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ONCE. MORE.: an introduction by Mark Clague

Next week UMS, the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and the U-M Institute for the Humanities present ONCE. MORE. marking the 50th anniversary of the legendary avant-garde ONCE festivals.  UMS has a complete listing of events and a comprehensive festival guide posted at To frame the week, we offer you this amazing essay from U-M professor Mark Clague:

The Creativity of Community: Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, and the ONCE Phenomenon, 1961–68

by Mark Clague, PhD, associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

“Once” signals intensity, a singularity of purpose. Never a thing, once is always in action: a fleeting opportunity to be seized in time and witnessed. Once is energy, excitement, ambition, possibility, community. Every art, in its broadest sense, aspires to once. Performance catalyzes intent to transform time into communication: while materials may be reused—performer, audience, and context are always in motion, always changing, and thus artistic expression occurs in precisely the same way only once. Yet art is often frittered away as timeless rather than timely. Static, hung on a wall or embalmed in history, its process unappreciated, it fails to communicate even once. When composers Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, and their colleagues announced ONCE—they trumpeted the raw ambition to create sounds that were original, certainly, but that also engaged, sparked debate, and echoed into the future. Thus, some five decades later, their creativity is heard “ONCE. MORE.”—not as nostalgia but as ongoing exploration. The periods in the name signal once again their interest in expression over continuity.

Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, George Cacioppo (Ann Arbor, 1963). Photo: Bernard Folta, courtesy of Donald Scavarda

The first ONCE Festival of avant-garde performance comprised four concerts on successive weekends—February 24–25 and March 3–4, 1961—in Ann Arbor’s Unitarian Church (now the Vitosha Guest Haus at 1917 Washtenaw). Concerts alternated between guest artists typically from Europe or New York and recitals by the host composers. The opening concert featured members of Pierre Boulez’s “Domaine musical” ensemble from Paris with composer Luciano Berio and multi-vocalist Cathy Berberian. Pianist Paul Jacobs presented music by Schoenberg, Webern, Krenek, Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen on the third concert, while concerts two and four included chamber works by Ashley, Cacioppo, Mumma, Reynolds, and Scavarda, along with then-graduate students Sherman Van Solkema and Bruce Wise. Ashley also contributed an electronic accompaniment to George Manupelli’s film The Bottleman. The concerts sold to capacity and Ann Arbor’s Dramatic Arts Center (DAC), which sponsored the event, covered a deficit of only about $125 on a total budget of $1300 (ca. $9000 in 2010 dollars).

Even before the first festival closed, its success inspired talk of a second. All told, there would be six ONCE festivals over the course of five years (1961–65), while the ONCE Group, a theatrical troupe led by Robert and Mary Ashley, remained active through 1968. Critics moaned “Once is enough” and “Once too often,” yet the festivals grew. The fourth was the largest at eight performances, while the last, held on the roof of Ann Arbor’s Thompson Street parking garage (and thus providing for the sale of more tickets), even returned a small profit to the DAC. Programs for a total of 29 festival events list some 170 works by 92 composers. Guest artists included John Cage, Eric Dolphy, Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, LaMonte Young, and others. By any measure, ONCE was monumental. Reviews appeared in the local press, as well as in the Musical Quarterly, Boston Globe, Toronto Star, and Preuves (Paris). Dozens of guest appearances took ONCE artists to Detroit, New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and beyond, to perform under rubrics including ONCE Friends, ONCE a Month, ONCE Removed, ONCE-Off, and ONCE Echoes. Related initiatives by ONCE artists, especially Ashley and Mumma, such as the Collaborative Studio for Electronic Music, the Truck Ensemble, New Music for Pianos, and the Sonic Arts Group (later Union), carried Ann Arbor’s experimental music, film, and theater far and wide, only increasing the impact and reputation of ONCE. Similar festivals arose in Seattle, Toronto, and Tucson, while in 1963 the Ann Arbor Film Festival arose from its cinematic efforts. ONCE artists even recreated Milton Cohen’s Space Theatre at the 1964 Venice Biennale, and the festival propelled several participants to careers outside of Ann Arbor: Reynolds to the CROSS TALK presentations in Tokyo and then to UC San Diego, Mumma to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York (and later to UC Santa Cruz), and Ashley to Mills College in Oakland.

ONCE Group at Robert Rauschenberg’s loft after Judson Dance Theater Festival (New York, 1965). (Front, L–R): Joseph Wehrer, Robert Ashley, unknown, George Manupelli; (second row, L–R): Yvonne Rainer, George Kleis (leaning against palm), unknown, Gordon Mumma, unknown, Cynthia Liddell; (third row, L–R): Jackie Leuzinger, Annina Nosei, unknown; (seated in back on the right holding sandwich) Caroline Blunt; others unknown. Photo: Makepeace Tsao, courtesy of the Tsao Family

The primary driving force of ONCE, however, was not fame (and certainly not fortune), but the deep desire of its composers to hear their music. Many ONCE composers were also fine musicians; their passion for new music and dedication to excellence in its performance was clearly infectious, attracting dozens of volunteer instrumentalists and even administrative talents eager to share in their work. Yet the momentum of the festivals also inspired creativity: Scavarda notes, “Suddenly we could write anything we wanted and have it heard.”(1)  Although deliberately cutting edge, ONCE was not doctrinaire. Performances embraced a wide range of materials (found sound, text, film, multiphonics, non-metrical time), methods (serialism, graphic notation, indeterminacy, improvisation, electronic synthesis, tape manipulation, audience involvement, theater), and aesthetics (modernism, expressionism, collage, happenings). ONCE composers shared a common goal, but never a single artistic manifesto. For Mumma the festival was radical; for Scavarda it was simply pragmatic.

Progressive politics saturated the University’s social milieu in the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held its first meeting in Ann Arbor in 1960 and on October 14 of that same year President John F. Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union. Yet many ONCE compositions were focused explorations of musical materials and procedures; they assert a right to individual creative radicalism without additional reference to contemporary events. Politics motivates the art of ONCE directly only in certain instances (e.g., Reynolds’ A Portrait of Vanzetti) but often appears obliquely (e.g., Ashley’s in memoriam…). As Ashley remembers, “Everybody was into those ideas by default because they were all around you. But the ONCE Group, by some tacit agreement, we never did anything political; it seemed in bad taste because you’d be preaching to the congregation.”(2)  Nevertheless, political overtones can be heard frequently in the music of ONCE, possibly because such issues were so much a part of the era’s socio-cultural discourse.

The spark that ignited ONCE is often attributed to a car ride back to Ann Arbor from Stratford, Ontario, where Ashley, Cacioppo, Mumma, and Reynolds had attended the International Conference of Composers (August 7–14, 1960). Intended to foster exchange among the world’s leading modern composers, the symposium welcomed participants from 20 countries. These musical pioneers included Berio (Italy), Henri Dutilleux (France), Josef Tal (Israel), and Elizabeth Maconchy (England), as well as Ernst Krenek, Otto Luening, George Rochberg, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and the 75-year-old Edgard Varèse—all then living in the US. While symposium concerts were open to the public, papers and discussions were not, and thus Ann Arbor’s contingent left frustrated after having managed to speak with only a handful of their famous colleagues. They concluded that they could do a better job on their own.

Yet attributing ONCE to a single inspiration ignores other influences. The festival grew from a confluence of opportunities, the first of which occurred in 1949 with the hiring of composer Ross Lee Finney (1906–97) as a tenured professor at U–M’s School of Music (as it was then known) and the subsequent creation of its graduate program in composition. Having studied with Alban Berg, Nadia Boulanger, and Roger Sessions, the Minnesota-born Finney brought a new level of professionalism to the program and connected the university to European musical currents. His personal interests included Bartók, Stravinsky, and American folk music, and while sensitive to his students’ need to develop an individual voice, Finney championed traditional harmonic and contrapuntal skills as well as immaculate habits of notation. His energy and expectations inspired, while his critiques could be devastating: “Finney was incapable of being indirect,” recalls Reynolds, “he said what he felt and thought without any filter, and, of course, this rubbed a lot of people the wrong way or even injured them.”

Yet Finney laid many of the entrepreneurial foundations for ONCE. He organized the campus’ original “Composers’ Forum,” for which student composers recruited and rehearsed performers to present their work to the community each semester. He invited prominent composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Luigi Dallapiccola, Walter Piston, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to speak on campus. (Stockhausen, in fact, lectured the young composers to assume responsibility for performances of their own works.(3)) Finney also fostered peer-to-peer collaboration by hosting a four-hour discussion seminar each week: “I…felt that composers learned as much from their peers as from their teachers….” writes Finney in his autobiography. “My object was to organize a peer group that would function outside of the classroom as well as in it.”(4) Finney’s efforts encouraged the formation of the Interarts Union, an extracurricular student group combining art, theater, and music that sponsored events off campus. This group later influenced the creation of the Dramatic Arts Center, which would sponsor ONCE. “Finney was a remarkable man,” notes Reynolds. “There’s probably no composition teacher in American music history who has dealt with as large and as diverse a group of successful composers as he.”

The 1950s were a period of rapid growth and intellectual excitement at the University of Michigan, in which enrollment, driven by the G.I. Bill, increased and the faculty expanded. Research funding grew and, as the Cold War deepened, many placed hope in the nation’s scientific and technological prowess. U-M scientists successfully tested Salk’s polio vaccine (1955) and operated the “Phoenix” nuclear reactor (1957–2003). Cross-disciplinary interchange was vigorous and as a result science, architecture, engineering, and mathematics would deeply influence several ONCE composers. Ashley was initially enrolled through the Speech Research Institute, and, after Finney threw the manuscript to one of Mumma’s compositions out the eighth-floor window of his Burton Memorial Tower office, the young composer transferred to the literature department, later working in a seismology lab and all the while constructing electronic sound equipment for his home studio. Reynolds was not initially trained as a musician at all, but completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering before returning to U-M to earn a master’s in composition in 1961. Collaboration was modeled as well. From 1958, Mumma and Ashley created live sonic accompaniments using prepared tapes plus improvised live sound for U-M art professor Milton Cohen’s Space Theatre. Subtitled “Manifestations in Light and Sound,” these avant-garde light shows also featured creative contributions by Manupelli and Harold Borkin, then a graduate student in U-M’s architecture program. Increasing from invitation-only affairs to twice-weekly public events, the Space Theatre fostered Ann Arbor’s audience for experimental art.

ONCE composers also learned important lessons in publicity and marketing. Written and premièred at Tanglewood in 1959, Scavarda’s Groups for Piano explores the question of how concise a piece of music might be (its five movements require just 55 seconds to play). Performed the following spring for the Midwest Composers Symposium at the University of Illinois, Groups again sparked heated debate about the nature of music. Its success taught ONCE artists the value of controversy, and Groups was subsequently featured on the first ONCE composers program. For festival two, controversy struck over the artistic viability of LaMonte Young and Terry Jennings’ performance
and again provided ONCE with national attention. Most famously, the group’s 1964 publicity poster featuring political activist Martina Algire reclining nude on the counter of a local diner favored by music students—Red’s Rite Spot—produced another beneficial fracas, although it offended some in the DAC. In the end, however, such scandals were less tactics than endemic to the ONCE enterprise. As Mumma notes, “Anything or everything we did was controversial for someone.”

The rigor Finney’s teaching inculcated among ONCE composers was ultimately released by his winter 1960 sabbatical replacement—Catalan modernist composer Roberto Gerhard (1896–1970). Steeped in Spanish nationalism but later studying extensively with Arnold Schoenberg, Gerhard taught a seminar at U-M in serial techniques that sparked excitement. “Gerhard had never taught before he came to Ann Arbor,” Reynolds recalls. “He was very intense and intellectual, but extremely retiring and without pretenses.” Gerhard offered an affirming voice and graciously
supported student initiatives. “He never missed a Space Theatre performance,” recalls Ashley. Mumma likewise was inspired: “Gerard was wide open and positive about innovation.”

Although he emphasized method, Gerhard challenged his students to extend tradition in new directions while modeling a broad engagement with literature literature and philosophy. His campus lecture, “Is Modern Music Growing Old?” offered an emphatic refutation to Theodor Adorno’s Dissonanzen (1956), while ranging broadly from Aristotle and Charles Burney to the poets Paul Valéry and Wallace Stevens. Ultimately Gerhard’s message affirmed individual exploration. “The contemporary confusion in the field of music…” Gerhard said, “is rather what one would expect from a social body deep in ferment and teeming with creative energy. It would seem a poor show if an epoch does not… develop its ‘contemporary’ ideas fully in all directions, to the utmost limits of contradiction. Even by linguistic implication, contradictions evidently belong together….We move in all directions at once, and in each to the fullness of our bent.”(5)  (The same May as Gerhard’s lecture, composer John Cage and pianist David Tudor, as well as Berio, visited Ann Arbor, further whetting Ann Arbor’s appetite for the avant-garde and inspiring the soon-to-be ONCE composers to seize the means for their own artistic expression.) On campus for only a term and free of institutional entanglements, Gerhard liberated the creative energies of those around him. A crucial event in the planning for ONCE took place when eight of Gerhard’s seminar participants took inventory of their compositions to see if there were sufficient works to merit a public performance.

Accounts of the School of Music’s relationship to ONCE vary widely, maybe not surprisingly given the university’s decentralized authority located in individual faculty. While the ONCE composers had each studied at the university’s School of Music, the festivals were independent events wholly organized, supported, and housed by the local community. ONCE was not a rejection of the establishment as much as an extension of ongoing creative work. Most of its composers were alumni, and thus the festivals created vital performance opportunities now that university programs were no longer open to them. Many younger music faculty, such as theorist Wallace Berry, composer Paul Cooper, and musicologist Wiley Hitchcock, were interested in ONCE, and the campus radio station WUOM (where Cacioppo worked) recorded each concert. Likewise, Finney attended the first festival and contributed by convincing band director William Revelli to loan some of the school’s percussion instruments to the event. The school’s talented pool of instrumentalists was also essential. Yet, especially as the festivals grew, their notoriety overshadowed official university activities. In response, the School of Music organized its own contemporary music events and for “the 1964 ONCE Festival,” writes Mumma, “there was a nearly unanimous boycott of the concerts by the School of Music faculty…on the grounds that such activities were everything from immoral to academically and culturally disreputable.”(6) Although individual works by ONCE composers have been performed by School of Music faculty and the school’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble offered a memorial concert for George Cacioppo in April 1985, ONCE. MORE. represents the first comprehensive celebration of ONCE and its alumni by the University.

For Reynolds, the ultimate message of ONCE is simple: “If you don’t like the way things are, do something to change the situation.” Indeed ONCE should inspire students today, especially as the Internet makes self promotion only more accessible. In the 1960s, ONCE composers depended on the organizational skills of a small coterie of non-musician supporters including Mary Ashley, Harold Borkin, Cynthia Liddell, George Manupelli, plus Anne and Joseph Wehrer, who mailed countless letters, reserved venues, set up chairs, and contributed their own creative energies. Yet while the Internet facilitates, it also encourages competition; in 1961 by contrast, ONCE entered a veritable vacuum as little avant-garde musical activity happened outside of New York and the Cage/Tudor tours, giving ONCE events immediate prominence.

For Mumma, ONCE continues to offer advice to artists today: “Limit your habits,” “define innovative goals and build your discipline to achieve them,” and “work together generously while developing the best of your individuality.” Mumma’s last bit of advice hints at what is potentially the most important legacy of ONCE—its example of the power of an arts community. The festivals ended because DAC funding dried up, not because artistic cooperation failed. ONCE was made possible by a radical alliance of imagination that mustered collaboration in the service of artistic expression—a conspiracy for creativity that runs counter to the Western ideology of the lone artist working in isolation. The increasing tendency of ONCE towards theater reflects this same communal understanding of creativity. Further, ONCE benefited from the social and creative environment of its hometown, and, in turn, increased and perpetuated those values of association, diversity, tolerance, ambition, and innovation that continue to make Ann Arbor a dynamic place. Thus, ONCE affirms a three-dimensional community model of art requiring collaboration among creators, supporters, and an engaged audience. Reynolds sums up the result succinctly:
“Common interests have uncommon power.”

1 Miller, 87 .
2 Unless noted, all quotes are from personal interviews by the author with the composer.
3 Miller, 28.
4 Finney, 160.
5 Gerhard, 206.
6 Mumma, 390.

Complete bibliography.