Part I: New Music Downtown, 1971-87

Note: "new music" was the term most often used by practitioners and presenters to refer to alternative contemporary classical music during this period.

To a great degree the programming history of The Kitchen parallels the history of new music in New York in the 'seventies and 'eighties. The Kitchen was founded in 1971 as an artists' collective with a primary focus in video, but the addition of a concert series, originally curated by Rhys Chatham, quickly made it the primary venue (overwhelmingly) for the presentation of new work by downtown composers. The composers who came of musical age in the 'sixties, the generation after John Cage and Morton Feldman, pretty much dominated the downtown new music scene of the 'seventies. While there were a number of different styles and aesthetic concerns among these composers, and even if they didn't all live in New York, there was a spirit and a web of associations that defines their work as "downtown" in opposition to the prevailing stylistic biases of both academia and the midtown concert hall.

Village Voice music critic Kyle Gann dates downtown music's beginnings to the series of concerts curated by composer La Monte Young at Yoko Ono's Soho loft in 1961. [1]  For most of the composers whom Young presented, John Cage can be considered a primary musical influence. Cage offered an alternative to the dominant serialist style of modern classical music. A number of the early downtown composers, among them Philip Corner, Daniel Goode and Charlotte Moorman, became involved with the nascent Fluxus movement, which looked back to Dada for inspiration and encouraged intermedia and conceptual performance work. The traditional score was often jettisoned, replaced by open-ended cues to the performer or scores that also functioned as works of visual art.

La Monte Young's work was highly influential on the composers who became known as minimalists: Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Glass and Reich would become the most visible downtown composers of the early 'seventies. After the gestural, improvisatory, and aleatory work of the post-Cageans, the music of Reich and Glass represented a return to tonality and determinacy. It was a new formalism that represented an alternative to the twelve-tone formalism that still dominated classical composition internationally. Young himself began work on his grand-scale project, "The Well Tuned Piano," in the 'sixties and continued this work for several decades, presenting a number of concerts under the auspices of the Dia Art Foundation. Young's influence also encompasses the downtown underground rock world. John Cale had played cello with Young's ensemble, The Theater of Eternal Music, before forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed.

Other young American composers had begun exploring the possibilities of live performance of electronic music. In the mid-sixties, four of these artists, Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma, formed a collective called the Sonic Arts Union. Other composers who worked with live electronics included Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum, who formed the group Musica Elettronica Viva in Rome in the 'sixties. Though some of these musicians didn't live in New York at the time, their music was represented at most of the same venues as the New York-based composers. Rzewski, who returned to the U.S. in 1971, is an eclectic composer whose best-known work, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated," is a series of virtuoso piano variations on a Latin American revolutionary song.

Common among many of the downtown composers were interests in non-western music (especially as a basis for explorations of rhythm and microtonality) and jazz improvisation. Some, like La Monte Young and Jon Gibson, had strong backgrounds in jazz performance. Indian music was especially influential on Young, Riley, Reich and Glass. Reich was also profoundly influenced by African music. Philip Corner was inspired early on by Korean music, and somewhat later by Indonesian gamelan.

A common practice among downtown composers that differed from the norms of the uptown musical establishment was their direct involvement in the realization of their music in performance. A number of composers, Young, Reich, and Glass among them, formed ongoing ensembles of empathetic musicians to perform their compositions. Glass's early ensemble included composers Jon Gibson and Bob Telson. Telson would leave the ensemble to pursue his own projects, including a number of theatrical collaborations with director Lee Breuer. Gibson continues to work with Glass.

The Kitchen's 1972 music schedule provides a snapshot of downtown music at the time. The season included concerts by Young, Chatham, Gibson, Rzewski, Mumma, Garrett List, Henry Flynt, Phill Niblock, Charlotte Moorman, and sound poets Charlie Morrow and Jackson MacLow. Never before had there been such a stable, supportive home for alternative music.

In December of 1973 the Kitchen was joined by another important new music venue when composer Phill Niblock began presenting concerts at his Centre Street loft under the auspices of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. There was much overlap in the music presented by those two organizations.

In 1979 the Kitchen sponsored the New Music New York festival, which would become New Music America the following year. The recent release of a two-disc recording from the festival shows that many of the same artists who had dominated the early 'seventies programming at The Kitchen also dominated this festival. The set includes performances by Glass, Reich, Gibson, Mumma, Behrman, Niblock, List, Joel Chadabe, and Charlemagne Palestine (a lesser-known but important minimalist composer). The festival also featured George Lewis, a trombonist and computer music artist who had come to the New York new music world with a background in avant-garde jazz. Lewis became music curator of the Kitchen in 1980 and opened up the programming to include a number of African-American musicians who were working in contemporary classical modes that were informed by jazz improvisation. The most prominent among these musicians was multi-reed player Anthony Braxton, who along with Lewis had come of musical age within Chicago's A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).

The New Music New York festival, while mostly celebrating the artists who had defined downtown music, was also, paradoxically (and unintentionally), a summation at the end of an era. The new music scene of the 'eighties would no longer be the exclusive province of white, mostly male, pre-boomers who were working in what was indisputably an "art music" context. The Kitchen's programming of the 1980s reflected the intersection of formal composition, rock, free improvisation, jazz, and performance art. By the 1980s there was a downtown music that wasn't clearly of any one particular genre.

Rock became entwined with new music primarily through the work of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, both of whom combined principles of minimalist composition with heavily amplified rock instrumentation. Other artists whose work blurred the lines between rock and new music were Peter Gordon, "Blue" Gene Tyranny and David Van Tieghem, all of whom were closely associated with Robert Ashley. While the music of Branca and Chatham was primarily concerned with overtones and the aesthetics of noise, the rock- or pop-based explorations of Gordon and Tyranny were more melodic (and perhaps more ironic). In the anything goes landscape of 'eighties downtown music it's difficult to say whether Gordon's Love of Life Orchestra was a rock band or a new music ensemble, or whether such distinctions are even germane.

Ashley himself had moved into a multimedia, performance-oriented mode in the 'eighties. His breakthrough work, the video opera "Perfect Lives," was commissioned by the Kitchen in 1980. The work included texts by Ashley (given deadpan readings by the author/composer) and musical and dramatic performances by Ashley's associates Tyranny, Van Tieghem and Jill Kroesen. By far the most successful artist (commercially, at least) to combine the emergent, genre-crossing form of performance art with new music was Laurie Anderson. Anderson created multimedia performance extravaganzas, and found herself an unlikely chart-topper with her 1981 recording "O Superman." Multidisciplinary artist Meredith Monk had been active in the New York dance and performance worlds throughout the 'seventies, but the formation of her own vocal ensemble in 1978 brought her musical work to the forefront.

The Kitchen's programming became much more diverse in the 'eighties, so much, in fact, that between 1981 and 1987 performances by Kitchen stalwarts of the 'seventies were relatively rare. You were more likely to see performances by the artists covered later in sections on post-punk rock (e.g. Material, Elliott Sharp, Defunkt) or jazz and improv (Julius Hemphill, John Zorn, Bobby Previte, Butch Morris, Tim Berne). George Lewis's successor as music curator, Anne DeMarinis (who played keyboards with Glenn Branca, Laurie Anderson, and Sonic Youth) introduced world music programming to the mix. To some this eclecticism in programming was exhilarating, but to others (like the Village Voice's Kyle Gann) it signaled that the Kitchen had turned its back on its core constituency in service to the trendy.

Three young conservatory-trained composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, were avidly following all this activity in the early-eighties. They felt, however, that the various types of music that interested them were fragmented into tiny, isolated scenes. Whether or not this was really the case (The Kitchen's programming suggests otherwise), they did help to revitalize the new music landscape when, in 1987, they presented the first Bang on a Can Marathon. The marathon encompassed the wide range of downtown music as well as the music of the modern classical establishment that had been long shunned by downtown.

Depending on your perspective, the 1980s were either a decade of crisis for new music or a historical moment when genre distinctions had simply become temporarily obsolete. Perhaps the best summation of the unique role of the 'eighties downtown scene in musical history comes from Rhys Chatham:

The amazing thing about the first half of the eighties in New York was that art music, improvised music, and rock had reached a point where the formal issues endemic to each nearly perfectly coincided, to such an extent that art music made by art composers in a rock context was rock music; where improvised music made by improvisers in an art music context was art music; where improvised music made by rock composers in a jazz festival context was warmly welcomed by the jazz audience. And this wasn't because the composers changed the music depending on the context. We were all doing what we would normally do. We were at a unique intersection in the formal development and evolution of our respective fields where what we played in venues and for audiences outside our primary context happened to work. However, the fact remains that the traditions, the histories, and the formal issues of each of the genres of music are very different. Each was growing at its own pace, and by the end of the eighties, they had gone their separate ways. [2]


[1] Gann, Kyle, "Downtown Music," retrieved May 1, 2007

[2] Chatham, Rhys, "Composer's Notebook: Toward a Musical Agenda for the Nineties," retrieved May 1, 2007

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