In 1933, Henry Cowell wrote of composer John J. Becker, “He carries the center of interest in modern creative music in the Midwest with him wherever he goes.” Were Cowell alive today, the most likely candidate for that description would have to be Peter Gena.
An associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Gena is perhaps best known locally as the man who, with codirector Alene Valkanas, brought the tremendously successful New Music America festival to Chicago in 1982. No one could continue presenting music at that level without immense institutional support, but since then Gena has given it an impressive shot. While teaching at Northwestern University, he brought Robert Ashley (with his Perfect Lives opera), John Cage, Philip Glass, Morton Feldman, Charles Amirkhanian, and Julius Eastman to campus, most of them for midwest premieres. With the InterArts Ministry (which he founded with kindred spirit Phil Winsor in 1980), he has brought Pauline Oliveros, Diamanda Galas, and Laurie Spiegel to Chicago. He was the organizer of the first midwest one-man concerts of Ben Johnston, Christian Wolff, and Lukas Foss. And now at the SAIC, he’s organized a series of seven concerts and lectures for this month alone, featuring premieres by Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Frank Zappa, Frank Abbinanti, and others, plus lectures by Harold Budd and David Behrman.
It takes a lot of motivation for a composer to take up the thankless tasks of entrepreneurship, and Gena insists he’s not being altruistic. His reasons, in fact, are similar to the ones for which Becker conducted Ives, Ruggles, and Cowell in Saint Paul. “For a composer to work in a certain aesthetic,” Gena explains in his Glenview home, “he has to build up an environment for that aesthetic if it doesn’t already exist.
“I studied with Morton Feldman at (the University of New York at) Buffalo when Buffalo was a hotbed of musical experimentation. Buffalo in the 60s and 70s was like Ferrara in 1555; everybody who was anybody in the avant-garde performed there. Then I taught at (the University of California at) Fresno. When I came to Chicago, there were no outlets for minimalism and the other kinds of music that were going on in Buffalo and California. Phil Winsor was the only other nonstudent composer in town interested in what was going on elsewhere; so we started the InterArts Ministry as a way of creating the environment we needed.” (Winsor has since left to teach at North Texas State.)
“Now the art galleries are where new music is being played. We gave our early conceits at West Hubbard Gallery, and of course Alene had programmed a lot of new music at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The art world is more receptive to present musical trends than the musicians are, and that holds true at the level of secondary education, too. The Art Institute is the first place I’ve taught where the students are already familiar with the experimental works I play in the classroom.
“When I brought Ashley to NU, 75 people showed up, whereas when he came to the SAX, the hall was full a half hour before the performance and we turned people away. When Cage spoke at the SAIC, no one brought up the old ‘Is it music’ question, which is all they’d ask at Northwestern.”
Artistic geniuses, academicians take note, do not tend to be the clean-shaven, three-piece-suit type, and the unconventionality of the artists Gena’s brought has often required his considerable diplomacy. “At NU when Cage came, they could have tripped over him and thought he was a vagrant. One NU faculty member told me, ‘I would never have Cage in my house.'”
Another source of friction at NU was Gena’s interest in interdisciplinary teaching. In 1981 he, art professor Fred Levine, and acting TriQuarterly editor Jonathan Brent attempted to organize a team-taught course interrelating the artistic trends of each historical era. The idea met with disfavor from all three departments. The next year, Northwestern discontinued Gena’s contract. The firing came at the height of Gena’s career recognition so far: the New Music America festival was within weeks of starting, he had just edited with Brent the prestigious John Cage Reader, his music was recorded on Nonesuch. Among the reasons given, “The dean said that the kind of music I was interested in (meaning that of Cage and the people he influenced, including Glass and Steve Reich) was a kind that my colleagues felt shouldn’t be represented at Northwestern.” (Conservative NU seems not to look kindly on new ideas; Levine was also fired, and Brent was removed from TriQuarterly.) By the time he left, Gena had been hired by the SAIC for many of the same reasons Northwestern had fired him; along with his electronic music and theory teaching, he’s presently involved in his fourth interdisciplinary course there.
“Students who overspecialize get shortchanged, they don’t know the cultural milieu of the art they’re studying. In the most exciting music being made today, we see a shift to aesthetics, to ideas; but the only music allowed in most music departments is that which can be analyzed according to an autonomous musical system.”
Those who enjoy the “shift to aesthetics” are in for a blast from the SAIC this month. Gena’s first concert takes place Tuesday, April 7, at 6:30 PM in the Trading Room of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson: the InterArts Ministry Ensemble will perform world premieres by Chicago composers Frank Abbinanti and Thomas Silvestri, and midwest premieres of Hymnkus (1986) by John Cage, selections from Chain (1986) by Frederic Rzewski, and I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman (1985) by Christian Wolff.
Concert II is Tuesday, April 21, same time, place, and players: world premiere of Charles Amirkhanian’s His Anxious Hours — Somnisoniferences of Johannes Brahms, the U.S. premiere of Text-Music for piano by British composer Clarence Barlow, and further excerpts of Rzewski’s Chains.
Concert III is the return of Britain’s avant-garde improvisation ensemble AMM, Sunday, April 26, at 5:30, Curtiss Hall in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan. Monday, April 27, at 7, German organist Gerhard Stabler will play recent European and American works at Saint Clement’s Church, 642 W. Deming. Tuesday, April 28, at 6:30, excellent contemporary-music pianist Anthony de Mare will play music by George Antheil, Philip Glass, Meridith Monk, Frank Zappa, Charles Wuorinen, Peter Gena, and others at Curtiss Hall.
In addition to the concerts, there will be two lectures on Wednesday, April 15, at the SAIC auditorium: electronic composer David Behrman will talk about his work at 1:30 PM, then west coast ambient composer Harold Budd (collaborator with Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and others) at 7. Behrman’s talk will accompany the installation of his Keys to Your Music, an audience-interactive piece that will be present in the second-floor auditorium lobby April 12 through 18.
Admission to the lectures is free, $5 to the Stabler conceit at Saint Clement’s. All others are general admission $7, $4 students and seniors. For information, call 443-3711. It’s not quite New Music America all over again, but it’s the closest we’re going to get for a long time, folks.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.