"The real history of American music remains a secret," declares Kyle Gann in Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (University of California Press). "The reason is simple: History is made mostly by nonacademics, and written by academics." Well, almost. History, particularly the history of 20th-century music, gets a rough draft penciled in by eye- (and ear-) witnesses, diarists, hangers-on, and perceptive observers like Gann, a music critic for the Voice since 1986.
What sets Gann apart from most other music writers? He's a composer working within an obscure sub-tradition, the composer as critic. Music Downtown, a recently published selection of Gann's essays, concert reviews, and composer profiles, elevates him into the select society of Claude Debussy, Roberto Gerhard, Virgil Thomson, Benjamin Boretz, and Tom Johnson, all 20th-century composers—and indispensable guides—keenly attuned to the new music of their respective eras.
As a writer Gann is supple, convivial, and bullshit-free. He freely admits his debt to Thomson, whose peremptory prose scalpelled (and sometimes outright scalped) prominent musicians and orchestras in the New York Herald Tribune during the 1940s and '50s. Gann astutely champions Harry Partch, disdains Shostakovich ("that mediocrity!" he screams), and rages against the marginal place of artists: "In America making any art, no matter how 'apolitical,' is already a protest. Putting endless time and work into a disciplined, unremunerative activity for the potential benefit of audiences unknown constitutes sufficient defiance of capitalist imperatives." Gann does have a sense of humor; the faux hard-boiled prose of 1997's "Who Killed Classical Music?" remains a funny and pointed parody.
Gann avoids jargon—terms like "hexachord" appear only to accompany withering condemnations of academic "Uptown" composers like Elliott Carter and Mario Davidovsky—and sticks to essentials: what the music sounds like, who's writing it, and why you should listen.
Much of Music Downtown dates from the 1990s; however, Gann's broadsides against radio ("Don't Touch That Dahl: Classical Radio"), multiculturalism in arts funding ("Dump the Multicult"), and the sclerotic byproducts of Uptown composers ("Pulitzer Hacks" and "The Great Divide") still ring true. His profiles of Robert Ashley, Trimpin, Yoko Ono, and Glenn Branca capture the core of what those composers do while masterful obituaries of John Cage and Morton Feldman harbor challenging insights: "Cage's chance procedures weren't the result of sloppiness, but a fanatical attention to detail."
Of course, Gann didn't catch everything and doesn't claim to be comprehensive. Like all good critics, he freely admits biases and limitations, confessing in the book's preface, "I can't distinguish a great DJ artist from a mediocre one." Yet as a history, Music Downtown is more than a "rough draft"—it's an invaluable guide to some of the major players and musical movements in the latter half of the 20th century.