Frederick J. Brown, The Sound of Color (1971)

Downtown Music: Culture, Technology, and the American Avant-Garde

Instructor: Nathan Shields
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In the early 1960s, the avant-garde artists Yoko Ono and La Monte Young launched a concert series in Ono’s downtown Manhattan loft. Inspired by the experimentalism of John Cage, and blurring the boundaries between music, conceptual and performance art, the series marked the beginning of the “downtown” music scene—a genre-bending, anarchic milieu sharply opposed to both mainstream musical culture and the institutionalized modernism of “uptown” academia. To its admirers, this burgeoning movement was a beacon of countercultural resistance, opposing consumerist conformity and bureaucratic rationalism with an exalted vision of spiritual and artistic liberation. Yet others have seen in the musical avant-garde less a refuge from the market society and the technocratic state, and more their funhouse-mirror image—an exuberant participant in the dance of postwar capitalism, an expression of America’s deepening dehumanization, even an early model for Silicon Valley techno-utopianism. Why did avant-garde music inspire such disparate reactions? What, if anything, united its various strands, from conceptualism to minimalism and performance art? How did downtown artists oppose, reflect, or influence the social developments around them, from the sixties counterculture to the neoliberal revolution? And how has their legacy shaped music and society today?

In this course, we’ll address these questions through an exploration of the music of the American avant-garde, alongside the writing of its champions, historians, and critics. We’ll follow it from midcentury to the dawn of the Reagan era, listening to music by Cage, Young, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Julius Eastman, Laurie Anderson, and others. We’ll consider its impact on European composers and its influence on such artists and popular musicians as Robert Rauschenberg, the Fluxus movement, and Brian Eno. We’ll explore its cultural and political ramifications through its own writings, coupled with texts by contemporary critics and scholars including Fred Turner, Louis Menand, Susan McClary, Robert Fink, and others. And we’ll ask: what can the example of Downtown Music teach us today—about art’s transformative potential, and its tangled relationship with commerce and power?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 17 — December 16, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks.
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 24th.


Registration Open

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