Breaking the Chain Letter:

An Essay on Downtown Music

By Kyle Gann

1. What Is "Downtown" Music?
2. Differences between Uptown and Downtown Music
3. The Uptown Prejudice Against Downtown Music
4. The Good News
5. UPDATE - 2012

1. What Is "Downtown" Music?

I have been much identified with what is called "Downtown" music. In fact, I have been accused of unnecessarily exacerbating tensions between "Uptown" and "Downtown" composers. I have been accused of drawing a dichotomy between them that doesn't really exist; or else used to, but does no longer. In this article I would like to define what I consider Downtown music, and defend my allegation that deep and pervasive differences between Uptown and Downtown music still exist. In fact, I perceive a deep bias against Downtown music on the part of the Uptown classical/academic establishment, one which I will document below. I will argue, further, that Downtown composers are victims of widespread discrimination. If these composers were black, or women, or Jewish, there would be a public outcry. But since the Uptown/Downtown distinction is little acknowledged or understood, the discrimination is allowed to persist.

"Downtown" refers to downtown Manhattan, below 20th Street (I'll pick that as an arbitrary boundary since the Kitchen, an important Downtown performance space, is now on 19th Street). But while "Downtown" music refers to music that gets played in downtown Manhattan, not all of that music comes from New York. There are Downtown composers all over America: Henry Gwiazda in Morehead, Minnesota; Art Jarvinen in Los Angeles; Peter Gena and Don Malone in Chicago; Pamela Z and Carl Stone in San Francisco. There are even occasional downtown composers in Europe, such as Maria de Alvear. I could say Downtown is a state of mind, but musicologically speaking, it's actually a rather well-defined performance practice.

How did Downtown music start? In 1961, Yoko Ono (still an obscure conceptual artist, six years away from meeting John Lennon) offered her loft in Soho for concerts. The first season there was curated by La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield. Before 1961, concerts in New York all happened uptown, in the Lincoln Center area. Ono's loft provided a big, open space conducive to non-traditional modes of performance. Many of the early performances were by the Fluxus group. In Ono's Wall Piece, for example, performers would run and hit their heads against a wall. In Robert Watts's Trace, the performers set fire to their music. This was certainly different from what was going on uptown: formal concerts of modern classical music, written in well-defined genres such as piano concerti and string quartets and performed in formal concert attire. In this early phase, differences between Uptown and Downtown music could hardly have been clearer.

The first ambiguities began when conceptualism begat minimalism. Young, Terry Riley, and especially Steve Reich and Philip Glass began performing music in Downtown lofts that was meditative, trance-inducing, and fully notated. Today, the works of Reich and Glass are performed at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. Does that mean that Reich and Glass became Uptown composers? Not at all. Although Downtown music is very difficult to generalize about and Uptown music not much easier, let me attempt to draw out some basic differences.

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2. Differences between Uptown and Downtown Music

It is difficult to remember at this point that, prior to World War II, America had a thriving compositional community with its own distinctly non-European aesthetic, spearheaded by Henry Cowell, John Becker, Carl Ruggles, George Antheil. As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, composers like Schoenberg, Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Krenek, and Weill made a bee-line to America, along with hundreds of lesser-known musical emigres. The burgeoning American scene was forced underground by the avalanche of famous Europeans, and the post-war era from 1946 to 1960 was a period of intense absorption of continental aesthetics. Composers like Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions became more European than the Europeans, and insisted that great American music could only be a continuation of the European tradition - primarily, the 12-tone tradition.

The American composers who had insisted on independence from Europe in the '20s and '30s - Henry Cowell, George Antheil, Leo Ornstein, Carl Ruggles - fell into serious decline as the neo-Europeans took over. Only John Cage continued to rebel against the European influx in the '40s and '50s, and his work, so out of step with its time, was almost completely ignored by the musical community. La Monte Young was one of the first composers to be galvanized by Cage's ideas. The concert series he and Maxfield curated at Yoko Ono's loft was not specifically a continuation of the Cowell-Ives American tradition. However, it was a total, 180-degree-opposed rebellion against European mandates, and it eventually led the way to a revival of the pre-war American scene.

Exceptions always exist. However, it is fair to say that Uptown composers of the '50s believed in notated music of considerable complexity. They wrote for fairly standard instrumental groups. If they weren't writing intricate serialist-style structures, they were writing splashy orchestral scores full of big brass climaxes and tensely competing sonorities. The argument they cultivated was that between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, or between neoclassicism and 12-tone music, or between a highly impersonal contrapuntal tonality and an increasingly fragmented form of atonality.

The attitude toward John Cage is a nigh-infallible litmus test of Downtown/Uptown difference. The virulence of the Uptown antipathy toward Cage is astonishing; composers there can barely pronounce his name without sneering. I recently heard Cage lambasted as a kind of Satan by Anthony Korf, who then directed the Uptown music ensemble Parnassus. Another famous Uptown professor couldn't help telling me within minutes of meeting me what a mean and hypocritical person Cage was. Downtown composers, on the other hand, found Cage gentle, thought-provoking, and endlessly patient, and felt liberated by his rigorously non-dogmatic influence. Cage informed young composers that they didn't need to seek out European models, that each composer should follow his or her own imagination; that each composer, as the 18th-century American composer William Billings put it, "should be his own carver." Uptown composers are horrified by and contemptuous of Cage's independence of European technique and tradition. And yet Cage was a tremendous advocate of discipline, a hard worker who revised and revised his processes until they yielded interesting results.

The premise of Downtown music is one that the other arts - painting, literature, poetry, dance - have had no trouble accepting. It is that music, like all other art, is a symbolic language of personal expression that each individual artist brings up from his or her soul. If the artist reaches deeply enough, and disciplines him- or herself honestly enough, the extreme particularity of his or her expression will achieve a kind of universality with which "audience members," spectators, listeners, will be able to sympathize. It is, of course, helpful and inspiring to know techniques and devices from the past used by other great musical minds. But even these potentially helpful techniques become impediments to sincere personal expression unless they are internalized, melted down, and rewrought within the new rules of one's own personal system of communication. Very often, it is conducive to a more sincere creativity to distance oneself from traditional forms - work with computers or weird instruments or hybrid genres - in order to escape the influence of past and inevitably foreign personalities.

And so the Downtown composer is attracted to media and materials that don't carry a strong sense of tradition. Phil Kline makes music for an array of ghetto blasters. David Weinstein's Impossible Music orchestra performs on hot-wired CD players. Many of the best Downtowners are pioneers in sampling, using bits of other recordings to make their own music. Or else Downtowners borrow rhythms and instruments from other cultures, combining elements into new hybrid musics. Downtowners do not feel that the meaning of a piece of music can be entirely captured by notation, and they often develop pieces in rehearsal rather than by trying to notate every nuance for an ensemble of complete and possibly unsympathetic strangers.

Quite often, Downtown composers are lacking in skills that a European conservatory would consider essential to a composer's education: orchestration, counterpoint, 12-tone set manipulation. Downtowners, however, have their own sets of skills - just intonation, sound processing, South Indian rhythmic cycles - that are more intimately relevant to the music they're trying to create. Having known many Uptown and many Downtown composers, I have never noticed that the Downtowners were any less steeped in expertise: usually, their areas of detailed knowledge are simply more unpredictable and wide-ranging.

For the Uptown composer, the path is quite different. The criteria to be satisfied are external, set by a tradition whose exemplars (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg) are considered almost more than human. One has to "prove" oneself by wrestling with, and mastering, forms and materials employed by earlier composers: the piano trio, the symphony, the orchestra, the narrative opera. A myth arises of an unbroken succession of techniques handed down from master to student over and over again across the centuries. Break this chain letter of contrapuntal and orchestrational truths, and terrible luck will descend upon you: grants will not be given to you, residencies will be denied you, your music will not be taken "seriously." Proving mastery of the tradition and getting into the history books is more important than the more immediate but "trivial" aims of accurately expressing yourself or connecting with the audience who's sitting there in front of you.

Explain these premises to any painter or poet, and they find the Uptown mandates incomprehensible. The real evil, though, is that the Uptown composers feel it necessary to hide the existence of Downtown music from their students. They are afraid that if a student comes to understand Cage, or Meredith Monk, or Harry Partch's 43-tone scale, that student might be tempted to break the chain letter, and not carry on the great tradition. What they're really afraid of, of course, is that the students might be inspired to drop their historical pretentions, develop their own personal creativity, make music that appeals to audiences, and achieve a kind of authentically satisfying success that their teachers never experienced.

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3. The Uptown Prejudice Against Downtown Music

I think it is fair to say that most Downtown composers found 12-tone music, and dissonant, challenging music in general, interesting. They did not always find it compelling or excitingly creative. The reverse definitely did not hold: Uptown composers did not, and usually do not, find Downtown music interesting. They find it, instead, a betrayal of European aesthetics, a refusal to be "serious." Downtowners have nothing against Uptown music except that it is often dull, predictable, and unimaginative. Uptowners feel that Downtown music shouldn't be played at all, or at the very least that it shouldn't be funded or recognized to any serious extent.

What is my evidence?

When I was in graduate school at Northwestern University, my teacher, Peter Gena, was a committed Downtown composer. He wrote a minimalist piece based on Beethoven's Op. 54 Sonata called Beethoven in Soho to illustrate the fact, he said, that if Beethoven were alive today he would be playing in Downtown lofts rather than at Lincoln Center. As Peter was gaining national visibility as co-director of the New Music America '82 festival, he was denied tenure by Northwestern. Part of the explanation given him by the head of the department was that he had brought the Downtown music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass into the classroom, and "we don't want Northwestern associated with that kind of music."

I am frequently asked to write recommendations for the Guggenheim award. At $30,000 for a year, it's one of the most highly desired composition prizes. No one I've recommended (all Downtown composers, of course) has ever received it. In fact, Downtown composers win Guggenheims only in the "sound art" category, never in "music" per se. The "sound art" category was created so that there would be some area of music that Uptown composers didn't control. John Cage wrote dozens of recommendations for the Guggenheim. None of his recommendees ever won. Finally he wrote the Guggenheim committee and asked, "None of the people I've recommended has ever won. What I want to know is, does my recommendation help or hurt?"

I was recently the guest critic at the yearly Contemporary Music Festival hosted by Indiana State University. The festival appears of have a lot of money behind it, and was run with extreme professional smoothness. Every year there is a featured guest composer; this year it was George Crumb. At my lecture, I pointed out that, out of the last 20 featured composers, almost all of them had won either the Pulitzer Prize or the Grauwemeyer Award. The Pulitzer Prize is given only to Eurocentric composers in a 12-tone or neoromantic vein. Since the prize's inception in 1943, all of the Pulitzer judges have been chosen by one person at Columbia, and usually from among former prize winners. The basis of the Grauwemeyer Award is even more suspicious. It is judged by a panel of two eminent composers (usually former winners) and a critic, but the University of Louisville composition faculty makes the first cut, and so many of the works submitted never reach the panel. Over an 11-year period, the prize has been given four time to East-European composers, and the rest of the time usually to Americans (like Karel Husa) whose music evinces an affinity with the East-European aesthetic.

The Pulitzer and Grauwemeyer define an extremely narrow slice of the current new-music spectrum. Excluded from that slice are minimalism, postminimalism, totalism, conceptualism, free jazz, improvisation, computer music, performance art, DJ collage, and most other trends in current music. John Cage never won a Pulitzer or Grauwemeyer; neither has Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, or Morton Feldman, five of the most famous and widely-loved composers of the last 20 years. I pointed these simple facts out at the Indiana State festival. The music faculty, who had been warm and hospitable beforehand, quit speaking to me.

I once researched the top composition prizes in America - the Pulitzer, Grauwemeyer, Prix de Rome, Koussevitsky, Guggenheim, Fromm Commission, Copland Fund, and a few others. On the panels of those prizes I found the same seven names over and over as judges: Gunther Schuller, Joseph Schwantner, Jacob Druckman (recently deceased), George Perle, John Harbison, Mario Davidovsky, Bernard Rands. All of them white men, all of them coming pretty much from the same narrow Eurocentric aesthetic. For awhile John Adams was on the Koussevitsky panel, but he reportedly quit in disgust over the narrowmindedness of the other panelists. These seven men have determined who wins the big prizes in American music for the last two decades. They have made sure that Downtown composers never win.

Many of the prize and grant panels include no jurors at all sympathetic to Downtown music. Some include a token Downtowner, and that person is consistently outvoted by the majority Uptowners. Downtowners who refuse to rubber-stamp the usual Uptown candidates are accused of being narrow and partisan, yet they end up defending Robert Ashley, Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, and other great Downtown figures against a unanimously opposing chorus.

The result is an artificial Uptown-created scene centered around prize-winning composers whose music disappears quickly after a few years of celebrity. Pulitzer Prizes of the past were given to once-famous establishment composers like Leo Sowerby, Norman Dello Joio, John La Montaine. Who still listens to their music today? A few specialists. Meanwhile, an entire history of American originals has paraded by - Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Lou Harrison - whose music becomes ever more widely known and loved, yet who can hardly count a single big-name prize among the lot of them. (Except for Ives, who was belatedly given a Pulitzer for his Third Symphony 40 years after he wrote it, and even then had to expurgate the experimental parts to get it.)

People periodically tell me that the situation is changing, that Uptowners are more accepting of Downtown music than they were several years ago. I'd love to believe it. I look everywhere for evidence, and find almost none. I attend university contemporary music festivals and classical music festivals; I see no Downtown composers programmed. The most recent list of Guggenheim winners included, once again, only Uptowners. I read Perspectives of New Music, the leading journal of the academic Uptown musicians; I see few articles on Downtown new music, and in several instances the few articles that have appeared have been sabotaged, published with mistakes too glaring to have happened by accident. I talk with music students at universities all over America; I find that almost none have been exposed to the music of Cage, Harry Partch, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, aside from a few who have sought it out on their own - their teachers did not mention the music to them. A friend of mine interviewed for a teaching job in New York. A faculty member asked her about John Cage, and she, knowing what was expected of her, lied: "He was important as a philosopher, but of course his music isn't very good." The faculty smiled approvingly; she had given the "right" answer.

I was told as an undergrad by a brilliant professor that John Cage was a charlatan, and that I should avoid consonance and use "good 20th-century intervals like major sevenths and minor ninths." That was the '70s, but in the '90s a brilliant former student of mine who writes microtonal music was told by eminent composer Roger Reynolds that he should give up on microtonality, there was nothing to it. Reynolds teaches at USCD, as does Brian Ferneyhough. Their students write one kind of rigorously Eurocentric music to take to composition lessons, another more rock-influenced kind for their personal pleasure. That's a sad commentary.

The support structure for Downtown music is eroding quickly. Three years ago (I'm writing in early 1998) I did a survey in New York and found that Downtown performances had dropped at least 30 percent from lack of funding. A more unofficial survey suggests that they've dropped another 30 percent since then. Meanwhile, every week my mail is filled with glossy brochures about Uptown composers, announcements of new Guggenheim and Pultizer winners, press releases detailing an endless series of new premieres of orchestral works written by the ruling elite. The classical musical establishment is determined neither to die nor to change, and its funding resources are seemingly inexhaustible.

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4. The Good News

Nevertheless, here and there the cultural winds are shifting. Excellent musicologists like David Nicholls and Bob Gilmore have begun making Downtown and experimental music an object of serious scholarship. Organizations like the American Composers Forum and CRI have made Harry Partch's writings and music plentifully available for anyone willing to seek them out. A new prize, the lucrative Herb Alpert award, was recently given to Pamela Z, a highly individual and quintessentially Downtown composer. The Bang on a Can festival has taken Downtown composers into Lincoln Center and obtained for them a serious hearing (even if Uptowners who attend the festival seem more interested in getting on it than learning from it). Ellen Zwilich, Uptown's favorite token star woman composer, amazed many by inviting Downtowners Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier onto the Carnegie Hall concert series she curates.

Downtown composers, being more technology-attuned and computer-literate, have established a far livelier presence on the internet than their Uptown counterparts. My own book American Music in the Twentieth Century has been published, the first history book to treat Downtown music seriously and centrally, rather than as a kind of weird lunatic fringe. Jacob Druckman is dead, other Uptown good old boys are aging, power is slipping from their hands. The experimental tradition, buried during World War II, cannot be repressed forever. Like a field of intransigent daisies, it is breaking up through the concrete of the Euro-classical establishment.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is that a number of musicians with no previous Downtown sympathies have begun engaging in a dialogue with me and even listening to me. Let no one kid you that the Berlin Wall between the Kitchen and the Pulitzer Prize has come down, but lines of communication are finally opening up. It is in that spirit that this essay is offered. My aim is not to inject a note of negativity, but to speak out on behalf of artists whose lives are adversely affected by massive unfairness in the music world. I am perfectly happy for Uptowners to continue writing their atonal Concertos for Orchestra as long as they will relax their vice-like grip on the sources and venues of new-music funding and performance and allow other types of composers to make a living too. Those who think I'm full of bull are invited to tell me why. Those who do not want to be guilty of oppressing a large group of honest artists are invited to listen and think for themselves.

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April, 1998

Copyright 1998 by Kyle Gann

5. An Update in 2012

This article, which I hadn't thought about in years, received a little public attention recently, and it occurred to me that an update is in order. Things have changed, though not always in directions I would have liked, and the above no longer represents my current thoughts, nor does it give a current picture. The great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady went bankrupt when the war was over, because no one wanted to be reminded of it, and his photos didn't sell. Similarly, composers get really irked with me for using terms like "Uptown" and "Downtown" - even though those were the terms so many of us used at the time. They represented a true historical reality, a war of attitudes between different composing cultures, and a war that many composers no longer want to be reminded of - in some cases because they know they fought on the wrong side. As the hot dog salesman says in Inherit the Wind, "Opinions are bad for business."

What has changed is that the geographical categories no longer apply. Young composers who get their D.Mus.'s at Ivy League schools now go to Downtown Manhattan to try to jumpstart their careers - or, probably more often these days, Brooklyn, where the energy seems to have relocated to. Meanwhile Manhattan is so gentrified, and the internet offers so many possibilities, that many composers are fleeing New York and making virtual careers in the ether. It's probably true, too, that certain academic music departments have absorbed a few composers who are more open-minded. The Society for Minimalist Music, which I helped co-found in 2007, has brought together a hundred or so scholars who enthusiastically write books and analyses about minimalist music and the-music-fomerly-known-as-Downtown. We note at our annual conferences, though, that musicology departments are more open to this music than most composition departments are. There's an impressive number of young composers getting advanced degrees in musicology rather than composition, because they don't feel the kind of music they love is welcome in the academic composition world.

The way I look at it today is this: Generally speaking, a composer is someone who has learned dozens and hundreds of things that you're "not supposed" to do in a piece of music. The more trained a composer is, the more prohibitions he tends to carry around in his head, and, the more prohibitions he can rattle off, the higher he tends to float upward in academia and the classical establishment. (For instance, I read recently that a nice composer I like "breaks the taboo against using pre-modern gestures"; I was never aware there was any such taboo. And one of my students was recently told by two composition teachers that he shouldn't write music with a steady beat: "it's not sophisticated.") During a certain historical period, from around 1960 to maybe 1995 or a little later, the composers who didn't acknowledge all those prohibitions found themselves a scene together in about a half-dozen spaces in lower Manhattan. In part, that scene is no longer there; some of the spaces have moved or ceased to exist; the younger composers who come in now seem to be a heterogeneous bunch about whom it is difficult to generalize. The attitudes I discuss above remain very much with us, I'm afraid, but it is no longer so easy to predict where one will encounter them - or where one might suddenly find oneself freed from them. And indeed, some of the excesses of the Uptown years are now so obvious that they have become difficult to defend as rigidly as they once were. John Adams and Steve Reich have won Pulitzers; the Grawemeyer remains impervious.

It is sad when an artist becomes an artist by internalizing a long list of prohibitions. An artist should be a positive person whose imagination can freely concoct possibilities no one had ever thought of before, and use whatever means are necessary to bring those possibilities to life. Clearly one of the things that's been wrong with "contemporary music" for a long time now is that composers are less concerned with what they can create than with all the things they're not supposed to do, all the chords that seem too naive, all the melodies too hummable, all the forms too obvious. Every composition becomes a chain of evasions, an ungenerous process of withholding from the listener anything he might naturally expect, an embarrassment about anything too easily understood. Some composers - quite a few composers, in fact, though in the minority - get the problem with this, and the Downtown spirit is still out there, and still derided by the elitists and sophisticates. But the composers who have that Downtown spirit no longer have their geographic center in Downtown Manhattan, and so we lack a term for the ethos some of us envision.

February, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Kyle Gann

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