the big argument

So what’s this book about, anyway? It’s about Bang on a Can, new music & institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, yadda yadda yadda, if you’ve been reading these newsletters you get the message. But what does it all mean? Well, now that I’ve written my book’s introduction, I might as well give you the full argument, as it splays out in the opening pages of the current draft.

Imagine, first, a couple *incredibly compelling, richly sketched* anecdotes, followed by, well, this:

[Anecdote 1 + Anecdote 2] point towards an emerging institutional consensus, amidst an era of broader historical transformation. The assumption had long been that contemporary music was box office poison: inaccessible, academic, full of alienating and atonal sounds. But beginning in the 1980s, in the wake of the popularity of new styles like minimalism and neo-Romanticism, institutions in the United States saw the prospect for contemporary music to freshly reengage with a large audience. Meet the Composer arose to facilitate contact between composers and the public; orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and presenters like Lincoln Center saw contemporary music as a means to attract new audiences; and the record industry looked to new music as an opportunity to amass profits. This book argues that, in the final two decades of the twentieth century, American new music turned towards the marketplace. Bang on a Can traipsed through all of these developments: its tremendous growth, from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, serves as the central example of my argument, as it participated enthusiastically in this marketplace turn. The organization’s impressive rise was a product not only of the individual ingenuity of its three founding composers, but also the result of structural shifts in the American musical landscape.

New music’s marketplace turn was an ideological project, driven by institutions and musicians who contended that in order for contemporary music to survive and flourish, it must reach a broad, non-specialist audience. This positioning upended the norms of a previous era. In the decades following the Second World War, there were two principal visions for avant-garde music in American society: it could serve as an analogue to scientific research, composed by academics for fellow specialists; or it could serve as an exploratory interrogation of conventions, created by experimentalists for likeminded listeners. Neither of these musical camps was overtly opposed to their work being presented to a wider public, but neither was explicitly concerned with building an audience for contemporary music. That began to change in the 1980s, as disciples of and dissenters from the so-called worlds of uptown and downtown re-envisioned the place of new music in American society.

Each chapter of this book examines the actions of musicians and administrators who advocated for the marketplace turn, and who commanded authority at powerful institutions, including Jacob Druckman, a composition professor at Yale; John Duffy, the president of Meet the Composer; Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe, the founders of Bang on a Can; James Jordan, the director of the New York State Council for the Arts’s music program; Jane Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center; and Robert Hurwitz, Tim Page, Martyn Harry, and Peter Gelb, producers and executives in the record industry. Looming in the background were Senator Jesse Helms, his fellow congressional Republicans, and the religious right, who had no interest in contemporary music but attempted to eliminate government support for the arts, asserting that American artists should embrace the free market. Though Bang on a Can is this book’s central protagonist, my argument relies on analyzing a large, interlocking institutional infrastructure that comprised composers and performers, orchestras and ensembles, public and private funders, presenters and record labels. Not all of them embraced new music’s marketplace turn, but all of them grappled with it.

So that’s it! That’s the book’s big argument. If you disagree, feel free to email me. If you agree but have questions, email me too! Ultimately, the case will be made in the chapters that follow—otherwise there’s no real point in having a book at all. This argument section is followed by the historical/lit review I discussed last week, and then some more discussion of individual chapters and some more specific themes related to my argument.

I’ll be refining that argument in the coming weeks/months, and already got some great feedback on it that I’ve incorporated into this version from friend Nick Tochka (read his awesome book!)


Now I’m in the midst of doing some surgical revisions on Chapter 7, on the record industry, and turned up some pretty great ‘90s ads including this one:

Maybe I’ll write about those revisions next week. Or something else! We’ll see. That’s all for now.


Georgia found her happy place on vacation last weekend.