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  • The Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center:Educating International Composers
  • Robert J. Gluck

The Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) in New York City was established in 1959 by founding director Vladimir Ussachevsky, along with Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening, and Roger Sessions, as the first educational and creative institution of its kind in the United States. Its central role in training composers hailing from outside the United States is not widely known. Home countries of composers include Turkey, Japan, Israel, Yugoslavia, Spain, Iran, Ghana, and several in Latin America. Using interviews (conducted almost entirely by the author) and documentary sources (largely from the CPEMC archives), this article explores the personal narratives of these composers and their impact on the culture of the CPEMC and on their own future work, both musically and institutionally. Studio logs (see Figure 1) from the archives proved invaluable resources. Quotations without citation are drawn from interviews conducted by the author, detailed in Appendix A.

Historical Background

CPEMC was the first studio in North America dedicated to the study and creation of electronic music (Ussachevsky 1968, 1971?; Shields 1997). It was founded in 1959 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation as a consortium of Columbia University in New York City and Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Founders included Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening from Columbia and Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions from Princeton. The Center grew out of the pioneering efforts of Ussachevsky in 1951 and 1952 (Moog 1981). Vladimir Ussachevsky's work began with the discovery that tape recorders newly purchased by the Columbia University Music Department had far greater potential than the purpose of their purchase (the recording of concerts). Tape-speed changes were supplemented by other creative techniques suggested by engineering student Peter Mauzey. Ussachevsky experimented further with colleague Otto Luening in Bennington, Vermont, New York City, and Woodstock, New York, and the results were presented at the first electronic music concert in North America (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on 22 November 1952), produced by conductor Leopold Stokowsky.

The studio began to take shape when a formal space was provided by Columbia University in 1955, and subsequently at the McMillin Theater on 116th Street and, following the Rockefeller Foundation grant, at Sheffield Hall (later renamed Prentis Hall) on 125th Street. The technical means available to composers were quite eclectic, encompassing electronically generated sounds, voltage-controlled processing agents, and tape-music techniques. Otto Luening described the purpose of the Center in this way: "We wanted to provide a center where composers could work and experiment without having to contend with the forces of commercialism" (Moog 1981). In 1959, CPEMC leased the new RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer from David Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. However, its use was mostly limited to a handful of senior staff members as primary users, especially Milton Babbitt.

The International Flavor of CPEMC

One of the most distinctive aspects of CPEMC was the diverse composition of its staff, students, and technicians. Student teaching assistant and later Associate Director Pril Smiley recalls, "The international aspect of Columbia–Princeton was the best part of our personality in those early days." Alice Shields, who was also an Associate Director, adds: "The enormous artistic energy that was bursting [End Page 20] forth in New York City made the CPEMC an exciting place to be, full of wildly different styles of music, and some wildly creative people rarely glimpsed in academic settings." The cosmopolitan mix of creative personalities and international perspectives was first put on public display at a 1961 concert, which featured works by Bülent Arel from Turkey, Mario Davidovsky from Argentina, and Halim El Dabh from Egypt, along with music by Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen (Barzun 1964). Somehow, it all worked; as Halim El-Dabh observes, "A unity was found in the electronic medium."


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Figure 1.

Cover of studio log book, 1969-1970, from the CPEMC archives.

A subsequent CPEMC concert in 1964 reflected an equally diverse group of composers. International composers constituted the distinctive culture of CPEMC and represented some of the major creative voices to emerge from the Center. Maybe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-5169
Print ISSN
0148-9267
Pages
pp. 20-38
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-12
Open Access
No
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