Putting the “I” back in H*story, Part Two: The Man with the Dirty Hands

Putting the “I” back in H*story, Part Two: The Man with the Dirty Hands

Daniel Felsenfeld
Photo by Randy Nordschow

The first thing that struck me about Music Downtown, a collection of Kyle Gann’s weekly music columns for the Village Voice from the 1980s and ’90s, is how well it flows. This is remarkable considering these are pieces written for separate occasions over decades with no central point in mind. Gann’s prose is easy on the eyes (no academic doublespeak here), but manages to be, at all points, colorful and cut directly to the point. Unlike many critics, Gann knows that his secret weapon is his knowledge crossed with his entrenched enthusiasms and not just the loveliness of his prose—the fact that he can spin a sentence is a happy accident, one more arrow in his quiver, not the touchstone of his career.

But what makes Gann’s take on this scene so significant is that he did not just fortuitously witness an unfolding; he lived it, was part of it, and continues his contributions to this day. He was, in the most vivid sense, there. Not as an impartial observer who does not “do” but thinks and writes and judges and condemns—the so-called “enlightened other” pose so favored by the more mainstream critics—but as a steeped, way-down-in-the-thick-of-it composer. His hands are dirty. From this perspective, and without a shred of arrogance or self-aggrandizement, he is able to see things more clearly, to respect those who he deems (through his education and vast knowledge of all musics) most worthy. He does write himself into history, and while today one might bristle at his partiality—we live in a world where the appearance of objectivity trumps intimate knowledge in our music critics—his place, even the place he assigns himself, is well earned. If he writes articles about his friends and co-conspirators, I say more power to him: His friends are worth the ink and were certainly not getting much play elsewhere. Some may scream “conflict of interest,” but that notion has been unjustly enlarged to the point where participation in the music world excludes critics from their capacity to judge a priori. Gann poses the counterargument: Deep interest, in the right hands, is the opposite of a conflict.

If Virgil Thomson—a formidable “experimental” composer and longtime critic for the Herald Tribune—serves as both patron saint and cautionary tale to would-be composer-critics, the best and worst example of how one could behave in that situation—best because he wrote so honestly; worst because he famously peddled his influence as a critic to serve his “other” career—Gann stands in contradistinction as an honest, unblemished moral actor. In the juggernaut of his strong opinions, he fears not the wrath of the Pulitzer Prize jury, grant panels, academic job search committees, and the whole compliment of meathook realities with which contemporary artists must reckon. He writes it as he sees it, taking on whole movements, individuals, or particular pieces as he deems necessary, unafraid whose eyebrows tip heavenward. The single greatest argument leveled against composers becoming critics is that they will inevitably be biased against those who do not share their aesthetic choices—this Gann certainly is, never pretends otherwise, and is therefore able to take a very specifically-nuanced insider’s view prefiguring the bloggers by 30 or so years. Yet this does not mean that he traffics in the “thumbs up, thumbs down” notions of criticism, where stars are always stars and incapable of doing wrong. Rather, Gann is capable of honestly judging even those artists he deeply respects; and though he seldom spends precious space praising composers above 14th Street, he refrains (at least in this culled collection) from being overtly nasty—for the most part.

A Brief New Music Geography Primer

The legendary schism of Uptown-Midtown and Downtown (and please, skip these paragraphs if you’ve heard this a million times already), it boils down to venue and stance vis-à-vis tonality. Uptown, the home of the electronic music studio at Columbia University, was home to the serialists and other creators of complex post-tonal music (Babbitt, Wuorinen, Davidovsky); Midtown, Lincoln Center, that was the domain of the Neo-Romantics (Corigliano, Rorem, Del Tredici); Downtown was where indeterminacy, conceptualism, and minimalism—in the form of disparate composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Julius Eastman, Laurie Anderson—was born. It meant a detachment or even conscious abstention from the “normal” classical music scene. No more tuxedoes, no more opulent halls, and no more fat ladies singing high Cs: this was hard-edged music, with rangy influences from points East (like India and Indonesia) to the burgeoning movements of conceptual art tinged with the American rebellion of rock and roll. To Downtowners then and now, America was not and never would be Europe. Performers wore jeans, played electronic keyboards in lofts, staged happenings, eschewed conventions, rocked, rolled, and even from time to time maintained a Zen-like silence, playing some of the most exciting music then available. No musical barrier was safe from this troupe; everything, to them, sang.

For those outside New York who long to be included and bristle at this cartographical assessment derived from the geography of Manhattan, Gann (with appropriate lack of mercy) makes little effort to occlude the truth: that for one shining moment, a moment that he argues is still in progress, the important goings-on below 14th Street have changed the music world. He does not exclude the West Coast—not entirely—but to say that these important musical scenes were happening outside of New York is to claim the rave scene originated elsewhere aside from Manchester, England: not un-true, but to each aesthetic its important locus. For new music, be it fin-de-siècle café society, the Théatre Champs-Elyssées or Phill Niblock’s loft, the word is (as often as not) location, location, location. Gann is unafraid, especially in the age of information where X is always supposed to equal every other X, to claim both unfettered esprit and prestige of place.


Many will argue that bias prevents Gann from being objective; that objectivity is the only trait a critic must possess—the specious argument that an impartial observer is more attuned to the audience, one of the huddled masses with the skills and desire to cut through the morass and therefore a more honest cultural presence. In this line of thinking the mere observer remains pure, while those in the muddle are inevitably corrupted by their own choices. Gann shows us how true the opposite is: it is his predisposition to accept and respect a certain breed of music that shows that composers should be critics because they have a stake—and not simply a financial stake, either—in the outcome. In fact, Gann knows his Babbitt and Rorem, his Adams and Zorn, very well, even if he doesn’t especially like it—even if he thinks it a destructive force. Know thy enemy.

What Gann’s career proves is that Virgil Thomson’s bad deeds should not be held against the subsequent generations; that those on the inside are just as (or more than) capable of honest critical parsing as those who simply watch and judge. Imagine for a moment a New York Times staffed by Gann, Ned Rorem, and Milton Babbitt. It’s a zany thought, but one that would certainly make for good solid conversation, honest collective perspective, and accountability in the form of their own creative work. “One should join in,” wrote critic (and composer) Theodor Adorno. “Whoever only thinks, removes himself, is considered weak, cowardly, virtually a traitor.”

Gann is almost preternaturally astute on music of his own time that got short shrift in the broader press—though he never does this through general anti-establishment screed, through eviscerating blowback to the critics, or through sheepish, head-bowed apologia. Rather, his means is the intelligent, crystalline, never-before-has-it-been-said-so-succinctly explanation. As one stunning example of many, take what he says about Cage in a surgically accurate 1992 obituary. Gann writes:

“Cage is a music-philosopher, important for his ideas, not as a composer.’ That lame truism is what I wish had died August 12. It’s repeated so frequently, so blithely, by so many people who couldn’t quote you a sentence of Cage, that it’s clearly not true. So congealed is the cliché that when Raphael Mostel wrote a 1990 article for the Times calling Cage “The most important and influential composer of our time,” the editors disallowed the phrase, offering “music-philosopher” instead. (I love the Times. Xenakis is a romantic, Feldman dies a minimalist-expressionist, whatever that is, and for one day Cage was officially a minimalist; a Saturday correction retracted the term. Do they consult the I Ching over there, or just toss coins?)

“On the contrary,” Gann goes on to write, “Cage’s music will live as long as civilization, but his ‘philosophy,’ formed in the ’30s, has already dated.” And later: “His human-negating, non-communicative, materialist approach to sound has never caught on, and becomes less popular each year. If only his philosophy were important, his reputational goose would be cooked.”

You might disagree, but so persuasive is his explanation and so rigorous his backup of same that you are only able to claim aesthetic difference rather than moral imperative. However, it is his cogent, gorgeous explication of how Cage’s music worked, offered with the deep probity that only the most earnest and studied of musical practitioners can summon, that is most compelling. Gann writes:

Why did Cage use chance methods to compose, anyway? Forget randomness: it was a nonidea, a way of de-emphasizing what wasn’t important. If I wanted to spell out a message for you using marbles, I’d line them up carefully in rows and curves. But if it were the marbles I were proud of and wanted you to notice, I’d toss them down randomly. Any arrangement on my part would imply that I wanted you to notice my intentions, not the marbles. Cage’s chance music is that simple. As long as you don’t expect it to be something else, it’s less arcane than the Beatles. He wanted you to notice the sounds. But notes don’t fall on the paper randomly unless you find a method to scatter them. Cage’s chance procedures weren’t the result of sloppiness, but a fanatical attention to detail.

Beautiful, magically specific, thought-out, and in enviably clear language anyone, cognoscenti or no, can understand.

I’ve chosen to quote so heftily from this Cage obit for the simple reason that I, after years of composition study, am no lover of Cage—or at least, would not have featured him until I read this book. I tried. Lord how I did try. I, too, made the error of thinking of him as a philosopher first, a composer after the fact; I found the seriousness with which many composers took him to be risible; and always thought of him as loosey-goosey, lamely stochastic, the “anything goes” composer (an attitude frequently repudiated by Gann in Music Downtown). I imagined the composer (perhaps in reaction to my having seen ten-too-many precious-beyond-description performances of 4’33”) an unwise fool errantly casting stones and cathecting with faddish glee to Eastern Mysticism because he lacked the musico-technical apparatus to do otherwise. Gann, in a single, well-reasoned paragraph, lifted these heavy scales from my eyes—probably the highest compliment I can pay to a fellow composer-critic. Just when I was comfortable being set in my ways, Gann sent me running to my records: I’ve spent the past days in an orgy of Cage listening, and I am happy to report that mine eyes have seen the glory—somewhat. I feel beautifully spun; I love to be proven this wrong in so eloquent a fashion. Not to say I’ve done an utter volte face, but I now understand this important composer with the greater depth of renewed context, and will evaluate him through a more substantial understanding of his music’s purpose and place, not simply through the lens of my own prejudices. Cage, for me, is now a complex artist, not just a partisan debate.

If there is a weakness in Gann’s perspective, it is his completely forgivable tunnel vision concerning his own allegiances. Shell-shocked and battle-weary from the endless self-glorification of the Uptowners, his bunker mentality draws sympathy (alas, not empathy: being only half a decade on the New York scene myself, these fights were and are not my own). He writes off the serialists semi-unilaterally in a way that only the axis (or, more correctly, praxis) can, and is none-too-kind to the Midtowners as well (though, a few slips aside, he does not excoriate them by name as readily). It is a convenient view to think that every serialist is out to destroy music or writes music they cannot hear but that looks good on the page for the sheer benefit of committees and the attendant fetes and glory. It is equally convenient to say that all neo-romantics got where they got by romancing board members and other trustees of culture. There’s a fantastic boolah-boolah to Gann’s rhetoric, one steeped in the fight for the home team. And while they might make us of the subsequent “everything is supposed to be equal” generation a little uncomfortable, Gann’s stance forces us to ask important questions. It is apparent that he thinks that his ilk are the only ones sincerely pushing forward the boundaries of music without guile, and he argues that his set were and are doing things as complex and progressive as any serialist, but in an audibly obvious way. I find it hard to believe that this sector of composers, Gann’s Downtowners, is the only honest bunch while the rest just scam and plot their self-serving ascent. It cannot be that simple. It is not that simple.

What this sort of extreme polemical thinking does do is not only explain the work of those present in the bunker; it also explains the bunker. These wars, as foreign to me as Vietnam, need to be explained, and rather than dismiss Gann as partisan (a fact he does not by any means deny), I accept him on his own terms and learn from his perspective, even if it is not necessarily my own. New York in the late 20th century was an important time and place, one with which classical music is still reckoning, and Gann’s Boswellian capacity as historian will help with the sorting.

Apropos of these struggles immediately preceding the turn of the century, Gann writes:

I can make one ironclad prediction for the coming century: As long as institutions and critics continue to define “composer” as “one who writes in conventional notation for conventional European-style ensembles,” the young composers who get lukewarmly lauded in the newspapers will never have the magnetism of the modernist giants. The Aaron Jay Kernises and Michael Torkes and Augusta Read Thomases of the world, doing their damnedest to integrate themselves with the little old ladies on the orchestra boards, do not offer a creative energy for intellectual discussion to crystallize around. On that we’re all agreed, right? Let’s take the next step together—quick. “The present day composer refuses to die,” said Frank Zappa, and he was right—but the 20th-century composer will be dead in nine more months. Let us not enter the 21st century looking backward.

This is a strong cup of angry hortatory coffee, from a composer-critic deep in the throes of Y2K fever. (Remember that? We all thought things would change in a single night, for better or worse). If you subscribe to Gann’s aesthetic, you might be shouting, “Testify!” If, however, you’ve found yourself sincerely drawn to his declared recherché lot, you might consider pitching the book out the window. (I personally would like to distance myself from what he said, being an admirer of some works of Kernis, Torke, and Thomas.) But this is why articles like Gann’s are called “think pieces.” His polemic is unmerciful, by no means mealy-mouthed, and if he shows enthusiasm only for those composers whom he feels have fully embraced what he considers the quintessential American path, I say fair game to him; he’s only doing his job. Agree or not, his opinions are well founded, and at least he flies his colors loudly and proudly, having proven his right to these opinions through both palpable study and personal involvement: dirty hands. The descriptions of wars are always more profound out of the mouths of veterans than from pundits, however educated, who nursed their strong opinions from afar. Ultimately Gann is accountable for everything he says in one specific way: he backs up his pronouncements with his music.

He goes to Herculean lengths to explain his particular—and it is particular—line of thinking with practical reasoning. “I’ve tried to believe,” he writes, “that Uptown has its own philosophy developing parallel to Downtown’s, but that really isn’t the case. Instead, universities all over (except for the one that was open-minded enough to hire me, I must say [which is Bard College]) are determined to freeze the state of music circa 1964 in cryonic suspension.” This, he claims, is through the analysis and understanding of music written only to be analyzed and understood, not enjoyed. “Pitch-set analysis becomes the criterion of musical analysis,” he writes.

Most impressively, he lays out one spectacular argument to back up his “frozen in 1964” statement:

If I needed a telltale sign of Uptown’s spiritual emptiness, the students handed it to me in their lack of new heroes. When I was in high school 25 years ago, my new-musicky friends and I glommed up every recording by the hot composers of the day: Babbitt, Carter, Ligeti, Boulez. Whom do twentysomething Uptown composers rave about today? Babbitt, Carter, Ligeti, Boulez. The composers they’re influenced by are all septuagenarians, at least. The midcareer Uptowners—Schwantner, Zwillich [sic], Harbison, Shulamit Ran, Wayne Petersen—who get patted on the head by classical critics inspire no enthusiasm from young composers, because they’re so obviously imitators, not originators. Why would anyone model their music after Zwillich’s bland pastiche instead of going directly to the masters on whom she modeled her work? In three decades, the only name that has tentatively joined the Uptown pantheon is Brian Ferneyhough, whose music the average music lover is hard put to distinguish from Boulez.

Again, not to say that I entirely agree with what Gann is saying. I’ve found a number of things to admire in many of the execrable “midcareer Uptowners” listed. What is admirable is the forthrightness with which he says his peace (or his war)—and, more potently, the chutzpah he has in defending what he views to be wholly American music. Since the first notes of opera were sung or the first concertos fiddled on these shores, classical music in America—pace Joseph Horowitz—has been for the most part strictly European, a genteel import from the continent. Gann does not buy this, no sir. He does not assume that the past need be any kind of yardstick for the future, and he is perhaps the only critic I’ve ever read who not only feels this but who can also articulate it clearly and credibly. His ferocity, crossed with his capacity to publicly reason out his own ire, makes him the kind of critic only a composer can (or should) be. Would that there were a dozen more of him, offering these kind of “inside the bunker” perspectives that, agree with his pronouncements or not, are so vital, so daring, so pro-art and pro-progress. Too rare indeed!

Ultimately, what Music Downtown offers is an account from inside of what is now a vanished world. Downtown is not the same as it once was: I type this at the Starbucks at Astor Place, with St. Mark’s Place off in the distance—but my view of Cooper Union is blocked by the newly opened luxury lofts. Those angry young rebels who fought the system are now older, wiser, some venerated, some still obscure, some utterly vanished from the culture industry’s radar. Inevitably, the most vibrant and rebellious spirits grow sated, having less energy and more experience, trading up raw enthusiasm for wisdom. Gann, one gets the sense, would love this not to be true, that he would like the “scene” to be as alive as the bulk of its composers are. His reaction is like that of many a respected veteran: they too-frequently miss the days of the war, terrifying as they might have been, because it was only under that constant threat that they felt most alive. If there were a word for nostalgia for a time and place through which one did not live, I would apply that word to Music Downtown, but there is no such word, at least not in English. Maybe because it is a false feeling. We cannot struggle between Up-, Mid-, and Downtown any more than we can protest the murderous actions of the Kaiser. But what we can do, somewhat through the beneficence of Gann’s generous collection of articles, is pick up where they left off, using the resources of their knowledge and the ballast of their work to forge our own paths, fight our own fights, and pass these on to whomever follows. Things change.

Not to say there is not still a vestigial Downtown—if those composers still write music, then their scene still thrives because the scene is about the newness of the music—but my generation knows that we’ve got battles of our own. Dwindling audiences, daily news of The Death of Classical Music, helpful funding sources reduced to tapped wells, collapsed labels and publishers (again, I write this gazing at what was once the Carl Fischer building) is the miasma we face now—though with no paucity of talent, integrity, or participants, this is a fight we in fact can win. Once, the great schism of tonality versus atonality—Schoenberg contra Stravinsky, the between-the-wars Scylla and Charybdis—was the most pressing matter for a young composer. For those that followed, there was the too-vaunted Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown schism. I wish it were that simple now.

These days, Gann’s presence at the Voice is negligible; he’s now in academia. Our loss is his students’ gain, because as criticism should always be a teacherly impulse, Gann has proven himself—with Music Downtown as evidence—a spectacular teacher. The rest of us can buy his book, which should be read by every composer, performer, presenting organization, music historian, board of trustees, music critic, art critic, art student, scholar, pundit, fan or foe of new music, the entire staff of The New York Times, Pierre Boulez (or willing clone of same), editor, sculptor, indie rocker, Republican, thinker, dreamer, and willing listener.

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.