In 1958, the legendary serialist composer Milton Babbitt published a now-infamous article in the magazine High Fidelity with the inflammatory title, “Who Cares if You Listen.” The article arrived at a time of heightened dissatisfaction with the inaccessibility of new contemporary composition and people immediately seized on it as evidence of the widespread elitist contempt they believed that composers held for their audiences. The gist of Babbitt’s argument was that modern composition had become a highly specialized formal activity, akin to theoretical physics: Just as the average audience member at a physics lecture is not in the position to critique the lecturer’s scientific techniques, the average listener is not in the position to take issue with the composer’s compositional methods.
Babbitt lies on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from the Yale New Music Cooperative’s President Max Vinetz ’18, whose stated intention is the democratization of contemporary classical music. Vinetz declares NMC to be a “uniform, democratic effort,” claiming that he contributes no more than any other member of the group. He is rather cagey about declaring himself the organization’s leader despite the fact that he is by all accounts the central force who spearheaded the group’s revitalization. For example, when asked if he is officially NMC’s president, Vinetz responded, “Yeah … Um … Well … I guess?”
NMC holds concerts that showcase the music of undergraduate composers; the group held a string quartet concert — its first live event — last November. Vinetz originally conceived of the idea at the end of his freshman year. “When I started writing a lot more music for chamber ensembles, I realized: What’s the point of writing if I’m not going to get it played? Performance is half of the piece. I thought to myself: I bet there’s a lot of people like me who want to get pieces performed, because there’s a scene for a cappella, there’s a scene for theater, and there’s a scene for classical performance, but there’s no outlet for new classical composition.”
Jack Lawrence, one of NMC’s many co-vice presidents, said that the concept was originally to revive a model that has existed in the past under various names, the most recent incarnation of which was the now-defunct student group Igigi (nobody seems to know what the name meant).
“There are such great institutions in place for graduate students. The entire grad school itself is super well-funded. As undergrads though, we often found it was difficult to hear our music played live,” Lawrence said, mirroring many of Vinetz’s assertions.
Lawrence, a jazz guitarist by trade, plays with Vinetz in a band called the Phonetics. He favors folk and jazz music, citing influences as diverse as the Punch Brothers and Julian Lage. His current musical outlook differs significantly from that of Vinetz, who began as a “shredder,” committed to heavy metal music, in middle school but also waxes exuberant and at length about the string quartets of Bela Bartok (over winter break, he claims to have listened to a different Bartok string quartet every day, five times a day).
Cyrus Duff ’18, a composer and yet another co-vice president of NMC, compared the organization to the experimental music group Black is the Color, often cited as the chief contemporary classical group on campus besides NMC.
“There’s certainly a split in terms of methodology,” Duff said. “The Black is the Color shows tend to be more about collaboration and coherence — each show is unified as a singular unit. The NMC shows are more scattered.”
Alois Cerbu ’18 drew a similar comparison between the groups, stating that Black is the Color is more interested in performance while NMC is more interested in creating a space for people who write music and may otherwise never hear it performed.
Vinetz himself cites Black is the Color as a central influence in coming up with the idea for NMC.
Due to the group’s relative newness, it is difficult to assess whether Vinetz’s efforts to broaden the appeal of contemporary classical music have been successful.
“You have to take into account that we’ve been active for six months,” said current board member Jonah Pearl ’18.
One of the central paradoxes of the group is that it is attempting to democratize what is by nature an extremely abstruse branch of music. Several members expressed worries about insularity and a concern that many of the composers belonging to the collective are members of the same few composition seminars at the School of Music. The group’s primary faculty advisers — Kathryn Alexander and Konrad Kaczmarek — are Vinetz’s former composition instructors.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s a little too boxed-in, and not enough new faces are showing up,” said Lawrence. “We would love to find people who’ve never taken a music class.”
Duff attributed the insularity of the group to the insularity of the chamber music world in general. He also cited the group’s relative nascence, and the fact that all of the founding members are mutual friends and acquaintances.
“When you consider that it’s made up largely by these people who were all friends, it’s kind of inevitable that it would end up being a little self-enclosed,” he told WKND.
Elena Saavedra Buckley ’18, a current board member, attributed NMC’s close connection to music seminars to the high technicality required in contemporary classical composition.
“It tends to limit the type of music that is played and the people who are composing that music,” Buckley said.
Along with violinist Ana Barrett ’18, Buckley is one of only two women on NMC’s board. She told WKND that she had gotten involved because she thought it was important to have more female involvement in the organization.
“In general, classical and new music in general is a pretty male-dominated field, and I think it’s extremely important to cultivate good open spaces for this music on campus,” she said.
Pearl said that NMC is currently brainstorming ways to get more people involved. The group welcomed unsolicited submissions of any instrumentation for its upcoming February show, and Pearl stated that several composers not involved in the usual composition seminars will be featured on the program.
Duff said that NMC has democratized chamber music at Yale, but within narrow parameters.
“If you look at the audience, it’s primarily made up of the friends of the composers, friends of the musicians and other musicians,” he said. “This is not to undersell Max’s accomplishment, but expansion has primarily occurred [among] people involved in classical music to begin with.”
Cerbu, whose new piano trio will be premiered at NMC’s upcoming February concert, agreed with Duff and added that the process of making contemporary classical composition more accessible “proceeds stepwise.”
“It’s often harder to digest new music if you haven’t had prior exposure to it,” Cerbu said. “It’s easier to digest Schubert than Schoenberg, and the process of democratization is going to work more effectively for people who are used to stretching out their ears a little bit. That said, I don’t think that discounts the impact it’s had on the vast majority of students at Yale. The group is absolutely making modern classical music more heard on campus than it was last year.”