Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

The last thing John Kennedy wanted in a musical group was to name it after himself — not just because The Kennedy Collective was already taken by the Artist Formerly Known as Nigel, but because he was looking less for an identity than for his own place in the world. When he and his former Oberlin colleague Charles Wood founded Essential Music in 1987, their point was to illuminate a whole tradition of American innovation.

“We wanted to provide a home to American experimental music,” says Kennedy. “We impulsively began doing a lot of work other than our own, mainly because we wanted to create a context in which our own music made sense.”

The history of rugged American individualism generally starts with Charles Ives and charts its course through Henry Cowell and John Cage to figures like Peter Garland and James Tenney today. Because Kennedy and Wood were both trained as percussionists, percussion became the group’s musical core. They realized, however, that a fixed ensemble would limit them in their ideal. Essential Music emerged partly in the shadow of the S.E.M. Ensemble in terms of repertoire, but in presentation their model was Continuum — an ensemble of flexible forces that puts context high on its list of priorities.

To date, the ensemble has presented more than 85 premieres, including works by Robert Ashley, Johanna M. Beyer, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Henry Cowell, William Russell, and Edgard Varèse. Commissions for the group have come from William Duckworth, David First, Kyle Gann, Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, and others. By now, Essential Music has performed at nearly every important musical venue in New York, from the 92nd Street Y and the inaugural Lincoln Center Festival, to downtown venues like The Kitchen and Experimental Intermedia.

Their complete works of William Russell on Mode Records has been praised as “a superb recording” by The New York Times and as a “Five Best of New Music in 1994″ by Fanfare Magazine. Also on Mode is a CD of The Lost Works of John Cage, including his 1942 radio play with Kenneth Patchen, The City Wears a Slouch Hat. As part of its 10-year anniversary, Essential Music released a compilation of live recordings on Monroe Street featuring works by Ashley, Beyer, Gann and Garland, as well as by Kennedy and Wood themselves.

“To me it’s a fabulous learning process as both a player and a conductor,” says Kennedy. “It undoubtedly helped me find my own voice as a composer and liberated my work from a particular school or style. It certainly wasn’t part of the plan to perform only our own works, but it certainly helped us as composers having the group together.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox