New World Records recently released Music From The ONCE Festival 1961-1966, a monumental project documenting the innovative musical activities that took place during the now-legendary annual events that shook the entire new music community four decades ago. The nicely packaged 5-CD box set focuses on the music of the festival’s founders, Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda, making available a virtual treasure trove of never-before released historical recordings.
Besides recollections and program notes penned by the surviving founders, the 140-page booklet included with the set features a thoughtful essay recounting ONCE’s history by Leta Miller, dozens of photos by Makepeace Tsao, and even a few score excerpts. The wealth of background information and documentation provides a helpful key for getting inside the mindset of the times—when a startup festival on a shoestring budget suddenly exploded into a breeding ground for new interdisciplinary performance and cutting edge experimental music.
For those not exactly in the know, the ONCE Festival—once, as in the organizers truly believed it would be a one-time occurrence—momentarily made Ann Arbor, Michigan, the center of international attention, attracting the participation of artists like John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, La Monte Young, Terry Jennings, and the like, usually for very little compensation. As the festival grew year after year, the scope of its programming evolved to include more inter-media work, performance art, and less definable sorts of actions. The festival continued to move out of traditional venues eventually culminating with a series of major performances on the rooftop of the Maynard St. parking structure. The core of ONCE affiliated artists began organizing other events and touring as the ONCE Group, eventually performing at the 1964 Venice Biennale. ONCE spawned many unexpected collaborations within the ranks of artists associated with the festival, most notably the Sonic Arts Union.
So how does an ostensibly sleepy Midwestern town become a hotbed of avant-garde music and experimental interdisciplinary performance? Mumma recounts “the cultural milieu of Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the time was very diverse—I mean it’s a college town, right? By the late 1950s when this was starting to bubble, one still has GI Bill students—military people who have been conscripted to go fight in Vietnam or Korea…they were vastly more socially and intellectually mature than your usual college freshman. Add the Civil Rights movement, the end of the McCarthy oppressive era, all of that stuff was all there at the same time. It’s a very complex recipe…So Ann Arbor was in a way, at that time, a rich opportunity because the resources were so extraordinary.” Hence five friends and colleagues plotted to seize this opportunity by inviting fellow students and local musicians, along with Luciano Berio, Cathy Berberian, Paul Jacobs, and the Domaine Musical Ensemble of Paris to not only perform their own music, but also a diverse sampling of up-to-the-minute avant-garde works from Europe, and the first ONCE Festival was born.
Generally we trace current DIY trends in new music (read: Bang On A Can, and offspring Common Sense, Minimum Security, Anti-Social Music, Wet Ink, etc.) back to Philip Glass and Steve Reich whose solution to getting their music performed according to their specifications was decidedly entrepreneurial. It’s strange, sometimes the parentage of current fad and fashion is inadvertently forgotten. Despite our unexplainable memory lapse, the ONCE Festival is now more than ever a reverent model for today’s enterprising young composers. “The grassroots aspect was very substantial,” Mumma points out. “From my prospective the most important aspect of what happened is we took responsibility for our own productions.” Equally important to the ONCE dynamic was the diversity of its founders. Mumma adds “the differences between, say, Roger Reynolds and Robert Ashley is like night and day. We were celebrating those differences.”
Paul Tai, New World’s Director of A&R who inherited the ONCE box set project from his predecessor Howard Klein and Al Margolis, revealed that the entire process from drawing board to final product took nearly 7 years. Tai retells the story of an early meeting between Margolis and Robert Ashley at which the collection’s “repertoire list was sort of put together from Bob’s memory.” During the process each composer was allotted a generous amount of control over the editing and mastering of the recordings, as well as final veto power over their own contributions to the set. In actuality, the main obstacle in releasing the CDs may have been paperwork. “I think what took the most time was really trying to locate as many performers as possible and getting permissions” says Tai. “I mean going back 40 years, it’s very difficult.” Mumma confides that many performers “were told by their teachers [at the University of Michigan] somewhere about the third festival, ‘You can’t be in that. Stay out of there.’ They were in it anyway. They didn’t put their names [on the program], the performers made up names!” This of course must have contributed to the difficulties in clearing the rights to release the recordings.
While the recordings in the collection vary from full-retro mono to digitally souped-up amalgamations, Roger Reynolds believes an “energy exists in these recordings. You can hear how much the people who were doing it believe in what they are doing.” Reynolds counts among the many milestones included in the ONCE box set the long-overdue release of Donald Scavarda’s music, stating that “it was a time in which [Scavarda] made a number of very significant discoveries. He did some extraordinary work. My personal favorite is Sounds for Eleven.” Mumma considers Pauline Oliveros‘s Apple Box Double, performed by Oliveros and David Tudor, as one of the set’s hidden gems, explaining, “It was the turning point in David Tudor’s career when he decided, on his part, that he was going to do composing with electronic music resources. It was the takeoff for him.”
Now devoted aficionados of the American experimental tradition, once only armed with 40 years of hindsight and hearsay, can discover and unravel for themselves the impact of the notorious ONCE Festival. “For something that happened 40 years in the past it was amazing to all of us that this actually happened,” admits Reynolds, adding “I think everyone is uniformly delighted with the results.” While the phrase “hearing is believing” isn’t uttered too often, Paul Tai hopes that the release of Music From The ONCE Festival 1961-1966, “might inspire some scholars to do a little further research and try to find some more of this material and do a photographic companion or a visual counterpart to complement the audio material that we’ve released.” By all accounts the spectacle of ONCE definitely matched the daring and invigorating spirit of the music it left behind. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 40 years before film footage and other visual documentation is unearthed.