Saturday, September 17--Panel I: Temporality and the New

Anna Reguero, Performative Frames in Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2015 song cycle for seven voices, chamber orchestra, and electronics, Unremembered, features “twinkling electronics, faux folk tunes, vintage pop melodies, and avant-garde choral techniques,” to create “an intricately magical landscape.” Through songs that narrate childhood memories in rural Massachusetts, Snider employs romanticized tropes such as nature, memory, and youth to express feelings of innocence, nostalgia, and melancholy. By constructing an affective frame that reconstructs aesthetics of the past, she hooks listeners into a space where simple tonality and lyricism can exist without postmodern cynicism and detachment. Snider’s composition is representative of a direction in recent composition that reconfigures conventional narratives and techniques as a way to embrace a renewed sincerity, romanticism, and affect, traits that have been linked to a post-postmodern turn in the arts.

This paper analyzes Snider’s work through cultural theorist Raoul Eshelman’s concept of performatism. Performatism is a process of negotiated signification where the post-postmodern work of art can bring or invite a unified and aesthetically mediated experience of transcendence. Performatism reframes the past in order to transcend or renew it, and uses dogma, ritual or other “inhibiting frames” as a method for transformation and transcendence. The concept has been applied to contemporary film and literature, but not yet to music. In Unremembered, I argue that the performative frames are both narrative and musical; listeners are transported into an uncanny world of hazy childhood memories, an inhibiting frame where one is also apt to buy into more traditional musical techniques. This ultimately artificially constructed framing is then renewed through a contemporary sheen of electronics and stylistic pluralism. Performatism provides insight into the aesthetic mechanisms behind so-called “post-genre” music of the 21st century. 

Nicholas Stevens, Last Tango in the Imaginary Museum: New Music as Revisionist Curation in Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995)

Thomas Adès, a leading figure in new music by the turn of the twenty-first century, invests in the history of his medium with extraordinary zeal. Critics have seldom failed to note the historical reference points in Adès’s chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995), and listeners familiar with a wide range of Western art-music will have little trouble hearing quotations and allusions embedded within that piece’s sonic fabric. Scholars, however, have so far not engaged with the piece beyond passing mention – let alone reckoned with the implications of a new music that seems to recall the twentieth century’s art-music in a manner that contrasts with that of standard music histories.

In this talk, I seek to capture the ideological ramifications of Adès’s distinctly new but referential art, which also functions as a reception of – and advocacy for – the work of composers who occupy relatively marginal positions within the traditional canon. Powder Her Face seems almost alive, sprouting references to predecessors’ music only to reabsorb that material into Adès’s own. Julian Johnson, David Metzer, Peter Edwards, and Susan McClary light the way as I argue that Adès finds newness in the work of underappreciated antecedents – that his compositions repopulate Lydia Goehr’s “imaginary museum of musical works” with colorful new portraits of forebears. The result is a strain of fresh-sounding music that also, as Johnson might phrase it, “re-members” twentieth century music as the heyday of Astor Piazzolla, Alban Berg, and Leoš Janáček rather than, say, Pierre Boulez, Arnold Schoenberg, or Claude Debussy. The dialectic tension between new and familiar in the opera helps to create its characteristic hallucinatory feel. I conclude by proposing a music history pedagogy in which new music that recalls past musicians and styles can invite students to think beyond temporal boundaries, and question canonizing tendencies across genres and repertoires.

Lisa Cooper Vest,  Newness Outside of Time: The Case of the Polish Avant-Garde

In the decade following the death of Stalin in 1953, the idea of “new music” in Poland offered a tantalizing promise of progress. During this period of political thaw, the concept of newness in music was not strictly perceived in relation to calendar time. Rather, Polish artists, intellectuals, and even state officials understood the “new” as a powerful discursive engine for brokering consensus and support across political and aesthetic divides, and, perhaps more importantly, for remediating the state of cultural backwardness into which they perceived themselves to have fallen. To these ends, the concept of the new was mediated through a variety of words, each with distinct shades of meaning: people spoke of newness, modernness, contemporaneity, avant-gardism, and innovation. These words’ meanings shifted over time according to the aesthetic and political demands of the moment.

In this paper, I examine the Polish critical reception of composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Bogusław Schaeffer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the beginning of the thaw, Schaeffer’s swift engagement with Western European techniques established him as an enfant terrible, a prophet of the new. However, when critics began to praise Penderecki as the avant-garde leader in the early 1960s, it was clear that they also rejected Schaeffer’s mapping of newness and innovation upon the relentless progress of calendar time. Instead, Polish critics and composers envisioned a newness capable of moving in many directions simultaneously, building connections backwards to national traditions and outwards to international contemporary music worlds. This case thus demonstrates the dynamic power of newness (or perceptions thereof) to confer prestige and to define core aesthetic values. Ultimately, I argue that disengaging newness from chronology may allow us to pose new questions about the discursive work that this concept is doing and has done in shaping canons and music historical narratives.

Panel II: Economies of New Music

John Pippen,  What They Talk About When They Talk About Selling New Music

This paper draws on ethnographic research in the Chicago new music scene to theorize the process of negotiating a gig. Research with three groups—Ensemble Dal Niente, Eighth Blackbird, and Third Coast Percussion—reveals the importance of ensemble brand. Attending to ensemble brands and gig negotiation provides insight into how musicians view their art as business.

All three ensembles have developed brands based on musical skill and on repertoire. Central to all three brands is an emphasis on performance excellence, usually expressed with the word “virtuosity.” This focus has garnered each ensemble wide respect, and has contributed to presenters’ eagerness to book them. However, differences between the ensemble brands and their status in the new music world lead to different approaches in the negotiating process. The youngest of the three, Third Coast Percussion’s members spend considerable time introducing themselves to presenters and explaining how the percussion quartet differs from well-known acts such as Blue Man Group and Stomp. In contrast, Eighth Blackbird does little of this work because they have created a comparatively higher public profile. Ensembles also build brand based on their repertoire choices. Dal Niente is widely known for their performances European avant-garde music, while Third Coast built a reputation for nuanced interpretations of Cage and Reich. Eighth Blackbird, in contrast, is known for performing a much wider variety of music. Presenters attend closely to these differences, and seek out ensembles based on their reputations and brands. By examining the negotiating process for all three groups, it becomes possible to consider how new music is conceived of by those who create and sell it. For these ensembles, new music functions as both art and commodity at the same time, despite persistent invocations of art music’s supposed economic autonomy.

Elena Dubinets,  The Economics of New Music: Commodification and Branding of the Creative Identity

In our consumer age, music creation is perpetually for sale. In an existential need for public significance, composers frequently target specific markets for potential listeners and funders. This paper explores the matter of the pragmatic market-driven commodification of composers’ ethnicity, religion, political and personal circumstances for the purpose of obtaining expediency-driven and welfare-maximizing benefits.

Often, music producers encourage composers (or their rights holders) to capitalize on discomforting personal experiences. In one significant instance, Alfred Schnittke’s last, Ninth, unfinished, and perhaps weakest symphony was billed as the last work of a dying composer, long-suffering from political repression in the Soviet Union. An opportunistic ability to monetize individual conditions to commercial advantage (in this case, unfortunately not Schnittke’s own) routinely defines a branding approach.

It is often possible to parse a composer’s behavior when his or her life situation radically changes. Some of the most dramatic transformations transpire when a person moves from one country to another. My presentation demonstrates how several émigré composers from the former USSR sourced dormant elements of their identities in an effort to become better eligible for the social benefits offered by their adoptive communities. Looking for a reconciliation of idiosyncratic histories and also appealing to worldwide audiences, many Jewish composers from USSR, previously not able to celebrate the Jewish component of their multiethnic identities, chose to do so when they settled in comfortable Jewish communities in the U.S. or Israel. However, ending up in totally foreign surroundings may alternatively drive a search to find new loyalties and opportunities, as Aaron Avshalomov did when he moved to China and began incorporating musical elements of traditional Chinese culture into his compositions. With these examples in mind, we will examine how the ability to secure audiences and funding influences the creative agenda while subverting some aspects of artistic integrity.

Yi Hong Sim, Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and the Avant-Garde: The Significance of New Music Practice in a Revised Temporality of Class-Based Resistance

In The Problem with Work, feminist Marxist scholar Kathi Weeks asks: “Why do we work so long and so hard? The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are required to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.” As the central hegemonic ideology and structure of capitalist society, the meaning of work envelops all of us in American society. In this paper, I argue that the ways in which new music practitioners champion or challenge the hegemonic work ideologies of American capitalism have political impact beyond the world of the arts.

My reconstruction of Marxist class analysis privileges a processual temporality of resistance over an apocalyptic teleology of revolution, allowing working people such as artists, who had previously been sidelined from class analysis as inconsequential “dritte Personen,” to be recuperated into a revised class framework as critical classes. Critical classes’ work experiences straddle the structures of capitalist work and alternative productivity/ies. Thus, they offer everyday resistance to capitalism by sustaining alternative ideologies and structures of productivity and bringing them into regular negotiation with capitalist hegemonies of work. They serve as long-term sources of the revolutionary imagination that Marxist scholars claim is necessary for real systemic change. Within the critical class of classical musicians, new music practitioners, as the recognizably avant-garde faction of the group, perform a special temporal function in political resistance. By championing entrepreneurship, innovation, “disruption,” and “newness” in the name of the arts, new music practitioners currently enhance capitalist hegemonies of work. Surprisingly to the contrary, the traditional classical music field’s combination of entrepreneurship with “oldness” wedges a rift between the neoliberal and neoconservative strands of capitalist ideology, destabilizing capitalist hegemonies.

Panel III: North American New Music Now

Judy Lochhead, Sonic Phoenix: New Classical Music

 The death-knell for classical music has been tolling relentlessly over the last several decades.  Even recently the 2012 New York Times exchange “Is Classical Music Dying?” and the 2014 Slate article “Requiem: Classical Music in American is Dead” continue this story of demise.  The music conjured by the term “classical” in these articles was composed by European composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, all of whom have indeed died long ago.  Certainly a tradition of music that is only identified with performances of music created in the distant past is not long for this world.

But if the doom-sayers would consider instead the host of new music groups that perform today’s classical music, they would instantly hear and see a lively musical scene that is dynamic, vibrant and intertwined in the issues of present.  The audiences are diverse, the composers are there to interact with performers and audience members, and often performers are presenting a work for the first time.  There is a palpable vitality to this scene—a scene of a new “classical” music in the United States that is the living present and future of the classical tradition in the 21st century.  Defying prophesies of death, classical music rises as a phoenix through the music presented by these new music groups.

My paper considers two groups, demonstrating how each articulates a goal of renewal of classical music through the performance of new works by living composers.  I focus on Yarn/Wire with Miranda Cuckson and their performance of George Lewis’s “Into the Breach” (2015) and the Spektral Quartet’s performance of Alex Temple’s “Behind the Wallpaper” (2015).  Through observation of performances, study of scores, and interviews with performers and composers, I demonstrate how new musical practices born in the 21st century shape a vital classical music tradition.

Will Robin, The Ontological Politics of (American) New Music

A 1930s journal which publishes scores of ultra-modern works; a 1980s annual festival devoted to downtown music across America; a 2007 film that depicts a tribe of young musicians embarking on an indie-classical tour. Despite their heterogeneous formats and eras, these three objects—the publication New Music Quarterly, the festival New Music America, and the documentary The End of New Music—belong to the seemingly unified world of American new music. In this paper, I use these examples to investigate the ontological politics of new music in the twentieth and twenty-first century United States. Drawing on the work of empirical philosopher Annemarie Mol, I interrogate new music as multiple, a diversity of objects and practices that go by a single name. This ontological and praxiographic turn reveals two useful approaches to new-music studies. First, scholars can tell “performance stories” of new music, following it as it is enacted in such practices as publication series, music festivals, and documentary films. Second, scholars can study how new music is “coordinated”: what are the shared characteristics and practices that allow for the ultra-modernism of New Music Quarterly and the indie classical of The End of New Music to exist as part of the same historical lineage? These approaches allow for a consideration of new music as an art world that can be studied without the theoretical baggage of categories such as modernism, postmodernism, or avant-garde. Finally, I argue that the emerging sub discipline of new-music studies should be a fundamentally public one, in dialogue with the musicians that it examines. Capturing the lived reality of new-music participants can strengthen the quality of our research, and the forging of alliances between musicologists and musicians offers mutual benefits in age of precarity for both art and scholarship.

David Blake, The Omnivorous Tastes of Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth, the vocal octet founded by Brad Wells in 2009, is among the most renowned new music ensembles today. Their Grammy-winning 2012 debut album featured Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 voices, and the group has subsequently received grants and residencies from prestigious organizations and festivals. Like many new music groups, Roomful of Teeth fashions itself as breaking down traditional conceptions of classical music. The ensemble’s press biography declares that they “forge a new repertoire without borders,” and their request for donations claims that financial support will allow them to “continue creating original, breathtaking music that defies boundary and definition.” Projecting an identity that lacks borders and definition, though, belies how the ensemble—and by extension new music—adheres to emergent aesthetic paradigms.

This paper uses Roomful of Teeth as a case study for the omnivorous stance of new music discourses. I draw on omnivore theory, a sociological theory of taste linking higher class and education with inclusion. Applying approaches to omnivory by Michèle Ollivier, Bethany Bryson, Bernard Lahire, and others, I propose a threefold conception of how Roomful of Teeth exemplifies omnivory. First, personal tastes as well as collaborative projects emphasize the incorporation of a variety of musics crossing traditional cultural registers. Second, artistic endeavors highlight fluidity and openness, especially in terms of formal structures and interpretive possibilities. Finally, standard terminology associated with the classical music tradition (i.e. “choir” or “classical music”) is rejected and construed as potentially exclusionary. I elucidate these aspects through examining Roomful of Teeth’s self-presentation online and in interviews, and consider how they have shaped the group’s press reception in concert reviews and features. By theorizing Roomful of Teeth’s discourses through omnivory, I draw attention to the new borders constructed in the process of breaking down old ones.

Sunday, September 16--Panel IV, Opera as New Music

Emily Richmond Pollock ,  An Alternative Universe for Avant-Garde Opera

In recent years, musicians, composers, and contemporary music impresarios have done much to renew the idea of “opera” by staging works that take innovative forms in alternative spaces. This phenomenon, which has been self-consciously urban, “guerilla,” and accessible, has reintegrated the genre into a recognizable “new music” ecosystem, and has served to refute a notable historiographical opposition – especially applicable in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but lingering long after – between opera (stodgy, conservative, bourgeois) and the avant-garde (progress-oriented, revolutionary). As long as “opera” was defined by its institutional home in repertory houses, its practitioners were largely left out of the communities and narratives of the cutting-edge. But as opera has gradually integrated elements from avant-garde vocal music, theater, and performance art, this antagonism between “the modern” and “the operatic” has itself become quaint and outmoded, and whereas previous generations saw opera’s irrelevance as inevitable and self-evident, it is now essential to historicize their antipathy.

With that goal in mind, the recent manifestations of “new music” opera can be fruitfully tied to prescient, but forestalled and largely forgotten, efforts by the famed new music conductor Hermann Scherchen. In promoting works such as Pierrot Lunaire and L’histoire du soldat as the future of music theater, Scherchen was surprisingly dedicated to forging an avant-garde vision for opera in the first phase of his career; he even proposed to Alban Berg that the premiere of Lulu should occur within a festival context alongside such works as Erwartung, The Miraculous Mandarin, and Les noces. While Berg’s death prevented this event from occurring, and Scherchen’s post-war career largely deflected any close affinity with opera, the conductor’s earlier predictions and activities towards a new-music-oriented operatic canon offer an intriguing “alternate universe” for avant-garde opera predating the reification of the opposition between opera and new music.

Megan Steigerwald, From A House of Cards into the Limousine: Twenty-First Century Opera, Digital Mediation, and Netflix Economics

Performed in limousines across L.A, and transmitted by audience members via livestream, The Industry’s 2015 opera Hopscotch challenges traditional notions of operatic convention. This production and others by the company, however, are part of a dynamic shift in operatic performance in the United States and Canada in the twenty-first century: a move beyond the opera house to alternative performance practices dependent on place and technology. Far from a trend, these performances, which incorporate site-specific and technologically dependent performance, represent a conceptual shift in operatic convention in the twenty-first century. Although Levin has noted the American public’s aversion to concept-driven stagings (2004), and Steichen has explored the marketing strategies behind “hypermediated” special features in the Met Live in HD broadcasts (2011), these analyses rely primarily on traditional conceptions of the opera house and the opera audience. Moreover, in relaying the oft-told narrative of opera’s economic decline in the United States, critical discussion ignores prominent shifts taking place in the operatic industry across the United States and Canada both in the creation of new works and in new productions of canonic works.

This paper explores the way technology enables the use of innovative places for performance as well as unique modes of viewership. In dialogue with Philip Auslander’s writings on liveness, I argue operas such as Hopscotch use technology to complicate the relationship between the live and mediatized. Instead of, as Auslander argues, live forms being increasingly modeled on mediatized forms, these operas present mediatized forms that interact with, and privilege liveness. The live encounter becomes the novel and exciting part of the audience experience. Through this analysis, I offer an exploration of twenty-first century opera’s viability within contemporary cultural economies. More broadly, my paper offers a critical analysis of the effects of digital media consumption on traditional Western art forms in the twenty-first century.

Panel V: Institutions and the Making of New Music

Sasha Metcalf, Canonizing a Mainstream Avant-Garde at BAM’s Next Wave Festival

In 1984, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) hosted a benefit dinner that brought together Richard Gere, Bianca Jagger, art curator Henry Geldzahler, and representatives from Rolling Stone magazine, among other guests. This motley assemblage had supported the revival of Einstein on the Beach (1976), a music-theater piece whose collaborating artists, including Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs, were staples in BAM’s Next Wave Festival. An annual two-month program of experimental performing arts, the festival capitalized on the fruits of the 1970s Downtown scene, bringing them to a mainstream venue. Through a network of patrons ranging from the Rockefeller Foundation and AT&T to celebrities from the art, fashion, and popular entertainment worlds, BAM attracted a trendier crowd than the one that usually supported opera.

The festival reached beyond New York. BAM impresario Harvey Lichtenstein proposed that it be the nucleus for a national program involving multiple presenting organizations. To do so, he galvanized a dialogue among a network of individuals from corporations, the Downtown scene, philanthropic organizations, arts criticism, and the scholarly community. Although their origins were various, these interlocutors were united by their belief in the potential of experimental music theater to revitalize American opera. Simultaneously, BAM developed mainstream audiences for these productions through a humanities program, which marketed productions like Einstein as avant-garde masterpieces through symposia and educational materials. Examining archival funding meeting minutes, interviews, and correspondence, I show how BAM spearheaded institutional patronage on a national scale, serving as the gatekeeper of a mainstream avant-garde. As they framed the conversation about American experimental music, the Next Wave Festival promoters bolstered a canon that continually defined itself as “new,” even as it aged.  

Matthew Mendez, George Benjamin’s Antara, IRCAM, and New Music as Urban Imaginary

Though the forthcoming publication of The Oxford Handbook of Spectral Music (Christian 2018) bids fair to initiate a new phase in English-language scholarship on spectral music, the relevant literature remains heavily skewed towards journalistic perspectives and “bargain basement hermeneutics” (Heile 2014). As more and more of the associated repertoire achieves historical status, efforts to situate spectralism in broader theoretical, economic, and historiographical frames have not kept pace, with only rare exceptions (Drott 2009; Pasler 2011). To this end, this presentation will examine one of the most celebrated commissions from the period of spectralism’s development and consolidation, George Benjamin’s Antara (1984-87). Initiated by Pierre Boulez to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the commission was one of the flagship projects of IRCAM’s early years. As has been recounted elsewhere (Born 1995), IRCAM was then a source of intensive public scrutiny, and Benjamin’s score crystallized a number of debates centering on issues of patronage, technology, and new music’s social role. Antara was constructed using recordings of South American panpipe players, whom Benjamin observed busking in the nearby Place Igor Stravinsky; these were supplemented with samples of the Pompidou Center’s exposed girders. In classic spectral fashion, the score’s sonic material was generated through acoustic analyses of these recordings, so that Antara literally “incorporated” the aural topography of the surrounding Beaubourg district, reinscribing its power dynamics for the age of Mitterrand’s grands projets. Informed by recent approaches from modernism studies (Brodsky 2017) and sound studies (Wißmann 2014), I argue that the Antara venture, initiated in an Orwellian year, reflected new music practitioners’ anxieties as the hopes pinned on IRCAM—the idea that it was “the place where the force of artistic utopia asserts itself most powerfully at the very heart of industrial society” (in Yaari 2008)—gave way to collective disenchantment.

Lisa Jakelski, Making New Music at the Warsaw Autumn Festival

In this paper, I contend that the performance of social interactions in particular institutional frameworks has played a vital role in shaping the practices, values, and concepts associated with “new music.” I support this point by making a case study of concert programming at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music. When it began in 1956, the state-supported Warsaw Autumn was a unique zone of East-West cultural contact: it brought together people from both sides of the Cold War, and it staged symbolic encounters between the era’s opposed aesthetic viewpoints. Just as importantly, the Warsaw Autumn was a site where people actively negotiated what contemporary music ought to be. Drawing on archival sources, I will discuss concert programming and repertoire categorization by the festival’s organizing committees in the 1950s and 1960s, examining how these groupings were mediated by aesthetic, economic, and geopolitical factors. Festival planners were aware of “new music” as it was being defined elsewhere (most notably at the Darmstadt Summer Courses), but their choices were also inflected by factors specific to Poland and the Eastern Bloc. Because they entailed acts of grouping and exclusion, practical decisions (such as what music to program, or which performers to invite) implied judgments of relative value. Warsaw Autumn programming therefore provides unique insight into how the practices and values associated with new music were being constructed and contested in a particular time and place. The more recent history of the Warsaw Autumn further suggests that the definitions of “contemporary music” that were forged in the past are continuing to affect understandings of new music at the festival today.

Discussion Panel: What We Talk About When We Talk About New Music

Andrea Moore and Marianna Ritchey, moderators