Downtown music is not distinguished by any particular principle, but rather by what it does not do: it does not confine itself to the ensembles, performance tradition, and musical rhetoric of European classical music, nor to the commercially defined conventions of pop music. The only thing that all Downtown music might be said to have in common is that, at least at the time of its original appearance, it was too bizarre – by dint of excessive length, stasis, simplicity, extemporaneity, consonance, noisiness, pop influence, vernacular reference, or other purported infraction – to have been considered "serious" modern music by proponents of "uptown" music. Another generalization one could point to is an embrace of the creative attitudes of
John Cage, though this is not universal; Zorn in particular has downplayed his influence. Some Downtown music, particularly that of
John Zorn, and
Morton Feldman, has subsequently become widely acknowledged within the more mainstream history of music.
More than a continuous scene, Downtown music has resembled a battlefield on which, from time to time, various groups have reigned ascendant. In chronological order of dominance, the following movements have been prominent Downtown:
Conceptualism – starting with the
Fluxus artists, who made pieces from brief instructions ("the short form") or concepts. For instance,
La Monte Young's "Draw a straight line and follow it";
Robert Watts' Trace, in which the musicians set fire to the music on their music stands;
Yoko Ono's Wall Piece, in which performers bang their heads against the wall; or
Nam June Paik's classic "Creep into the vagina of a living whale".
Minimalism – a style of music that began with the repetition of short motifs, sometimes going out of phase due to slight differences of speed, and crescendoed into a movement of simple diatonic music of clearly defined linear processes.Steve Reich and
Philip Glass became the public face of the movement, but the original minimalists (
La Monte Young,
Phill Niblock) were less characterized by their music's prettiness and accessibility than by its tremendous length, volume, and attention-challenging stasis.
Performance art – starting with the enigmatic solo text/music pieces of
Laurie Anderson, which often made innovative (even subversive) use of electronic technology, many Downtown artists developed an often humorous or thought-provoking style of solo performance with conceptualist overtones. This scene coexisted with minimalism, and due to the dearth of funding opportunities for Downtown composers, many of them still pursue genres of solo performance.
Art rock or
experimental rock – this is a term with several different meanings, depending on one's milieu, but two are most relevant to Downtown music: 1. originally, music made by visual artists, presumably musical amateurs, often tending toward surreal theater, as in the early performances of
Glenn Branca and Jeffrey Lohn; and 2. subsequent to
Rhys Chatham's influence, a transferral of
minimalism to "rock" instruments, resulting in static pieces played on electric guitars, generally with a backbeat. Groups like
Live Skull and the
Swans arose from this (and the
no wave) movement.
Free improvisation – originating with
Terry Riley and
Pauline Oliveros, this scene took over Downtown in the early 1980s, under the leadership of
John Zorn and
Elliott Sharp. This music, celebrating extemporaneity, flourished in a city in which rehearsal space was expensive and difficult to come by, and provided an outlet for many jazz-trained/-centered musicians tired of jazz performance conventions.
Postminimalism – a style of music based on a steady beat and diatonic harmony, less linear or obvious than minimalism but taking over its ensemble concept of amplified chamber groups. Postminimalism was more a far-flung national movement than anything specific to Manhattan, but
William Duckworth and
Elodie Lauten are examples of New York-based postminimalists.
The above list of movements and idioms is far from exhaustive – in particular, it omits the continuous history of
electronics in Downtown music, which have tended toward process-oriented and interactive music rather than fixed compositions. The history of
sound installations should be taken into account, along with the more recent advent of
DJing as an art form. Likewise, despite its origin in New York musical politics, "Downtown" music is not solely specific to
Manhattan; many major cities such as
San Francisco, even
Birmingham, Alabama have alternative, Downtown music scenes. One could say that, if, when a composer gets played in New York City, it's likely to be at a Downtown space, then they can be called a Downtown composer, regardless of primary residence.
There is a considerable overlap between Downtown music and what is more generally called
experimental music, especially as that term was defined at length by composer
Michael Nyman in his influential book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Nyman opposes the term to
avant-garde, as generally being American/British versus Continental, experimental music being more open to process, surprises, and accidents and less focused on the artistic personality. In this respect, as a general descriptive, and without reference to any particular scene, experimental and Downtown have sometimes been used synonymously. Another, even more coextensive term is
new music, which took on currency following the "New Music New York" festival presented by
The Kitchen in 1979, which visibly showcased the music referred to as Downtown; the term remained in widespread use during the years of the
New Music America festival (1979–1990). Due to its obvious and inconvenient applicability to many types of music, use of "new music" as describing a specific type of contemporary composition has fallen off in recent years.