Campus Focus: University of Washington—The Laboratory of Performance

I have it on the authority of one of the principals of this story that one evening, walking away from the then peaceful confines of Columbia University, the then Dean of the College, a chemist, met the then Edward MacDowell Professor of Music, Douglas Moore. Said the Dean, "What's this, Professor Moore, what's this? You're teaching the appreciation of music. We don't teach the appreciation of chemistry—we teach chemistry."

Now, the moral taken from this is the burden of my song. If we are to teach beyond the appreciation of music, the theory of music, the history of music—if we are to teach music—we must have the laboratory of performance. For music is as inescapably a laboratory art as chemistry is inescapably a laboratory science.

Of all the arts in the House of Intellect, music is the oldest tenant and the most nearly house-broken. Present in the Academy, fourth in the Quadrivium, it is accepted as one of the enduring symbols of man. Its history interrelates with the civilizations of which it formed a part; those who write it or analyze it deal with a demanding form of non-verbal logic; the disciplines which it embodies provide a creative control for the deepest human impulses. But it is the essence of music—as of drama and dance—that it exists in performance. Those who value the performing arts, therefore, face the problem of performance; and this, in the House of Intellect, can be an awkward and uneasy guest.

Still, the test of performance is, I submit, an indispensable part of music's laboratory. Central to the performer, it is no less necessary to the training of the composer, the musicologist, the critic or the general student. Passive listening to the performance of others, analysis of written scores, writing of notes without the responsibility of hearing them played—all these are one critical step removed from fact. They are useful, sometimes indispensable supplements; but they are not best evidence. Let me quote the general who commanded and won the battle of the natural sciences 100 years back, Thomas Henry Huxley:

For my own part I would not raise a finger, if I could thereby introduce mere book work in science into every Arts curriculum in the country. Let those who want to study books devote themselves to Literature, in which we have the perfection of books, both as to substance and as to form. If I may paraphrase Hobbes's well-known aphorism, I would say that "books are the money of Literature, but only the counters of Science",* Science (in the sense in which I now use the term) being the knowledge of fact, of which every verbal description is but an incomplete and symbolic expression. And be assured that no teaching of science is worth anything, as a mental discipline, which is not based upon direct perception of the facts and practical exercise of the observing and logical faculties upon them. Even in such a simple matter as the mere comprehension of form as the most practiced and widely informed anatomist what is the difference between his knowledge of a structure which he has read about, and his knowledge of the same structure when he has seen it for himself and he will tell you that the two things are not comparable—the difference is infinite. Thus I am very strongly inclined to agree with some learned schoolmasters who say that, in their experience, the teaching of science is all waste time. As they teach it, I have no doubt it is. But to teach it otherwise requires an amount of personal labour and a development of means and appliances, which must strike horror and dismay into a man accustomed to mere book work; and who has been in the habit of teaching a class of fifty without much strain upon his energies. And this is one of the real difficulties in the way of the introduction of physical science into the ordinary University course. . . . (Science and Art and Education, 1882)

Now, of course, any musicology program worth its salt has its Collegium Musicum; any respectable program in ethnomusicology has its appropriate instruments and performing groups; in Western music it is usual to bring in travelling chamber groups and even orchestras playing the standard repertoire to supplement the indispensable K-ration of recordings.

But a school which pretends to train composers—and perhaps not every school should train composers—needs some very special laboratories. We already have the phenomenon of the second-generation composer. His teacher came from a generation whose music met the acid test of being played. The second generation composer, characteristically, has not undergone this test, or enough of it, and stands removed from and impatient with the realities of his art. He now teaches students of his own; and the works of the second generation make one tremble for the third. I will assert and not attempt to defend my opinion that it is necessary to have composers, and that they need special defense and protection. Writers most often labor in vain; but that is a better average than awaits much of the rest of mankind. The blunt fact remains that if performers are to play music and scholars to study it, someone must write it; and the past is running out.

If this is so, it is in our eventual self-interest to give faculty composers as well as student composers the chance to grow by hearing their music well played.

Well, what are the "means and appliances" a serious young composer should have? Clearly, however desirable he might find the prospect, he cannot be attended from his artistic cradle by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Also, it must be assumed that it is in the nature of the composers, young and old, to want something beyond what one is able to give them. But to assemble a basic laboratory—and to afford it—should not be beyond the wit of man.

It is traditional, desirable and practical to have the beginning young musician practice on and with his friends. It is fair to assume that a beginning composer will write for whatever medium he can assemble. If he is lucky, and in the right place, his teachers and fellows students will provide him with pick-up groups of sufficient variety to stimulate his imagination and provide him with the experience to move to the next stage.

At the next stage things get difficult. A student orchestra, or student quartet should not play too much student music. Their concerts should be principally toward developing standard techniques and exploring the standard repertoire. It is a dubious help to a young composer of modest experience to hear a bungled performance of a new piece. This can make him over-cautious, or desperately bold; but it cannot give him sound experience.

If the orchestra is to remain a viable instrument for the next generation of composers—one must hope for this, rather than have confidence in it—is there any way to give advanced training other than hiring a professional orchestra with adequate rehearsal time? And by adequate rehearsal time, I mean at least six rehearsals for the performance. I think those of us who train composers must come to this.

If so, the "means and appliances" of training in conventional orchestral writing have a price tag. Assuming that student composers—or student conductors, for whom the same factors apply—have enough material to occupy a full program, it would take a week's time of a symphony orchestra and cost perhaps $18,000 for a full orchestra, $8,000 to $10,000 for a small orchestra. As laboratories go, not cheap, but not too expensive, either. We should always remember that the research sciences cost a lot more.

Another area in which a laboratory is needed is electronic music. Whatever direction that controversial study will take—digital to analog computer or live instruments wired to the machine—the pre-packaged "boxes" of sound-generating equipment produced commercially today can provide an indispensable general beginning access. Cost, $3,000 to $30,000 plus someone to care for the machines. We should always remember that the research sciences cost a lot more.

But one important laboratory is not provided either by the orchestra or the machine. From the days of Pierrot Lunaire and Histoire du Soldat, much of the seminal music of this century has been written for non-standardized solo instrumental groups, often with voice. It should be clear from the first that such a group is no substitute for an orchestra, or vice versa. Confusion between what can be expected from a group of soloists with a great amount of preparation (including private woodshedding of parts) with what can be expected of an orchestra in any economic rehearsal circumstance, is at the heart of the alienation of the orchestras from many of today's composers. These Groups—the name "Group" seems to stick, although "Cluster" or even "Coven" might be equally appropriate—sprang up spontaneously at Columbia, Michigan and Mills, and have been established on a continuing basis at the Universities of Chicago, Iowa, New York at Buffalo, Washington, and the North Carolina School of the Arts, under grants from the Rockefeller Foundation. Juilliard, among others, has announced its independent entry.

As the titular proprietor of one such Group, I would like to submit a progress report. All the Groups have in common the fact that they are made up of soloists playing twentieth century music and concentrating on its frontiers. Beyond their similar personnel, the organization of the existing Groups is diverse. One—the Group at Rutgers—commuted from New York City and reacted very little with campus life. It is now defunct, and the moral should be drawn. One—The Contemporary Players of the University of Chicago—draws a fluctuating personnel from the musical life of that city. Ours enters actively into the academic life, since each participant is a faculty member or student and (except for the Group's director, William O. Smith) is assigned the bulk of his instructional and performance responsibility outside the Group.

What does our Group do? It gives twelve formal concerts a year, six on campus, six throughout the state, plus a number of informal ones. Its repertory runs from the Charles Ives of the Unanswered Question through Bartok (Songs), Stravinski (Octuor), Berio (Circles) and Crumb (Madrigals, Book II, and IV are being written for us) to the newest work of our youngest composer. The Group is the performance arm of the composition faculty. Each student work, up to chamber orchestra dimensions, is given to the Group on its completion for a rehearsed reading and recording. Students may try out bits of work in progress on members of the Group. Each of our six concerts off campus is followed, the next day, by a workshop session in which these same facilities are brought to composers in the remote areas of the state.

The Group is assigned the part-time services of our woodwind quintet (The Soni Ventorum), our string quartet (the Philadelphia Quartet), and our instructors in Trombone, Tuba, Percussion, Harp and Double-Bass. We lean on various student and faculty pianists, and are lucky enough to have the wife of composer Robert Suderburg, Associate Director of the Group, who serves us as soprano. We have, beyond this, five graduate fellows, playing various instruments; the graduate conducting students, as a required assignment; and those graduate and undergraduates enrolled in the Group as an ensemble, or released for that purpose from other ensembles.

This provides us with enough personnel to share the work, a desirable end also furthered by careful program making. For instance, a recent concert used 27 players for four pieces. Nine players played in two works, the rest in only one. Thus, using the same rehearsal time, we can obtain rehearsed performances without over burdening any one faculty member or student.

It should go without saying, in this age of the happening, that the Group is joined from time to time by tape, electronic alteration by Synkette, slides, lights and actors or dancers.

Of course, there is a price tag here, too. The Rutgers group reportedly was budgeted at $130,000 a year. A Group structured like Chicago's will obviously vary in cost according to the frequency of appearances and size of the group. Our allocated cost is about $85,000 a year. We must always remember that the natural sciences cost a lot more.

For what we are talking about here is discretionary money, research-type money. An institution which needs $85,000 to pay 8½ assistant professors of Romance language meets that need first. An institution which sponsors research, subsidizes a press or some learned journals should emphatically consider this kind of laboratory for new music.

Is it worth it? In our case, yes. I am not thinking merely of the composers involved, although they are its primary justification. Our Group keeps our faculty performers active on the frontier. Our students regard participation in far-out sound as a normal assignment and view startling compositions responsibly, without unseemly merriment, unless it's evidently called for. Our student conductors, first asking, "How on earth do you do this?" proceed to do it. Our audiences—which vary from 200-400—range from senior professors (more scientists than humanists) through the city's musical community to individuals who may be hippies. Our trips throughout the state are gratefully received, and are part of what we conceive to be the responsibility of the State University to its state-wide constituency. The project encourages open-mindedness; and those who don't like it don't come.

Beyond this, there are certain fringe benefits. Our performances can be repeated on campus radio, or taped for campus TV. We have just taped a recording for release through Decca, and our University Press is proposing its own record series, to include the Group.

Thus what we do fits the University's research pattern almost exactly. Faculty and students work together on co-operative projects in experimental areas. They relate this to the past, and explore means which may benefit the future. They make the results of their efforts known to the audience which is interested. And it costs money.

Let me add up the price tags of the laboratories I propose, bearing in mind that no institution that I know has all of them. For one week of full size professional orchestra, $18,000. For the electronic studio, an amortized cost of $3,000 a year plus perhaps $12,000 a year to run it. For a Group, or part of a Group, our $85,000 is probably median. Total, about $118,000 a year.

Expensive, yes. Out of scale, no. Music has suffered, in my judgement, by our own apparent inability to define our artistic needs in economic terms and to fight for them. If we do not make evident our potentialities and necessities, we are to blame ourselves if we do not realize them. If we do not take the needs of our art seriously and responsibly, who will?

I have heard it said that this or that is not "the University way of doing things." So much the worse for that university. With my University, I have found that demonstration of a documented need will produce an eventual change. If Thomas Henry Huxley could start the natural sciences toward their present level of university support, it behooves us to follow his example. If we are to adequately train composers, or audiences, for that matter, we must come to the "means and appliances" we need, and a phonograph record is not enough.

One word of caution: It would be a mistake, I think, to form a permanent Group which had nothing else to do than play 20th century music. That way madness lies. I am talking of a percentage of time of performing-teachers whose academic or professional responsibilities include other kinds of music.

And one word of reassurance: It is sometimes possible to use ingenuity rather than money. Many symphony orchestras, compelled by economic factors to present concerts for more weeks a year than there are audiences, can be approached for a cut-rate. Out-of-pocket expenditures for technicians for electronics studios can be found under student aid. And our assignments of 30% of a faculty member's time to the Contemporary Group leave 70% time for more conventional instruction. Beyond this, a Group can and should be shared and the cost with it. We give six concerts of our Contemporary Group away to other institutions; but, for example, we co-sponsor our string quartet with three other colleges, and share the cost. Such a co-operative venture might work well in a state system, or the City Colleges of New York, or a group, cluster or coven of independent colleges.

To sum up: I believe that music must have its laboratories; that in order to train and maintain composers at all and properly to train musicians and audiences alike, these should include conventional "means and appliances," such as the symphony orchestra; access to electronic sound; and access to a highly skilled performing group specializing in new music. While the projected cost is high, it is within scale of other research-sponsored activities common to many universities, and the cost may be brought down by sharing facilities.

The most important idea, to me, is that art and intelligence are one, and I turn again to the invaluable Huxley, who said in 1882:

All the subjects of our thoughts, all feelings and propositions, all our mental furniture—may be classified under one of two heads—as either within the province of the intellect, something that can be put into propositions and affirmed or denied; or as within the province of feeling, . . . which can be neither proved or disproved, but only felt and known.

According to the classification which I have put before you, then, . . . all things with which the reasoning facility alone is occupied, come under the province of science; and in its broadest sense, and not in the narrow and technical sense in which we are now accustomed to use the word art, all things feelable, all things which stir our emotions, come under the term of art . . .

Now, it is a very remarkable fact—but it is true of most things in this world—that there is hardly anything one-sided, or of one nature; and it is not immediately obvious what of the things that interest us may be regarded as pure sciences, and what may be regarded as pure art . . . I think it may be said that mechanics and osteology are pure science. On the other hand, melody in music is pure art. You cannot reason about it; there is no proposition involved in it . . . But a great mathematician will . . . speak of solutions and problems as "elegant," and they tell you that a certain mass of mystic symbols is "beautiful, quite lovely." Well, you do not see it. They do see it, because the intellectual process, the process of comprehending the reasons symbolized by these figures and these signs, confers upon them a sort of pleasure, such as an artist has in visual symmetry. Take a science of which I am concerned with. It is what we call morphology, which consists in tracing out the unity in variety of the infinitely diversified structure of animals and plants. I cannot give you any example of a thorough aesthetic pleasure more intensely real than a pleasure of this kind—the pleasure which rises in one's mind when a whole mass of different structures run into one harmony as the expression of a central law. That is where the province of art overlays and embraces the province of intellect. And, if I may venture to express an opinion on such a subject, the great majority of forms of art are not in the sense what I just now defined them to be—pure art; but they derive much of their quality from simultaneous and even unconscious excitement of the intellect.

"The province of art overlays and embraces the province of intellect." If this is so (and I believe it) the arts should speak proudly in the House of Intellect, to say that we are expensive, and worth it.


*Hobbes aphorism in this context, is less than flattering: "Words are wise men's counters—they do but reckon with them; but they are the money of fools."

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Last modified on Tuesday, 17/04/2018

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