presentism

and hair, or the lack of it

So at one point, not all that long ago, Peter Gelb looked like this:

And now, as you probably know, Peter Gelb looks like this:

Image result for peter gelb

This is not a newsletter about male-patterned baldness. But it is a newsletter about a book that’s about the recent past, and Gelb’s hair is representative of something I think about a lot these days as I write Industry. On the one hand, 1995, when that Billboard article is from, isn’t that long ago; on the other hand, it is a really long time ago! 24 years is a long time; Peter Gelb’s hair indexes that, in one way.

One of the main issues when writing history, as pretty much anyone who writes history will tell you, is presentism: seeing the past exclusively through the lens of today, rather than trying to see it as those who were living through it did. It’s a basic issue that pretty much all musicologists think about, whether they’re writing about Beethoven in 1790s Vienna or Duke Ellington in 1920s Harlem. But I’ve found that presentism sometimes isn’t taken as seriously when we talk about the recent past (and especially when we’re talking about non-popular music); it’s really easy to assume that the distance between 1985 and 1995 and 2005 and 2019 isn’t that vast, because it seems relatively recent, and thus we can look at 1995 through a 2019 lens and not lose all that much. Scholars focused on contemporary music can sometimes collapse the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century into one single era, rather than many discrete ones. This is a mistake that’s easy to make, but it’s a mistake nonetheless. It can be partly rectified by a strong immersion in the documents in the recent past, whether Billboard or the New York Times. You’ll have to get more creative than that, though. Want to know what composers thought in the mid-80s? See if your library has old issues of EAR Magazine, or the American Composers Forum’s newsletter. That’s where you’ll get stuff like this:

(That’s from the March 1990 issue of EAR.)

A few more quick examples of what I’m talking about:

Anyway, if we want to understand 1995 in music, we have to see it through the eyes of people who knew then of Peter Gelb as a guy with curly hair and big glasses. Or Lang as long hair and no glasses. If we want to know about Glass in 1972, we have to think about what it meant that critics called him Phil.

And if we want to understand Bang on a Can in 1995, we have to see it through the lens of what Bang on a Can was doing, and saying, and sounding like, in 1995, not in 2019. And 1995 might be different from 1987! In fact, it is: in Chapter 5, about the All-Stars ensemble, I argue that Bang on a Can shifted its agenda in the mid-1990s from an initial focus on resolving the divide between uptown academics and downtown experimentalists, to instead bridging gaps between new classical music and other genres (especially rock). The phrase that embodied the early spirit of Bang on a Can was “eclectic supermix of composers and styles from the serial to the surreal” (a phrase dreamed up the organization’s first publicist, Lynn Garon); the phrase that embodied it a few years later, I think, is a pull quote from a 1995 K. Robert Schwarz review in which he described the All-Stars as “combining the power and punch of a rock band with the precision and clarity of a chamber ensemble.” That’s a pretty big narrative pivot, and one that requires a precise understanding of what Bang on a Can wanted to do at its first festival in 1987, and what it wanted to do when it launched its All-Stars in 1992 (while also considering what it wants to do with its miniature new-music empire in 2019).

Documents will only get you so far. Take this photo, for example, which accompanied an article I wrote for NewMusicBox about the New York Phil’s Horizons festivals:

Lang & Druckman

David Lang responded to that article with this tweet:

Now, I have other pictures of David Lang wearing a tie in the mid-80s, so I know that he’s exaggerating a bit. One way to look at that photo is to say that, before Bang on a Can, Lang seemed to be happily hanging out at Lincoln Center, as his teacher Jacob Druckman’s assistant. But in my conversations with Lang, he’s described how frustrating the experiences with the Philharmonic were, and how he grew jaded with the whole enterprise, which led partly to starting Bang on a Can.

Indeed, as I wrote in that NMB article:

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

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

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

On the other hand, I have a letter from 1986 in which Lang describes his work with the Phil as rewarding, and that he’s learning a lot while there. So how do we balance all of this? Can we square what Lang says in 2019 with what Lang said back in 1986 with that photo and with Bang on a Can’s origins? I’m still figuring it out, but every time I get a new piece of information — remember what I said last week? — the picture sharpens a bit.