SA Issue 4: Nate Wooley on Chasing Down Utopias: New Views of American Music

There are times when the tone of a piece of writing belittles the passion of the intent. I feel it worth mentioning that this essay is the base of a number of talks I’ve given at a handful of University colloquia and critical theory courses in the U.S. in the past six months (and will hopefully continue to do). This has been the happiest of surprises for me as it represents the chance to bring the philosophy of DRAM and Sound American to a lot hungry ears and minds. I feel like the tone of the writing in Chasing Down Utopias fits the subject matter and is appropriate to its intended audience but is not the tone I would typically use in an issue of Sound American, and so I felt it necessary to write this brief introduction. The fact of the matter is that we’ve entered a period in our cultural history when an artist is only partially recognized due to merit. As a curmudgeon, I constantly feel the need to fight a blind acceptance of one set of musical ideas or personality over another based on media frequency over critical subjective aesthetics. When we give up our desire to find something truly new and lose our ability fight passionately for an artist, art form, or work that truly moves us personally…and fight for it rationally and intelligently…then we’ve given up our person.

The following 3000 words or so boil down to this: our musical culture is deeper, more profound, stranger, and more stunningly beautiful than many of us see or are allowed to experience. I’m proud to have the ability to tilt at this particular windmill, but we need more minds tilting at more windmills and doing it loudly. When it comes to music, every dollar spent on a recording or live performance and every hour spent listening to something new…or to something old with new ears…brings us all closer to fulfilling a cultural potential that has grown dusty with non-use. For every utopian idea out there, there is a possibility of pragmatic work towards real change. This essay outlines some of the ways that we’re starting to think about this issue or project, but I hope it will be a challenge to everyone reading it, in whatever capacity they’re in, to do the same…or hopefully better.-Nate Wooley February 1, 2013

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Chasing Down Utopias: New Views of American Music

The position of DRAM curator contains the serious responsibility that comes with any kind of sincere attempt to define and present “American Music”. As institutions DRAM and Sound American have actively been engaging in a broad project to leverage the little power they have to bring more people into a world in which experimentation, aesthetics, passionate personalities, and critical thinking become paramount over market value and public relations.

The project is daunting. It is unending, glacially progressive, and at times seemingly futile. There is an element, specifically in the context of an ever-evolving curatorial project such as DRAM/SA of Sisyphean effort…of mental and social stringing-of-beads-without-a-knot that, while frustrating, provides a promise of real social change that is satisfying to those that choose to undertake it. It is a desire to complete the eternal, to attempt to make utopia pragmatic and achievable. Erik Olin Wright, founder and curator of Verso Publishing’s fantastic Real Utopias Project, sums the idea up in a more profound way in his definition of a “real utopia”:

"Real Utopia" seems like a contradiction in terms. Utopias are fantasies, morally inspired designs for social life unconstrained by realistic considerations of human psychology and social feasibility. Realists eschew such fantasies. What is needed are hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our institutions. Instead of indulging in utopian dreams we must accommodate to practical realities.

After discovering Olin Wright’s work I was forced to recognize that, by trying to create an organic and flexible picture of a country’s musical forms, even a relatively young country such as the United States, DRAM was engaging in this kind of project. Our efforts are utopian by definition in that any perception that DRAM has an achievable end could be easily dismissed as “fantasy…unconstrained by realistic considerations of human psychology and social feasibility”. I certainly have dismissed it as such more times than I can count. However, I was moved by Olin Wright’s idea of taking firm, realistic, and pragmatic steps toward a utopian goal. Whether the goal is achieved (or achievable) becomes moot, but the actual work that is done on that goal’s behalf, the nuts and bolts that construct a more complex working machine to make cultural widgets, is where the real aesthetic and social progress can be made.

And, that’s where things get a bit sticky. At the risk of reveling in my own self-absorption, I’m attempting to put down in print the process that I, and many others in the same position, have undertaken and the initial direction that has been laid out specifically for DRAM. With that in mind, I think it’s fitting that the path starts with a little history of the American Music Recording Project, and how it evolved into New World Records and DRAM/SA for two reasons: first, that it goes hand in hand with the tremendous work that people like Dick Spottswood and Ian Nagoski have been doing with only partial or no institutional support, and secondly that the early work of Herman Krawitz and company has provided a very important framework upon which we can build a new model of how we can define American music.

In 1974 Herman Krawitz conducted the American Music Recording Project study. This study identified an urgent need for the creation of audio recordings, to both preserve the wealth of American music for future generations and address the needs of living American composers whose music was woefully unavailable to the public at large.  Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the study ultimately inspired a donation of $4 million dollars toward the production of a cultural gift in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial: a set of 100 LPs of American music, to be disseminated to the library of every college in the US that had a music program.

To quote from the opening paragraph of the grant proposal:

“Over the past ten years, the officers of The Rockefeller Foundation have sought a way of using recordings to help make Americans conscious of our musical experience, both past and present. A basic consideration from the outset has been the fact that recordings, more than any other medium, make music accessible to the general public.  Associated concerns have been to assure the recording and dissemination of American music that has not and probably would not be considered commercially feasible, and to create a body of material that would constitute an important educational resource for the musical profession and the public alike.  In pursuit of these aims, the suggestions and opinions of many distinguished composers, historians, performers, and professionals in the fields of music education and recording have been solicited, and a rich and stimulating flow of discussion and correspondence has resulted.”

The proposal advocated the creation of a not-for-profit recording label with the following mission:

“The American Music Recording Project would have as its task the selection, recording, and distribution of American music from the earliest days to the present: an anthology reflecting our musical life—and, thereby, our national life—in all its richness and diversity.  By no means restricted to formal art music, this anthology would be designed to represent the musical achievements and practices of all America’s people, from the native Indians through all the successive waves of immigration; the many roles that music plays in our society: in adults’ work and children’s play, in popular entertainment, in religious worship, on occasions of state, and as ‘art for art’s sake’. The resulting ‘musical portrait of the American people’ would be an unprecedented document in sound, and an unparalleled educational tool for Americans as well as people of other nations.”

Incorporated under the name Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc., the American Music Recording Project took the form of a label—New World Records—which continues today to follow that mission. Not as a matter of tradition, but of continuing relevance.

Some of the ways in which DRAM continues to expand on these ideas almost 40 years later will be touched upon later in this essay, but it's important to first understand the curatorial foundation of the seminal 100 LP collection.

Based on recommendations from a collection of 14 music historians, composers, and archivists, New World Records placed historical recordings side-by-side with newly commissioned recordings being released for the first time as part of the Anthology.  These juxtapositions occurred not just within LPs, but between the LPs themselves. The first series of 10 LPs included the music of Charles Tomlinson Griffes; Revolutionary Era Art Song; a collection of period recordings from Sissel & Blake’s early musical, Shuffle Along;  Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; Native American religious music; Henry Cowell’s piano music; the Swift Jewel Cowboys; Marian Anderson… presented next to each other, stirring the listener to question what was and could be contained in the American musical form.

The repertory programming of the “original 100,” as it is called at DRAM, was based entirely on a XY axis grid system.  This was intended to produce a “comprehensive but not exhaustive” picture of American musical history up to that point in time.  One axis was populated by musical genres, consisting of Jazz, Religious Music, Classical Music, Theater, Dance, Film, Popular, Folk/Ethnic, Music for the Home, Children’s Music, and “American Sounds” which consisted primarily of marching band music.  The other axis separated these genres into historical periods. So, for example, in the Religious Music genre, the grid was split into periods consisting of 1620-1860, 1860-1914, and 1914-1974.

The original 100 was globally distributed to over 8,000 libraries and music schools, and was ultimately successful in its aim.  It brought, through its well-crafted curatorial vision and erudite liner notes, a comprehensive picture of a broad national cultural heritage to a massive number of students who used the LPs either as a research tool or for general appreciative listening.

New World Records was so successful, in fact, that the Rockefeller Foundation and Frances Goelet, among others, have supported it in pursuit of its mission through the present day. The label releases 12-16 new discs each year, in a repertoire that continues to place overlooked works of historical significance alongside those of contemporary American composers.

In 2000 Herman Krawitz, then still President of New World Records, began to see the writing on the wall with regard to the future of music on compact disc. He began crafting proposals to launch an online subscription service for the constituency that had always been New World Records’ base of support— the original recipients of the 100 LP anthology, academic libraries and music schools.

The initial goal of this online enterprise was to amass enough content of a certain type to make it worthy of subscription by colleges worldwide. DRAM and New World’s current President, Lisa Kahlden (then the Project Manager of DRAM) and her first staff did that, by introducing participating labels that would provide a good base overview of experimental classical and electronic music such as Mode, XI, Lovely Music, Pogus, Deep Listening Music, Albany, and many more.  The hope was to feature music that would represent lesser-heard, more experimental corners of the American musical landscape and at the same time separate DRAM from its primary competitors in the academic streaming services market, with their emphasis on mainstream repertoire. 

And that is precisely what it has done up to this point. It’s been a great success and now DRAM must undertake the task of tweaking the settings slightly to try to adapt to the changes being forced upon us, not only in technology, but in the way that globalization begins to redefine what our national cultural traditions and aesthetics are based upon. Which brings us back to the problems of putting a “real utopian” idea into practice.

It becomes clear that we have a philosophical goal in place: finding new definitions of American culture and then finding a pragmatic way of building as complete a vision of American musical culture as we can. There’s also a historical institutional framework: the matrix used to curate the Original 100 LPs and the work of New World Records that followed. It’s essential that we consider and use this matrix as a base to build upon as we make decisions about how to put ideas into practice and begin to build out superstructures towards our goal.

So after a long introduction we find ourselves, at last, on street level, and codifying new ideas to put into motion the best we can. One way that we can approach a more complete view of what American music is, as represented in the database, is by taking a new look at the curatorial matrix used to create the Original 100 LP set. It’s an elegant approach consisting of a XY axis of time periods and genres, but as a model it can provide only a linear mode of growth and discovery in a time when we are trying to expand our concept of American music in a way that allows for changing subtleties and the ability to adjust to new information, new audiences, and new ways of thinking about our own history. What we’re trying to slowly implement at DRAM and through Sound American is more of a three-dimensional model of curation. One that still utilizes the original American Music Recording Project axes as its base, but builds out upon it in multiple directions.

One such direction is to begin to look at the individual histories of specific regions of the U.S. and to slowly piece together an organic patchwork vision of an American musical aesthetic by delving deeply into the musical heroes, legendary venues, specific regional styles, and social and musical history of one city or region at a time, placing that information within a “digital map” of sorts as we slowly fill in the history of American music, one region at a time. This is not the sort of linear development of information that allows the researcher to definitively declare “this is American music”, but when viewed from the attitude of stepping back and looking at the larger picture it can provide an effective overview of the dynamism of a young nation’s musical developments and trends. Moreover, it is an updatable vision, one that allows the curator or the researcher to add new information to each region as subtle changes in musical styles occur, new musical heroes come and go, and venues open and close. It opens the possibility of a living, breathing, evolving history.

We start this part of the experiment in the next issue of Sound American and with our first regional archive in DRAM. The Philadelphia Music Project and Pew Charitable Trust are supporting us in this project, a support we are very grateful for and should mention. In researching Philadelphia, I’m working through the different genres and time periods, as in the Original 100 LP matrix, but finding new ways to connect historical figures and ensembles together to talk about what is special about Philadelphia and how the city and its social structure makes musicians there unique.

One of the other ideas that we’re trying to layer upon our three dimensional model is the idea of presenting a “complete, but not exhaustive” picture of American music. Although this has always been the aim of the organization, the definition of “complete” can, I think, be updated in a way that allows us more room to engage with the subtleties of the project.

The main concern with the idea of what “complete” is how to maintain a viewpoint that is as objective and inclusive as possible while being forced to make curatorial decisions that, through necessity, lead to exclusion. One aspect of expanding this definition is the act of taking into account fringe or underground composers and performers and promoting artists who have begun to affect their peers but may be a long way from proving themselves within our current construct of historical relevance.

Often it is the case that musicians that have had a profound impact on the work of those around them are overlooked in lieu of them not meeting a certain set of criteria to prove that a writer or historian’s time isn’t being wasted on music that may be deemed culturally irrelevant. These musicians can be providing impetus to new music that will be taken up by someone at a later date, but it may be too early in their career to attach importance to their ideas. There is also a possibility that their work never makes it into a musical mainstream that includes concert halls, famous jazz or rock clubs, which would make it of sufficient interest to a writer or historian. In the past, this exclusion has been justified by the limits of print space and appealing to the public en masse. However, given the expanse of digital media storage, the ability to stream music, and a growing splintering of a mass public into smaller, more specific interest groups, there is an increased ability to highlight artists beyond those that have become part of an agreed-upon canon. The hope is that, by including these artists, our picture of American musical culture on the individual level expands out in the same manner of the previous example of providing regional histories. By loosening the definition of what creates historical relevance, we gain the ability to stand back and get an organic and evolving patchwork view of the personalities of ALL of those responsible for defining American music not just the small handful that have been held as examples of mass movements of cultural thought.

This issue is the first of this experiment by highlighting a group of people that are influential amongst musicians and listeners without having necessarily performed for wide audiences. The act of shedding light on someone like Eric Isaacson, Josh Rosenthal, Angela Sawyer, Dick Spottswood, or Ian Nagoski, hopefully will show a new depth of American musical history. Beyond Aaron Copland, Steve Reich, Leadbelly, and Duke Ellington, there are people that are responsible for making American music something specific, unique and wonderful. They have a place in our three-dimensional vision of what American musical culture is. In the coming months, we will be adding an archive of Ian Nagoski’s work that will be coupled by his research and his passion for saving the memories of past musical unknowns and icons and trying to understand how they lived and what part their experience in America played in the making of their music, even if that music came traditionally from a different country altogether.

These are just two examples of how we’re attempting to do ground level work toward a certain ideal. This institution, the way we view American musical history, is one that has nothing inherently wrong with it. It will continue in it’s direction for years to come and will be as substantive and fulfilling to students and laypeople alike for its duration. What we’re working with now is the possibility of creating something that can be taken alongside our traditional sets of information. It can provide new ways of looking at our culture and new points of discussion. Does it mean it’s the best way? Who knows? I believe in it and maybe that’s enough. Is it without problems? Absolutely not, and I already have a list of issues that may never be addressed. Is it worth the effort? Definitely. Work towards a utopian vision is never work that’s wasted. What I’ve provided in this text is a couple of examples of how we’re trying to engage what we see as an opportunity to take a risk and challenge a sense of cultural hegemony that can create a stagnant and narrow view of what is, in truth, an incredibly rich, vibrant, and raw musical heritage. It’s my profound hope that it’s just a simple beginning that will spawn new ways of viewing American music and how we engage with it and each other.

 

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