So Industry (the newsletter, not the book) has 175 or so subscribers, which is pretty cool! One nice perk is that occasionally people respond to the newsletter, their responses are often very, very enlightening. One of my favorite things about this project is having a back-and-forth not only with fellow scholars, but also with the people who lived through the period I’m writing about as musicians, fans, administrators, etc.
After my last newsletter, for example, I heard from Steven Swartz. You know Steven Swartz, right? He runs dotdotdotmusic, the new-music publicity firm, and has been active in the New York new-music scene since the early ‘80s. I wrote about him in my dissertation, because he was a key player in the dissemination of the term “indie classical.”
Here’s what he had to say about my book’s big argument:
I wonder if saying that the turn toward the marketplace was an ideological project, full stop, isn't overstating the case a bit. Rather, I see a co-evolution.
Perhaps the greatest force driving this change involved the younger composers' early exposure to 1960s popular music, marked by an explosion of creativity rarely seen before or since in the charts. Not to mention that boomers' demographic clout insured a powerful presence for "underground" sounds in the marketplace. Music for teenagers had been growing in commercial importance since the mid-50s, of course, but the burst of artistic innovation that would later provide a viable connecting point to concert music had yet to arrive until The Beatles, Hendrix, Mothers of Invention (how many 50s pop stars would reference Varèse!), etc. The example of commercially viable experimentation that these artists modeled was certainly vital, but even more crucial was the fact that popular music of a boundary-pushing nature was in the BoaC generation's DNA, and flowed naturally into their compositions.
I've always felt that earlier attempts to integrate rock elements into concert music were embarrassing, like watching your uncle try to "get down" at your Bar Mitzvah. (Now, of course, I am that uncle.) The BoaC generation's attempts to engage with the marketplace would never have borne fruit if not for the energy (and sometimes the language) they un-selfconsciously distilled from 60s rock/pop/funk etc. You could even ask, which came first – the music or the ideology?
Anyway, perhaps you cover all of this, but I think it's important to mention.
Here’s what I wrote back:
Thanks so much for reading, and for engaging!!
I think your insights are of course totally spot-on, but are not quite germane to my book's argument -- you're talking primarily about musical style, where my book is attempting to tackle the question of the relationship between composers and a broader audience through institutions, with style as a secondary byproduct. So although BoaC is my main focus, I'm also talking about minimalism, Neo Romanticism, and even serialism as they intersected (or didn't) with a big audience. After all, holy minimalism is one of the big success stories of this period, and I don't think Górecki was a big Hendrix fan! The rock angle is an important part of this, but the institutional work of Meet the Composer, say, was not driven by attention to any one musical style. (And even Bang in many ways became more rock-oriented in the '90s, gradually abandoning the weight they placed on uptown/downtown as the point for synthesis -- which I'll trace in my book.)
Otherwise, I think you're totally right. Although what's become gradually clear to me is that there was a pretty interesting pre-Bang rock/new music vanguard, including Branca and Chatham (and even "Blue" Gene Tyranny and others) hanging around New Music America, which is often a bit overlooked in favor of Bang.
What Steven said was spot-on. His response points towards a useful thing that I’ve gradually learned, the more writing that I do: people may read your work and come to a slightly different conclusion than the one you intended. Often, that’s a good thing, as it provokes new insights for them and for you! Occasionally, though, it means that your writing needs more context to make itself emphatically clear to the reader, which is something I’ll think about when I revise my intro.
Anyway, Steven wrote back more:
Ah, that makes sense, and now I understand better about the institutional angle of your book. Good points about New Music America vanguard – which is starting to be reappraised, since Branca passed, and holy minimalism.
My first real job in New York was in WNYC's music library, in 1986. One of my duties was to field listener calls about music on the air. I also served as an assistant to Tim Page, who was probably the first broadcaster to play the Górecki 3rd in the US (it was this recording, though on vinyl, not cassette). The switchboard always lit up when he played it! It was a few years later that the Upshaw/Baltimore/Zinman recording came out, at which time I was working for Gorecki's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. Heady times, with that recording hitting the pop charts in the UK
I'll never forget when Glenn Branca showed up at my next place of work, the New Music Distribution Service, to try to collect for his label, Neutral Records…. Another label NMDS carried was Lovely Music. A very important operation, headed by Mimi Johnson, Bob Ashley's wife. She and her Performing Artservices agency were absolutely crucial to the careers of Ashley, Tyranny, and many others.
I could reminisce all day, but mostly I just feel grateful that you're telling the story of the rise of this ecosystem, which was so vital to everything that's happened since in the field.
After reading a fascinating email like that, I realized I had to interview him. So we spoke yesterday afternoon, and it was a great conversation, filling in some fascinating gaps for me about the New Music Distribution Service (which I’m writing about), Boosey (which I’m not), and New Music America (which I am). I also got his permission to quote from these emails.
As an academic, it’s very tempting to develop your work in private, among fellow scholars, to refine and refine and refine it until you are wholly confident with your vision, and then unleash it as a peer-reviewed manuscript to the world. I don’t really want to do this with this project; in fact, I don’t think I can do it with this project, because if I did, I would risk drawing incorrect conclusions, misinterpreting the period I’m writing about, missing out on a lot of rich detail that can only be learned from the people I’m writing about. Every time I talk to a new person, I learn new details that support, refute, or complicate arguments that I want to make. In the late phases of writing the manuscript, that can make things tricky — especially if I learn things that contradict a hunch I had — but if you want to get it right, you have to be prepared to jettison the points you want to make when they don’t line up with what you learn.
Isn’t he just quoting from these long emails to avoid writing a full newsletter? you ask. Caught me. After doing some intense revising of Chapter 7 (record industry), I’m doing so to Chapter 1 (academy/Yale), and haven’t yet generated the brainpower for a fully new newsletter. Steven’s insights are richer than mine, anyway! I do have some thoughts brewing about presentism, though, so check back next week and perhaps you’ll find out something about that.
Also check out this awesome new album, by Eighth Blackbird, Will Oldham, and Bryce Dessner, that I wrote liner notes for. It’s got music by Dessner, Oldham, and Julius Eastman, and it’s really great, especially this new arrangement of “New Partner”: