PostClassic: March 2005 Archives

Pauline Oliveros wants to start a blog for composers to write about new music. She deplores the current trend of newspapers refusing to hire composers as critics. So a week ago Sunday she put together a panel on the subject at her Deep Listening Space in Kingston, consisting of Sarah Cahill, Beth Anderson, Al Margolis, and myself. Virgil Thomson was the ghost of honor, and Pauline invoked the 1940s and '50s, when Thomson used to hire his fellow composers (Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, Peggy Glanville-Hicks) as critics at the New York Herald Tribune.

Today the larger daily papers do avoid hiring composers as critics. My friend at the San Francisco Chronicle Joshua Kosman recently made a case against composer-critics (as having divided allegiances) in New Music Box, and, startlingly, Phoenix composer-critic Kenneth LaFave was recently told by his paper that a commission he'd accepted from a local ensemble was a conflict of interest, and that he had to choose between the commission and his job; he chose the commission. So the issue is in the news, and since the audience that gathered for us at Kingston, though vocal and interested, wasn't much larger than the panel, I thought I'd record my thoughts on the subject here. I'll let you assume that I was just as eloquent there, speaking extemporaneously, as what I write here, and no one will be the wiser.

"The purpose of music criticism," wrote Thomson, "is to aid the public in the digestion of musical works. Not for nothing is it so often compared to bile." That's always been my guiding principle as a critic, that criticism has a role to play in a healthy musical society. We at the Village Voice are sometimes described as doing what is called "advocacy journalism," and I've never understood what that was supposed to mean. I do indeed advocate a lively music scene, with artists producing new work, spaces producing it well, and audiences reacting to it. I would have no respect at all for a critic so "objective" that he didn't give a damn whether the music scene was healthy or not, and I assume that my colleagues in the critical profession are decent enough people that they prefer good things happening in the arts to bad. That doesn't mean that one writes only favorable reviews, as might superficially be assumed. Writing unapologetically positive notices of concerts that fall flat alienates the audience and makes them distrust your motivations and other judgments; one need not agree with the rest of the audience, but you should acknowledge and account for their perceptions if evident. So rather than cheerlead for every new work that comes by, I advocate that beautiful and interesting music be praised, problematic music be analyzed, and unsuccessful music be exposed as such if it has significant corporate money and publicity behind it, or ignored if no good can be done by drawing attention to it. That's been my position at the Voice, and at the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, The New York Times, and elsewhere.

But other critics, and newspaper editors, have different conceptions of the role of the critic, and it is from these, I think, that a concern for a specious kind of objectivity arises. There are certain critics, especially at the more prestigious newspapers and magazines, who consider themselves gatekeepers, defenders of the culture. Their job, as they see it, is to damn everything that can be damned, to keep any composer or composition from entering the Canon of Great Composers and Works that can possibly be kept out, so that only those of the very highest quality will eventually get in. "Kill them all, God will recognize His own," is the attitude. Unlike in jazz and pop music, classical critics have often risen to the top by seeming impossible to please, projecting a facile persona of extremely high standards - and correspondingly, other classical critics have hit a career ceiling from being too forgiving. But I always admired Leighton Kerner, my classical colleague at the Voice, because, alone among his generation of major critics, he would compare a recent La Traviata with one he heard in 1959, and quite often prefer the newer one. (Claiming that everything was better in 1959 is an easy pose when half your audience wasn't yet culturally aware that year and those who were have embellished it in memory.)

Gatekeeping has declined somewhat, seems to me, and what's more common today is the notion of a critic as consumers' guide. Editors in particular have been allowed to conclude, with little counter-opinion, that the reason people read critical reviews is To Decide Whether To Go To The Show And Plunk Down Their Money. The critic is an adjunct to an economic process, and his role is to increase the income of organizations that have succeeded in providing quality entertainment, and to punish those that haven't. This is one reason review space keeps getting shorter and shorter - because how many words do you need to say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down"? Two - and it's also why music reviews are disadvantaged, because plays and movies regularly run for days or weeks, while concerts usually happen once or twice and then vanish from consciouness. It's also why papers have come to overwhelmingly prefer advance features to reviews, because an article coming out before a concert has a chance to increase ticket sales and justify the concert presenter's having taken an ad out in the newspaper, while a review afterward has no (immediately observable) financial effect. If the reviewer, reduced to an economic cog this way, enhances the liveliness of the music scene, it will be only as an accidental side-effect; his function is to complete a circle, raising money, when possible, for the corporate backers who buy the newspaper's ad space.

Now, whether you're a gatekeeper or a consumer's guide, objectivity is an issue. If you're a gatekeeper who has a friend who's a composer, you may be sorely tempted to unfairly make your friend an exception, to let him into the Gates of the Canon while others you don't know are kept out. If you're a consumer's guide, your decision might make or cost your friend some money. Conflicts of interest are possible. But both of these types assume that the end result of criticism is a binary decision: you're in the canon, you're not, your show is worth the money, yours isn't. Neither places any emphasis on nuanced analysis, on placing music in context, on elucidating a work's meaning without comparison, on revealing one's own range of experience and point of view so that the reader can judge for himself accordingly.

The charge is that composers aren't objective, that we're wrapped up in our own aesthetic struggles, we want our own sides to win, we hang out with other composers and have too many friends affected by our reviews. The flip side of that is that non-composer critics are assumed to be, then, models of objectivity, untainted by their own agendas. But I have never found non-composers different from composers in this respect. Look at Paul Griffiths, who wrote for the Times a few years ago: though not a composer, he had written a good book on the Darmstadt serialist composers, and he made it clear over and over again, week after week, that they were the really great generation of composers. Ligeti's own mother couldn't have had more of an agenda. And before him, Donal Henahan (ex-sportswriter, Segovia fan, and accidental accedant to the lead critic spot) spent more than a decade lambasting us with his perception that classical music had died in 1940, and there wasn't any any more, and there was nothing we could do about it, and that all those composers who thought one could still compose should go home and quit kidding themselves and die. If this was objectivity, let us have nothing but subjectivity from now on. It was the opposite of the purpose for criticism I propose above, and one that offered nothing but harm to our musical health.

Griffiths' harping advocacy for the Darmstadt composers was no more tiresome, of course, than my own truculent fascination with Downtown music. I bring it up to point out that an agenda and a lack of objectivity are not the same thing. After all, how did I end up as a Downtown critic? When I was 16, Cage and Babbitt were paired at the top of my Pantheon of composers. I eventually found that those composers influenced by Cage seemed cheerful and whacky and fun, while those influenced by Babbitt were authoritarian, schoolmarmish, and bitter. I made my choice accordingly; what about it was unobjective, given the extent to which a human being can be objective? After all, short-term self-interest would have dictated I go with the Babbitt faction, which was ascendant at the time and could have procured me a more lucrative career. I voted against my self-interest and went with my musical judgment. Had I given up composing and devoted myself to criticism, my preferences today would remain the same.

Having gone in that general direction, I am in no way committed to bolstering that judgment at every step. The last couple of days I've been revisiting, via piano and recording, George Rochberg's Sonata-Fantasia, a 12-tone work from 1956 that I played in my youth and that has always fascinated me. I am perhaps the leading critical advocate for the greatly misunderstood Ralph Shapey, a relentless atonalist supposed to be one of the "academics." Piece by piece, my opinions about 12-tone, atonal, and Uptown music are not often out of line with those more committed to that repertoire than I am; I greatly prefer Schoenberg's Serenade to his Violin Phantasy, I consider Philomel by far one of Babbitt's best works, and devout 12-tone apologists usually agree. "God is in the details," and on the details I'm as good as anyone. Meanwhile I am not blind to the foibles of much Downtown music, and for some of my Voice articles I will evermore be considered a harsh and grumpy reviewer in certain circles that you might have assumed revered me. My career looks lopsided now because the Voice hired me specifically to review the Downtown scene, but before that, in Chicago, I chronicled both sides of town equally, with occasion to praise Boulez and fault Glass, and no one ever cried "foul" or even seemed sure which "side" I was on.

Critics have agendas, or any interesting critic does, and given enough column inches, those agendas emerge. The problem is sometimes with young critics, who fear some blight on their future if their side doesn"t "win." They cherry-pick their evidence, overlook weaknesses in their own side of the argument, and overstate their holy crusades. When I was young, I cherry-picked my evidence, overlooked weaknesses in my own side of the argument, and overstated my holy crusades. But the problem is inexperience, rather than whether you're a composer or not. Past 40, you realize that no side ever really "wins" for good, that there are advantages to being in the outsider's camp, that pendulums swing and some things never change. It doesn't mean you give up your agenda. My agenda is that I want to live in a lively, healthy music scene. One component I see as essential to that agenda is that composers whose creativity takes them outside the strictures of the classical music business should be encouraged and brought to public attention. It does not mean that I want the orchestral composers to disappear overnight. What a mess we'd be in if they did, with the world's attention suddenly focused on frail, fallible Downtown. What in all this is "unobjective"? Is the fact that I benefit from living in a lively, healthy music scene a "conflict of interest"?

Objectivity is not an absence of connections to the music world, but a quality of writing. "Verbs imply action and can be libelous," wrote Thomson: "it is the adjective that characterizes music neither in sorrow nor in anger." In his articles for the Herald Tribune, Thomson bent over backwards aligning himself with the Stravinsky camp and did his level best to squash Sibelius's popularity, but there is still a wonderful quality of objectivity in his style. He advised not giving a personal evaluation of the music you write about - the evaluation, he said, will come across in your choice of words anyway, and is the least interesting, most dispensible part of the article. He was the opposite of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down critic. It is possible to draw out the ideas from a piece of music, to explain it so clearly in its own terms that the reader will get a positive impression if he likes that sort of thing, and a negative impression if he doesn't. I've managed it, and sometimes been thanked by a composer for capturing him so accurately in a review that most readers regarded as negative. That's objectivity.

A composer can be a perfectly objective critic if he can develop an objective writing style, and not unless. Thomson is considered a great critic not because he was doing it as a composer, but because he wrote so damn convincingly, even with his thumb on the scales. Secondarily, if criticism has enough space to give context, to discuss the network of ideas called upon by a piece of music, and to give some impression of the critic's own biases so that the reader can adjust his own opinions accordingly, then objective criticism can be written. Limit a critic to five or six column inches, 500 or 600 words, and criticism is once again forced into the thumbs-up/thumbs-down mold, and objectivity becomes a vexed issue. You could write about your own wife's music with a surgical accuracy that would allow the reader to form his own opinion, but if you've only got space for, "Her piece was fantastic," then of course conflict of interest is an issue. (I think of composer-critic Deems Taylor, who once wrote a negative review of a piece of music he had written 20 years earlier, on grounds that he was no longer the same person who had written it.)

This is all to say that there is nothing about being a composer that should disqualify one from being a critic, assuming that one can write well. (I can't stress enough the value of serving an apprenticeship with a good newspaper editor. To the extent that I write clearly and sometimes even colorfully, it is due to seven years with Doug Simmons breathing down my neck, who was music editor at the Voice from 1985 to 1993, and phenomenal at his job. This crucial element of music criticism is one that we can't duplicate at present in the blogosphere.) But do composers make the best critics, as Pauline averred at our panel? I don't think we have enough evidence to form a generality. Certainly, composer-critics bring a wealth of understanding about the current music scene, and they make new works stand out in bold relief. What composers very reasonably prefer about composer-critics is that they emphasize new music, while non-composing critics usually do not, but there's no inherent reason that non-composer critics couldn't start "usually" doing that. Composers bring a knowledge of the full repertoire of a composer's motivations, plus a vocabulary that enables them to get the ideas of new music across; they also have a tendency to think too technically, and to not always see the forest for the trees. I think we composers also need the perspective of cultured non-composing critics to get a sense of what we superficially look like in the mirror, for superficial impressions are not unimportant. If composer-critics are better at explaining new music to audiences, non-composing critics are probably better at explaining audiences to composers, and we benefit from both.

Meanwhile, given the endangered-species classification of composer-critics in the wild, Pauline Oliveros plans to raise some in captivity, and is looking for the proper blog format. At the panel warnings were raised about the continuing debacle at New Music Box, where unmoderated composers carp at each other in endlessly bitter and usually anonymous diatribes. But I held up as a far better example the composers' forum at Sequenza 21, which I've been dipping into regularly lately, and which has nurtured an admirably civilized, troll-free exchange of ideas. I even like the format for comments there, which pop up in a separate window, not as obstructions of the main commentary. Our public is decades behind in digesting new musical works, and whatever Pauline comes up with can only add to the liveliness and efficiency of that process.

March 28, 2005 11:45 AM | |

I have time this week to perform a necessary makeover on Postclassic Radio, required by format changes on the web site. The reason I hadn't used the mp3PRO format they recommend in the first place was because of a reported incompatibility with some Macs, so please let me know at if you start having any trouble that you didn't have before. Theoretically, the sound is supposed to be an improvement. Anyway, I had to start over again with the playlist at six hours, and I'm slowly building it back up to 17. I'm re-uploading most of the mp3s that were already running, but changing over quite a few as well. Robert Ashley Month continues, and will run through April as well. I've put up his instrumental work for Relache, Outcome Inevitable, and added Charlmagne Palestine's Strumming Music, an amazing document of 1970s minimalism. Enjoy! and let me know if you can't.

March 28, 2005 9:19 AM | |

Daniel J. Wakin interviews James Levine, Charles Wuorinen, and John Harbison today in the Times, devilishly playing off, as the Times insists on doing, Wuorinen's 12-tone beliefs against Harbison's neoromanticism. There are some delightful little knots in the conversation, this one being the most delectable, I thought:

WAKIN: You wrote in your book, "Simple Composition" --

WUORINEN: Never write a book.

WAKIN: Of course it was a long time ago --

WUORINEN: It's still in print. People use it.

WAKIN: It was written in 1979, and you wrote that the tonal system could be found only in backward-looking serious composers, is no longer used by serious mainstream composers, has been replaced and succeeded by the 12-tone system.

WUORINEN: Well, that's a categorical statement which cannot be - of course, it had more to it then, although to some extent it is obsolete now. But it depends on what you mean by the tonal system.

LEVINE: That is spoken by a man who is tired of how difficult it is to make anything understood, in any of these distinctions.


March 27, 2005 3:16 PM | |

When I went from Dallas to Oberlin at age 17, I told friends I was going to school on the East Coast. From where I lived, Cleveland looked like a short bus ride from New York. Imagine my confusion when I arrived and the students, mostly from Long Island, called it the MidWEST.

Composer Lawrence Dillon, who truly enjoys clearing things up and who has been a valuable sparring partner in internet new-music debates to more people than myself, writes with a well-considered objection. Pointing out that I use "Uptown" to refer to composers as diverse and even opposed as Elliott Carter and David Del Tredici, he continues:

Honestly, Kyle, I think that's the weakness in your argument for Downtown aesthetics: if you simply argued for Downtown style without placing it in opposition to a single, monolithic Uptown, you might have an easier time convincing people who aren't coming from the same place you are.

Probably true. To people whose view of new music comes through official channels, it must seem confusing that, to me, the ultracomplex Carter and the postmodernly neoromantic Del Tredici look no further apart on the map than Cleveland and New York did when I was 17. But while Uptown, agreed, isn't stylistically monolithic, it is almost totally monolithic in one respect. Carter and Del Tredici can both be told: we're giving you winds in threes, four horns, three percussionists, and strings 10 10 8 6 4 - and they can write for it and be happy. They both write for existing ensembles: orchestras, string quartets. Some other composer, given an orchestra commission, might say, I need five percussionists at least, and forget the violins and violas, I don't need them, and I want an accordion, and a banjo, and I need two conductors because there are two tempos, and I need a tape of environmental sounds behind the orchestra. That person will end up in the Downtown scene, because the classical music world will rarely accommodate her.

For all the difficulty of describing differences between the Uptown and Downtown worlds as they exist, the origin of the difference is pretty simple. I watch it in process every year. At Bard, our senior composition students have the opportunity to have an orchestra piece played at graduation, by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by our college president Leon Botstein, no less. It's a plum gig, and students get excited about it. Nevetheless, they approach it cautiously, and some choose not to take advantage of it. And the process they go through applies to any young composer who faces the possibility of entering the world of composing for orchestra.

First, you learn that you get woodwinds in pairs, maybe four horns, one percussionist, and strings. "But I want to use bass clarinet." Well, if one of the clarinetists has one, maybe you can do it. "I need more percussion." Well, you can't have it, because you're a young composer, and we're doing you a favor, and someday when you're famous you can ask for five percussionists, and maybe you'll get them. So the first thing you learn is to pare down your imagination to write for the existing ensemble.

You keep writing. You learn other things. You're only going to get 20 to 40 minutes' rehearsal, depending on the orchestra. The piece has to be essentially sight-readable. You have to guess whether that mid-register trumpet solo will be audible over the horns if you mark it mezzoforte; there's no chance to play around with dynamics at the reheasal. All dynamics need to be marked, as well as slurs and bowings. You get a piece or two played, you learn to write the kinds of gestures that orchestra players like to play, and play well. At a more advanced level, you learn what kinds of busy percussion parts impress audiences. You learn that pieces with tumultuous brass climaxes win prizes. It's called "learning your craft": what it really is, is learning to acquiesce to the existing institutional conventions. You are sharing the same playing field with Mozart and Brahms, and it is not going to be greatly rearranged for your petty efforts, which are already a PR nightmare and a pain to rehearse. You are a bit player, and you will learn to do as you're told.

There is a kind of student who begins to sense this early on. The classical music world, she realizes, is like a series of prefab molds, ready for your music to grow into. There's the orchestra mold, the string quartet mold, the string trio mold - and now there's what's called the "Pierrot ensemble" mold: violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, sometimes "Pierrot plus percussion." In the glacial movement of classical music, this constitutes progress, that the entire 20th century managed to increase the list of standardized ensembles to the tune of one. Of course you can express some individuality within these molds - but ultimately, the medium is the message, and unless you have a strong talent for subliminal subversion, your orchestra music, or string quartet music, is still going to sound "classical," with a European tinge. What's more, when you write for orchestra, you are going to hand over your music to a powerful organization that cares little about your needs or artistic vision, and you are going to give up considerable control over your own art.

It never ceases to amaze me how many young composers follow this path anyway, for it's not an easy one to follow. But there are some young composers who look up the road and can't bring themselves to take the first steps, who imagine their own wild, proliferating music and blanche at the thought of seeing it pruned with institutional shears. Like novelists and sculptors, they want to make art from their own personal experiences, from materials in their environment, and they want control over the results. They become Downtowners. For, quite simply, Downtown music is that which cannot be accommodated by the musical ensembles and organizations that are created and maintained to play 19th-century European music.

Consequently, the only complete way to define Downtown music is negatively, and with reference to Uptown music - or rather, to the world of classical music conventions. Downtown is largely a culture of escapees. The purpose of an academic music education is usually to prepare you to make your music fit those molds, to teach you how to acquiesce. Many young artists run away in horror. They find a Downtown music scene - the East Village, or in Chicago around the School of the Art Institute, or San Francisco around the Exploratorium - and there they feel at home, for they can do anything they want. That's why there is no Downtown ideology, no Downtown aesthetic, because no common vision unites these runaways. The only thing they have in common is that they can't stand for their artistic visions to be bounded by conventions that Haydn and Beethoven and Stravinsky put in place. There also can't be much of a support structure for performance of their music, for if some conventional ensemble became codified, it would eventually become something else to run away from.

(Allow me to interject here that this is not an argument that Downtown composers are happy to never receive orchestra commissions. At some point in your life you feel a need to express yourself with a large ensemble, and as much as you'd love to have accordions and electric guitars and saxophones and sitars adding up to 75 players, there's not much chance you'll get it, and the orchestra remains the most efficient way of gathering large forces. As long as you've developed your music along more original and personal lines, it can't be so bad, you start thinking, to file off a few of the sharper edges of your musical language to make it playable by an orchestra. By this point, however, you're not on the "orchestra circuit," and it's probably not going to happen. It did, though, for Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and one need only study the difficult score to Reich's 1979 Variations to see how incommensurate his music had already become with the stylistic norms of orchestral performance.)

It does happen, however, that certain types of expression have become popular Downtown and merged into various traditions. There are evolving streams of Downtown activity: minimalism, conceptualism, free improvisation, artrock, postminimalism, totalism, computer algorithm music, performance art, sound installations, interactive computer music, video opera, DJ music, postrock, and lots of other things too individual to generalize about. Many of the people in these movements have nothing whatever in common aesthetically except for their automatic tolerance of difference. (I was always amazed in the '80s at how generously the original New York minimalists coexisted with the free improvisers who were in many ways their aesthetic antipodes.) There are a few composers who get sucked into some Downtown trend or another early, without even encountering the Uptown world - Glenn Branca comes to mind. Various Downtown aesthetics, looking something like ideologies, perhaps, arise and flourish for awhile, but no one clings to them, no one issues ultimatums or considers any aspect of them mandatory. Downtown styles evolve features very different from Uptown ones, because they are not reined in by constant reference to performance by the same musicians who play Brahms on the same concert. (In electronic music, which had no classical tradition to compete with, the Uptown/Downtown distinction is much fuzzier, and with a gun to my head I wouldn't swear there's a line to be drawn there at all.)

So one can't define Downtown entirely without reference to Uptown, or rather, to the classical music world. I can define minimalism on its own, as a continuous tradition starting in 1958. I can define conceptualism, or artrock. But Downtown is a totally heterogeneous phenomenon, a conglomeration of excluded movements, and you can't define the conglomeration without reference to who's doing the excluding. If academic music departments and chamber music societies and orchestras allowed and encouraged composers to write six-hour works for organ drones, collages of live radio sampling, and pieces based on recordings of orgasms (Downtown examples that spring to mind), there would be no Downtown: people would just stay where they are. But they generally don't. If you don't like the terms Uptown and Down-, that's fine. I take a Wittgensteinian approach to terminology, that terms are defined by their use, and the inexactness of terms never bothers me (and for some reason there's nothing about me that pisses off more people than that).

But one should still recognize that classical music culture is sharply defined, with centuries of accreted conventions that very few people in that world want changed. Some composers find the structures and conventions of that world just fine, and they grow into them uncomplaining. Others, however, find them oppressive and impossible and totally out of line with their personal imaginations. That does not mean they are lesser artists. To some of us, minority viewpoint though it may be, it means that they are the original, the sincere, the more honest artists, because from the beginning they did not compromise.

March 26, 2005 7:03 PM | |

May I blow my own horn a moment? I've had precious few reviews of my music in my life, and I just got the first comment about my new CD Long Night from the Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter, in a trope not only gratifying to its recipient, but enviably well phrased:

The piece has rippling quality, like soft light illuminating a quiet room off an antique mirror, on a cloudy afternoon just before Easter, on the way downstream to later. Ambient without being minimal, classical without the powdered wig, and contemporary without being electronic. - David Beardsley

March 25, 2005 3:05 PM | |

"Well, let us say that the old American republic is well and truly dead. The institutions that we thought were eternal proved not to be. And that goes for the three departments of government, and it also goes for the Bill of Rights. So we're in uncharted territory. We're governed by public relations." - Gore Vidal

March 25, 2005 8:26 AM | |

For 18 years I've written for the Village Voice, about Downtown music, for a Downtown audience and those who love Downtown music. In that milieu, I could always shout, any time I wanted, "Geeez, ya wanna know what sucks?! 12-TONE MUSIC!!" And I'd never get any response more threatening than, "YEAAHH, woo!!" Because nobody Downtown gave a damn about 12-tone music. Glenn Branca isn't going to exclaim, "Omigosh, he can't say that about poor Schoenberg!" It's more like, "Schoenberg!? Oh yeah, that guy."

Now, on the internet, I apparently reach a broader readership. This isn't what allegedly happens. One pervasive concern about the internet, especially before the last election - excuse me, "election" - was that it was becoming an echo chamber, that the search function made it not only possible but overwhelmingly likely that people would end up talking only to people with the same interests and views. But I seem to have had a far narrower, more focused audience in my print medium than I do on this blog. So I'm learning to say instead, "Geeez, ya wanna know what mostly sucks?!"

One respondent linked my points about 12-tone music to Cage's chance music, and I replied, "Ouch!" Because Downtown music has a couple of Achilles' heels, and one of them is chance music. Cage is a Downtown icon, and we loved him dearly. Typically, we love his Constructions for percussion ensemble, his prepared piano music, his use of recordings in Credo in US, his Imaginary Landscape for 12 radios, his 1950 String Quartet, even the fantastic, ever-ready 4'33". But a lot of Downtown composers will quietly admit that they're not into the chance music he started writing after 1952.

Now, I will defend down to the last troll Cage's works of the 1960s and '70s and '80s that apply chance methods to theater: Variations IV, Songbooks, Europeras. Those sopranos flying across the stage, blimps wheeling over the audience, different recordings played at the same time, people delivering lectures from ladders: tremendously creative stuff, hilarious, breathtaking. But there is a stage in his music from the 1950s on in which his idea of sounds became isolated single notes, and in which his method became chance dispersal of same. And I realized today while teaching it that that period begins with the Concerto for Prepared Piano of 1951. And of course, in 1950, Cage had his famous encounter with, on the same day, Morton Feldman and the Webern Symphony, Op. 21.

(By the way, thanks to all who wrote in to inform me of various performances of Op. 21 in New York they had heard or knew about. Turns out, far from being rare, readings of that piece fall so thick and fast in Manhattan that you're lucky if you can zip into the city and out again without hearing a couple. At Christmas it's even worse, with all the neighborhood sing-along Op. 21's.)

I think that Cage took from Webern the idea of the isolated single note, and the resulting exploded texture, and that this begins a problematic period in his output. My least favorite mature Cage piece has always been (to the great consternation of some Cage aficionados) his orchestra piece Atlas Eclipticalis, a pointillist field of random notes, lasting up to - in the elegant new S.E.M Ensemble recording - two hours. Couldn't quite warm up to it when I discovered Cage as a teenager, still can't today. Other atomized works I'm more ambiguous about: Music of Changes for piano, Etudes Australes for piano, Winter Music for multiple pianos. Since Cage got famous by publishing his 1960 book Silence, that then-recent work was the first music a lot of people associated with him. And its analogy with average, normative 12-tone music is the feeling that it needs to be listened to with a certain attitude. With 12-tone music you trust that the music is very cohesive and integrated on some level, though you can't necessarily hear how. With Cage's 1950s chance music, you "let the sounds be themselves," you surrender yourself to the random interplay of notes, and sometimes you start wondering - "Why am I listening to these rather than some other sounds?"

It varies. Music of Changes I've studied, and I know that there are some repeating figures in it because Cage was still working with figures as well as single notes, and I can get a little extra from it by concentrating. I played a little of Etudes Australes in my youth, and I appreciate the choreography of the two hands if I see it live. And in the right mood, I can find this nondemanding music very soothing. The Arditti Quartet's recording of Four is as calmly lovely as Walden Pond. But even as I was writing my disquisition on 12-tone music, it flashed through my mind that we Downtowners have our own body of music that is an acquired taste, difficult to defend to outsiders. I listen to it; some days I love it; but I never try to sell anyone else on it. And I've talked to enough Downtowners about it to know that I'm far from alone in that feeling. So to the respondent who caught me on it: Touché!

March 24, 2005 6:37 PM | |

An interesting sidelight to our little dodecaphonic discussion (trying to avoid the 3 x 4 number) is the recurrence of the name Luigi Dallapiccola. One hardly ever sees this name on concert programs - Leon Botstein conducted Canti di Prigionia and Canti di Liberatione a year or so ago, and past that I think I have to go back to the '80s to remember a live performance - and his major works can be impossible to find on recording. So I go along thinking that I'm one of the few who thinks that Dallapiccola wrote better 12-tone music (oops) than Schoenberg, Webern, or Berg, but stoke the coals a little and a lot of sparks fly up. Turns out I'm not at all alone in that opinion.

I admit I find Dallapiccola uneven (like just about everyone else, I guess). One side of his work is sensuous, elegant, transcendant: Piccola Musica Notturna, Sex Carmina Alcaei, Canti di Prigionia, Preghiere, Divertimento in Quattro Esercizi. Another side I find overcomplicated and a little strident: Canti di Liberatione, Tempus Destruendi/Tempus Aedificandi. But the balance is on the transcendent side, and unlike with most 2nd Va. Sch. music, I don't think about its construction when I listen to it. Also, like Berg only more patently so, he's sometimes refreshingly anti-purist: in Canti di Prigionia he weaves a 12-tone row around the Dies Irae, with enchanting effect. So why isn't his music more commonly encountered? Simply because there's little resemblance between the music world and an actual meritocracy? In any case, the frequency with which his name has come up lately elects him into the Academy d'Underrated by acclamation.

(In Piccola Musica Notturna Dallapiccola calls for a tam-tam piccolo, and one of my best students asked, "Is that like a regular piccolo?" I had to remind her that "piccolo" means "little" in Italian, and that that probably meant a small tam-tam. We did, however, briefly consider the possibility that it was a piccolo struck with a mallet. But I digress.)

March 24, 2005 8:23 AM | |

I ruffled some feathers with my post about 12-tone music - I wonder if I'm capable of saying anything without ruffling some feathers - I wonder if there's anything that could be said without ruffling someone's feathers - I wonder if ruffling feathers is as heinous a crime as a lot of people apparently think - but in at least one sense my words weren't taken literally enough. One thoughtful respondent compared me to a fundamentalist trying to expunge all memory of 12-tone music the way the Christian right wants to expunge Darwin, Balzac, and any TV show that refers positively to gay families.

Quite the contrary. Educationally, I'm heavily invested in 12-tone music. Year after year I bullheadedly continue teaching Webern's Piano Variations and Symphony, Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet, Dallapiccola's Piccola Musica Notturna and Sex Carmina Alcaei, Stravinsky's Threni and Requiem Canticles, Stockhausen's Gruppen, Babbitt's Philomel and Post-Partitions. Those pieces mean something to me (except for the Fourth Quartet, which I've come to loathe), and I'm proud of knowing (except for Philomel, which I don't have a score to) how they're constructed. I don't advocate locking them away and never bringing them out again. What I do advocate is a revisionist view of music history - and contrary to some things that have been written in response, I'm not commenting on the validity of the music or whether it should be performed or programmed, but how it should be explained as the historical period it now clearly is. After all, we've been using the same rhetoric to justify the advent of 12-tone technique since it was prevalent, but our collective view of the genre is greatly altered.

One trope on 12-tone music is that it was a historical inevitability: the individual motive had supplanted an overriding tonal system as the driving force for composition, and Schoenberg needed a new method to unify music in the absence of tonal structure. But as Jonathan Kramer points out in an upcoming book, the idea that music had become totally motive-driven was a fiction invented by Schoenberg himself to justify his new method, based on a "creative misreading" of Brahms. For Schoenberg to look selectively back to Brahms's motivic technique as precursor to his own method was a natural artistic impulse, but hardly objective; nothing in Mahler, Strauss, Reger, Scriabin, or the other late, late romantics makes the use of a 12-tone row look necessary or inevitable. Quite the contrary, the application of a pitch row as a governing device was a palpably arbitrary move, brilliantly so if you want to look at it that way, but one that patently wrenched music away from its traditional moorings. Following the historical development of harmony through various seventh and ninth chords, one eventually arrives at, not the abstract pitch sets of 12-tone music, but the 11th and 13th chords of bebop, which was the real continuation of harmonic progress from classical principles.

Another 12-tone trope is that the row provided a completely organic way of composing, in which every measure of the music was drawn from the same cell. But Lerdahl, Kramer, and others have made it clear that the textual unity of a page of notes all being forms of, say, the pitch set [0,1,4] does not at all guarantee perceptual unity. And beyond that, postmodern texts and theories have made it apparent to most college graduates by now that unity and organicism are not inherent in a work of art, nor necessary, nor a universal good. One can still cling to Schoenberg's ideal of total organicism as a matter of taste, but it is an anachronism to claim, in the 21st century, that organicism is a necessary component, or indeed a guarantor, of quality.

Nor was 12-tone music, at least in America, a crucial step on the road to some other kind of music. The major movements since 12-tone music have either been antipodal rejections of it, like minimalism, or retreats from it, like the New Romanticism. One could argue that in Europe 12-tone music led to serialism and then postserialism, but it also seems true that the most successful postserial works were those that abandoned 12-tone technique altogether, like Berio's Sinfonia, Boulez's Rituel, Stockhausen's Stimmung.

Strip away the fiction of historical inevitability, the assumed congruence of textual and perceived unity, and the aesthetic of necessary organicism, and all 12-tone music has left to defend itself with is what any other music has: its inherent attractiveness to the ear and mind and heart, which in 99 percent of the cases is pretty thin. The moral and theoretical underpinnings that buoyed 12-tone music up in mid-century have dissolved. For a piece to employ 12-tone technique can no longer be seen as a virtue in itself, and therefore one has trouble answering the inevitable student question: since 12-tone music clearly doesn't guarantee more beautiful music, why did so many hundreds of composers feel that they were required to use it, or else risk career disaster? However you couch the answer to that question, it isn't pretty.

So what I'm looking for is a more charitable way to describe the post-war 12-tone movement phenomenon, one that doesn't make it sound like a blatant academic mafia, so I can continue teaching my favorite 12-tone pieces without getting skeptical looks and the feeling that my students think I'm selling them a bill of goods. And I think what we need to do is quit teaching 20th-century history with a dishonest thumb on the scale in Schoenberg's favor. For decades, academic historians have presented the Second Vienna School as central to a European modernist canon, at the expense of dozens of other composers more popular, outside academia, than Schoenberg: Copland, Milhaud, Cowell, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Messiaen, Britten, Weill, Cage, Partch. It's time to restore these composers to the center of 20th-century music, and redraw 12-tone music as the interesting but infertile cul-de-sac that it was. What I propose is that we take 12-tone out of the "Great Monuments of Western Music" bag, and put it in the "Curious Dead-ends of Music History" bag. That way, when you get a bright senior or grad student who's already absorbed Partch, Messiaen, Bartok, Cage, et al, you can say, "Hey, wanna see something else? Look at this crazy Webern Symphony with the double canon in the first movement. Isn't that wild? And this obsessive Babbitt Post-Partitions, built on a 'super-array' with every pitch having its own dynamic? Pretty whacked out stuff, eh?" That way we can talk about 12-tone music as an interesting kind of fixation that composers got themselves into, the way we talk about the rhythmically complex music that happened at the court of Avignon from 1400 to 1418. I'd feel so much better about Schoenberg if his reputation were like that of the other 12-tone inventor, Josef Matthias Hauer, whose music I love studying because it's truly peculiar, and no one pretends it's terribly important.

Why change the narrative? Because education is to some extent, if not entirely, a free market, and the educator is in part a salesman for culture. My students are incredibly open-minded. I can sell them loads of weird stuff. I can play Schoenberg's pre-12-tone Erwartung, talk about Viennese angst and hallucinations, and they're fascinated. They fall, of course, for Le Sacre du Printemps at first hearing, no pleading necessary on my part. I've never played Carl Ruggles's massively dissonant Sun-Treader without at least one student asking for a copy. They find Harry Partch a blast, personally and theoretically. Berio's Sinfonia blows them away, guaranteed; ditto, Quartet for the End of Time. They even get a kick out of Gruppen for its aspects that are not directly 12-tone-related: the echoes between crescendoing brass from different orchestras, the quirky solos for guitar.

What I can't sell them, what I've never been able to sell them in 16 years, is the idea of 12-tone technique as a method that justifies anything. Webern they almost invariably find cold and precious. The idea that someone came up with a method and everyone else followed it strikes them as ominous, and rightly so. The day Schoenberg devised his first 12-tone row, he wrote in his diary, "Today I have discovered something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." That impulse puts a taint for them on the subsequent history of 12-tone music, as indeed it does for me.

Now of course I never lead with the 12-tone row - I start analyzing Webern or Schoenberg they way you'd analyze any music, looking for germinal ideas, repetitions, similarities. But inevitably some bright boy pipes up, "Is this 12-tone?," and what am I suppose to say? Lie? And while I do have some affection for Webern's music, when I start to analyze what that affection consists of, it has a lot to do with having learned it so well in my youth, and having honed my analytical skills on it. I don't listen to Webern's music for pleasure, and my opinion has slid downward with each passing year, partly via an accumulation of students' disenchanted reactions. It's become more difficult for me to make a case for its beauty, which has not happened with any other music. The 12-tone pieces that do possess immediate appeal - Stravinsky's Threni and Requiem Canticles, for instance - are usually so atypical as to almost constitute a separate genre. One feels instinctively that they are great pieces despite their use of 12-tone technique, not because of it - and once you admit that, how do you present 12-tone technique sympathetically?

For instance: In Dallapiccola's Piccola Musica Notturna, the second row statement begins with E and the third ends with E. In between, Dallapiccola reiterates and dwells on row fragments in a languorous, non-Schoenbergian manner. The result is, about 12 slow measures go by in which the pitch E doesn't appear, and then, when the orchestra suddenly hits a unison E after a short pause, it has a fresh, invigorating effect that is rare in 12-tone music. But if you have to torture and subvert a technique that much to make it yield an effect so modestly gratifying, what is the use of the technique? The obvious implication is, if Dallapiccola could achieve so much manacled to the 12-tone row, imagine how much he could have achieved freed from it! The composer and the piece are easy to praise, but how do you justify the absurd limitations of the method?

Let those whose feathers are hereby ruffled please humor me by considering one question: why do the Second Vienna School seem to have a privileged position when it comes to feather-ruffling? I could say, I find Copland overrated, or Hindemith, or Varèse, and I'm not going to teach him as though he's very important, and every composer would reply, "Well, to each his own." I know lots of musicians who consider Ives overrated, and I just shrug, even though he's my favorite. Composers are not shy about considering Cage or Phil Glass overrated. But when someone considers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg overrated, there's an outcry, as though some pact with the profession has been betrayed, as though when I signed up to be a composer I signed a paper pledging to stand fast with my colleagues against the concertgoing public on those three cases. To find Schoenberg overrated isn't allowed. It's too threatening to the profession somehow, and this fact in itself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why is that opinion more heinous to my fellow composers than any other I could express? Unless, maybe - and I'm just speculating here - I've tapped into some guilty, unconscious self-deception on their part? Just asking.

As David Mamet says concerning Stanislavsky technique in Some Freaks (and I paraphrase because I can't put my hands on the book right now), "Whenever a method is claimed by its adherents to be the only and universal and eternal method, you can be sure that that method doesn't work." Or Feldman:

In art, it is the system itself that holds out the false promise, that deceives. We might almost say that art is in pain, because it is unable to believe this deception is taking place. The artist feels his work is going badly because he is not reaching technical perfection. Actually, he is looking into the eyes of a deceiver, who constantly throws him back into the dilemma - the paradox. Is it lying to me or not, he asks himself. He ends by believing the lie, in the face of all evidence against it, because he needs this lie to exist in his art.

In other words, now that 12-tone music's promise to create a new, enduring musical language has been revealed to be a hoax to all but the most blinkered cultist, how do we honestly promote to students the few 12-tone pieces for which we've learned to feel some affection?

AFTERTHOUGHT: Perhaps by adding the Dallapiccola example I've answered my own question, and perhaps this will be my last written word on this weary subject (one can only hope). Maybe the value of 12-tone method for certain composers is its extreme limitation, which if understood that way can inspire creativity against obstacles, like writing an augmentation canon, or a novel that doesn't use the letter "e." The rhetoric of 12-tone music claimed to offer something: unity, organicism, consistency. Instead, it denies something, and only the composer clever enough to outwit it can make anything of it. That deposes 12-tone technique from the level of an analogue for tonality to the level of a technical device, like a canon, and while canons are fascinating (I collect them), they are not considered one of the major musical genres. They are valued not because they are often great music, but for what they achieve despite absurd limitations. (I'll anticipate you: Nancarrow's canons are often great music, but his aren't particularly rule-based.) I've been teaching 12-tone music as a language, and perhaps it's more aptly treated as a technical genre, like canon, fugue, passacaglia - which is just the slighter position I wanted for it, and justifies teaching only the exceptional examples, not the normative ones.

UPDATE: I found the David Mamet quote I wanted, on page 71 of Some Freaks:

We may assume that a school of thought is useless when it is universally accepted as being the only and exclusive possessor of truth.

March 20, 2005 10:16 AM | |

As of this evening, I have a new compact disc out: Long Night, on Cold Blue, with the formidable Sarah Cahill playing all of three pianos. It's a CD single, which means I'm really cool - only 25 minutes, and Jim Fox designed a beautiful cover that is perfect for the piece, a pastoral field at twilight with some kind of barn or house burning in the background. It even looks better in person than it does here. Sarah's playing is beautiful, and it was recorded at Bard College's Fisher Center, where the acoustics are like ice cream.

I'm really proud of this disc. Long Night dates from 1980 (revised in 1981), written when I was 24, and I always thought it was one of my better pieces, a template for what would come later. Back then I used to call my music a cross between Harold Budd and Morton Feldman (said that to Steve Reich once), but this piece also has some early-totalist qualities in the fact that the three pianos are at different tempos, repeating loops of different lengths against each other. (The piece was also written under the spell of Cluster and Brian Eno, back when ambient was quiet music.) Sarah overdubbed the three parts, which is a nice effect because the pianos aren't affected by each other's tempos, and the notes pulse in independent waves in a way that I've also sought in my music for Disklavier. Also I wrote some music back in the early '80s that I still like, long before I moved to the East Coast, and no one knows it. Now they will. The piece will go up on Postclassic Radio post-haste.

Coming soon, another disc: Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, on New World, all Disklavier music.

March 19, 2005 1:48 AM | |

In mid-semester I take a break from diminished seventh chords and take the students on a little foray into 12-tone technique, analyzing the Webern Piano Variations. I was explaining how rampant 12-tone music was from the 1950s through the '80s, and one of my savvier freshmen raised his hand and said, "You mean just in academia, right? That music didn't get played much outside of colleges, did it?"

The next day, Petr Kotik, conductor of the S.E.M. ensemble told me that his then-upcoming performance of Webern's Op. 21 Symphony, which took place at Zankel Hall Monday night, would be only the third performance of that piece in New York City, ever - the first having been the 1950 performance where Cage met Feldman [sic, but see below]. In 77 years the Webern Symphony has only been played three times in New York, yet every year I teach it at least once in analysis and repertoire classes as though it was a big deal. My students'll never hear it live. And a new book that I'm reviewing pre-publication (that I'll be telling you a LOT more about shortly) questions the means and motives by which Arnold Schoenberg became defined as a crucial figure in the canon, presumptively equal to the far more popular Stravinsky. Perhaps it's time to admit that, not only is 12-tone music stone dead, it was never much more than a fringe cult in the first place? - or at best, the official musical culture of a couple dozen universities?

CORRECTION: Strong doubt has been cast on the statistic about Webern's Symphony performances in New York - apparently it was first played there in 1929, plus some performances by Boulez in the '70s. Sorry to have spread misinformation. But composer Art Jarvinen chimes in:

I used to cover 12-tone basics in my Introduction To Composition class until a couple years ago. I realized that most of the students hate the music, don't like the technique for its own sake, didn't seem to get much out of the homework assignment, and generally find it all completely irrelevant to their own musical lives. Since I can say almost the same things for myself (with certain notable exceptions) and realized years ago that that stuff is basically dead in the water, I replaced it with another, much more amusing, topic: Plunderphonics.

March 17, 2005 8:26 AM | |

I'll be appearing at 5 PM this Sunday, March 20, on a panel called "Reviewing the Reviewers," about the potential for composer-critics and why there are so few of us anymore. It's organized by Pauline Oliveros at her gallery at Deep Listening Space, 75 Broadway at the Historic Rondout in Kingston, New York. Also on the panel are Iris Brooks, Beth Anderson, Pauline Oliveros and Al Margolis. Following the concert, "no later than 7:00," is a concert with music by each of us, and the fantastic pianist Sarah Cahill will give the East-Coast premiere of my piano piece Private Dances. Should be great fun, I always manage to piss somebody off without meaning to.

March 15, 2005 9:32 PM | |

Composer Galen Brown has posted a very sympathetic response to my "Downtown Music and Its Misrepresentations" post. His sentence, "So Downtowners should at least seriously consider mounting an invasion of the ivory tower, not for dominance but for real inclusion," is practically a one-sentence biography of me. At a young age I realized that academia was only vulnerable to shots fired from within the walls. Of course, there are some problems with this formulation, since lots of Downtowners don't really have college teaching qualifications - but a lot more do than you think, and many have spent decades trying to get teaching positions. Between 1984 and 1997 I applied for more than a hundred academic positions before finally getting one.

UPDATE: David Toub has also added his thoughts. In light of some of the comments made over at Sequenza 21, I have to express regret that I used above, in haste, a word I hate: "qualifications." I clarify that I did not mean a doctorate. One of the things I'm proudest of about Bard is that we do hire faculty, especially practicing artists, without doctorates. One of the best musicians I've ever known, cellist Luis Garcia-Renart, just retired from Bard: he had no college degrees at all, but he studied with Casals and Rostropovich. Cage never got a college degree, nor Feldman. By "qualifications" I meant something simpler and perhaps rarer: knowledge of history, and an ability to deal with music from multiple perspectives. Experience. A gluttony for "qualifications" (in the sense of credentials) is one of academia's great diseases.

March 15, 2005 12:56 PM | |

It seems that when I wrote, "I realize that people don't like the differences between Uptown and Downtown music pointed out," I was partly mistaken. It's true that some non-Downtowners were put off by the perceived negativity of my post "Downtown Music and Its Misrepresentations." But here are the responses from Downtown composers:


"Downtown Music and its Misrepresentations" is one of the finest and most relevant things I've ever read. Thank you for writing and posting it. Brilliant!

What would we do without you, Kyle?

Don't stop.

Your analysis of the conventional wisdom that there's no longer a difference between Uptown and Downtown is right on the mark.

I love it every time you write about Downtown/Uptown. It makes me smile.

Very much enjoyed the blog entry on BoaC.

Hmmm.... It seems that I'm not the only Downtown composer who's sick and friggin' tired of being told that there is no Downtown music anymore; that there's no difference between Uptown and Downtown anymore; that the Uptown/Downtown issue is irrelevant; that prejudice against Downtown composers no longer exists; that Downtown music is whatever John Zorn does, or whatever Bang on a Can does. What if we quit putting up with it?

March 10, 2005 8:33 AM | |

I've always liked the idea that new music is whatever was composed today, while everything before that is history. John Maxwell Hobbs gives us a chance to try it out. At his Cinema Volta web site he's making a new ambient piece every day for a year, and posting them as he goes.

I first knew Hobbs as an administrator at the Kitchen. After he left that job, I learned he was a composer, for he made a delightful web site that offered a do-it-yourself ambient music kit - you put in your instrument preferences, and the internet would play the music, ad infinitum. This new ambient stuff is nice too, and he tells you the pros and cons, from his angle, for each piece. Hurry, only ten and a half months left - then it will be old music.

March 8, 2005 6:26 PM | |

After every article I write about the Uptown/Downtown issue, I receive at least one e-mail telling me my views on the subject are bullshit. All of these messages have one thing in common: the writer knows the music of John Zorn and the Bang on a Can festival. This acquaintance, in his estimation, clearly outweighs my 28 years of involvement with the Downtown scene and makes the writer an authority on Downtown music. This is like reading the speeches of Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman and then announcing, "Now I'm an expert on Leftist political thought."

Allow me to detail what's wrong with this formulation. First: Bang on a Can. Speaking as someone who personally knows a few hundred Downtown composers, I can tell you that there is a lot of resentment within the Downtown community against Bang on a Can, and that dozens of my composer friends would be horrified to think that the Bang on a Can festival was anyone's image of Downtown music. There are large swaths of Downtown music that Bang on a Can has ignored, and major Downtown figures to whom BoaC has barely paid attention. In the festival's early years it seemed a little oriented toward Downtown composers, but there is a widespread perception that as the festival became more famous and starting associating with Lincoln Center, the curators - David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon - started abandoning younger Downtown composers, associating with famous composers like Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich, and keeping their own music at center stage. Furthermore, there is a lot of feeling that Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon, who studied at Yale with Martin Bresnick, are not themselves Downtown composers at all; although Gordon, who has more of a garage-band background and more minimalist tendencies, is sometimes exempted from this charge.

Now is not the moment to assess the accuracy of these perceptions - I sort of agree, sort of don't, but I merely report them to note how unfortunate this assumed equivalence of BoaC = Downtown is. In their defense, BoaC has never particularly claimed to represent Downtown. There is nothing about Downtown music in their mission statement, and the only thing they'll say publicly is that they're not really interested in the Uptown/Downtown distinction. They always chose the composers they wanted, some from Europe, many from across the country, and many who were new to the New York scene altogether. If I have to think back to how they became identified with Downtown, the biggest culprit may be my own reviews in the Village Voice, for in their early years I was enthusiastic about the new energy they brought in and the new kinds of music they gave voice to.

Meanwhile, there were and are music festivals that do claim to represent Downtown music, most famously New Music America, which was a traveling Downtown music schowcase for eleven years, from 1979 to 1989. Last October's Sounds Like Now festival explicitly featured the Downtown scene, and there are periodically others, none of them nearly as visible or well-funded as Bang on a Can. Follow any of these festivals and you'll have every right to voice your opinions on Downtown music. But draw conclusions about Downtown from Bang on a Can, and you'll insult hundreds of Downtown composers without particularly gratifying the BoaC people.

The issue of John Zorn I've addressed elsewhere here. Before Zorn, the Downtown scene could pretty well be characterized by the large roster of composers who comprised the New Music New York festival of 1979: Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Charles Amirkhanian, Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, and many others. It was a scene characterized by conceptualism and minimalism, music of intense focus on sound, made by people who were outcasts from the classical music world.

This was not at all Zorn's type of music: his models in the classical world were Kagel, Stockhausen, and Carter, he was antiminimalist, he objected to the reverence given John Cage. He put together a scene of performers mostly from jazz backgrounds, and created an alternative to the minimalist Downtown scene, one couched in postmodern style mixing and maximalist chaos. It wasn't that Downtown had never had free improv before - Oliveros and Terry Riley had been experimenting with it, though with emphasis more on sound than virtuosity, more on meditation than chaos. To the horror of many veteran Downtowners, Zorn brought Downtown music back toward the modernism, chaos, and complexity from which the minimalists and conceptualists had already escaped once.

With heavy irony, minimalist Tony Conrad once participated in a late '80s performance of John Cage's Songbooks by chanting, "No more Cage! Zorn is the rage!" It did seem for a few years that free improvisers from the jazz world had infiltrated and wiped out the minimalist brand of Downtown music. Zorn created a parallel Downtown scene that took over in the late 1980s, partly through tremendous energy and organizational skills - but also partly because the free improvisers were generally ready to go onstage and perform without rehearsal, and the improvising ideology entailed a belief that anything that resulted was fine. [UPDATE: To his everlasting credit, Zorn has redeemed himself in recent years with Tzadik, a record label 30 times more inclusive than the scene he dominated in the late '80s.] Eventually, after 1990, free improvisation fell back into being only one component of the scene, ensconced at the Knitting Factory and Tonic, but again just one Downtown strand among many.

Meanwhile, the Downtown scene that had started in 1960, when Yoko Ono opened her loft for La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield to give concerts at, survived and continued. The aesthetics of conceptualists like Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoshi Wada, Dick Higgins, and Phil Corner, and of early minimalists like Young, Terry Jennings, Angus Maclise, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock, Tom Johnson, Tony Conrad, Jon Gibson, Dennis Johnson, and John Cale, were inherited by further generations: Meredith Monk, Elodie Lauten, Brenda Hutchinson, Joshua Fried, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Goode (perhaps the most hardcore Downtowner of all), Barbara Benary, David First, Ben Neill, Skip LaPlante, Mikel Rouse, Tom Hamilton, Joshua Fried, Eve Beglarian, William Duckworth, Mary Jane Leach, Linda Fisher, David Borden, Guy Klucevsek, Raphael Mostel, Lois V. Vierk, John Kennedy, Jerome Kitzke, Julius Eastman, Conrad Cummings, Nick Didkovsky, Phil Kline, Diana Meckley, Ben Manley, Ron Kuivila, Nic Collins, David Garland, Carman Moore, Petr Kotik, Laurie Spiegel, Alvin Curran, Corey Dargel, Christine Baczewska, Lenore Von Stein, Peter Gordon, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jerry Hunt, Noah Creshevsky, Shelley Hirsch, Jeffrey Schanzer, Jin Hi Kim, Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, Wendy Chambers, George Lewis, Diamanda Galas, Annea Lockwood, Patrick Grant, Joseph Celli, David Myers, David Moss, Dary John Mizelle, Todd Levin, Neil Rolnick, Toby Twining, Norman Yamada, Annie Gosfield, Robert Een, Martha Mooke, Judy Dunaway, Beata Moon, Elise Kermani, Fred Ho, Judith Sainte Croix, Maryanne Amacher, Molly Thompson, Paul Lansky, David Beardsley, myself - just to mention the first few dozen who come to mind. And those are just the ones with a presence on the New York scene. There were, and are, Downtowners in cities and towns and wildernesses all over America: Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, Carl Stone, Art Jarvinen, Amy Knowles, Stephen Scott, Peter Gena, Ingram Marshall, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Garland, John Luther Adams, Larry Polansky, Phil Winsor, Laetitia de Compiegne Sonami, Carolyn Yarnell, Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Pamela Z, Erling Wold, Henry Gwiazda, Philip Bimstein, Ellen Fullman, Richard Lerman, Orlando Garcia, Paul Dresher, Paul Epstein, Trimpin, Alison Cameron, Gustavo Matamoros, David Rosenboom, David Rosenbloom, Arnold Dreyblatt, John Oswald, Chris Brown, Susan Parenti, Jewlia Eisenberg, Paul Dolden, John Morton, David Hykes, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, David Dunn, David Gunn, and on and on.

A lot of people who have no contact with the Downtown scene can name four Downtown composers: Zorn, Gordon, Lang, Wolfe. A lot of hardcore Downtowners don't even consider those four people Downtowners. I won't agree, and it's never been my philosophy of Downtown to make those kind of hardline distinctions. But there is a Downtown mainstream in which those four composers never particularly participated, and to which they were not attracted; and there are many reasonable generalizations one could make about Downtown music that would not apply to those four.

So when you come to me saying, "Downtown music is really complex and atonal now, I know because I've heard some John Zorn" - or, "Downtown composers are doing just fine, David Lang got some orchestra commissions" - then all I can say to you is, "Why, the Democrats looooooove George W. Bush, because I just talked to Zell Miller!" If you're familiar with Lauten's The Death of Don Juan, if you know what kinds of music Beglarian wrote before and after she defected to Downtown, if you know how Josh Fried expanded his theater concept after Travelogue, and you think some of my opinions about Downtown are mistaken, you write to me and we'll have a good conversation. But if all you think you know about Downtown is John Zorn and Bang on a Can, don't bother airing your ignorance, because my only reply will be the URL for this blog entry.

March 8, 2005 4:19 PM | | Comments (1) |

Having grown up where football was the local religion, I am an inveterate sports-hater. But John Luther Adams' response to my "Kittens on the Basketball Court" post may open up, for others, a whole new discussion of sports/music affinities:

Your latest post on Postclassic explains why I've never liked basketball. I'm glad you didn't pick baseball. It's much more like the music I love: slow, boring, and beautiful in its details.

March 6, 2005 9:06 AM | |

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.

March 3, 2005 6:01 AM | |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in March 2005.

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