Black Mountain College conference tightens community’s bond to WNC history
By Lindsey Smith
Mass Communication student
UNC Asheville will co-host an annual interactive conference, ReVIEWING 12, focusing on John Cage’s legacy with the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center on Nov. 12 through 14.
“This year we're really looking at John Cage. Cage had an incredible output of material and music. He was primarily known as a composer but also as a visual artist and as a collaborator through multiple decades,” said Executive Director of BMCM + AC Jeff Arnal.
Museum visitor viewing “Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage & Friends” exhibit at BMCM + AC Oct. 8.
Black Mountain College, founded in 1933, was an experimental liberal arts college home to several influential figures of the 20th century, according to museum officials and experts.

The school lasted only 20 years before going bankrupt due to its unique lack of academic structure, but it has shown WNC an alternative form of liberal education, BMCM + AC volunteer and UNC Asheville professor David Peifer said.

“There is a confusion about what a liberal education is. A lot of people that come to UNC Asheville don’t come because it is a liberal arts college. If they did, they didn't know what that actually meant. We’re confused about what we mean by undergraduate liberal education. We can look at Black Mountain College and see that it meant something totally different for them,” Peifer said.

Peifer said he helps organize a lot of the museum's events after becoming interested in BMC and its legacy decades ago. It even led him to teach a course in 2019 at UNC Asheville on the college’s influential scientists and artists.

Most of the talks at the conference will be centered around John Cage, but in honor of BMC’s emphasis on collaboration, it will not be limited to one topic, according to the professor and organizer.

“There are usually 45 talks going on at the same time, so people have the option to choose where they want to go. Cage was really looking at using different kinds of compositional techniques and collaborations, and the conference line-up really honors that because there’s a wide range of topics and discussions,” Arnal said.

Alongside the keynote speaker, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, there will be a string quartet and several smaller talks and art performances, according to museum officials.

The conference is not limited to speakers from WNC or even the country. According to Peifer, the event is international, hosting speakers from across the world.

“We try to provide opportunities for emerging scholars. That's one of the beautiful things about the conference is that it really gives younger and even older emerging scholars the opportunity to present their research,” Arnal said.

Since UNC Asheville resides only a few miles away from the museum, and 20 miles from the old BMC campus, music professor William Bares said we have a strong connection to the school’s legacy and experimental music.

“I was on the BMCM's Legacy Fellows Committee at UNCA that sought to tie the legacy of Black Mountain College more concretely to UNC Asheville. As part of this, I brought in world-renowned experimental philosopher and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats to UNC Asheville in spring of 2018 to teach a class on experimental music in the Music Department,” Bares said.

The “Music, Life and Culture” club on campus prepares to perform some of Cage’s piano pieces, which Bares said he will play. 

“The main impact of Cage has been to allow us to re-think the boundaries we draw around “the musical” and what that might say about our own limitations and biases. In a profound way, he invited us to attune our ears more sharply toward the sounds of our environments, which here in WNC supplies abundant information,” Bares said. 

The spirit of Black Mountain College was based on cross-disciplinary collaboration, close contact and co-creation with students. This requires re-structuring curricula, which liberal arts colleges such as UNC Asheville do well at, the professor said.

UNC Asheville students can enjoy all of the museum and art center’s events free of charge because of the partnership between the university and museum, the executive director said.

“We do our best to have every single thing that we produce here at the museum accessible. Exhibitions are free so anyone can come and see, as well as some of our bigger programs. Because we have done a lot on campus and produced large events together, students can get into anything for free,” Arnal said.

The sharing of platforms and support between UNC Asheville and the BMCM + AC makes the community stronger and makes it possible to keep the legacy of Black Mountain College alive, Peifer said.

“In the world of art this was a big thing, but it was happening in a small little town in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Usually, such experimental art was centered in New York or Los Angeles at the time, so the fact that this happened so close to us makes it important for us to be reminded of what happened there,” Peifer said.