Exaggerated Rumors of Downtown’s Cooptation

My mother has a stock answer for people who draw generalizations from insufficient data. She replies, with a tinge of sarcasm, “All Indians walk single file. I saw one once, and he did.”

I admire Bill Osborne’s writing enough that I don’t think he’ll mind my taking issue with his note to Jan Herman which that worthy reprinted in his excellent blog. Bill went to a John Zorn concert at Miller Theater, and concluded (on the basis of that and other unspecified concerts) that there is no longer any difference between Uptown and Downtown music these days.

(Sigh.) This is a hip thing to say, and everyone says it, and most people believe it, and I would make a lot more friends if I would just shut up and go along. But the truth is that this perception does some harm, because it obscures the fact that there is a rich Downtown tradition that is very different from Uptown, and which is becoming less and less visible.

First of all, John Zorn. Zorn has long said in interviews that the early classical influences in his music came from European post-serialism. If I may quote what I wrote in my history of American music about him,

At 15 [Zorn] chanced across a recording of Mauricio Kagel’s chaotic Improvisation ajoutée, and said to himself, “Yes, this is the music for me. This is what I want to be doing.” Later, he has related, he attended Pierre Boulez’s “rug” concerts in New York where “I saw premieres of Stockhausen pieces. It was exciting, but at the same time, it was, like, very dry. No one was standing up going ‘Yeah!’ An emotional quality was missing somehow.”

If you listen to Zorn’s early records like Pool and Archery, their statically noisy textures sound almost identical to certain works by Kagel, like Der Schall and Music for Renaissance Instruments. At the same time, Zorn has expressed impatience and disdain for many of the composers I consider central to the Downtown tradition, including Cage, Oliveros, and the minimalists. It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that Zorn and 15 of his free-improv colleagues took over the Downtown scene in the mid-1980s and turned it very much in the direction of Europe-influenced noise and complexity. Osborne notes that the works he heard “were extended, highly chromatic, rhythmically complex, precisely notated and formally structured works that sounded almost completely uptown….” He was surprised, but I’m not – that’s always been the nature of Zorn’s notated music. I’m not going to be a snob and say that Zorn’s music isn’t really Downtown, because the whole philosophy of Downtown music was that anything goes, no boundaries apply. But if you characterize Downtown music as being what it was from the days of the 1960-61 La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield concerts given at Yoko Ono’s loft up through the public emergence of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the ‘70s, up through the artrock Branca/Chatham scene of the early ‘80s, and then again as the Postminimalist/Totalist scene that re-emerged in the late ‘80s through the Bang on a Can festival and my criticism, it is fair to say that within that basically minimalist/conceptualist mainstream, Zorn’s world constituted something of an aberration, one that veered towards jazz, but also way out toward European/Uptown opacity and complexity.

So for the Uptown world, whose scorn for minimalism was endless, Zorn became the Downtowner par excellence, the hip bandwagon they could all jump on. His music had a postmodern cachet due to his quotations and genre mixing (much like Uptowner William Bolcom in the same era), he quoted Elliott Carter, he reincarnated Stockhausenesque complexity, and he never touched a drone or ostinato with a ten-foot pole. No wonder they’re playing him at Columbia’s Miller Theater – he’s right at home up there. But to listen to Zorn’s music, of all people, and conclude that Downtown music has come to sound just like Uptown? Well… all Indians walk single file.

There are other reasons that you could attend ostensibly Downtown concerts and think that they’ve gone Uptown. Many Europe-oriented, grad-school-trained composers have taken to launching their careers from Downtown spaces as being hipper. Passing yourself off as Downtown, as long as there’s no telltale hint of Cage or minimalism in your music, has become a smart career move, and ever since Zorn you can do it and still indulge Uptown pitch complexity to your heart’s delight. Meanwhile, the hard-core Downtown composers, the ones from that La Monte-Reich-Branca-Bang on a Can tradition I mentioned? They’re moving out of Manhattan because they can’t afford it anymore, and giving so few concerts these days that I have a hell of a time finding true Downtown concerts to go to. Yet Downtown music still thrives, even as it becomes less logistically accessible. Listen to the pieces I play on Postclassic Radio – not much there is going to remind of you of Carter, or Stockhausen, or even John Corigliano. Meanwhile, all the critics say, “Gee, there’s no difference between Uptown and Downtown anymore,” and my hundred best Downtown composer friends and I, all writing Cage- and minimalist-influenced music that doesn’t sound the least bit Uptown, sigh at yet another sign that the classical music world really doesn’t want to deal with our music.