Polish Music Journal

Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 2003. ISSN 1521 - 6039



"Laying the Foundation":
The Reception of Górecki's Third Symphony, 1977-1992

by Luke B. Howard [1]



In the wake of the Third Symphony's phenomenal success in 1993 and the years following, many people were asking the obvious questions: "Who is Górecki?", and "Where did this Third Symphony come from?". Unfortunately, too many journalists and music writers answered these questions with, "We don't know." This perception of a thoroughly obscure Central European composer and his virtually unknown symphony suddenly achieving pop-like status was crucial to the media's construction of a "Górecki myth." [2] What I hope to do today is not so much to debunk the myth, but rather attempt to set the record straight by showing that neither Górecki nor his symphony were quite as obscure as the media would have us believe. The fifteen-year period from the work's premiere in 1977 to the release of a new recording (on the Elektra Nonesuch label) in 1992 is as much a factor in the Górecki phenomenon as is his later popularity. It may sound like I'm putting the cart before the horse, but I believe that to a significant extent the Third Symphony's success in 1993 was not the cause of Górecki's popularity, but vice versa: Górecki's popularity was already assured by that time. The new recording of the symphony with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta simply spread and intensified an already-emergent Górecki phenomenon.

The Third Symphony was premiered on 4 April 1977, at the International Festival of Contemporary Art in Royan, France: one of the major avant-garde music festivals on the calendar at that time. Most later journalists who had done even a smidgen of homework on the Górecki phenomenon reported that it was an absolute critical failure; it "bombed." [3] Certainly there was a lot of negative reaction to the work from the hard-line avant-gardists at the premiere. Six Western European music journals reviewed the Royan festival that year, all of them German-language publications, and all denouncing the symphony. Heinz Koch wrote in Musica that the symphony "drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes." [4] Dietmar Polaczek of Oesterreichische Musikzeitschrift claimed that Górecki had strayed too far from the proven and established avant-garde path, and labeled the Third Symphony "decadent trash."[5] Hans-Klaus Jungheinreich wrote for Hi-Fi Stereophonie, "In reality this non-composition has irrevocably paved the way down the wrong path, to a childish "New Simplicity," to an urgent warning for all who are interested in the development of real musicality." [6] Górecki himself also relates the anecdote of a prominent French musician at the premiere who, as the last chords of the third movement died away, let out a very audible expletive. [7]

But to consider the work a complete critical failure at its premiere is to ignore the enthusiastic, even ebullient support expressed for the symphony, particularly by Polish critics. The fortnightly Polish journal Ruch Muzyczny reported from Royan that the work was "above all, sincere and full of noble simplicity."[8] The critic Józef Kanski and a number of his Polish colleagues were thoroughly impressed with the conductor Ernest Bour's tight control over the score's expressive qualities, and the contribution of the soloist Stefania Woytowicz.[9] No one at Royan, not even the work's harshest critics, claimed that the Third Symphony wasn't "beautiful". The main criticism was that it wasn't sufficiently avant-garde,[10] though Górecki says it was the most avant-garde piece he heard there.[11]

Polish enthusiasm for the symphony, first expressed at Royan, continued to grow when it was performed later that year at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. It still had (and will always have) its detractors: after the Warsaw performance, Ludwig Erhardt expressed irritation and boredom, and said that the composer had, with this work, stepped outside the borders of what we call art. [12] Tadeusz Zielinski claimed it worked contradictory to the most profound musical traditions, and lacked emotion, form, sincerity, and taste.[13] But these dissenting voices in Poland were outweighed by the majority opinion which hailed the symphony as a masterpiece, a work of genius.[14] It was this enthusiasm that ensured the Third Symphony didn't join the thousands of other compositions that get one or two playings and then fall into total obscurity. After 1977, Polish performances of the work continued on an almost annual basis, every time with the original soprano, Stefania Woytowicz, as the soloist. She also performed it in Budapest in 1978, and Erevan and Tbilisi (Georgia) in 1980. Through the journal Polish Music / Polnische Music, reports of the Warsaw performance and these subsequent performances began to trickle into the English—and German—speaking West. Though the premiere may have been received coolly, these subsequent performances elicited almost unanimous praise.[15] Such was the volte-face in opinion that in 1982, only five years after the premiere, a West European label decided to record the work. Ironically, given the German reactions at Royan, it was a German label (Schwann) and a German orchestra (the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) that recorded it. It was falsely identified on the LP's slip cover as the "World Premiere"—the Polish recording label Polskie Nagrania had already recorded the work in 1978, and Southwest German Radio had taped the Royan performance—but it was through this Schwann recording that the symphony first started to amass a loyal following in the West, aided no doubt by a very complimentary review in the American Record Guide in 1983. [16]


Figure 1: Cover of Polskie Nagrania MUZA SX 1648 recording of Górecki's Third Symphony.
Cover design by M. Raducki. See its larger image.

In 1985 another recording of the Third Symphony was used as part of the soundtrack for the French director Maurice Pialat's film Police, starring Gerard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau. Though not a huge box-office success, Police attracted a lot of interest on the film festival circuit: Depardieu won "Best Actor" at the Venice Film Festival for his role in the film. The use of an extract from the Third Symphony to accompany the end credits brought an avalanche of inquiries from French audiences in particular,[17] and Gaumont (the film's production company) was prompted to release the entire symphony on LP the same year through its subsidiary, the Erato recording label. Mark Swed has rightfully called this release "one of the dumbest packaging decisions in modern record-business history", [18] but it nevertheless furthered the work's reputation. It was more readily available in the US and Britain than the earlier Schwann release, and though the lurid cover and its almost total lack of information regarding the work were serious drawbacks, the music itself earned glowing reviews in Fanfare and Opus magazines and the Los Angeles Times during 1986.[19]

In 1987, and again in 1988, Schwann re-issued its recording on compact disc. The following year, the new London-based Olympia label released a CD of the 1978 recording, on licence from Polskie Nagrania. There were by this time, then, three recordings, two of them on CD, and all repeatedly reviewed in English-language publications with comments like "simply majestic", "the work of the decade", and "heart-stopping".[20] According to one report, the Olympia disc "took America by storm" when it was released here in 1989.[21] Already the work was an unqualified success, according to the standards of contemporary art music. Try and think of any other recently-composed major orchestral work that has had three separate recordings within ten years of its premiere performance.

Górecki's Third was readily available on recording in Britain from the time of the Schwann release in 1982, but the British concert premiere would not take place for another six years. In the meantime, segments of the British public were being exposed to the symphony through a most unusual and unexpected source: the rock concerts given from 1983-86 by the English group Test Department. Melody Maker, one of Britain's chief rock magazines, described Test Department as
A mechanical, exploratory discipline of gas cylinders, corrugated iron, vast metal tanks, massive industrial springs, pre-arranged tapes and conventional drums, amplified into a vicious rhythmic maelstrom, galvanizing sporadic cinematic images towards some undefined order.[22]
At the start of each performance by Test Department, this multi-media barrage of lights, film, and sound included taped excerpts from Górecki's Third Symphony. In 1984, Test Dept. took this show, with its Górecki excerpts, to the United States, and in 1986 toured through communist East Europe with it. Rock critics at the time were at a loss to identify Górecki's music in this collage (admittedly, so would many classical critics), and referred to it variously as "Stravinski or something,"[23] "Prokofiev and Co.,"[24] or "classical choruses."[25]

The British premiere of the Third Symphony took place soon after Test Dept. had moved on to other projects, and arose directly out of publisher Boosey and Hawkes's interest in representing the Górecki catalog in the West. Through the efforts of David Drew, Boosey's Director of New Music, they took on the publishing rights for Górecki's music in the West in 1987 (previously he had been represented by Universal Editions). Boosey and Hawkes immediately began promoting Górecki's music, especially the Third Symphony. On 5 April 1987 (ten years and one day after the world premiere) the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton, with Margaret Field as the soloist, made a studio recording which was then broadcast over BBC Radio 3 on 30 December that year (coincidentally, the 11th anniversary of the work's completion).[26] As far as I can determine, this was the first time a soprano other than Stefania Woytowicz had performed the work. No reviews of this broadcast appeared in the British press, even though it was the first performance outside the eastern bloc since the Royan premiere.

The British concert premiere took place the following year in Birmingham, to a less-than-enthusiastic critical reception. Anthony Cross thought it "flat" and "weak".[27] Jan Smaczny claimed the materials didn't support the work's ambitious span.[28] It wasn't until the London premiere, on 2 April 1989—part of a London Sinfonietta weekend devoted to the music of Górecki and Schnittke—that British critics really took an interest in the Third Symphony. The audience response to that concert was, by all accounts, electrifying. The Musical Times reported that "the symphony's eloquence is irresistible." [29] P. Graham Woolf wrote in Music and Musicians, "I should not be surprised if Górecki becomes established in favor in the West within the year."[30] Nicholas Kenyon, writing for the London Observer, recognized that an important watershed had been reached: "It was as if a spark had been lit... The evening had all the signs of an event which could change the course of our musical taste."[31] Indeed, Kenyon was right, because sitting in the audience at that concert was Bob Hurwitz, the boss of Elektra-Nonesuch recordings, who decided then and there to record the work on his label, and had already thought of using Dawn Upshaw as the soloist.

In July 1990 a television film by Anna Benson Gyles on the life of Vincent van Gogh aired on BBC television. It included what one reviewer referred to simply as "sublime music" to accompany scenes of the painter's life in Arles, France.[32] This sublime music was, of course, excerpts from the Schwann recording of Górecki's Third Symphony.

While television, rock concerts, recordings and performances were spreading Górecki's reputation in Britain, the US was hearing the symphony more and more on radio. National Public Radio broadcast a tape of the Royan premiere in 1977; listeners responded with such enthusiasm that the following year NPR broadcast a tape of the Warsaw Autumn performance.[33] Pirated copies of these NPR broadcasts began to circulate until the three early recordings became readily available in the U.S. In December 1988, WNYC-FM in New York devoted an entire three-hour program to Górecki's music. It included the Third Symphony as well as numerous other compositions by Górecki that were being heard in the U.S. for the first time. Tim Page and Mark Swed wrote repeatedly in the major New York papers about their enthusiasm for Górecki's music.[34] The Erato and Olympia recordings in particular excited considerable interest.

The U.S. concert premiere, given by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies in November 1990, [35] attracted at least as much attention as the London premiere had a year and half earlier. John Rockwell, contemporary music critic for the New York Times, asserted that "this music will count for future historians as a crucially-important legacy of late-20th-century composition," and that on the basis of this Third Symphony alone, Górecki may one day be considered "a master, towering over lesser lights so highly prized today."[36] These were bold claims to be making in 1990 on the basis of a single concert performance, but Rockwell's words were soon proven prophetic.

The public exposure to Górecki's music was furthered even more by major choreographers and dance companies who used the Third Symphony in their work. The New York-based dancer Molissa Fenley used the first movement of Olympia's recording in her work The Floor Dances (Requiem for the Living), first performed in New York in September 1989, and then taken on tour to England and Australia in 1990-91. Nacho Duarto choreographed Lament for the Nederlands Dans Teatr in 1990, which was accompanied by a live performance of the symphony's first movement. The following year, Kim Walker and the Sydney Dance Company premiered The Shakespeare Dances, using excerpts from the symphony's first movement and all of the second movement. The company toured France with this work in early 1992.

More concert performances of the symphony continued in the late 80s and early 90s, for example in Braunschweig, Bonn, Rome, Sydney, Adelaide, colleges in Minnesota and Virginia, and other venues. Responding to this groundswell of interest, Olympia re-issued its recording in October 1991.

In reality, when Elektra-Nonesuch decided to re-record the symphony in 1991, they were taking a huge risk. Not only were there three recordings already, seemingly filling the market niche, but the average cost alone of recording an hour-long orchestral work was almost prohibitive: somewhere between $80,000 and $120,000 (US).[37] In the classical recording business, world-wide sales of 5000 units represents real success; Elektra-Nonesuch would have to sell 15,000 units just to recoup costs, and as Dawn Upshaw later admitted, no one involved with the project thought it would sell more than 10,000.[38] In other words, Elektra-Nonesuch was prepared to accept a financial loss on their recording of the Third Symphony, all because of the enthusiasm of its director, Bob Hurwitz, and the imprimatur of its flagship ensemble, the Kronos Quartet (who, it should be noted, first heard and fell in love with Górecki's music through the early recordings of the Third Symphony.)[39]

Figure 1: Cover of Elektra-Nonesuch CD of Górecki's Third Symphony.


The decision to use the London Sinfonietta on the recording was as much a logistical one as it was artistic. They already had a close association with Górecki and had performed the work in 1989. Using a European-based orchestra also would allow the composer to attend rehearsal sessions, and because union rules and pay scales were beginning to price American orchestras out of the recording business altogether, it was also cheaper to record with the London Sinfonietta. But what led to the decision to use David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw? Certainly they were big names on Nonesuch's roster. They had worked together on the Grammy award-winning recording of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Perhaps Nonesuch hoped for a bit of name recognition to help sales of the recording in the U.S.[40] Zinman was already a great fan of the Third Symphony, after having been introduced to it in the mid-80s by then composer-in-residence for the Baltimore Symphony, Chris Rouse. But Dawn Upshaw had never heard the work when Bob Hurwitz approached her about this project. Hurwitz played one of the Stefania Woytowicz recordings for Upshaw, and as Upshaw later admitted, Woytowicz's large and dramatic voice seemed at the time to be more suited to the work than her own smaller and lighter voice. Upshaw said, "I was frightened, because the recording sounded like that's what the music needed."[41] Eventually she realized she didn't need to sing like Woytowicz, and could do it her own way.[42] The composer has said that when he wrote the Third Symphony, the voice he had in mind was not Woytowicz's powerfully dramatic instrument, but something lighter, almost angelic, more like another Polish soprano, Teresa Żylis-Gara. Żylis-Gara, like Upshaw, had earned a reputation as a Mozart singer, and it is interesting that Górecki should favor the classical reticence of a Mozartian voice over the dramatically romantic style of Woytowicz's singing.

While this new recording of the Third Symphony was in production, Górecki's reputation continued to grow as other works of his caught the ears of an ever-expanding audience. Nonesuch had already recorded Lerchenmusik and the String Quartet No. 1, which WIRE Magazine named a "Record of the Year" in 1991. At the same time the Argo label had contracted John Nelson to conduct a recording of Beatus vir, Totus tuus, and Muzyka Staropolska, and ECM was preparing to record O Domina Nostra. The Houston Symphony had commissioned the Concerto-Cantata, and the Schoenberg ensemble had commissioned the Little Requiem. World premieres of new Górecki works were being given outside of Poland for the first time since 1977, reflecting this growing international interest.

How popular was Górecki in the late 80s and early 90s? Let me conclude with a few more quotes that pre-date the Third Symphony's booming success. Lynn Davies, writing in the encyclopedic reference work Contemporary Composers (1991), said Górecki "is one of the most significant Polish creative artists in any field of creative endeavour from the death of Chopin to the birth of Solidarity."[44] A 1990 article in Q Magazine—self-described as the "foul-mouthed" guide to modern popular music and culture, and one of Britain's most influential rock music publications—was already referring to the symphony as a "hit," presaging its later popularity among young listeners.[45] In September 1991, Linda Kohanov wrote an article for Tower Records' in-house magazine, Pulse!, in which she described Górecki as "one of those rare composers who has managed to attract an enthusiastic following among the classical elite and the general public alike." Referring to the Third Symphony, she noted that "this single masterpiece reached a wide audience through radio broadcasts and word-of-mouth recommendations."[46] British post-minimalist composer Steve Martland commented that same year that the Third Symphony was already "very trendy and in vogue."[47] And as the new Elektra-Nonesuch recording was about to hit the stands, Donald Vroon, editor-in-chief of the American Record Guide, wrote that audiences had "already taken this symphony to their hearts." [48] And all this was happening before Elektra-Nonesuch's disk showed any signs of being a commercial success.

Górecki was not an unknown composer and his Third Symphony was hardly obscure when Elektra-Nonesuch's recording was released in May 1992, though in light of subsequent developments it may certainly have appeared that way. Górecki's reputation was already assured by then; the Third Symphony had already established itself as a masterwork of late 20th-century orchestral writing, with an enthusiastic and ever-increasing listenership. Yet this does not detract from the magnitude of the phenomenon that followed in 1993; neither does it diminish the veracity of the "Górecki myth." Rather, an understanding of the Third Symphony's early history illuminates and informs that myth, and helps account for the work's later phenomenal success.



NOTES:

[1]. This paper was presented at the "Górecki Autumn" Symposium, University of Southern California, 5 October 1997. A different, expanded version, entitled "Motherhood, Billboard, and the Holocaust: Perceptions and Receptions of Górecki's Symphony No. 3," appeared in The Musical Quarterly 82, no. 1(spring 1998): 131-159.

[2]. There are literally hundreds newspaper and magazine articles from 1993-1996 that claim Górecki and his symphony were "unknown" before that time. For example, Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe asked rhetorically, "Henryk who? Is he the fourth tenor?" ("Slow, Gloomy, and Topping the Charts," Boston Globe, 18 July 1993, B21); Tony Palmer titled his article in YOU Magazine (4 April 1993), "The Unknown Hero Who Outsells Madonna." A typical headline was Paul Hodgins' column for the Buffalo News on 26 September 1993: "Obscure Polish Composer Climbs the Best-seller Charts."[Back]

[3]. Steve Metcalf, "Górecki Work Elicits Strong Reactions," Hartford Courant, 6 November 1995. For similar accounts, see Jane Perlez, "Henryk Górecki," New York Times Magazine, 27 February 1994, 34; Paul Hodgins, "Pole's Symphony is Sweeping the World," Houston Chronicle, 26 September 1993; Sarah Cahill, "Classical Smash: The Mysterious Pop Appeal of Górecki's Symphony No. 3," San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 1993.[Back]

[4]. Heinz Koch, "Mit wichtigen bundesdeutschen Beitraegen," Musica 31/4 (1977): 332.[Back]

[5]. Dietmar Polaczek, "Neue Musik in Royan," Oesterreichische Musikzeitschrift 32 (July-August 1977): 358.[Back]

[6]. Hans-Klaus Jungheinreich, "Das Avantgard-Musikfestival in Royan," HiFi-Stereophonie 16 (July 1977): 810.[Back]

[7]. Numerous journalists have reported slightly varying accounts of this anecdote, though the essential details are the same. See Alan Rusbridger, "The Pole Who Remains Apart," (London) Guardian, 13 February 1993; Palmer, "Unknown Hero"; Nicolas Soames, "Into the Limelight," Gramophone 70 (April 1993): 18. [Back]

[8]. "Górecki: III Symfonia," Ruch Muzyczny 21/23 (1977): 17.[Back]

[9]. Ibid. See also Jozef Kanski, "XIV Festiwal w Royan," Ruch Muzyczny 21/13 (1977): 15.[Back]

[10]. See Polaczek, 358; Kanski, 15.[Back]

[11]. Mark Pappenheim, "Master of the Circus," (London) Independent, 19 November 1993.[Back]

[12]. "Górecki: III Symfonia," 17.[Back]

[13]. Ibid.[Back]

[14]. Ibid.[Back]

[15]. See Tadeusz Marek, "12th Festival of Contemporary Polish Music," Polish Music / Polnische Musik 13/2 (1978): 34; Askold Murov, "19th Poznan Musical Spring," Polish Music / Polnische Musik 14/3 (1979): 32; Michal Wit, "17th Bydgoszcz Music Festival," Polish Music / Polnische Musik 14/4 (1979): 37.[Back]

[16]. Stephen Whealton, "Górecki: Symphony No. 3," American Record Guide 46/6 (September 1983): 23. Whealton described the Symphony as "an original, direct, and moving work" in which the listener's rewards are many.[Back]

[17]. See Michael White, "Record Breaker," (London) Independent, 21 February 1993. A Boosey & Hawkes press release dated 2 November 1987 confirms that it was in France that Górecki "first found a wide public."[Back]

[18]. Mark Swed, "Poland Spring," 7 Days, 1 March 1989.[Back]

[19]. Roger Dettmer, "Górecki: Symphony No. 3," Fanfare 9/6 (July-August 1986): 143; Allan Kozinn, "Górecki: Symphony No. 3," Opus 3/1 (December 1986): 34; Allan Ulrich, "Górecki: Symphony No. 3," Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1986.[Back]

[20]. Edward Strickland, "Górecki: Symphony No. 3," Fanfare 11/1 (September - October 1987): 205. See also Donald Vroon, "Górecki: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," American Record Guide 52/4 (July-August 1989): 46.[Back]

[21]. White, "Record Breaker."[Back]

[22]. Steve Sutherland, "Test Dept.," Melody Maker, 21 May 1983, 17. It was British composer Steve Martland who confirmed that Test Deptartment were actually using excerpts from Górecki's symphony; see Steve Martland, "Invisible Jukebox," WIRE Magazine (ca. 1991), 44-46.[Back]

[23]. Sutherland, "Test Dept."[Back]

[24]. Ted Mico, "It's Alive: Test Dept.," Melody Maker, 29 September 1984, 19.[Back]

[25]. Jim Fouratt, "Metametal," Village Voice, 31 July 1984, 67.[Back]

[26]. Originally the broadcast was scheduled for December 24th, but presumably the BBC decided such a lamenting work was not quite appropriate for Christmas Eve.[Back]

[27]. Anthony Cross, "Birmingham and Coventry," Musical Times 130 (April 1989): 231.[Back]

[28]. Jan Smaczny, "Generous Offerings," (London) Independent, 24 September 1988.[Back]

[29]. Alan Hall, "Schnittke and Górecki," Musical Times 130 (June 1989): 360.[Back]

[30]. P. Graham Woolf, "Responses," Music and Musicians 37/11 (July 1989): 35.[Back]

[31]. Nicholas Kenyon, "Jump Up and Shout," (London) Observer, 9 April 1989.[Back]

[32]. Lewis Jones, "Vincent Goes Off his Trolley in Provence," (London) Weekend Telegraph, July 1990, Arts Section, 14.[Back]

[33]. See Vroon, "Górecki," 136.[Back]

[34]. Tim Page, "Best of the New Disks," New York Times, 8 March 1987; Tim Page, "Kronos at its Most Modern," Newsday, 13 February 1989; Mark Swed, "Poland Spring."[Back]

[35]. Chieko Shirasaka was the soloist on this occasion.[Back]

[36]. John Rockwell, "Thinking of Immortality in Brooklyn," New York Times, 5 November 1990, C14.[Back]

[37]. See, "The Classical Music Business: Fanfare for the Compact Disc," The Economist, 7 January 1994, 119.[Back]

[38]. Marc Shulgold, "Musical Chairs," Denver Rocky Mountain News, 16 November 1995.[Back]

[39]. Nick Kimberley, "Four into One," Gramophone 70 (August 1993): 4.[Back]

[40]. Before this disk was released, 70% of Nonesuch's sales were in the US, and the label had a very strong reputation as an "American" company.[Back]

[41]. Richard Dyer, "Going Her Own Way Has Brought Dawn Upshaw Success," Boston Globe, 13 January 1993, B26.[Back]

[42]. See David Patrick Stearns, "Serious Musicians Score Outside the Conservatory Crowd," USA Today, 23 February 1993, 3D.[Back]

[43]. Henryk Górecki, interview with Luke Howard, 3 May 1996 (Ann Arbor, Michigan). Tape in possession of the author.[Back]

[44]. Lynn Davies, "Górecki, Henryk Mikolaj," in Contemporary Composers, edited by B. Morton and P. Collins (Chicago and New York: St. James Publishers, 1991): 338.[Back]

[45]. Ian MacDonald, "Boredom Busters," Q Magazine 49 (1990).[Back]

[46]. Linda Kohanov, "Picks," Pulse!, September 1991, 46.[Back]

[47]. Martland, "Invisible Jukebox," 45.[Back]

[48]. Donald Vroon, "Górecki: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," American Record Guide 55/4 (July-August 1992): 136-37.[Back]



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Copyright 2003 by Luke B. Howard.
Editors: Maja Trochimczyk and Linda Schubert.
Editorial Assistance: Krysta Close.
Publisher: Polish Music Center, Summer 2003.
Design: Maja Trochimczyk & Marcin Depinski.
Comments and inquiries by e-mail: polmusic@email.usc.edu