Mehr als zeitgenössische Musik

The latest must-read debate on Sequenza21 began with the ol’ Uptown/Downtown diatribes, but has since morphed into thoughts about other music scenes and fleshing out the various meanings of “fringe.” For sure there’s a lot of music being created that sits on the margins of the modern composition scene as passersby skid in and out of seemly-unrelated genres, be it punk, sound art, indie rock, or bubblegum pop. But the sad thing is, there are a lot of composers too buried in their work or cultural prejudices to even take notice.

I wouldn’t chalk this up to a lack of curiosity—composers are a curious bunch. It might just be a lack of exposure, unawareness, an inability to parse an appropriate reaction from such unfamiliar modes of music making˜hey, sounds like the common wisdom used to rationalize why new music doesn’t appeal to a larger public. Or maybe they simply hate it. No advance degree is required to figure out that cultural ignorance is indeed a two-way street.

Last night I invited some friends to Darmstadt night at Galapagos, a bar-cum-art space in a once trendy, soon to be completely gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn. One composer I invited decided not to make the outer-borough trek. He interpreted the Darmstadt theme too literally, assuming Stockhausen and Boulez would be the only fare on the turntables, which apparently wasn’t this particular Columbia University Ph.D. candidate’s cup of tea. Guess you can’t judge a person’s tastes by his sheepskin. As it turns out, resident Darmstadt DJ Nick Hallett’s vinyl last night ranged from Philip Glass to a simultaneous Cage piece mixed with Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In a Room–existential, man. These monthly events may not exactly fit everyone’s definition of fringe (Anne Midgette raved about them in The New York Times, beep, game over), but it certainly wasn’t on the radar of my friend who did wind up going.

A little background on my drinking buddy: He’s a composer with an Ivy League music composition Ph.D. and a Guggenheim fellowship under his belt, but don’t let that scare you. He’s a charismatic guy whose fun to be around, i.e. you can have a simulating conversation with him on a vast array of topics, not just combinatory theory. He also thinks Norwegian death metal is really cool, digs M.I.A., and to exhume the Uptown/Downtown paradigm, he lives on the upper-Upper West Side. Granted, before the Guggenheim booty dwindled, he enjoyed a Greenwich Village bachelor pad complete with grand piano. Of course it’s not all about where you live, it’s your attitude and outlook. But the simple fact that he was born into the post-Up/Down generation wasn’t enough to squelch a certain knee-jerk reaction to, what for him, was definitely fringe.

After a little friendly chit-chat, Darmstadt ringmaster Zach Layton introduced laptop duo Richard Garet and Andy Graden. I knew from Garet’s CD released that I was in for some digital minimalism, lowercase-style. As the performance began the bar room seemed dissected by the clean, piercing drone, mirroring the two twitching parallel lines projected on a large screen behind the artists. A few minutes into the proceedings my composer friend turned to me and asked, “Is this the performance? They’re just checking the equipment, right?” Trying hard to refrain from an are-you-for-real expression, I assured him that this was the actual performance. His remarks didn’t exactly get a rise out of me; it was the sentiment I perceived behind them. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but c’mon, you’re a composer and a gifted one at that. You can tell when a performance starts and stops. So I doubt it was his pure lack of experience with this particular genre that motivated those comments. I would have appreciated something more honest like, “Is this supposed to be cool? I think it sucks.”

In any case, at least now he knows more about lowercase music—yup, I guess it’s still alive and well, and here I thought it was keeping electroclash company in heaven. Whether or not it will bear any influence vis-à-vis his compositional activities remains to be seen.

Maybe I need to ring him up and drag him to this year’s No Fun Festival. I hope he’s free for Saturday night’s gig with Emil Beaulieau, Daniel Menche, and Wolf Eyes. Can you believe they’re handing out doctoral degrees in composition to folks who have never attended a musical performance requiring earplugs? Maybe composers should take a music appreciation class which covers everything but Western classical music before putting the letters Dr. before their names.

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