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Reading “music downtown” part 1

August 15, 2010

So, I’ve finally cracked Kyle Gann’s “Music Downtown.”  I’m excited.  I’m a huge fan of his blog PostClassic.  I’m hoping the book will illuminate a handful of things to me.  For one, I want to learn more about composers I love.  Who wouldn’t?  Another is that I want someone to explain to me why I should appreciate the composers I don’t love, because I feel like everyone deserves a fair and proper defense (except, maybe K-Rod.  What a jerk).  Finally, I hope that I’ll get a sense of what new music was like in the early 90s.  Perhaps connecting the dots from then to now can be educational.

As I dig through the book I’ll put up some thoughts and reactions.

The introduction to the book definitely fell into catagory three, providing an interesting survey into the environment that was NYC in the time leading up to Gann’s tenure at the Voice and during.  I’m not sure I learned a ton, but I do think that it was helpful to establish the point of view Gann was going to be writing from and some of the terms he was going to use to help organize the book’s figures.  The book then dives into  two artists that, for me, fall into catageory 2, composers I don’t love: Robert Ashley and Yoko Ono.  And then the third composer, Philip Glass, I have no idea how to categorize.

The chapter on Ashley was great.  Anyone who has been reading PostClassic lately should give it a read for background.  I think its a proper starting point for Kyle’s current thoughts on Ashley and also helps to introduce some of the central elements that make up the music of Robert Ashley.  Speaking of that music, I’ve always had a troubled relationship.  In small clips, I really enjoy it, but the enjoyment quickly leads to boredom.   I can’t get through any of his operas in a single sitting, and Gann helps to offer a reason, in a round about way.  Most of Ashley’s music was written for broadcast television, and conceived of in22 minute sections.  I plan to re-explore Now Eleanor’s Idea with this approach shortly.  I’ve also gained a lot of respect for the way Ashley thinks about music and has organized his thoughts.  His ideas regarding opera are fascinating to me and require more reflection.

Yoko Ono has simply never gelled with me.  I don’t know what it is, but I have a feeling its purely irrational and relates to my hatred of the Beatles.   This piece didn’t win me over, but I will try and get a hold of her earlier music to see if it can give me some context to understand the Yoko Ono the rocker.

I enjoyed the Philip Glass piece.  I don’t hate Glass or his music, but I could do without a lot of it.  Gann’s insight that Glass at heart is a midtown, traditional composer is very revealing.  It’s a mistake to expect something different from Glass and call him a sell-0ut.  This quote also speaks for itself.

“If you listen carefully you’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s five plus four plus three, Glass always does that.’ But it geos by so fast taht you’d have to know my music to be aware of it.  Whereas, in Music in Similar Motion, that would be the whole piece.”

Perhaps another problem Glass faces is that so many people are aware of his music, and the output throughout different decades, that it seems to be less interesting.  At the same time, I never hear people complaining that Mozart used certain harmonic tricks over and over again.  Perhaps Glass should be judged for what he is, and more importantly what he does in each individual piece.

Overall, I find it interesting that Gann chose to lead with three composers who have such a strong relationship with the written word.  I mean, its easier to pick apart music when you have words to explore as well as sounds.  But, what role does language have in the downtown scene?  Was opera a vehicle used by downtown composers because language helped new listeners to new music navigate the newness?  Additionally, is it surprising that both the Ashley opera and Glass opera featured in these sections do not follow conventional narrative story arcs and make liberal jumps in time/reality.  I wonder how those ideas relate to downtown music (a first response is that music built on repetition and stagnation allows for a story that doesn’t necessarily move in a single inevitable direction).  Is Yoko Ono’s need to start with text before translating it into another medium (whether music or visual art) help to bring clarity to her works or provide a deconstruction that helps listeners?

These are all questions that hopefully will be answered as time goes on.


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