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Open Access Publications from the University of California

American Music in the Culture of Self-Actualization: Performance and Composition in the Long 1970s

  • Author(s): Kapusta, John David
  • Advisor(s): Smart, Mary Ann
  • et al.
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This study explores how US concert musicians of the sixties, seventies, and eighties came to imagine the act of composing, performing, and listening as a transformative practice of “self-actualization.” I borrow this latter term from the influential humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose contemporary writings helped popularize the notion that one’s true self was to be “actualized” not through the so-called “rational” processes of the ego-mind but in the throes of “intuitive” psychosomatic activity. Musicologists often treat the era as one of aesthetic fracture, but I show how composers as musically diverse as Pauline Oliveros, George Rochberg, and John Adams, along with a host of their performer-collaborators, all helped to foster an emergent culture of musical self-actualization that continues to shape performance culture and musicological inquiry today.

The history of US art music within the culture of self-actualization sheds new light on contemporary debates over the self and human nature—debates that still inform American studies and US culture more broadly. In a 1976 essay, the outspoken conservative journalist Tom Wolfe derided advocates of self-actualization as hopelessly (and irresponsibly) narcissistic—and famously christened the 1970s the “Me Decade.” Today even more measured scholarly accounts still tend to characterize the era as one of individualistic retreat from political engagement and social reform. My study challenges this view. Through their works and performances, I argue, musicians who adopted new “self-actualizing” performance practices and compositional styles became very public advocates for the new model of the self that their music was designed to express. Challenged to respond to these new modes of musical expression, critics began to think and write not just about the music they heard, but about the very nature of the self and the human body. The debates they stoked, our contemporary historiography suggests, have yet to abate.

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This item is under embargo until November 7, 2021.