Dear Jerry:

I am extremely interested in educating myself on the trends in new “downtown” as well as much “uptown” music (e.g. the music, methods and processes of; yourself, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Nico Muhly, Toru Takemitsu, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Charles Ives, Lou Harrison), and I am in search of resources online to meet this end.  I want to know them the way you do, or the way a composition professor would.  The online resources of which I am aware are The New Grove Dictionary, Music Theory Spectrum, The Society For Music Theory, and

I have a BA in music, so I can read and understand most things about art music.
I want to acquaint my thinking with the culture and methods of these great composers.  Can you recommend some resources for me?  I thank you very much for whatever time you take with this.
19 thoughts on “Letters, We Get Letters, We Get Stacks and Stacks of Letters”
  1. I’d heard about Zorn by first hearing about Erik Friedlander, the cellist who frequently works with him. I found Friedlander on Though I’d not yet listened to any of Zorn’s work. That is, not until just before drafting this post. . . . . . . .

    I’ve just now watched a YouTube video in which he discusses “changing blocks of sound,” and how he “instructs performers, without hindering what they do best, which is improvise & imagine.” He uses cards (in the footage that I saw) to indicate the choices of the different ways in which the musicians in an ensemble may relate to each other. There’s also a movie about him called “A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky.” I’m watching it now. It seems as though for him, music is more about the art of delegating. Incredible. I lesson I know I will benefit from.

  2. I agree, Jeremy. Speaking of John Zorn, there are a series of books Zorn edited each titled “Arcana” (Arcana I, Arcana II, etc) containing several essays by various contemporary musicians (including some mentioned in this thread and many who are not – such as George Lewis who is also someone you might want to check out…).

    The first Arcana book might be the place to start. They’re all available for purchase Zorn’s website Tzadik dot com.

    The late writer Robert Palmer wrote a lot about contemporary music (along with some seminal writing about rock and roll, jazz and blues music). His book Blues And Chaos contains essays on and interviews with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Anthony Davis, La Monte Young alongside some great analysis of some of the more extreme developments in rock and roll language.

    And if you continue going out there on a limb, you (and anyone else for that matter) might check out Michael Veal’s recent book Dub which imho is one of the most important books to come out in recent times about electronic music. It begins with Jamaica, and provides a thorough musical, historical, and conceptual analysis of a music that has had a profound influence on contemporary popular music and – over the course of its history – mirrored the developments in electronic music in the U.S. and overseas.

  3. Jeremiah,
    I wish you well on your discoveries, but I feel that it would be a shame to leave John Zorn out of the picture. Although his reach is not often studied in academic circles, his influence, I believe, is undeniable.

    Just thought I’d throw that into the mix. Best of luck!

  4. Dear Richard Mitnick,
    Thank you very much! And if it means that I get to add to my spread sheet of music sites, YOU sir are welcome to go on any time you’d like!

    Now I’ve just gotta get a descent library of sheet music to read AS I listen to the music. That’s one of my favorite ways to engage with music, aside from playing it of course. But this stuff is hard to get. The only one I have right now is a piece by David Lang, “Warmth.” It’s written for two guitars. The only audio that seems to exist for it is on davidlangmusic with a “.com” after it. But I’d love to have it as an mp3. Oh well, gotta record it myself I guess.

  5. Jeremiah-
    Thanks for the clarification, and, of course, the uptown-downtown thing is a continuum, but I had it right – relief!! –

    “The Rest is Noise” is a great book. And, I just Ross’ got “Listen to This”

    I generally encourage anyone interested in music to read Alan Rich’ “So I’ve Heard”. Alan was a great writer and critic, not universally loved; but sharp as a tack..

    And, get to American Mavericks at Minnesota Public Radio – I won’t put the link, because spam catchers seem to think any link is suspicious. Just do a search on American Mavericks, click on “American Mavericks from American Public Media”.

    Get (save) all of the texts: Kyle Gann’s thirteen essays, all of the text interviews. If you have .mp3 recording software, get the audio interviews. Build all of the texts into one “book”, one single searchable file. Put the audio interviews onto an .mp3 player and listen to them over and over.

    People sometimes ask about why I suggest this material. The answer is that you will find much more than the title suggests. in order to teach about “mavericks”, there is a lot of ground to cover regarding all of serious music – Classical, Jazz, tonal “post-tonal”, historic, you name it.

    Go to the Innova site, just http:// the word innova, followed by .mu

    At Innova, find “Measure for Measure”, and “Alive and Composing”, these are two series of interviews of current composers and artists. Record them, put them on your .mp3 player, listen to them over and over.

    What I have given you is huge, but it is worth it. Nancarrow? Stockhausen? Copland? Bernstein? You will have it all.

    And, listen to Q2, the 24/7 New music stream at WQXR, just find it at the web site, especially “Nadia Sirota on Q2”, four hours every week day at noon and midnight. Nadia has an amazing reservoir of knowledge.

    Also, very important, Marvin Rosen’s “Classical Discoveries” and “Classical Discoveries Goes Avantgarde” on Wednesdays, 6:00-11:00AM at WPRB, Princeton, NJ, 103.3FM or on the internet, and WPRB is a .com, so you know how to do that.

    Good luck, this is a great site.

    Egad!! I do go on.

  6. To Steve Layton,
    Thank you for those links. I’m making good use of them. And I hear you about the “difference between strolling down the manicured “nature trail” and setting off cross-country” (great line by the way). I will take that to heart.

    Dear David Toub,
    I agree with you that listening to music (listening as you play it, or as it is played for you) is the best way to absorb it. I’ve been doing that quite a bit of late. Thank goodness for Pandora and YouTube! In this way I’m trying to give myself the experience you mentioned. I’ll email you now.

    To Christian Carey,
    Thank you for responding to my query. I would love to get those slides from you. I’ll email you now. And I will be buying those books too.

    To Antonio Celaya,
    The decline of the significance of notation? Incredible. Ala Monk? I will certainly read that!

  7. Thanks Christian-you’re too kind.

    Jeremiah, you’re welcome to e-mail me. I think the best way to really understand different music is to listen to it. It’s great to look at the scores and see some interesting things along the way, but it’s the music that will either grab you or not.

    I think what you’ll get are people’s perspectives on various music, whether one considers it “uptown,” “downtown,” or whatever. All of our perspectives are just that-perspectives and opinion, often informed by experience.

    Ives and Ruggles were unique. They defy categorization, and in many ways, so does Feldman and many others.

  8. Jeremiah,

    So glad that you wrote in with this question. It’s exciting to hear about someone rolling up their sleeves and digging in to the rich and varied repertoire of contemporary classical music.

    I think Jerry, Steve, and the others have given you some valuable resources already. NewMusicBox, Tom Johnson’s site, and Kyle Gann’s blog would be excellent starting places for discussions of downtown. David Toub is also a compendium of wisdom about minimalism. As you may have seen on the site, I recently taught a class on minimalism. If you’d like to see the syllabus or slides, please feel free to be in touch.

    May I suggest another book? Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, edited by Schwartz and Childs is getting on in years, but has some fabulous essays that were very inspiring to me as I began my journey as a composer. Andrew Ford’s books of composer interviews are also very informative. And writings by Paul Griffiths on a host of subjects. The list goes on…

  9. I am the writer of the above question. Thank you to everyone for your responses! I am making many virtual bookmarks (on the internet) and reading many non-virtual books (in the real world) as a result! “The Rest is Just Noise” is a great recommendation, thank you to Mr Bowles and Ms Scheid. And Tom Johnson’s “The Voice of New Music” is a real find! And it’s free in PDF format! Outstanding!

    I have a response to Richard Mitnick’s question. I guess I should have better phrased my question, and I should have added “-ness” to the ends of the words “uptown” & “downtown.” What I’m after is an excellent understanding of “uptownness” and “downtownness.” And I do indeed hear a little bit of, say, Charles Ives’s imagination existing well above 59th street. And maybe a little of David Lang’s too, if only ‘just’ inside the lower border of the park.

    To be sure; the composers I listed are decidedly “downtown.” But not all of them are equally downtown. Can’t it be said that one composer is more uptown than another? Don’t you think that Charles Ives or David Lang have more uptownness than, say Meredith Monk? And please notice that I did not list David First, who makes his home in the bedrock of the island!

  10. As I embark on my own contemporary musical journey, I want to endorse the recommendation (among others) to read Alex Ross (The Rest is Noise is simply brilliant, beautifully written, and a page-turner to boot, a great place to start), sequenza21 (so glad to have found you!) and the site Instant Encore (, which is how I found sequenza21. Above all, enjoy your musical journey, as I am mine!

  11. Sorry for the interruption, but I am confused by “…in new “downtown” as well as much “uptown” music (e.g. the music, methods and processes of; yourself, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Nico Muhly, Toru Takemitsu, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Charles Ives, Lou Harrison), and I am in search…”

    Is the writer saying that the composers noted are examples of “Uptown” ?

  12. Most of the European countries have excellent music centers, with web sites containing scads of information on their composers. While the last volume of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Music, “The Late Twentieth Century,” stops 8 or 9 years ago, it’s a wonderful tale of how we got here. He has an interesting take on the decline of the significance of notation. By the way, where the hell are we?

  13. Ha! Polly’s actually a fount of knowledge about new West Coast musics that go beyond the standard meat and potatoes (almost literally…). Kyle’s blog, sure. But don’t forget our friends over at the American Music Center’s NewMusicBox as well:

    We can actually work Harrington in here, as his New Music reBlog is still one of the best places to peruse daily links to all things contemporary on the web:

    We have a couple radio/poscast links at the bottom right of this very page, that will introduce you to all kinds of new music and unfamiliar names.

    If you’re expecting a guided tour though, to who’s ‘important’ and ‘must hear’, sorry but no can do. The true power of the web for learning about who & what are who & what is to not wait for the information to come to you, but rather follow any link that intrigues you, take the time to read and listen for yourself, follow whatever links you may find there on to more discovery, and so on and so on… If someone along the way gives you a recommendation or three, thank them and check the tips out; but in the end what’s truly important is what your own ears, eyes and judgement tells you is. That takes active, even blind, seeking on your part. It’s the difference between strolling down the manicured “nature trail” and setting off cross-country.

  14. Hi, JL. I would take Kyle Gann to dinner, get him drunk on some good wine, and ask a lot of questions. Or, you could read his definitive book called Music Downtown. You should also read Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise and his new one called Listen to This which came out a couple of days ago. It’s on my list of must reads. My adopted Korean son Steve Layton knows more about online music resources than anybody alive with the possible exception of Jeff Harrington but you’d rather talk to Steve. My work method is to hit the “play” button.

    p.s. to all, Hilary’s Higdon is number one with a bullet on the Billboard classical charts and has sold more copies in its first week than any of her other CDs. Big up to the Hil and her PR guru Amanda Ameer.

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