Weirdos Like Me Blog

I suppose it is redundant to alert my readers here to the highly visible blog that the Times is running by an rotating quartet of four composers: Annie Gosfield, Alvin Curran, Michael Gordon, and Glenn Branca. I might note, however, that all of them are what I might have called “Downtowners,” and all thus refreshingly devoted to free-thinking creativity, and unlikely to harangue us about the importance of credentials, knowledge of the European repertoire, and solid education in traditional theory. (I wondered aloud why no composers from the academic establishment or orchestra circuit were represented, and a friend theorized, “Maybe none of them knew what a blog was.”) I also note that Gordon, despite Bang on a Can’s habitual refusal to take sides on the Uptown/Downtown issue, points to a time in his career in which he did take sides:

If I had to choose I would have without question sided with the downtown school. I found the modernists were totalitarian in their belief, misconceived in my opinion, that the point of writing music was to show off how smart you were…. Not only was the downtown school more expansive in its ideas and concepts, they also began to reembrace the misbegotten audience by reintroducing the now forgotten idea that music, in order to be good, needed to actually sound good.

Good for him. Of course, he locates the whole argument to the generation preceding his, thus perhaps obviating the need for any defense of Bang on a Can’s arm’s-length treatment of the Downtown scene during the 1990s.

Far more entertaining is Branca’s wacko tirade (and I mean this in the best possible sense) today about the “secrets of harmony”:

One example of a chord that defies analysis is the “unison cluster.” This is a type of dense cluster in which the tones are placed very close together using small microtonal intervals. The effect is neither of a cluster nor a unison. But the sound is rich with a strange, singing choir-like quality. The clash of harmonics which occurs in a standard cluster does not occur here because the harmonic interaction that creates the harsh sound is so high that it’s outside the range of hearing….

Music is not pure. It cannot be pure. Sound is noise. In the 70s it was popular for studio engineers to try to get the “cleanest” possible sound, a vogue that lasted for years and was a complete failure. The only clean sound is silence.

It’s lovely to see a composer go flying out into the public eye with all the kinds of thoughts we music weirdos usually try to keep people from realizing we have.


  1. says

    A friend of mine put the blog together for the Times…frankly, there are no uptowners represented because he’s far more interested in downtowners. And we all win :).

  2. says

    I especially love what Michael Gordon said about the totalitarianism inherent in the modernist, academic music scene. Every time I question why there exists composition PhDs, or question the insular, academic mentality (which is a problem for many fields outside of music, such as medicine and even accounting!), the academic crowd tries to rip me a new one. So I give Michael Gordon a lot of credit for speaking out on this.

  3. David McIntire says

    Your friend is probably right about the Uptowners. Still, I think some of them could be fun bloggers. Milton Babbitt would likely be a great read simply for his innate gift for transforming any concept that is easily explained in plain language into a syntactic/vocabularic steeplechase. (cf. hexachordal combinatoriality)

  4. says

    Unfortunately it seems that this blog is only available to NYT or Times Select subscribers.

    I can’t quite figure out the logic behind this.
    I’m hoping that their rationale is that legions of intrigued new music fans will give in to temptation, thus counteracting the flagging number of subscribers.

    For now I’ll just sit and imagine what Michael and Annie et al are saying.

  5. says

    But what a drag that you have to sign up for “Times Select” to read the darn things. Something very ironic about that…
    dan becker

  6. says

    I was also pleased at first to find that Branca, Curran, Gosfield, and Gordon were doing a joint blog for the Times…but I find it slightly ironic that their devotion “to free-thinking creativity” is only available for pay via TimesSelect.

  7. says

    Well, yeah… what I pay for Times Select seems a small price for the dollop of sanity Paul Krugman brings into my life twice a week.

  8. says

    Thanks for the link. It wasn’t redundant at all. True music devotees always read PostClassic before the Times. I’ve also been able to access the blog, and I’m neither a Times nor a Times Select subscriber, so mileage definitely varies.

  9. Rodney Lister says

    Well,with all due respect, it’s easy enough to talk about those nameless composers who think that the point of writing music is to prove how smart they are and who aren’t concerned with how music sounds. I’m not sure who those people are. I’ve never met a composer who I respect who wasn’t VITALLY concerned with what the music they write sounds like (and that includes some of the usual suspects). I think it’s just a matter of straw men (or women).
    As to concern for credentials, since I’ve been nosing around blogs most of the people I’ve run across who are concerned with credentials are the ones who are concerned with how valid their claim to be the real-thing downtowner is.
    KG replies: Alex Ross in his upcoming book quotes a recent interview with Pierre Boulez in which the interviewer asks why so little of that serialist music from the ’50s is played now. Boulez’s surprising reply: “Maybe we didn’t think enough about how people actually listen to music.” So there’s one of your straw men. As for the Downtowners you cryptically allude to, I can’t imagine who they would be – more chimerical than Boulez, anyway.

  10. lj says

    Another “straw man” might be Milton Babbitt:

    “This fall from musical innocence is, understandably, as disquieting to some as it is challenging to others, but in any event the process is irreversible; and the music that reflects the full impact of this revolution is, in many significant respects, a truly “new” music, apart from the often highly sophisticated and complex constructive methods of any one composition or group of compositions, the very minimal properties characterizing this body of music are the sources of its “difficulty,” “unintelligibility,” and- isolation.”

    “Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?”

    “Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

    He spends a lot of that article comparing composers such as himself to mathematicians, which could be construed as trying to “prove how smart they are.”

  11. Ryan Howard says

    Thanks for the quotes, Kyle–I hadn’t investigated the NYT blog.

    On the subject of downtown “credentials,” it has struck me that some composers who label themselves ‘downtown’ are concerned with defining who’s in and who’s out, so to speak. I’ve seen it on Sequenza 21…Elodie Lauten once commented that the co-option of stylistic elements from downtown would lead to a kind of “fake” downtown music, and someone would have to sort out who the authentic downtowners are. Even more interestingly, Mary Jane Leach made the argument (in a thread you once linked to) that the Bang on a Can composers can’t be considered downtown because they all have advanced degrees from Yale and institutional funding. Whether BoaC should be seen as a representatively ‘downtown’ establishment isn’t the point (and I know you’ve addressed that before); the idea that institutional backing disqualifies a composer from downtown-ness seems to contradict an argument you’ve made here, that downtowners would bear up well under funding and recognition.

  12. says

    I don’t think Boulez makes a good “straw man” example. He is not claiming that the music he writes now is meant to prove how smart he is, or even that the music he wrote in the 50s was for that purpose. The quote only shows that in hindsight the total serialists didn’t pay enough attention to listeners’ abilities. I have to say that manifesto-based judging of composers is not helpful or accurate, just like the genre-based judging of AC Douglas and the old fart I just heard at an improv conference who dismissed all jazz as banal. There are good and bad Downtown composers, there are good and bad academic composers, there are good and bad composers of all styles. Let’s judge them individually, or even better, let’s judge the pieces individually.

  13. glenn branca says

    Re: TimeSelect
    According to our contracts, after 30 days we can republish the blogs wherever we like. So maybe Kyle can put them all up on PostClassic.