The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music

Gordon Mumma
(University of Illinois Press; Urbana, Chicago and Springfield; 2016)

Flyer for ONCE 1964; Gordon Mumma, far left                                          Courtesy University of Illinois Press

From Chapter 4:
The ONCE Festival and How It Happened

The primary sources of support for creative artists today are commerce and pedagogy. To put it bluntly, in commerce the artist must sell; in pedagogy, teach or research. Private support tends to be an investment in the future monetary value of an artist’s present work. Foundation support is usually administered by universities, and as such tends to be an investment in future teaching potential. Today support usually comes on an individual basis, often to enable artists to travel and thus to escape the very community in which they work.

The “patronage” of the past, both public and private, had some sense of freewheeling benevolence about it. Such patronage often reached considerably beyond support of the individual artist to invest in a community of artistic and social endeavor – in a whole “scene.” I would suggest that the creative artist might be better served if this older model were restored and financial support invested in the nourishment of the total artistic community. The outline of a specific example of community artistic endeavor that developed and flourished outside the established norms of support motivates this article on the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the years 1961-65.

Brief History of the ONCE Festival

The ONCE Festival happened because a community of artists took matters into their own hands. They extended their responsibilities beyond the limits of merely producing their art to its organization and promotion. For the most part they worked outside the established institutions of commerce and pedagogy, and with minimum funding. The artists involved were from different disciplines: the initial group included composers Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, and Bruce Wise, architects Harold Borkin and Joseph Wehrer, filmmaker George Manupelli, and artists Mary Ashley and Milton Cohen. Their common ground was that they all lived in Ann Arbor. They had been working independently and together on various projects there from early 1957, including Cohen’s Space Theatre, Ashley and Mumma’s Cooperative Studio for Electronic2Music, and the production of several films.

In 1960 at the suggestion of poet Keith Waldrop, the group decided to produce a festival of new music. Financial backing for publicity and the hiring of musicians was essential. Though a few members of the group taught at the University of Michigan, virtually all efforts to enlist support from that institution met with resistance and even animosity. Ashley and Reynolds approached a local organization, the Dramatic Arts Center, which had been providing modest support to repertory theater and experimental film programs in Ann Arbor for several years. They were immediately interested in the festival proposal and approved sponsorship of the concerts for February and March of their 1960-61 season.

The 1961 festival consisted of four concerts on two consecutive weekends. The opening concert featured members of the Domaine Musical Ensemble of Paris, with composer Luciano Berio and singer Cathy Berberian. The second included instrumental and electronic music by ONCE composers and film artists performed by the ONCE Chamber Ensemble. The third concert presented Paul Jacobs in a recital of classic piano music of the serial era, while the final program consisted of large ensemble pieces by ONCE composers. All four concerts were recorded for radio re-broadcast over the University of Michigan’s WUOM-FM. The audiences were near capacity, a result we attributed as much to intensive pre-festival publicity as to the inherent glamour of the festival. The cost of the entire festival was $1,300; ticket sales amounted to $1,175. The Dramatic Arts Center made up the difference.

Finances aside, the festival was an artistic success. Even before the end of the final concert, the audience was asking about the likelihood of another such festival, even of making it an annual event. Although its name implies that continuity had not been our original intention, before the summer of 1961, plans were under way for a second ONCE Festival.

Again the Dramatic Arts Center offered its support. The second ONCE Festival of February 1962 included six concerts and was again recorded in its entirety. The second festival both cost and lost more money than the first, but attendance was growing and the scope of programming widening. This time, however, there was some dispute about its artistic success. A fierce controversy that continued for several years followed the first evening program by La Monte Young and Terry Jennings. Yet the heat of this debate fueled the growing audience interest and the creative momentum that now gripped the ONCE artists, making a third ONCE Festival imperative.4 In February 1963 four concerts were presented. John Cage and David Tudor came from New York for the final concert; Tudor performed a brilliant version of Cage’s Variations II with electronic processing.

The fourth ONCE Festival was the most ambitious. Eight concerts were presented on six days in February and March 1964. The guest ensembles were the Judson Dance Theater, the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players, Alvin Lucier’s Brandeis University Chamber Chorus, and the Bob James Trio with Eric Dolphy (in his last American performance). The ONCE Chamber Ensemble was expanded to thirty performers and presented three concerts of its own. The Ashley-Mumma “New Music for Pianos” series continued with a full recital of music since 1960. The entire budget for the 1964 ONCE Festival was less than $4,000, and the loss (this time of $2,400) was again assumed by the Dramatic Arts Center.

The publicity for the 1964 festival created as much controversy as the music. Mary Ashley designed an accordion-folded, purple-and-white flyer that featured on one side the detailed programs and on the other, George Manupelli’s photograph of composers Ashley, Cacioppo, Scavarda, and Mumma costumed like Mafia henchmen, standing behind a voluptuous nude reclining on the lunch counter of a well-known local eatery called “Red’s Rite Spot.” The flyer created a small uproar, and the Dramatic Arts Center called an emergency meeting. Appeals to withdraw the flyer were overcome, leaving us with the problem of finding funds for reprinting to meet the demand for souvenir copies. The extent of its notoriety was evident in New York City the following April when, at the seminar following one of Max Pollikoff’s “Music in Our Time” concerts in which Ashley and I had just performed [April 12, 1964], the first question from the audience was a request for an autographed copy of the flyer.

The fifth ONCE Festival, in February 1965, consisted of four concerts and one lecture. The performers included Lukas Foss and an ensemble from the State University of New York at Buffalo; New York musicians David Behrman, Philip Corner, Malcolm Goldstein, and Max Neuhaus; Udo Kasemets from Toronto; the ONCE theater ensemble and festival orchestra; and an extra event, “A Composite Lecture” by Los Angeles critic Peter Yates ...

In summary, twenty-nine concerts of new music were presented during six ONCE Festivals, including sixty-seven premiere performances out of a total of 215 works by eighty-eight contemporary composers.  Music was the predominant focus of the ONCE Festivals, although modern dance and theater became increasingly prominent in each successive festival ...

The impact of the ONCE Festival and related activities on its individual artists has been considerable. Music composition seldom enables an artist of today to make a decent living. Particularly in the United States, the number of isolated composers filing away their unperformed manuscripts is pathetic. Largely to blame are the performance institutions – the orchestras and instrumental ensembles, musical societies, the few existent opera companies, and academic institutions, which are generally unwilling to take the financial risks involved in performing innovative music by young composers of our time. Part of the blame falls on the lack of public interest in new music. But the composers themselves share the responsibility. Too many of them succumb to the compromising lure of academic teaching, while too few look beyond the established performance venues to establish new institutions pertinent to their work and their time.

The festival provided composers with opportunities for sustained involvement in an active and challenging cultural community. Its influence on the stylistic, technical, and artistic growth of composers such as Cacioppo, Ashley, and Scavarda was profound, amounting to something of a renaissance. I would suggest that the individuality and maturity of their recent works owe much to the opportunities for performance and access to the broader public afforded by the ONCE Festival and related activities. Further, the confrontation with performance arts other than music encouraged them to explore new practical applications and to extend their musical creativity into untried media. Ashley now spends a major portion of his energies in experimental theatrical production; Scavarda has also developed special means of film composition with visual materials; and my own work has extended to include live-electronic performance.

In the ONCE Festivals, inspiration was rapidly put to the test of public opinion, occasionally drawing criticism about the propriety of confronting paying audiences with “crackpot” experiments. I can only answer that this close blending of innovation and pragmatism produced valid and dynamic artistic results. The creative momentum that increased from festival to festival was sometimes truly invigorating. It supercharged the progress of a composer such as Cacioppo, whose works of the ONCE years followed a path from ever-increasing risk to ever-greater success. One of his prime achievements was the progressive exploitation of radical sound-producing procedures in an ensemble context. The faithful performers of the ONCE Festival shared in his ideas from the start, integrating his expanding musical vocabulary into their own ...

It is a rare creative artist who survives in isolation from an audience or a community of other artists. Artists have little function or incentive for growth without the opportunity to communicate with others. Their greatest nourishment comes from the cultural community in which they live, not only because that community is the consumer of their art, but also because it reflects back to them much of the energy for their artistic insights. Likewise, the greatest nourishment for the community comes from its artists, who, living within it, have immediate access to the means of shaping its cultural potential. There are times in a community when the situation is ripe for action, when you find the right people in the right place at the right time. Such was Ann Arbor during the ONCE years.

[Revised version of “The ONCE Festival and How It Happened,” Arts in Society 4, no. 2 (1967): 381–98. From Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music by Gordon Mumma; edited with Commentary by Michelle Fillion. Copyright 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.]

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