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.