When I was invited to comment on what criteria should be met for a composer to gain entry into the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and to reflect upon whether American composers are adequately represented in the current edition, I initially balked. How could I adequately address such a broad question in the course of a few days? What about the increasingly broad definition of “composer,” not to mention the complication of “American” composer? My solution was to bypass such roadblocks, and go to the heart of the matter.
I discovered, in the course of a modicum of research, more than a few glaring omissions from the New Grove II, despite the much-touted expansion in size and the broader coverage (when compared to its predecessor, published in 1980). Indeed, in the introduction to New Grove II, the editors (Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell) point out that the “biggest single expansion has been in the coverage of 20th century composers.”
There are 5,000 entries for composers in the present volume, compared to 3,000 in the 1980 edition. According to the editors, these additional 2,000 entries reflect the representation of composers from more countries, of more popular types of music, and of more composer-performers. Certainly, such growth in numbers represents a kind of progress. Yet, in light of such a monumental improvement, how is it possible to omit composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Mark Adamo, Derek Bermel, Maria Schneider, Thomas Oboe Lee, Nathan Currier, David Stock, Melinda Wagner, Lori Dobbins, Jane Brockman, Ran Blake, Sebastian Currier, Reza Vali, Nancy Galbraith, Don Byron, Toby Twining, Mary Ellen Childs, Julius Hemphill, John Musto, and Richard Einhorn? (I’ll stop at twenty, but there are many more.) Within this admittedly random listing of noted composers, there are achievements galore that would presumably form the basis of criteria for representation in Grove’s—visibly important performances, recordings, publications, awards, and prizes, including a Pulitzer. So, what gives?
Three other individuals will form a nucleus for the core of my argument protesting the omission of American composers who deserve to be included in Grove II. Two of these, like the composers just mentioned, are not included in Grove II; the third is shamefully underrepresented. Unlike quite a few composers in my hastily assembled group of twenty, these three aren’t exactly spring chickens—obviating any age-based excuses for non-inclusion.
Although composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams merits an entry in the brand-spanking new New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, he’s nowhere to be found in the “comprehensive” Grove II. As co-founder and first president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he occupies an undeniably significant place in the history of American music. As a bandleader, he’s been responsible for over a dozen recordings, and has accumulated a remarkable array of commissioned works and performances. Anyone can look up his accomplishments, including international prizes and the like.
I can personally attest to the extraordinary generosity, vision, and thrilling musicianship with which Abrams surrounded his musicians in the recording sessions for One Line, Two Views (I was the harpist in this ensemble). The amalgamations of styles, fused into his personal language, were enhanced by his firm grasp of technique and his command of a variety of communicative procedures that, in the end, served the music without fail. The passion and commitment he embodied was heady, and reminded me of the time I was studying in Ligeti‘s class, in Germany—same intensive atmosphere, nothing mattered more than the music, with a palpable spirit of adventure permeating the atmosphere. The visceral, hands-on experience, with Abrams at the helm in the sessions, was another kind of educational experience altogether. Back to the main point: was the omission of this living legend from Grove II, the literal and spiritual father of a major movement in American music, and a fearless and gripping composer, a mere unfortunate “oversight?”
The second composer I’ll bring into this discussion, Alice Shields (featured in the July 2002 issue of NewMusicBox), was Associate Director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center for a number of years. Not surprisingly, she was also one of the very first American women to compose electronic music, with several “classic” electronic works available on recording (such as the evocative The Transformation of Ani). She has been widely commissioned, recorded, and performed, creating electronic operas—such as Mass for the Dead and Apocalypse (available on CRI) and large computer works for dance—such as Dust, currently touring in India. Her intensive study of Hindustani classical vocal music, and of South Indian rhythmic recitation, has charged her more recent works with a seductive exoticism. She continues to write and lecture about the psychology of music and about electronic music. This past summer, the Santa Fe Opera asked her to serve as a panel moderator for the topic “Electronic Media and the Voice” (with panelists Kaija Saariaho, Morton Subotnick and Gershon Kingsley). As a seminal figure on the American electronic music scene, and an active composer who continues to attract commissions, why isn’t Shields represented in Grove II?
Finally, I want to protest the meager space (barely more than one-half of a page) allotted to James Tenney in Grove II. Earlier this year, on Feb. 7, 2002, Tenney served as the Invited Scholar during a symposium honoring György Ligeti, a 2002 Kyoto Prize Laureate. Ligeti wasted no time in pronouncing Tenney as one of the “greatest American composers living today, in the company of Ives, Partch, and Nancarrow.” Need I say more? Tenney’s credits, and landmark achievements, warrant far more thorough and generous treatment. Case in point: Collage No. 1—aka “Blue Suede Shoes”—is widely considered to be one of the first, if not THE first, examples of plunderphonics, way before the term itself was born.
A brief digression: I compared the space in Grove II, allocated to two British composers, with the number of pages given to György Ligeti. Peter Maxwell Davies, born in 1934, gets 10 pages; Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934) gets 7. Ligeti (b.1923) comes through with 5 1/2, nearly half that of Davies. Does this smack of blatant favoritism? Or am I missing something here? Alex Ross, in his review (“Abba to Zywny,” The New Yorker, July 9, 2001), takes Grove II to task for relegating more important figures “from other lands” to a backseat, while the “Oxbridgean tours de force” hold forth.
Perhaps it’s telling to point out that the three composers I’ve chosen to foreground (Abrams, Shields, and Tenney) are identified with genres that have had a history of marginalization, and that typically don’t feed back into the corporate structure propping up the contemporary music machine. There are more than three such “borderline” genres, but the ones I’m pointing to for the moment are improvisation; electronic music; and experimentalism. As Terry Teachout astutely recognizes in his review (“On ‘The New Grove II’” in Commentary, Sept. 2001), by exercising their power of selection, the makers of encyclopedias establish a “set of intellectual priorities.” Hence, the priorities that are established tend to be self-perpetuating, to the exclusion, or diminution, of everything else. Although Grove II has obviously become more inclusive than it was twenty years ago, there seems to be plenty of wiggle room for capitalizing on those improvements, and for aspiring toward a more even and equitable representation of composers.
Paradoxically, Charles Rosen, in his brilliant and erudite review of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (predecessor to New Grove II), in The New York Review of Books (May 28, 1981), remarks that the dictionary is “largely dominated by the Americans.” Of course, he’s making reference to the scholars who write the entries. About fifteen years later, in an article describing the challenges she faced while writing an entry defining “feminism” for the New Grove II (see “Defining Feminism: Conundrums, Contexts, Communities,” in Women and Music, Vol. 1, 1997), Ruth Solie expands upon that claim, noting the dominant presence of American reviewers in the avalanche of reviews in the wake of the 1980 edition. “Like me, reviewers are especially interested in the reflection of disciplinary change in the new edition. A strong American voice is almost universally noted.” If this continues to be the case, American writers submitting entries for Grove, along with the phalanx of reviewers critiquing it, should be aware of the discrepancies among composer entries and make an effort to achieve more of a balance. I’m talking about nothing less than musicological activism aimed at leveling the playing field, which should in the long run raise the overall level of a magnificent encyclopedia.