Leave No Term Unstoned

I found this curious, that in these days in which the erstwhile existence of an Uptown-Downtown split in new music has been forcibly shoved down the memory hole, an organization called The Field is sponsoring a workshop to bring Uptown and Downtown artists together. Their definitions:

For the purposes of this program:
• An Uptown Artist is an artist who lives and/or focuses their creative activities or aesthetic above 110th Street.
• A Downtown Artist is an artist who lives and/or focuses their creative activities or aesthetic south of 14th Street.

Thirty years ago, they could have gotten quite a fistfight going. Oh yeah, I’m only imagining that. Sorry.
And while I’m on terminology, I notice that the term alt-classical for my kind of music has been gaining traction lately at New Music Box and elsewhere. I suggested “alternative classical” for new music in the late 1980s via the Village Voice, and was sneered at. Eventually I gravitated to Postclassical, and so now everyone else is going to alt. I think everyone in new music watches where I go carefully, to make sure they don’t go there.


  1. Steven Baker says

    “I think everyone in new music watches where I go carefully, to make sure they don’t go there.”
    All this can make me think of is how my older brothers and I would say anything my twin sister even remotely enjoyed was totally uncool even if we thought it was awesome five minutes before we found out our sister’s perspective.
    This makes you the veritable “younger sister” of the classical music world, hahaha!
    KG replies: I’ll take it.

  2. Danny says

    Given that the groups sponsoring the event are the Harlem Arts Alliance and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, I think you need to give them a pass by this. When they think uptown, we can be pretty sure they aren’t thinking about Boulez.
    KG replies: I hadn’t meant to criticize. My pretend-doubts about the terminology are entirely ironic.

  3. says

    Of course, if one were to examine Manhattan’s geographic tendencies these days:
    Inwood and Washington Heights are home to the classically trained musicians, who will play absolutely whatever they are paid to play.
    Harlem has some great jazz.
    Columbia is still Columbia.
    I don’t know any musicians who can afford to live on Manhattan south of 103rd.
    KG replies: Ah yes, but is your aesthetic focused south of 14th St.?

  4. says

    The real problem here is that Uptown/Downtown is now mostly metaphorical, but this ad fails to make the distinction between the real and metaphorical geography. According to their definition, I’m both Uptown and Downtown, since I live right next to Columbia but I write postminimalist music. Still, it’s nice to see an acknowledgment that the aesthetic divide persists.
    Do you have a specific citation for your “Alternative Classical” proposal? I did some research on the term a few months back, and the earliest reference I was able to find was to a 1997 article by Greg Sandow in the Washington Post (http://www.gregsandow.com/meyer.htm). Obviously the late 80s would be considerably earlier than that.
    KG replies: Rock Rules – January 23, 1990 (Vol. XXXV No. 4, p. 68), reprinted in Music Downtown.

  5. Mark Sutton-Smith says

    Forgive me for being so out of it – so what do you call the folks between those two geographic markers?
    (I live on 110th, walk up to Miller and subway down to Poisson, along with liberal doses of free Juilliard, which is identical to the costly product being presented on the same block.)
    KG replies: In the ’80s, composers connected with Juilliard and the kind of composers represented there insisted I refer to their styles as Midtown rather than Uptown.

  6. says

    Based on my reading of that NMB article, I don’t think they are using “alt-classical” to refer to your kind of music. (This is the first time I’ve seen that term, though, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.) The music described seems to have much more of a deliberate pop vibe.
    KG replies: Well, Joe, you know a lot of Downtown music always had a deliberate pop vibe. Corey Dargle is brilliant and original, but his predecessors in that genre were David Garland and Arthur Russell, as well as Kitty Brazelton and Eve Beglarian, not to mention Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, and Glenn Branca, and even a little of my own music – Downtown music always skirted the pop and rock domain. I think the phenomenon is more like the eternal search for a new euphemism – like little people got tired of “midgets” so we switched to “dwarves” and then “little people,” and we switched from “colored people” to “negros” to “Blacks” to “African-Americans” to “people of color.” The term changes in this case seem to understandably create the impression of something new – and it is new, but neither totally unprecedented nor discontinuous with the past.

  7. says

    That’s why people love your writings, though. You have control over the narrative of the classical music world in a weird, kind of awkward way.

    I think it’s great, personally.

  8. James Langdell says

    I’m sorry that Alex Ross’s term “awesome music” hasn’t yet caught on as a replacement for “classical music”.

  9. mclaren says

    Nobody knows quite what to call contemporary classical music today. Kalvos and Damian have tried “non-pop” but that doesn’t work. Jazz is non-pop but it’s not contemporary classical. (Wynton Marsalis disagrees, but he’s in the minority. Jazz is just a separate scene from the NOW ensemble or So Percussion.) Heavy duty industrial music like Napalm Death or Einsturzende Neubauten or more recently Decoded Feedback is non-pop but it’s not contemporary classical. A lot of the more hardcore rap and variants like nerdcore certainly aren’t pop music but they clearly have nothing to do with current serious music. So non-pop doesn’t work.
    Ambient and house and dubstep and techno and other similar offshoots of ambient and trance also aren’t exactly pop music, yet they’re not contemporary classical. Everybody knows more or less what “pop music” means — the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, top forties, heavy rotation on Clear Channel. That means a huge amount of music qualifies as non-pop that isn’t serious contemporary music.
    “Contemporary classical” takes in too much ground. It covers the New Complexity and MAX/MSP and the New Romanticism and electroacoustic music, which all sound and have an aesthetic and ideology totally at odds with other flavors of contemporary music like postminimalism or the live loopers or the static music people or the home instrument builders or the neorhythmic or neogothic people.
    Somewhere around 1975, contemporary serious music changed. The change sounded drastic, and the evidence for that change comes from recent music textbooks — they stop discussing contemporary classical music after about 1970-75. They can’t talk about it because post-1975 contemporary music sounds too different from the stuff that came before and the aesthetic and the ideology differs too much. They haven’t got the vocabulary to talk about it.
    A term like “post-classical” has problems because that makes it sound as though the traditions that led up to current classical music have run out, as though contemporary composers do something that throws away the past. That would work for the Darmstadt crew, actually: those guys tried to hurl the entire musical past onto a bonfire, but that’s not what people like Glass and Riley and Gordon and Kernis and Argue are doing at all. Those composers take particular bits of the past (Glass and Riley, Satie’s Vexations; Michael Gordon, the polyrhythmic parts from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Nancarrow’s early piano studies; Aaron Jay Kernis, Prokofiev’s Second Symphony, D’arcy James Argue, Duke Ellington’s uptown orchestral music) and enhance and extend it. That differs radically from the Pol Pot Year Zero approach the Darmstadt crew used in the fifties. So “post-classical” fails.
    Postmodern also fails. Everything has become postmodern today, so that term no longer defines anything. Jim Boehner creating an alternative reality where the Democrats are the ones threatening violence the Tea Partiers are the peaceful rational group, that’s intensely postmodern. Almost all contemporary music uses some element of stylistic mashup and ironic commentary on previous music. Postmodern has become so much a part of our cultural oxygen that it has no descriptive power anymore.
    Leonard Meyer tried the term “fluctuating steady state.” That might prove accurate historically, but it fails to capture what current music sounds like. A renewed concern with rhythm or timbre, less interest in elaborate quasi-mathematical schemes for pitch organization, not so much concern with complexity as an end in itself, a focus on producing emotionally powerful music not confined to the Johnny-one-note narrow emotional range of hysteria/frenzy/terror/despair/nihilism of fifties schlockmusik…terms like “fluctuating” don’t zero in on that overall “sound” of current serious music. “Fluctuating” proves too vague. “Steady state” also fails to capture the sheer variety of current music, from the intense polyrhythms to the highly emotional heightened affect of someone like Kernis or Harbison or Rouse, to the direct use of current technology in movements like live coding for laptops or the live loopers (Teri Hron, Zoe Keating, Annie Gosfield, Carl Stone). So “fluctuating steady state” doesn’t sound specific enough.
    “Alternative classical” works. You hit a wall when you come to Philip Glass’ Einstein On the Beach (1975) or John Chowning’s Turenas (1973) or Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano (1973) or Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe (1975) or LaMonte Young’s Drift Study 4:37:40 – 5:09:50pm 5 VIII 68 (1973), or Charles Dodge’s The Earth’s Magnetic Field (1970). Those pieces sound like nothing in the previous 30 years, either European or American. They gives listeners an alternative. You get a third path heading away from both Stravinsky and the Darmstadt crew. Ditto Teri Hron’s Bird On A Wire or Ellen Fullman’s Long String Music or those pieces Matmos and So Percussion did recently Le Poisson Rouge. Guys playing polyrhythms on the spines of an amplified cactus might not float your boat, but, boy, they sure sound different from yet another piece of Elliott Carter’s schlockmusik.

  10. says

    I think “alt-classical” is the it term right now because the New Amsterdam people have been pushing it, and their resident NYT cheerleader Steve Smith has been using it, and they’re the it scene right now.
    Some of the commentators above mention the term doesn’t really cover a lot of what’s happening, which is true, but most of the people using it/being used by it are the clear and self-identified descendents of the “postclassical” scene of the 80s and 90s – graduates of Banglewood and Galapagos-goers all.
    A little while ago Matt Marks, Brian Sacawa, and Dennis DeSantis got into a blogosphere teapot-tempest over “alt-classical” related issues; worth a look.

  11. says

    “I think everyone in new music watches where I go carefully, to make sure they don’t go there.”
    Whenever anyone asks me, “What’s your secret?” this is exactly the answer I give! Cheers Kyle.

  12. Bob Gilmore says

    On thinking about this, I realise I have two problems with the term “alternative classical”: the word “alternative”, and the word “classical”. The stumper for me is that I can’t think of any definition of the word “classical” that would make sense of the prefix “alt-“. Clearly we’re not talking about Haydn-Mozart sort of Classical. We’re presumably talking more like everything-from-Josquin-to-Elliott-Carter sort of “classical”, which is already an absurd and untenable use of the word. We don’t just mean “notated music” = classical, which is crazy too. So what could the word “classical” really mean for the idea of an “alternative” to it to make sense?
    KG replies: Yeah, I know. I always kind of thought that the moment there were “classical sections” in record stores that it became a hermetically sealed-off category.

  13. mclaren says

    Marks and Sacawa and DeSantis are all over the place disagreeing about what alt-classical actually means, so it’s still a living viable term. When it gets nailed down, it’ll be dead.
    There’s a general sense that alt-classical refers to music that doesn’t deliberately try to be “challenging.” That sounds accurate. Back in the late 70s/early 80s, writing new music that wasn’t deliberately thorny and spiky took lots of guts. Today, it’s become more typical. So young composers of new music today don’t seem to feel they have to push back against anything (or at least against as much of an attitude) when they write music that isn’t all skittery pointillistic pitches and herky-jerky irregularity and intermittant acoustically rough dyads and clusters interspersed with long silences. In 1980 writing a piece that was all regular-rhythm white notes with no accidentals could get you lynched in some concert halls. Today, not so much. Using “alt-classical” to describe that change works as well as anything else, I guess.

  14. says

    Contemporary Music Historically Descended From European Church and Court Music.
    I know it’s not particularly helpful, but I think it’s accurate. And fun to say.