Decolonizing Art Music (PhD Dissertation)

Decolonizing Art Music: Scenes from the Late Twentieth-Century United States. Dissertation completed for the PhD in Music with an emphasis in Critical Studies and Experimental Practices. University of California, San Diego, 2003. Committee: George E. Lewis (chair), Anthony Davis, Nancy Guy, George Lipsitz and Bennetta Jules-Rosette.


African American music traditions, particularly during the last half-century, have played a critical role in the dialogues that have transformed dominant conceptions and practices of art music. Yet the discourses and historical narratives surrounding art music and experimental music in the United States continue to be grounded in racialized taxonomies of musical identity that preserve the centrality and cultural capital of whiteness. Even the 1980s codification and canonization of jazz by institutions of high culture, while certainly an important and overdue form of validation, took place in ways that avoided confronting the full implications of African American traditions, and that articulated white institutional investments in segregation.

This dissertation, centered on two 1980s experimental and creative music scenes, interrogates many of the binaries – jazz/classical, high/low, black/white – that underlie conventional conceptions of American music. At the same time, I avoid superficial notions of “borderlessness,” and instead expose some of the ways in which these music worlds have been shaped by differentials of power and powerful legacies of difference. While attentive to musicians’ agency, I situate their aspirations and innovations within broader struggles around cultural mobility. I do so by examining media discourses and support infrastructures, and interweaving those discussions with analyses of musicians’ collaborative networks, their working methods, and their own views.

My first focus is New York’s so-called Downtown experimental music scene, especially the generation of improvisers that emerged in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. In contrast to conventional characterizations of Downtown that center mostly on white artists and white-coded traditions, my account situates the Downtown phenomenon within complex and longstanding dialogues among black and white musicians. My second topic is what musicians call the Asian American Creative Music Movement, in which the San Francisco Bay area plays an important early role. Here I explore how these Asian American improvisers have cultivated diverse resonances with African American musicians and practices, and with the aims of the broader Asian American movement.