A former student of Arnold Schoenberg, composer and musicologist Dika Newlin later reinvented herself as a septuagenarian punk rock performance artist. Born in Portland, OR, on November 22, 1923, Newlin was named in honor of an Amazon cited in the poems of Sappho. Her academic parents soon relocated the family to East Lansing, MI, where they taught at what is now Michigan State University. By many accounts Newlin was reading at age three, playing piano at six, and composing at seven. Her "Cradle Song," completed in 1934, was performed three years later by conductor Vladimir Bakalenikoff and the Cincinnati Symphony. Newlin finished high school at age 12, and according to a 1939 New York Herald Tribune profile, hers was the highest I.Q. score in Michigan State history. After graduating MSU at 16, she entered post-graduate studies at UCLA, where she studied under Schoenberg, the Austrian-American expressionist composer famed for his pioneering 12-tone compositional method. She kept a journal during her years in Los Angeles, published in 1980 under the title Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76). Upon earning her doctorate in musicology from Columbia University in 1945, Newlin studied piano under Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin before making her first recordings, among them Septet in Seven Movements and Piano Trio, Op. 2. She also published her first book, 1945's Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, and went on to write three operas, a chamber symphony and concerto, a piano concerto, and myriad mixed media works. While Newlin's earliest compositions are rooted in classical structures and techniques, her post-World War II output is distinguished by its embrace of serialism, and she later expanded into electronics, group improvisation, and minimalism.
Beginning in 1945 with a four-year residency at Western Maryland College, Newlin primarily supported herself via academia. In 1949, she accepted a teaching position with Syracuse University, where she remained for two years before spending the next dozen years on the faculty of Drew University. An eight-year stint at North Texas State University followed between 1965 and 1973. Among Newlin's most distinguished students are composers Roger Hannay and Michael Bates, as well as musicologist Theodore Albrecht. Upon accepting a teaching position with Virginia Commonwealth University in 1978, Newlin moonlighted for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a music critic. The exposure to popular culture, combined with her students' enthusiasm for punk and new wave, was her gateway into rock & roll, and soon she was prowling local club stages in black leather and neon orange hair while performing original songs like "Love Songs for People Who Hate Each Other." By no means a novelty act, Newlin channeled her unique political perspective into lyrics far more provocative than the average twentysomething glue-sniffer might possibly muster. Backed by VCU students and alumni, most notably the members of the popular local band Apocowlypso, she became a local cult heroine, translating her popularity into albums (2004's Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin) and film (the B-movie Afterbirth, directed by her longtime creative collaborator Michael D. Moore). Newlin never fully recovered from a broken hip she suffered in 2003, and her activities dwindled in the years to follow. Ten days after rejecting food and a feeding tube, she died at a manor care facility in Richmond on July 22, 2006. She was 82 years old.