Postclassic: Roll Me a Cigarette, Partner, I'm a Postminimalist

April 4, 2005

By Kyle Gann

Whenever I inveigh against the unfair obstacles Downtown composers face, I sometimes receive a certain kind of question: Isn't the value of Downtown composers that they're rebels, and wouldn't they be ruined if they became part of the establishment? If they won awards and became university professors, wouldn't they lose their authenticity? Wouldn't they become as complacent and authoritarian as Uptowners if they got performed a lot and were financially comfortable, and wouldn't their music weaken? Can't the social conscience that their music represents only be preserved by keeping them disenfranchised and in relative poverty?

I'll pause a moment to let any Downtown composers finish laughing, but I do get such questions, and I intend to answer them.

This is akin to the "artists need to starve to sharpen their work" theory that some colleges use to justify denying tenured status to art practitioners. I have yet to meet an artist who doesn't find that paternalistic, condescending, and wrong-headed. Oh, we all know the occasional talented rich boy who never developed his talent because he didn't need to, and there are stories of composers (George Crumb being somewhat archetypal) whose creative trains were derailed by too much success too early. But those are a completely different matter from supplying an artist with a living wage, or providing a modicum of helpful recognition after years of hard work. Every composer knows how your art improves: produce a lot of it, which requires loads of time and freedom from exhausting day jobs. Everyone knows how you gain the technique needed to increase your work's scale and ambition: by getting the practical experience of being performed. Denying these to artists does not make them spiritually pure, it stunts their artistic growth. Strip away the sappy, Song of Norway sentimentalism about artistic geniuses, and that's the common sense that?s left.

I'd bet you that there's not a composer in Manhattan who wouldn't prefer being fed and performed to being romanticized. (Please, Downtowners, let me know which of you prefer being romanticized, and I'll be glad to oblige.) I bet $30,000 would buy you the authenticity of any composer in the East Village. Easy payment plan available. Being considered authentic rebels, little miniature Harry Partches, I guess, is a kind of charming consolation prize for not getting much else, but the picture doesn't really fit. For instance, I wrote the script for the American Mavericks radio series, but I did so under protest against the stupid word "mavericks." It implies that Downtown composers, or the American experimentalists, are hermetic, society-scorning loners who eschew all external influences and go their own way. Hardly anything could be further from the truth.

Downtowners are (and experimentalists have always been) just as social, and just as susceptible to each other's influence, as any other group of musicians. Even Nancarrow - the archetypal maverick, right? - spent his entire life working out rhythmic ideas that Cowell had written about in New Musical Resources, while reading about the latest Continental trends in his subscription to Die Reihe. Cage used those ideas too, and so have John Luther Adams, Mikel Rouse, and Larry Polansky. Cowell begat Cage, who begat Feldman, who begat Bernadette Speach. Partch begat Ben Johnston, who begat me. What's maverick about that? The point is, Downtown music, American experimental, postclassical, whatever you want to call it, is not a more-street-credible-than-thou moral stance, but a coherent, traceable musical tradition. We steal ideas from each other, we influence each other, we even go, after concerts, to restaurants in large groups and drink and gossip together. But to hear the maverick myth, you'd think that after leaving Merkin Hall we each put on our cowboy hats, turn on our heels, light unfiltered cigarettes, and stalk off to our lonely studios to write music that owed nuthin' to nobody.

The genealogy of Downtown ideas can be documented. A lot of our scores can be analyzed. A surprising number of us have doctorates. We're closer to European music than we pretend, or than you realize. Minimalists are all Bruckner fanatics. Hell, we sit around and talk about how we're the real inheritors of the Mozart-to-Brahms tradition, and how 12-tone music was a misguided aberration, a sick detour. Like Mozart, we go out and perform our own works in odd little spaces, composing for the moment instead of being in thrall to music of a previous century. Uptowners inherited Mozart's forms, we inherited his attitude. The reason we're outsiders? We placed our bets shrewdly but unpopularly, on Feldman and Reich rather than Babbitt or Druckman or Harbison. We're feeling pretty well vindicated these days; we expect to eventually be proved right on Ashley, La Monte Young, and Trimpin as well, but we don't think that anyone should ever be excommunicated for their opinions and preferences and the models they follow.

Sure, we're rebels, but more like Solzhenitsyn than Jesse James, not so much striking out on our own as escaping an absurd authoritarian structure. To call Downtowners mavericks and rebels confers too much legitimacy on the Uptown establishment. That establishment does not represent The Inauthenticity of Mass Consciousness in a Corporate Society, and, sorry, it does not require a Radical Understanding of Human Freedom to escape it. It represents very little, in fact: just an outdated educational system held in place by anachronistic social institutions like the orchestra and opera house. All it takes to turn away from it is a willingness to make art out of materials and ideas that come from your daily environment rather than from your education, a refusal to write multimovement string quartets and concertos with the mandated kinds of harmonic, textural, and tempo contrasts. I can't tell that there's any such thing as Uptown painting, or Uptown literature. I'm sure the other arts have styles that periodically become the establishment for awhile and then give way to others. But in no other art do artists have to struggle against relentlessly surviving paradigms specifically from 19th-century Europe. Electronic music is the musical area with no real Up-/Downtown distinction because, with the exception of the endearingly quaint genre of musique concrète, there's no oppressive European inheritance involved. Far from Downtownness being a difficult state to achieve, I'm constantly amazed that the composition world isn't vastly dominated by Downtowners. It hardly takes nerves of steel to be skeptical of one's education.

If this blows your romantic image of Downtown, tough luck - we're more Woody Allen's than James Dean's, and I guarantee we would bear up bravely under some funding and recognition. Look at it this way: If poverty and disenfranchisement are such wonderful goads to an artist's creativity, Downtowners feel guilty hoarding them. We'd be happy to spread them around more equitably.

Copyright 2004 by Kyle Gann

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