Suppression of Downtown Music for Dummies

April 20, 2005

By Kyle Gann

I know a lot of Uptown composers, probably a lot more than most Downtown composers know. (Hell, I had a Grawemeyer Award winner over for dinner last night, have another one coming over soon, and down the road is the house of another friend, one of the country's best-known opera composers. I'm better connected than you think. And by Uptown, for purposes of this entry, I mean Uptown, Midtown, and non-Downtown. It's not a distinction we Downtowners make conversationally, sorry.) As I say, I know a lot of Uptown composers. All of them are lovely people. They're all politically liberal. They all despise George W. Bush, and all fear for the direction our country is taking. They're deeply devoted to their students and colleagues. They all believe in diversity and equality, and in giving minority and women composers every possible chance.

And every single one of them, without exception, says and believes that it is wrong to discriminate against composers on the basis of style.

Some of these composers, not all of them, sit on panels for awards and artists' colonies, serve on search committees for academic positions, make recommendations for commissions. What happens is, say an orchestra piece by John Luther Adams comes up: "Well, thats all on the C major scale, it's not very sophisticated." A piece by Beth Anderson: "That piece wanders all over the place, there's no throughline." A score by Elodie Lauten: "There aren't very many dynamic markings here, that piece isn't really ready for orchestral performance." A piece by Phill Niblock: "This is just drones, nothing really happens in it." A piece by Bernadette Speach or Peter Garland: "Too repetitive." A piece by Joshua Fried: "There's no score, I don't really understand what's happening here." And so all those composers get passed over for awards, for funding, for jobs, for commissions, on what my Uptown friends are convinced is the basis of quality. They are certain that they are only applying standards that they have developed through their long experience as practical composers. What is really happening is that they dismiss all this music because they have no way to evaluate music written in Downtown idioms. And despite all their best, most honest, most laudable intentions, they discriminate against Downtown music on the basis of its style.

I'm not saying anything controversial or even subjective. I talk to these Uptown friends, and they agree that the reasons I've given for their decisions are the correct ones. When I talk to them, they concede that perhaps there's a style there that they don't understand. They will admit, under duress, that I may have a point about Downtown music having different notational conventions that, to them, look amateurish - "undermarked" is their term - but may not be. They recognize that some important composers have come from the Downtown scene: Reich, Feldman, Zorn. When a Downtowner reaches that level of adulation by younger composers, they resist acknowledging it for awhile, and then finally decide that it's OK to consider those people important. But they don't extrapolate from those exceptional cases to the younger Downtown composers who haven't "made it" yet. Aside from myself, they are surrounded by dozens of like-minded colleagues, and they feel no pressure to consider Downtown music under a different set of standards. They're not familiar with the music of composers whom Downtowners consider their important forebears: Niblock, Ashley, Lucier, Oliveros, Branca. They don't quite understand why Lou Harrison is supposed to be such a big deal, because they find his music aimless and lacking a tension that they don't know how to do without. They're resigned to Cage, but don't teach him. They don't know how to distinguish between drone pieces, or postminimalist pieces, that are really interesting and others that are merely pedestrian (the way I realize I'm not good at distinguishing a good DJ artist from a mediocre one). They don't know the reference points of Downtown music. They do their best, but ultimately they're comparing the music they hear with that of Ligeti, Boulez, Daugherty, Druckman, Harbison, Davies, Carter, Rochberg, and it all sounds lacking, amateurish, unsophisticated. While talking to me, they'll come around to realizing that they may not know enough about that music to judge it, and they really want to be fair and nondiscriminatory. But when they get back on that panel or committee with their peers, and they hear a CD by Mikel Rouse, they don't know what to do with it, and they slap it in the reject pile. Some of them, under my influence, even graciously try to represent the Downtown viewpoint on panels, but they don't really know how to argue for it, and there's no effect. The ones who are really in the circles of power in American music, being human, don't have a strong incentive to dilute their own influence by widening those circles - though one of the Grawemeyer winners, truly conscientious and newly aware that Downtown composers don't have a voice, has gotten me involved in some panels. As I said, lovely people.

Well, so what, right? Downtowners have the same reaction to Uptown music, right? And they're just as biased.

But the relationship is not symmetrical.

Have you ever heard of a college or university where the faculty was so Downtown that no Uptowner could get a job there? No. Mills College, maybe. The number of Downtown composers who have achieved academic positions in America can be counted on your fingers with some left over, and one of those (myself) only did so, after unsuccessfully applying for more than 100 jobs over 16 years, by pretending to be a musicologist. Contrary to a self-consoling Uptown myth, plenty of Downtowners would love to teach, are qualified, and do apply for the jobs.

Have you ever heard of an award panel that was so dominated by Downtowners that no matter how hard the token Uptowner panelist tried, she couldn't get an award for any Uptown piece? No. Out of all the composer awards in the country that go to composers, two routinely go to Downtowners: the Herb Alpert Award and the Society for Contemporary Performance Arts (the latter funded, I believe, by the estates of John Cage and Jasper Johns). Thanks goodness for them. It's great when they go to good composers like David First or Pamela Z or David Dunn, but both these awards are decided by secret nomination, and it's a little frustrating for Downtowners to sit around and hope for an unexpected bolt from the blue. We need things we can apply for, with some hope of getting them.

Have you ever heard of an orchestra whose Downtown composer-in-residence made sure that all the pieces that got commissioned were by Downtowners? No.

Besides, the Downtown point of reference includes the Uptown view, and the reverse is not true. Most Downtowners learn about the music of Ligeti, Boulez, Harbison, Druckman, Daugherty, Davies, Carter, Rochberg - we can hardly avoid it. We're educated on the same 12-tone music, the same modern European masters, we hear pieces by the Pulitzer composers. But we've also discovered alternative composing aims and strategies of which the Uptowners are unaware. Many of my Uptown friends go their entire lives without hearing music by Niblock, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Duckworth, Lauten, Lentz. They never get immersed enough in that music to realize that it has its own, different, often quite demanding set of standards.

Some of the hardcore Uptown (non-New Romantic) composers of the past, like Wuorinen and Davidovsky, went on deliberate crusades against music of diverse aesthetics, but that's not true of my friends. They think they're simply applying their hard-won knowledge and being fair. So I'm not accusing them of a conspiracy or vendetta or anything dishonorable. They're just ignorant. Their ignorance, and perhaps a little laziness, puts them in the contradictory stance of being politically liberal but culturally conservative, giving lip service to diversity but perennially reforming musical society in their own narrow image. And, with all the best intentions in the world, they collectively prevent composers from the Downtown scene from participating in the few opportunities that this country affords for composers to make a little money from their work, to make their living from music-related jobs, to buy the time it would take to undertake serious creative work without interruption.

Some people on the internet think I don't know what I'm talking about, but I do. I watch it happen. The composers in positions of power don't disagree with my assessment. I am well aware that many, many Up- and Midtown composers similarly have a difficult time getting awards, commissions, jobs - but whatever their problems, they are not being discriminated against based on a total misunderstanding of their style and intentions. Education is needed. Consequently, I'm going to continue writing about the problem and talking about it until the situation changes. Any composer who thinks the current status quo is just fine is less liberal than he flatters himself.

Copyright 2005 by Kyle Gann

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