Letter from the UB Music Department Chair
Charles J. Smith
I am delighted to welcome the graduate student journal Mosaic into the professional world of music scholarship. It gives me special pleasure to be able, as chair of the UB Music Department, to be in a position to support this launch—for reasons both professional and personal. I do not, of course, claim to be in any way the midwife for this birth; at most, my role has been the guy who (in some vague sense) runs the wing of the hospital that contains the maternity ward. If there is real midwifery credit to be assigned, it should go to Prof. Richard Plotkin, the newest member of the Music Theory faculty at UB, who has graciously and generously—in his first year on the faculty—thrown himself into the role of faculty sponsor of this journal.
The real honor for this achievement, of course, goes to the graduate students who, on their own and without any kind of faculty prompting or prodding, decided to take on this task. I suspect they have no real idea of what they are getting themselves into—but that's probably a good thing, and there will be plenty of time for them to find out. For now they're embarked on a special kind of journey—a journey whose end could be just about anywhere—and I wish them courage and good luck.
My special reason for being excited about this enterprise is that it echoes a journey I was lucky to be part of during my own doctorate-questing years—a long, long time ago in what now seems like a very different musical galaxy. Sooner or later, someone is going to put together a history of small independent scholarly publications in music (so far, mostly in music theory rather than musicology, though Mosaic is bucking that trend). When that history is compiled, it will identify as one of the first such ventures, if not the very first, In Theory Only, which I helped to start while at the University of Michigan. Permit me to indulge myself with a few remarks about this experience; all history is local and all experiences are unique, but there are still a few bits of wisdom to be culled from the making and running of ITO that might assist (or at least forewarn) the editors of Mosaic.
In Theory Only was born out of political alienation—engendered by the formation of a union for graduate student teaching assistants at the U of M in 1974–75, and a strike by TAs when the university resisted recognizing that union. Although this strike involved hundreds of Michigan graduate students, from all across the campus, in the Music School only the music theory TAs went on strike; all other music TAs continued to teach. The predictable result was a fair bit of alienation: the school's administration was annoyed with the theory faculty, for not controlling their graduate students, and the faculty was annoyed with the graduate students, who had no intention of being controlled. After a month of picketing, in an Ann Arbor winter, the strike was settled, the union was recognized, and a contract was signed…but the alienation persisted. The theory students were caught up in the momentum of camaraderie (shared suffering!), and began to meet regularly to talk about music and music theory. As these meetings led to the writing and presenting of papers, some intended for classes but many not, the question of venues was almost unavoidable.
In 1975, there weren't many, at least not in the field of music theory. Occasionally, an analytical or overtly theoretical paper would appear in JAMS or MQ—and more often in PNM—but for hardcore theory there was really only the Journal of Music Theory. Clearly, one journal was not enough for the field. (This situation was soon to change, on a global level; the Society for Music Theory was close to being founded and Music Theory Spectrum would appear in another three years, and Music Analysis was not that far behind.) With everyone trying to publish in essentially just one place, outrageous lag-times between submission and acceptance, and then publication, were the stuff of legend; by the time papers appeared, they were already a part of history rather than current events. The Michigan graduate theorists decided to take our own stab at this problem—in a way that, we hoped, would encourage a rapid turnaround from submission to publication, and create a forum for response and discussion. This was something that, quaint as it may sound to those who have now lived through the ups and downs of discussion lists, blogs, web-forums, and tweeting, no music-scholarly discipline had ever seen, and only ITO would ever attempt in print.
It was a Hollywood moment to be cherished—à la Judy and Mickey springing to their feet with a cry of "Let's put on a show!", though I must admit I don't remember who it was who actually uttered the fateful words, "Let's start our own journal!" It was likely Henry Martin; he served for a couple of issues as the first editor. It was his eventual successor, Ed Hantz, who thought up the title (and as all fans of Shakespeare in Love know, you have to have a good title!); his wife Joan, a fine designer who also created the first Spectrum cover, came up with the ITO Helvetica logo. In those pre-e-mail days, how did you start a journal? We scrounged together some money for snail-mail postage, and sent out a solicitation letter to the 100 or so most prominent theorists we could think of, asking for subscriptions and manuscripts. David Lewin, Allen Forte, and about 35 others responded immediately and enthusiastically (or, at least, they sent us some money), and we were off.
The first problem we faced was a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Michigan. Many of the faculty were skeptical, probably wondering how we would be able to juggle classroom and editorial responsibilities. From a different perspective now, I realize that none of the faculty actively wanted us to fail, but they were certainly muted in their enthusiasm, at least for a while; only Richmond Browne was astute enough to keep the lines of communication open right from the beginning—if only to be able to nudge us toward sanity and prudence. Certainly, the Music School administration, with fresh memories of striking theory TAs, had little interest in providing overt support like office space or equipment; some of ITO's first issues were edited in Marianne Kielian's and Claire Boge's apartments, others in a conference room that someone managed to cajole out of the Law School. It is the memory of this editorial movable feast that makes me especially glad that I have the authority, as a department chair, to remove this hurdle from Mosaic's path. Of course, after ITO became a hit, the administration changed its tune, and provided both recognition and space; I'd rather not wait until the ticket receipts are in to do the same.
Other obstacles that Mosaic won't have to clamber over are printing and mailing, since they've wisely decided to define themselves as an online journal. In Theory Only didn't have that option. Our first eight or so issues were released in blue ditto—an option that we knew, from the beginning, was unsatisfactory, but it was relatively quick and cheap. Several libraries had stumbled upon our existence and begun subscriptions, but libraries like permanence and blue ditto began to fade minutes after it was printed. By the end of the first year we had switched to mimeograph, but mimeo masters were a nightmare to work with and precluded the inclusion of musical examples on the same pages as text (or at least they did, given our limited technological grasp of the process). By the beginning of the second year, we had enough of a budget from a growing subscription pool to be able to look into offset printing from paper masters, which worked much better. Of course, the process of creating those masters now seems like a Stone-Age relic: most of ITO's pages were typed by yours truly, on an IBM Selectric typewriter, with Marion Guck directing the process—perched on a stool to catch errors in real-time, before pages were removed from the machine. (The longer the time between a mistake and its discovery, the harder it was to correct it without leaving traces.) After we'd become quite proficient at fixing errors with correcting fluids and tapes, we moved up to a new self-correcting Selectric. As a natural continuation of this technological evolution, in a few years the editing was being managed with word-processing software—but that was after my time.
None of us really knew what we were letting ourselves in for; if we had, we would never have channeled Babes in Arms in the first place. (A certain amount of ignorance about such ventures is crucial; who would ever volunteer for editorial duties if the amount of time and energy entailed were clearly spelled out right at the beginning?) We rashly set out to publish twelve issues a year; after a year, we were already several months behind; after two, the situation was dire. Double issues didn't help much, since they take twice as long to produce as single issues. Inevitably, publication frequency was reduced to eight a year, but even that was impossible to maintain; libraries kept inquiring after all the missing issues, and it became a full-time job letting them know the fault was ours, not theirs. In the final analysis, the theory faculty had been right to be skeptical; the real problem was that school work kept getting in the way of journal work.
The number of theory grad students willing to keep making that sacrifice, endlessly, month after month, declined, while the work load of running the journal (including, not just editing, typing, and proofreading, but handling the money, keeping up with subscribers, dealing with the printers, assembling the actual issues, and mailing them) got heavier as the issues got larger and subscription list got longer. Eventually, the bulk of the work had settled onto only a handful of volunteers; perhaps the only way such an endeavor can ever be maintained is by such a committed small core. Of course, it might have been a larger group at Michigan, had not several of us (myself included) been such unapologetic (i.e. annoying) perfectionists that others fled in anger and dismay. If we'd been less intolerant of warts and blemishes in those first years, there might have been a deeper talent pool of experienced staff to take over—but, on the other hand, we wanted to publish something we could be proud of. I suspect that this is the primary struggle in such endeavors. A few of you will end up doing most of the work; you can try to spread the labor around but the problems that will arise from doing so may not be worth it.
In the end, ITO lasted not nearly as long as we might have hoped, but longer than anyone had reason to expect it to. (The history of this particular venture is complicated by its migration away from Michigan, and the publication of a few isolated and irregular issues in this new incarnation. This later existence, which may or may not have finally come to an end by now, has almost nothing in common with the student journal that began, almost literally, in a barn.) It is wise, I think, to remember that nothing lasts forever. ITO was perhaps just a flash in the pan, certainly when compared to the more prestigious refereed journals that fill our shelves, but its decade or so enabled some extraordinary contributions. I wonder whether Benjamin's brilliant two-part (or was it four-part?) paper on Stravinsky's Piano Concerto, or Lewin's succinct notes on Schoenberg Opus 11, or (perhaps most remarkable of all) Browne's seminal exploration of the properties of the diatonic set, would have seen the light of day but for ITO. Would there have been a forum that would have welcomed or even allowed these papers? Would the authors have bothered with them if they'd had to go through the formal referee process at a more polished journal? The essence of all of these, and many other fine ITO products, was a kind of informality that is rare in our discipline (or any other), and would likely not have survived at JMT or JAMS.
I am equally proud of two further aspects of In Theory Only, and I offer them to Mosaic as features to be reflected upon, if not actually emulated. First, we weren't very selective. ITO published some wonderful papers, and also some real dogs. In part, this wide range in quality resulted from the trouble we had, especially at the beginning, drumming up submissions. (That's why, in those first years, we, or perhaps I should say "I", wrote so many papers myself, including some of the canine variety—because it was Friday, the issue was going to press on Monday, and we were a paper short, so Charles, could you please quickly write up something on the Chopin Preludes, or whatever…?) But even after submissions picked up, we tried to be as unselective as possible—and not just because we were graduate students who felt awkward about rejecting submissions by well-known scholars. We served as our own referees, and quite deliberately adopted a policy of presumed acceptance. At least in theory, no editor had a right to veto anything; if anyone thought a paper was worth publishing, then it would be published. I think we were aware, even then, that the formal referee process can have an unfortunate leveling effect—removing anything that offends or upsets anyone, leaving often only the least offensive, blandest submissions. Instead, we wanted to get people stirred up and reacting, and thus relished the thought of offending people, even ourselves; we published several papers that everyone on the staff hated, because we couldn't think of any good reason not to. These days, the internet stirs up people so thoroughly that you should probably eschew that editorial aim, but the question of selectivity is still difficult and important. My advice would be to outlaw the editorial veto. Publish papers that interest you; if any editor wants to publish something, then publish it. If any editor or referee is so offended by an interesting piece that a veto is attempted, then you've just found an even better reason to publish it.
Second, we did not take ourselves very seriously. Anyone thumbing through those first volumes of ITO will find some outrageous stuff: crossword puzzles, terrible puns, humorous features (some still rather funny, some in retrospect more embarrassing than amusing), and even a couple of bogus, parody articles. At least one very distinguished leader in the field let us know how much he liked the journal, but advised us to lose the humor, as it was not appropriate for a scholarly journal. I am delighted, in retrospect, that we didn't take this advice. For all of its flaws and its failures, ITO still comes across as having been created by folks who were enjoying what they were doing. We were having a great time, with music and music theory, and wanted to share that joy. How distinctive was that? How many other academic journals can you say that about?
I'm not advising that you include crossword puzzles, or expand the list of previously unknown children of J. S. Bach, or add to the collected works of Irving Schneider—though I personally wouldn't be at all upset if you did. But whatever you do with Mosaic, try to let your enjoyment of music shine through. Too much of your future academic careers will be serious beyond all hope of endurance or redemption—as you search for jobs, strive for tenure and promotion, and get caught up in the politics of turf and agenda. Right now, you have an opportunity to remind yourselves and your readers of why you've signed up for a life of musical scholarship—because you love music and enjoy what you're doing. Don't let that opportunity pass you by….
Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory &
Chair of the UB Music Department