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

“Before Speculum Musicae, before the New Music Consort, before Parnassus, before the New York New Music Ensemble, there was The Group for Contemporary Music,” critic Tim Page wrote in a 1987 tribute to The Group for the New York Times. Founded in 1962, the Group’s first concert came on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Group, however, had been emerging from a musical crisis of its own.

Realities of insufficient rehearsal time and unprepared performances had led the Columbia University classmates Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen to follow composer Otto Luening’s advice to perform their own music, shucking the idea of composer as specialist and return to “hands-on” music-making just as Bach and Mozart had done in their day. The Group began as a concert series with a regular group of performers, the first contemporary ensemble based at a university and run by composers. Not that it grew up in a vacuum. One example was Max Pollikoff’s “Music in Our Time” series at the 92nd Street Y and later Town Hall (which was credited with discovering Wuorinen). Pollikoff had long had a Columbia presence. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (established in 1960) also played an important part. Columbia in the early ’60s was a hotbed of active young musical minds.

From 1962 until 1971, the Group for Contemporary Music was in residence at Columbia, priming a whole generation of new-music specialist performers and championing the music of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Mario Davidovsky and Stefan Wolpe, as well as two generations of younger composers. A falling out at Columbia led to their move to the Manhattan School of Music, where under executive director Nicolas Roussakis they branched out to such diverse venues in the city as Cooper Union, Symphony Space and the 92nd Street Y. From the early ’70s, the Group’s influence on new music in New York inspired a whole new generation of contemporary performing ensembles, including the Da Capo Chamber Players (1970), the New Music Consort (formed in 1975), and Parnassus (1973) — several of which were founded by former members of the Group.

That expansion was all but wiped away by the loss of its Manhattan School residency in 1985 and by the wave of cuts in arts funding through the rest of the decade. In 1989, The Group embarked on a new direction with Howard Stokar at the helm. Having been involved with the Group since working with the San Francisco Symphony during Wuorinen’s residency as composer in residence and new music advisor, Stokar came to New York to become executive director and find the funding to revive the Group.

In the 1990s, the Group entered a new phase, consciously trading the concert hall for the recording studio in a series of premiere recording projects for CRI, Bridge and Koch International Classics. Recordings include works by Wuorinen, Babbitt, Carter, Wolpe, Jacob Druckman, Chou Wen-Chung, Morton Feldman, Donald Martino, and Roger Sessions.

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