Kittens on the Basketball Court

I realize that people don”t like the differences between Uptown and Downtown music pointed out, that it’s a continuous faux pas that I’ve been committing for 25 years. People react as though I keep awkwardly referring to differences between whites and blacks, or rich and poor, that are impolite to bring up. Yet the differences are not racial ones, but matters of personal temperament and especially training and tradition, and thus relevant to education. And if, in one’s life as a writer, one is disallowed to comment on phenomena that forcibly impress themselves on one’s perception, what’s the point of life? At least, by refusing to censor myself for the comfort of my critics, I hurt only myself, and I’ve got tenure anyway.

Yesterday I had an interesting opportunity to listen to music by a Downtown composer in an otherwise completely Uptown context. I had been asked to submit music by composers for a minor job search, and I only knew one who fit the specific qualifications and availability. So we listened to all this music in a blindfold situation, and all the other composers were people whose names, as it later turned out, were unknown to me anyway. The other recommenders, present, were heavily in that Uptown world (or perhaps some would prefer that I more accurately say Midtown, not 12-tone but rather dissonant Romantic), and recommended, of course, only other Uptowners.

Every single one of the Uptown pieces, and we listened to 14 or so, was a study in transition. Each one started at point A and headed immediately towards point B, always focusing the listener on not what was going on at the moment, but your elicited expectations of what was coming up down the road. And the way my colleagues appreciated and criticized the music bore that out: “Wait a minute, I want to see where this is going…. It feels like it never really arrived…. I really liked that transition.” Everything was focused on the skill with which a trajectory was defined and carried out.

By contrast, my one Downtown composer offered no transitions at all. Rather Feldman-influenced, like so much music from my generation, the pieces would do this for awhile, and then that, possibly returning to the first or going somewhere else, but never projecting ahead, never leading to anything, always focused on what the music was doing at the moment. Having introduced a new idea, it would stay with it for a few moments, rather than make you nervous by rushing on to the next thing. The music’s aim seemed to be to define its own sounds and textures, and possibly in retrospect to have created a sound world, but one without crescendos, descrescendos, or climaxes. And my colleagues criticized the music, lightly, for its lack of transition, appreciating the colors and gestures, but talking as though the all-important transitions had been rather ineptly omitted. Too bad such a talented composer didn’t get hooked up with a teacher who taught transitions.

It was like the difference between watching Shaquille O’Neal, or Evel Knievel, and a Zen monk or kitten. The Uptown aesthetic was obsessed with skill: get the BALL in the BASKET, MAKE THAT CURVE, REACH THE GOAL. Define what you’re going to do way up ahead, and then show people how good you are at getting there, at DRIVING HOME YOUR POINT. So for classically trained musicians with all those Uptown expectations, listening to a Downtown piece is like seeing a kitten or Zen monk on a basketball court: “What are you doing? The BASKET’s over THERE. Don’t just stop and smell those gym shoes! Don’t you want to WIN? Don’t you want people to realize how GOOD you are? What do you mean you’re appreciating the symmetry of the court? There IS no symmetry, your basket is OVER AT THAT END.”

Whereas for me, the Uptown pieces were tediously would-be-impressive. Every one would start somewhere and instantly begin to move, and within 20 seconds I’d think, “Oh, I see where this is going,” and then I’d listen for ten minutes while the composer laboriously achieved what he already signaled he was going to do. (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I’m also bored by spectator sports.) There were no mysteries, no whimsical inspirations of the moment, no unexpected changes except for sudden upward gear shifts (ALWAYS upward, except to start over at the bottom again for a long new crescendo) in the energy level. Nothing ever settled into a groove, because the music was always moving forward, there were no sections to just “get into” and enjoy. Very, very clearly, young composers are TRAINED in school to write music this way, to think that this… is… what… music… does. And yet I can think of some pretty damn good pieces by Brahms and Stravinsky and other famous dead people that don’t fit this pattern.

Well, that’s fine. They have their music and I have mine. Downtown music will die with my generation, because young musicians are not exposed to it or made aware of it, and I’ll die with it, and will not have to endure the future of eternally goal-oriented music. Meanwhile, ‘ll keep pointing out the differences between Uptown music and Down- to my annoyed and impatient detractors – because kittens are great, and shouldn’t be denigrated or discriminated against because they’re not interested in shooting balls through hoops.