|Ann Arbor, Michigan, seems an unlikely site for the establishment of a major avant-garde festival that would shake the new-music community. Tucked away in America’s heartland, the city is equally removed from the Eastern metropolises whose artists pride themselves on sensing the pulse of the times, and from the nonconformist West Coast. Yet during the 1960s Ann Arbor played host to one of the most extraordinary adventures in American music history: the annual ONCE Festival and its nexus of related activities.
The primary aim of ONCE’s founders—Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, George Cacioppo, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda—was to create a forum for the presentation of cutting-edge music. To this end they were phenomenally successful. Performers and composers—whether little-known or renowned—embraced the endeavor, demanding almost nothing in return. Perhaps most important, however, ONCE acted as a creative stimulus for its organizers. Scavarda describes the adventure as an explosion of pent-up energy: “Suddenly we could write anything we wanted and have it heard.” And they did. The ONCE composers—and many guest artists—wrote a host of new works, some experimental, others more traditional.
What united the ONCE composers was their exploration of sound, whether through the medium of extended techniques on traditional instruments, electronic (or electronically modified) timbres, or the intersection of musical sounds with those of the environment.
A major slice of ONCE’s rich musical legacy—35 works constituting six hours of music—is presented here, almost all for the first time. These pieces are as diverse in style as they are compelling in expression. This landmark set, the most comprehensive document ever released of this legendary event, is an opportunity for anyone interested in contemporary music to hear history in the making. Included in the set is a 140-page booklet with a lengthy scholarly essay by musicologist and biographer Leta Miller and numerous rare photos of ONCE personages and performances.
Held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 1961 to 1966, the ONCE Festival was a small artist-run event that had a huge impact on American contemporary music, especially on the composers that gave it life. Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda were all in their late twenties or early thirties. The festival and its ancillary events provided the laboratory necessary for their art to blossom. The festivals and events were recorded by WUOM, the radio station of the University of Michigan. Music from the ONCE Festival draws from these recordings a little over six hours of music laid down on five CDs. Sound quality is not always prime, but generally good, and when the audience gets too noisy, it only gives us an idea of how the music was received. Highlights are numerous, bland moments too — inevitable since the scope of esthetics is rather wide: "straightforward" contemporary classical pieces for ensemble, performance art, film music, pieces for soloist and tape, electro-acoustic music. The set gives us a chance to witness the growth of these young composers, since their works were recorded as they were written. From Ashley's piano Sonata to his Quartet, there is a whole evolution that takes us to the doorstep of his later operas. Something similar applies to Mumma's trickster pieces. David Behrman, George Crevoshay, Philip Krumm, Bruce Wise, Pauline Oliveros, and Robert Sheff (later known as "Blue" Gene Tyranny) are also represented. The latter two's contributions ("Applebox Double" and "Diotima") show how the festival had evolved from concerts of modern chamber and orchestral music, to an event open to electronic experiments and performance theater (some of the latter are pictured in the booklet). This lavish edition comes packaged in a sturdy box with a 140-page booklet containing detailed notes by the composers, and a thorough history of the festival. Impressing and imposing.