I’ve never lived in New York. (I was born and raised in western Maryland, and I now reside in central Illinois.) I’ve tried my hardest to penetrate the Uptown/Downtown dialectic that seems to dominate stylistic discourse among many NewMusicBoxers, but there’s something about it that I could never quite wrap my head around, and I think I finally know what it is.

In order to have “Uptown,” you have to have “Downtown,” and vice versa. It’s a situation that’s only possible in an environment with two musical currents that can define themselves in opposition to each other. Perhaps I’m mischaracterizing, but again, you’ll have to forgive me—as an outsider, this distinction always seemed reductive and somewhat self-centered to me. However, the fact that (to my knowledge) there’s no other scene in America with this kind of strong dichotomy makes me wonder what the rest of us have been missing.

Maybe it boils down to simple team competition, to having someone to push against and some like-minded individuals to push with you. Although I wouldn’t want to be beholden to a consortium of composers capable of exerting artistic leverage over my music, this spirit of rivalry and community must be energizing—no wonder Cage and Babbitt accomplished so much! I think that geographic concentration is important, too; certainly there’s a great deal of pushing online, but everybody’s pushing in all directions at once, and sometimes poking each other in the eyes, and there are no refs.

If there’s one creative ailment that seems near-universal among grad composers all over the country, it’s that unique malaise that results from being either a) a member of a stylistically, ideologically, aesthetically, etc. homogenous and unchallenged group of composers or b) a stylistic, ideological, aesthetic, etc. outlier among one’s peers. In the first instance, there’s nobody to push against; and in the second, there’s nobody to push alongside.

Of course, this is merely an attempt at diagnosis; for us non-Manhattanites, a solution may prove elusive. We have to figure something out before the housing bubble pops and we can all move to Brooklyn. Please share your reactions, suggestions, and experiences.

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5 thoughts on “Pushing

  1. mdwcomposer

    One thing that helps me “wrap my head” around the writing that uses both terms is to see it as something similar to differences between eras. For example, ars nova versus early renaissance or baroque versus classical: what musical parameters carried a higher density of musical information versus the parameters that carried less musical information or were entirely ignored? In a broad sense, one was often a reaction to another. Classical writers seemed to think that baroque was too ornate, for example. But classical melodies carry a different kind of musical information and density than baroque fugue subjects. To my ears, Babbit contains a lot of information in the pitch parameter and the organizational aspect plays a role. Timbral concerns are less rich. Reich can be very information-rich rhythmically and the aggregate buildup of material seems full of content, at least to me. The aural rendering of process is very different between the two composers.

    What seems unusual (and both confusing and exhilarating) to me is that the a single trend among “most” composers seems absent – both action and reaction and re-reaction and non-action are present in the same generation of composers – generation meaning those who are alive and writing music today. Longer life spans? Cycles of change becoming closer and closer in time? So many people doing that composing thing, more than there used to be?

    For me, both terms are attempts to describe the art-music tradition of our time. I don’t believe it’s “team competition”, but rather an attempt to find a shorthand general term that will convey where the “musical information density” [is that a Zappa-ism? it sounds like one] is found in a group of works or group of composers. The reason it may be hard to wrap one’s head around “the dialectic” is that below any generality is a mass of contradicting details. Or at least details with lots of exceptions. But they can be discussed / debated endlessly with great conviction and volume. It’s all part of the fun of classifying and patterning activities that absorb all of our waking lives.

    [Scratch below the surface of treatises from the time of CPE Bach, especially from different countries, and you’ll find a wealth of unclear and sometimes contradicting details – substitute “vocal art / instrumental art” or “German / Italian” for “uptown / downtown”. Yet I think we hear music from the early classical period as pretty homogenous].

    – mark winges

  2. CM Zimmermann


    I find the ‘uptown’ / ‘downtown’ opposition to be paradigmatic (and quite humorous at times) in the sense that it follows a logic through which ideology asserts its dominance. A binary opposition is constructed in which ‘otherness’ is defined by negation, i.e. by everything that one ‘school’ is not. That particular ‘school’ recognizes and defines itself within this dichotomy. As much of Derrida’s work demonstrates, such oppositions are implicitly hierarchical and unstable. Any attempt to stabilize them simply reinforces their hierarchical nature.

    Although there still seems to be some debate along party lines, the ‘uptown’ / ‘downtown’ opposition has become historical categories and is not really credible in our pluralistic aesthetic environment.

  3. Colin Holter

    Mark and Mystery Nameless Commentator – good point. It’s clear, I think, that a distinction like uptown/downtown is applicable only insofar as we use it in a historical context that can’t but conceal ungeneralizable complexes of musical activity.

    But does anyone else feel that our “pluralistic aesthetic environment” is sort of enervating? Maybe it’s just the price we pay for living in the 21st century. If we have to define ourselves in opposition to something (and, to be fair, I seem to be the only person of that persuasion who’s commented so far), one could certainly make the case that it’s better to define ourselves against something real – war, hunger, ignorance, etc. – than against some current of musical thought without resonance beyond composerly circles.

  4. mdwcomposer

    Colin – for me, defining one’s self “in opposition to” is not something that works very well. It can be easy in the short run to say “I’m not one of those ubldevan smaukifty guys because smaukifty isn’t real music anyway”, but I think it conveys less information about one’s music than saying what it is. Yes, the devil is in the details, but sticking around to explore those details can be awfully engaging.

    I also like CM Zimmerman’s point that oppositions are implicitly hierarchical and unstable.

    Besides, I also think that the implicit negativity in the “opposition definition” can lead to diminished mental health or even bad karma unless used very judiciously. [sorry, I live in California]

    To take it to an absurdist level, I could define my music as “not literature and not painting”. But that’s pretty unhelpful. – Mark Winges

    hmm, “opposition definition” sounds like a good title for a piece, though . . .

  5. pgblu

    Hierarchy ‘vs’ stability
    I, for one, want to see the original Derrida quote. Hierarchy and stability are not opposites, are they?


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