A New Year’s Reflection

I finished my doctoral courses at Northwestern in spring of 1981. The summer found me lounging around in my apartment, drinking vodka tonics in the afternoon and taking down phone numbers from truck-driving schools and bartending schools, as advertised during Leave It to Beaver reruns. In the middle of this, the phone rang, and my composition teacher Peter Gena asked, “Do you want a job?” Peter had taken on the temporary directorship (with Alene Valkanas) of the New Music America festival, which moved from city to city. It had started in New York in 1979, then moved to San Francisco and Minneapolis, where I first attended it. Now, in Chicago, I would be the festival’s administrative assistant.

That means, if you submitted some music to NMA ‘82, I was the guy who opened your package, catalogued your vinyl records and cassettes, and first listened to them. My job wasn’t to filter stuff out, but I did advocate (without much success) for the music I really liked. Some of the recordings were submitted by composers, some brought by members of the advisory committee. I remember George Lewis brought along cassettes of two guys I’d never heard of: Rhys Chatham and John Zorn. Zorn’s Mauricio Kagelesque game improvisations struck me as old hat, but the Chatham excited me – combining minimalism and rock had never occurred to me. I sat at my desk absorbing the music of my generation: Beth Anderson, David Garland, Wayne Siegel, Carl Stone, Bruce Odlund, Michael Byron, Lois Vierk, Jeffrey Lohn, Peter Garland, Stephen Scott, Glenn Branca. Some of the names (Tom Cameron, Joseph Paul Taylor, Bill Seaman) have since disappeared, and I’ve never heard of them again. Others, once I moved east, eventually became close friends. Some of them have recently released CDs for which I wrote the liner notes. One of them, Bruce Odland, my son recently assisted in a musical production.

The experience didn’t make me a composer, for I had been that since I was 13. The piece of my own that was performed at that NMA festival, in fact, is coming out on a Cold Blue CD in a couple of months. But it was my first immersion in the music of my peers across the country, people who were reacting to the same music I had been consuming in college. I found out whom I stood with and whom against in the great aesthetic battles that would come later. And, looking back from an otherwise indistinguishable New Year’s Eve, it’s astonishing to reflect how much of my future life was forecast in my contact with those cassettes and records in the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art in October and November of 1981. As PR person for the festival I got to know the superb Chicago jazz critic Neil Tesser, and it was he who helped me get started as a critic myself in the Reader. The rest you know.

Many of those cassettes are in a cabinet a few feet away from me right now. I kept the ones I could, and taped all the ones I couldn’t. I was probably, as administrative assistant, supposed to mail them all back to the composers. I didn’t. But now I’m transferring them onto CD, making mp3s of them, and playing them on Postclassic Radio. Sorry for any inconvenience. I hope, after 23 years, you don’t mind that I held on to them. They’ve meant a lot to me, and I knew someday I’d get a chance to release them back into the world.

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