Author's Note: Upon re-acquainting myself with what I wrote so long ago, I sometimes felt a snarky imprint of a 40 something whippersnapper; but a whippersnapper who truly CARED. While exceptions abound, I am also struck by how slightly I feel things have changed in the past 35 years, especially at smaller institutions. S.H., May 2013

These thoughts are borne out of my teaching experience in the performance of 20th-century music in four schools: the University of Virginia, a music faculty of 5; Ohio University, ca. 35; the University of Michigan, ca. 95 members; and the Eastman School of Music, ca. 120 full-time faculty.
DISCLAIMER: Any references to other schools—past or present—is purely coincidental. Local situation unknown, national situation is known.

They are also borne out of the belief that University teachers and administrators must have a certain courage, and take the time, to analyze what they are doing, draw conclusions from this evaluation and then, hopefully, share these conclusions with their colleagues. In his book The Leaning Ivory Tower, Warren Bennis (President of the University of Cincinnati) discusses the all-too-common attitudes in a chapter entitled "Personal Knowledge as Social Science":

Too little has been written about the backstage life of any of the large bureaucratic institutions that dominate our "organized society" . . . mute loyalty is the favoured emotion; according to this code, members can complain non-stop among themselves but never express their grievances in public.

I would like to respond to Mr. Bennis' "never" and grieve a little in public. My thoughts deal with first, the logical creation of a New Music Ensemble itself, and second, its best deployment once it is formed, both from the standpoint of the audience and the performers.



The implementation of the New Music Ensemble within the strictures of our Hallowed Halls is often a tenuous matter. In large schools especially, where demands on the students' time are omnipresent, the formation of any ensemble that cuts across all the academic "performance boundaries" is difficult at best. In smaller colleges, it is not uncommon for many of the applied music faculty to regard such a new-music group as yet a further burdensome cross to bear, a large Sisyphean mill-stone around the collective necks of brass, woodwind, percussion, string, voice, and piano departments.

Surely it is not even debatable that the "new-music" repertoire has to be performed. However, it is no secret that many of the classical 20th-century masterworks lie outside of the "standard" instrumentations out of which we build our primary university performance organizations. Yet, when confronted with the problem of going outside of these established ensembles, I used to catch myself saying to my alter ego: "Is it my fault that L'Histoire du Soldat is not scored for string quartet or band or chorus?" The notion that our century's great artists themselves have created this "problem" often can circumvent faculty or administration resistance, especially if presented politely to one's studio teacher-colleagues. There are many common justifiable academic queries concerning the efficacy and organization of the new music groups; e.g., questions regarding scheduling conflicts, course credit (i.e. credit that counts, allowing it to replace, not be in addition to, other large or small ensemble activity), exposure to only a select body of students or performing one particular "brand" of new music only are just a few.

Alas, it is still true that, in many music schools, the rehearsals of La Création du Monde or the Webern Concerto are relegated to the "extra" hours—usually evenings—whenever the interested students can congregate. A regularly scheduled rehearsal time is often not provided. The New Music Ensemble becomes a huge ugly wart—an "extra" in training our students.

The private teacher has a tremendous responsibility in this regard. It is too often the case that many students, as Gunther Schuller states,

have been subjected to older concepts of teaching and thereby indoctrinated with the notion that new music is meaningless and its performance a fruitless endeavor, or in any event not legitimized by "audience-support." [I shall return to this point later.] These young players, of course, inherit the prejudices and limitations of their teachers.

Music Schools and publishers of teaching material . . . have not yet recognized 20th Century music as relevant to serious musical activity, a fact which greatly impedes the acquisition of those technical and perceptual skills required for the performance of new music.

—The Composer's Point of View
[University of Oklahoma 1970, pp. 184-202.]

I would go even further. It is not outside of my own experience to witness the instructors' "prejudices and limitations" being converted into dogma; the personal taste of even a highly respected performance professor becomes transformed into vague "artistic principles" to which his students feel (and even are told) they have to adhere. This is especially crucial with respect to string players and pianists who are fortunate enough to have a very large body of excellent literature. In fact, it is often true that student interest in, and spirit for, the newer music is in inverse proportion to the grand body of repertoire available to them. In descending (or ascending?) order: percussion, brass-wind, voice, piano, and strings. Since the percussionist has Ionization as his Mozart G minor, the trumpeter a few scattered good recital pieces, the clarinetist a few more, these students tend to look to the recent past and to the future with hopes of finding some worthy works to occupy their interest.

On the other hand, should a cellist devote time to a Rochberg solo while working on the Haydn-Boccherini-Dvorak? Or the violinist/pianist bother with a Wuorinen Duo when there is "all that good stuff" to play? And these solos/duos are certainly within the domain of the private teacher. While many instrumental and vocal instructors do coach newer pieces, the real crunch comes when the ENSEMBLE enters the picture. It is one thing to work in a studio class on "the contemporary piece"—usually a 20th-century classic—but isn't it quite another to suggest ensemble credit (i.e., time spent away from the string quartet) for the violinist to perform Ives or Crumb chamber pieces along with a trombone, flute, bassoon, and kazoo? Is such performance sufficiently worthy to supplant some of the standard requirement for brass/woodwind quintets and string quartet? That I hear these questions still being asked today shows the sad state of affairs; perhaps the 20th century will fare better by the time we reach the 21st. Remember, our students will be the next century's teachers!

Primarily, the pianist, string player, and vocalist are often denied any new music experience within the Music School on the grounds that in order to be competitive in the educational market-place, these budding performers have all that 18th- and 19th-century repertoire to learn. (I mean, why offer instruction regarding the style and performance practice of one or two Beethoven Sonatas when there are 32 of 'em, right?) The "standard" repertoire is all-too-often the mutually exclusive palace (or tomb?) of the old pro teachers; "you cannot play the new until you've learned the old." This problem is further compounded—make no mistake about it—by the fact of the inherent differences between the Music the Whole World Knows and Loves and much contemporary compositional thought, as Milton Babbitt's provocative article "Who Cares If You Listen?" illustrates. (His words were written for High Fidelity magazine—February, 1958, over 20 years ago.) It engendered a lot of real hate from performers and teachers of our "communication art" and even elicited some vituperative response from composers. Yet, while one may not agree with some of Professor Babbitt's conclusions, one thing is for sure: the facts he lists were, and are, true. It is a fact that there is today no "common practice" of contemporary music. It is a fact that the high degree of autonomy—the individual shape of each particular new work, the varied instrumentation, the use of the "total musical space," and the lack of general understanding of the present day composer's extension of past techniques—all these facts combine to befuddle both the musical performer and the general audience. As Mr. Babbitt succinctly states, after a discussion about the "Period of Common Practice":

Deviation from this [classical] tradition is bound to dismiss . . . contemporary music . . . into isolation. Nor do I see how or why the situation should be otherwise. Why should the "musician" be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to be indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity . . . for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics.

In order to offset any prohibition of exposure to contemporary musical practice, some educational compatibility (and/or friendly savagery) with one's colleagues is necessary. Regarding my own ensemble (Eastman's Musica Nova, formed by Richard Pittman in 1967), the student performers are rotated—as they are in all of the other organizations of the school—according to the demands of the literature. In a situation where the repertoire control is in the hands of all resident conductors, therefore, the New Music group functions just as a wind ensemble, band, or orchestra.

Any university's program must simply be set up so that each and every student, to the best of a department's ability, is exposed maximally to the music of the Western world in toto!

Needless to say, the machinations of scheduling, programming, and pure educational concern involve the full cooperation of fellow teachers. It also demands conductors who can lay aside part of their empire-building egos and simply talk to each other. Alas, this last factor is still all-too-rare a phenomenon, perhaps caused by left-over carbuncles of confusion between the duties, responsibilities, arid general behavior-"leader"-patterns of the professional conductor and one hired to instruct within the walls of an institution of higher education.

Still, it is unfortunately common for the university orchestra conductor to include the Firebird/Concerto for Orchestra/Symphony of Psalms/Harris 3rd as examples of contemporary art for the players. How can we allow any students to graduate without a working performance knowledge of at least some of the compositional thought of the last four or five decades? And by the way, such "education" is not imparted by devoting the last seven to ten days of a semester in the history or theory class looking at Stockhausen's Studie II or counting pitches in late Stravinsky like mutated goldfish in a bowl. This just further nurtures the student's notion that this music is not to be a central concern, not really important.

With any real exposure to new music denied our charges, is it any wonder that even in the most educated situations, or in localities which have a long history of presenting avant-garde repertoire to the public—even under the most seemingly idealistic circumstances—a student audience is still largely constituted of non-music majors. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the music students are working out the Pathetique or Paganini, majoring in anachronism. Now I have nothing against either "P" (or even both together: PP—I love them as much as anyone—honest), but I have everything against a diet of only "P's" (or "B's") to the exclusion of many other musics.

This situation becomes critical when one realizes that the majority of these same music students will in a few short years be teaching your kids and mine. In the prime of their own careers, at the beginning of the 21st century, still largely not teaching the 20th; just further foisting their own prejudices, and their learned prejudices on still younger minds. (Typical, repeat, typical example: a music education major junior in a Minnesota college after movement 3 of Schoenberg's 1909 Opus 16 seriously said to me: "But do you call that music? That's not music, it has no tune!")

While knowledgeable musicians may laugh—or weep—at such things, it behooves us as artists to attempt to work overtime to renovate, correct, coerce, and cajole the closed negative attitudes often directed towards recent music by administrators, colleagues, and our students. It is a task worthy of a Zeus rather than a mere mortal man or woman, usually a composer, who is only really trying to use that overtime to write a piece . . . of "recent" music.

Probably the greatest good we can do as composers-teachers-conductors is simply to show our young charges and our colleagues that we are serious and committed; to enlist the aid of performance and academic faculty alike; and to further convey our devout interest and open enthusiasm for the new sounds to all with whom we come in contact. The educational necessity of such action becomes paramount when it is decided to "form a group": that small collection of heads designed to perform together a literature that does not conform to the "standard" wind band/orchestral/choral personnel setup. The deployment of the New Music Ensemble, its most efficacious use once the decision has been made to create it, is my second major point. I will attempt to deal with it from the standpoint of (a) the audience and (b) the student performers.



The Audience

A corollary to the establishment of a "regular" New Music group is the ensemble's rapport with its audience. Many audience considerations must be militantly disregarded, in my opinion, in order to foster within each student the confidence and sense of personal responsibility essential to the successful presentation of much of today's music. (I will return to the matter of confidence-building shortly when we turn our attention to the performers.)

There are, however, a few ways in which audience rapport could be developed. The same sort of reasonable thought brought to bear on the implementation of the New Music group within the university could be devoted to providing a more amenable ambiance for the audience. What we must nurture is a modicum of caring, not mere support.

An energy should be demanded from the audience ideally corresponding to that expended by the performers. This is certainly not offered by the usual buying-your-ticket-and-taking-your-seat-procedure. My own attempts along these lines involve little more than breaking the surface. For example:

  1. The placement into the performance area of the audience members—their reluctance can be overcome (especially for the younger souls).
  2. The reducing of the butler-suit appearance and the "me artist—you patron" attitude. (This is now at last being done, but not widely enough.) The very design of concert auditoria with an elevated "stage" presents its own problems.
  3. The creation of physical seating arrangements which foster any of the above—e.g., performers in the center with audience surrounding them, the use of thrust-stage drama facilities, antiphonal music as prelude, etc.—anything to create a communal activity.
  4. The further breaking down of the formality of the concert, especially one with such a new, unfamiliar repertoire: perhaps including verbal program notes, discussion, demonstration, and open rehearsal sessions. It seems to me that at least part of the audience could come to know, even slightly, a new composition. Granted they will not know the work in the same way or in the same degree as the performers, but an increased awareness of the design, structure, and possible intent of a piece will surely augment their "participation" in the event of the composition's performance.
  5. Repeat performances of new works, either on the same program or in close succession. (I am constantly amazed how little this is done.) Aside from the opportunity for the audience to rehear a complex work, the performers themselves get a second chance. When was the last occasion any of you had to hear a new, difficult work on which the performing artist had conscientiously and lovingly toiled, twice or three times?
  6. The use of the Contemporary Ensemble in situations which involve the presentation of new music in conjunction with the established repertoire.

This last point cannot be dismissed summarily.

The vogue of many educational institutions is to have a "Festival of Contemporary Music," the length, performing forces, use of guest dignitaries, and general P.R. of which is dependent on the allocated budget. While it is true that such "events" may allow interested but small audiences to indulge themselves (usually in Webern, Berg, Sessions, etc.), the onslaught of the New Music Week or the State Composers Forums is rough, even for the Hardy Few.

My main criticism of such festivals (what's "festive" about it?) is that faculty and administration alike all too often regard them as "paying dues to the lunatic fringe," thereby precluding the necessity to have anything to do with 20th-century art during the other 51 weeks. The event is a comforting balm poured over their collective consciences. Such programs, indeed all New Music concerts, have the distinct disadvantage of placing the works of contemporary artists all side-by-side, one after the other, so that the uneducated audience (but presumably "interested," since they would not have bothered to show up at all otherwise) often experiences a deluge of the new, a tumbling aural juggernaut that wearies the ear to the extent that the good/bad/"interesting"/whatever features of a particular piece can in no way be effectively delineated. (I feel this is true even for the educated ear—regardless of what it says after the concert.) I don't know about you, but I confess that I have trouble with "all-Beethoven" concerts; even with an "all-Mozart," unless you choose carefully. An intelligent orchestral conductor would never program Beethoven/Johann Hoffmann/Boieldieu/Gossec side by side, yet with "the new stuff" we do it all the time. Does this help win over an audience? Does it enhance the stature of the contemporary composer as a caring, communicative artist? My plea here is for an amalgamation, an inclusion, and a sowing-the-seed in a vaster field of auditors and performers.

While there is room for the argument that the all-new-music jobs will bring in the "select few" who care (it's still how I spend a lot of my own time), we must as educators surely concern ourselves also with reaching the decent-sized, multi-faceted audience of "music-lovers." The present general concert audience, of course, views "the new-music-only" evenings as anathema and stays away in droves. The whole concept leaves a narcissistic taste in my ears which I confess bothers me at the present time. Now there is no denying the positive value of the Festival or New Music concert for many; a lot of the time in many areas of our country it is all the truly new music that one is likely to hear. But this practice is not predicated on what OUGHT TO BE but only what IS NOW.

I do not feel it important to really know exactly how to help the situation, how to create an affirmative, even cooperative attitude on the part of the interested lay concert-goer. Attempts are being made in many parts of the world. Our work with the new music ensembles must deal with investigating the means by which a decent start can be made. Our endeavors with the total Ensemble Program of a music school must be adamantly directed towards the best, i.e., all-encompassing education of our students, which brings me to my second promised perspective on the deployment of the Contemporary Ensemble: its relationship to the performers.


The Performer

I have personally been bothered, as have many of my educational colleagues, by the fact that in any "ensemble" set-up, regardless of its size, the primary goal is public presentation. I do not believe that any ensemble can function effectively without some performance before an audience. It is, like it or not, the chief raison d'être, not only for the ensembles themselves as a group, but also for the psyche of the individual players. Without it, any morale—that intangible "esprit de corps"—is absent. Or is it? There are real educational dangers present with continual public performance emphasis. These pitfalls become all the more critical with respect to both the classical and contemporary music of the 20th century.

Let us consider for a moment the fetish of the public concert. Professor Lee Devin, Director of the Drama Department at Swarthmore College, in an article entitled "When Are You Going to Put on a Play?" answers:

My colleagues in the Department of English Literature report no similar pressure for publication of an anthology; I hear no call for the public presentation of a bridge by Engineering, or a bomb by Physics, or an aether by Mathematics.

Any attempt by a music teacher like myself, much less a conductor-performer, to even suggest that a liberal study of one's art might be undertaken for its own sake—as history might be studied by future housewives or insurance salesmen—is countered with the steely strength of the committed ideologue repeating that music is a "performing art," and that it has validity only in performance "before an audience." Only before an audience can a musician accomplish his art. And so on.

From my underground, esoteric side of the tracks, the trouble with such arguments is that they are true—within the limited experience of their spokesmen. Within the professional educator's practice of his art, on the other hand, may I suggest that such arguments may be irrelevant? It is often hard to grasp the possibility (especially for one trained to the contrary since Elementary School Band) that an artist, even a student, may be more interested in his work than in your opinion of that work. Jerry Lewis, when questioned about movie critics' denigration of his on-screen "silliness," said it well: "God didn't put me for my time on earth to do things for the approval of others."

A serious artist will be the final arbiter of, and will accept responsibility for, his art. This holds true for the least skilled beginner as well as the DMA student. The extension of this acceptance of responsibility, however, demands new application of our skills and often repudiates the student's constant training in the commonly held view that audience response measures quality. Such a public commercial standard is usually stated thus: all great composers have been successful in their own time. While this may or may not be true, its extended converse, that all success in the concert hall equals greatness, is of course patently false and lies in wait for even the most honest among us.

The "audience support" view of the constant necessity of public performance derives from a common misconception that it is mandatory for a music student to study to become a performer. 'Tain't necessarily so: he may study performance itself. That study may not include "personal" relationship with an audience any more than students of political science need hold public office.

To quote Mr. Devin again:

Indeed, even for apprentice actors, the psychological strain of public performance is a burden best put off as long as possible. At the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City, a conservatory serving the commercial theatre, students do not perform publicly until well into the second year of their two-year graduate course. Not the least of the unfair consequences of public performance is the student's conservatism, the unwillingness to dare to experiment which naturally inhibits a beginner who submits his work to public judgement by people whose expectations have little to do with his education.

Why not aim instead to offer study in New Music as an end in itself? Or better yet, as preparation for making intelligent decisions once the student is out in the world and attempting to earn a living? I would suggest, especially with respect to the Neue Musik (though it seems to me to hold true for Schubert, Mahler, et al as well), that a student may find it beneficial to sometimes forego the superficial rewards of standard performance—exhibition and applause—and learn instead to find new or certainly different rewards in the achievement of inner-directed work toward objectives that are established by one's self. An ancient Chinese Proverb comes to my mind (filtered through my father): "Teachers only open the door . . . you must enter by yourself."

By freeing the musician of his continual obligations to an audience, some time is then made available to allow him the freedom "to get on with it"; this forces him to both recognize his own work and to be more truly responsive to the efforts of his peers around him. Concerning similar techniques in training undergraduate actors at Swarthmore College, Mr. Devin observes:

Listening to such a discussion late one night, the chairman of a fairly large drama department in a southern university turned to me and said, "Oh, I get it now. You're not teaching these kids anything: they're learning!"

I am not, however, a disciple of never playing in public, but only advocate a reasonable consideration of how to best educate our students. Some performance before an audience is necessary, but how much? Besides, contemporary music, like all music before it, possesses its own peculiarities. In the typical new music score, the student is confronted with a plethora of resources, demands, and techniques that she or he is somehow supposed to use in achieving a number of ill-defined "artistic" ends. In an organization geared only to public performance, the player selects pragmatically: Did this work on the last concert for that piece? Will it work again in this one? Definitions of "work" are left vague, usually implying "what this particular composer was trying to say." Only rarely can the fledgling performer analyze even a part of a work—or study it, or choose among the variables, if any, or try differing solutions—in short, observe the effects of his choices. He has no firm basis for making artistic decisions for himself concerning music that is indeed often quite "foreign" to him. Teacher-training institutions are now becoming less and less hostile to the idea of teaching courses in How To Do It as opposed to What Was Done. Yet they have not developed realistic How To Do It expectations; they have not enforced standards for the "standard" skills such as rhythmic analysis (counting) and aural comparison (ear training). The problems of teaching newer notations, eighth note septuplets, disjunct melodic lines, highly contrasted dynamics, recent structural designs, etc., have not been widely solved.

The most insidious result of the concert-every-five-to-six-weeks-bag is that, although the particular pieces change, the rehearsal techniques remain substantially unaltered. The directors re-slog through, attempting to get at as much "perfection" as possible prior to the next public performance three, four, six weeks away. There may be minor differences in stylistic nuance, a slightly more or less novel proportional or graphic notational system, etc., but the procedure remains the same: to try and get the right notes in the right places at the right speed with correct dynamics, in the time allotted for preparation. When constant concert preparation can be avoided and space thereby opened up, when further time can be created—and used—it is a most worthy endeavor to then attempt, as a conductor or coach, to take the students "past their heads"—beyond the 4- to 6-week "note learnin'" stage and devote effort, ears, and thought to other concerns. For example, to perfect the phrasing of a short and difficult passage; to discuss slight alternatives with respect to tempo and dynamics and their effect on the overall structure; to elicit a complete aural comprehension of another player's part; in short, to really "get into" the work just as one does, or certainly ought to do, with that traditional other music.

In my personal experience, the results of such circumstances, when they were allowed to occur, are still memorable to me: 1) at Ohio University, a performance of Bob Ashley's "Quartet"; 2) at the University of Michigan, dress rehearsals of Robert Erickson's "Pacific Sirens" and the "Éclat" of Pierre Boulez; a performance of Donald Harris' "Ludus I" and Hal Budd's "Black Flowers"; 3) the Musica Nova Ensemble at Eastman playing in public concert for the 8th time, following a Mid-west tour, the works of Stephen Albert and Murray Schafer. These few occasions all reminded me of selected jazz band gigs I used to play in my youth where everyone in the ensemble was totally "with you," where the state of normality was four inches off the floor, where everyone knew and dug what everyone else was doing! All too seldom do any of our students experience this sort of "happening." It is indeed too bad, since they would spend the rest of their lives as musicians working, striving, and yearning to re-create it!

Behavioral science has taught us that it is the secondary reinforcements that effect the most meaningful and permanent instruction. It is often the emotional relationship derived from an experience that effects the greatest actual learning.

I cannot of course speak for the members of my own Ensembles, but can only testify to a personal reaction, which I trust was a musical one, to what I perceived, under optimum conditions, to be the students' own singular involvement in some of the aforementioned performances. Was this involvement due simply to sufficient rehearsal time instead of the usual three- to four-week scramble? Was it due to the music itself which, although stylistically greatly varied, demanded a degree of awareness and exactitude that was foreign to the student's past experience? Was it the realization that truly well-rehearsed presentations of Stockhausen's "Kontakte" or the "Dans le Sable" of Loren Rush could offer the player the same kind of "musical electricity" he had perhaps only experienced heretofore in playing Haydn or Debussy?

I cannot say. But obviously, such relaxed, "inward," thoughtful preparedness—and the time allotted for satisfactory learning—is equally essential for as yet unheard scores as for the warhorses we love. Yet this time is all-too-rarely allowed. Furthermore, such quality performances really do get out "across the footlights" and create at the very least a not-unpleasant effect for the lay public, regardless of how "difficult" a particular new score might be.

For any good ensemble may surely be seen as a cooperation amongst its artist-members, students, and teacher. The establishment of truly professional relationships which have the trust and intimacy necessary for serious work requires an enormously difficult effort of group will and time to nurture that will. I issue a plea for attention to the process, not the product; especially concerning the "unknown" music of our time.

To quote Mr. Devin once again:

We work in our theatre at all levels of talent at once; we measure, not the level reached, but the quality of reaching (emphasis mine). Our relation to art is one of discovery and we need not prescribe goals beyond a full participation.

When we as teachers stress the results first, we imply that we know in advance where our pursuit of the knowledge of our art will take us; and when we start with that assumption, it will never take us anywhere, or at least only as far as our limited predetermined goal. It also, of course, imposes that limit on the potential of our students, on their youthful energy, on their innocence, on their idealism. (Napoleon: "He who knows exactly where he is going will not go far.")

The words of the playwright Peter Weiss often echo back to me: "The important thing is to pull ourselves up by our own hair; to turn ourselves inside out and see the situation with fresh eyes."

2644 Last modified on November 9, 2018