Peter Gena, Co-director

© 1992 by Peter Gena
Every now and then an attempt must be made to redefine the new American music if for no other reason than to prove that, by failing to do so adequately, the music is still “experimental.” For the sake of the music, I hope that the following paragraphs sufficiently show how thankless such a task really is. “Experimental” is a vague description at best, and artists can be categorized only in the presence of their contemporaries. (How non-experimental) Thus, the experimentalist emerges by contrast (e.g. Wagner—Brahms; Pollock—Norman Rockwell; E.E. Cummings—Robert Frost; Cage—Persichetti). Experimentation may also simply be that which is consistently rejected by individual critics, as in the cases of Giovanni Maria Artusi vs. the seconda prattica (the new monodic style of the early Baroque as represented by Monteverdi), and Donal Henahan of the New York Times vs. what he labels as “The Going Nowhere Music” (i.e. the work of practically everyone on this festival). Sympathizers of the late sixteenth century Florentine Camerata were no less vulnerable to criticism than those of our New Music Alliance. In addition, western musical history has taught us that experimentation varies inversely with popularity (e.g. Beethoven and Schoenberg vs. Cherubini and Weill, respectively). Recently however, that dichotomy is breaking down (witness Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, etc.), and the whole situation is further complicated by the fact that many of those who were the experimentalists have now become the great masters. The “sophisticated” experiments and research of today do not necessarily produce experimental music. A composer who describes a group of notes as a “hierarchical succession of discrete pitch-classes” is less likely to be labeled experimental, than one who simply calls it a “scale.” Likewise, as Duchamp pointed out, there is no steadfast correlation between value and labor. Although technology and research may advance the science of sound, this does not insure aesthetic progress, as most of the long awaited computer compositions demonstrate. Many well-equipped electronic music studios have produced countless pieces, but it was John Cage who continued to shake the world with simple tape loops, contact microphones, radios, etc.

The initial elevation of sound as the prime determinant of music (courtesy of Cage and such predecessors as Satie and Cowell) allowed American music to wean itself from the European avant-garde. That, in turn, freed new composers to reevaluate elements of tonality, form, and process. Similarly, the liberation of sound paved the way for extra-musical elements such as non-western thought, the visual arts, philosophy, jazz, and pop to infiltrate new music. Freedom in temporal and musical space often precluded the need for regimented ensembles. This moved performance outside of the concert hall and proscenium stage, and into other environments. Subsequently, sympathetic ears were found, not in the musical institutions, but in alternative spaces available in galleries, museums, and lofts. As a result, composers often worked in unorthodox groups and ensembles
with and without electronics. The experimental composer became a promoter, producer, performer, and stage-hand in contrast to the “ivory tower” composer who continued to acknowledge applause from the audience seating area. (On occasion, however, I have seen them move stands and even schlepp pianos.) On the other hand, many artists best serve their art by contributing nothing but their works and observation. (For example, Ralph Lauren looks terrific in his designer clothes, but Gloria Vanderbilt often looks silly in hers.)

The emergence of alternative spaces and composers’ and performing organizations have done much to secure both public acceptance and economic support for new music. We have reason to believe that the successes witnessed by the various organizations and New Music America festivals will continue to bring us closer to the goals of acceptance. However, in the last few decades our new American music, with all of its vitality and spontaneity, enjoyed the international limelight while lacking the very conditions that we seek. We must continue to be optimistic as we reach out for future support and acceptance, but let's hope that when we look back from New Music America ’85, we don't realize that all of the fun was in getting there.

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