Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Importance of Re-defining "Downtown"

In the preface to Music Downtown, Kyle Gann claims that the “younger generation” (the one to which I think I still belong) is more interested in vernacular music than classical, presumably inferring that this stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of former generations (namely, I assume, his). This assertion is patently ridiculous. While I won’t argue that my generation is, indubitably, more interested in vernacular music than classical music, we are not the first generation to adopt this attitude. The generation that “killed” classical music is not mine, but my parent’s (the one to which Gann belongs). Were I to ask my father to name five Romantic symphonies, he would laugh at me and go back to his Pink Floyd records. Were I to ask him to name five Rolling Stones songs, he’d have them listed in the time it took me to construct this sentence.

However, as much offense as I might take to Gann’s statement, I invoke this quote not so much to fault a specific generation, or even to fault Gann’s contention as such, as I do to engender an understanding of what my definition of Downtown music consists of, and why I feel Gann’s is faulty. Downtown music is more of a philosophical stand than a musical one, yet Gann is attempting to define it as one would normally group a music genre: by finding artists that share compositional common ground. With Uptown and Downtown, this won’t work. Even if we are to exempt geography (which, given that there are composers in places other than NYC, we certainly should), Uptown and Downtown composers should not be grouped by musical style, which would merely be divisive, but by similar philosophy.

The European influence that Gann cites as being indicative of Uptown and Midtown music is not so much a musical influence as it is an influence of attitude. The European tradition of sitting in concert halls, listening to music in a prescribed and narrowly defined genre, where compositional practice is defined by sets of rules, and analyzing that music strictly for academic content, is what uptown music has derived from European tradition. Downtown music took music out of the concert hall and into a setting comfortable to its participants, one generally tread upon by rock musicians. The very fact that composers of my parent’s generation were so interested in vernacular music is the reason that Downtown music even exists! The composers of “Downtown” music are steeped in the aesthetics of rock and jazz (so much for the assertion that Gann’s generation doesn’t place the same weight on vernacular music that mine does), and their musical philosophies reflect a sentiment not characterized by rules or confinement, but rather by expansion; taking different influences, refusing to be pigeonholed, questioning definitions, and removing art music both from the concert hall and from its pedestal as “art music”.

Furthermore, the definers of Uptown and Downtown with regards to musical content have become blurred. I find it amusing that in the introduction and preface to Gann’s Music Downtown, he cites that New Complexity, as led by Ferneyhough, Reynolds, and their ilk, is a rallying cry for Uptown music, yet, in American Music’s chapter on post-Cage conceptualism, he cites New Complexity as a conceptualist style, thus, according to his criteria, rooted in the DOWNTOWN scene! Additionally, Steve Reich, perhaps the very picture of downtown music, himself claims major influence from Stravinsky, the primary exponent of European neo-classicism! This is one of Downtown music’s most fascinating facets: it can draw influence, in the same piece, even, from Bach, The Beatles, and Berio, and still be Downtown. In fact, this diversity of influence might even, according to some, make this hypothetical piece MORE “Downtown”.

Gann makes the statement, towards the end of the introduction, that, as he transitions from the world of Downtown New York City to the world of academia, he finds that he is now “too old” to be a faithful and reliable barometer of Downtown music. It seems to me that Gann is primarily associating Downtown music, a burgeoning music style characterized by aggressive challenging of musical precept and a relaxed attitude towards the uncommon, with youth, and, no doubt he is right to do so, as Downtown music is A) a young movement, and B) these values are also characteristic of adolescence and post-adolescence. Now, I’m not one to be ageist-great composers and performers, even great critics, can come at any age. Reich, Perlman, Christgau: all are icons of the aforementioned three fields, and all three are over 60. Similarly, Nico Muhly, Hilary Hahn, Chuck Klosterman: all are of my generation, and they continue to excel in fields set by their predecessors. So, perhaps, then, Gann isn’t too old: perhaps he’s just too crotchety.

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