Once And For All, There’s No Such Thing
In the holy trinity of NewMusicBox, I’m always the guy who gets elected provocateur, i.e. Frank never discourages me from eliciting readers’ reactions via feather-ruffling tactics (while Molly pleads to keep things optimistic). I guess it’s my natural disposition that makes this an easy task to oblige (well, the ruffling is anyway, still working on the glass half-full approach). So, without further ado, here it is, a well-worn debate igniter: There is no such thing as Uptown or Downtown music anymore. It seems so obvious to me, yet many still use the terms to refer to music written today—and it bothers me a little.
I understand, sort of. But I’m 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. But, of course, we can’t because the remnant carnage surrounding these now meaningless labels has been scattered by the winds of time, and whoever chooses to see today’s compositional landscape though an antediluvian lens can easily see the same ol’ up and down skyline in effect. But rest assured, things really have changed regardless of whatever way you choose to perceive the present state of modern composition.
Certainly there are composers entrenched in more academic pursuits, and there are also those who engage with the American experimental tradition forged by Ives and solidified by Cage. But let us not forget that most composers are in dialogue with both. Besides, are the groups confined to one side of the fence actually railing against one another? The fact that I’m oversimplifying all this aside, today’s typical university student simply isn’t getting the up-down-high-low brainwash of alumni past. You can be extremely experimental up to borderline kooky at Columbia or Princeton these days, and, if you so desire, you can be extremely traditional at CalArts, Wesleyan, or Mills. Hey, I was the freak writing notes on manuscript paper while many of my classmates didn’t even consider musical notation relevant—some never bothered to learn to read.
My point is, Uptown and Downtown are historic terms, so let’s start treating them as such. For those who bemoan the fact that the likes of James Tenney and Alvin Curran aren’t going to win the Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, just keep in mind that those who pull the strings of influence will eventually be replaced. It will be a slow evolution, but when today’s young composers finally take the reigns as the-powers-that-be, all these silly prejudices will finally disappear. (What new ones will take their place?). But you can do your part in mending the schism now, simply by not referring to yourself as an “Uptown” or ” Downtown” composer, unless of course you’re Elliott Carter or John Zorn—arbitrary, both of these luminaries live below 14th Street. To quote composer Tania León:
- “Despite of our talking about Uptown, Downtown, Midtown, whatever town you’re talking about, the point is that there are some people who are completely out of town, even when they are in town.”