Interview with Dr. Ted Coons, February 15, 2015


Interview Conducted by
Taliesin Thomas, Cohort ’13, IDSVA Newsletter Editor

Dr. Ted (officially Edgar Elliott) Coons is a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University (NYU), arriving there in 1965.  As an undergraduate, he studied music composition and theory at Colorado College (B.A., 1951) and then—after a stint in the Air Force—again at Yale University (toward an M.A.).  There, however, he soon switched his career goals and, as a research assistant and, later, graduate student in the Yale Psychology Department, he got his Ph.D. in 1964 in what is now known as systems neuroscience.  In 1967, an encounter with the Electric Circus made a profound impression both on him and on it that became a lasting adventure to be unfolded below. With its mix of light shows, music, circus performance and experimental theater, the Electric Circus embodied the wild and creative side of 1960s alternative culture.


TT: How did you become involved with IDSVA?

Taliesin Thomas and Ted Coons at the IDSVA Commencement Ceremony January 9, 2015
Taliesin Thomas and Ted Coons at the IDSVA Commencement Ceremony January 9, 2015

TC: Well that’s a long story. Frankly, it was through Alex Krieckhaus that I became involved. Alex, who was the chair of the IDSVA board for a while, is the son of a professional colleague and friend of mine, Edward E. Krieckhaus (everyone called him just ‘Krieck’), with whom I became a buddy at Yale when I was graduate student. Later, he had two sons, Jonathan and Alexander, respectively called Vanya and Sasha, the Russian nicknames he and his later-ex-wife, Suzy, gave them.  Anyway, I came to know Sasha (Alex) well but only for a time when, as an adolescent, he spent a year or two with Krieck here in NYC in the late-80s. About two years ago, Krieck died and I organized his memorial service which of course included Alex (still to me Sasha). I had not been in touch with him for several years, thus, we really got to talking and rediscovering each other. Toward the end he said “I am on the board of a very interesting group, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA), and its founder is going to be in NYC soon.  You and he should really meet then.”  After George Smith got the same message, we agreed to have dinner on April 26, 2012, with potent results just as Alex had intuited.

Over dinner, I discovered to my delighted surprise that George has a great interest in and knowledge of the psychoanalytic aspects of art.  But in reaction to my delight, he had even more cause to be surprised, my being trained in a behaviorist tradition ordinarily viewed as skeptical of such things. But as a graduate student at Yale in the late 1950s and early 60s I had been exposed to an interesting combination of two groups—behavioral learning theorists (exemplified by my famous mentor, Neal E. Miller) and psychoanalysts (including the also famous art theorist, Ernst Kris)—interacting in harmony.  The psychoanalysts, some even being direct students of Freud, had fled Europe during the Nazi era, and many of them had settled in New Haven.  Already settled there were the disciples of John Dewey, the philosopher pioneer of the American pragmatism.  Yet, there was a fertile interchange between these two groups, not at all antagonistic as one might have thought.  It was that tolerant environment and exchange of ideas that I was imbued with as an impressionable student. George’s and my meeting at dinner somehow generated a similar spirit of exciting intellectual exchange and we really hit it off.

That evening it also turned out that one of the Pace Galleries on West 25th Street was having an “Opening” of Claes Oldenburg’s Constructions and so after dinner we went over there where understandably were my friends, Arne and Milly Glimcher, the Pace owners. So they and George met and he became aware of the research Milly had done regarding the Happenings art movement pioneered by Allen Kaprow about which she had just finished publishing as book by the same name covering the years 1958-1963. One of the people she had featured in it was Carolee Schneemann, a friend of George’s.  Of course this was all très intéressant!

TT: Which triggers a question that’s maybe but a digression.  Is Milly’s then becoming involved with IDSVA somehow related to what has become your own involvement recently?

Funny you should ask which involves going back long before of my connection with Milly began.  However, it is worth unfolding for other things that you are also interested in questioning me about.

But before visiting my earlier times, I’ll start with the Glimchers entering my life approximately midway into it.  It was in June of 1971 when, late one afternoon, my secretary said “A man is in my office who would like to talk to you.” He introduced himself as Arnold [now Arne] Glimcher, adding that he had heard I, though an academic, was adventurously involved with the Electric Circus and, hence, might be the kind of off-beat academic sympathetic to helping him with the unusual quest he was setting for himself. Then he said he had founded a rather successful gallery called the Pace Gallery where he worked with many very creative artists and in the process had become intensely interested in probing into the psychology behind it all.  Would I be his guide?  Thus, by now highly intrigued, I decided to give Arne an extended off-the-record reading course.  We met over coffee about it once every few weeks or so for the next year or two as best he could fit it into his own Pace Gallery demands. By the Spring of 1973, our meetings turned out so productive for both of us that we decided to teach a course together on the psychology of art and music that coming Fall.  It would be unique because, through Arne, outstanding artists could be occasionally engaged to reflect on the psychology behind their own creative endeavors and, through my connections with the Electric Circus, the same could be done for musicians—examples, respectively, turning out to be Lucas Samaras and David Rosenboom.  Paul Vitz, a visual scientist colleague of mine, was invited to join us in planning and lecturing on the topics for the course and, as a result, later teamed up with Arne in writing a book, “Modern Art and Modern Science: The Parallel Analysis of Vision.”  So...we gave this course together and it turned out to be “utterly fantastic.”  Cognitively, I learned a huge amount but, emotionally, it inspired me even more and has remained that way ever since.  Last but not least, by that point I had started be a close friend not only with Arne but also with Milly, Arne’s wife, and to discover, despite her modesty, a depth of inquiry in her matching Arne’s.

TT: Early on in your academic career you studied music composition and theory. In pursuit of these ideas you became aware of temporal forms and memory, which lead to an interest in cognition and perception, and, eventually, your career in psychology. Please describe this intellectual journey.

My father was a lawyer and my mother was a show producer in a small town, Texhoma, straddling the border between the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles in a no-man’s-land better known as the Dust Bowl. My father’s side was very intellectual. His father, a valedictorian of the University of Missouri in 1885 and then a lawyer, was involved before his early death in 1893 in preparing the Territory of New Mexico for later entrance in the Union as a State.  My mother’s side were real knock-about pioneers.  Her father lumberjacked in Colorado in the late 1890s and barbered in Snyder, Oklahoma, until a horrific tornado in 1906 convinced him to try his hand at farming in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle area, the last region opening up for good farmland acquisition through homesteading. Since my father’s side—actually by now his stepfather—had also come to the panhandle area to homestead, that’s when both sides of my family came together.

My mother’s side of the family reeked with musical talent! Her uncle was a folk fiddler and square-dance caller.  One brother was a saxophonist in Buddy Rogers’s 1930s swing orchestra.  And mother learned to play the piano on her own, taught herself personality singing, tap, and ballet, and then started teaching all that to all ages of children and putting on at least a couple of shows a year.  I call her the ‘Diaghileva of the panhandle’—she was an amazing woman.  I grew up from age three being put in any performance role that she needed. It was her great hope was that I would be a movie star.  When I was 15, I did indeed have a Hollywood agent.  It’s a long story, but then I rebelled; I wanted to go to college.  She said ‘go into the movies, get famous, make lots of money, and then you can go to college.’  But I told her that it just doesn’t work that way, it will change my life in ways that I don’t want.

So in 1946 I entered Oklahoma University and its Music School. There, I majored in piano and also became very interested in composition. I wrote some good pieces such that one of my teachers had me attend a 1948 summer session in Colorado College so I could study with Roy Harris, a famous composer in residence.  I so loved the experience that I switched to Colorado College for the remainder of my undergraduate education. The regular music faculty were superb: the Lasalle String Quartet, John Reeves White, who later became the head of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, and David Kraehenbuehl, whom Paul Hindemith, the famous composer, credited as his most talented student. Then, as guests in subsequent summers, I also got to study a bit with Hindemith himself and with Virgil Thomson, another famous composer.

When Hindemith returned to Europe to conduct the Zurich Symphony, David replaced him on the faculty at Yale and took me with him.  It was extremely fortunate he did because we thus could keep collaborating on a question of mine in which he’d become interested too, namely, what effect form in music has on the feelings of the listener.  Toward exploring that question I had earlier at Colorado College run into information theory and Norbert Wiener’s 1948 book, Cybernetics, from which David and I had started devising a method of measuring information in music and relating it theoretically to emotion.  Hence, by still being able to be together at Yale we finally published in 1958 & 59 two pioneering articles in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the Yale Journal of Music Theory: “Information as a Measure of the Experience of Music” and “Information as a Measure of Structure in Music.”

Yet there was more to be done.  I convinced the music department that I needed to know how the nervous system processes information and so they let me take some courses outside of music.  I started with one titled Introduction to Psychology and soon became enthralled with the question of how the information described in it had been discovered. Toward its end, I asked David Hunt, the young professor teaching it, if he knew anybody that might be interested in me working for free in their lab.   By that experience, I thought I might get some answers to the question bothering me. About two months later he called me and said there was this famous psychologist Neal Miller I’d read about in the course and he was willing to take on students as volunteer research help during the summer. He’d already agreed to interview me. So I went, and there’s a very funny story there (too long for here).  At any rate he let me work for him for free. My research findings proved very interesting not only to me but to him such that, when I asked if I could continue research beyond the summer provided I was now paid, he agreed.  Indeed, he fully supported me as a research assistant for the next three years. During that time he also allowed me to take psychology and other science courses to catch up because I had never had any before.  At the end of that time he recommended that the Yale Psychology Department accept me into its doctoral training program, which is one of the three best in the United States. So I got in shortly after which I made an important discovery; I discovered an area of the brain that was involved in the control of appetites and hunger and with the rewards associated with satisfying these. As a consequence, a lot of my research toward and even long after the PhD was centered about that discovery. Even the National Medal of Science which Neal Miller received in 1964 cited that research as one of its bases.

TT: That must have been a very rigorous PhD.

TC: Oh it was very hard! I take pity on anyone doing a Ph.D. in the area I did. For me, it was particularly difficult because I had to put music completely aside given the time and concentration it took to reprogram myself as a behavioral researcher and brain scientist. So, between coming to Yale in music and getting my Ph.D. there in psychology plus having an extremely impactful side-adventure with a gifted lady scientist from Poland along the way, I was at that university for just over eleven years. Toward the end, I meet Krieck who joined Miller’s lab as a post-doctoral researcher.  He too proved impactful.

Then began the business of applying to various psychology departments for an assistant professor position. There were several places that accepted me but I choose NYC for a triad of reasons: First, it was close to Yale where I was still doing some research. Second, NYU is a excellent school, particularly its psychology department. Third, but not least, it was because NYC is the capital of the arts and I wanted to be around all the arts, especially my old love, music. Although I had gone back to practicing the piano and composing, I was also intensely interested in exploring the contemporary music scenes that were thriving in NYC when I arrived there in 1965.

TT: During the NYC residency in January of this year you participated in a panel at Pace Gallery where you, Robert Whitman and Julie Martin discussed the artistic “Happenings” of the late 1950s-early 1960s. Please refresh us on your understanding of some of the music scenes you mention as a parallel form of the “Happenings.”

From left to right: Taliesin Thomas, Julie Martin, Robert Whitman and Ted Coons, Pace Gallery, January 2015.
From left to right: Taliesin Thomas, Julie Martin, Robert Whitman and Ted Coons, Pace Gallery, January 2015.

TC: Well there’s a lot to be said about it. By the time of IDSVA’s residency, I had of course become a bit familiar with Milly’s book.  The “happenings” she documented in it were explorations into new ways of viewing art and so forth. But when I came to NYC they were completely unknown to me so that I couldn’t enter into my music explorations with the notion of there being any similarity. No, what I was doing at that time was simply discovering. It was a hot Sunday afternoon in 1967 and I had a girlfriend down from Yale. We thought for entertainment to go see some body painting being done in Washington Square Park. It started to rain, and the body paint started to run so that the painters and their human canvasses said “Let’s fold up and check out this new disco, the Electric Circus, that’s opened over on St. Marks Place and is having a free audition of the Mothers of Invention.” We thought that, hey, that sounds interesting and so over we went too.  Besides the rock group, there was also Mort Subotnick’s computer-generated music, Tony Martin’s colorful swirling light show, plus strobes, frenetic dancing, and—believe it or not—Bach & Brahms mixed in. It was literally a multimedia-multiera circus and I was “There!”  It just blew my mind and, Wow, you didn’t need any drugs to do it!  Because I knew a lot about the history of music, some if it reminded me of things that had gone on in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1150 to 1250. That was a time in which services opened and closed with big processions in which priests danced down the aisles with bells, cymbals, drums, and all kinds of other things. For example, some of the first ‘more part’ music was also being done in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.