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Archive for the ‘Twentieth Century’ Category

And…

…finished!

The Taruskin Challenge is officially over for me. (How about you Zach?) It’s bizarre to think about what my life was like when we started this Challenge. I was a student and hadn’t started my dissertation yet. Now I’m no longer a student, and the dissertation has been on the shelf for 10 months. I have definitely taken a considerable amount of Taruskin’s arguments into the classroom, and not just for music majors. My Understanding Music students (freshman non-majors) have heard plenty of Taruskin as well, though they didn’t know it. One of the great strengths of Taruskin’s writing is that the reader doesn’t have to guess about Taruskin’s opinion on the matter. I find that his strong argument construction makes lectures infinitely more interesting—especially when I can get my students to critique the argument and decide for themselves if they agree.

This Challenge has been a unique experience for me; I don’t think I’ll ever read a book in quite the same way again. (No, we’re not planning to launch “The Strunk Challenge” anytime soon. We’ll leave that to other enterprising grad students out there…) And the next time I read the OHWM I will do it as fast as humanly possible. I’ll get a chance to do that for the last two volumes when I teach the 20th-century graduate survey this summer. (Having my students read the last two volumes in 4 weeks, counterpoints to Taruskin, plus primary sources, articles, and other book chapters is reasonable, right?)

Now it’s time to gather up my thoughts, ruminate, and come to some conclusions about this whole endeavor. Plus there is plenty more about the last volume’s content that bears comment. I imagine Zach and I will be doing just that over the next few weeks.

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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.

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Beauty finds find will control and in who anyone it orderliness here, in beauty it find will control orderliness finds who here and anyone (find will beauty finds who anyone it control and in here orderliness) it find in beauty finds who here will control orderliness anyone and—here it orderliness in beauty finds anyone find will and who control? Anyone here and orderliness in beauty who it find control finds will. Finds who will control and orderliness beauty anyone here find in it: orderliness in here it find will and beauty finds anyone control who [and orderliness anyone here it find control in beauty who will finds <will control finds who anyone here find and orderliness beauty it in] who anyone control and orderliness in finds here it will beauty find; control and who anyone here it will orderliness in finds find beauty>

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We knew it couldn’t go on forever and the end is in sight. 11 weeks. 528 pages. That’s what’s left of a Challenge that we started many many weeks ago. Tomorrow Zach and I (anyone else out there?) will launch into Volume V of the OHWM, “Music in the Late Twentieth Century,” a final shove off the shore into the deep waters of music’s most recent history.

I thought it would be a good time also to update the must-reads list, so I’ve added Brown, Gracyk, Korsyn, and Tucker; I also added a new section called “Primary Sources of Music History.” Thanks to all of the reader suggestions.

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With very little fanfare save for the light breeze made by page turning, Vol. IV came to a close a week ago. That’s four down and one to go—though if you’re like me, you’ve peeked more than once at the final volume.

As is our custom, we’ll take a week or two of wrap-up time to comment on more of the text, as well as to perhaps ask some global questions and discuss the big points of the volume.

And what a volume it was. Prof. Taruskin rocked several boats holding the traditional thinking on twentieth century music. Some of the biggest he salvoed and aimed to sink. He moved the inception of the musical “twentieth century” back by more than a decade, redefined its central characteristics (neoclassicism, ban of pathos, irony), and argued for a repositioning of the era’s most important philosophers (notably a increasing the importance of Ortega y Gasset and decreasing that of T.W. Adorno).

The influence that these changes and challenges might have on the teaching and understanding of music history is well worth discussing, and I’d like to open up a discussion here.

Teachers: how have you used Taruskin’s arguments in your presentation of the narrative of twentieth century music? To what effect?

Students: how have Taruskin’s revisions and emendations affected the way you understand early twentieth century music?

Challenges of your own? Seconding Prof. Taruskin’s arguments? Questions or ruminations? Let’s get this comments section working—pathos and irony allowed.

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At the beginning of the 16th century, Josquin des Prez was one of the first composers to gain widespread renown through the printing press. Gottschalk accomplished his national success by riding the cross-country American railroad system in the 19th century. Enrico Caruso was the first international recording star, beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. Arturo Toscanini’s widespread celebrity as a conductor was amplified exponentially through the new medium of radio broadcasts beginning in the late 1930s (Vol. IV, 752).

The contours of music history are bound by the history of technics, and vice versa. And as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the nature of one’s success is dictated by when one is born, and what technology is available to you—or invented by you. More recently we’ve had the music video star (Michael Jackson), the youtube “star” (more infamous than famous, usually), and the indie-“wunderkind”. One can only imagine—what’s next?

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Listening to Webern

12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.

It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.

This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.

In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.

RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):

The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)

Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.

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