Eighth Street Transcendentalism

Wave List, January 20, 2005

A few days ago Elizabeth pointed out that women seemed to represent about 50% of the downtown electronic music composers. I wondered why there seem to be more women in that scene (if there are.) I speculated that it might be because the downtowners have possibly rejected the concept of the artist-prophet -- a sort of patriarchal, transcendentally inspired artist who is either seen as a voice of the people, or a voice beyond the people.

Last night I went to a concert of John Zorn's music at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. It is a fairly large hall and it was full. I would guess that well over 500 people were in attendance, and most seemed to be fans. Before the concert there was an hour long interview with the composer conducted by George Steel. Zorn repeatedly stressed that his music comes from some sort of higher power. He said that it would not have been possible for him to complete over 300 of his Masadic melodies during a very short time period without some sort of supernatural help. In the program, he writes that composition is at its best "when the piece is seemingly writing itself and the composer is merely an observer. He says that some of his works, "transcend my expectations and my abilities. I cannot explain them. They are part of the Mystery." 

Well, so much for my speculation about downtowners not seeing themselves as artist-prophets. And I might add that the NYC public seems to view Zorn as a sort of voice of the people -- jazz, rock, pop, cartoons and all. John Cage was an artist-prophet who declared an end to artist-prophets, but it seems that at least some downtowners, like Zorn, weren't listening that closely.

The music at the concert was not very affecting for me, but technically brilliant and stunningly performed by a group of about 20 well-known performers with whom Zorn has long worked. I had not heard his music before and was very surprised. I have lived abroad for 25 years and could only read about his music in journals or on the web. I was expecting a sort of scontchy downtown free improv, but the works presented were extended, highly chromatic, rhythimically complex, precisely notated and formally structured works that sounded almost completely uptown -- except that it was much better uptown music than what I heard when I lived in NYC in the later 70s. 

It is interesting that a "downtown" composer like Zorn, who never completed college, has ended up writing very virtuosic, complex and widely recognized uptown sounding music, while so many hundreds of talented and extremely ambitious composers who went through advanced degrees at Columbia, Princeton, Juilliard, etc. have all vanished into relative oblivion. 

Well-informed critics like Kyle Gann, still speak of a downtown and uptown music, but based on most of the concerts I have heard in NYC of late, the two aesthetic encampments are no longer all that distinct from one another. There seems to be just one broad, rather eclectic concept of music-making in the city.

Anyway, I am still wondering if it would turn out that fewer women composers than men are likely to claim they are transcendentally inspired. As women reach equality, will a matriarchy evolve that follows the general patters of patriarchy? Who knows? A good example of a matriarchal composer might be Pauline Oliveros.

Hastily written thoughts for nothing...

William Osborne