Composers with Roberto Gerhard

The ONCE Festivals of the 1960s

First, let’s set the stage. It’s Ann Arbor, circa 1960. World War II is over but the Cold War has arrived to fill the void. School children are subjected to classroom movies about the omnipresent menace of Communism; regular air raid drills jangle their little nerves. A beetle is still an insect, neither car nor rock band. The countercultural revolution, the feminist movement, Vietnam war protests, all lie in wait, ready to explode by the end of the decade. But not just yet.


Into this world of crew cuts and transistor radios came the ONCE composers. Like the Impressionist painters before them, they wanted to find their own distinctive voice. Breaking new ground meant breaking with tradition. And like the Impressionists, they had to find their own way. The ONCE Festival was their “salon des refusés.” Emily Weingarten, BM ‘08, tells their story. —BG


The Perpetual Innovation Machine

by Emily Weingarten, BM '08

ONCE is a perplexing name for a multitude of events that happened in many forms throughout Ann Arbor in the 1960s. What started as the ONCE Festival of Musical Premieres in February and March of 1961 turned into the six-year running ONCE Festival, spinning off creativity in Ann Arbor—the ONCE theatrical ensemble and the A2 Film Festival—and inspiring like-minded festivals across North America.

The ONCE Festival organizers were five students of U-M composition professor, the late Ross Lee Finney: Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda. From their composition studies with Finney, they had developed important roots in new compositional styles—twelve-tone, serialism, expressionism—and had become familiar with the music of prominent avant-garde composers from the first half of the twentieth century, like Schoenberg, Webern, Varèse, Berio.

In 1960, when Finney went on sabbatical leave, Spanish composer Roberto Gerhard, came in as his replacement. The timing was right. Just two years before, the ONCE composers had heard a lecture at Michigan by revolutionary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who encouraged them to find a way to present their music, even if they had to do it on their own. And while Finney was thinking progressively, Gerhard, by their account, was even more open to innovation and innovative thinking.

Milton Cohen’s Space Theater was another catalyst for ONCE. Cohen, on the art faculty and best known as a painter, was becoming increasingly interested in creating art using light. In 1957, he rented studio space in Ann Arbor and began constructing his Space Theater:  a twenty-sided hemisphere fifty feet in diameter that he would equip to manipulate light in an interactive setting.

Cohen’s goals were remarkably similar to those of the ONCE composers:  to shrink distance between artist and spectator, spectator and spectacle; to suggest a museum of creative presence, of living performance, of spontaneous action; and to score music, light, poetry, dance, with a single notational system, thus pressing a unitary vision.

To create an interdisciplinary performance, Milton Cohen collaborated with two future ONCE composers, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma. Using their own electronic equipment—amplifiers, oscillators, filters, and four-track tape recorders—Ashley and Mumma formed the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music, composing electroacoustic music for over one hundred Space Theater performances.

The idea for a ONCE festival came up in the car, coming back to Ann Arbor from the 1960 International Conference on Composers in Stratford, Ontario. Frustrated by the lack of access to the contemporary composers and compositions at the Stratford conference, the ONCE composers resolved to “present new music which would not ordinarily receive a hearing in the community.” To bring artistic significance to Ann Arbor they would host prominent American and European composers and present premieres of their own works.

After securing funding from a local arts organization, posters went up announcing the first festival, two weekends in February and March of 1961. It would be held at Ann Arbor’s First Unitarian Church. All of the performances sold out, encouraging further financial support. In his article, “The ONCE Festival and How It Happened,” Gordon Mumma commented on the ability of ONCE composers to develop and grow as composers in the midst of an “active and artistically challenging cultural community.”

There would be six ONCE festivals in all. As their success grew, they were able to shift programming to exhibit more of their own works, which were becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, theatrical, and innovative—and drawing international press.

Much of that music was numerical and mathematical. Some of the composers had backgrounds in math and science. Reynolds was a physicist and engineer. Ashley constructed many of his works around numerical formulas, using recording techniques that would be impossible without scientific discoveries and innovations in electroacoustics. Mumma’s “discovery” of cybersonics arose out of his work in a seismographic laboratory. Scavarda used a matrix form in his revolutionary piece Matrix for Clarinetist.

The ONCE composers were also interested in manipulating the passage of time. By juxtaposing music that moved at different speeds or using indeterminate meters—measuring time by how long a note can sustain—they could distort the listener’s perception of how time passed. They developed new sounds and effects for instruments. Don Scavarda is credited with discovering the clarinet multi-phonics for Matrix. He experimented with new formats for musical scores, such as created abstract films. Electronic music, of course, remained a foundational format for ONCE presentations.

The creative momentum, increased from festival to festival. The works that George Cacioppo composed over the course of the six festivals took greater risks than their predecessors, yet each was incontrovertibly more successful. The faithful performers of the ONCE festival, having shared in Cacioppo’s progressive ideas right from the start, eagerly awaited each new composition. The festival, though plagued with insufficient rehearsal time, was witness to many exemplary performances.

The essence of ONCE is difficult to capture in a single statement. ONCE meant many things, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes changing and evolving as the festivals unfolded. The group was clearly dedicated to presenting new and innovative compositions and making them accessible. They also advanced ideas about community performances and artistic entrepreneurship.

The ONCE Festival's dedication to the cause and its commitment to experimentation and taking risks had an intense and personal impact on its composers, its performers, and its audiences. Perhaps Don Scavarda captures the ONCE festival most accurately: “The main goal was to get our music heard. If a piece isn’t heard, you can’t really grow. … Once that was established, we could conjure up whatever ideas we had.” And they did.