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Music Downtown: Writings from the Villiage Voice by Kyle Gann.

April 28, 2017

Music Downtown: Writings from the Villiage Voice by Kyle Gann.  The University of California Press.  Hardcover $50.00, ú32.50, Paper $19.95.

The big project for the generation of American composers who came of age at about the time of the First World War, primarily the five composers described by Virgil Thomson as a  commando unit , Copland, Thomson, Sessions, Harris, and Piston, was the establishment of a fully grown-up indigenous American music.  There had been American music of interest and quality, of course, before then, going back as far as William Billings and Justin Morgan and including Louis Moreau Gottchalk, Stephen Foster, and Scott Joplin, as well as their immediate predecessors, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Charles Martin Loeffler, but it had not until that time cut much of a profile on the world stage or gained much respect or recognition.  That generation of Americans tirelessly devoted themselves to making sure that American music  took off,  as Thomson put it, and they succeeded handsomely.  

The next generation, coming to maturity just at the end of the Second World War, inherited a secure situation where American music was an acknowledged and respected presence in the larger musical world, but they faced two major problems.  The first, a practical one, was how they were to support themselves.  The earlier generation had made livings largely as free-lancers, on a combination of patronage, teaching, lecturing, writing, and even, occasionally, from composition; but even before the war Sessions at Princeton and then at the University of California at Berkeley and Piston at Harvard, had opted for permanent academic positions.  In the wake of the war, it being clear that former modes of support were ceasing to be viable, composers looked more and more to university teaching as a means of securing their livelihoods.  The second problem, an aesthetic one, was that of the emergence of  the twelve-tone system  as a major and practically universal  preoccupation of composers of the day.  The causes of the rise of twelve-tone and serial compositional methodology are even today not agreed upon, nor are they at all clearly understood, but it is clear, that for one reason or another, almost everybody thought that, like it or not, it had to be reckoned with and seriously engaged.  These two issues, the movement of what Milton Babbitt referred to as  cultivated music  into academia, and the domination in that music of  a twelve-tone, modernist aesthetic, were the major concerns of American composers from the end of the Second World War until well after the end of the American Vietnam War.  These two books are concerned with the before and after, respectively, of that moment in American musical history.  

Irving Fine s life was situated at the exact center of those issues.  A student of Piston at Harvard,  a protÇgÇ of Stravinsky, and an associate of Copland at Tanglewood, he was one of the most prominent of the American neo-classic composers,  for whom the engagement with twelve-tone composition became a major, extremely personal, and  sometimes traumatic concern. The founder of the music department at Brandeis University, Fine was one of the persons who set in place the pattern of American academic music in the 50's, 60's, and forward.  

Fine was born in East Boston in 1914; both of his parents were the children of Latvian Jewish immigrants. He was one of the two students from Winthrop High School who applied for admission to Harvard; the other student, whose grades were less good and who was not Jewish, was admitted and Fine was not.  After a fifth year of  postgraduate  study of German at the Boston Boys  Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, he reapplied to Harvard and was admitted in 1933.  Although his family expected him to pursue pre-medical studies, Fine insisted early on that music was his only life. He graduated from Harvard in 1937, having studied composition with Piston, orchestration with Edward Burlingame Hill, choral conducting with Archibald T. Davison, and counterpoint with A. Tillman Merritt, and having been an active member of and accompanyist for the Harvard Glee Club, which was then generally considered to be one of the finest choral ensembles in the United States. During his undergraduate years Fine met two of the people who would be his closest friends and musical allies for the rest of his life, Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger.  

Fine enrolled as a graduate student at Harvard in 1937 in order to continue composition studies with Piston.  When Nadia Boulanger came to Cambridge in 1939 as visiting Professor at Radcliffe College, Fine began to study with her, and he received a grant to study with her in France the next year.  The beginning of the European war, however, cut his European studies short.  He returned to Cambridge and  was offered part time teaching work at Harvard.  He was also delegated to be a sort of minder for Stravinsky, who was at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetics, and as well to do the initial English translation of Stravinsky s lectures, which became The Poetics of Music.  His friendship with Stravinsky, started then, continued through his life.  In 1940 Fine was invited to join the Harvard faculty as a teaching fellow, and in 1942 was named instructor, a post he held until 1948.  

Anti-Semitism was a feature of Harvard, as it was in the rest of the United States,  in those days.  All of the Ivy-league colleges had quotas on the number of Jewish students they would admit, and many organizations in those schools were closed to Jews.  Fine experienced anti-Semitism of one sort or the other over the duration of his association with Harvard.  The first instance of this was when he was elected vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club.  Although not directly affiliated with the university, the elite Harvard Club of Boston had a policy that officers of any Harvard organization were automatically invited to become members; Fine was informed in his interview for membership that they did not accept  his kind.   Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, which was a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard  music faculty except Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest.  Merritt and  Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful senior faculty members of the music department, were openly anti-Semitic, and, although there was a good deal of friction between Fine and Merritt, then chairman of the faculty,  regarding the proper role of performance in the department and no great affection between the two of them in any case, Fine s Jewishness was almost certainly a factor in his being denied tenure at Harvard in 1948, if not the cause.   Failure to receive tenure ended his teaching career at the university and he was bitter about it for the rest of his life.    

Brandeis University was founded in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1948 in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for  Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas.  Brandeis was conceived of as secular and, therefore, nondenominational institution, and did not have a  Christian quota;  nonetheless, for the first few years of its existence the majority of its students and faculty were Jewish.   In 1950 Fine became the second member of the faculty of the music department and was entrusted with the task of building the department.  In developing the department he recruited his friends Berger and Shapero, and, on a limited basis, Bernstein, whose presence in the department, however slight, greatly facilitated fundraising.  Fine and Bernstein organized four ambitious and brilliantly executed Festivals of Creative Arts between 1952 and 1957, which garnered great acclaim and brought attention to the fledgling university.  That notoriety and the great distinction of the members of  the faculty soon made the music department at Brandeis one of the most important in the United States.  Fine s responsibilities came to include the directorship of the whole School of Creative Arts, including the theater and fine arts departments, as well as music.  

Fine and Copland met in 1943 when the older man was filling in for Walter Piston at Harvard, and they became fast friends.  In 1946 at Copland s instigation, Koussevitzky hired Fine to teach at Tanglewood, the summer school for advanced musical studies which was operated by the Boston Symphony.  Fine was an important presence at Tanglewood until 1957, when issues primarily concerning the amount of his compensation, but possible also slightly soured relations with Copland and Bernstein (and souring feelings about them), led to his resignation. In his last year at Tanglewood he became especially close to Milton Babbitt, who was teaching composition there that year; they spent most of their spare time together discussing theories of tonal analysis and of twelve-tone composition.  

Fine only began to compose when he was an undergraduate at Harvard.  His work was always careful and deliberate, and he remained throughout his life somewhat intimidated by his precocious, productive, and, to his mind, more talented friends, Bernstein, Foss, and, most especially, Shapero. His earliest pieces, such as The Alice In Wonderland Choruses, The Hour Glass, Music for Piano, and (what remains his best know and most popular work) the Partita for wind quintet, are clearly  works of a student and follower of Boulanger, Stravinsky, and Copland.  Although they are beautiful, charming, skillfully wrought, and absolutely on the level of the work of any of his colleagues, Fine felt that they were lightweight, and came to find neo-classical style limited and limiting.  His inclinations took him both backward, toward romantic music, and forward toward the brave new world opened by twelve-tone composition.  His struggle to break through into a more personal and what he considered a more important style dominated the rest of his life.  The Serious Song for string orchestra, the Notturno for harp and strings, and the Fantasia for string trio are steps in his progress.  A considerable breakthrough work was his String Quartet of 1952, his first avowedly twelve-tone work, which was widely performed, recorded, and generally recognized as an important piece.  Through the 1950's Fine alternated works which were reaching for a new, more serious style, and his earlier neo-classicism; his more ambitious pieces, however, were in a more  progressive  style, while the works which harken back to neo-classicism were lighter in substance and, although as skillful as ever, seem somewhat half hearten in intention .  His quest for the attainment of music which would be sufficiently  progressive  and   important  was the source of much anguish for him, and led him to begin a long and serious course of psycho-analysis.  Harold Shapero, his Brandeis colleague, who was his closest friend and confidant, to whom he showed all his work as he was writing it, and to whom he spoke daily, was highly skeptical about Fine s analysis.  When Shapero discovered that he himself was the subject of much of Fine s work with his analyst, who seemed to be steering Fine toward regarding Shapero as a major obstacle to his compositional progress, the analysis became the cause of a serious strain in their relationship, culminating in an acrimonious confrontation which turned out to be their last meeting, chillingly related by Shapero in Ramey s biography.  

With his Symphony of 1962 Fine arrived at a style and produced a work which he, as well as all his friends and commentators, felt was a synthesis of his strongest stylistic inclinations, tonal romanticism, Strvinskian neo-classicism, and Schoenbergian rhetoric..  The Symphony was played by the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall in March of 1962 and at Tanglewood in the following August.  It was generally recognized as a major work of maturity, originality, and substance and was a triumph for Fine.  Shortly before the Tanglewood performance, Charles Munch who had conducted the Symphony s first performance and was scheduled to do so again, suffered a angina attack and was ordered by his physicians to rest.  He asked Fine to substitute for him. Although Fine was very apprehensive about conducting a major orchestra in his difficulty work on short notice, the performance was a great success.  Less than a week later, after a vacation in Canada, Fine suffered a heart attack; he was hospitalized in Boston where he died on August 23, 1962, from a second massive heart attack. 

Fine s death at the age of 48, when he was just attaining maturity as a composer, was a personal tragedy as well as a great loss for American Music.   His progress as a composer and his work as an educator exemplify the issues and developments of American classical and academic music at that time.  Fine s struggles to come to terms with the methods and tonal language of serial modernism was one he shared with many others composers.  He seems to have survived the challenge, but several of his friends, notably Shapero, ran aground on it.  Exactly what caused this crisis why so many composers felt that they had to write in a style which they found not just unappealing,  but frankly repellent-- is not completely clear, and present historiography is as likely to be intended for the furthering an agenda of (negative) judgment on all of the music produced and its underpinning aesthetic assumptions as it is to offer any enlightenment about situation.   The conception of the situation of  cultivated music  in just about every respect and of music in higher education in America in the 1950's through the 1970's, especially the institution of a PhD for composition,  was formed as much by the music department at Brandeis, led by Fine, as it was in any other university music department, including that of Princeton University.  At the time of Fine s death it was generally felt that most if not all of the music which could be seriously regarded would probably be twelve-tone and certainly be modernist and in a musical language heavily featuring dissonance, that the language used to discuss that music and earlier music would be of an intensely philosophical and self-consciously, almost painfully, specific quality, that it would be composed by composer-scholars under the protection of the university, and that the attendant intellectual prestige of music s new position in the academy would justify new modes of training and evaluating composers.

Fine s widow, Verna, was throughout the rest of her life tireless in her belief in and guardianship and promotion of his music, making sure that practically all of it has remained in print and available and that it has been recorded.  One of her last acts was the commissioning of a biography from Philip Ramey.  Ramey s biography is as complete in its information as one could wish, and on that level it is interesting and admirable.  Although it is subtitled  An American Composer in His Time,  it is, in fact, almost completely lacking any kind of greater context for Fine s live and work.  There is very little about the political or aesthetic conditions in America before the second world war, or about the post-war rise of the university as a perceived haven for the composer, for instance, and, although he speaks fairly early and fairly often about twelve-tone music, Ramey offers very little discussion of its apparent allure for composers in the post-war period or about its reception, either positive or negative.  His general knowledge of the theoretical assumptions and compositional procedures of twelve-tone music is not particularly profound.  Among his analytical comments are  Serialism, defined by Arnold Schoenberg, the system s inventor, is a  method of composing with twelve notes which are related only to one another,.  all the notes of the octave being treated as equal.  It is a method that, in its most rigorously applied form, avoids tonality and had been originally developed as a criterion for atonal music.  (p. 179) and  that a passage in the Fantasia for String Trio  violates strict method by the repetition of one note (G#), as the  thirteenth  in the series, a subtle indication of the freedom in which the dodecaphonic system is to be treated (additionally, the twelfth tone appears only in a grace-note that leads to the repeated note).  (p.230).  Although he explains that  The two tone-rows on which much, though not all, of the work [Symphony]  is loosely based were cleverly designed to provide maximum contrast in the chords and melodic material they generate,  (p.  285) and he quotes the notes of the row he does not show how any of either of them is used to make chords or cite any melodies in the work.   The book is dutiful and somewhat plodding.  It is rich in quotations from Fine s friends and family members, but it conveys very little sense of his personality.  The effect is that of a memorial service which is being conducted by someone who never met the deceased but has talked to his acquaintances enough to offer a thin web of connection between statements made by those who did.  

By the end of the 1960's whatever world domination twelve-tone music had attained was eroding.  Much of the current historiography regarding this period tells that certain tyrants in positions of power in universities, writing music only for each other and only concerned with that  music s  construction rather than what it might sound like, completely contemptuous of any kind of audience and, coincidentally, of all performers, embattled, and determined to maintain their prominence and superiority, which could only be demonstrated on paper anyway, subjected  a whole generation of young composers to aesthetic terrorism, forcing them to compose an aggressively ugly and unpleasant music which they never liked or wanted to write, suppressing any dissent at first with contempt and derision and then with denial of all jobs, grants, commissions as well as funding for performances and recordings.   However much or little accuracy there is to that narrative, it is definitely true that, over the course of the last third of the twentieth century, an ever increasing pluralism of styles put paid to the notion of only one kind of music which could be considered as privileged or predominant, and some number of these styles were espoused by composers who, as much as they were writing what they wanted to hear, were reacting against what they saw as a intolerant and tyrannical imposition on them of a style which they found at the best unappealing and at the worst something evil and dastardly.  

In New York these conflicting aesthetic territories had a concrete geographical manifestation, which in turn became global names for the styles involved,  with the  established,  academic, twelve-tone  modernism (Babbitt, Carter, Davidovsky, Martino, Wuorinen, et al) centered  uptown, around Columbia University at 116th Street and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at 125th Street, and the anti-elitist, free-wheeling counter-culturalism located in Greenwich Village, the East Village (formerly the lower east side), and the regions South of Houston Street (a.k.a. Soho), generally  downtown.   The character and nature of uptown music remained fairly constant over the years, but the nature of downtown music tended to change with time, starting with the politically-left leaning Composers Collective of the 1930's, followed by Cage and Feldman and others associated with the abstract expressionist painters and the beat poets in the 50's, the conceptualists and early minimalists of the 60's, the  establishment  minimalist of the 70's and 80's, the totalism of the late 80's, and a host of further styles and methods.  There also developed a midtown style (Corigliano, Bolcom, Harbison, Zwillich, Adams), represented by Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, of more  mainstream,  traditional orientation and aspiration than either of the other outlooks.  Uptown and midtown music and musicians tended to operate in the traditional venues of schools and concert halls; downtown music was made and found in lofts, galleries, bars (and pseudo-bars), and other less formal places.  Downtown music, in its contemporary sense, can probably be said to have started in 1960 when Yoko On, then a conceptual artist and pianist associated with the Fluxus movement, opened her loft to a  concert series  organized by La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield.   

One of the best known and most distinguished chroniclers of Downtown musical practitioners, philosophies, and activities is Kyle Gann, who has been a music critic for the Village Voice since 1986, and a faculty member of Bard College since 2002.  Aside from his journalistic work, he has also published books on Nancarrow and American music in the twentieth century.  His latest book is a collection of writing from the Village Voice.  Gann is a passionate advocate for all kinds of downtown music, and his writing is persuasive and compelling.  He is a tireless advocate for those composers who he admires, including Morton Feldman, Mikel Rouse, Robert Ashley, Eve Beglarian, Michael Gordon, David Garland, La Monte Young, Harry Partch, and John Cage.  His analysis of many aspects of musical politics and issues of musical distribution can be insightful and canny, and is probably at its best in  The Importance of Being Downtown,  his introduction to this book.  

Gann is a avid admirer of Virgil Thomson, who he describes as the  best music critic in the English Language since Shaw and better than Shaw if concision, career duration, and consequentiality of subject matter are you criteria.  (P. 200), and, like Thomson, is both a composer and a man with an admitted agenda.  He wholeheartedly loves downtown music of all kinds and his celebration and advocacy of it makes you feel that you should immediately rush out and listen to whatever it is that he s writing about, even if you may fear, almost as strongly, that you might well hate it when you do. Just as he is passionate about the music he loves, however, Gann can be brutal and completely intemperate about music that he doesn t like.  As one might expect, the chief objects of his scorn are Milton Babbitt and Elliot Carter, who are the usual symbols of Uptown Music.  In his articles his contempt for these composers and their like is not so much stated specifically and substantially as it is displayed in ubiquitously dismissive side comments:  

 The Uptown solution is to become a mirror of the corporate technocrats, to refine composing into a smooth, rationalist, analyzable, and predictable activity.  Milton Babbitt and Brian Ferneyhough have this down literally to a science, complete with contempt for the common herd.   (p. 93)

 ...many 20th-century artists, internalizing the rationalist worldview, have obligingly created truly useless works.  (The more rationalist worldview, the more superflous anybody know a use for the Babbitt String Quartets?)  (p.  105)

 What passes for rhythmic subtlety with Elliott Carter and his followers is a  mishmash because their music never articulates the grid against which complexity can be perceived. (p.128)

 I think the basis for the reputations of stuffed shirts like Elliott Carter and Mario Davidovsky is that Uptown critics follow their scores during concerts and find impressive devices, whereas  if they relied on their ears they would draw a blank like everyone else. (p. 180)

Comments about mastery of or concern with  pitch sets   pitch-set perfection, or, even worse,  Babbitt pitch sets  are used emblematically to convict the object of Uptown sympathies.  We are informed  that,  Pitch-set consistency no more guarantees art than correct grammar does truth,  (p. 138, in an article entitled  The Great Divide: Uptown Composers are Stuck in the Past ) as though anybody other than the unnamed straw-men set up by Gann believes that it does. When he  declares,  At a conference two years ago, I overheard a professor who had just delivered a lecture on the structure of an Elliott Carter orchestral work admit to a colleague that while Carter s music analyzes beautifully on paper, you can t hear in the music the nice things you ve analyzed,   (p.121) one wants to point out that his anecdote might be more a statement about the stupidity and unperceptiveness of the analyst than the quality of Carter s music or his  intentions, and that, for that matter, Carter himself might share Gann s irritation and disdain.  In the midst of the ceaseless bashing of Uptown music, though, when one reads on page174 that  Until we adopt an attitude that sees all creative modes as equally natural and fruitful, each with its place in the psychic spectrum, music will continue to be oppressively politicized," it is hard to take it seriously as a statement of what Gann really thinks.  It is not clear, though, that tearing down Uptown composers necessarily does anything to prove that Downtown composers are great. 

The arrangement of the articles thematically in groups dealing with interviews , music and/versus society, musical politics, aesthetics, reflections on book, figures, and events, concert reviews, and passings (consisting of eulogies of Feldman, Thomson, Julius Eastman, and Cage) was perhaps a convenient way to organize the book, but means that there are sections of the book where one encounters Gann s opinions on some topics with a certain inexorable  regularity. It might be that a chronological ordering would have given more variety as well as a narrative quality that would have been informative and possibly less repetitive.

When Gann concentrates on music he loves and respects, though, when he explores the operas of Robert Ashley and Mikel Rouse, or  he discusses La Monte Young s The Well-Tuned Piano and  The Forever Bad Band and issues and mechanics of tuning that they address, or reviews Laurie Anderson s Empty Spaces or Eve Beglarian and Twisted Tu Tu, or speaks of the deceptive simplicity of David Garland s Control Songs,  he makes one want to know, and, more importantly, hear more.  He is interesting and informative when he interviews Yoko Ono, surveying her career and discussing her work, and  Philip Glass concerning his opera The Voyage.  When it celebrates the works of Morton Feldman or the life and music of Julius Eastman, or marks the death of  John Cage,  Gann s writing is truly moving.  Music Downtown radiates a sense of  immediacy and urgency and passion which gives each of the  articles the quality of a dispatch from the front.  Gann is intelligent, insightful, argumentative, passionately opinionated, a skillful and compelling writer, and surely just about the best guide one could have in exploring all the regions of downtown music.    

The recording of the performance, which has been commercially released and is still available (Phoenix B000063VF9), has come to be considered definitive.

Some very interesting reflections on this time are offered in Arthur Berger s book, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press.  2002).  See especially the chapters entitled  Serialism: The Composer as Theorist  (pp. 83-92) and  PNM and the Ph. D.  (pp.  139-149).    

See Berger, p85-86, where he discusses his thoughts about the use of   simultaneity  as opposed to  chord. 

In fairness, it should be admitted that most of the practitioners at the time were not operating on a level especially more perceptive or sophisticated than Ramey s, which is one of the factors that makes the widespread use of  the system  somewhat puzzling.