Downtown Music and its Misrepresentations

After every article I write about the Uptown/Downtown issue, I receive at least one e-mail telling me my views on the subject are bullshit. All of these messages have one thing in common: the writer knows the music of John Zorn and the Bang on a Can festival. This acquaintance, in his estimation, clearly outweighs my 28 years of involvement with the Downtown scene and makes the writer an authority on Downtown music. This is like reading the speeches of Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman and then announcing, “Now I’m an expert on Leftist political thought.”

Allow me to detail what’s wrong with this formulation. First: Bang on a Can. Speaking as someone who personally knows a few hundred Downtown composers, I can tell you that there is a lot of resentment within the Downtown community against Bang on a Can, and that dozens of my composer friends would be horrified to think that the Bang on a Can festival was anyone’s image of Downtown music. There are large swaths of Downtown music that Bang on a Can has ignored, and major Downtown figures to whom BoaC has barely paid attention. In the festival’s early years it seemed a little oriented toward Downtown composers, but there is a widespread perception that as the festival became more famous and starting associating with Lincoln Center, the curators – David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon – started abandoning younger Downtown composers, associating with famous composers like Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich, and keeping their own music at center stage. Furthermore, there is a lot of feeling that Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon, who studied at Yale with Martin Bresnick, are not themselves Downtown composers at all; although Gordon, who has more of a garage-band background and more minimalist tendencies, is sometimes exempted from this charge.

Now is not the moment to assess the accuracy of these perceptions – I sort of agree, sort of don’t, but I merely report them to note how unfortunate this assumed equivalence of BoaC = Downtown is. In their defense, BoaC has never particularly claimed to represent Downtown. There is nothing about Downtown music in their mission statement, and the only thing they’ll say publicly is that they’re not really interested in the Uptown/Downtown distinction. They always chose the composers they wanted, some from Europe, many from across the country, and many who were new to the New York scene altogether. If I have to think back to how they became identified with Downtown, the biggest culprit may be my own reviews in the Village Voice, for in their early years I was enthusiastic about the new energy they brought in and the new kinds of music they gave voice to.

Meanwhile, there were and are music festivals that do claim to represent Downtown music, most famously New Music America, which was a traveling Downtown music schowcase for eleven years, from 1979 to 1989. Last October’s Sounds Like Now festival explicitly featured the Downtown scene, and there are periodically others, none of them nearly as visible or well-funded as Bang on a Can. Follow any of these festivals and you’ll have every right to voice your opinions on Downtown music. But draw conclusions about Downtown from Bang on a Can, and you’ll insult hundreds of Downtown composers without particularly gratifying the BoaC people.

The issue of John Zorn I’ve addressed elsewhere here. Before Zorn, the Downtown scene could pretty well be characterized by the large roster of composers who comprised the New Music New York festival of 1979: Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Charles Amirkhanian, Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, and many others. It was a scene characterized by conceptualism and minimalism, music of intense focus on sound, made by people who were outcasts from the classical music world.

This was not at all Zorn’s type of music: his models in the classical world were Kagel, Stockhausen, and Carter, he was antiminimalist, he objected to the reverence given John Cage. He put together a scene of performers mostly from jazz backgrounds, and created an alternative to the minimalist Downtown scene, one couched in postmodern style mixing and maximalist chaos. It wasn’t that Downtown had never had free improv before – Oliveros and Terry Riley had been experimenting with it, though with emphasis more on sound than virtuosity, more on meditation than chaos. To the horror of many veteran Downtowners, Zorn brought Downtown music back toward the modernism, chaos, and complexity from which the minimalists and conceptualists had already escaped once.

With heavy irony, minimalist Tony Conrad once participated in a late ’80s performance of John Cage’s Songbooks by chanting, “No more Cage! Zorn is the rage!” It did seem for a few years that free improvisers from the jazz world had infiltrated and wiped out the minimalist brand of Downtown music. Zorn created a parallel Downtown scene that took over in the late 1980s, partly through tremendous energy and organizational skills – but also partly because the free improvisers were generally ready to go onstage and perform without rehearsal, and the improvising ideology entailed a belief that anything that resulted was fine. [UPDATE: To his everlasting credit, Zorn has redeemed himself in recent years with Tzadik, a record label 30 times more inclusive than the scene he dominated in the late '80s.] Eventually, after 1990, free improvisation fell back into being only one component of the scene, ensconced at the Knitting Factory and Tonic, but again just one Downtown strand among many.

Meanwhile, the Downtown scene that had started in 1960, when Yoko Ono opened her loft for La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield to give concerts at, survived and continued. The aesthetics of conceptualists like Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoshi Wada, Dick Higgins, and Phil Corner, and of early minimalists like Young, Terry Jennings, Angus Maclise, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock, Tom Johnson, Tony Conrad, Jon Gibson, Dennis Johnson, and John Cale, were inherited by further generations: Meredith Monk, Elodie Lauten, Brenda Hutchinson, Joshua Fried, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Goode (perhaps the most hardcore Downtowner of all), Barbara Benary, David First, Ben Neill, Skip LaPlante, Mikel Rouse, Tom Hamilton, Joshua Fried, Eve Beglarian, William Duckworth, Mary Jane Leach, Linda Fisher, David Borden, Guy Klucevsek, Raphael Mostel, Lois V. Vierk, John Kennedy, Jerome Kitzke, Julius Eastman, Conrad Cummings, Nick Didkovsky, Phil Kline, Diana Meckley, Ben Manley, Ron Kuivila, Nic Collins, David Garland, Carman Moore, Petr Kotik, Laurie Spiegel, Alvin Curran, Corey Dargel, Christine Baczewska, Lenore Von Stein, Peter Gordon, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Jerry Hunt, Noah Creshevsky, Shelley Hirsch, Jeffrey Schanzer, Jin Hi Kim, Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, Wendy Chambers, George Lewis, Diamanda Galas, Annea Lockwood, Patrick Grant, Joseph Celli, David Myers, David Moss, Dary John Mizelle, Todd Levin, Neil Rolnick, Toby Twining, Norman Yamada, Annie Gosfield, Robert Een, Martha Mooke, Judy Dunaway, Beata Moon, Elise Kermani, Fred Ho, Judith Sainte Croix, Maryanne Amacher, Molly Thompson, Paul Lansky, David Beardsley, myself – just to mention the first few dozen who come to mind. And those are just the ones with a presence on the New York scene. There were, and are, Downtowners in cities and towns and wildernesses all over America: Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, Carl Stone, Art Jarvinen, Amy Knowles, Stephen Scott, Peter Gena, Ingram Marshall, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Garland, John Luther Adams, Larry Polansky, Phil Winsor, Laetitia de Compiegne Sonami, Carolyn Yarnell, Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Pamela Z, Erling Wold, Henry Gwiazda, Philip Bimstein, Ellen Fullman, Richard Lerman, Orlando Garcia, Paul Dresher, Paul Epstein, Trimpin, Alison Cameron, Gustavo Matamoros, David Rosenboom, David Rosenbloom, Arnold Dreyblatt, John Oswald, Chris Brown, Susan Parenti, Jewlia Eisenberg, Paul Dolden, John Morton, David Hykes, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, David Dunn, David Gunn, and on and on.

A lot of people who have no contact with the Downtown scene can name four Downtown composers: Zorn, Gordon, Lang, Wolfe. A lot of hardcore Downtowners don’t even consider those four people Downtowners. I won’t agree, and it’s never been my philosophy of Downtown to make those kind of hardline distinctions. But there is a Downtown mainstream in which those four composers never particularly participated, and to which they were not attracted; and there are many reasonable generalizations one could make about Downtown music that would not apply to those four.

So when you come to me saying, “Downtown music is really complex and atonal now, I know because I’ve heard some John Zorn” – or, “Downtown composers are doing just fine, David Lang got some orchestra commissions” – then all I can say to you is, “Why, the Democrats looooooove George W. Bush, because I just talked to Zell Miller!” If you’re familiar with Lauten’s The Death of Don Juan, if you know what kinds of music Beglarian wrote before and after she defected to Downtown, if you know how Josh Fried expanded his theater concept after Travelogue, and you think some of my opinions about Downtown are mistaken, you write to me and we’ll have a good conversation. But if all you think you know about Downtown is John Zorn and Bang on a Can, don’t bother airing your ignorance, because my only reply will be the URL for this blog entry.

Comments

  1. says

    Kyle, I just finished reading music downtown and have compiled a big list of composers to check out because of your book. Now I have an even larger list because of this post. Thanks for being my go to source for all things Downtown. And I have no dog in this debate–I’m an actor and comedian based in Austin, Texas with a hunger for new music.