New Music: A Progress Report January 3, 1974

There must be almost twice as many new music events in New York this season as there were only a couple of years ago, and on the whole they are better presented, more adventurous, and more diversified. So much so, that it seems safe to say that this city has become the most important center for new music in the world. A composer who recently came here from London, after looking over the November listings on the Center for New Music calendar, concluded that New York offers more new music in one month than London does during the entire season. Others from Rome and Berlin have been equally impressed.

In December alone, according to my computations, 15 concerts of experimental jazz and free-form improvisation were given, not counting the weekend events at Studio Rivbee. There were seven one-man concerts oriented toward electronics, seven all-contemporary concerts by different chamber groups, two all-Cage concerts, a marathon of new music, two programs at WBAI’s Free Music Store, several events at SoHo galleries, two programs by the New Wilderness Preservation Band, several appearances by Steve Reich and Musicians, and a Philip Glass concert, not to mention three concerts in Great Neck, one Avant-Garde Festival, and a whole raft of concerts which mixed new music with old.

Granted the attendance was small at many of these events, but it represents a vast increase over the number of New Yorkers who were seeking fresh musical stimulation a few years ago. And we are not dealing with the evolution of one school, but a burgeoning of activity in many new directions at once: maximal approaches, minimal approaches, cross-cultural approaches, electronic devices, theatrical forms, highly controlled idioms, and open-ended idioms. And in general the performance standards and the level of creative responsibility at such concerts is quite high.

I think the main reason for the increased activity is simply that so many fine composers are working here at the moment, something like what happened in Paris in the ’20s. They go to each other’s concerts, talk shop a lot, learn from each other, develop friendly competition, and establish higher and higher standards. The energy is contagious, so everyone does a lot of work, outsiders move to the center to be in the swim of things, and everything snowballs.

There are other factors too. Places like the Kitchen, WBAI’s Free Music Store, the Cubiculo, and a variety of lofts, churches, and galleries provide performance spaces at no cost to the artists, and with an unprecedented degree of artistic license. At such places no one will tell composers or groups that they have to be finished by 11 p.m. because of union regulations, or that they must submit scores to a committee, or that they must guarantee an audience of so many people, or that they cannot write for such-and-such instruments, or even that they have to keep their clothes on.

We have had fine performers of contemporary music in New York for a long time, but I think there are more now, and they are more adventurous. Quite a few of them are sufficiently dedicated to new music that they will occasionally perform gratis when someone tries to organize a performance of a new work and no funds are available.

Among subsidiary advantages available to New York composers, the Center for New Music has been particularly useful in publicizing concerts for groups with spartan advertising budgets. Publicists and producers of new music also seem to be more capable than a few years ago. And of course, the New York State Council on the Arts, the largest of all the state arts councils, is an important force, since it sponsors many experimental ventures which would probably be impossible to subsidize in any other state.

In a conversation following a concert in Phill Niblock’s loft, someone commented that the atmosphere reminded him of the gatherings some 10 years ago in Yoko Ono’s loft. Those seminal events were a prime source for Fluxus, happenings, conceptual art, the Something Else Press, and many of the intermedia innovations of the ’60s. If things continue the way they are, a number of important composers and a whole era of valuable musical literature will soon emerge from New York’s current boiling pot of off-beat musical activity.

With that optimistic prediction, I should perhaps admit that I have been writing this article in a cheerful holiday mood. I could, and often do, go into more specific and more depressing questions, but I thought it would be nice to start the new year by emphasizing the positive. Besides, there are bound to be plenty of gloomy articles in the Voice this week without my adding another one. Happy New Year.