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music downtown: musical politics

January 13, 2011

This is more of a rambling reaction to some of the ideas presented, rather than a formal review or critique of what’s going on in the book.  I read the section mostly in one sitting, so all of these ideas sort of blended together.  Here’s to hoping its coherent.

The musical politics section of music downtown deal more with the politics within the world of music (as opposed to the previous section of topics touching on politics versus music).  I don’t think its much of a surprise that those with divergent views on not simply what is good music, but what  music should be.

Reading Gann’s weekly columns addressing this war, you get the impression that nothing has changed since he was writing for the Village Voice.  The propagandists and the grunts maybe different people, but they’re all performing the same sort of actions.  The biggest change may be that the chief battlefield is now located on the Internet.

Some of these battles are entirely valid, help to make musicians think about their art in a new way, and hopefully better music.  In paradigms lost Gann talks about music that crosses boundaries of genre or style and how the audiences of those different styles perceive it.  A Rhys Chatham work may come across as bland to someone with a background in rock music, but to art music lovers, his pieces are a revelation.  Or, another example, the game pieces Zorn wrote (such as Cobra) probably were more fascinating to someone who listened to downtown improv than to people familiar with the game pieces bouncing around in modernist circles a handful of years earlier.

This borrowing of musical ‘kit’ from different ‘teams’ helps a genre grow and develop and change, and critics can be useful guides in identifying the connection.  It can help listeners find new ways to explore other music, and it can help artists explore new directions.  However, an enemy propagandist would likely pull a “Simpsons did it” and dismiss an entire musical genre for his own personal gains and (often) baseless prejudices.

One might say that a critic’s job is simply to expound on his or her prejudices, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate description.  For one, often bad reviews fail to pass a certain muster for intellectual honesty, essentially attacking an artist for doing something that artist was never trying to do.  Gann touches on the “kicking of the corpse” that Cage received on his death in obitchuaries. His main problem being that critics were making fun of something they didn’t care to even try to understand.  Be suspicious of critics that do not spend time explaining what he feels the artist’s intentions were.

I would also say be suspicious of critics who spend more time discussing how music appears on the page than how it sounds.  For one thing, they probably didn’t have the score with them when they heard the music.  Another thing: unless you’re fascinated by mathematical patterns and shapes, you’re most likely not planning to listen to the music with such a visual focus.  This camp, which is generally the one Gann is most at odds with in the columns, has created as mathematically organized a system for proving why its music sounds good as the music is mathematically organized on the page.

I’d like to think that in 2010 we’ve moved past that debate, but I still come across serial composers pushing their goods fairly regularly.  One of the better articles in the politics section (called the great divide) is about how uptown aerialists have eventually stuck to their art form for decades and have no plans on evolving from there.  They’ve worked themselves into such a self-satisfied position that they haven’t grown or developed, which is essentially the same thing as dying if you’re an artistic style.

Personally, I have a hard time even considering the downtown and uptown musical worlds to be part of the same tradition.  I think its helpful approaching them differently, which a separate group of expectations.  I mean, at one point you could say they have similar lineage, but I’m not sure if you could go ahead and breed them.  In fact, this problem is the topic of berlitz’s downtown for musicians where he takes some amusement in musicians composers from outside the downtown world trying to either copy its music or invade it outright.  Sure, Gann talks about how the scores look different, but we already decided, that’s not the point of music.  More telling, to me, is the responsibilities of the performers in the two camps.  One has a much more defined set of instructions and while the other is entrusted with a greater portion of making the music happen.  Personally, I find this difference to be much more significant than look of the page, even though in some ways they might be different ways to say the same thing.

Possibly the most important part of the musical politics section deals with money and performances.  He spends a lot of time in multiple columns talking about the types of composers who are getting performances and recognition.  Generally, he views that institutions that once welcomed experimental and fresh music were instead presenting established and already well-known music.  To me, this is a problem of musical ecology.  A city like New York needs to have a diverse set of music ensembles, sure, but it also needs a diversity of festivals and venues and prizes, all of which that can nurture different parts of a musical world.  For example: Festival A focuses on experimental music and Festival B’s line up has mid-career artists.  If Festival A begins to present the same groups year after year, Festival B is not going to have new groups to present, which disrupts the entire ecology.

Of course, this is an attempt to take a snapshot of a fluid system, but its an important point.  For artists, their livelihood is at stake if these gatekeepers become more conservative, but for the public its destructive because it limits the musical opportunities they can hear.  Even if Jim Bob isn’t interested in hearing that experimental music performance, he might be interested in hearing that musician in ten years, which won’t happen if the experimental music venue starts booking the same types of touring chamber ensembles four other venues do.

Kudos if you made it through this entire thing.  Go listen to some music.

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