In my Analysis of Minimalism seminar – most rewarding course I’ve ever taught at Bard, at least for me – we finished with Michael Gordon’s loud, propulsive Yo Shakespeare in the same class in which we started on Peter Garland’s calm, delicate I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last. The contrast moved me to get into one of my digressions (I live to digress) about the importance of kickass qualities in music of the Downtown scene in the 1980s and ’90s. For several years there, kickass was the highest praise a Downtown composer could recieve on his or her music, and the most sought after. The word was thrown around so relentlessly that in my reviews in the Voice I started parodying it through overuse: we were in the kickass era now, everything had to be kickass, if you weren’t kickass you weren’t really trying! For months I worked it into every review, no matter how gratuitously. I hoped I could shame people out of the sophomoric notion that loud, percussive aggression automatically made a piece of music good, and the lack of it bad. I don’t think I had much conceptual effect, but it did seem to that the word’s omnipresence declined a touch.
And in class I told a story that has sufficiently retired into the mists of history that I think I can safely recycle it: There was a female accordionist who, the first time I heard her on a festival, played a rather gentle piece based on a folk song. In my review, I called her piece “charming.” Soon came a searing hot letter from a friend of hers, accusing me of sexism and chauvinistic condescension, since, surely, I would never apply the effeminite word charming to a man’s music. I wrote back that indeed I had many times referred to the music of male composers as charming, and that I hoped I had written charming music myself. However, to mollify her, in the “Voice choices” I wrote for this performer (those little advance notices in the concert listings), I started escalating the testosterone level. The climax came when I referred to her as “a two-fisted powerhouse of accordion machismo.” The performer loved the phrase enough to make it her lead press quote. That was the atmosphere of the Downtown scene in the late 1980s.
(If you don’t like the word Downtown, and know a more precise word for the south end of Manhattan, consider it inserted.)
I hope it’s obvious that it’s not I who was sexist in using the word charming – but that, somehow, the preponderance of the lower Manhattan scene had become radically sexist by renouncing every possible quality traditionally associated with femininity and treating them as insults. Quiet, gentle, receptive, nurturing, community-oriented: these are clearly not qualities unique to women, but by acculturation (if not biology) they cling to the female side of our mental male-female axis. By rejecting them, by aspiring exclusively to their opposites, both men and women were fleeing their inner feminine. Moreover, rock had become classified as masculine, classical music as feminine, and so composers were made ashamed of their classical trainings, and pressured to efface them. The result was several years of massive and transparent public pretense: composers pretending to be rockers, women pretending to be men, Ivy League-educated musicians turning their baseball caps backwards and pretending to be blue-collar. It was the opposite of identity-politics art: a scene full of artists ashamed of who they were. So publicly did they trumpet their insecurities that I was embarrassed for them.
It was hardly universal: for instance, you might assume Glenn Branca’s 130-decibel guitar symphonies were the epitome of musical macho, but there’s something deeply feminine and receptive (mathematically “natural”) about his formal paradigms, which comes vividly to the surface in the gentle, meandering works he’s written for unamplified instruments. In that sense, he was more attuned to the earlier minimalists, whose music was despised as soft, lily-livered, and too pretty by the free-improv scene that arose in the early ’80s, and whose macho attitudes I always associated with Reagan era neo-John-Wayne masculinity. The rock-worshipping totalists (John Luther Adams notably excepted) extended the kickass mandate into the ’90s. Whether these sexual politics still exist in New York music I’m not around enough to say, though clearly the bad conscience that many composers carry about their classical training remains evident in the blogosphere.
As a sports-phobic male who grew up as a classical musician in Texas during the heyday of John Wayne worship, I certainly have my own gender-identification issues. They presumably account for the bulky silver jewelry, leather jackets, and biker-chic hats I wear to counter the total absence of male-identified interests that I refused to absorb from the alleged peers I grew up among. (I was even named after the 1950s star quarterback Kyle Rote – how’s that for inserting a real zinger into a musician’s psyche?) But it would never occur to me to force my music to compensate publicly for my private sexual insecurities. I’ve written loud music, fast music, occasionally loud and fast and even propulsive and goal-oriented, but more often slow, delicate, sentimental, empty, flat, pretty, even charming. Some of my music embraces chaos, but more of it cultivates a careful logic. Least of all could I imagine so squelching my natural musicianship to the point that I could rate music as bad or good based entirely on crude sexual stereotypes. I am a well-educated, inhibited, middle-class WASP male in touch with my feminine side, and my music is about what you’d expect for the type: neither I nor my recordings will ever be mistaken for Jimi Hendrix, nor would I seek that. I do believe that music can be ruined by too much evidence of one’s education, and perhaps it is my peculiar luck that I have my musicological work to channel my education into, leaving my music to be written more by ear than by brain. I highly recommend that composers acquire an intellectual hobby.
Where we come from leaves traces on our music that need not be guiltily effaced. I hope that the very essence of a Post-Classic blog – that coming from a classical-music background is A-OK, neither feminizing nor the opposite, and doesn’t commit you to writing “classical music” – helps other college-trained composers get over any undue discomfort with their speciously sissified background.