Once And For All, There’s No Such Thing

Once And For All, There’s No Such Thing

In the holy trinity of NewMusicBox, I’m always the guy who gets elected provocateur, i.e. Frank never discourages me from eliciting readers’ reactions via feather-ruffling tactics (while Molly pleads to keep things optimistic). I guess it’s my natural disposition that makes this an easy task to oblige (well, the ruffling is anyway, still working on the glass half-full approach). So, without further ado, here it is, a well-worn debate igniter: There is no such thing as Uptown or Downtown music anymore. It seems so obvious to me, yet many still use the terms to refer to music written today—and it bothers me a little.

I understand, sort of. But I’m a little perplexed as to why these dagger terms, which can still stir bitterness and pain in the over-40 crowd, are perpetuated by the very same generation. You’d think we composers would yearn to close the book on that whole divisive rift of the past. But, of course, we can’t because the remnant carnage surrounding these now meaningless labels has been scattered by the winds of time, and whoever chooses to see today’s compositional landscape though an antediluvian lens can easily see the same ol’ up and down skyline in effect. But rest assured, things really have changed regardless of whatever way you choose to perceive the present state of modern composition.

Certainly there are composers entrenched in more academic pursuits, and there are also those who engage with the American experimental tradition forged by Ives and solidified by Cage. But let us not forget that most composers are in dialogue with both. Besides, are the groups confined to one side of the fence actually railing against one another? The fact that I’m oversimplifying all this aside, today’s typical university student simply isn’t getting the up-down-high-low brainwash of alumni past. You can be extremely experimental up to borderline kooky at Columbia or Princeton these days, and, if you so desire, you can be extremely traditional at CalArts, Wesleyan, or Mills. Hey, I was the freak writing notes on manuscript paper while many of my classmates didn’t even consider musical notation relevant—some never bothered to learn to read.

My point is, Uptown and Downtown are historic terms, so let’s start treating them as such. For those who bemoan the fact that the likes of James Tenney and Alvin Curran aren’t going to win the Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, just keep in mind that those who pull the strings of influence will eventually be replaced. It will be a slow evolution, but when today’s young composers finally take the reigns as the-powers-that-be, all these silly prejudices will finally disappear. (What new ones will take their place?). But you can do your part in mending the schism now, simply by not referring to yourself as an “Uptown” or ” Downtown” composer, unless of course you’re Elliott Carter or John Zorn—arbitrary, both of these luminaries live below 14th Street. To quote composer Tania León:

    “Despite of our talking about Uptown, Downtown, Midtown, whatever town you’re talking about, the point is that there are some people who are completely out of town, even when they are in town.”

Enough said.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

28 thoughts on “Once And For All, There’s No Such Thing

  1. amc654

    Fabulous post, Randy. I was particularly thrilled to read it today, as my Music of the Last Decade students just spent the morning talking about these very topics (in the context of a class on ‘totalism,’ post-minimalism, Gann, etc., etc.).

    They seemed to come to the same conclusion — roughly, that these various distinctions no longer applied and are about battles which are largely no longer terribly relevant. To wit, so far this quarter we’ve studied the following: the Thurmchen composers (Walter, Bauckholt, Ona, etc.), the Wandelweiser composers (Frey, Pisaro, Werder, Beuger, etc.), Richard Barrett, Richard Ayres, Christopher Fox, Beat Furrer, Bang on a Can, totalism …. Just seems like the Up/Down distinctions aren’t of any real use to categorizing that particular list of folks.

  2. william

    This is a post I sent to the Wave List on January 20th, 2005 entitled “Eighth Street Transcendentalism.” I discuss the merging down and uptown aesthetics. (The feminist side of the argument isn’t completely relevant to the topic, but I don’t have time to write a new post.)

    A few days ago Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner pointed out that women seemed to represent about 50% of the downtown electronic music composers. I wondered why there seem to be more women in that scene (if there are.) I speculated that it might be because the downtowners have possibly rejected the concept of the artist-prophet — a sort of patriarchal, transcendentally inspired artist who is either seen as a voice of the people, or a voice beyond the people.

    Last night I went to a concert of John Zorn’s music at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. It is a fairly large hall and it was full. I would guess that well over 500 people were in attendance, and most seemed to be fans. Before the concert there was an hour long interview with the composer conducted by George Steel. Zorn repeatedly stressed that his music comes from some sort of higher power. He said that it would not have been possible for him to complete over 300 of his Masadic melodies during a very short time period without some sort of supernatural help. In the program, he writes that composition is at its best “when the piece is seemingly writing itself and the composer is merely an observer. He says that some of his works, “transcend my expectations and my abilities. I cannot explain them. They are part of the Mystery.”

    Well, so much for my speculation about downtowners not seeing themselves as artist-prophets. And I might add that the NYC public seems to view Zorn as a sort of voice of the people — jazz, rock, pop, cartoons and all. John Cage was an artist-prophet who declared an end to artist-prophets, but it seems that at least some downtowners, like Zorn, weren’t listening that closely.

    The music at the concert was not very affecting for me, but technically brilliant and stunningly performed by a group of about 20 well-known performers with whom Zorn has long worked. I had not heard his music before and was very surprised. I have lived abroad for 25 years and could only read about his music in journals or on the web. I was expecting a sort of scrontchy downtown free improv, but the pieces presented were extended, highly chromatic, rhythimically complex, precisely notated and formally structured works that sounded almost completely uptown — except that it was much better uptown music than what I heard when I lived in NYC in the later 70s.

    It is interesting that a “downtown” composer like Zorn, who never completed college, has ended up writing very virtuosic, complex and widely recognized uptown sounding music, while so many hundreds of talented and extremely ambitious composers who went through advanced degrees at Columbia, Princeton, Juilliard, etc. have all vanished into relative oblivion.

    Well-informed critics like Kyle Gann, still speak of a downtown and uptown music, but based on most of the concerts I have heard in NYC of late, the two aesthetic encampments are no longer all that distinct from one another. There seems to be just one broad, rather eclectic concept of music-making in the city.

    Anyway, I am still wondering if it would turn out that fewer women composers than men are likely to claim they are transcendentally inspired. As women reach equality, will a matriarchy evolve that follows the general patters of patriarchy? Who knows? A good example of a matriarchal composer might be Pauline Oliveros.

    Hastily written thoughts for nothing…

    William Osborne

  3. ian

    Kyle Gann has written in the past that, like you, he doesn’t really consider John Zorn a Downtown composer. This is very confusing because in the jazz world, people have a different definition of “downtown” that not only includes but actually centers around Zorn and all of his followers (see Downtown Music Gallery, for example, which does carry music by the Postclassic stalwarts but by and large is devoted to improvisational music). I think this is part of the difficulty with the term (besides its New-York-centrism); the definition has been diluted over time because of different people using it to mean different things.

  4. william

    Last winter, Jan Herman, placed my above comment about Zorn on his ArtsJournal.com blog, “Straight Up.” Kyle saw it and responded on his blog. He strongly disagreed that the Down- and Uptown scenes are merging. You can find his comments here:


    He followed with several other blog entires. The whole issue is confusing, because among other things, much of the mathematical and academic ethos of the Uptown migrated to computer music, especially as represented by the ICMA. Set theory became largely irrelevant, because computer music could embrace a much wider range of mathematical perspectives. Computer music also has no European heritage and is timbreally oriented, thus completely freeing it from past traditions and pushing it toward aesthetic theories the Downtown had long explored.

    It’s difficult not to be overly general when discussing the convergence (and non-convergence) of the Down- and Uptown – though it is an important topic.

    William Osborne

  5. EvanJohnson

    You are, of course, absolutely right. The stream of dichotomies that gets set up under the heading “Uptown/Downtown” is so bafflingly simplistic and out of touch as to be almost hilarious. Aaron cites a laundry list of European composers who give the lie to that sort of distinction, but it is just an Old World phenomenon.

    In fact, I would go so far as to say that just about every young American composer that I know of doing interesting work is uncategorizable according to this meaningless distinction.

  6. william

    Randy suggested that the “well-worn” debate about whether the old Uptown/Downtown distinctions still exist is provocative. Doesn’t look, however, like it has stirred much debate on this blog. Could the more interesting question be how relevant New York City’s new music scene remains at all, regardless of affiliations? Has the scene become ossified and parochial? Cage deeply influenced a wide international community, but that was 40 years ago. Which NYC composers can make that claim today? Do NYC composers still have any really significant influence? Of course, some New Yorkers will thump their chests and say they do, but how would they substantiate their claims?

    William Osborne

  7. rama gottfried

    this is something that keeps coming up again and again. i saw boulez rattling young composers with this question last year in a discussion forum. afterwards i realized that it’s completely assumption based. and i ask: relevant to what? relevance means having to do with something else, does art need that? is there such a thing as irrelevant art? isn’t “relevance” culturally now equivalent to marketing? the only other reason to use the word relevance is in some attempt to call one thing valid and something else invalid. is there such thing as an invalid piece of art?

    as for the question of the importance or unimportance of nyc or any place on the planet it seems to me that basically anywhere will do – preferably a place with some performance opportunities is convenient (unless you’re making eye or electronic music). in response to the question where “influential” composers are coming from .. i dare say it might not be the usa. but who cares? let’s make some art!

  8. william

    I understand your point, Rama. It is important to speak with one’s own voice. I was never able to subscribe to either end of Manhattan’s aesthetic stomping grounds, and I became “irrelevant” – as did many other composers in a similar position. In fact, I left and went to Europe where I have remained for the last 27 years. Many composers breathed a sigh of relief when postmodern thought (and general staleness) eroded the basis of NYC’s ideological encampments.

    I think these issues even raise questions of artistic integrity. Tobias Picker, for example, who has been much in the news of late, moved from being one of the more hardcore serialists, to one the best proponents of neo-romanticism (or whatever you want to call it.) What does that transformation signify, if anything? There always seemed to be those careerist composers who would simply do whatever was required to fit in. Was Mr. Picker’s stylistic transformation someone just blowing with the wind, or someone with remarkably flexible craftsmanship making a very major (and needed?) course correction?

    I think one can make a claim that artistic movements can be relevant. The aesthetic theories of John Cage, for example, deeply altered the way people made and thought about music throughout the entire world. Good technical and aesthetic ideas will always be relevant to artists. So how many good ideas has NYC’s new music community contributed in the last 30 years? Neither minimalism nor the new romanticism have caught on in Europe. They have not been very influential ideas.

    So is art only about one’s own voice, or is it also about the world of ideas and the effects they have on society?

    William Osborne

  9. Frank J. Oteri

    William Osborne writes: “Neither minimalism nor the new romanticism have caught on in Europe.” Well, to quote Nilsson’s Pointless Man, “you see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”

    From my vantage point, which admittedly is New York-based but has included trips to hear new music in several European cities over the past decade as well as ongoing contacts with representatives from music information centres throughout Europe plus obsessive record shopping and reading about all things new music related, I’ve seen and heard the following…

    The very term “minimalism” was first applied to music by a European (I count the U.K. as Europe), Michael Nyman. At the time, he was better known as a music critic but he subsequently went on to be one of Great Britain’s leading composes of minimalist music along with Gavin Bryars, Howard Skempton, Steve Martland and Graham Fitkin. Although their music has proven to be very popular with audiences, it has admittedly not been given the same official accolades there as more modernist sounding music. Sound familiar?

    Also, the first book-length study of minimalism in music ever to be published was European. It was written by a popular European minimalist composer, Belgian Wim Mertens.

    The very significant Dutch take on minimalism—which includes works by Louis Andriessen, Simeon ten Holt, Chiel Meijering and Jacob ter Veldhuis—has arguably made Netherlands a major contender on the international musical map for the first time since the era of Josquin and Lassus. In fact, Andriessen’s influence has even bounced back to America as one strand of totalism as a result of his tutelage of the founders of Bang on a Can.

    Another uniquely European take on minimalism has been the rise of so-called “holy minimalism” which links composers as geographically disparate as Polish composer Henryk Górecki and British John Tavener. While first developed by Estonian émigré (now based in Germany) Arvo Pärt, the “holy minimalist” compositional procedure of tintinnabulation now informs the music of most contemporary Estonian composers including Rene Eespere, Urmas Sisask and the older Veljo Tormis. It has even morphed into a more aggressive rock-influenced post-minimal totalism in the hands of composers like Erkki-Sven Tüür.

    When I went to Lithuania last summer for the premiere of my performance oratorio MACHUNAS, I was delighted to discover the music of so many minimalists and post-minimalists there as well. Adventurous listeners should check out Ricardas Kabelis, Rytis Mazulis, Sarunas Nakas, Loreta Narvilaité, Gintaras Sodeika, Mindaugas Urbaitis, and Nomeda Valanciuté, to name just a few.

    There are also minimalist composers of international stature based in Italy: Giovanni Sollima; Hungary:
    László Sári (sorry for the French link); Russia: Anton Batagov; and even Germany: Hans Otte. Györgi Ligeti’s incorporation of minimalist elements in his own music is legion and therefore unnecessary to describe in detail here, but I would like to call attention to a similar minimalist-inspired piece which is one of my all-time favorites: an homage to Steve Reich for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart by Georg Friedrich Haas.

    Needless to say, there are also ex-pat Americans living in Europe who are composing music which continues a dialectic that would have been impossible without the groundwork laid by the founding American minimalists. Among them are Wayne Siegel in Denmark, Stephen Montague in the U.K., and Arnold Dreyblatt in Berlin.

    Yes, I will not deny that Darmstadtian modernism still retains quite a stronghold on composers in Western European countries, and some of that music is great. But there are also composers who no longer subscribe to that aesthetic living all over Europe. In addition to all the minimalists cited above, there are active neo-romantics as well, particularly in Eastern Europe: among them Vladimir Martynov and Valentin Sylvestrov in Russia; Arvydas Malcys in Lithuania; and Frano Parac in Croatia. (Sorry for the unreadable Serbo-Croatian link; if someone can find a better one, please add it here.)

    Of course, the influence of American composers can hardly be cited as the inspiration for a resurgent romanticism in European music. The volte-faces from serial thinking back to tonality of Krzysztof Penderecki
    in Poland and Einojuhani Rautavaara in Finland happened as far back as those by George Rochberg and David Del Tredici and have proved to be just as incendiary among the promulgators of a Darwinian musical trajectory in Europe as they have among similarly-minded folk here in the USA. But, just as there were tons of American composers who never left tonality in the first place, many never left it behind in Europe either. And while the music of these European unreconstructed romantics might not regularly turn up on the so-called new music circuit, some works composed as recently as ten years ago by composers like Joaquin Rodrigo (d. 1999) and Jean Francaix (d. 1997) have actually entered the mainstream classical music repertoire all over the world.

    I would like to apologize for the overwhelmingly male list of composers cited here. Aside from some of the Lithuanians I mentioned, I am not aware of female minimalist and neo-romantic composers in Europe. Alas, being based in New York does have its limitations. If anyone can point out some names to check out, please feel free to add them in here.

    Finally, my subject header was a bit of a hobgoblin. Don’t forget that Luciano Berio’s Points on a Curve to Find was a reaction to minimalism. And one of the principal architects of the Darmstadt aesthetic, Karlheinz Stockhausen, composed several amazing minimalist works that were arguably inspired by his encounters with LaMonte Young back in the 1960s, among them Stimmung (1968) and Sternklang (1971).

  10. rama gottfried

    William – very provacative! good work. :)

    Camps are so comforting. You can be self-righteous, and feel good about yourself; you need two teams, but the other team is wrong!

    “is art only about one’s own voice, or is it also about the world of ideas and the effects they have on society?”
    I’m curious about this question – without using text: how do you engage musically with the world of ideas? and how do they effect society? do you mean using musical metaphors or program music? I must say I ‘m a bit skeptical of music with a “message”. Do you consider for instance reductionism or spectralist techniques a kind of commentary? Perhaps a dialog on the nature of sound? (there’s NYC! :) Another exchange of ideas would be to incorporate music of the past?

    After paitently skimming pages I finally found this quote I love of Feldman’s, after re-reading it I think the whole paragraph is approapriate. From the essay Neither/nor: “…There is, in fact, a movement afoot to make an art that ‘sabotages’ its own complacency, or, rather, that sabotages its own service to a complacent society. This idea is attractive to the politically oriented or the socially oriented artist, whether it be a Nono or a John Cage, though it will naturally be seen from different angles by two such very divergent personalities. Nono, who finds the social situation intolerable, wants art to change it. John Cage, who finds art intolerable, wants the social situation to change it. Both are trying to bridge the gulf, the distance between the two. The modern artist, whose tendency is to use everything at his disposal without any truly personal contribution, naturally reaches for salvation toward whatever he feels is real. But how can you bridge what is real with only a metaphor? Art is only a metaphor. It is solely ther personal contribution – that nameless sensation mentioned earlier – that can give the artist those rare moments of when art becomes its own deliverance.”

  11. rama gottfried

    hi – i just hit post instead of preview, my appologies for the inaccurate spellings.

    I wanted to add that I think that much of the newer trends in Europe are based on Cage which is basically minimalism.

    still in shock from posting by accident. is there medication for dyslexia? i wonder if i hear backwards too!

    many cheers, rama gottfried

  12. william

    Thank you for your comments Rama and Frank. As Frank illustrates, there are so many different kinds of music that can be placed under the rubric of minimalism that the term becomes almost meaningless. You even forgot one, Frank. The wash of waves in E-flat at the beginning of Wagner’s Ring is also minimalism – and, oh gad, even German.

    In my view, the most internationally recognized proponents of minimalism in the States are Reich, Glass, and John Adams. Glass and Reich, especially, used specific techniques of “phasing” that give a much more specific definition to the term minimalism (though, of course, not the only one.) Since minimalism can mean just about anything, it is useful to note that even though there were many types of minimalism popular by the late 70s, it was this phasing technique that, rightly or wrongly, began to be associated mostly strongly with the American style of minimalism on the international stage. And it is this style of phasing that I feel was less influential in Europe. I doubt composers like Ligeti or Gorecki, for example, would feel their music has much in common with Reich, Glass, and Adams, nor that the broader meanings of minimalism were initiated by Americans.

    This is not to demean the work of all the other types of American minimalism, but they were simply not as closely associated in the international arena with the supposed American style of minimalism. In that sense, they were even less influential.

    It is true, Rama, music can only have a specific social or political meanings when some sort of verbal language is associated with it. Sometimes even a title suffices, such as with the “1812 Overture” or “Wellington’s Victory.” (They are also good examples of how reductive metaphors and political music can be.) But influential ideas within the field of music do not need to necessarily be verbal. New techniques like 12-tone music, and Cage’s sound pieces were very influential because of the technical ideas inherent in the music itself.

    Technical and aesthetic ideas in art can also become associated with metaphorical meanings that can have a wide range of social influences. Abstract expressionism, for example, became associated with the freedoms and decadence of Western democracies, while Social Realism became a voice of communism and totalitarianism. There are people who refuse to listen to Wagner, and it has to do with a lot more than chromatic tonality and Norse myths.

    I am not sure what to think of the Feldman quote, or if I even understand it, since I feel metaphors can be among the most powerful and influential things on earth. The arson and even killing that has evolved over the cartoons of Mohammed are an example. People make cartoons of a religious figure, and other respond by burning flags. A war of metaphors evolves and people die. Or think of the political power of Picasso’s Guernica. Humans create art, and art creates humans.

    Music is so much more than sound. Sound is just how music is conveyed. It is, for example, not so much the sound of Ive’s music that fascinates me, but rather his vision of what America was.

    Music seems to be more often nationalistic than any other art form. Ironically, even Frank’s post is riddled with subtle nationalistic viewpoints, and how could it not be. He speaks for The American Music Center, and perhaps even more, for New York City –both powerful and influential metaphors.

    William Osborne

  13. Frank J. Oteri


    For starters, to say that I speak “for The American Music Center, and perhaps even more, for New York City” is a tad inaccurate on several levels. First, you imply that there is one viewpoint promulgated at the American Music Center which couldn’t be further from the truth and couldn’t possibly be true since the AMC is a membership organization with over 2000 members, including 27 board members, who are based all over the country. Secondly, you seem to imply that what I write is somehow the result of some Soviet-style politburo which does not exist here. For the record, I write this not as someone speaking “for the American Music Center”—these remarks were not vetted by anyone—although I obviously work at the American Music Center and I am also a composer member of the Center even though as a staff member I am not eligible for most of its composer opportunities. That is not why I joined; I believe in collectivism and in building a community of composers and the people who work on their behalf. For me, that is what organizations such as the AMC are all about. This is not jingoistic nationalism or even a “subtle nationalist viewpoint”; it is common sense. It is also what music information centres all around the world, which are collected together in the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC), are all about.

    Ironically, it was in that spirit of internationalism that I enumerated in my comment above a rather detailed list (including copious links) of composers based in Europe whose music counters your claim that “neither minimalism nor the new romanticism have caught on in Europe.” I have yet to hear music by most of these composers live in concert in New York City. The ones whose music I did not hear in concerts during trips to Europe, I heard on recordings that were either sent to me by members of the IAMIC community or that I was lucky enough to stumble upon in record shops both here and in my travels around the country and abroad. Funnily enough, I only recently heard the music of Hans Otte as the result of a CD I picked up in Kowloon during my recent trip to Hong Kong. Indeed, the world is all connected.

    I find it a bit disingenuous for you to brush off my list by doubting that “composers like Ligeti or Gorecki…would feel their music has much in common with Reich, Glass, and Adams.” I think that a good many of the composers I cited might say otherwise. Although, before you say I’m claiming some kind of larger than life American sphere of influence here, I’m not. Indeed, as you rightly point out, “the broader meanings of minimalism were [not] initiated by Americans.” Those broader meanings had already existed in Europe in the music of Carl Orff, much Baroque music, and even as far back as Perotin—whom Reich cites as a principal influence—plus, perhaps more importantly, they are the essence of traditional music in Africa as well as the pre and post-European caused African diasporas and their resulting cultural diffusion in places as geographically separated as Brazil and Indonesia, but that’s a much larger discussion than there is room for on such posts as this.

    It’s also less than accurate to claim that “Glass and Reich, especially, used specific techniques of ‘phasing’ that give a much more specific definition to the term minimalism.” While Reich’s early work explores the acoustic effects of phase shifting, this is a technique that was never used by Glass whose early work was structured according to “additive process.”

    You claim that “minimalism can mean just about anything,” but that’s not quite true either. As far as I can analyze, “the beginning of Wagner’s Ring” is NOT minimalism even though it remains harmonically static for quite some time. At the risk of being overly simplistic, as far as I can glean from the work of its major practioners in music as well as the visual arts (from where the term was borrowed), minimalism has been the systemic exploration of structured stasis just as serialism (which oddly seems to have had no parallel in the visual arts) has largely been the systemic exploration of structured non-stasis. (Ever the fan of Zeno’s paradoxes—being everywhere at once is tantamount to being nowhere at all—I have come to realize in my own personal aesthetic that this makes these two seemingly opposite camps a lot closer than they might initially seem and I have based much of my own music on their reconciliation, but alas I digress.) Wagner’s use of stasis was not systemic and was part of a much larger structure than was anything but static.

    You say that the “American Music Center and…New York City [might] both [be] powerful and influential metaphors,” although neither have any large-scale political or economic power. (New York is admittedly an economic behemoth, but it is part of a larger nation state and exists accordingly. And, of course, being an “expat” carries many metaphorical implications as I’m sure you are well aware.) Music, like all the arts, exists mostly as an outside commentary on or as an escape from the world of Realpolitik, which is what is ultimately “powerful and influential” and not just in metaphor. While it is true that I have spent my life in New York City and it has shaped much of my world view, I would contend that that world view is more urban-based and less nationalistic than most. For the most part, language barriers aside, I felt more at home in Hong Kong and Prague than I ever have in Ozark, Alabama or Danby, Vermont, although I have enjoyed time I have spent in both of those places. However, at the end of the trip, for me, they’re nice places to visit but (fill in the blanks). I don’t say this pejoratively. I don’t drive a car (I’ve never learned and get terribly car sick); I walk most places or ride public transportation. I eat out in restaurants most nights because I’m usually at a concert in the evening which could be in one of many locations rather than clustered in one area. This is an urban reality. If there’s something “subtle” in there that’s shaping my opinions, it has probably shaped my own music more than what I listen to. But, of course, we are all shaped by what we listen to as well and in a world of recorded sound there is less opportunity for provincialism, even New York centricity.

    But, what about female minimalist composers in Europe aside from the Lithuanians I mentioned? Does anyone have any recommendations?

  14. william

    Actually, Frank, it hadn’t even occurred to me that anyone would think of the AMC as a Soviet style politburo. That is not what I was implying. In fact, I doubt artists in the States would ever be allowed to have such power. But surely you would agree that the AMC is a music advocacy institution organized from a nationalistic perspective, as are similar institutions in other countries. Historically, music has been especially prone toward nationalism. I do not, however, see this a particular problem at the AMC.

    You are quite right that minimalism was not something initiated by Americans. That is why I speak of the specific technique of “phasing” which is more particularly American, and which was not much used in Europe. (For me, Glass’s “additive process'” seems more a variation of that technique than something very different.) This is all part the original question I raised, and which I would like to see you (and others) take a stab at:

    What influential ideas has NYC contributed to the international music scene in the last 30 years?

    Or shall we take the silence as a belief that there haven’t been any?

    This comment of yours is particularly interesting, and directly related, “New York is admittedly an economic behemoth, but it is part of a larger nation state and exists accordingly.” That’s really what was in the back of my mind when I raised this whole topic. Do you ever have the impression that the NewMusicBox is a little New York-centric? I know that many out of town composers are covered, but to put it provocatively, doesn’t it sometimes seem a little like the New(York)MusicBox?

    Have you ever considered developing a group of volunteer regional editors to more systematically widen the scope of reports and commentaries? I was thinking that the country could be divided into some sort of reasonable regional groupings, and efforts made to find a field reporter/columnist/blogger for each region. It would be great to have reports now and then from California, Chicago and the upper Midwest, the central Appalachian states, the Southwest, etc. Or am I suffering from a bad case of homesickness?

    Moving on to yet another point you mention, I think one could accurately say that in Germany the arts and cultural politics are indeed seen as Realpolitik. Munich, for example, spends eleven percent of its yearly budget on the arts – as do most major German cities. It has seven full-time, year-round orchestras, two full-time, year-round opera houses, three State Theaters, a full-time ballet troupe as part of the opera, and two full-time professional choirs for a city of 1.2 million. The State Theater in Vienna alone receives more yearly funding from the government than America’s entire National Endowment for the Arts. The political debate surrounding theses institutions and their productions can often be very intense and engage the papers for weeks at time. If NYC had the same number of full-time orchestras per capita as Munich it would have over 50. Berlin has three full-time, year-round operas, but New York does not even have one. The Met only has a seven-month season.

    There are also traditions in contemporary Europe that seem to more strongly encourage the creation of political art – but that is another thread. Metaphors, art, and politics intertwine in so many ways we hardly understand. You might not consider NYC a powerful metaphor, but I would say that many, if not most, in the world do. The attacks on the World Trade Towers were one result. Even those two buildings were seen as powerful metaphors.

    But I admit I tend to see too many correlations for my own good. That’s why my dialogs tend to break into several different threads at once, just as this one is.

    William Osborne

  15. david toub

    I have mixed feelings about categories in general. When we categorize, we diminish the individual. Nonetheless, we all seem to feel a need to do it, but should also recognize the inherent imperfections in such things.

    I don’t personally think one should completely discard the distinctions between uptown and downtown. First, while there may be some coalescence from time to time, clearly there are uptown academic composers who disdain those of us who don’t follow the “standard model” these people feel most composers should take. Similarly, there are those “downtown” who disdain anything serial or (to use the Stalinist term, while we’re on the subject of Politburos) “formalist.”

    And it doesn’t matter if one is in NYC or not. I’m not a New Yorker but the distinction held when I was in Chicago (academic vs nonacademic) and even Boston (same thing). If we consider uptown as a metaphor for academic and downtown as a metaphor for the opposite, then it’s applicable to any city.

    Not suggesting that people fight old battles, or that people should fight at all. But the reality seems to be that the chasm I’ve observed for years dating back to the late 70’s still remains. Maybe less starkly so, but it remains nonetheless.

  16. Frank J. Oteri

    William Osborne writes:

    “Have you ever considered developing a group of volunteer regional editors to more systematically widen the scope of reports and commentaries? I was thinking that the country could be divided into some sort of reasonable regional groupings, and efforts made to find a field reporter/columnist/blogger for each region. It would be great to have reports now and then from California, Chicago and the upper Midwest, the central Appalachian states, the Southwest, etc.”

    ??? But, we’ve been doing this consistently since our redesign last May with our Radar section. Have you not seen it?

  17. Frank J. Oteri

    William Osborne, in his most recent post above, also writes:

    What influential ideas has NYC contributed to the international music scene in the last 30 years?

    Or shall we take the silence as a belief that there haven’t been any?

    Well, it’s now 2006 so that means that the pre-1976 American minimalist works that I have contended herein have had an impact on European composers from Michael Nyman to Anton Batagov are disqualified. So is “neo-romanticism” since Del Tredici and Rochberg had also already broken ranks with serialism by then. Let’s see, have there been any influential ideas from anywhere that have contributed to the international music scene since 1976?

    I would argue that sampling and the resultant sample-based music that began with scratching records in the Bronx has had a worldwide impact on music ranging from Jon Oswald’s plunderphonics to Carl Stone’s laptop forays to Jacob ter Veldhuis’s beatbox compositions to glitchworks worldwide. Now, no one knows an exact date for sure, though Kool herc aficionados claim it is well before 1976, but it didn’t catch on until the late ’70s, which is less than 30 years ago. Does that count? Or can we ultimately trace this idea even further back to Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete experiements in France in the late 1940s?

    You might point to the spectralist movement in France, the just intonation movement on the American west coast, the new acoustic music movement in Nashville, or the noise movement in Japan, but all of these movements can be traced back to earlier things as well.

    The question is a bit of a canard as any idea is arguably traceable back to any other in another place and time. I used to do a radio show that was largely about playing music composed before 1900 that sounded like contemporary music for various reasons. I don’t mean to glibly imply, as some post-modernists do, that there are no new ideas, because as James Tenney said to me from the stage of the ISSUE Project Room last year, no two clouds are exactly the same and human individuality will always find a way to express itself. Worrying about being unique and being influential enough to have followers is something else and is, to my mind, a ridiculous Hegelian idea (although he was hardly the first to have it!) that should be buried once and for all.

    Meredith Monk probably has said it more succinctly than anyone else: “The past is part of the present.” I heard her say this during a concert she gave a few months ago at the World Financial Center, which used to be attached to the World Trade Center. (No, being in NYC during 9/11, the NYC metaphors you have been invoked in your posts were not lost on me, but that’s another discussion altogether that goes far beyond musical matters.)

  18. william

    Frank, yes there is a pretty good selection of reports from around the country in the Radar section, but in my view it does not balance the regular blog-like commentaries from the New York folks so often featured on the front page.

    The reports from outside of NYC are random, while the NYC commentaries are regular and often submitted by the regular staff. My idea is that there should be similar (or reasonably proportional) representation for each part of the country. Is there a problem with having at least one specific reporter/columnist/blogger for each region who could provide coverage similar to what we get for NYC? Or is the rest of the country simply less relevant?

    And yes, music history is a continuum, but does that mean we can ignore that the history of music has often (but not always) been formed by people who have introduced new ideas, or new turns on older ideas? We can evade the question of significant ideas, but it almost seems like an attempt hide NYC’s lack of influence over the last 30 years.

    I agree that American computer music, and especially the technology that has been developed to support it, has been enormously influential in Europe in the last 30 years. You mention laptop improvisers, but that is only one aspect of it. Boulez founded Ircam through the influence of developments in the States, and since then American composers and engineers continue to be a very central part of its work. ZKM in Germany was also directly influenced by American models. American concepts also deeply inform major European festivals such as Ars Electronica.

    But we should clearly note that most of the development of computer music did not happen in NYC – in fact, very little. Universities in California deserve the major credit, with recognition also given to some other centers such as the University of Washington, the University of Illinois, M.I.T. and others.

    So that returns to my thought about the NYC-centric aspect of NMB. Why not have a person who specifically blogs/reports about the work in those centers – a person who covers the region that includes Stanford, UC Berkeley, Mills, CalArts, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, and UCSD? They have significantly changed the international world of music in the last 30 years, which is more than I can say for NYC.

    I’m sorry to take the city down a peg or two, but doesn’t Saul Steinberg’s old New Yorker cartoon about the city’s self- absorption still hold true?

    (And, of course, I know I am stepping into a barrel of gasoline with a lit match.)

    William Osborne

  19. coreydargel

    “There is no such thing as Uptown or Downtown music anymore. It seems so obvious to me, yet… I understand, sort of.”


    Nordschow’s article lacks substance and makes a weak (and pointless) argument. His position that Cage solidified the tradition of Charles Ives is uninformed and incorrect. For one thing, Cage dedicated himself to cultivating an ego-less discipline, whereas Ives disdained structure and method. Ives wrote music intended to represent “life in America.” Cage was more interested in discovering the fundamental essence of music, without reference to anything outside the sounds themselves.

    The article, if I understand it correctly, makes the implication that the definition of Downtown music lies in some characteristic aesthetic identity.

    On the contrary. Downtown music is music written by pioneers of a wide range of styles; what separates Downtown music from Uptown music is its iconoclastic relationship to the establishment’s idea of musical progress, and thus the establishment dismisses it. Iconoclast is still code for “unprofessional” in the Uptown music world.

    The establishment will not change at the same pace of true musical progress because it operates with the assumption that there is one singular trajectory of musical progress, not the empirical multiple trajectories that Downtown music embraces. So Downtown composers will continue to make new and iconoclastic music, and Uptown might find a place for them in its meta-narrative of musical progress, but not until at least 20 years after they’ve made their mark Downtown.

  20. Frank J. Oteri

    Kyle Gann
    Ed. Note – Kyle Gann sent us such an extensive response to this particular thread that we decided to start a new page with it so it wouldn’t get lost. But please make sure to read it all the same!

  21. Kyle Gann

    Well said, Corey, bravo. I secretly agree, but don’t tell anyone. I’ll seem so unhip if I’m seen as drawing distinctions.

  22. william

    Cory writes: “Iconoclast is still code for “unprofessional” in the Uptown music world.”

    Is it true that there were no iconoclasts in the Uptown scene? Twelve-tone music was pretty radical and upsetting in the 1950s and even well into the 60s. The Columbia-Princeton electronic music studio presented radically new definitions of music and methods of production. Were these composers not iconoclasts?

    Rama said it well in his earlier post: “Camps are so comforting. You can be self-righteous, and feel good about yourself; you need two teams, but the other team is wrong!”

    William Osborne

  23. coreydargel

    Twelve-tone music was pretty radical and upsetting in the 1950s and even well into the 60s. Were these composers not iconoclasts?

    Uh… No, because they were following the singular trajectory of musical progress proscribed by the etablishment.

    But why are you talking about the 50s and 60s? We’re talking about now.

    More accurate examples of iconoclasts from pre-Downtown/Uptown days include Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, and maybe Lou Harrison.

    The Columbia-Princeton electronic music studio presented radically new definitions of music and methods of production. Computer music also has no European heritage and is timbreally oriented, thus completely freeing it from past traditions and pushing it toward aesthetic theories the Downtown had long explored.

    Again, 50s and 60s. (sigh)

    Here’s something I wrote about this a while back.

    With all due respect, for someone who initially didn’t have time to write a new post, you sure have dominated this discussion, and sometimes with comments whose relevance to the initial topic is somewhat dubious.

  24. william

    Thank you for your thoughts Corey. I think you mean to say Northeastern *academic* new music establishment. You are right, they proscribed serial techniques as part of musical progress, and all things considered, it probably was. They were, however, very isolated from a much larger, and far more recognized musical establishment, which still exists and which is locked into the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. A well-known response to this isolation was Milton Babbit’s article “Who Cares If You Listen,” published in 1958.

    Much of the ethos of Cage’s work and writings were also addressed to concepts of musical progress. One interesting example is that, for a time, he was even an admirer of Maoism (speaking of Helgian dialectics.)

    We are not talking only about now. One cannot fully understand the trajectories that have partially merged the Up- and Downtown scenes without looking at the entire Post War period. The musical forces that created both scenes were already clearly established by the 1950s, and there was a certain amount of common ground even then, especially in electronic music.

    It is still difficult for me to understand why they despised each other so. It was like a civil war among the oppressed. Now it is like a war in an old folks home – people throwing crutches and wheelchairs at each other. Sigh a little more and fling that crutch, Corey. The legacies of both scenes will long be with us, and both were very valuable.

    William Osborne

  25. rama gottfried

    So it occurs to me: perhaps downtown has just basically won?

    In the contest for concepts – you can’t really go much further than Cage in the way of openness and all that goes with it. Think about it, when you break a medium into it’s most basic parts, idetifying the interrationships of the characteristic elements, you completely obliterate any “school” or “ism”. I believe Cage (through Ives I suppose) gave us a “concept”, an “important idea” that created what is commonly refered to as sound art. Once you have this openness, you don’t have to be searching for an “important” idea to fight the other team’s concepts. You can work with your materials and create art. You can listen for the morphology of sound and follow it. You can observe qualities and even aesthetics. But any label or “ism” is just a ball and chain. Yesterday I was musing that a school of thought or collective could be valuable for the clarity created by challenge and discussion, but really I think those things aren’t necessarily tied to a camp. Although they frequently are. I wouldn’t pressume to propose that NYC is the center of this openness – there is no center to it. :) very zen! haha… to be crazy is good.

    Anyway my point is this: who ever has the most open “ism” wins no matter what – the more you fight to hold your place of “validity” the more you close yourself off to creativity. Therefore – Downtown wins.

  26. Kyle Gann

    Mary Jane Leach has added a lovely and insightful characterization of the Downtown scene over at Sequenza 21, including a good (non-stereotyped) account of its relation to the Uptown music world.

  27. william

    I agree, Rama, I think the Downtown might have more or less won. But I wonder if part of that perception is created because the Uptown evolved toward areas that went below the ideological radar. One group of the Uptown seems to have evolved toward Neo-Romanticism, or other forms of new tonality (like Tobias Picker,) and the other went into computer music and spread around the country. Did the Uptown dissolve, or did it just become less recognizable and less localized?

    I notice that almost no Uptowners have participated in this dialog, either here or at S21. What does that mean? Is it because they are gone? Or were they always a little less oriented toward debate and polemic about the two scenes?

    I was supposed to be buried in rehearsals for a coming 13 city tour all last week, but my wife, who is the performer, got sick. I hope she will be well enough today to rehearse. Then I’m out of here.

    William Osborne

  28. rama gottfried

    William wrote: “Did the Uptown dissolve, or did it just become less recognizable and less localized?”

    Not sure, I think like I was saying before, any ideology with too tight a hold on what they consider “valid” will ultimately prove short lived. And maybe “downtown” is tied to the idea of “uptown” and so could never actually “win”. I’m not sure really what “downtown” means, so I suppose this isn’t really my battle. Everything seems like a big blob of digital network currents. Could go anywhere – and that’s where the strength is. If that is what downtown is then good. If downtown is just a new set of rules then it will disappear just like uptown.

    Total openness is fairly impossible for composers with an aesthetic, even Cage fell prey to his. But regardless of who you may feel your “peeps” are, openness has to be the foundation of any lasting concept of art. I’m still thinking about whether NYC has produced “important/influential” concepts recently. And I honestly think that the non-exsistance of a centralized rally is the non-center of the day, and thus a lasting statement of openness. I hear “reductionism is over”, “things aren’t like they used to be”, these are just fad titles. If the concepts are strong and flexible enough they will last, but do you need an army to draw the attention of the masses? If so, just hand me the paperwork and I’ll sign.

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