Not an acronym so much as an all-caps catch-all, ONCE stands for a variety of artistic actions that occurred simultaneously, yet discretely, in Ann Arbor in the early '60s.
For several years, a handful of avant-garde music composers in Ann Arbor created the annual ONCE Festival, an independent, artist-directed series of modern music concerts. Working largely outside of the University of Michigan, but still within the Ann Arbor community, the organizers of the ONCE Festival presented their own groundbreaking material to enthusiastic audiences and brought major talent to town too. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, the Judson Dance Theater, Morton Feldman, LaMonte Young and Eric Dolphy are just a few who hosted ONCE during the eight years it was active.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ONCE activities, the University Musical Society, one of several U-M institutional
music programming groups, has orchestrated several days of concerts, symposia, art shows, installations and, significantly, the first gathering since the original days of the four living ONCE principals: Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda. (Their founding colleague George Cacioppo died in 1984.) Each has continued to excel in the world of contemporary music. For instance, Robert Ashley continues to be a major figure in American music, and his innovative, epic, minimalist operas have direct roots in his musical and theatrical experiments in Ann Arbor.
Before ONCE, avant-garde performances were difficult to find in this country outside of New York City. But through the initiative of these energetic Ann Arborites and their associates, active networks in a variety of cultural fields began to form.
"The major sources of energy for new music [in New York] were intertwined with the activities of visual arts, theater, modern dance, independent filmmakers and innovative writers," Mumma says. "They all interacted with each other, largely separate from university institutions. Notice here, that if I'd changed the name of the city above from New York to Ann Arbor, you'd have my primary answer to the reason the ONCE Festival and its related activities flourished."
"These [European] guys like Berio, Stockhausen, Pousseur — they were all beautifully subsidized by their state, their countries," Ashley says, contextualizing some of the initial inspiration for ONCE. "The news of that got back to the United States and people started saying, 'Wait a minute. We should do something ourselves, because nobody's going to do anything for us here.' There wasn't a chance that any orchestra would play your piece. There wasn't a chance that any opera company would look at your work. You had to do it yourself — it was that simple."
Scavarda tells of the advantage of creating their own fest: "We could compose a piece, whatever we wanted to, and we knew it could be performed there, at the ONCE Festival. That was the great thing about it. I think we really grew artistically over those five or six years, and came up with a lot of new stuff ... We took artistic risks back then, because we knew that we could get it heard."
The music presented at ONCE synthesized experimental compositions, live electronic music and theatrics. Some works explored extended techniques — playing instruments in nontraditional ways to get nontraditional sounds. Scavarda's "Matrix for Clarinet" created a screeching multiphonic skronk that hadn't been heard before, with a score that gave the performer lots of freedom.
Other works brought the sounds of musique concrete into a performance setting, through a pre-recorded sound collage and live electronics. Ashley's "The Wolfman" is a notorious example — it found him standing stoically on stage, amplifying his guttural vocalizations alongside taped radio noise accompaniment. Note that this is three decades before Ann Arbor noise titans Wolf Eyes would affect a similar musical modus operandi.
Many of the composers eschewed notions of traditional scoring. Scavarda, who's also a filmmaker, painter and photographer, continues to work using cues and notations via film to this day. This found its genesis in early works like "Filmscore for Two Pianists."
"I wanted to experiment with a whole new concept of musical notation, where there are abstract symbols on a film, in color, and they move, as opposed to dots on a piece of paper," Scavarda says. "So I came up with these circles. I used my camera to manipulate ordinary images, and arrive at these colored discs, and I could make them move in any direction. All of this was to be interpreted by the pianists."
"What we consider to be music paper now, you know, the five lines, that's so obsolete," Ashley says, elaborating. "If you use that as your way of communicating with the players, you accept all of the limitations that go with that situation."
As far as his own compositions? "We did everything by discussion," he says. "Once in a while there would be diagrams. But generally we didn't even do diagrams. We just talked our way into the piece."
The ONCE organizers also pioneered a DIY aesthetic, maintaining their autonomy by presenting their own work on their own terms in spaces such as churches, community centers, VFW halls, even the top of the Maynard Street parking structure.
Ashley clarifies how necessity led them to be inventive in attaining space: "There weren't any other spaces. There was an auditorium in the architecture school, but we didn't have access to that. And there was the Ann Arbor High School auditorium, which was a nice place, but you had to drive to get there. We just picked places where it wasn't difficult to get to. They're called 'alternative spaces,' but there was no alternative.
"Those days were rather austere," Ashley continues. "There was no money at all. And so, to have Luciano [Berio] come over here — he had some academic possibility in San Francisco, so he just stopped on his way to San Francisco. And the four or five guys he brought from Paris were all on French government grants, so he engineered that. And when John [Cage] and David [Tudor] came, they came for whatever money we could give them."
While ONCE formed primarily to stage the annual festival, soon there were a variety of offshoots, including touring groups, one-off concert events, and most notably, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, founded in 1963, which remains the oldest experimental film fest in this country.
ONCE performers were invited to perform at places as far away as the Venice Biennale and as close as Detroit.
"We were often connected with the bubbling cultures of Detroit and environs," Mumma says. "We performed our work there in various places, ran parallel with and shared some of the growing Motown energy." (Motown Records, which began releasing records a year earlier formally incorporated the same year the ONCE Festival began, in 1960.)
However, this certainly wasn't pop music. As challenging as it was, ONCE presented experimental music that connected with the Ann Arbor community.
"In Ann Arbor, they love new stuff," Scavarda notes. "The concerts were always packed, always full."
The ONCE Festival and related activities came to a quiet end in the late-'60s as prime movers moved from Ann Arbor; Robert Ashley to a teaching position at Mills College in San Francisco, Gordon Mumma to continue his work alongside John Cage and David Tudor at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. But the success from the get-go surprised Ashley for "10 minutes, and then I realized that we were really on to something."
ONCE THEN and ONCE NOW major concerts are just $2 — 1960s prices! At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 2, through Thursday, Nov. 4, at Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor. See ums.org/once for a complete program guide and list of events and speakers.
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