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Music Downtown
Writings from the Village Voice

Kyle Gann

University of California Press , 2006
314 p., ISBN: 0-520-22982-7


Reviewed by Elsa Grassy



Music Downtown is a precious and indispensable collection of articles documenting the golden age of "new music," a genre seldom written about. The pieces making up this anthology were all originally published in the Village Voice, which is to this day the only American newspaper to regularly devote column space to experimental music of the late XXth century—what the author calls ‘new music," "new classical” or "Downtown music." Gann’s articles are often the only existing record for the events, artists, and pieces mentioned in this book.

"New music," a term popularized by the New Music New York festival in 1979, can be defined as the movement that emerged in the aftermath of minimalism (stemming from "a desire to remove human personality from the creation of music” [145]) and conceptualism ("the practice of basing a piece of music on an idea or concept” [xvi]) in New York City at the end of the 1970s. A cultural phenomenon rather than a genre, it is better understood as an umbrella term for artists composing in a variety of styles, "a grab bag of diverse influences" [xvi], including postminimalism and totalism, as well as world music or American experimentalism. What ties the movement together is a vision of music as innovative and engaging. Key composers—"audience’s composers” as Gann terms them [40]—include Rhys Chatham, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson, to name a few. Yet, from Gann’s perspective, it is Yoko Ono ("the inventor of Downtown” [23]) who actually started this movement when she decided to give a series of concerts by La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield in a rented loft in SoHo in 1960.

In those days […] there was only Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. When I first thought of renting a loft, my friends in classical music, Juilliard people, advised me not to do it downtown? They said, You’re crazy, you’re wasting your money, nobody’s going to go there? Anybody who’s interested in "serious” music goes to midtown. [24]

Choosing to give performances elsewhere, and in private places, where the usual conventions of concert going did not apply, was a radical departure from the decorum and dictates of classical music, which was then increasingly considered as a dying genre.

At the beginning, new music was a very localized phenomenon, restricted to a few blocks in Southern Manhattan, and it remained so until 1974 when Steve Reich’s Drumming was issued on Deutsche Gramophon—hence the now controversial geographical appellation "Downtown music” for a musical movement that soon spread to other major American cities such as Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, major labels such as Columbia and Nonesuch followed suit and started issuing experimental recordings. The New Music festival in New York and Bang on a Can helped new classical gain more visibility. Yet along the course of the 30 years covered by the collection, new music suffered numerous setbacks in its struggle for a larger diffusion: in the 1980s and 1990s new music began to be gradually pushed from the mainstream and as it left catalogs more composers had to start their own labels. Funding dwindled in New York and elsewhere, and there are now far fewer concerts as there were in the 1990s. As newspapers devote less and less space to new music, Gann’s book is a welcome reminder of the vital role new music plays in the contemporary music scene.

Kyle Gann is unmistakably a Downtown music activist, regularly engaging in controversies on his blog and elsewhere. His commitment to musical innovation is lifelong. Born in a musical family in Texas, Gann started composing at the age of 13. After studying composition with Ben Johnston, Peter Gena, and Morton Feldman, and spending a few years as critic at the Chicago Reader, Kyle Gann started writing for the Village Voice in November 1986. Composers Tom Johnson and Greg Sandow had left the new music review seat vacant and Gann had the required expertise to fill it. Attacked at first, Gann grew to become one of the most prolific, respected and revered critics in the world of new classical, reaching Lester-Bangs dimensions. Gann’s experience working at the New Music festival and his deep involvement with cutting-edge music as a composer make him an impassioned witness to the crucial moment in music history that this anthology documents.

The articles in the book, a mere fifth of Gann’s output while at the Village Voice, cover the whole of his time writing for the newspaper, from 1986 to his departure in December 2005. Yet most of them were selected among his earlier and longer pieces, when the New York scene was booming with talent and the Voice devoted more column space to new music. The articles are organized both by format and theme: interviews of artists, articles on music and society, on music politics, on aesthetics, and on "books, figures, and events," concert reviews and obituaries.
Although knowledge of the music described here makes the reading especially delectable, there is no doubt that the layman reader will also enjoy this collection. One of Downtown music’s main missions is to bring innovative sounds to the general public. Similarly, Gann’s book does not dwell in esoteric prose and constitute a suitable introduction to this musical genre. Gann’s criticism is extremely engaging: deeply provocative, erudite and well documented, but most of all it is emotional and committed. Discussions of particular pieces are used as springboards to wider issues such as the meaning of innovation in art and the relation between composer and audience.

Gann’s lively rendition of New York’s musical geography, perhaps the main thread tying the collection together, is particularly savory. The author describes the city as divided into three territories with different tribes living by radically opposed ideologies. First of all, there’s the conservative kingdom of Midtown, where composers rally around the Juilliard School and the Metropolitan opera, and consider music should follow European norms. North of them lies the snobby empire of Uptown, with Columbia University as its capital. There scholars and composers such as Milton Babbitt and Jacob Druckman have developed a ruthlessly intellectual vision of music, "spiritually empty” [138], and revel in methods of musical composition such as the twelve-tone technique. South of them, on the other rim of a "Grand Canyon […] located between 20th and 59th streets” [136], lies the democratic republic of Downtown, an iconoclastic rejection of both Uptown elitism and Midtown stale formality, and "a deeply felt and collective response to an oppressive economic and cultural situation” [6]. Gann is, of course, a citizen of the latter.
Downtown opposes both other streams on the belief that only collective innovation can salvage classical from impending death. Gann insists on the morbidity of the classical institutions’ conventions that "dumps water on the average Joe’s inner spark” [87]. Music is a language that must constantly be reinvented—hence many a terminological incomprehension among the three musical tribes, for example on the meaning of the words composer and opera. Midtowners and Uptowners share an almost religious respect for European conventions and talk of Mozart as if he were a god and they "self-appointed priests” [77]. To them, a composer must "write in conventional notation for conventional European-style ensembles” [144] and operas must "contain linear narrative, exciting emotional scenes, soprano arias, period costumes, and so on” [55].

If God engraved the permanent meaning of the word opera on the back of the Ten Commandments, Moses forgot to record the fact, and Downtown composers, like many generations before them, have invented their own definition. [55]

Music needs freedom of innovation to remain a live art. For Downtowners, music is something to free from expectations: "The word music could never be followed by must” [xvii].  They take unclassifiability to the level of  "a major career goal” [56], which explains the extreme diversity of the movement.

Downtown music also opposes its northern neighbors in that it aspires at reaching a noninitiated audience. Uptown does not produce music for the concert hall but music "for the classroom," "made to be analyzed” [2]. Midtown is closer to Downtown’s conception of music as meant for an audience, yet it clings to the European decorum and form. In contrast, the first piece in the collection, "Shouting at the Dead," presents Robert Ashley’s Downtown operas, which he writes in a format suitable for television:

I put my pieces u television format because I believe that’s really the only possibility for music. I hate to say that. But I don’t believe that his recent fashion of American composers trying to imitate stage opera from Europe means anything. (…) It’s like Eskimos playing baseball. It’s crazy! It’s nuts! It’s superstition.

There is both a sense of urgency to write relevant music and puzzlement at seeing others keep an imported tradition alive. Gann describes Midtown as the realm of formality and something of an anachronism where composers "continue to write symphonies and concertos, wear tuxedos and formal attire to concerts, and do their best to ignore their marginalization” [2]. Downtown composers try to write relevant music that a contemporary audience can relate to, a music more in touch with the times than Midtown music is, and simpler and less pretentious than Uptown music. Downtown’s methods of composing "draw on the nature—and accident—accepting philosophy of John Cage” [xiii]. Gann insists on new music’s organic methods. Composing techniques rely on ordering devices such as "chance, machine-logic, natural numbers, and the harmonic series” rather than artificial devices such as it is the case in Uptown music [4].

There is a concern among Downtown composers to write American music for the times, rather than keep alive a "Euro-transplant […] with no relevance” [90].

I dream of a classical music that doesn’t exist in official America: one that could be announced by a Texan drawl without incongruity. A music that would go as well with Dos Equis and chili (real chili, not Northern tomato soup) as with Chablis and escargot. A music that connects to everyday life, like that of Ives, Partch, and Cage, rather than whisks listeners away to some make-believe salon where a fictionalized Chopin sends the ladies swooning. [90]

Hence the need for a new kind of classical, that would be "reintegrated into the normal flow of daily life” [3] and that an audience would relate to. To Gann, and to other proponents of Downtown music, music cannot be justified theoretically (as Uptowners think); "it’s only as good as it sounds” [xvii]. The two key concepts in new music are accessibility ("what kind of music you make” [8]) and distribution ("what to do with the music to get it to its audience” [8]). These are new music’s everlasting battles. Gann often verges on cynicism, wondering if there isn’t truth in the affirmation that the public will buy anything if it is properly hyped by the music industry. But throughout the book there’s hope—Downtown composers have always had faith in the fact that there must be an untapped audience for fresh, novel, smart music. The problem has always been to talk labels into giving it a commercial chance.

Above all, Gann places music first. He doesn’t wish for New York’s musical divide to remain:

Uptowners have to learn that irrationality has its place. Downtowners can learn that art isn’t antithetical to tradition and structure. Everyone needs to learn to express theses archetypes consciously, not with intolerant ignorance. Until we adopt an attitude that sees all creative modes as equally natural and fruitful, each with its place in the psychic spectrum, music will continue to be oppressively politicized. [174]

To Gann, music is not only sound, but a culture to which all must contribute if it is to be healthy. New music has tried to establish a mode of collective creativity where composers make clear, simple music that the audience will gain something from, the listeners adopt an adventurous attitude to music, giving unfamiliar sounds a chance, and the industry takes the risk of publishing music that might not be financially rewarding at first:

We all have a responsibility to create a lively and sustainable society. […] Music is part of psyche; it exists not for either audience’s pleasure or composers’ vanity, but both exist to serve Music. And what they owe Music is to keep it alive, in themselves, in public, and in history.

With this collection, Gann has proved a precious servant.






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