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Interview with Brian Fennelly, American Composer

A mess of equipment and NYU’s electronic music studio

Interview from 15 December 2008 in a restaurant in Kingston NY and composed as first person narrative in June 2010. Further editing done in December 2016 for inclusion in eContact!

Brian Fennelly (1937–2015) was a composer of orchestral, chamber and choral works, and for many years, Professor of Music at New York University. He was recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, as well as commissions from the Koussevitzky and Fromm foundations. His work has been recorded on the New World, CRI, Albany, Pro Viva, First Edition, Capstone and New Ariel labels, and performed internationally.

Graduate School at Yale and Arrival at New York University

I first studied Mechanical Engineering. I can’t say I was terribly qualified at it, but I got a degree. The Air Force thought I was good enough to make me a vehicle maintenance officer, which was interesting because at the time I didn’t have a driver’s license — my family didn’t have a car. After three years in the Air Force, I went back to school and got a Liberal Arts degree at Union College. I also taught a little bit when I was there, unfortunately in the Engineering Department!

I was recommended for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and I went to study at the Yale School of Music in 1963. I was hoping Elliot Carter would be there, but he had moved to Julliard, so I studied with Mel Powell. I started doing tape music under Mel Powell at Yale; that’s when I started my splicing career. He was certainly a very strong and good influence, a wonderful guy. I got very involved in musical theory with Alan Forte, and of course with Don Martino. That was a two-year stint. They were starting a programme in Music Theory, which I applied to and got in. Each time I applied, it was to just one school and each time I got in. I got my Master’s in Composition in 1965. Joel Chadabe was there in 1964, I think; I didn’t know him.

I got into the PhD programme and I was there from 1965–68. I was very interested in electronic music. I did my dissertation on electronic music notation — an historical overview and then the development of an analytic language, which languishes. I remember that Oscar Karkoshka was interested in it. Richard Teitelbaum was in my class, as a theory major. I didn’t know him then, but I remember a terrific string trio of his that was played on a student composer’s concert. I thought: “Boy, that guy’s a theory major and he knows how to write music, too!” In 1968 I got the degree.

Teaching at NYU

In fall 1967, there was a job opening at NYU and I applied for it. The condition was if you get your doctorate, you’re fine [i.e. can continue in the position]. I applied for that one job and I got it. I started teaching at NYU in 1968. It was Music Theory. When the Music Department had composition, I taught that, too. And then eventually I taught graduate courses. At that time we had only musicologists and it was a challenge. Gustav Reiss and Martin Bernstein and Martin Chusid were on the faculty. The two NYU music programmes were in competing schools: I was on the Faculty of Arts and Science and the other music programme was in the School of Education, which now has a PhD in Composition. Arts and Science has a PhD in Composition and Theory, so there’s some duplication. NYU bought the New York College of Music, got the faculty, but what they wanted was all the students. They wanted bodies. So they got all the bodies from that school. I was there almost 28 years before I took early retirement.

Electronic Music at NYU’s Bleecker Street Studio

I was supposed to set up an electronic studio that would serve classes taught in the department. What I remember is that the guy at Vanguard Records gave us a mess of equipment and Vladimir Ussachevsky came down to look it over. It was then stored at 144 Bleecker, in the same building as the intermedia programme, but all the equipment was stolen so I didn’t set up the studio in Arts and Sciences and I migrated to Mort Subotnick’s intermedia programme studio to do my work.

Mort had the whole floor to himself with the Buchla and tape recorder equipment. I remember going over to the studio on weekends. I produced essentially two pieces. Parts of the first one are incorporated within my piece Evanescences, for instruments and electronic tape, which I finished early in 1969. I sent it to the Bowdoin Festival, where the Aeolian Chamber Players played it that same year. At the performance of Evanescences, the conductor came out and tripped over the speaker wire, disconnecting the speaker entirely. It’s bad enough to try to write a tape music piece, and then to add instruments to that!

I did a lot of work on my piece over one weekend, sort of non-stop, because that weekend, Tuck Howe brought all of that equipment from Queens College down to NYU for Don Buchla to inspect and look over. So I had the NYU equipment plus all the Queens College stuff! That was handy, that was handy! That was a very productive weekend. And of course I came out with a lot of things for other pieces that never got realized.

I worked in the studio 1968–69, mostly ’69. We had a lot of people in there, Charlemagne Palestine was there 1[1. For more on Palestine’s early days in New York, see “Monday Nights at The Kitchen Were Dark. Until…: Interview with American composer Rhys Chatham,” by Bob Gluck, also in this issue of eContact!], and even Bill Bolcom. Bolcom had a one-year appointment at the NYU School of the Arts, in Music Theater, and he came over to find out what was going on. Maryanne Amacher worked in the studio, making very impressive sounds. 2[2. For more on Maryanne Amacher’s time in New York see “A Unique Sensitivity to Sound: Interview with American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher” by Bob Gluck, published in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY: Repurposing the Creative Self.] I was one of the “wavers”. 3[3. Fennelly’s own colloquial term for those who came to the studio just to work but not hang around; they “waved” hello and goodbye on their way in and out of the studio.] Maryanne and I may have overlapped a bit because I remember her working on things. The others, I knew who they were, but we worked at different times… I remember more about Michael Czajkowsky, who was instrumental in setting up a Composer’s Workshop when NYU moved the studio over to the Film School after Mort Subotnick left. I think I visited there once but I said: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

In 1972, I was working up at SUNY Albany. By that time, I lost interest in the Buchla because everybody was doing it. And I couldn’t control the pitch. I sat there with my tuning pipe, tuning this and that, and you’d hear chords in my piece here that are tuned, pitch by pitch! It engendered thoughts of writing a different kind of music. I was perfectly willing to do that. In fact, I started a piece that didn’t do that and there isn’t that much pitched stuff in the piece you got here. It just sounds as like it’s in tune!

Electric Ear Series; His Own Performances

I went to one event in the Electric Ear series of new music and intermedia programmes at the Electric Circus. Mort was running the series. David Rosenboom was there. It was an action-packed concert. I remember there were a lot of visitors, including Vladimir Ussachevsky. It was extremely loud. I remember they did Martirano’s L’s GA, with absolutely gorgeous visuals at the end. 4[4. For more extensive anecdotes and history of the Electric Ear Series, see other interviews by Bob Gluck published in eContact!, for example: “Rhys Chatham” (also in this issue) and especially “WBAI Free Music Store and Dark, Dark Nights at the Electric Circus: Conversation with music theatre composer and producer Eric Salzman,” (in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY.]

The first piece I did at the NYU studio got played at Carnegie Recital Hall and ISCM had money for the instrumental programme they hoped to put on. I guess I had connections [laughs]. It’s very possible that there was more happening for me than for some others because I had more conventional musical credentials. I got this call that they were putting on a concert of electronic music, and did I have anything? I said: “Yes, I have this piece.” So that went on that programme. And the piece with instruments was played at Bowdoin, and later again in New York and in Los Angeles.

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