"Experimentalists and Independents are Favored": John Edmunds in Conversation with Peter Yates and John Cage, 1959-61
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"Experimentalists and Independents are Favored":
John Edmunds in Conversation with Peter Yates and John Cage, 1959-61

The composer John Edmunds (1913–1986) was curator of the New York Public Library Music Division's Americana Collection at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street for only four years.1 During his brief but energetic tenure (1957-61) he corresponded regularly with Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based critic-impresario Peter Yates (1909–1976), a self-proclaimed "western representative for the Experimentalists,"2 and with the soon-to-be most controversial and influential American composer of the second half of the twentieth century, John Cage (1912–1992). Simultaneously, Cage and Yates corresponded as well, often discussing topics initiated by Edmunds. Today, four archival collections—at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division (hereinafter, NYPL); University of California, San Diego, Mandeville Special Collections Library (UCSD); University of California, Berkeley, Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library (UCB); and Northwestern University Music Library, Special Collections (NUML)—preserve an intact record of this three-way conversation. The Edmunds-Yates-Cage exchange is worth examining for several reasons: it sheds light on the views of a generation of musical Americans at the start of the 1960s, men between forty-six and [End Page 659] fifty who began careers in music before the end of World War II; it suggests the influence of a West Coast legacy in the history of American new music as perpetuated by three opinionated thinkers (all of whom had strong prewar ties to California, a place where institutions historically tended to carry less cultural weight than on the East Coast);3 it documents an important publication series undertaken by the New York Public Library in the late 1950s; and it illuminates the background of one of the first major efforts toward the creation of a comprehensive recording archive of American music—a collaborative undertaking (never realized) that aroused strong opinions about the value of certain styles of American music and their institutionalization. These projects point to a number of concerns for American composers at a crucial moment for the expansion, survival, definition, preservation, and canonization of an "American experimental tradition."

Edmunds, Yates, Cage: Overview

John Edmunds, who was born in San Francisco and died in Berkeley, Cali fornia, was primarily known as a song writer and as an editor of Elizabethan and seventeenth-century Italian songs (he composed hundreds of songs himself, and founded the Campion Society for the promotion of English song).4 Alongside his creative activity, his administrative commitment took up much of his time: in 1960, aside from the formidable task of directing the Americana Section at the Music Division of the New York Public Library, he served as chairman of the board of directors for the Composers' Forum of New York, as secretary for the Bauthier Society of New York, and as a member of the New York chapters of the Advisory Committee on Music for the Institute of International Education, and the boards for both the National Association for American Composers and Conductors, and the American Music Center. In addition, he sat on the advisory committee for the Music Library Association's American Recordings Project ("History of American Music on Records"), which, at the time of Edmunds's service, attempted to organize a series of recordings—at one time 100 LPs were planned—of major American composers from the Pilgrims through 1960. [End Page 660]

During the period in question, Edmunds was highly productive. He worked in collaboration with his colleague Gordon Boelzner toward the publication of two volumes of "truly titillating bibliograph[ies]" (in the enthusiastic words of one reviewer) titled Some Twentieth Century American Composers: A Selective Bibliography (1959–60), with introductory essays by Peter Yates (volume 1) and Nicolas Slonimsky (volume 2).5 (Third and fourth volumes were planned, to cover "minor" composers and "younger American composers" not included in the first two books, but these were never realized.) At the same time, as a member of the board of directors of the American Music Center in New York City, he lobbied for the establishment of a "Henry Cowell Award" or an "Ives Award" for the "most controversial composer...