Between Rock and Harder Places?

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

I was a teenager when punk rock exploded in New York in the late 1970s. I remember showing up to high school and watching my classmates dye their hair and put safety pins in their clothes and celebrate music, that at the time seemed nothing more than the basic I IV V of Haydn and Mozart. I wasn’t interested for the same reason I wasn’t interested in Haydn and Mozart. Growing up with a family-chosen soundtrack of swing-era pop and lite-rock ballads, I stumbled upon a different musical rebellion – the music of composers like Charles Ives, John Cage and Stockhausen, thanks to columns in the Village Voice and the then adventurous programming on WNYC-FM.

When classmates told me that the Clash were revolutionaries, I told them to check out pieces like Fontana Mix or It’s Gonna Rain and hear what revolution really sounded like. Any kind of rock music just didn’t seem rebellious enough especially since loads of people bought the albums and it was big business, even punk fit that bill from my vantage point at the time…

I went to a book signing in the Village to meet Cage in my senior year, preceded on line by a punk rocker only a few years older than me in full regalia. He literally genuflected in front of Cage saying he was responsible for everything he believed in. Cage typically remained totally calmed, but I was moved. I started seeking out this music, trying to listen to it with ears uninfluenced by music teachers who derided rock as simplistic and stupid. After all, these same teachers thought I’d do better as a fledgling composer analyzing Mozart string quartets than Gesang der Jünglinge or In C and I already knew in my heart that they were wrong. Fancying myself an anarchist at heart, it was initially difficult for me to get past the assumption that anything created by a group of people rather than an individual could be radical. It seems laughable to me now but many people still carry this prejudice.

Twenty years later, the walls have definitely crumbled, some would say to the point that alternative rock music has gained the intellectual upper hand with smart young audiences for whom adventurous so-called classical music isn’t even on their radar screens. At the same time, there is still a divide between how different music is organized in record shops, online CD emporia and in print journalism. While a hip altrock publication like The Wire interviews electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, the categories on are clearly delineated between Classical Music and Popular Music (which is supposed to represent every else from Britney Spears and Billy Joel to Sun Ra and Throbbing Gristle!), and the Music Critics Association of North America is only open to critics who cover classical music.

This month we talked to Gary Lucas, an extraordinarily difficult to categorize composer and guitarist who has worked with everyone from Captain Beefheart to Leonard Bernstein to Joan Osborne. In keeping with the group spirit of rock for this month’s HyperHistory, we’ve abandoned our usual single-auteur approach and offer an overview of 10 bands that challenge the notion that rock isn’t serious experimental music by the NewMusicBox band of Jason Gross and Steve Smith.

We’ve asked David Borden, Diamanda Galas, Neil Haverstick, Erik Hoversten and John Shiurba, each of whom create music that is very difficult to categorize, where they see themselves on the so-called classical-popular divide. And we ask you to comment on whether there is any point on dividing music into genres in our post-Cage musical community.

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