Monday, January 31, 2005

Generational Chatter

Among the new music blogs and newsgroups, there's been quite a bit of chatter about Kyle Gann's blog item on generational differences. I was born in the gap between the baby boomers (like Gann) and the children of baby boomers, which might account somewhat for having a perspective different from Gann's. By the time I got to University, I had the possibility to study with composers (Harrison, Mumma, Young, Lucier) from the experimental side of the tracks, and I didn't face the kinds of struggle with teachers through which my own teachers had gone. In the network of schools to which I belonged, the American experimental music tradition had as legitimate a lineage as any other, and the more significant professional performance possibilities were well-recognized (although the academic prize-, scholarship-, and job-placement capacity remained firmly outside of the experimental scene). By 1985, when I had finished my MA and decided that a move to New York was not realistic for me, the scene there was already splintered and mixed-up. Uptowners were programming downtown music in the hopes of increasing their audiences, and some "native" downtowners (John Zorn is Gann's example, but it just as well could have been Elliot Sharp), were composing music that often sounded more like something from the other part of town, even though Zorn's game-based pieces had a decidedly downtown pedigree, being related to Christian Wolff's "cuing" pieces, for example. More critical for me, as a young composer, and deeply disappointing, was a fundamental change in the way certain minimal musics were understood. Works by Reich, Riley, Glass, Young had been heard as much for the acoustical grafitti that was a by-product of the notes played, as well as for the re-encounter with tonality also suggested by those notes. (Something was terribly wrong for me when I heard a performance of drumming by Steve Reich and Musicians, and the vocal reinforcements of resultant patterns were simpoly omitted.) But the downtown scene was never monolithically defined by a tonal, repetitive, meditative genre nor was it ever defined by a lack of complexity, but rather the location and character of that complexity. As important to me as early minimalism were the social constructions of Ashley, Wolff's cues, or the circuitry of Mumma, none of which neccesarily led to a simple tonal surface. La Monte Young was the composer of both Two Sounds and The Well Tuned Piano. And what about the central figure of John Cage? Or Morton Feldman? Or Jo Kondo?

I agree with Gann that there has been a change in the last decade or so, but I don't quite follow this:
Many Europe-oriented, grad-school-trained composers have taken to launching their careers from Downtown spaces as being hipper.

He's buying into a trope about Europe that just doesn't fly, Wilbur. These composers are not Europe-oriented, they're career oriented, and they want to send in all the box tops and push all of the buttons necessary to get gigs in the US. They know nothing about European music in the past thirty years and they study with composers who are famous within US Academe but unknown in Europe. (A friend at GEMA told me that the serious American composers most-played in Germany over the past fifteen years are Cage, Ives, Feldman, Lucier, Reich, Glass, Adams, with Gershwin and Bernstein floating in and out of the list). By and large, Europeans interested in American music identify the experimental tradition as the real McCoy, and the academic scene is basically unknown. [N.B. There is a computer music network, where the connections between Paris and Palo Alto/Berkeley/MIT/San Diego are real, if in constant, funding-determined, flux. But this network is in a niche of its own, where a reconciliation between the former main-frame uptowners and micro-computer downtowns was forced long ago by technological developments.]

But I do hear a connection between the music of the careerists and the move by Reich and Glass away from the acoustical experiments of their earliest works. To my ears, it's an attachment to flashy, exciting surfaces and detachment from ambiguity and the larger issues surrounding the condition of music to which the experimental attitude first opened our minds and ears.

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