Escaping from Classical Music

When I went from Dallas to Oberlin at age 17, I told friends I was going to school on the East Coast. From where I lived, Cleveland looked like a short bus ride from New York. Imagine my confusion when I arrived and the students, mostly from Long Island, called it the MidWEST.

Composer Lawrence Dillon, who truly enjoys clearing things up and who has been a valuable sparring partner in internet new-music debates to more people than myself, writes with a well-considered objection. Pointing out that I use “Uptown” to refer to composers as diverse and even opposed as Elliott Carter and David Del Tredici, he continues:

Honestly, Kyle, I think that’s the weakness in your argument for Downtown aesthetics: if you simply argued for Downtown style without placing it in opposition to a single, monolithic Uptown, you might have an easier time convincing people who aren’t coming from the same place you are.

Probably true. To people whose view of new music comes through official channels, it must seem confusing that, to me, the ultracomplex Carter and the postmodernly neoromantic Del Tredici look no further apart on the map than Cleveland and New York did when I was 17. But while Uptown, agreed, isn’t stylistically monolithic, it is almost totally monolithic in one respect. Carter and Del Tredici can both be told: we’re giving you winds in threes, four horns, three percussionists, and strings 10 10 8 6 4 – and they can write for it and be happy. They both write for existing ensembles: orchestras, string quartets. Some other composer, given an orchestra commission, might say, I need five percussionists at least, and forget the violins and violas, I don’t need them, and I want an accordion, and a banjo, and I need two conductors because there are two tempos, and I need a tape of environmental sounds behind the orchestra. That person will end up in the Downtown scene, because the classical music world will rarely accommodate her.

For all the difficulty of describing differences between the Uptown and Downtown worlds as they exist, the origin of the difference is pretty simple. I watch it in process every year. At Bard, our senior composition students have the opportunity to have an orchestra piece played at graduation, by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by our college president Leon Botstein, no less. It’s a plum gig, and students get excited about it. Nevetheless, they approach it cautiously, and some choose not to take advantage of it. And the process they go through applies to any young composer who faces the possibility of entering the world of composing for orchestra.

First, you learn that you get woodwinds in pairs, maybe four horns, one percussionist, and strings. “But I want to use bass clarinet.” Well, if one of the clarinetists has one, maybe you can do it. “I need more percussion.” Well, you can’t have it, because you’re a young composer, and we’re doing you a favor, and someday when you’re famous you can ask for five percussionists, and maybe you’ll get them. So the first thing you learn is to pare down your imagination to write for the existing ensemble.

You keep writing. You learn other things. You’re only going to get 20 to 40 minutes’ rehearsal, depending on the orchestra. The piece has to be essentially sight-readable. You have to guess whether that mid-register trumpet solo will be audible over the horns if you mark it mezzoforte; there’s no chance to play around with dynamics at the reheasal. All dynamics need to be marked, as well as slurs and bowings. You get a piece or two played, you learn to write the kinds of gestures that orchestra players like to play, and play well. At a more advanced level, you learn what kinds of busy percussion parts impress audiences. You learn that pieces with tumultuous brass climaxes win prizes. It’s called “learning your craft”: what it really is, is learning to acquiesce to the existing institutional conventions. You are sharing the same playing field with Mozart and Brahms, and it is not going to be greatly rearranged for your petty efforts, which are already a PR nightmare and a pain to rehearse. You are a bit player, and you will learn to do as you’re told.

There is a kind of student who begins to sense this early on. The classical music world, she realizes, is like a series of prefab molds, ready for your music to grow into. There’s the orchestra mold, the string quartet mold, the string trio mold – and now there’s what’s called the “Pierrot ensemble” mold: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, sometimes “Pierrot plus percussion.” In the glacial movement of classical music, this constitutes progress, that the entire 20th century managed to increase the list of standardized ensembles to the tune of one. Of course you can express some individuality within these molds – but ultimately, the medium is the message, and unless you have a strong talent for subliminal subversion, your orchestra music, or string quartet music, is still going to sound “classical,” with a European tinge. What’s more, when you write for orchestra, you are going to hand over your music to a powerful organization that cares little about your needs or artistic vision, and you are going to give up considerable control over your own art.

It never ceases to amaze me how many young composers follow this path anyway, for it’s not an easy one to follow. But there are some young composers who look up the road and can’t bring themselves to take the first steps, who imagine their own wild, proliferating music and blanche at the thought of seeing it pruned with institutional shears. Like novelists and sculptors, they want to make art from their own personal experiences, from materials in their environment, and they want control over the results. They become Downtowners. For, quite simply, Downtown music is that which cannot be accommodated by the musical ensembles and organizations that are created and maintained to play 19th-century European music.

Consequently, the only complete way to define Downtown music is negatively, and with reference to Uptown music – or rather, to the world of classical music conventions. Downtown is largely a culture of escapees. The purpose of an academic music education is usually to prepare you to make your music fit those molds, to teach you how to acquiesce. Many young artists run away in horror. They find a Downtown music scene – the East Village, or in Chicago around the School of the Art Institute, or San Francisco around the Exploratorium – and there they feel at home, for they can do anything they want. That’s why there is no Downtown ideology, no Downtown aesthetic, because no common vision unites these runaways. The only thing they have in common is that they can’t stand for their artistic visions to be bounded by conventions that Haydn and Beethoven and Stravinsky put in place. There also can’t be much of a support structure for performance of their music, for if some conventional ensemble became codified, it would eventually become something else to run away from.

(Allow me to interject here that this is not an argument that Downtown composers are happy to never receive orchestra commissions. At some point in your life you feel a need to express yourself with a large ensemble, and as much as you’d love to have accordions and electric guitars and saxophones and sitars adding up to 75 players, there’s not much chance you’ll get it, and the orchestra remains the most efficient way of gathering large forces. As long as you’ve developed your music along more original and personal lines, it can’t be so bad, you start thinking, to file off a few of the sharper edges of your musical language to make it playable by an orchestra. By this point, however, you’re not on the “orchestra circuit,” and it’s probably not going to happen. It did, though, for Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and one need only study the difficult score to Reich’s 1979 Variations to see how incommensurate his music had already become with the stylistic norms of orchestral performance.)

It does happen, however, that certain types of expression have become popular Downtown and merged into various traditions. There are evolving streams of Downtown activity: minimalism, conceptualism, free improvisation, artrock, postminimalism, totalism, computer algorithm music, performance art, sound installations, interactive computer music, video opera, DJ music, postrock, and lots of other things too individual to generalize about. Many of the people in these movements have nothing whatever in common aesthetically except for their automatic tolerance of difference. (I was always amazed in the ’80s at how generously the original New York minimalists coexisted with the free improvisers who were in many ways their aesthetic antipodes.) There are a few composers who get sucked into some Downtown trend or another early, without even encountering the Uptown world – Glenn Branca comes to mind. Various Downtown aesthetics, looking something like ideologies, perhaps, arise and flourish for awhile, but no one clings to them, no one issues ultimatums or considers any aspect of them mandatory. Downtown styles evolve features very different from Uptown ones, because they are not reined in by constant reference to performance by the same musicians who play Brahms on the same concert. (In electronic music, which had no classical tradition to compete with, the Uptown/Downtown distinction is much fuzzier, and with a gun to my head I wouldn’t swear there’s a line to be drawn there at all.)

So one can’t define Downtown entirely without reference to Uptown, or rather, to the classical music world. I can define minimalism on its own, as a continuous tradition starting in 1958. I can define conceptualism, or artrock. But Downtown is a totally heterogeneous phenomenon, a conglomeration of excluded movements, and you can’t define the conglomeration without reference to who’s doing the excluding. If academic music departments and chamber music societies and orchestras allowed and encouraged composers to write six-hour works for organ drones, collages of live radio sampling, and pieces based on recordings of orgasms (Downtown examples that spring to mind), there would be no Downtown: people would just stay where they are. But they generally don’t. If you don’t like the terms Uptown and Down-, that’s fine. I take a Wittgensteinian approach to terminology, that terms are defined by their use, and the inexactness of terms never bothers me (and for some reason there’s nothing about me that pisses off more people than that).

But one should still recognize that classical music culture is sharply defined, with centuries of accreted conventions that very few people in that world want changed. Some composers find the structures and conventions of that world just fine, and they grow into them uncomplaining. Others, however, find them oppressive and impossible and totally out of line with their personal imaginations. That does not mean they are lesser artists. To some of us, minority viewpoint though it may be, it means that they are the original, the sincere, the more honest artists, because from the beginning they did not compromise.

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