The Filter-Up Theory June 29, 1982

A lot of people subscribe to a musical version of the Trickle-Down Theory. The idea is that as listeners confront more accessible forms of new music they get turned on to all new music, and their enthusiasm trickles down to the lofts and alternative spaces and to some of the newer or less accessible types of music. Here are a few examples.

In universities and museums and local arts centers I’ve often heard a line of reasoning that goes something like this. ‘We don’t really have an audience for new music here, and people aren’t ready for a whole evening of John Cage reading Writing through Finnegan’s Wake, or David Tudor’s Rainforest, or Alvin Lucier’s work, or some of the unusual things that composers around here are doing. So we’re starting out our first new music series with people like Steve Reich, Phil Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Cecil Taylor. That way we know that the ticket sales will be pretty good, and we won’t have such a huge deficit, and we’ll be able to develop an audience at the same time. Once we get people in the habit of coming, we’ll be able to invite some of the other composers we’d really like to invite but just can’t take on right now.’

Or consider the conversation I had some months ago with one of the younger composers doing loud electric-guitar minimalism. After I had congratulated him on the critical acclaim and large audiences he had begun to attract, he responded with an explanation that went something like this. ‘Well, I really hope I can be a big success. Not just for myself, but for new music in general. When people start responding to my stuff they’ll be able to understand some of the new music that doesn’t have a lot of public appeal yet. I figure I’m doing a service for all composers.’

Another example of the Trickle-Down Theory arrived in a letter not long ago. The writer comments that his city ‘seems quite star-conscious of a sudden. Phil Glass, Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson have all been welcomed with major crowds in the past year—but, strangely enough, been welcomed as a sort of establishment avant-garde, as safe—a sure bet for an unusual evening... I think the hope is that some of the living composer sensibility will rub off on the masses, and they will find their way to supporting locals and lesser knowns.’ All of these people are subscribing to the Trickle-Down Theory, and it seems to me that they are all spinning illusions. The arts administrator is using the theory to justify his safe programming policies. The composer is using it because he wants to pass of his aggressiveness as altruism. The letter writer is invoking it to bolster his hopes that better days are around the corner for ‘locals and lesser knowns.’

It seems increasingly clear to me that the Trickle-Down Theory is just not valid, regardless of how good an alibi it may sometimes be. If the audiences at a few well-attended concerts do trickle down to the more modest circumstances where truly radical or truly sophisticated or just newer forms of music are being made, they do so in very insignificant numbers indeed. What really happens is that, of the many forms of music that are constantly being tried out, a few manage to make their way through a big sieve to some of the larger halls, larger record companies, and larger audiences. In other words, the Trickle-Down Theory really ought to be replaced by a more realistic Filter-Up Theory.

America still puts a premium on innovation and individuality, and there are always a lot of us exploring new methods and developing unique approaches in music, as in just about everything else. Quite a few are particularly talented and particularly persistent, and they develop styles that are truly unique and insightful, and make valuable contributions to our understanding of what music is and can be. But the way things are now, there is not very much room for these achievements in orchestra programs and record stores and radio broadcasts, so a selection process has to take place.

This selection process really begins among the artists themselves, I think. They usually know each other and each other’s work, and as they plan concerts, form groups, stage events in Central Park, or whatever, they end up supporting some of their colleagues and not supporting some of their other colleagues. Their activities may have small audiences, but they do attract critics who want to be able to report the latest developments to their readers, auditors who make reports to funding agencies, and people who may be preparing lectures or books or anthologies, along with a few friends and curiosity seekers. So the information gathered by these people is picked up by those alternative spaces, small record companies, new music ensembles, festival organizers, and radio stations who take a special interest in new music. As soon as these people present such things to their audiences, however, the music begins to confront resistance, and only a very small selection of this work ever filters up beyond this level and out to the general public.

What I am saying seems particularly clear from the vantage point on New York where, after 10 or 15 years of lively new music activity, and even the creation of a few stars, the audiences at places like the Experimental Intermedia series remain much what they always were. One finds critics who want to be able to report the latest developments to their readers, auditors who make reports to funding agencies, and people who may be preparing lectures or books or anthologies, along with a few friends and curiosity seekers, and that’s about it. It’s really not such a bad system, and the information continues to circulate, and all of the really strong music continues to filter up, at least to the point where the general audience begins making the decisions, and the process is all rather clear and simple. Things only get confusing when people try to turn reality upside down with the Trickle-Down Theory.