“Ten”acity (A Personal Reflection)
It’s hard for me to believe that NewMusicBox has been around for ten years and that I’ve been a part of it for all this time. It’s longer than I’ve ever been involved with anything or anyone. It’s even been longer than the last time I got a haircut! And yet it always continues to feel new.
But I still remember the earliest conversations I had with people while we were in the process of creating a web magazine for the American Music Center back in that final year of the 20th century. Many of these folks didn’t yet have email addresses. For others, surfing the web was a new and cumbersome activity—no one had heard about Google yet! In fact, few people really understood what I was talking about. “Where could I pick up a copy of this?” “You mean it’s only going to be available on the internet? I don’t even have a computer.” etc.
Before I came on board, AMC’s then executive director Richard Kessler had done a few talks with people for online publication on AMC’s then relatively new amc.net website—the very first was with Steve Reich. These talks—which were called “American Music In The First Person”—laid the groundwork for the initial component grid I put together. If there was an “In The First Person” interview section, shouldn’t there also be an “In The Third Person” section for articles about various topics germane to new American music? Long before the word “blog” entered the common parlance, AMC had also set up what was then called a forum, an interactive space where amc.net site visitors could post their own comments. Could that somehow be folded into the magazine as “In The Second Person”? And ten years later, these three basic content paradigms still survive as “Cover,” “Matter,” and “Chatter.”
But what would be a fitting overall name for such a publication? We were all initially stumped, so we harnessed the power of our interactive forum—as clunky as it seems now in retrospect—to get suggestions from the outside world. At first, we were drawn to the submitted name “Composed,” a nice single word that felt akin to the then and now still popular web magazines Slate and Salon. The URL was available at the time and it seemed a perfect sound bite for what we were going to focus our energies on, until someone pointed out that it was also the name for an adult diaper. Eventually we settled on “NewMusicBox” which most people thought was pretty cool, although there were still a handful of naysayers. “Isn’t a box confining?” So we used a four-dimensional hypercube as our logo to show that our box was not confined by the limits of three-dimensional perception. “How would someone know that this was a magazine for American music?” Therefore in our otherwise blue header for NewMusicBox, we turned the “u” and “s” of “music” red.
So far so good, but now we had to populate the thing!
From the beginning we wanted to demonstrate inclusivity, which made it extremely difficult to focus on any one person for our first “In The First Person.” The most fitting thing seemed to be a chat with the three founders of Bang on a Can—Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang—whose extremely catholic programming in the early years of their marathon had knocked down the so-called “uptown” and “downtown” divides and also invited participation from people in jazz, rock, folk, and other music communities. But we also wanted to show that people all over the United States were thinking the same way, so we asked Ken Smith to profile 24 different ensembles in the very first “In The Third Person” HyperHistory; remember those? He did, although he didn’t finish until an hour before we launched on May 1, 1999!
We further mixed things up by having a bunch of music industry voices suggest incentives to get people to attend concerts. George Steel, who at the time ran Columbia University’s Miller Theatre and now heads City Opera, suggested that venues offer free drinks. He kept his word and for a while Miller became New York City’s best post-concert hang. That series of short responses to a specific question existed outside the three paradigms we had established—1st, 2nd, and 3rd person; it was the 4th dimensional other. For lack of a better moniker, we named it “Hymn & Fuguing Tune” in honor of Henry Cowell whose broad view of music we still aspire to. (Here’s what our homepage looked like in our first month online.)
But since then, that 4th dimension has been constantly morphing; isn’t that the very nature of the 4th dimension? A decade later, it has expanded to a ton of beyond-the-grid content from news stories to field reports to CD coverage to our one-of-a-kind InPrint book profiles, all of which we’ve consolidated under the rubric of Radar. The four-way parsing of NewMusicBox content into Cover, Matter, Chatter, and Radar—the result of a complete redesign of the site we unveiled exactly four years ago—seemed like a radical transformation at the time. Yet we managed to squeeze everything we’ve done thus far into it (which now is over a hundred in-depth talks, over five hundred essays, nearly one thousand interactive blogposts, and thousands of news items). But we’re never comfortable when we’re standing still and so we’re pondering still further (r)evolutions in the coming year.
In fact, there’ll be very little time for celebrating our 10th birthday, although preparation for this month’s anniversary issue has put us all in an undeniably reflective mood. Of course, in the time-line continuum, the future is constantly transforming itself into the past, and sometimes the best way to plot what next to do is to take stock of what’s already happened. We’re somehow acculturated to think of a decade as an epoch, and it’s fascinating to use it as a prism to ponder about what’s ahead. So we did just that. Accompanying a series of newly generated commentary from a variety of people in our community about what the future of music might be ten years from now, we’ve put together some video highlights from our archive as a testimony to where music has been during these ten years (see above). We tried to keep it to 10 minutes; we couldn’t, but it still barely scratches the surface of the 121 talks we’ve done. However, you’ll always be able to visit each of them if there’s a personal favorite we left out. I know that I have many favorite memories—the five-hour talk with La Monte Young (we transcribed and published the whole thing); the almost equally long conversation with Wendy Carlos (amidst her sprawling collection of vintage electronic gear, in various states of assembly); finding our way into Ornette Coleman’s unlabelled but also unlocked apartment; showing up at Mills College for what turned out to be a great but surprise visit with Pauline Oliveros (she forgot I was coming); chatting up a storm with Milton Babbitt about baseball, beer, and the songs of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson; discovering that Chris Thile has a Mahler fixation and Matthew Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces had a Shostakovich fixation; Maryanne Amacher’s suggestion that we mix our blood and put it on a CD to hear what it sounded like (I’m not joking); and just recently, hearing Willie Colón describe the barroom brawl that led to his chromatic salsa masterpiece “Calle Luna Calle Sol,” to name only a few.
All of this ultimately serves as a reminder that our work is hardly done. Even after ten years there are so many amazing people and so much amazing music we’ve yet to feature here. None of this would have been possible without Molly Sheridan and Trevor Hunter, as well as all the amazing folks who’ve been a part of the team over the past decade—Nathan Michel, Jennifer Undercofler, Amanda MacBlane, Randy Nordschow, and Rob Wilkerson; our interns Jonathan Murphy, Aurelian Balan, Anna Reguero, Dave Allen, Ted Gordon, and Sam Birmaher; former webmasters Stacie Johnston, Eugene Takahashi, and Lisa Taliano; and hundreds more who have written for us, transcribed talks, acted as proxy videographers, and posted responses, as well as the individuals, organizations, and foundations that have demonstrated support for what we’re doing through donations and sponsorships. But back to the future… We’ve already jump started our next two covers—with glitch-hop recording artist Guillermo Scott Herren (a.k.a. Prefuse 73) and multi-genre musical polymath Gunther Schuller—and there’s lots more still to come. So let’s keep these conversations going for another decade and beyond!