Letter to the Editor: Reluctantly Weighing in on Uptown/Downtown

I am reluctant to comment on the controversy surrounding the use of the terms Uptown and Downtown; as someone who just last month published a book with the title Music Downtown, it might be inferred that I have some vested interest in the matter. However, since I am someone who wrote a book, I hope it might be granted that there are some statements I could make that could not meet with persuasive disagreement.

1. I was hired in 1986 by Doug Simmons, an erudite music editor who did not take his musical terminology lightly, to “cover the Downtown scene.” The Downtown scene was, first and perhaps foremost, a specific group of people who socialized and made music together during a specific period and at specific places. We called ourselves Downtown musicians and referred to our music as Downtown music. Some of us, perhaps regrettably, are still alive, though even the youngest of us are doddering old quinquegenarians by now. Some of us write music essentially similar to the music we made then. You may argue, if you like, that context alters terminology, and that a piece of music written in eighth-notes in a diatonic scale was “Downtown” if it was written in New York in 1980, and “not Downtown” if it was written in upstate New York in 2004. It is an argument.

2. In the institution where I teach, I perennially have composition students who encounter fierce opposition from music professors for writing music that uses repetitive structures, diatonic tonality, and/or steady-state (or unspecified) dynamics. By an eerie coincidence, these are all qualities that were common in what people on the Downtown scene called “Downtown” music back in the 1980s. Randy Nordschow says that he is “a little perplexed as to why these dagger terms, which can still stir bitterness and pain in the over-40 crowd, are perpetuated by the very same generation. You’d think we composers would yearn to close the book on that whole divisive rift of the past.” Personally, I use the term as a convenient shorthand, because, in the heat of the moment, it is quicker to defend one’s beleaguered student by calling her “a victim of a bias against Downtown music” than by calling her “a triple victim of several unrelated biases against repetitive structures, diatonic tonality, and/or steady-state (or unspecified) dynamics.” If I had no need to defend such students, it is doubtful that I would ever bring up the subject at all. In the larger scheme of things, however, my emotional attachment to my students outweighs my desire to make Randy Nordschow’s life more comfortable.

On the other hand, there are questions about the issue not nearly so easily answered:

1. Does the Uptown/Downtown dichotomy still apply to music by people born after 1965? I frankly don’t know. Downtown Manhattan still exists. Performances of new music there are far fewer than they used to be. If there is any cohesion to music performed on what is left of the Downtown scene, I no longer possess the range of recent experience to characterize it. Downtown music, it seems, has splintered into a hundred different and reconverging streams, as has what was originally and neologistically called Uptown music. Other streams have appeared which would be impossible to trace to either sphere. Judging from opinions expressed on the Internet, one could say that, among the infinite rainbow of views, one occasionally encounters a musical sensibility that tends toward complex, highly fixed, detail-inflected musical structures, and another that runs toward simpler, more variable, looser structures. One could call these “conservative” versus “liberal,” “classical” versus “postclassical,” “mauve” versus “puce,” but let’s agree for argument’s sake that they shouldn’t be named at all. Naming leads to discussion, which leads to recognition of differences, which foments hatred and exclusivity. Better to say that Brian Ferneyhough and Brittany Spears cannot be meaningfully distinguished in words. Their music, I mean. To distinguish Brittany from Brian would diminish her, and god knows I don’t want to do that.

2. Why are Mary Jane Leach and I the only people from the old Downtown scene who seem to inhabit the blogosphere? I have no idea. Having been paid to focus on the Downtown scene for 19 years, I have always taken the position that what people outside the scene think Downtown music is is of relatively scant importance; and that the day that composers within the Downtown scene begged me to quit talking about it, I would quit. Since all of the people who have expressed such eagerness for me to quit talking about Downtown music were never part of that scene, I have always dismissed their requests as irrelevant.

But here I am, indulging the worst vice of the aged: yammering on about the good old days, still obsessing about issues and musical compositions that are, by now, ten, fifteen, even twenty years old, and that should have long since been consigned to oblivion. My apologies. It’s a pain to have to hear us oldsters rehash the battles of our long-lost youth, but take heart: I’m not feeling too well lately.

8 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: Reluctantly Weighing in on Uptown/Downtown

  1. IngramMar

    Does Kyle, or anybody for that matter, know when the dichotomy of dt/ ut became common parlance?
    What critic or writer or maybe composer first used the terms?

    In 1981 Eric Salzman wrote a rather lengthy article- review in High Fidelity of new recordings by Tobias Picker and me. In it, Toby was the uptown guy and I was the downtown, although, as he put it, my “downtown was California.” He saw toby as an over educated composer with the Wuorinen/ Babbit heritage (both his teachers) and he saw me as a kind of untutored radical from left field, a sort of avant gardist entrepreneur (as I had produced and distributed my own record)

    Eric was sure that neither of us had any idea of the other’s music.

    Ingram Marshall

    Reply
  2. amc654

    “. In the institution where I teach, I perennially have composition students who encounter fierce opposition from music professors for writing music that uses repetitive structures, diatonic tonality, and/or steady-state (or unspecified) dynamics.” KG

    Kyle, rest assured, it’s not like that everywhere.

    Reply
  3. glennfreeman

    Kyle Gann
    I used to think Kyle Gann was the only person on the face of this earth who was willing and able to write about recent music. I never agreed 100% with his opinions (his views on Philip Glass were, and are, “uptown”) but I always enjoy his direct honesty. After writing one of the best if not THE BEST books on recent music I now see Gann occupying a position not unlike similar figures he used to rail against a decade ago. How ironic the passing of time can be. New music is never dead but historians do get old and crusty.

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  4. sarahcahill

    I’m sorry, but I don’t understand a single sentence of the last posting. Are you saying that Kyle’s views on Philip Glass were “uptown” or that he considered Glass an “uptown” composer? By your sentence structure you say that you yourself wrote one of the best books on recent music, but I think you meant that Kyle did. And what position is he now occupying that similar figures occupied a decade ago? I’d be grateful if you could be clarify what exactly you mean.

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  5. glennfreeman

    > I’m sorry, but I don’t understand a
    > single sentence of the last posting.
    > Are you saying that Kyle’s views on
    > Philip Glass were “uptown” or that
    > he considered Glass an “uptown”
    > composer?

    Both, based on my reading of Kyle’s writings on Glass and others during the 90s. Or neither, if you disagree with me. This whole segmentation of music styles and genres is so 20th Century.

    > By your sentence structure you say
    > that you yourself wrote one of the best
    > books on recent music, but I think you
    > meant that Kyle did.

    Yes, Kyle wrote a very good book named “American Music in the 20th Century”. We are now in the 21st Century yet Kyle seems to still occupy in the 20th Century based on recent writings.

    > And what position is he now occupying
    > that similar figures occupied a decade
    > ago? I’d be grateful if you could be
    > clarify what exactly you mean.

    The need for clarification and a lack of understanding is the root of most misunderstandings.

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  6. sarahcahill

    I feel a little like we’re in an episode of Through the Looking Glass here. If Kyle thinks Philip Glass is an “uptown” composer, then wouldn’t it make sense that his views about him are “uptown” as well? I’m not even sure what “uptown” views really are, actually. And a lot of us “still occupy in the 20th century” (whatever that means) since, if we’re older than five or six, we grew up in the 20th century and it’s really not that long ago. As for this last sentence of your post- “The need for clarification and a lack of understanding is the root of most misunderstandings”- I would stress especially the need for clarification, since whatever you were attempting to clarify is now muddier and murkier than ever.

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  7. coreydargel

    Yes, Kyle wrote a very good book named “American Music in the 20th Century”. We are now in the 21st Century yet Kyle seems to still occupy in the 20th Century based on recent writings.

    Hi Glenn. Have you read Kyle’s most recent book, MUSIC DOWNTOWN? It’s a collection of his Village Voice writings from 1986 – 2000 (I think). The writings in that book seem (to me) totally relevant to the 21st century. MUSIC DOWNTOWN is more of a “living record” whereas Music of the 20th Century is more (in my opinion) like a textbook.

    Check it out.

    Also, aren’t your recordings (with Christina Fong) of music by Feldman, Cage, and Hovhaness, a bit 20th century?

    I don’t understand your critique.

    Reply
  8. jszanto

    Glenn’s comments about Kyle Gann being stuck in the last century don’t hold, and Corey has pointed out some other dichotomies. While breaking for lunch and reading a bit in music downtown, I was struck by the following, from a column (4/6/99) anticipating the turning of the millenium and pointing to the new voices, where Gann finishes the essay:

    “Let’s all take the next step together – quick. “The present-day composer refuses to die,” said Frank Zappa, and he was right – but the 20th-century composer will be dead in nine more months. Let us not enter the 21st century looking backward.”

    Gann doesn’t seem anchored in the past, any more than people who perform music not written in the last five years and 1.5 months.

    Cheers,

    Jon

    Reply

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