Over the past year and a half, I’ve been chairing my institution’s University Senate. In addition to being able to help enact change at a high level there, it also gives me the opportunity to see the entire community from a vantage point that most faculty rarely experience. Recently we’ve been revising our general education curriculum, which has forced all the departments to compare and contrast their own ways of doing business both in their major and non-major courses. The result of this endeavor is that what one might perceive from the outside as a singular bloc of like-minded entities (all encapsulated under the moniker “academia”) is really an extremely rich and diverse confederation of factions, each having as many if not more differences than similarities. The commonalities that bind them—teaching and research are the two big ones—are geared with an inward focus such that it is easy for everyone within their own group to imagine that everyone else sees the world from their perspective, and it is only through exercises that force everyone’s views and procedures out into the open that the vast differences become apparent.
These ideas were echoed with immense resonance earlier this week when I brought the recent essay “Audience Cultivation in American New Music” by Sam Hillmer into my beginning composition course for an in-class discussion. Most of my students had not imagined that there could be interaction or an overlap between Hillmer’s worlds of “concerts” vs. “shows” and “bands” vs. “ensembles” (even though they all had experiences in both of those scenes), and the ensuing discussion explored what those various concepts entailed and what options they presented for themselves as burgeoning creators.
As we talked through the various issues, I began to think about how deeply this “same but different” phenomenon runs throughout the music industry as a whole and the new music community in particular. From a certain distance, an objective observer could see the entire world of those who create music as one interrelated bloc; from the other end of the spectrum, each creator can easily be distinguished from all others by the individuality of their work. It is between these two boundaries that our various and fluid musical factions begin and grow.
One prevalent trope from decades past suggests that musical factions within the new music community were in constant strife, while the current environment suggests a shift towards a more communal, “all styles are welcome” concept. Both of these ideas are, I imagine, a bit too simplistic, as things were not quite so black and white decades ago and the idea of today’s new music scene as being bereft of distinct factions is more than a little optimistic. Hillmer’s DIY genre, for instance, could be seen as a progenitor of the elusive “indie-” or “alt-” labels that get thrown about from time to time to describe a wide array of artists (very few of whom actually agree or appreciate the gesture), but one would have a very difficult time conflating the two completely.
Where the new music community and composers specifically do well these days, from my perspective, is in keeping an open line of communication and a relatively open mind to new ideas. Taste and individual interests will always drive us to those composers and performers that resonate with us, but I think we have found common ground from which to propel our artistic dialogue into the future.