Opening Up The Box

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

It’s hard to believe that five years have past since NewMusicBox first appeared on the Web. At the time, we viewed it as a tool for spreading the word and getting people excited about the breadth and depth of new American music, using a broad definition of “new,” “American,” and “music.” It is the view we still maintain and these are the goals to which we still aspire. However, contemplating the five-year mark has given us all some pause and has made us question how broad our definitions really are, as well as how broad they can be.

Before we launched NewMusicBox, there was some concern that the metaphor of a box implied boundaries, that a box was somehow confining. Of course, boxes conjure up different images to different people. You not only pack things up in a box, you also open boxes often not knowing the contents and get quite a surprise (e.g. on your birthday) or, in the case of Pandora, something even more extreme. So imagine, as we did five years ago, a four-dimensional box (a hypercube), which is somehow open and closed at the same time, able to contain things while simultaneously continuing to let them in and out. And, of course, box is also a verb, something we’re constantly reminded of from our position as advocates for American composers who are less than center stage in the musical worlds that overlap with ours.

Well, what exactly are those other musical worlds? Are there things that are beyond the domain of NewMusicBox? And if so, why?

Among many institutions who have realized that the term “classical music” does us more harm than good, the term “serious music” is put forward to attempt to describe our music. Does that mean that music that falls outside our purview is frivolous, silly, inconsequential? Or, contrapositively, does that mean our music can’t be funny? Then explain Peter Schickele or many others…

We like to think of our new American music community as open and reflective of the population of America as a whole. I’ve often heard people say that a living American composer can look like any one of us. But is that really true when the overwhelming majority of the composers in the new American music community are male and white? Are there larger race, gender, and class issues still permeating our society as a whole that get in the way of a real inclusivity? Might that be why the music of major American composers such as Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and hosts of others get described as jazz even when they create compositions for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras?

Some people in the new American music community like to keep themselves apart from people working in other kinds of music, (popular music? as bad a rubric as classical or serious…) Those other people make money or they’re only in it for the money, not the art. Yet, there are countless individuals and groups that create music which Amazon, The New York Times, or whatever your cultural-arbiter-du-jour happens to be would describe as “popular” who earn less money than many people in our so-called world and who have a smaller audience and less name recognition. Is it about pushing boundaries? I’m frequently more surprised and challenged by music that’s categorized as rock than I am by works I hear on officially-sanctioned “new music” concerts. Or is it about preserving the integrity of a single auteur composer toiling away on a manuscript as opposed to a group who come to musical decisions together? Our world has been filled with collaborations of all kinds, from John Cage and Lou Harrison to Bang on a Can. Maybe then it’s about pedigree, who studied with who? What about an alt-rock band like Deerhoof, founded by a former composition student at Mills, whose repertoire poses a challenge to conventional song structure? Around for over a decade, but underneath the radar of the mainstream, they seem to be at the cusp of greater notoriety with their current tour. Should they cease to be on our radar if they become famous?

Is what separates our music from the proverbial other its “compositional rigour,” as I’ve so often heard it explained, the theory that it requires a time commitment to experience it? You know, pop songs are only three minutes long but a symphony is a half hour at least. And then there’s Morton Feldman and La Monte Young, right? At the same time, tons of composers are creating music that lasts a minute or less, some are even experimenting with durations of two seconds and less. Still others seem to completely disregard time, you can listen to as much or as little as you want. Development is not the point, complete sonic emersion is. And, as long as we’re talking complete sonic emersion, I’ve so often heard people complain about how “that other music” is so loud, whereas ours is nuanced with dynamic contrast etc., yet there are many composers in our world such as Maryanne Amacher who have shaped whole new musical worlds from relentless deafening volume which it is nearly impossible to listen to for long stretches of time.

We’ve decided to celebrate our 5th anniversary by further opening up the box. We’ve constructed a five-dimensional box, if you will, in which to sow the seeds of a larger exploration. This month’s issue then, is a composite of four others, appearing on the site on Saturday, May 1 then three Mondays: May 10, May 17 and May 24. As squares appear on the faces of a cube, each week’s issue in this hyper-hypercube will open its own hypercube challenging our basic assumptions about humor, race, duration and genre. So keep coming back as the layers unfold.

To further celebrate, we’ve returned to people we have featured in our previous 60 still-archived issues to ask them about music they treasure which falls outside our domain. Surprisingly, or maybe not-so-surprisingly, many chose things that indeed have already appeared on this site. We have covered a lot of ground, but there is much more to be covered, so stay tuned and say open to the process of discovery.

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