Downtown Music, 1971-1987: An Overview and Resource Guide

Researched, compiled and written by Peter Cherches
February-May, 2007


What is Downtown Music?

For the purposes of this guide, the term "downtown music" covers the musical activity in multiple genres that developed and thrived among communities of musicians and composers who (generally) lived and worked in downtown Manhattan and presented their work, for a time at least, mainly at downtown venues. But the concept would have little value if it were just a geographical marker. For decades downtown Manhattan has served as a site for vanguard activities across the arts, and the music of downtown can generally be seen as boundary-pushing reactions to established musical conventions. Downtown composers and players pushed the musical envelope technically, aesthetically, and socially. This guide covers significant downtown scenes and figures in classical, jazz and rock music in the 1970s and 1980s.


The years of coverage, 1971-1987, have been chosen as representative of the most fertile and volatile period in downtown music, but these dates also represent several institutional milestones that provide a useful frame. 1971 is the year that The Kitchen opened at its first location and launched its concert series. The Kitchen would become the most important venue for downtown art music for decades to come. 1971 is also notable for the performance debut of Steve Reich's "Drumming" and the recorded debut of Philip Glass's "Music With Changing Parts," two minimalist classics. The Kitchen shared an address with the Mercer Arts Center, where the New York Dolls' residency of 1972 was considered by many to be the genesis of the New York punk scene. 1972 was also the year of the alternative jazz festival at Sam Rivers' loft that marks the unofficial beginning of the loft jazz era. At the other end, 1987 is the year that another major downtown institution, The Knitting Factory, opened. The Knit provided a stable base of operation for downtown improvisers and avant-garde jazz musicians and helped to foster a growing and vital music scene that is still healthy twenty years later. 1987 is also the year that the composers' collective Bang on a Can was founded. Bang on a Can's synthesis of the various strains of downtown art music with other twentieth-century traditions suggests that 1987 was a good year to take retrospective stock of what had come before.

While this guide is intended to be descriptive rather than critical, interpretation is inevitable and the determination of who constitutes a significant artist within a specific cultural milieu is, to a great degree, subjective. If I have neglected any artists who should have been included, it is my hope that the resources provided will help to rectify my errors. In some cases artists have not been listed because, while they may have been involved in the musical circles described, their most visible and important work occurred before the 'seventies or after 1987.

The Question of Genre

When examining the various musical movements and scenes downtown during the 'seventies and 'eighties it becomes apparent that any categorization of the music and musicians is fraught with complications, at least after 1977. Up until that year it's much easier to tie the music into neat little packages along the lines of rock, jazz and contemporary classical (or "new music"). Through the mid-seventies artists downtown were generally working within established and generally segregated genres, each with their own set of performance venues. New music composers performed their work at spaces like The Kitchen and The Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Jazz musicians performed their music in a handful of artist-run downtown lofts. Rock bands played at CBGB and a few other clubs that catered solely to rock audiences. With a few notable exceptions there was little overlap among these genres, outside of their sharing the bohemian space of downtown New York. The music in any of these genres could be situated within a particular historical tradition. Jazz in the lofts was a direct outgrowth of 'sixties free jazz. Punk rock retained the instrumentation and foundations of classic rock and roll while foregrounding a grittiness inspired by the protopunk garage bands of the 'sixties. Downtown new music composers, while reacting to the uptown establishment and the academic dominance of twelve-tone composition, still defined themselves as composers within a "high art" tradition, taking their cues from Cage and other enigmatic or maverick composers. A case can be made for these three strains representing the culmination of modernist impulses before the onset of a postmodern period in downtown music, one in which genre crossing and fuzziness becomes the norm.

The no wave moment (it wasn't a movement) of 1978-79 is perhaps the fulcrum of this change, if only symbolically. Building upon the attitude and social milieu of punk rock it was also a musical reaction to the norms of rock and roll that punk propagated. For their rather nihilistic performances the no wave bands borrowed the trappings of other avant-garde movements, including the ecstatic energy combined with dissonance of free jazz and the indeterminacy of post-Cagean composition. Eventually, several of the musicians involved in no wave would become major figures in the genre hopping that characterized downtown music of the 'eighties. Some leaned more toward improvisation while others worked in hybrid rock settings. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham brought the sonic assault of downtown rock into the world of downtown new music composition. By the early 'eighties there was so much overlap among genres, so many projects that didn't clearly fit into one of the previously functional definitions, and so many musicians who comfortably negotiated disparate types of projects, that to categorize a musician as rock, jazz, improv, or classical often requires a coin toss. Among the musicians who could fit comfortably in two or more of those categories are Branca, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, and the musicians and composers associated with Robert Ashley and the Lovely Music record label. While I've retained the three high-level categories of new music, jazz (along with other related improvisational forms), and rock, in a sense "downtown music," by the 1980s, had become a genre unto itself, with many permutations.

Fales Library & Downtown Music

This guide was prepared for Fales Library at NYU and is intended to serve as a collection development tool for curators at the library as well as a general overview of downtown music for researchers. Fales Library is a major repository for both archives and published materials relating to the arts in downtown Manhattan, with an emphasis on the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The collection is particularly strong in the areas of downtown writing and performance. The most important music-related collection at Fales is the Richard Hell papers. Other collections with significant music-related materials are The Downtown Flyers and Invitations Collection, The April Palmieri Papers, and the Judson Memorial Church Archive.

Table of Contents | Downtown Music I: New Music Downtown, 1971-87 >>

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