Mannes ‘forces students to play Cage and Cowell’

Mannes ‘forces students to play Cage and Cowell’


norman lebrecht

October 25, 2019

We’ve received a long, rambling complaint from Mannes students on restrictions as to what they can play in recitals and when.

Aside from the usual whinges, the peculiar bit is this: “As part of the Centennial celebration, ‘over the course of the 2019/2020 academic school year, all chamber groups and chamber performance classes will carry a centennial theme” (email from Mannes Deans on April, 24). Therefore, Mannes students this academic year are not allowed to perform or work on chamber music from the canon, but instead will have to find pieces written by composers associated with the New School, such as John Cage and Henry Cowell.  With all due respect, everyone understands the limitations such a repertoire imposes on students, potentially stifling students’ creativity and musical growth. Furthermore, great experimental composers such as Cage and Cowell, wrote very little of what can be called “chamber music.” 

Can anyone explain?



  • Karl says:

    Why not just play Cage 4′33″? I could do that.

  • mary says:

    Look on the upside, there is no such thing as a “bad interpretation” of new music, and if they played a wrong note, no one would know. Not even the composer.

    Watch Boulez conduct his own pieces, his head is stuck in the score, and he doesn’t even look up, and I’m wondering, don’t you know how your own piece goes?

    The downside is no one will come.

  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    Utter bollocks

  • MusicBear88 says:

    I don’t know the actual situation at Mannes, but if it were indeed true, as this letter implies, that the ONLY chamber music that can be programmed this year was Cage, Cowell, and their contemporaries, that would be pretty restrictive, even though Cage did write for a lot of very different combinations. But if they’re saying that each chamber concert needs to have one piece representative of the style, much like they might say that next year each concert has to have a piece of Beethoven on it, that’s a very different story. What gets me when the Tchaikovsky competition does it is that many of the instruments that are now played have no actual Tchaikovsky work written for them, so they play transcriptions of opera arias. I wouldn’t want a saxophone quartet to play Beethoven either, but I’m stuffy that way.

    I used to prepare for a piano competition (of sorts, it was more of a competition against your own prior scores) where the repertoire was outlined as it often is. You needed pieces from Baroque, classical, romantic, and “modern” eras, and they asked for an American piece because the founder of the program was very intent on promoting American music in an era where very few people did. One year I played Scott Joplin’s “Concert Waltz” Bethena, which I assert is a waltz that stands up there with Chopin, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. The judge said that I played it very well, but also told me to congratulate my teacher on making a wonderful selection.

  • J says:

    Cage and Cowell are both intriguing composers and thinkers and I believe firmly that students can benefit enormously from playing their music and studying their ideas about what music is and can be. But it is surely pedagogical nonsense to restrict learning to any one type of repertoire exclusively. Needless to say, it would be equally silly to confine students to Mozart and Haydn, or to Brahms and Schumann. I for one would be interested to hear from Mannes if this situation really is the case, or just another example of media hyperbole and spin…

  • OldSchool69 says:

    Perhaps Mannes’ new focus is modern/new music? Didn’t they also fire the Orion Quartet and hired JACK?

    • Paul says:

      They did fire the Orions, thought it was after three decades. They brought on the JACK, so yes, it looks like they are upping their game in new music.

    • OldSchool1685 says:

      Well there you have it. Firing a great quartet like the Orions and replacing them with an unknown string quartet that only performs music by contemporary composers. Mannes was at its best when it focused only on Schenkerian analysis and played no new music and no Renaissance or Medieval. Norman Lebrecht is correct. There is nothing to gain by studying composers such as John Cage or Henry Cowell or Philip Glass. This is the reason that the opera companies and orchestras are all failing, because we are forsaking Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms for composers like Andrew Norman. I stopped going to the Los Angeles Philharmonic for this very reason and now I see other orchestras like the New York Philharmonic playing contemporary garbage and commissioning all sorts of composes whom they shouldn’t. While I don’t always agree with Lebrecht, I do this time, it is a waste of time to perform or study John Cage or Henry Cowell, who are not classical composers.

  • lunchtimeOBoulez says:

    Stifling their creativity… by stopping them playing Brahms again?

    Only in America`!

    • generalizationstation says:

      They’re college students. They’re likely playing Brahms for the first time. Let them learn some Brahms. You have to learn the classics, the basics, the fundamentals, etc. before you start exploring new territory.

      • John Borstlap says:


        But new territory often is a great escape from too great challenges, on another level than the purely technical. I know of young players who were not talented enough for the classics, and when they discovered ‘the moderns’ jump on that band wagon and made a nice career out of it, so: in another performance culture.

  • Mannes merged with the New School in 1989. Mannes was an especially conservative music school, and New School was renowned for its focus on contemporary culture.

    A few years ago the Board of New School noted that Mannes was pulling the merger back into the 19th century and said it would like to see the merger maintain the New School’s focus on contemporary culture. So changes were made to return the focus to more contemporary culture.

    This focus has also allowed Mannes/New School to carve out a special niche in New York’s crowded music school landscape (Juilliard, Mannhattan School of Music, SUNY Puraches, CUNY, NYU, Columbia, Queens College, SUNY Stony Brook, etc.) Overall, I think it has been very valuable.
    It has allowed the Dean, Richard Kessler, to initate a lot of interesting programs and a unique and much needed type of educational experience.

    The key to the conflict is for the faculty to inspire the students to undertake repertoire suitable for the centennial. With a little imagination, I think many inspiring possibilities could be found–perhaps including re recontextualizing some of the standard repertoire. Or perhaps even deconstructing it in ways that provide new insights.

    Don’t let the students down. Work with them to create fun and creative ideas that will fulfill the centennial’s stated goals and show them the way to a bright future.

    • paul says:

      That’s how I read this: perform music by composers connected to Mannes and The New School…for the centennial. I don’t think this is unusual, other schools have focused on their own during major celebrations. Didn’t Cowell write a lot of music…something like 1000 works. And Copland taught there too.

  • Anonymous says:

    God forbid students have to step outside of the classic repertory, and be *gasp* creative with their repertoire choices.

    • Broadway Musician says:

      That’s about right. God forbid an American conservatory besides CalArts engages with experimental music and all the squares have a cow. At the very least this looks to be an object lesson in how limited the training and culture is at American conservatories.

  • Jim Dalton says:

    “…wrote very little of what can be called “chamber music.” ”

    Seriously? You haven’t heard much Cowell OR Cage, have you?

  • Mannes Violin Student says:

    As a student at Mannes I have no idea what they’re talking about. What we were told and I read in a letter from the dean was that we were to work with our teachers to program composers associated with the history of the New School, as part of a centennial year. That includes Copland, Cowell, Cage, Sessions, Seeger, Martinu, Varese, Steve Reich, Ernest Blochand now Phillip Glass, Missy Mazoli, David Little, John Zorn, Lowell Lieberman. There’s plenty of chamber music to be found. And so what if it were only Cowell and Cage? Cowell wrote a lot of chamber music. I am sorry my fellow student don’t read anything that is sent to them.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I feel their pain !!

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    Maybe the Chinese Government could insist that a few additional composers be included like Tan Dun and Zhou Long, otherwise Mannes’ students won’t be allowed to play in China.

    That might cause Mannes to reconsider like a good music school should, and give the students more choices.

  • Long Time Mannes Faculty Member says:

    I teach at Mannes, read the letter, and spoke with the deans about it a two faculty meetings. All they have asked is for the chamber music being performed to celebrate the centennial of The New School and there are a lot of different composers to choose from when you factor in those who taught and teach at Mannes and The New School. There’s a lovely string quartet by Ruth Seeger for instance or all of Copland’s music, since he taught here for many years.

  • John Porter says:

    Is this a joke? I thought it might be April 1st, but it’s not. Okay, the students are being “forced to play Henry Cowell and John Cage. Poor little snow flakes. Maybe one day they will wish someone forced them to get paid to perform.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I think it speak well enough for itself.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The answer is not difficult: what is there to learn, in a musical sense and in terms of sophistication, ensemble playing, phrasing, intonation etc. etc. from music like this:

    Or, what musical, expressive resources would a piano student get from this:

    Learning ANY musical skill from Cage is an entirely imaginary exercise:

    … and that was exactly what Cage intended.

    It is all very nice for people who like these things, but they don’t offer any contribution to serious musicianship. So, these protesting students are youngsters with musical insight, and a better one than their teachers.

    There can be found enough ‘new pieces’ which are not part of ‘the canon’ which are so much better than the products of these composers, and that is not too difficult.

  • can somebody post the original “email from Mannes Deans on April, 24”?

    • SVM says:

      That would probably be copyright infringement. Copyright in a letter or electronic-mail message vests in its author (and/or the author’s employer, where applicable, subject to contract), from whom permission must be obtained to forward to third parties. In practice, this copyright is often infringed, and enforcement action is rarely taken.

      Nonetheless, it is rather irresponsible to encourage people to break the law; the responsible course of action would be to invite the author of the message and/or Mannes to post the original message (either here or on the institution’s website).

  • brian says:

    What’s the big deal? If it’s a ‘centennial theme’ then great, there’s been a boatload of great chamber works written over the past hundred years. Bartok, Shostakovich, even Glass (I really like that Dracula score for quartet). There’s Crumb (who wouldn’t have fun playing Black Angels?) and probably more.

    • Paul says:

      It’s the centennial of The New School and Mannes, not the University of Pennsylvania. And, they just did a complete concert of all of Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes…

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    That is humbug. It would indeed have been damaging for students if they were forced to play minimalist composers instead.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. One does not learn the musical sophistication one needs as an allround player from minimal music. First comes musical development (not only technique), and then one can go into whatever direction one wants.

  • Elliott’s Babbitt says:

    Mediocre students, besides. Neither harm nor foul. The best of future plans involve the Deans cancelling conservatory musical events permanently.

    • FP says:

      I spent 4 amazing years at Mannes. Your fatuous comment betrays your breathtaking ignorance. You are clearly a bitter, failed musician.

  • Rentat says:

    Mannes and the New School are a steaming pile of experimental caca, so quite apropos.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Time to search for a Lied by Brahms that can be used as a protest song. Any suggestion?

  • B says:

    That’s half of the issue. Yes, students are being required by the administration to play chamber music that somehow relates to The New School’s centennial (Cowell, Cage, Schoenberg, Copland). When you have an orchestra program as large as Mannes (with over 100 string players, around 40 woodwind wind players, etc) this is extremely limiting. I’ve heard there are at least 2 Copland Sextets going on right now.

    The main issue that the quoted petition is about (that got left out here) is that Mannes is not allowing students to hold recitals at the school unless they are graduating. Instead, Mannes is selling out their spaces to phony artists in residence who don’t even hold concerts at the school. In addition, Mannes administration is not even allowing FACULTY to hold their own studio recitals at the school. Higher-ups at Mannes are quick to monetize the students’ small amount of space to put the school’s image (and bank account) above the students’ needs.

    • Long-Time Mannes Faculty Member says:

      Phony artists in residence? ICE, Philip Glass Ensemble, JACK Quartet, Imani Winds, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. I hear the administration put the non-graduating recitals on hold until they could figure out how to deal with nearly 50% of students canceling their recitals. This is what was discussed with faculty. And as far as faculty goes, the school is in New York, not Iowa, and there are plenty of places to perform, particularly considering that almost all of the faculty are part-time. I perform my recitals at all sorts of venues and don’t need to rely7 on Mannes for a concert.

    • Mannes Student says:

      Really, the students can’t find repertoire from all the composers associated with Mannes and The New School over 100 years? The best they can do is two Copland Sextets. Maybe that’s the point of all this. How to find repertoire instead of just playing the same work over and over. When I saw the letter, I started looking at all the composers and their students and teachers. It generated a list of about 100 composers and I was just getting started. Some of the students and teachers are just being lazy. Sorry readers.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Make the students take their medicine! A good dose of Henry Cowell is like cod-liver oil.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is the full letter. People here don’t even know the half of what they’re talking about.

    • Long-Time Faculty Mannes Faculty Member says:

      The students don’t mention that almost 50% of all students cancel on their non-graduating recitals. The faculty were told that a plan was being developed to address how to deal with all the cancelations. This was discussed during at least two faculty meetings.

    • Mannes Alum says:

      I have read this letter and the student petition. I can see the point about non-graduating recitals, but also read that the school is trying to figure out how to deal with students who cancel these elective recitals in high numbers. As far as the rep issue, this is for one semester only, according to the letter and the letter was sent in April of last year and the students are now first complaining? And about what? Choosing composers associated with Mannes and The New School. That’s the issue? Why don’t they just choose some pieces by composers on the Mannes faculty? When I was a student at Mannes, we played works by Robert Cuckson and David Loeb. It’s a pretty good roster of faculty composers that seem to be performed and commissioned by many groups. Or just take the easy way and play a Martinu string quartet. There’s plenty there to choose from. It’s hard to believe the students are so hostile to new music.

    • Anonymous says:

      I am current student and don’t quite get what the issue is about repertoire. It’s only a single semester, so, what’s the big deal? I have a graduation recital this year so don’t really care about the non-graduating recital issue. I cancelled mine last year, last minute, and am sure it wasted the recital hall space for another student who would have used it. So, I get that part too.

  • Long-Time Mannes Faculty Member says:

    This is the letter from April 24th that the students were referring to:

    Dear Mannes Community,

    As we look forward to the coming academic year, I would like to invite you to review the email below from President Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall, in recognition of The New School centennial. The history of The New School as a home for contemporary and experimental music and art is extremely rich. At Mannes, faculty members like Ernest Bloch, Ursula Mamlok, Bohuslav Martinu; and alumni such as Michel Camilo, Charlemagne Palestine, and Michael Riesman, serve as just a few of many examples of those who have exemplified this progressive spirit. Likewise, at The New School, this history is exemplified by figures in music and across the performing arts such as John Cage, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Erwin Piscator, Harry Belafonte, Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper, Jazzmeia Horn, Martha Graham, and many others. Today, we aim to build on this by upholding and furthering our commitment to new work, progressive curricular initiatives, and the spirit of experimentation.

    The Mannes of the 21st Century has built on this legacy through much of our recent work, starting with the relocation of Mannes from the Upper West Side to Arnhold Hall, in order to facilitate greater collaboration and synergy with the rest of the university. Further, the creation of the Philip Glass Institute, the residency of The Stone in the Glassbox Theater, works presented by the Mannes Orchestra and operatic works, such as Robert Ashley’s Dust, Johnny Greenwood’s Suite for There Will Be Blood, Julius Eastman’s Symphony No. 2, all aim to build on this legacy. Most central has been the ongoing re-envisioning of what it means to be a musician in today’s world, and our always returning to the question: what do today’s students need to know, understand, and be able to do, in order to be ready to enter that world.

    As we reflect on The New School centenary, the 2019/2020 academic year will be an opportunity to invigorate all that we do at Mannes with a progressive, forward-thinking spirit: from public programming, to coursework, curriculum, repertoire selection, curation, and more. In the coming weeks, you will hear details from faculty, staff, and your advisors, regarding programming and curricular initiatives that will recognize the New School centennial, including:

    · All chamber ensembles in the fall semester will be guided in the selection of repertoire that relates to the history and ethos of The New School
    · Programming for large ensembles will highlight composers who have taught at or attended Mannes and The New School
    · A week-long centennial festival will occur in October, where Mannes students and faculty will have the opportunity to participate in performances, lectures, and events

    The New School’s centenary is a cause for celebration. It is also an opportunity for us to come together as an institution that puts great value on new ways of thinking, making, and doing, and to move the music forward.

  • Actually Cage wrote quite a lot of chamber music for various combinations, as well as orchestral, solo voice, voice with various accompaniments, solo piano … the list goes on … Consulting the John Cage Trust or CF Peters publishing would be a good place to start for information on the wealth of music Cage wrote.

  • And good grief, Cowell had as many stylistic changes over his composing career as Stravinsky. I won’t go so far as to say Cowell wrote “something for everyone”… but anyone who knows Cowell only as an avant garde experimentalist should at least listen to something like his violin sonata: (performance by Joseph Szigeti, violin, and Carlo Busotti, piano)

    • Ringo says:

      The majority of Cowell’s music is pretty traditional and very good. His experimental period was fairly brief and early. Then there’s his use of world music, integrated into classical/traditional forms. He was way ahead of his time. Quite a good composer.

  • Tony says:

    Students complaining because their teachers told them to do something they didn’t want to do? What?!