"Can’t he be both, like the late Earl Warren?"

A follow-up to yesterday’s crankiness.

Over at aworks, Robert, talking about Miles Davis, takes mild but justified issue with my criticism of the oft-heard pronouncement that “jazz is America’s classical music.” Let me clarify: I wasn’t trying to say one was better than the other, I just think that particular metaphor does a disservice to both. (And I wonder if jazz musicians have the same suspicions—I would imagine that at least a few of them would roll their eyes at being lumped in with the sort of classical performance that Virgil Thomson called ”silk-underwear music.”) But it’s a beaut of a coincidence that he was discussing Miles. Because Miles figures in another follow-up, to the whole “uptown-downtown” thing.

The other clichés I was trying to kill off annoy me mainly because of their shallowness, but that one is different. It annoys me because it tries to create an either/or situation where there doesn’t have to be one. I never heard “downtown” music as diametrically opposed to “uptown” music—just the opposite, in fact. I first liked Feldman—the slow pace, the way he makes the decay as important as the attack, the tight focus on short, open-ended gestures—because he sounded kind of like Webern. I first liked Carter—the virtuoso floods of notes, the floating rhythm, the unexpected juxtapositions that keep the drama of the piece in tension—because he reminded me of Zorn. And I first liked Stockhausen, because he reminded me of Miles.

Back in undergrad, one of the first Stockhausen pieces I heard was his first major work, Kreuzspiel. It’s regarded as a seminal work of pointillist serialism. Three instruments—oboe, bass clarinet, and piano—jab individual notes, widely-spaced chords, and occasional melodic fragments at each other, while three percussionists accompany with tom-toms and congas, then cymbals, then both. Listening to the first section, the short, enigmatic interjections by the winds, the sparse piano, the tom-toms a background tattoo with unexpected (serially-determined) accents… we all looked at each other (we were all pretty jazz-savvy—DePaul is a big jazz school) and said, “It’s Birth of the Cool!” Which is exactly what it sounds like. Stockhausen has claimed on more than one occasion that no one had ever heard anything like Kreuzspiel before, but of course they had (and no doubt he had, too.) But by taking away the familiar tonal harmony and the regularity of rhythm, that particular sound suddenly sounded new and shocking again. It reminded me of the excitement I felt the first time I heard Miles—not a triumphalist “this is what I’ve been looking for all my life” excitement, but an excitement that here was music that didn’t behave the way I expected it to, that showed a little more of its hand each time I listened to it, that let my experience of it change over time and place.

Hence my recoil at the uptown/downtown dichotomy. It’s not even that such a manichaean view of music is telling me that I can’t like both, it’s that it’s implying that if I do like both, that there must be something wrong with the way I listen. But one of the attributes of great music is that you can listen to it in myriad different ways and still feed your soul. No part of town has a monopoly on that.

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