The Ford Foundation-MENC Contemporary Music Project (1959-1973): A View of Contemporary Music in America

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Challenging the widespread belief that serial or otherwise atonal composers dominated the United States' contemporary music scene of the 1950s and '60s (a situation named the “serial tyranny” by Joseph Straus), this study of the Ford Foundation-funded Contemporary Music Project (CMP) concludes that tonality was prevailingly considered an acceptably “contemporary” compositional orientation at the time (1959-1973). The evidence examined includes music by the 73 composers-in-residence the CMP placed in public school systems and communities nationwide, as well as syllabi and lesson plans for 90 Project-sponsored courses on purportedly “contemporary” music, also spread throughout the country, most at college level. Both the former and the content of the latter are placed in tonal or atonal categories, and the result tabulated.

The study is in four main parts:  Part 1 gives a working definition of tonality and discusses the Project's early stages (1959-63), when it was called the Young Composers Project and featured only composer residencies.  Throughout discussion of these residencies, the Project's absence of bias with regard to style is highlighted.  Part 2 details its expansion, as the CMP, to include educational programs such as Seminars and Workshops (1964-1966).    Part 3 concerns the Institutes for Music in Contemporary Education (IMCE)--which included experimental musicianship courses at 33 universities--and the final years of school system residencies.  Part 4 outlines the Project's final years, which continued workshops and moved composer residencies from schools to communities.  

The study's account of the content of the CMP's educational programs provides a statistical image of the contemporary canon as of the mid-to-late 1960s: the works and composers from within then-living memory that were considered most significant.  Tonal music forms unambiguously the greater portion of this canon, and is also prevalent within the output of the resident composers, a group including many later well-known names.  In addition to these findings, the study documents the remarkable collaboration of numerous significant composers and other musical figures, with various individual proclivities, on a massive undertaking that had both the goal and effect of cultivating and promoting contemporary music in a full and open-minded range of styles.