Music for 25 Writers: The NEA Institute and the Contemporary Canon

Music for 25 Writers: The NEA Institute and the Contemporary Canon

NEA Institute participants at a critical moment: (left to right) Dori O’Neal, Laura Emerick, Peter Lefevre, Claire Blaustein, Rick Rogers
(All photos by Jason Gross)

The question of how the music of our time should be included in the classical canon has been debated everywhere: articles, board rooms, stages, and books, as well as in a lecture room on the sixth floor of Columbia University’s School of Journalism. It was there in Manhattan that the third annual National Endowment for the Arts’ Institute in Classical Music and Opera was recently held in late October, drawing in 25 music journalists from across the country, specifically “outside of the top media markets.”

The participants came from an impressive span of the country—Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Wisconsin—and included a good balance of men and women. Most came from print backgrounds where their short-sighted editors slotted them to cover the classical music beat since they were already covering other arts (i.e. dance, theatre). At the Institute, each of them received an eleven-day crash course in the mechanisms of the classical world including lectures, writing assignments, workshops, discussions, venue tours, and concerts. Somewhere in this week-and-a-half marathon, they also received a glimpse of contemporary music and hopefully had their thinking changed as to how they might cover it in the future.

Program organizers (left to right) Joe Horowitz, Anya Grundmann, and András Szántó

The Institute—run by András Szántó, the former director of the National Arts Journalism Program (which the Institute developed out of), in collaboration with NPR’s Senior Special Projects Producer Anya Grundmann and author/arts consultant Joseph Horowitz—strived to show these that these media people were part of a community where they could communicate, share ideas, and not feel isolated in their work, all to help ensure an ongoing and vibrant discussion of classical music in the media sphere. As part of these goals, the Institute arranged discussions with noted writers such as John Rockwell (The New York Times), Steve Smith (Time Out New York), and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal). They also rubbed elbows with directors from Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Miller Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the American Symphony Orchestra. The group attended the New York City Opera’s production of Cosí fan tutte, a Bach recital, two different versions of Mozart’s Linz symphony (for comparison), a pair of Shostakovich symphonies, and the Met’s production of Madama Butterfly. They managed to fit in all of this in addition to being exposed to some high-profile contemporary music events and speakers.


A Tale of Two Receptions

On day six of the Institute, the group gathered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM Communications Director Sandy Sawotka gave them a tour of BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Institute co-organizer Joseph Horowitz toasted the space’s excellent acoustics while the group asked about the architecture and décor there. They then strolled to BAM’s Gillman Opera House where Horowitz lectured again, explaining how the venue had fallen into neglect in the 1950s and 1960s, but has had a resurgence in recent decades.

From there, the group met up with Joseph Melillo, BAM’s artistic director. Melillo started the Next Wave festival upon his arrival 24 years ago, and described the festival as a mechanism for supporting American artists from the non-traditional community, artists who are usually denied the means to do a large-scale interdisciplinary work. Melilo explained that he’s constantly traveling in search of pieces to present, working one to two years ahead of time to plan the schedules. The NEA group was clearly interested in what he had to say, peppering him with questions about his criteria for selecting pieces, as well as working with peer institutions and other venues using new media.

About an hour into the discussion, a trio of artists arrived who were premiering their new work for an American audience that evening: Violet Fire, an opera about inventor Nicolas Tesla. Composer Jon Gibson, librettist Miriam Seidel and director Terry O’Reilly told how it took them 15 years to finally get the work produced. In the middle of this conversation, an extraordinary moment occurred. Gibson reluctantly admitted, “They call me a minimalist…” at which point Chris Waddington from the NEA group (freelancer for the Times Picayune, New Orleans) replied, “We can rip the label off; there’s plenty of us in the room!” Along with the ensuing laughter, there was also a moment of realization of the power that the group ultimately held in their positions as musical arbiters across the country.

In an ideal world, the opera that night would have matched the expectations of such a bold institution as BAM. But that wasn’t to be. The NEA group was nearly unanimous in their derision. “Re-VOLT-ing!” declared Arkansas Democrat-Gazette writer Eric Harrison. Orange County Register freelance writer Peter Lefevre was alone in his admiration: “People walked out but it obviously affected them.” Did this bad reception concern the NEA leaders that the group would be turned off by contemporary fare now? Grundmann didn’t think so, reasoning that the show was innocuous but not damaging.

Proof of that came the next night at the Steve Reich 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. Famed jazz guitarist Pat Metheny performed Electric Counterpoint, playing over his own tape loops and creating such well-known Reich traits as phase-shifting patterns and an ebbing/flowing of the music. The second part of the program was another late-1980s piece from Reich, Different Trains, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Again, they played over taped segments of themselves, interspersed with ghostly, disembodied voices booming over the speakers, creating a lively, engaging atmosphere where the strings occasionally imitated train rhythms.

During the intermission, during which several of NEA participants gathered to discuss the show, it was telling that some of them were reluctant to make any judgmental statements about the pieces since they had never heard them before. This was especially curious since they weren’t willing to give the BAM performance the same benefit of the doubt. Reich is obviously the more established, lauded composer; most writers would find it hard to go out on a limb to criticize him at this point, whereas the lesser-known Gibson is an easier target for negative criticism.

The third and final part of the Carnegie concert didn’t lend itself to any reserved judgments. Reich appeared with his ensemble to perform his most famous piece, Music for 18 Musicians. The live performance proved magical with an interweaving tapestry of sound shimmering throughout the other-worldly composition. Near the end, the pace picked up and the pulse of the piece disappeared. Afterwards, the hall exploded in applause, forcing Reich and his group to come out for three bows. Later at a nearby restaurant, the NEA group buzzed about the show, sensing that they had witnessed something historic. Lefevre would later comment that “the Reich concert was one of the most profound musical experiences I have had.” Fellow NEA participant Edward Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee went even further, explaining that in large part because of the concert, “this program further fired my desire to champion this music as part of the greater continuum of music.”


Perhaps 160 Minutes is Not Enough Time for 100 Years of Music

New Yorker columnist Alex Ross was scheduled to present a three-hour lecture to the Institute’s participants covering the span of 20th-century music. However, the previous speaker, Nonesuch Records President Bob Hurwitz, drew such excitement from the attendees that it cut into 20 minutes of Ross’s allotted time. The late start meant that Ross had to hurry. He skipped through entire decades, movements, and genres. Plus, he ended his survey in 1985, completely leaving out the last 20 years. He also had to focus more on the development of individual styles, eschewing a strict chronology (which meant that he time-traveled back and forth a few times), only stopping once near the end for a leg-stretching break.

Alex Ross takes on the 20th Century

Ross sat at the front of the room with his Apple laptop hooked up to a large boombox as he fed through works from an iTunes playlist. He spoke softly, appearing amiable, thoughtful, and knowledgeable as he breezed through the material, occasionally pausing to play 20-30 second excerpts of the composers’ works. “This past century was an exciting and controversial time,” he told the group. “The worldwide audience is bigger now than a hundred years ago, and it’s spreading to a wider audience though culturally it feels smaller.”

Ross then went through some 30 compositions, touching on Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (“a new language”), Debussy’s impressionistic Pelléas et Mélisande, Stockhausen’s Gruppen (“free jazz before its time”), Berg’s violent Wozzeck, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which he explained was cheered on after the initial riots), Bartok’s folk-inspired quartet works, Varese’s Arcana (“industrial-strength atonal music”), and John Adams’s Harmonielehre (the only extended piece of music played). If anything, Ross sought to convey two points: 1) this music shouldn’t be intimidating or threatening to an audience; 2) there are increasingly “porous musical borders” between classical and other genres (i.e. rock, jazz, electronic music). It proved to be a dizzying amount of material for the group to digest in one sitting. Lefevre again might have made the astute observation, saying that “(Ross) made a lasting impression in ways that I am not sure I will be able to sort out for a few years.”


On the final day of the Institute, András Szántó summed up what they had covered and handed out evaluation forms. While they briefly roasted Violet Fire again, the Reich concert was judged to be a huge success, faring much better than some of the older works they’d heard. The group was definitely grateful for what Harrison called a “broadening perspective.” After Szántó, Grundmann, and Horowitz were presented with cards and gifts, Naomi Lewin (Cincinnati Public Radio announcer/producer) sang her own set of words describing the whole experience to the tune of the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River,” which the group had learned earlier in the week during a choral voice lesson session with Judith Clurman at Juilliard. And then, the Institute was finished.

Last day of the 2006 NEA Institute

Or was it? By now, the group has long been back at their respective desks and has decompressed, hopefully having sorted out all that they’d seen and heard. While this year’s group ultimately fared slightly better than last year’s group in terms of new music exposure, it was largely due to serendipity. Hearing Steve Reich’s music in New York during his birthday month this October was almost unavoidable. Last year’s Institute also included a Ross lecture and a trip to BAM for a tour and performance, but last year’s BAM performance featured pop-turned-classical diva Daniela Mercury.

While it’s difficult to squeeze in any more to such a super-saturated program, one would hope that there would be a place in a future curriculum for avant venues which also organize worthwhile fall-time fare: The Kitchen, Issue Project Room, Diapason (which featured the cross-cultural, cross-genre N Collective), Roulette, the Dream House (to witness famed minimalist master La Monte Young’s decades-long installation), Tonic, and the Stone (where this year they could have heard New York contemporary group Red Light New Music Ensemble kick off its new season), as well as institutions like the Electronic Music Foundation (which organized an environmentally-minded Ear to Earth festival), and Columbia’s own Computer Music Center. Also, including some of the contemporary fare as part of the writing seminars would have undoubtedly helped the participants to appreciate and understand it more, and ultimately communicate about it more effectively in print.

Regardless of any suggestions of what should be included in the program, the NEA Institute at the very least provided a good basis for the participants’ journey into the world of classical punditry and succeeded in connecting these writers from across the country and making them feel part of a community. In the end, the ultimate proof of how it effected their stance on contemporary music will come in what the participants decide to write about (or not write about) in their future columns, based on what they experience in their own communities.


Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first online music magazines. Along with freelance writing, he is also working with assorted members of the Gotham community on a New York City music commission as well as a world journalism project covering writers outside of America and England.

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