Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Mr Babbitt, Tear Down This Wall
Read Kyle Gann's excellent post on "Downtown Music and its Misrepresentations" and then come back here and read the rest of this post.
First of all, I'm out of my depth here. I'm 25, all of my musical training has been in academia, the only major city I've lived in is the musically conservative Boston -- but I trust Kyle. He's a smart guy and he clearly knows his stuff. And the combination of those factors (including my own ignorance in spite of my interest) points me to a clear conclusion: Downtown music has a severe PR problem, and that problem manifests itself on the two most important fronts.
1. Most musicians (composers, performers, and future audience members alike) get the most important part of their training in academia, and academia is still very Uptown oriented. At the same time, the music most likely to appeal to this largest of receptive audiences is that of the Downtown aesthetic. So there's a fundamental mismatch, yet since some of academia is virulently anti-downtown and much of the rest of academia believes that it is now largely inclusive there's no substantial effort by academic faculty (that I can see) to bring Downtown music into the fold.
2. The most prominent musical representative of the Downtown scene, in reputation, is Bang on a Can, yet according to Kyle "There are large swathes of Downtown music that Bang on a Can has ignored, and major Downtown figures to whom BoaC has barely paid attention. " (In the interest of clarity, I should say that Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon are three of my favorite living composers, and I support both their strategy of programming the music that interests them and of using BoaC for self promotion. I would do the same in their position.)
So Downtown music and Downtown composers are severely underrepresented in the two dominant marketing vehicles, and thus are severely underrepresented in the public consciousness. Fortunately, there are solutions to both of these problems.
1. Academia must be changed from within -- its very structure insures this. New faculty are hired by the old faculty, and once tenured the old faculty has an effectively lifetime appointment. I don't have a problem with this system, but we need to keep it in mind. Outside pressure (aside from financial pressure, which would kill both the current regime and the chances of instituting a new one) will not do the trick. So Downtowners should at least seriously consider mounting an invasion of the ivory tower, not for dominance but for real inclusion -- Downtowners should get themselves hired, and then hire from their own ranks to the greatest extent possible. There are already a handful of Downtown composers in academic positions (and please post anybody else you think of to the comments section) -- Julia Wolfe was recently hired by Manhattan School of Music, David Borden is at Cornell, Larry Polansky is at Dartmouth, Paul Lansky is at Princeton, Evan Zipporyn is at MIT. And of course Kyle Gann is at Bard College.
2. Downtown music festivals need to push harder, be more media savvy, raise more money, and get noticed. And maybe new festivals need to be started. Again, here's Kyle: "Meanwhile, there were and are music festivals that do claim to represent Downtown music, most famously New Music America, which was a traveling Downtown music schowcase for eleven years, from 1979 to 1989. Last October?s Sounds Like Now festival explicitly featured the Downtown scene, and there are periodically others, none of them nearly as visible or well-funded as Bang on a Can." Again, I don't know much about these festivals, but I trust Kyle's assessment. Note that "most famous" festival is now defunct, and most others are "periodic" and not well funded.
Whether you like my specific suggestions or not, there's one thing that everybody needs to remember -- PR is important. Bang on a Can and John Zorn got where they are through that magical combination of big talent and excellent organizational and PR skills. Neither by itself will do it, and unfortunately PR will often go further than talent. So let's work smart.