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

“Except for the fact that we eliminate all non-American music from our program, we’re a pretty traditional orchestra,” says Paul Lustig Dunkel, resident conductor of the American Composers Orchestra who began his relationship with the ACO as its original contractor and principal flutist. Mediating a mix of orchestral players not afraid of new music and new music specialists not afraid of orchestras, the ACO takes the concept of a composer-led new music ensemble a giant step further.

“Like many a brilliant idea, the one to create the American Composers Orchestra originated over a good meal,” the people at the ACO love to say. In the fall of 1975, composer Francis Thorne and conductor Dennis Russell Davies were discussing plans for the 40th anniversary of the American Composers Alliance over dinner when the topic turned to the state of American music in American orchestras. Or rather, the lack of it.

Enlisting the support of another composer, ACA president Nicolas Roussakis, and Davies, who agreed to serve as principal conductor and music advisor, dinner conversation became a reality when the ACO held its first concert on February 7, 1977 at Alice Tully Hall. The following season, an ACO commission (Joseph Schwantner’s Aftertones of Infinity) won the Pulitzer Prize. For its 10th anniversary, the ACO moved to Carnegie Hall where it has maintained an annual series of Sunday afternoon concerts to this day.

By now, the ACO has performed works by more than 400 composers, including 100 world premieres and some 90 commissions, generating more symphonic works than any other American orchestra. An ongoing dialogue with the diverse array of living American composers is the mandate of composer Robert Beaser who was appointed ACO composer-in-residence in 1988 through the Meet The Composer Orchestra Residencies Program and subsequently ACO artistic advisor in 1994. With the ACO just as likely to perform a new work by Charles Wuorinen as Laurie Anderson, Muhal Richard Abrams or Stephen Sondheim, each ACO concert proves that focussing on national origin by no means diminishes variety. This variety continues in the recording studio where the ACO’s 19 recordings have ranged from concertos by Milton Babbitt and John Zorn, to symphonies by Roger Sessions and Philip Glass, plus tone poems by Duke Ellington and John Cage.

“We were dedicated to the infinite variety of American music from the beginning,” says Dunkel. “We weren’t like Schoenberg’s circle, which was geared toward introducing one point of view. We were always closer to the Copland-Sessions approach in consciously mixing styles.” In fact, the ACO’s 1999-2000 season concludes with a tribute to Copland and Sessions.

During the 1993-94 season, the ACO expanded the definition of American music when it launched the Sonidos de las Américas festival, establishing a musical Monroe Doctrine that has introduced U.S. audiences to over 150 Latin American works in more than 40 concerts. The brainchild of composer/conductor Tania León, who has served as the Artistic Advisor to the Festival for six seasons, Sonidos has brought over 90 composers and performers from Latin America to New York City and has effectively reopened cultural ties between the Americas. For the icing on the cake, this past season’s Sonidos focussed on the music of Cuba.

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

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