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Monday, December 29, 2008

Dika Newlin

Dika Newlin (1923-2006), the American musicologist, composer, and pianist - was an extraordinary prodigy.

● born November 22nd, 1923 in Portland, Oregon. She was an only child. Her name “Dika” was selected by her parents in honor of an Amazon cited in the poems of Sappho.

● moved to Lansing, Michigan where her parents were teaching at a college that would later be called Michigan State.

● at the age of 3 she could read the dictionary, at the age of 6 she played the piano, and at age 7 she began composing.

● her first symphonic piece was written at the age of 11, Cradle Song, which was later performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

● she finished elementary school in three years (from age 5 to 8), graduated high school when she was 12, and then entered Michigan State. The New York Herald Tribune reported in 1939 that Dika Newlin had the highest I.Q. score ever recorded by a Michigan State student.

● After graduating from Michigan State she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and began studies with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA at the age of 14. She kept a diary of her studies with Schoenberg (who she referred to as “Uncle Arnold”) and published them in 1980 as Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76). She dazzled everyone in the class with her precociousness, and ability to play everything at sight on the piano.

● Newlin receives her M.A. from UCLA at the age of 18 and moves to NY for additional graduate studies at Columbia University.

● She graduates from Columbia at age 22 in 1945 with a PhD in musicology. Newlin’s dissertation titled Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, is published in book form soon after.

● Newlin studies included piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, composition with Roger Sessions, and musicology with Paul Henry Lang.

● She records her first compositions, among them Septet in Seven Movements and Piano Trio, Op. 2.

● Newlin pursues a career as a concert pianist performing music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

● Her academic teaching career began in 1945 with a four-year residency at Western Maryland College. In 1949, she accepted a teaching position with Syracuse University, where she remained for two years. This was followed by a dozen years at Drew University (1952-1965), and then an eight-year stint at North Texas State University (1965-1973).

● Newlin became a professor in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) from 1978 until her retirement in 2004.

● Her oeuvre grows to include three operas, a chamber symphony, a piano concerto, and numerous chamber, vocal, and mixed media works. While Dika's compositions from the 1930s and early 1940s are composed with extended tonality, classical forms and techniques, many of her works from the late 1940s through the 1960s exhibit the use of Schoenberg-influenced serialism.

● Among Newlin's most distinguished students are composers Roger Hannay and Michael Bates, as well as musicologist Theodore Albrecht.

● She translates several important French and German books on Schoenberg into English, and becomes recognised as one of the leading Schoenberg scholars. She writes article on Schoenberg for the Encyclopædia Britannica (1980) and edits and translates Schoenberg’s philosophical and theoretical writings – including Style and Idea.

● On the side Newlin writes concert reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia.

● Beginning in the 1960’s, she explores various forms of experimental music: multimedia, electronics, computer composition, group improvised composition, and minimalism.

● In 1999 she performed as a vocalist in a costumed performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in her own English translation of the text.

What an amazing record of academic achievement.

But wait, there’s more!

Meet Dika: the Punk Rock performance artist, B-movie actress, and cult pop-culture star…

From the 1990s on Newlin became active performing with Punk and New Wave bands in the Richmond Virgina area, prowling in local clubs well into her 70s. She played in several bands, but was a regular with the local group Apocowlypso. She was easily to pick out with her glowing neon orange hair, a devilish grin, platform shoes, and black leather motorcycle jacket and pants. Newlin was their lead-singer but also played washboard, tamborine, and temple bells. Her original songs and lyrics were highly satirical, such as "Love Songs for People Who Hate Each Other" and "Murder Kitty." Her vocal style was raw and intense. She’d sing rock standards in Sprechstimme, do Elvis impersonations, and was at times influenced by the Viennese cabaret traditions of Schoenberg’s era. One critic noted “Newlin channeled her unique political perspective into lyrics far more provocative than the average twentysomething glue-sniffer might possibly muster.” With the band Apocowlypso she went on to record several albums. Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin was released on 2Loud!Records in 2004 when she was 81.

From the fame of her punk-rock notoriety, she branched out to act lead roles in independent films, including the 1995 documentary Dika: Murder City which made her a local cult heroine. The film won awards at independent film festivals in Orlando and Chicago. In this movie she appears as an Elvis impersonator, playing on keyboards and the kazoo. Throughout one piece, she meows an entire song into the microphone like a cat. A film reviewer (Phil Hall) wrote “the film’s production flaws are easily overlooked by the mad genius of Dika Newlin, a woman who presents the façade of sincerity and intelligence during conversation, but who turns into a raving maniac whenever she steps before a microphone while the music plays.”

She played the character of a telephone psychic who encounters a malformed alien space baby in the Sci-Fi spoof B-movie Afterbirth. It was directed by her longtime creative collaborator and friend Michael D. Moore (who should not be confused with the better-known director with the same name). In Afterbirth she sings an original song, "Alien Baby." The words "alien baby" comprise the chorus, but the song begins with the Stefan George text Schoenberg used for the fourth movement of his second string quartet: Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten (I feel the air of other planets).

She can be seen in Tim Ritter's 1995 film Creep where she plays a person wearing a leather motorcycle jacket who puts poison in baby food at a supermarket.

Newlin posed for a pinup calendar when she was in her 70s. Reporters who interviewed her at home noted that a medieval suit of armor was suspended over her mattress on the floor of her bedroom.

In 2003 Newlin was featured in a People Magazine article as a counter-cultural icon and quoted as saying "I feel like a child now more than I did as a child. I try more and more to live by the day, to do something because it feels good."

Newlin spent her final years impoverished. She died on July 22nd, 2006 at the age of 82 at the Imperial Plaza Manor Care facility in Richmond Virginia. She had experienced complications from a broken arm or hip (the reports vary), and had requested that her feeding tube be removed. Newlin was survived by an elderly cousin in North Carolina and her cat Spot.