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Music Downtown pt 3

January 11, 2011

I’ve actually read about half the book in the time I posted my last update, so I’ll split this chunk up a little differently:


  • End of Interviews:  I’m really glad Gann featured some artists that still haven’t become household names in the new music world, and instead chose what I can only presume are artists he really enjoyed and were examples of good writing.  Another interview with Rouse, Leroy Jenkins, Maria de Alvear, and Fred Wei-han Ho round out the section.  None of the interviews made me particularly compelled to run and grab their music (minus Rouse, which I will save for another entry).  The last few pieces are also interesting because they start to bring into focus a key element of the next part of music downtown, namely the issue of diversity in new music.  You get the idea that Gann feels the need to promote superficial diversity through his column, and he resents this superficial idea of diversity.  I gather this was a very pressing issue in late 80s/ early 90s America.  While I’m by no means suggesting that America (Or just the New Music world) is in a post-racial/post-patriarchal environment, It’s nice to know that 20 years later features on composers don’t have to spend most of their space on the person’s background, and we can all jump in and think about the music.


The following section is called Music and/versus Society.  I think it’s a really apt title.  Much of it has to do with politics, but its politics affecting music.  More importantly, it addresses the fact that often art seems to be the target of society rather than an element of it.   Some great quotes:

  • ‘Pop music uses the sampler as a tape recorder, new music uses it as an instrument.’ -Lawrence Stanley in a really good primer on Plunderphonics.  I may just have to photocopy this one and keep it handy for my dinner party conversations (I kid… no one invites me to those).
  • People with no light to shine themselves make gods in order to gain self-importance by reflecting their light. – On Mozart scholars who seek to turn Mozart into a mystical genius for their own gain.  I personally can’t help but think this attitude is just as damaging for classical music as tuxedos in concert halls.
  • In response to people who claim to not think about the audience when they write music because everyone responds to music differently: A surgeon might as well say, ‘I don’t use anesthetic, because there is no such thing as the patient.  Everyone responds to pain differently.’ Does that mean I can get anesthetic when I have to listen to those pieces?
  • There’s nothing to quote from the piece dysfunctional harmony because the entire column is a fairly homogeneous entity that refuses to be picked apart.  It’s about the suppression of creativity in America and a vague proposal on how composers can fix the problem by becoming active composer/teacher/creativity-facilitators.  It’s idea that I don’t think caught on enough, yet.
  • I dream of a classical music that doesn’t exist in official America: one that could be announced by a Texan drawl without incongruity.  A music that would go as well with Dos Equis and chili (real chili, not Northern tomato soup) as with Chablis and escargot.  A music that connects to every day life, like that of Ives, Partch, and Cage, rather than whisks listeners away to some make-believe salon where a fictionalized Chopin sends the ladies swooning.  One in which classical is a neutral notion, dissociated from class and money, a matter of duration, attention, and function. I feel like this is what I’ve tried to do  with my radio show.  I don’t know if I’ve been successful, but I know it is where I’m coming from, minus the cheap shot on our Northern chili.
  • In paradise at our fingertips, Gann discusses the class war waged through musical aesthetics.  He discusses how modernist composers can be seen trying to mimic the corporate mindset of control, polish, and mathematical coldness.  Against this is Zorn’s approach that is essentially the opposite all of those things.  As much as I love this mindset, its hard to disagree with: by being merely antirationalist, they have implicitly accepted the technocratic terms of the debate, and agreed to make only a negative contribution.  They perform the same function for corporate America as the mudhead figure at a Hopi dance, siphoning off the negative energy so the ceremony can proceed as planned.   He also proposes a better option, but you’ll have to buy the book to find out!  It’s definitely an article I have rabbit eared for future reference.
  • Finally tackling the multiculturalism issue, he states In practice, though, multiculturalism has resulted in a cartooned paradigm for how art reflects the artist’s cultural background.  A work of art does not parrot the opinions and viewpoint appropriate to the artist’s ethnic and sexual identity, though multicultists pretend it does. He goes on to point out that art that is able to sloganeer for liberal ideals also do better in the grant world, which, I feel, doesn’t help anyone in the long term.  Over time, the patronage of mediocrity in the arts for the benefit of an extra-musical quality causes superior art to waste away, and the mediocre art won’t build an audience or real support beyond ideologues.
  • In a somewhat dual topic column called medicine music, he approaches the idea of “art for art’s sake” as a dead-end argument because people who believe art has no use essentially create useless art.  …anybody know a use for the Babbitt string quartets? actually caused me to laugh out loud at 7:30 in the morning in a room full of sleeping people.  Oops.  He also brings up the multicultural argument again and points out that multicultural advocates pigeonhole arts in to the most limited possibility, art made by women, African-Americans, gays and so on, explicitly expressing their concerns as women, African-Americans, and gays.  Any other perspective presented by these groups (or any others), or more importantly, art that cannot clearly express a perspective, such as pure music, doesn’t pass their test.  This, in the end makes the arts an easy target for enemies of the NEA.  Instead, he proposes that we strongly advocate for the soul nurturing and emotional value that music can hold, even if it that doesn’t add up in a hyper-capitalist environment.

In a few days, the Musical Politics section…

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