Music: The American Musical Digest

The music magazine, like the dinosaur, hasn’t quite made it to the modern age. Apart from the scholarly journals and the record publications, there are no major surviving serious magazines devoted to musical matters in the United States.

This month an ambitious attempt will be made to fill this gap with the appearance of a new publication called the American Musical Digest, which seems to have an excellent chance of succeeding, if only because its main backer is nothing less than the United States government.

American Musical Digest is a project of the Music Critics Association, Incorporated, which has a membership of some 150 writers on music in the United States. The critics’ group, originally established in 1958 by a Rockefeller grant with the avowed purpose of improving standards of music criticism in this country, worked out an agreement two years ago with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington to issue “a monthly digest of musical criticism to be published as a service to the world of music.” Two trial issues were put out giving the basic outlines of the publication: large page format, attractive typography, pictures in plenty, and articles excerpting previously published reports on all phases of musical activity, from three appraisals of a new work by Murray Schafer called Son of Heldenleben in Montreal, to an account of Joan Sutherland’s failure to keep a concert date in Kansas City.

Basically, the magazine will be concerned with American music, including not only this country but the entire Western Hemisphere, and not only American composers but everybody else as well. Gene Bruck is the editor and publisher of the new magazine, Irving Lowens the president of the corporation, Bruck’s background includes stints on Musical America, as program director of radio station WBAI, New York, and as coordinator of concert repertory for ASCAP. For a time he was editor in chief of Headquarters Detective magazine, an experience which he feels prepared him for any eventuality, including publishing a music magazine.

Lowens, for years the respected music critic of the Washington Star, came into the American Musical Digest project originally as a consultant, with a six months’ leave of absence from his own job; after watching over its gestation, he decided to remain with it and help guide it after birth.

Bruck and Lowens feel that while a great deal is happening in American musical life, little of what is reported receives any kind of national attention. They plan to reprint articles of both domestic and foreign origin about American music as it is played at home and abroad; about new music activities at colleges and universities, concerts in small towns as well as in big cities, crises and controversies; about performers, performances, and audiences. They and their staff expect to cull their reports from some 1200 newspapers and magazines, doing plenty of their own reading but also relying both on members of the Music Critics Association to keep them posted on local publications and on a corps of foreign volunteers to supply them with tear sheets from abroad.

No original material of any kind will appear in the American Musical Digest; every word will be reprinted from other sources. By so doing, the editors hope to present a tremendous variety of subjects and styles: overnight newspaper criticisms and more leisurely magazine appraisals; book and record reviews; factual articles from the daily and weekly press; interviews with eminent persons; appraisals of new works.

The practice of reprinting arises from the need of keeping the Digest, with its government backing, from becoming competitive with other publications in the field. For the same reason, no advertising will be accepted.

The federal investment in the Digest is modest enough: the National Endowment gave an initial $100,000 grant for an eighteenmonth feasibility study of the new publication, followed by $115,000 for the first year’s operations. The Digest’s editors seem confident that the government subsidy will continue, though they hope to see it gradually reduced through private outside support—from foundations, from the music industry itself (which is being invited to contribute, though in limited amounts), and from subscriptions, which are priced at $10 a year for eleven issues. Bruck projects a circulation growth of 5000 annually, with 25,000 at the end of five years, but concedes: “We’ll probably always be a deficit operation.”

Bruck believes that the magazine, whose offices are at 245 West 52nd Street, New York, will not only give readers an insight into the scope and importance of American musical activity but will also have a positive effect on the quality of musical writing itself. “The state of musical criticism in this country is poor,” he acknowledges, “but we think some critics will write a little better if they think they’ll be represented here.”

Of prime importance to the editors is the opportunity they see of breaking what Lowens calls “the New York funnel syndrome” in American music, a problem which has plagued musicians, particularly young musicians, for years. Lowens describes it this way: “A New York debut and coverage in the newspapers, specifically in The New York Times, means everything to the artist and to the impresario, too. A pianist of the quality of Glenn Gould can appear first elsewhere and get fine reviews, but what counts is what happens in New York. This is not a healthy situation. We need a decentralization of influence, and the American Musical Digest can help bring it about.”

If the American Musical Digest succeeds, there seems to be no reason why its approach should not be applied to other branches of the arts. In fact, it is being spoken of already as a prototype for a magazine devoted to the theater, where the New York Times also exercises a dominant critical role. Roger L. Stevens, who as head of the National Endowment for the Arts played a key role in bringing the American Musical Digest into existence, is himself far more of a theater man than a music man. More than the latest tidings from Carnegie Hall and Covent Garden may be riding on the future of the American Musical Digest.