Host: After 24 years, the interim president of New College shut down an experimental music program just as it was getting ready to start a new season. With it, a central piece of experimental art in Sarasota is missing.
Bonnie Silvestri interviewed New Music New College founder Stephen Miles on WSLR’s Peace and Justice Report this morning. Here is a summary of Miles’ interview.
Music: [Piano music played by Kathleen Supové]
Host: This is one of the New Music New College performances in what turned out to be its last season. Kathleen Supové, not easy music, but there was a full house.
It all started in the last century with a one-hour John Cage performance at the Ringling Museum of Art for the opening of a controversial exhibition by German artist Joseph Beuys. People were milling through the exhibit while listening to the not-so-easy music produced by New College teachers and students and local musicians. It became an instant classic.
Stephen Miles: Jean Ryan was the curator of that exhibition. And he said that the hour of the Cage performance was the most vibrant hour of the entire exhibition period. And I think what he meant by that is that there were people who were not only experiencing the Cage in a new way, but that helped them actually experienced the Beuys in a very different way as well.
Host: It turned out there was an audience for difficult art in Sarasota, Florida. And so, that concert turned into a series that lasted a quarter century. Stephen Miles explains.
SM: So after those two experiences, we realized that there was there was an audience in Sarasota. There were people in Sarasota who were curious, who wanted to explore, and who looked to New College as a place that, in a certain sense, was sort of identified and sanctioned to do that. I mean, New College has always been about open inquiry, considering new ideas through experience, right, not just considering them in the abstract, but actually trying to engage them experientially. So there was really a kind of a marriage that just made a lot of sense.
New Music New College became a series. We gave performances and then it started in 2006. We’d have a five-concert series, but it became a scene where we were exploring new music with our students, with the community, with the Sarasota community, and we’ve been doing this for 24 years.
Host: But then, the new administration, which came in early this year on the heels of a takeover by Governor Ron DeSantis canceled the program.
SM: So the college, even though we had all the money that we needed to run the final 25th anniversary season, they chose to cancel it. And that’s frankly, in keeping with what else has been going on at the college. Ron DeSantis has said, and Christopher Rufo has said, that they want to turn New College into the Hillsdale College of the South. And for those who aren’t familiar, Hillsdale College is a Michigan college, it is kind of the center of far right thinking particularly as it pertains to education. So here’s a little thought experiment, you might think, “Would it be possible to have a Hillsdale College experimental music ensemble?” I don’t think so.
So we’re going out swinging now, I guess you could say. We’re obviously sorry that we can’t present that 25th anniversary season.
Host: To be sure, the last three years at New Music New College were marked by turnover. After Stephen Miles retired as a music professor in 2020, fellow professor Mark Danciger took the reins. But then Danciger took a leave, and Ron Silver took over. But silver left Sarasota this summer after his wife, who taught at New College, was offered a job in Illinois.
New College did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
New Music New College has been a keystone of Sarasota’s edgy arts scene, together with the ensemble New SRQ, the Urbanite Theater and the Sarasota Contemporary Dance Troupe. Could it continue outside of New College? Miles seems to suggest so. In the interview, he laid out the fundamentals of how the program was run at New College, and how any outside organization should respect those principles.
SM: Some people have suggested that. I guess what I’d say is, I can certainly see the chance for experimental performances be done either in museums or galleries, or in any other spaces really. But one thing that that I want to underscore is that New Music New College was fundamentally tied to the New College Music Program, and to the college itself, right. Meaning that what we were doing would lead into the classroom, that then would lead out of the classroom, into the community and there was this ongoing dialogue.
I was so fortunate to come to New College. Really, when you’re searching for academic positions, it’s hard to find tenure track jobs. But I came here, and I couldn’t have come to a place that was more in-sync or in harmony with my own views. It’s a place that gave me permission to take risks, to experiment, to investigate music and art and to think about it from an interdisciplinary angle. That is, to think about in relationship to social life and to politics.
So in other words, even when we’re not directly invoking politics or addressing a political theme, the very fact that we are experimenting, that we are engaging each other often in participatory formats. But that, we are saying, what we experience as reality is one version. What are the other versions of reality that we then want? I think that, to the extent that you engage in experimental work, you’re saying, everything is open for critique. Everything is open for examination, particularly on the basis of experience. Not just ideas, but experience.
New College, whether it’s in music, anthropology, philosophy, any of the areas in college, this is the way to learn there. The way that we taught there. It was a community that was free to ask questions. And as you know, from our students who have gone on to such wonderful careers. This is a place that honors open inquiry, and if there’s ever a continuation of New Music New College, or if there’s ever more concerts and more performances, more engagement with the community, it’s going to be with that spirit. Because that’s really what set New Music New College apart.
Host: To listen to the full interview, go to wslr.org, click on “Archive” and look for today’s edition of the Peace and Justice Report.
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