Saturday night, which is always a little too long and also always a crucial part of the fabric of what we do, summed up a feeling of difference. Everyone knows that Suzanne Cusick is a force to be reckoned with as a scholar, and she’s the president now, and she’s doing serious work to make the society better. We had to grapple with a tremendous loss in recent months — the sudden death of Bob Judd, the benevolent force whose incredible work as the society’s executive director has touched just about every musicologist in the country. There were other losses, too, in the past year — the kindhearted Michael Pisani, the groundbreaking American music oral historian Vivan Perlis, and one of my predecessors at Maryland, the Renaissance scholar Richard Wexler. The gravity of the losses — and the enormous work that the organizers had to do in the wake of Bob’s passing — gave some sense of collective effort to the proceedings.

Maybe it was just me, but the prizes that were given seemed to gesture towards something changing, too: Daniel Callahan’s amazing Cage/Cunningham article won both the Philip Brett award and the Alfred Einstein award; Gabrielle Cornish (who just wrote a great Ustvolskaya article!) got an AMS 50 fellowship and won the student paper prize. And my advisor, Mark Katz, announced a bunch of changes for next year’s conference in Minneapolis that might seem inconsequential if you’re not a member of the AMS but radical if you are, including no more evening sessions (this is huge! now we can eat dinner!), and a new abstract review process that will hopefully make paper submissions more equitable.

I think I’m probably forgetting about 90% of what happened at AMS that was interesting, but I’m still operating on post-conference brain, so I’ll leave it there.

Georgia did miss me, and I missed her.

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