New Music America
“Anything is possible in music.” – James Tenney, New Music America 1984 catalog
In the fall of 1984, I was outside working in the yard of my house when I heard the phone ring. The voice on the other end introduced himself as Jerry McCathern. He wanted to know if I would be interested in talking to him about working for The Houston Festival on a large event about experimental music.
In the 1980's, New Music America was the largest festival of experimental music in the world. It started in 1979 in New York at the Kitchen as "New Music New York" and was by all accounts a raucously successful event. It was so successful that it got the attention of the Walker Art Center, which recreated, renamed, and enlarged the festival into what became "New Music America."
It was in 1980 in Minneapolis at this first version of New Music America that the New Music Alliance self-formed, complete with by-laws, guidelines and 501(c)3 status. The New Music Alliance acted as the oversight board for the festivals, determining New Music America festivals, cities, and presenters, as well as attempting the nearly impossible task of defining the phenomenon of "new music." In the post-hippie heyday of anti-establishment, do-it-yourself-ism of alternative spaces, the New Music Alliance was populated by the renegade and visionary composers and artists who performed at New Music America. It was an intellectually wild and woolly group.
New Music Alliance definition, New Music Alliance Guidelines, New Music America complete performer list 1979-1988 (PDF) [click on images]
Under the eagle-eyed, chaotically shepherding semi-guidance of this Alliance, New Music America (NMA for short) then began its annual hopscotch to different cities around the country, growing in cost, complexity, size, stature and influence with each succeeding iteration, eventually self-immolating under the weight of its own topsy-turvy success. It's complicated.
The years, cities, and sponsoring organizations for New Music America were as follows:
1979 - New York, The Kitchen (New Music New York)
1980 - Minneapolis, Walker Art Center
1981 - Washington, D.C., 9th Street Festival
1982 - Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art with the Mayor's Office
1983 - San Francisco, New Music Alliance and San Francisco Examiner
1984 - Hartford, Real Art Ways
1985 - Los Angeles, a consortium of 25 arts organizations
1986 - Houston, The Houston Festival
1987 - Philadelphia, Relache
1988 - Miami, Tigertail Productions and Miami Dade Community College
1989 - New York, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
1990 - Montreal, Montreal Musiques Actuelles
xerox copies of New Music New York and New Music America catalogs, click on images for downloadable PDF files
(L. to R.) New Music New York 1979, New Music America 1980, New Music America 1981, New Music America 1982, New Music America 1983
I played a role in the history of New Music America and the New Music Alliance. I organized the 8th annual New Music America festival that landed in Houston in 1986, and I served as the President of the New Music Alliance for four years (1986 to 1989). My association with New Music America was among the most consequential of my early years as an artist.
New Music America 1986, Houston, Texas
I officially met Jerry McCathern for the first time in the fall of 1984 at the offices of The Houston Festival which were located on the second floor of one of the buildings of the River Oaks Shopping Center. Jerry was the general manager of The Houston Festival and was responsible for organizing the performance aspect of it. On top of that, he performed with the Texas Chamber Orchestra as a trumpet player. Prior to my meeting with him, our paths must have crossed a few times, most especially at the infamous Anthony Braxton event for puppet theater at Lawndale, but this would be our first real introduction to each other.
In those days, The Houston Festival was an arts festival that presented a wide range of arts activities – music, theater, visual art, literary arts and more. The Houston Festival was specifically an arts festival due to the visionary leadership of Rochella Cooper. Rochella, originally from South Africa, was wickedly smart and fiercely strong. She had to be in order to wrestle with the good ol' boys on her board of directors. The Houston Festival was gigantic, annually attracting hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown area of Houston in the spring. Over the years, Rochella had managed to assemble a crack team to pull off this enormous yearly event. Jerry was one of them.
The Houston Festival Magazine 1986 (excerpts), click on the images or download PDF file here
In our meeting, Jerry explained to me what he was looking for. He needed someone to organize a festival called New Music America that would take place during The Houston Festival. This festival-within-a-festival would be a part of a blowout celebration for the Texas sesquicentennial that was to take place in the spring of 1986. The Houston Festival was planning to make that year the mother of all festivals, and New Music America was going be its central highlight. He further briefly explained to me what New Music America was. I had never heard of it. Pretending to know what "sesquicentennial" meant, I listened.
"You mean you want me to organize the world's largest festival for experimental music and get paid for it? I'll start right now."
That's not exactly what I said, but whatever I said, it was exactly what I meant. At that time, most of my work was devoted to experimental music. I had presented work at Lawndale, DiverseWorks, various other alternative spaces, and on KPFT radio. I was among a tiny handful of Houston practitioners of this esoteric form of music. To work with some of the world's greatest composers, many of whose work I revered, would be the chance of a lifetime.
But having recently graduated from the University of Houston a few months prior, my resumé, if it could be called that, was almost non-existent. I had just finished working on the infamous "Collision" show at Lawndale, and I was the current part-time exhibitions manager at UH's Blaffer Gallery. I had organized a few shows and performances of works by me and fellow artists at various alternative and underground spaces, but it wasn't anything like this. Other than these very few experiences, I had done nothing. I didn't know how or why Jerry contacted me. If Jerry decided to hire me, it would be a gigantic leap of faith. He did.
Over the next few months I set myself to the task of learning everything about previous New Music America festivals. Jerry attended the most recent festival – New Music America 1984 in Hartford – and had ambitious ideas for NMA '86. The then-upcoming New Music America 1985 in Los Angeles, scheduled for the fall of 1985 and sandwiched between the '84 Hartford version and ours, promised to be the biggest to date. Each version of New Music America grew beyond the previous, and LA planned to sprawl all over the city fueled by the largest budget ever for NMA. There was an unstated competition among each festival with each trying to outdo its predecessor. With NMA '85 in LA promising to be so big, our work was cut out for us.
original planning notes for New Music America 1986, author's journal, 1984 [click on images]
What would New Music America 1986 be? What would be its focus, its theme? Where would it be? How would we raise the money? How in the world would we do this? I had no idea. To make matters worse, I didn't know of any composers or artists from Houston who had ever performed at any New Music America festival. And no one associated with The Houston Festival had any previous experience with New Music America except for Jerry's observation of NMA '84 in Hartford. It was there that he presented the proposal to host NMA '86 of behalf of The Houston Festival where it was then accepted by New Music America's governing body, the New Music Alliance. Despite these liabilities, we had at least two things going for us.
First, we had the organizational expertise of The Houston Festival and the people who worked there. Presenting anything on the surface of the planet to peacefully accommodate hundreds of thousands of humans in anything remotely resembling an organized event is a massive undertaking. Everyone who worked at The Houston Festival was an expert, and Jerry McCathern particularly so. You had to be or else the festival would swallow you up. Rochella Cooper wouldn't have it any other way.
Second, and most importantly, we had Pauline Oliveros. Pauline, a native Houstonian, agreed to act as the Artistic Advisor for NMA '86. Her role was to assemble the New Music America 1986 advisory and selection committees from a pool of artist and musician friends from around the country. Pauline was the guiding force of New Music America 1986 in all ways - intellectually, aesthetically, philosophically. Along with people like John Cage, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnik and others, Pauline was a giant of experimental music. Pauline knew everyone and everyone knew – and loved – Pauline.
New Music America 1986 documents [click on images]
September 1, 2018
Our plan was to engage the entire city by staging events and concerts all over, and to partner with other arts organizations to co-present events with them. Museums, theater companies, orchestras, alternative spaces – we solicited almost every arts organization in Houston, and in the end, almost every one of them joined what we called our Steering Committee. The co-presenter idea eased the burden of the organizational complexities of the festival, but not much. After the works were chosen for the festival, they still had to be matched with the organization. That proved to be an enormous task and it was mine.
Having never done anything close to this in magnitude, I leaned heavily on Jerry's knowledge and experience. From the spring of 1985 until the festival itself in the spring of 1986, my life was a mad scramble. Art Gottschalk, a professor of music at Rice University, joined our team as the technical advisor. He would oversee all technical aspects of the performances for the festival. Later, Julie Cody was added as my assistant to help me with the nearly overwhelming administration chores.
Organizing New Music America was a crash course in all aspects of arts administration. It was a trial by fire if there ever was one. Grant writing, a peculiar literary style, sticks out among the many lessons I learned. I would write a first draft, based on the language of past festival grant proposals, which were almost always lengthy, florid soliloquies. Then Jerry would gleefully cut them down to size. "We don't need that. Cut that." Somehow or other, I figured it out.
We intended to make New Music America 1986 the biggest of them all, and as an added consequence, it may well have been the best too. For lack of better evidence of that, it just felt good.
We received 719 proposals for New Music America 1986. In the end, the 10-day festival comprised of more than 200 participants spread out over 50 events at almost as many venues and locations. In numerical terms alone, there was nothing like it before in Houston, and there hasn't been anything like it since.
New Music America 1986 catalog, click on image for downloadable PDF
The images and materials used in this essay may be found in the New Music America Archives in the Special Collections of the University of Houston MD Anderson Library.
[click on image for larger view]
Pictured above: The New Music America Archives are delivered to Special Collections, University of Houston Library, September 21, 2018.
Left to right:
Rochella Cooper, Executive Director, The Houston Festival (1979-1986)
Michael Galbreth, Coordinator, New Music America 1986
Art Gottschalk, Technical Director, The Houston Festival and New Music America 1986
Jerry McCathern, General Manager, The Houston Festival (1983-1986), New Music America 1986
Isabelle Ganz, vocalist for "Ryoanji" by John Cage
Pauline Oliveros with a fan, opening day of New Music America 1986
April 5, 1986, Houston, Texas [photo by Robert Black]