As the opening frame to his final chapter on music in a postliterate society, Taruskin examines what he considers literate music’s last grasp for ultimate authority.
The music of two English composers, Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy, represents this final and—in Taruskin’s estimation—ultimately futile maneuver. Their music is typically incredibly dense on the page, and in some respects impossible to perform. Ferneyhough uses “nested rhythms” (-tuplets within -tuplets within -tuplets), and obsessively profuse articulations, giving off the general feeling of impenetrable intellectual prowess (or at the very least, committed laboring). Taruskin gives us a page of Ferneyhough’s string quartet to make his point, with the ominous assurance that this is “not an unusually complex page” for him (see the image below, which is similar to the one Taruskin uses on V, 477).
Ferneyhough and Finnissy form the core of the so-called “New Complexity” group of composers, which Taruskin baldly paints as a dead-end extension of modernism. When it comes to the notational complexity of Ferneyhough’s music, Taruskin confidently pronounces that “its intricacy set a benchmark that is never likely to be equaled, let alone surpassed.” (V, 476) That’s because this type of music is doomed. In a world “after everything,” the argument goes, literate music has been finally dethroned, with postliterate musical media taking its place.
The Ferneyhough example immediately made me think of another piece of music, which made the rounds among my musical friends several years ago. It’s a page of “notationally complex” music that, once a closer look is taken, turns out to be a gag (see image below; click for larger version).
The music pokes fun at far more than just “New Complexity” types. It’s an indictment of the whole lot of modernist (see the stacked articulations at the end of the third system) and post-modernist (“Gradually slide from 12-bar Blues to a more Vivaldi-like cadenza”) styles.
But above all it lampoons the idea that notational technology—and by extension literate music as a whole—holds the ultimate key to musical meaning. Notation has been so overburdened with meaning that it can become, well, just silly. Taruskin will press this point, and the postliterate alternatives that were developed in response to it, throughout the final chapter of his history.