Learning to Listen to Each Other

by Barry Drogin ©2006

Kyle Gann: Music Downtown : Writings from the Village Voice. University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-22982-7.

New Music Connoisseur was founded on an idea that anyone would consider impossible—non-musicians writing criticism about new music—but, as the years have passed, professionals have joined the fold. Under the guise of journalistic ethics, I’ve grown accustomed to adding disclaimers to many of my reviews, and, given the assignment to review Kyle Gann’s collection of writings from the Village Voice, thought, “Here we go again!” But Kyle Gann is EVERYBODY’s friend. And not only has Gann never used a disclaimer, I realize there is no journalistic reason for him to do so.

Kyle Gann

To this collection of pieces, Gann has added a new introduction which is an expansion and combination of some previous work, in which he clarifies Uptown and Downtown, and adds Midtown to describe what used to be called “conservative” composers. Downtown is his specialty, and he breaks it down further into post-minimalism and totalism, the latter a movement he places himself in. As to post-minimalism, he notes that it wasn’t a unified scene of composers until he “introduced many of them to one another.”

This has always been Gann’s role, to introduce us to one another, to tell us about composers who are working on similar things, and about composers who are working on things that have nothing to do with our personal aesthetic issues. It’s called “advocacy journalism,” and I have long aspired to it myself. Gann may not have the stylistic brilliance and daring of Tom Johnson or Alex Ross, he may not have the broad knowledge of other musics that Greg Sandow, his immediate predecessor, had, but for twenty years he’s respected and grappled with music that excites him and that makes you want to be excited, too. Although he is intimately involved and does formidable research, he never seems to be writing about himself. He packs his articles with description and with references, and, if you don’t get his references, well, you’ve got some homework to do.

For twenty years I had searched out Gann’s byline in the Village Voice, which, after being attached to pieces that got shorter and shorter, has now disappeared from the masthead. It’s heartbreaking to read these long interviews, thought pieces and reviews from the heyday, and realize what we’ve lost. The Voice , it is a changin’.

Of course, like anyone else, I turn to the index first and search for my name (alas, out of some 500 columns I didn’t make it into the chosen 92). As a responsible reviewer, I have to read the entire book, which has pieces grouped into sections. Given my interests, I enjoyed the juicy center, think pieces on musical society and politics, but found the interviews, reviews and obituaries just as entertaining. I guarantee you, this is a book you’ll be able to pick off of your shelf and enjoy at random: you’ll never hit a false note. Gann has a knack for the quotable quote, whether it is his own turn of phrase or someone else’s. My copy is already quite dog-eared.

My only caveat with Kyle Gann’s writing is that he sticks to what he knows: music. He’ll describe the music and instruments in performance art, theater, and opera, but his writing about the other elements is often clunky, unconvincing and atypical. Others at The Voice covered those beats, and covered them better. As an exception, however, several pieces that cover various American Indian festivities are surprising, sensitive and respectful. Apparently, he hasn’t wanted to appear colonialist in his coverage of “American” music.

Gann ends with John Cage’s obituary, a tribute to another friend who taught us how to listen. No two personalities were ever so different, but Gann’s love of Cage permeates his writings. Kyle Gann writes with a sense of joy and wonderment that Cage embodied. It’s a fitting conclusion to a vast collection.

In the preface, Gann reveals in passing what many do not know: he doesn’t actually live in New York City and has to keep traveling in and out to hear our concerts. My favorite Kyle Gann review is not included: in it, he reveals that there are only four people in the audience, including himself and the bartender. Gann covered Yoko Ono and Philip Glass and somebody with two people in the audience and treated everybody with care, love, and serious attention. I haven’t had to read Gann’s hate mail; after Tom and Greg, Gann reports that he was branded “unsympathetic to Downtown music” and considered himself “just another irritation [New Yorkers] had to live with, like subway noise.” I remember when some new subway cars would sing a theme from Copland’s Piano Fantasy, and some others a selection from
Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho . Some of us have learned to listen to subway noise. Kyle Gann has become a part of our landscape, and for those who can listen to his prose, he has made beautiful music.

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