what i know, and what i don't

or, perhaps, what we know, and what we don't

I wrote this newsletter on an evening Amtrak trip to New Brunswick for this conference tomorrow, and figured I might as well send it off to your inboxes now and see what happens. Happy weekend!

Some of you might share this particular kind of paranoia; I’m not sure. But I spent a lot of time in graduate school regularly Google and RILM and ProQuest–ing various names and terms surrounding my dissertation topic, under constant fear that there was something already out there I had missed, some intrepid musicologist who had already published on my topic, and here I was, foolishly researching a dissertation on “indie classical” that had already been written by someone else. Anyway, it turned out to be fine.

Related to that is another kind of fear, or paranoia, or something, which is that, towards the end of any project – a journal article, a book, etc –– I tend to start thinking “Well, how much of this is actually new or important, anyway? Doesn’t everyone already know this?” It’s partly because a slippage between “everyone” and “actually just me” starts to emerge; I start taking my own research as “standard wisdom” even though literally no one besides me, the readers of this newsletter (thank you, dear readers), and like seven other people knows this information yet, or at least knows it in the way that I’m conveying it in what I’m writing. As I internalize the “new narrative” that I’m hoping to argue for in A Piece of Scholarship, I end up forgetting that it’s significantly different from the “standard narrative” that other people do know.

Anyway, all of that is to say that I still don’t really understand New Music America, and I wish I did, and I hope someone else does. New Music America isn’t the topic of my book – hopefully you know that by now! – but it does get a solid eleven pages devoted to it in Chapter 3. And it is half of the subject of a paper I’m giving next week at MIT at this rad music festivals conference:

In my paper, I hope to convey to those attending the conference that I know a lot about New Music America. Projecting confidence is important! But I’m hedging a bit, because I don’t know a lot. Or rather, I know a bit, but not enough, and every time I learn more it feels like my understanding of what it actually was slips further away.

This might seem odd, given that I've spent the last half-decade researching another new-music festival held right around the same time as NMA, and and that, once my book is published, it will have what is, to my knowledge, a more sustained engagement with NMA than any other academic work.

Some basic stuff that I know, and that’s not all that hard to find out: New Music America started as New Music, New York, when The Kitchen put on a nine-night spectacle of downtown music in June 1979, one that stirred controversy, incited a lot of press, and represented a major endeavor for the SoHo musical world. Visit the web resource my grad seminar put together last semester on Beth Anderson’s Report from the Front for more on that. NMNY spawned NMA, which traveled to different cities annual in the 1980s, and ended in 1990. I read a lot about both NMNY and NMA by necessity, because in Bang on a Can’s early years, it was often contrasted against NMA, especially by Kyle Gann, who inveterately critiqued the old festival in order to herald the new one. E.x.:

So I’ve read a lot of reviews of the NMA festivals, and read Iris Brooks’s 1992 New Music Across America summary book, and just recently discovered the astounding resource that is Michael Galbreth’s website, which includes full programs for many of the festivals. All in the service of making sure that my ten or so pages of information about NMA in the book is as solid as it can be.

But NMA seems harder and harder to pin down, the closer I get to it. This conference paper I’m presenting starts to pick at what it was about, and how it differed from Bang on a Can in terms of aesthetics, ideology, governance, and structure. Aesthetically, for instance, I argue that New Music America represented what John Rockwell called, when writing about Glenn Branca, a “post-literate avantgardism” of musicians who worked in improvisation, electronics, and post-Cagean (aka “downtown”) creative activities that did not center around the conventional musical score. That’s in clear opposition to the founders of Bang on a Can, who primarily created detailed, somewhat-conventional scores to be executed by classically trained musicians. Bang on a Can promoted composers who wrote for performers; New Music America promoted composers who were themselves performers. Simple, right?

But then you dive deeper into, say, Bang on a Can, and you see a lot of composer-performers on the festival. And then, the more and more you (and by you, I mean me), dive into New Music America – even after you’ve written the freakin paper and the section in the book chapter! – you are just faced with so much information and so many different kinds of music- and art-making that it seems ridiculous to draw any kind of conclusion at all.

An example might help. I was trying to find more information about New Music America’s 1989 festival, a massive tenth anniversary bash hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music that sprawled across New York City, and so decided to just go ahead and order a used copy of the program book online. This is what the schedule looked like:

Like: what??!!!! It’s an insanely diverse lineup. I had read previews and reviews of the ’89 festival and thought I had a decent grasp on what happened, but: how do you even get a decent grasp on all of this??? It’s hard enough to summarize a single Bang on a Can marathon. Everyone who attended must have had a radically different experience. (Iris Brooks writes, in her book, “When the Festival returned to New York in 1989, it became a mad dash around the city while trying to be everywhere at once. Searching for random movement and trying to turn chaos into a geometric design left many exhilarated but with sore feet and pounding headaches.”) The various curatorial forces that put together something like this clearly had a lot of ideas; simply sorting through what happened, when it happened, why it happened could yield a dissertation. And that’s just one festival, one year––and that it took place in NYC means it’s probably one of the easiest NMAs to research.

The 1982 Chicago festival had music by Alvin Lucier, John Cage, and Robert Ashley on boats. On boats!

There was a concert at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in which Kirk Nurock’s ensemble interacted with the animals!

And I assumed NMA was something the downtown scene revered, but then you have Zorn saying this, in the ‘89 program book!

As tempting as it might be, and though it might be extremely on brand, New Music America won’t be my Book 2––I’d be an idiot to write my first book about a new music festival in the 1980s and 1990s, and write my second book about a new music festival in the 1980s and 1990s. But I do think it’s worth asking what questions would need to be asked, what research would need to be done, to fill in what’s missing from what we know about this roving festival, or at least start to put all the pieces together. This is how my musicological brain thinks; if you want to undertake this project (or know someone who already is!), let me know. Alternately, if you want to apply to UMD for graduate studies in musicology and make this your master’s thesis or PhD dissertation project, I would love to advise it.

One could imagine, given the rotating nature of NMA, the most productive version of this project could be multi-sited, with scholars in each relevant city undertaking local research, to build towards some kind of edited volume or online database. Those scholars would interview local organizers and participants; visit the archives of hosting venues, local granting agencies, etc. to amass a documentary record; look at news and media coverage; try to piece together reconstructions of what the performances were, how they were organized, who attended, and how it affected the cultural life of the city. (And where are the archives of the New Music Alliance, the organizational committee which oversaw all of the New Music America festivals?)

Who’s in? (I’m kidding; but maybe in, like, two years when I’ve cleared my current projects off my plate, I’ll be serious!)


Georgia and the bunnies, follow-up: