A Different Herd

SEATTLE – A couple of people requested that I blog my introduction to last night’s Icrebreaker concert with the Seattle Chamber Players. The program consisted of:

Kyle Gann: Kierkegaard, Walking

Elodie Lauten: Scene from 0.02 (the Two-Cents Opera)

Janice Giteck: Ishi

John Luther Adams: The Light Within

Eve Beglarian: Robin Redbreast

William Duckworth and Nora Farrell: Cathedral

The previous evening we had heard music by younger composers, curated by Alex Ross: Alexandra Gardner, Anna Clyne, Mason Bates, Judd Greenstein, Max Giteck-Duykers, Nico Muhly, William Britelle.


The title of tonight’s concert is “Classics of Downtown,” which may be mystifying to some of you, so I’m going to try and provide some background to what that means.

In 1960, composers La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield persuaded Yoko Ono to let them use her loft in Downtown Manhattan for a concert series of rather bizarre and unusual musical performances. Now, Yoko Ono was at the time a failed pianist, and anything but famous: this was seven years before she met John Lennon, several years before anyone had heard of John Lennon. The music in these concerts consisted of things like people making sounds by hitting their heads on the wall, setting fire to their sheet music, and playing notes as motionlessly as possible for a long time. This was a ridiculously different music from the kinds of conventional chamber and orchestra music that most composers were involved with at the time, and it spread to other spaces in lower Manhattan, other people’s lofts, the Judson Church, and various abandoned industrial spaces. Since before this time almost all performances of music had taken place uptown in the area where Lincoln Center would soon be built, this different music became referred to as Downtown music.

Downtown music remained a rather underground phenomenon for more than a decade. But the part of Downtown music that was occupied with drones and slowly changing harmonies and melodies became known as minimalism, and in 1974, recordings by Steve Reich and Philip Glass brought minimalism to worldwide attention. The growing popularity of this music challenged and eventually shattered the image most people had of a single, monolithic history of contemporary music.

In 1979, the Kitchen in New York presented a festival called New Music New York, featuring minimalist music by several composers along with other new streams as well. This was the most visible sign that there had been a significant mutiny within the world of contemporary music. Several dozen composers had decided that the classical music train was in tremendous danger of jumping the track – if, indeed, it hadn’t done so already. The contemporary music of the time was largely abstract, dissonant, and difficult to understand, and had created its own bad reputation with audiences. The classical music that people still liked was in danger of becoming irrelevant, senile, a ghost from another century. New Music New York showcased composers whose music was hip, attractive, sometimes provocative, but not difficult to grasp, and that abandoned many of the conventions of classical music.

And so, buoyed by the public success of minimalist music, these two dozen or more composers broke off and declared themselves a new genre, separate from classical music or jazz or rock. Because of that festival’s title, the music was called “new music,” and remained so for the duration of the New Music America festival that grew out of the original festival, from 1979 to 1990. The festival was overseen by a loose organization called the New Music Alliance. The popular minimalism of Reich and Glass was the public face of this new music, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. New music was not so much a style as a specific collection of people who shared a dissatisfaction with the rigid and narrow mandates that had overtaken the world of contemporary music.

Of course, the term “new music” was so vague as to guarantee its own eventual demise, but a vague term was what was needed. Anything more specific would have pushed the music in a specific direction, and no one knew where it wanted to go yet, nor whether it even particularly wanted to go anywhere. The term “experimental music” had already been tried, and some didn’t like it. In New York City, new music was also known as Downtown music, because all the spaces this music was played in were south of 20th Street. It didn’t matter where you were from, Brooklyn, Birmingham, Alabama, or Fargo, North Dakota – if, when you performed in New York, it was at a Downtown space, you were a Downtown composer. That term was in frequent use from the mid-’60s to almost the end of the century.

Like new music, Downtown music was a specific group of people and a specific set of performance spaces. It is arguable whether a person could have been a Downtown composer in isolation. If you were a Downtown composer, you went to the concerts. You knew the composers. Many a time I went to a concert in Amsterdam or Paris or San Francisco, and saw the same people at intermission whom I was used to seeing at performance spaces like Roulette and the Knitting Factory in New York. No corner of the earth was far enough away to escape the 400 or so composers and improvising musicians who made up this scene.

Tonight’s concert is devoted to composers who were part of that scene, and whose music would have been called in the 1980s new music, or Downtown music, and that today might be called “postclassical” music. Calling us “classics,” I think, is to suggest that we are all, as one might say, “of a certain age,” and have been around too long to be considered “emerging” composers like the ones you heard last night. But this music so split itself off from classical music that in many respects the scene itself is still emerging, as a genre of music that is neither classical, pop, nor jazz, somewhat in between but not entirely that either. Since the cohesion of this scene was at least as much social as defined by any inherent musical principles, I want to emphasize in my descriptions the kind of connections each composer had to the scene.

Elodie Lauten came to Manhattan from France in 1970, lived and performed with the poet Allen Ginsburg, shaved her head before it was hip, studied with the reclusive minimalist guru La Monte Young, interviewed Mick Jagger, and performed as singer for a rock band called Flaming Youth. In 1986 she put out a recording of a dark, mysterious feminist opera The Death of Don Juan, which seemed like the logical next step after minimalism, and which is just now being reissued on CD. I reviewed The Death of Don Juan enthusiastically in the Chicago Reader, and when I got a job at the Village Voice later that year, Elodie was one of the first people I wrote about and the first people I looked up. She has continued to come out with a new theater work every few years, some of them with Baroque music ensemble, some incorporating Broadway and gospel style, but all suffused with mysticism. She also performs as an improviser, using a system of correspondences between harmonies and nature that she calls the Gaia Matrix. One of her operas I reviewed, whose title was simply Existence, had no humans on stage, just a softly mumbling television.

Janice Giteck was more reclusive, and she lived far, far away in this place New Yorkers had barely heard of, called Seattle. Though she studied in France and at one time seemed destined for a more conventional and celebrated classical music career, she would disappear from the composing world from time to time, to work with schizophrenia patients and AIDS victims. But Foster Reed at the New Albion label put out a recording of Janice’s music, and the Relache ensemble in Philadelphia performed her music, and I started writing about her, so gradually she materialized into the new music scene.

Some of you may know the music of the famous accordion composer Pauline Oliveros. If you could imagine someone even more devoted to cosmic harmony than Oliveros, it would be Elodie Lauten, and if you could imagine someone even more devoted to universal harmony than Elodie, it would be Janice Giteck. Those of you who were here last night heard that Janice’s son Max also writes music, which is a good reminder that children often pick up their parents’ bad habits. So be careful.

John Luther Adams I first encountered from a vinyl record called Songbird Songs, and made a mental note that he was not the same John Adams who wrote Shaker Loops and Nixon in China. John lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and writes his music very much about the Alaskan landscape, and at the time I became aware of him, he was making a living more as an environmentalist and activist than as a musician. He and I started corresponding, and somehow we figured out that we were both making connections in the Chicago airport on the same day, so we met there for lunch. Since then, I wrote the introduction to John’s book of essays Winter Music, he wrote the liner notes for my CD Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, and the talks we’ve shared on long walks have sparked some of the great aesthetic realizations of my life. John is one of the few new music figures who has had a career writing music for orchestra. One of his greatest works, In the White Silence, is 75 minutes for orchestra, with not a single sharp or flat. That’s how white Alaska is.

Eve Beglarian had been a composer of complex 12-tone music at Princeton and Columbia. But she had her own individual mutiny, and was programmed on a festival in New York by my friends David First and Kitty Brazelton, where I started writing about her. There’s a wonderful story Eve tells about studying at Columbia. She was writing a piece that started out with only one pitch over and over, D. Her teacher couldn’t stand the idea, but allowed her to go ahead on the condition that when a second pitch came in, it would be E-flat. “No,” she said, “it’s going to be F-sharp.” He threw up his hands, and that was the definitive moment of Eve’s separation from the classical music world. You can’t get a picture of the musical situation of the 1980s until you can understand that the difference between a half-step and a major third meant the difference between remaining in the mainstream and becoming an outsider.

For years Eve made her living making audio backgrounds for the cassette version of Stephen King novels. She is technically sophisticated, and absolutely irrepressible. Commissioned to write a religious piece for pipe organ and tape called Wonder Counselor, she wanted to make it as joyous as possible, and filled the tape part with bird songs, ocean waves, and a couple having orgasms. There is, however, an alternate version for church performance.

Bill Duckworth and I had both studied with Ben Johnston, though in different decades. I first heard Bill’s music on the second New Music America festival in Minneapolis in 1980, when Neely Bruce played his Time Curve Preludes there. Seven years later I met Bill at New Music America in Philadelphia, courtesy of the Relache ensemble. He brought me to Bucknell University, where he taught, and where I became an adjunct professor.

A real senior statesman for the second-generation minimalists, which is to say the postminimalists who were doing something very different from minimalism but derived from it, Bill was a master at large groups of short movements whose movements were linked together in ingenious ways. In the mid-1990s he became intrigued by the idea of internet performance, and started a grand long-term project called Cathedral, which allowed improvisation and listener participation within an overarching musical structure. Thematically, Cathedral is based on five seminal moments in human history: the building of great pyramid, the groundbreaking for Chartres Cathedral, the founding of the Lakota ghost dance religion, the detonation of the first atomic bomb, and the creation of the worldwide web. Somehow, using software and hardware so sophisticated that my eyes glaze over when they starts describing it, Bill and his partner Nora Farrell can take all these improvisations and listener contributions and make them sound like something that sounds recognizably like Cathedral every time.

Finally there’s me, who started out as a Chicago music critic, and called myself a Downtown musician years before the Village Voice brought me to New York. I’ve brought up the Relache ensemble several times. Those of us who were sort of second-generation minimalists, and didn’t start our own ensembles like Glass and Reich did, didn’t have a New York ensemble to play our music, so the Relache ensemble in Philadelphia adopted us. It was Joe Franklin, the visionary director of the Relache ensemble, who championed the music of Bill Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Eve Beglarian, and myself, and who organized the Music in Motion project that brought me to Seattle in 1994 for my first connection with Paul Taub, Janice Giteck, and the Seattle Chamber Players. This summer Relache is recording the 75-minute work I started during that residency.

My initial musical interest was in different tempos running at the same time. A lot of my early music was very difficult for ensemble performance, and it was really Bill Duckworth’s music that taught me how to reorganize the kinds of tempo ideas I like for a chamber ensemble to handle. As a result, instead of hearing the ensemble struggle through rhythms like 7-against-9-against-11-against-13 in my piece tonight, you’ll hear floating ostinatos going out of phase with each other in a much more reasonable quarter-note = 84 tempo. I’ve also stolen some melodic ideas from Elodie Lauten, and my music usually aims for the kind of equilibrium and serenity for which the musics of Janice Giteck and John Luther Adams are notable models.

I’m placing a rather bizarre and uncriticlike emphasis on all these personal and musical connections to counter a historical narrative about this music which has become very popular. According to this narrative, the American composers who have rebelled against the classical tradition are considered mavericks – that is, loners and nonconformists. Technically, according to the dictionary, a maverick is “an unbranded calf, cow, or steer, esp. an unbranded calf that is separated from its mother.” By extension it has come to mean “a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.”

According to the narrative, there is a consistent body of contemporary music practice, and a few maverick individuals, like Partch and Cage and Nancarrow, who have turned away from it. Among other things, this myth has been enshrined in the books American Mavericks by Susan Key and Larry Rothe and Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music by Michael Broyles, and in the Peabody Award-winning radio series American Mavericks, for which I wrote the script (under protest at the title).

But someone observing the scene closely has to wonder: why do these so-called mavericks all know each other? Why are they so multiply connected? If they’re really mavericks, really loners and nonconformists, why do their biographies criss-cross and connect at so many places? If Conlon Nancarrow was a maverick, why did he explicitly and admittedly get all of his rhythmic ideas from Henry Cowell? If John Cage was a maverick, why did he collaborate with Lou Harrison and hang out with Morton Feldman, and why do so many younger composers cite personal connections with him? Why do the names of mavericks like La Monte Young and Lou Harrison and Ben Johnston come up over and over again in the biographies of the younger new-music composers? Why do the same musical ideas, like multiple tempos and altered tunings, come up over and over again for all these mavericks who allegedly refuse to be influenced by anyone else?

The answer, of course, is that maverick is a stupidly inappropriate word. We’re talking about a whole musical society of people who know each other, socialize, steal ideas from each other, influence each other, learn things from each other, bounce ideas off each other, develop musical styles and techniques collectively, just as musicians have always done for centuries. The specific ideas may be new in the history of classical music, but the types of interaction are anything but new, and anything but peculiar.

Musicologists, critics, and those who develop the musical discourse are reluctant to admit that this new music, this Downtown music, this postclassical music, is a separate musical practice that has broken away from the conventions of classical music and created its own norms. The maverick tradition they talk about is an oxymoron; these aren’t “lone dissenters,” they’re all dissenting together. These cattle aren’t off on their own, they’re cattle who simply formed their own herd somewhere else. These are not calves who’ve been separated from their mothers: on the contrary, they’re proud of their musical parentage and happy to tell you about it. These are not unbranded calves, but the brand name keeps changing: experimental, Downtown, new-music, and most recently postclassical. Each term is disliked by a number of people, and any term that distinguishes people from what is considered normative is always problematic.

The thing that excites me about tonight’s concert is the opportunity it provides to think about collective aspects of creativity in a world whose thinking about art is organized around the Great Man phenomenon. Unfortunately, musicians take music history classes, and what they learn about are Great Men.

They see Chopin, but they don’t see John Field, from whom Chopin stole the idea for the Nocturne.

They see Beethoven, but they don’t see Hummel, whose F# minor Sonata was considered the most difficult in the world, so that Beethoven had to write the Hammerklavier to compete with it.

They see that in the 1780s Mozart and Haydn wrote the great works of the classical era, but they don’t see how, in the 1770s, both of them were stuck, until they met in 1780 and started stealing ideas from each other.

There is a reluctance in our culture to admit the extent to which creativity is a collective process, the result of ideas being filtered through many minds in contact with each other. The composers you’ll hear tonight are people who have been important in my own creative development. Perhaps I’ve been important in some of theirs. (For instance, anecdotally I can report that I once said in a newspaper that Bill Duckworth was the master of long pieces made up of short movements. His very next piece was in one long movement.) And we would be here all night if I allowed myself to mention the other 400 creative artists through whom we all share a myriad other multiply-branching connections. Perhaps you’ll think of us, in contrast with last night’s younger composers, as representing a particular historical era, a certain phase in the development of music after modernity. For me, tonight’s concert looks like the way music history does while it’s actually happening, rather than the way it looks fifty years later when the musicologists and performers have picked out the bits they like and made up stories about them. This is my story, and I’m sticking to it. So stay in the moment, and enjoy.


  1. says

    Hey Kyle – great article…! Wondering if you can expound on “universal harmony”…and “picking up bad habits”…unclear to me. Thanks!
    KG replies: Well, composing music is a bad habit – it leads one to expect more from the world than the world is ever likely to deliver. And your mother seems to think that by writing the right music, she can bring the world into harmony with itself. A lovely thought – but probably a lovely illusion. Still, what better have we got to do than that, illusory as it may be?

  2. Max Duykers says

    Such a cynical thought…and a classical one to think that music must represent life!
    The world may only be perfect in the unity of sounds, as our body is pre-programmed to accept them…if we expect only that then maybe we just have to figure out how to write good music!