saying things without Saying Things

Somewhat unexpectedly, I have found myself with a solid draft of an introductory chapter. Unexpected because, a week ago, no such introduction existed. And now it does! It was a productive week, and thus why you did not see a new issue of Industry in your inboxes.

There are a lot of things you can do in the introduction to an academic monograph. You can lay out your Big Argument, your methodology, the literature you’ve read (some of which you agree with, some of which you don’t), the outline of your book, the development of your research, how you got interested in the topic, and a lot more. You can go very narrow, or go very wide. You don’t have to do all of these things; you can sometimes get away with doing none of them. I know because I’ve been checking out a lot of intros to various recent musicology monographs, to figure out what scholars do and don’t do, what others have gotten away with so I could figure out what I wanted to get away with.

There are a couple things I needed to do with my introductory chapter that were necessary for this project. I definitely needed an opening anecdote (I have two!), and a clear articulation of my book’s main argument, and a brisk rundown of the chapters. Less necessary, but important, were a little section of the various kinds of narratives that have accrued around Bang on a Can, and a section exploring my own development of this project.

I also needed some kind of pre-history section: my book’s main narrative (Chapter 1) begins at Yale in the early/mid-1980s, with Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe entering the master’s program there, and goes backwards briefly to trace their pre-grad-school bios. But my book is about a bigger story of institutions and the avant-garde in the ‘80s, and so there has to be some kind of precursory context set up. Each of my main chapters does loop back a bit historically, depending on the context—I go back to 1979 to talk about New Music, New York in Chapter 3, for example, and go back to the mid-’60s to talk about the founding of the NEA in Chapter 4—but I needed a long section, before Chapter 1 begins, that lays out what was going on generally in new music before 1981 or so. The book is firmly U.S. based, but I wasn’t sure how far to go back — the ‘60s? the ‘40s? the 1890s? I eventually settled on setting out the post-WWII history of new music in the U.S., through a kind of Cold War institutional lens, tracing the development of the academic/uptown and downtown/experimental scenes, and their attendant ideologies. I dug up an old Copland speech as a framing device. Here’s an example paragraph of what I’m trying to do in that section:

Post-Cage graphic scores and improvisational practices provided not only new musical languages but also the dissolution of traditional hierarchies. In San Diego, Pauline Oliveros worked with an all-women ensemble on therapeutic body practices and contemplative text scores, which would develop into her series of Sonic Meditations; in New York, La Monte Young guided a small ensemble in evening-length buzzing drone improvisations; in San Francisco, composer Morton Subotnick helped create the Buchla box, a modular synthesizer whose lack of a conventional keyboard offered revolutionary musical potential; in Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective of black musicians whose radical compositions transcended genre boundaries, independent of the mostly-white Cagean avant-garde. These wide-ranging activities offered an implicit socio-political critique of the primacy of the musical score, eroding the modernist divisions between composer and performer that pervaded the academic scene.

This section, deliberately, is less about a survey of Important Musical Works than a survey of What People Were Doing, and what organizational forms they took (and what ideological underpinnings there might be to do them).

The itty-bitty “case studies” I give serve a secondary purpose, acting as a kind of review of recently scholarly literature. So that long sentence in the middle comes with this hefty footnote:

[2] For Oliveros, see Kerry O’Brien, “Experimentalisms of the Self: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), 1966– 1971” (PhD Diss., Indiana University, 2018) and O’Brien, “Listening as Activism: The “Sonic Meditations” of Pauline Oliveros,” New Yorker, 9 December 2016,; for Young, see Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) and Patrick Nickleson, The Names of Minimalism: Authorship and the Historiography of Dispute in New York Minimalism, 1960–1982” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2017), 80–138; for Subotnick, see David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) and Theodore Barker Gordon, “Bay Area Experimentalism: Music and Technology in the Long 1960s” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2018); for the AACM, see George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Generally, all academic work needs a literature review of some kind. When you’re in school, you do this to make clear to your advisor and readers that you know what’s been written on your topic, and you understand what new contribution you’re offering. When you’re done with school, you do this to demonstrate to peer reviewers that you’ve mastered the existing literature on the topic, and understand how your contribution adds to, complicates, or refutes it. In any situation, you’ve got to read all the stuff that’s out there in (and, ideally, beyond!) your subfield before you can really make a case for what you’re doing. That’s pretty fundamental to scholarship, I think.

What’s occasionally frustrating to me as a reader of published work (not dissertations or theses, where the goals and style are a bit different) is when you have to read a section that essentially just lists all of the relevant literature. The summaries often move so quickly that it seems the author has distilled so much that the scholarship they’re summarizing is no longer recognizable. It can feel like the author is insulating themselves from critique, using citations as a kind of protective shield. (The worst version of this is when the scholar sums up all the existing literature really quickly, only to then show how it’s all wrong, when what’s wrong about it is that they summarized it too hastily.) It’s also, quite frankly, often boring to read.

So as an alternative strategy, I’ve largely subsumed a kind of “lit review” within this prehistory section; the historical details I mention, like the Buchla Box or Sonic Meditations, are ways to gesture towards the fact that my understanding of the postwar avant-garde is grounded in the work of Kerry O’Brien and Patrick Nickleson and others. I could have written much of this section by just relying on my own memory and consulting, say, Taruskin’s Oxford History or Ross’s The Rest is Noise—and I did consult both, because they’re great!—but I also wanted to make clear that my thinking is indebted to a slew of recent articles, book chapters, dissertations, and monographs. This means that the main text is not cluttered with names of other scholars and books, and I’d like to think this makes the writing more accessible to a general reader; my hope is that these hefty footnotes will also make clear to musicological readers (and peer reviewers) that I’ve done my homework. (IIRC Tressie McMillan Cottom has a great line about this in Thick, but I can’t seem to locate it right now. Read Thick.)

Another thing about my intro, and book intros generally. One tends to write a proposal for a book—what you sent to the publisher explaining your book, along with sample chapters, to try to get a contract—before one writes a book. I think? Anyway, we academics write a lot of proposals: book proposals, dissertation proposals, grant proposals, abstracts aka conference paper proposals. A lot of proposals are 50% bullshit. Which is to say, you write them before you’ve written the actual thing you’re going to talk about—occasionally, before you’ve finished researching the thing you’re going to talk about. Occasionally before you’ve started researching that thing! This is a product of necessity. I do it, you do it, we all do it. (That said, we/I teach graduate students that, early in their studies, they shouldn’t submit abstracts to conferences without having written some early version of the paper they’re going to present, or at least really grasped the totality of the project they’re presenting on.) But even when you’ve totally mastered your material, a proposal still maybe includes 25% bullshit, stuff you’re hoping will be true but you won’t know for sure until the project is mostly done. At least that’s how my proposals work.

A lot of book introductions read very similarly to book proposals. This makes a lot of sense! Most of the material you have in a proposal can be copied, verbatim, into an introduction, and they accomplish very similar things in terms of elucidating a project, discussing the extant literature, providing an outline, etc. But there’s a risk, there, that a bit of the proposal bullshit might sneak into your book, which should, ideally, be bullshit-free. (It will not be.) I thought my book proposal was pretty strong, and largely the ideas expressed there have remained intact as I’ve written the book. (When I submitted my proposal, only about 30% of my book was written). But I decided to try to write my intro from scratch, to really let my main ideas about the project flow directly from how they stand in 2019 now that the big is almost fully drafted, rather than 2017 when I wrote the proposal and had only written 2 chapters. It led to a better introduction to the project as-is, I think. We’ll see.

The introduction went quickly because my ideas for it had been building up to a point where, if I didn’t start writing them immediately, my brain would start melting. I had a Scrivener folder where I had been amassing thoughts and musings for the introduction for months (years?), which helped form the kernel of what the Intro became. A lot of them were extremely didactic, rant-y observations about What The Book Should Do and What Other Scholars Do That I Refuse To Do! I will not be sharing those here. But when I was writing, I largely found myself excising those thoughts, or subsuming them into something that felt more narrative and less Manifesto-y. The very helpful reviews I got from my initial book materials suggested that I try to do less academic signposting (e.x. “This chapter ____ __ ___”) and I took that to heart: I’ve been trying to say things without Saying Things, if that makes sense. This loops back to the whole combining historical overview/lit review thing — I’m trying to make absolutely emphatic what my book’s main points are without having to say them over and over. I actually found myself, in this case, thinking a lot about my New York Times writing, where each 1,500-ish piece has some kind of central theme or even thesis, but which is rarely stated outright: instead, the reader will (ideally) come to understand it through the specific stories that are told and the specific components of them that are emphasized. Something like that is going on, hopefully, with my book. I’ll be curious to see, though, if people arrive at the conclusion I want them to arrive at!

Also, remember how I was at Bang on a Can? It was pretty great. Our four media fellows wrote a slew of excellent pieces — my favorites include Vanessa Ague’s piece on Eight Songs for a Mad King, Jeremy Reynolds’s story on backstage Dracula drama, Hannah Edgar and Elias Gross’s exploration of a didgeridoo controversy (which elicited a lot of interesting discussion online), and Edgar’s profile of one of Bang’s most interesting fans. I got to work with the amazing John Schaefer, saw some great concerts, went to James Turrell’s Into the Light four or five times, and got to hang with some excellent musicians.

And it was helpful, as you read already, to immerse myself in Bang-ness in the late stages of my book. (It probably contributed to my extremely productive writing week afterwards). I sat down with a few musicians I’ve been really keen to talk to but hadn’t gotten to yet. And I, thankfully, found two full hours to talk with David Lang. We had spoken at length in 2016 during my diss research, and at this point I think I’ve read every single thing he has said publicly, but I had a list of about 100 questions related to my book that I still hadn’t quite figured out the answer to. I talked with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe last summer, and cleared some of these questions up, but others still lingered. Some were small (Who wrote this 1992 grant application?) and some were…big (Is Bang on a Can capitalist?). It was, in all honesty, one of the best research experiences I’ve ever had, one that moved from a discussion of granular details of Lang’s studies to a grand exploration of the philosophy behind Bang on a Can, and ultimately to both of us grappling, in real time, with my book’s argument. It’s really hard to articulate why it felt so meaningful, but it’ll be in the book, so you’ll read about it then.

Here’s Georgia. See ya next week.

what happened?

Hi friends! It's time for another issue of Industry. This is coming at you from MASS MoCA, where I'm enjoying a beautiful week at Bang on a Can's summer festival. In the final stages of the book writing process, it's good to be surrounded by Bang on a Can its most concentrated (and present-day) form, a nice way to confirm hypotheses or complicate expectations. Read media fellows Hannah Edgar and Elias Gross’s stellar first round of dispatches over at New Sounds here; more will be online from our other two fellows, Jeremy Reynolds and Vanessa Ague, today.

You all should check out musicologist Michael Palmese's new article in American Music on John Adams's early work, pre-China/Phyrgian Gates, which the composer has mostly disavowed and the world has largely forgotten. (It's paywalled; if you respond to this newsletter, I'll send you a PDF!) I've seen Michael present this paper a couple times and it was always super exciting to me to hear about the weird and wacky stuff that Adams was up to in the early/mid-'70s, prior to his neo-Romantic/postminimalist phase, when he was in a more overtly experimental phase. There's the Burroughs- and Stockhausen-inspired Heavy Metal, a 40-minute dance piece called Hockey Seen, and the Cagean indeterminate choral work Ktaadn -- Michael's got all the deets, and he’s tracked down scores and recordings that Adams thought didn’t exist.

There's a crop of researchers doing fascinating new work on Adams—Palmese as well as Ryan Ebright, Alice Miller Cotter, John Kapusta, and probably others I’m forgetting. They’re digging into the archives and providing new perspectives on our now-mythologized America's Great Composer. The question these scholars raise are fundamental one for interrogating the long careers and Public Greatness of not just Adams, but also other big names like Reich and Glass: how ostensibly radical and experimental figures in fringe scenes in the '60s and '70s self-consciously willed themselves into a classical music mainstream. See, for example, what Palmese is talking about here:

Adams might have preferred to forget Hockey Seen, but we shouldn’t.

I'm about halfway through reading Rethinking Reich, an essential new volume of scholarly essays that deals with similar issues. A big question hovering over the volume, as Robert Fink summarizes in his book chapter, is "What happened to Steve Reich?” (That question was raised at the 2013 Society for Minimalist Music conference, during a panel that I was at; I'm not 100% sure about this, but I vaguely remember being the one who asked it?) Here’s Fink:

These are huge issues, ones that the volume as a whole tackles in a few fascinating ways. Reich’s career asks a different set of political questions than that of Adams, but both scrubbed early misfit work from their catalogue: they are careful curators of their legacies and narratives. Perhaps a drone-y synth experiment about hockey doesn't fit in easily with the composer of Harmonielehre. We could chalk this up to Radicals Selling Out To The Establishment, or The Co-Opting Of the '60, or maybe just Composers Being Composers. (They aren't the first to disavow early music they didn't like! Juvenilia is called juvenilia for a reason.) It's probably all of the above; it's our job as musicologists to pursue the stuff that Famous Composers don't want to talk about anymore, because someone should talk about it. Memoirs (Adams and Glass both have them) are fun reads but also myth-making enterprises; we need to dig deeper to find out what really happened.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to Palmese's article was to read more about Ktaadn (1972–74), a piece you probably haven't heard of, but which—and here's a Big Scoop From My Book!—has an ancillary significance for Bang on a Can. It’s an indeterminate choral work, heavily influenced by Cage and Thoreau. As it turns out, Bang was hoping to perform Ktaadn at its very first marathon in 1987 at the downtown gallery Exit Art. NYU's Downtown Collection houses the Exit Art archives, which includes a trove of Bang materials that I've spent some time with. They include Bang on a Can's initial proposal to Exit Art pitching the festival—a document that, as far as I know, hasn’t been examined by any other scholar, and which the organization’s founders likely hadn’t seen in decades until I showed it to them last summer. The proposal includes a draft program, a list of all the pieces they wanted to perform. Most of them, like Louis Andriessen’s De Staat and Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer and Steve Reich’s Four Organs, ended up on the schedule; some, like Terry Riley’s In C, cropped up on subsequent Bang events. But a couple, including a potential work by Ellen Fullman (!!!), never manifested. And the list, oddly enough, includes Adams’s Ktaadn—a piece that hardly anyone would have known about in 1987, much less want to program. (Remember, 1987 is the year that Nixon in China premiered; Adams was far, far away from his Cagean phase.) Anyway, I asked David Lang about Ktaadn last summer and he said that he actually sang in the premiere when he was at Stanford, and it was a transformative experience. Interesting stuff. Wanting to play Ktaadn—which they never have been able to—does fit neatly into Bang on a Can’s originary agenda of programming radical pieces by no-longer-radical composers. But you’ll have to read my book for more on that.

Another tangent. Only a few hours after arriving at Bang on a Can last Saturday, I started to think about Sheep's Clothing. Really, I've been thinking (and writing) about it for a couple years, but a moment at MASS MoCA got my brain whirring again. The Bang fellows (who are superb musicians!) spent a week working with Found Sound Nation, the organization’s educational outreach initiative, on collaboratively written, quasi-improvised pieces based on text scores, which were executed in an ambulatory concert on Saturday afternoon. (Read media fellow Elias Gross’s astute review for more details.) It was theatrical, emblematically experimental (there were balloons, and plainspoken monologues), sprinkled with references to the classical tradition, and reminded me of this:

That’s from the Yale Daily News, October 1982. The Sheep were a Yale collective of mostly undergrad musicians dedicated to collaboratively realized, experimental compositions—not unlike what the Bang fellows performed last weekend. They were first assembled in a seminar led by Martin Bresnick, but the effort spilled beyond the classroom into a student-run, cooperative organization that put on all-night dorm marathon concerts in which students could bring sleeping bags and hear the likes of In C and Les moutons de panurge. Sound familiar? The concept was the direct inspiration for Bang on a Can’s marathons. While a grad student at Yale, David Lang spent a year or so hanging out with the Sheep and writing music for kids’ rayguns and a vegetable orchestra. He participated in the concert described in that article above.

Gordon attended the Sheep performances, Wolfe heard about them (the collective petered out around 1983), and the idea grew on them. The immersive, informal experiences aimed towards a non-specialist audience, the eclectic programming, and extreme-length concerts all directly fueled Bang on a Can’s early agenda. But the Sheep were also very much infused with a post-Cagean engagement with indeterminacy, improvisation, and theater—text and graphic scores, weirdo concepts explored in live performances. That wasn’t quite the kind of music that Gordon, Lang, or Wolfe themselves wanted to create: the programming ethos of Bang on a Can flowed partly out of the fact that all three preferred to write fully notated music for classically-trained performers. They were capital-C composers, an ethos that not only stood out from Sheep’s Clothing, but also the broader downtown scene of composer-performers who hung out spaces like Roulette and Experimental Intermedia, and had their own attendant festival, New Music America. (Again, a lot more on this in my book.)

Why is my brain putting these various things together in one newsletter, besides that I’m in the midst of a pretty exhausting/enlivening week? What does Palmese’s revisionist look at Adams have to do with Sheep’s Clothing? Well, there’s this (Palmese, again):

Proposal, debate, and vote! Before reading this, I hadn’t known that the young Adams was inspired by Cornelius Cardew’s socialist politics. From my conversations with former Sheep Evan Ziporyn and Dan Plonsey, it’s clear to me that the Sheep were, too, Cardew and Scratch Orchestra acolytes, readers of Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. The Sheep students collectively and democratically governed their ensemble, creating music with and for each other that did not require classical training or a traditional music education, with the idea that subverting hierarchies between composer, performer, and listener could undermine the bourgeois conventions of the traditional concert experience. Heck, it might even help overthrow capitalism! Such are the dreams of twenty-year-olds in New Haven dorms in the late ‘70s.

That wasn’t really a lesson that Bang on a Can took from the Sheep, from what I can tell. It’s a knotty issue, but one I think I’ve mostly figured out in my book manuscript, and requires many more words than I can spill here.

But I’ll leave you with this. Should new-music institutions be collectively governed? Is Bang on a Can a democracy? If so, how? And if not, does it matter?

another chapter done!

The Lincoln Center chapter has been laid to rest!

Last dispatch, I outlined my writing process step-by-step — in the time since then, I completed steps 5 and 6, printed a full draft, and did a careful read-through. I’m done with this chapter, for now; it will require a lot more editing down the road, but it’s in the same solid shape as most of the other body chapters. Time to move on to writing my intro and conclusion.

In the final writing steps, the central thrust of the Lincoln Center clicked into place. Each of my chapters has been structured to have a "this chapter reveals" sentence, all of which fit into the larger book argument about new music's marketplace turn. Some academic books will have a specific and different “I argue” in every chapter; what I decided for this project is I’ll have One Big Book Argument, and each chapter adds something or “reveals something” a little bit different in it. Lincoln Center is the second-to-last body chapter of the book, so I'm thinking very carefully about how each chapter intro (and contents) adds some new layer or wrinkle or historical development to the One Big Argument. As of right now, I'm happy with how that worked out in this chapter — here’s an excerpt from the intro:

And this was not a one-off: for the second half of the 1990s, Bang on a Can held many of its New York concerts at Lincoln Center, as part of the center’s embrace of contemporary music under the direction of administrator Jane Moss. The partnership emblematized a new development in new music’s marketplace turn: in the 1990s, some of classical music’s most mainstream organizations turned to contemporary work in the hopes of reaching new audiences. Whereas the Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals of a decade earlier had been prompted by the outside organization Meet the Composer, Lincoln Center’s embrace of the new was entirely of its own volition, after the center had witnessed the appeal of grassroots organizations like Bang on a Can as well the enormous success of a more established rival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. New music’s marketplace stance had been a rhetorical position promoted by advocacy organizations like Meet the Composer, a goal of upstart organizations like Bang on a Can, an ideology held by composition professors at Yale, and a necessity of the diminished landscape for public arts funding. Now, it would be held by administrative leaders at one of classical music’s most powerful institutions.

That’s still rough-ish writing — I use the word “organizations” too many times. But it does what I want it to. The penultimate sentence essentially telegraphs each previous chapter as a signpost (wow, that is a horrible mixed metaphor) towards the big picture —"a rhetorical position promoted by advocacy organizations like Meet the Composer," is Chapter 2, "a goal of upstart organizations like Bang on a Can," is Chapters 3 and 5, "an ideology held by composition professors at Yale" is Chapter 1, "a necessity of the diminished landscape for public arts funding" is Chapter 4.

The actual writing of each chapter has given me a slightly different take on my One Big Argument, which is why I've saved the intro & conclusion for last. It's pretty normal in the academy to write the intro first, which is often based on a book proposal, dissertation proposal, etc—but I've found that I really need to fully understand the bulk of the thing itself before fully grappling with the implications of the argument. Otherwise, it's all too easy to let your argument guide your evidence, rather than your evidence guide your argument. I think of all my theses/arguments as placeholders—useful for thinking, useful for proposals, useful for applying to conferences, useful for shaping what I'm researching—until most of the thing is written. Fortunately, the general gist of my book's argument has basically remained the same since I first came up with it in 2017 or so, but it's incalculably nuanced and sharpened in the two years of writing since then, and components of it have fallen away as I've realized that they weren't actually supported by my findings. 

I've got a few tasks ahead of me, and the big one next will be writing the introduction chapter. For now, though, I'm leafing through existing chapters to compile a list of questions for various “exit interviews” of sorts: returning to people I’ve already talked to, or some new interviewees, to get clarity on areas where I still don’t quite feel like I have the whole story. On Saturday, I’m heading up to MASS MoCA for Bang on a Can’s second-ever media workshop, where I’m co-faculty with the great John Schaefer; it’ll be a weeklong immersion in Bang on a Can’s ongoing summer festival with four awesome writer fellows, who will be writing pieces for WNYC’s website daily about what they see and hear. John and I will be coaching and seminar-ing with them. It was a lot of fun last year — links to all of the writing from those students here! — and I’m pretty stoked. It’ll also be an opportunity for me to conduct some of those aforementioned interviews.

This year, the summer festival culminates in a new endeavor, the LOUD Weekend, a three-day Big Ears-style festival with a stellar line-up. This will have to make it into my book conclusion (which briefly traces Bang on a Can/U.S. new music from 2000 to the present), because it seems to have replaced not only the annual summer marathon that typically takes place at Mass MoCA, but also the New York marathon too — there was no New York marathon this year, which is a rarity in Bang history. (There have been a few years that skipped the marathon in the past.) TBD if this indicates a broader shift away from the marathon format for Bang! (I don’t have any insider knowledge on that front.)

I’ll hopefully send a dispatch from the media workshop next week, perhaps about what’s going on there. John and I assigned a bit of homework to the four writers in advance — they all needed to write a concert review, and read some recent-ish criticism we recommended. Since I’ve just been reading it too, and thinking about why I think it’s good writing, here are a few thoughts on that.

Ann Powers on Joni Mitchell in 2018
This is just such a good piece of criticism: it has a central theme that comes back, again and again, without seeming overbearing and instead continually shedding new light on the artist. It feels like an example of total critical mastery: when you attend a concert already knowing more about the artist than anyone else in the room, and your reflection exudes that body of knowledge (without seeming pedantic!!). A single concert becomes a data point in an all-encompassing biography. (Powers is currently writing a Mitchell book.) My favorite criticism is, in essence, educational: it gives the reader something new to listen for in music they’ve never heard, or music they know well. It’s both a tribute to Mitchell and a reflection on the concept of a tribute, and it becomes about everything, too (“Have you held your grandmother's hand as she gamely goes for a step?”).

Tim Page on Bang on a Can in 1987
As far as I can tell, there were only two reviews of the first Bang festival — Page’s in Newsday, and Bernard Holland’s in the Times. Both are super fascinating for my research, and Page’s review is also a great piece of criticism unto itself. It’s an ideal mixture, providing a big picture overview of a marathon concert as well as very tight descriptions of individual pieces, giving a really strong sense of “being there” along with a broader reflection on “what it all means.” It also weaves in information that Page got from interviews, making it the kind of hybrid feature-review that is especially useful for a historian like me— it’s got some of the earliest quotes from the directors about Bang on a Can. (David Lang saying “We have global aspirations”!!!!). Music criticism is incredibly, incredibly important for historians, and this kind of writing is, I think, among the most useful kind.

Georgia, alas, is not coming to Mass MoCA :(


how i draft a chapter

From this article on BAM’s Next Wave.
(I feel like this could also be a Mr. Show sketch?)

BREAKING: A chapter is in the midst of being drafted. Progress has been made. This is, as a reminder and for those just tuning in, Chapter 6, the book’s penultimate chapter (not including my conclusion), which discusses Bang on a Can’s concerts at Lincoln Center between 1994 and 1998. It is also the final body chapter to write. Once this is done, I tackle the intro and conclusion chapters, and then do a lot of revising.

Let’s talk about process for a minute. I’ve drafted this chapter in the same way that I’ve drafted the last few , which has settled into a workable system for me. I don’t know if it will be a workable system for you—it probably won’t. Everyone needs to find their own method towards longform academic writing (or, really, any form of writing, or any form of anything), and I genuinely believe that all we can do is exchange strategies and tips and tricks and hope that one or two small ideas might help every writer in the world with their intense fear and dislike of writing.

(I should admit a secret up-front, though, which makes me weird: I actually like writing, and find the process mostly enjoyable. A couple components of my working process make this so, I think.)

So here’s what I did for this chapter, and for the last few as well.

Writing Step #0: Gather all the notes into one place.
I talked about this earlier, which is that, as I do my research/take notes, I dump all relevant material into a Scrivener folder devoted to each chapter, with text files devoted to different aspects of the chapter. That material is usually a combination of my reading/listening notes, quotes from interviews/newspapers/whatever, and other miscellaneous stuff. A lot of the material ends up duplicating itself, which is fine, because Scrivener feels capacious in a good way (unlike Word) and when things repeat, I can remember them better. When that’s totally complete—all the research is in one place—then I move onto what is the first step in the writing process.

Writing Step #1: Organize the notes into potential chapter sections.

So that things end up looking like this:

The top folder — LC notes examined — contained all my research notes. The bottom folder, “sectioned notes,” is me sorting all of the notes into the actual potential sections of the chapter. Scrivener’s split-screen function makes this super easy: I can have one file of my research notes in the top half of the screen, and constantly change the sectioned notes file in the bottom half as I copy and paste material into these sorted sections. Now I have some semblance of organization to my notes that is designed to build outwards into actual writing.

Writing Step #2: “Writing” in Scrivener.
The first part of my actual writing process, as well as the second, third, and fourth parts, looks extremely bad on the page. Again, it’s a split-screen process. An example:

Lots of horrible typos (not sure what i meant by “repent” there), lots of “___” when I can’t think of the word or phrase or am missing information. The writing isn’t even really correct, I’m just spitballing before I have all the information I need. I’ll show you a better version of that paragraph later.

I have the “writing” open on the top and the sectioned notes/quotes open on the bottom. The idea, basically, is to turn the sectioned notes into sectioned writing, by any means possible. Take a quotation I want to use and surround it with prose. Make a hasty note into a sentence. Sometimes I’m just copying things over from the bottom to the top to work on refining later, sometimes I’m realizing that the note isn’t relevant anymore and so not moving it into the writing. But the goal is to get most of everything that’s in “note” form into “writing” form, while paying the least possible attention to the quality of the prose. This is phase 1 of the two or three phases I call “word vomit.” (I highly doubt I coined this idea, but I’m not sure where I got it from.) At some point in this process I’ll usually get tired and just start copying/pasting notes, rather than turning them into prose, to deal with in the next step.

Writing Step #3: Move it to Word
I strongly prefer to do actual writing in Word, as that’s what I’m used to. Scrivener is by far a superior platform, but I like being able to see the format that I’ve been writing with for a long time. (I’ve only been using Scrivener since 2017.) So once every potential-section-of-a-chapter is transformed from note form to “writing,” I compile them all into one big file and export it into word. This is an incredibly messy, massive, embarrassing document (usually 40–60 pages single-spaced), but what it has going for it is that most if it is in “writing,” it is theoretically organized into sections, and it’s all in one place. I can now tell my friends, theoretically, that I have a “draft of my new chapter,” even though I generally don’t like to call it a draft until Step #4, so I really just tell that to Georgia.

Writing Step #4: Bad draft in Word.
I now go through the document slowly and try to add in all of the missing information, reorganize material as I realize how it works/doesn’t work on the page, and actually imagine what a chapter should look like. I often condense and re-organize entire sections. This is where most of the real heavy-lifting as far as content writing goes, and also much of my analytical thinking: making ideas, and drawing conclusions, from my notes. Most of my footnotes are there, but they’re unformatted. (FYI, I don’t use citation software even though I know I absolutely should.) The writing is still lousy.

Writing Step #5: Better draft in Word.
This is the stage I’m at now, and it’s about 3/4ths done, so coming along quite well! I’m now trying to turn all of the bad prose into good-ish prose, adding in any still-missing information, fixing up my footnotes so they’re tidy, and feeling good about myself because, well, remember how rough this chapter was a week ago?

That paragraph about Lincoln Center that had sketchy information and poor sentences? Now it’s this, and I like it a lot more! (I don’t love it yet.)

The system I’ve set up for myself—which, again, might only work for me—allows for me to feel like things are constantly improving, so even if a chapter has a long way to go, I’m generally enjoying it by this point. And I am! This is also where placeholder theses and conclusions become real ones — in this case, I know what my Lincoln Center chapter is about, but I’m not 100% sure what the central claim is. Once I’ve finished cleaning up the body sections, I’m going to tackle the chapter’s intro and conclusion and figure out what it is (I have a hunch). Sometimes theses need to be reverse-engineered.

Writing Step #6,7,8,9,10,11, etc: Revising and editing.
Once Step #5 is done, I will do my big reveal: making the single-spaced document double-spaced. Now I’m thinking about it as a complete-ish chapter, and also starting to think more specifically about length, as I start to revise and edit. (Each of my chapters thus far tend to be 40–50 pages, double-spaced.)

In a way, steps #3–5 are editing too, which is why I like the word vomit approach: you’re in a constant state of making your writing better, rather than trying to make magic happen on a blank page. I always tell students to never start with a blank page: it’s a research paper, not creative writing, so you might as well move some notes into your Word processor and start moving them around. Take a quote and surround it with prose, take a note and make it into a sentence. After that, it’s all editing, which I tend to enjoy, too. Everything becomes a process of refining and tweaking and improving rather than desperately trying to write a good sentence. All sentences are bad until they’re good, and sometimes that's more about moving words around than having a writing epiphany. (I usually have those epiphanies away from my computer, anyway, which is why I use Voice Memos a lot.)

No process is fully replicable, and this one likely won’t work for you. My process works because of who I am, but also because my writing in this project tends to be more narrative than analytical: I don’t think this would work if my book were, for example, concerned with analyzing 6 major musical works over six chapters, or if I were doing an empirical study revolving around a set of data.

I don’t have any good archival finds for you this week, but I did stumble across this massive New York Magazine feature on BAM’s Next Wave from 1987 , with lots of fascinating stuff. (Sasha Metcalf has you covered on BAM history, FYI.) Like this:

Three of my favorite musicologists are organizing an awesome conference on music festivals at MIT. I’m definitely submitting an abstract, and you should too. The conference is mid-March, and CFP deadline is October 15:

Also, read my buddy Ryan Ebright on The Black Clown in the Times!

That’s it, folks! If you find aspects of this newsletter baffling, please let me know. Or if you like it, let me know too. Or if you think my writing process is totally BS and I would save a lot of time by doing XYZ let me know too. (Yes, I should probably start using Zotero. OK, I downloaded it.)

listening to k. robert schwarz

In the past week-and-a-half, I have listened to about sixteen hours of interviews conducted by critic/writer/musicologist K. Robert Schwarz, over the phone and in-person, with composers in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Honestly, I’m pretty much addicted. It’s like someone made a podcast specifically for me, to listen to while working on my book project — *finally, people are talking into my headphones about the exact thing I’m deeply invested in right now!* That means Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen talking about how the media distorts the meaning of “serialism,” David Lang and Julia Wolfe talking about moving Bang on a Can to Lincoln Center, Jacob Druckman talking about the Met cancelling his opera commission.

There’s something peculiarly intimate about listening to someone else’s interviews. I get used to the rhythm of Schwarz’s inquiries, what tends to happen when people want to go off-the-record, hearing his cat meow or his telephone ring in the background. I have already read the published, end-result of the interviews, and so have a sense of why he’s asking the questions he’s asking, what the “big idea” he’s trying to get the interviewee to circle around to is.

The listening is laced with melancholy. Schwarz died in 1999, at the age of 41, from AIDS. When I posted about visiting the Schwarz papers on Twitter, a couple of his friends responded:

And I’ve heard warm recollections from others. But prior to a week ago, I knew Schwarz only from a distance, from reading his polished, long-form New York Times features. I will never have the privilege of knowing him personally. These interviews, though, are a window into…something.

It's hard to listen to hours of conversations led by someone you didn’t know, whom you know others loved, and whom you imagine you would have seen as a role model if he had lived longer. I probably would have written to him in college, and asked him to check out my blog, and sent him my Times articles, and tried to meet up with him at AMS, and convinced him to follow me on Twitter. Towards the end of an interview Schwarz conducted with Louis Andriessen in 1996, they get to talking about the fin-de-siècle, and the Dutch composer says that, by 2012, there would be a new kind of avant-garde, one that cannot yet be anticipated . Andriessen says that, by then, he will be dead, but the young critic won’t. It’s 2019, and Andriessen is still around; Schwarz passed less than three years after that conversation.

I’m glad, at least, to be able to hear his voice.

As to the book: these interviews are a fount of fascinating information, with many little tidbits that will weave their ways into the chapters I’ve already written, as well as what’s left to write. They’ve given me access to one of the things that I am always searching for in my research: composerly crosstalk. This has always been an integral part of my research, but often hard to obtain. I didn’t come up in composer circles, I don’t hang out with composers regularly, and so the information I do get tends to come from more formalized sources: archival materials, reviews, grant applications, oral histories, my own interviews. Schwarz’s interviews are filled with gossip-y moments where composers go off-the-record — sometimes these are recorded, and sometimes not — but even when they’re on-the-record, there are little asides, that don’t make it into Schwarz’s published writings, that help fill in crucial gaps.

An example, one that ended up being unexpectedly important: at the beginning of a long interview with Babbitt, the composer starts talking about how the critic Samuel Lipman, who wrote for Commentary and The New Criterion, incorrectly defined serialism in his writing. Babbitt makes clear in this moment that he was not only reading Lipman’s work, but friendly with him and on first-name terms. This is information I’ve not heard before. I’m writing about how Babbitt’s and Wuorinen’s writings in the mid-’90s clearly draw on and echo neocon rhetoric about multiculturalism espoused by Lipman: now I know there’s a direct link between them. A small connection is made.

It's also personally enlightening to see a bit of Schwarz’s working process — handwritten questions, typewritten questions, rough transcripts, handwritten and typewritten articles, even the edits sent back from the Times. To be honest, I'm not dwelling on that material much—if I were to write specifically about Schwarz in this project, I would, but I'm really using his materials as a source to gather information about the people he was talking to and writing about. Again, I do want someone to write about Schwarz — my book research has been a constant, internal wailing of "How has someone not yet written about this?! Can someone please write about this?!" (Followed by the occasional, "Okay, I will at least devote a page to this.") He will come up numerous times in the book, but he deserves his own spotlight too.

One more thing about Schwarz — and why he should get further attention. Along with being an incredibly prolific freelancer, he was also a public musicologist! He wrote an MA thesis on Steve Reich — the papers at Queens College probably have a lot of material that would be useful to Reich scholars — and was writing a PhD dissertation on Paul Bowles when he died. Schwarz worked at Brooklyn College’s legendary Institute for Studies in American Music, and also published a great book on minimalism. This is what Carol Oja wrote in 1999:

I don’t know much about Schwarz’s academic work, or whether he was a regular at conferences, but what I admire about his public writing is how it’s informed by musicological insights, translating them for a broader Times readership. He wrote frequently about gay composers, and documented how the AIDS crisis affected music. And he brought New Musicology’s discussions of music and sexuality into the public eye in this deep, still-revelatory dive:

FYI, this seems very undergrad-assign-able for explaining the direction of musicology in the ‘90s! (Don’t miss the irate response from Copland’s cousin.)

Schwarz strikes me as an interesting counterpart to the much more publicly musicological, and publicly combative, Richard Taruskin, who was writing in the Times in this same period. But Schwarz is much more the chronicler than the polemicist, and, to be honest, that’s also where my own preferences tend to fall when approaching public writing.

A few more of Schwarz’s Times articles that are great reads:

On black conductors

On music & politics

On Marin Alsop

On Aaron Jay Kernis, musical style, and how composers measure success (a great summary of ‘90s new music trends)

A response to Tony Tommasini’s review of an OUT Classics album (for which Schwarz wrote notes)

On composer residencies

On Jacob Druckman’s opera plight

On an unrelated note, my paper “Multiculturalism, Neoconservatism, and New Music’s Marketplace Turn amidst the Culture Wars” was accepted for the Society for American Music conference in Minneapolis next March! Yay!

Here’s the abstract:

"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’m really excited to start presenting this work in the coming academic year, which is based on Book Chapter 4, and deals with Bang on a Can and new music’s funding landscape of the ‘90s amidst the Culture Wars. The SAM paper is an extremely truncated version of the chapter, focusing specifically on the New York State Council for the Arts and issues around multiculturalism (this is where the Babbitt/Lipman stuff plays out). The longer chapter (and a longer talk) deals with the NEA, Mapplethorpe, Jesse Helms, and all that craziness. If you’re interested in hearing about that at your colloquium, please let me know!! I’m hoping to present it a bunch, and get feedback.

That’s it, friends — see you next week!

Georgia doesn’t take easily to toys, so sometimes you have to be creative.

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