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TC Wrap Up

At its close, Zach and Mark took some time to discuss the Taruskin Challenge and reflect on the experience.MS: Well, here we are at the end of the Taruskin Challenge. I remember when you called me up and proposed that we read through the OHWM together, discussing as we went along. How has the experience compared to your expectations for the project?

ZW: Originally, I was thinking that the blog format would simply be a good way for the two of us to stay in touch and reflect on the reading, not really a public outlet for the experience. (If I recall correctly, we even talked about keeping the whole site private initially.) My expectations at the beginning were pretty modest: after all, who would want to read the observations of a couple of grad students? A fair number of people, it turned out. Opening our thoughts to the public transformed the project from essentially a diary and conversation to a forum. And crucially, the sustained reader interest in the site has, in turn, sustained us in keeping the project going. I’m close to positive we would have fallen off and stopped reading somewhere around Vol. II had it not been for the public nature of the blog. Mark, as much of an enforcer as you are, I don’t think you alone would have been enough to motivate me through the whole text!

Blogging is completely transparent, immediate, and improvisatory: there’s no time for endless revisions, like in typical academic writing. How did the very public nature of this format, as well as its quality of immediacy, affect the way you wrote and thought through the text?

MS: I found it liberating to exercise a new writing process, one that I had little experience with when we began the Challenge. I’m convinced that the weight of the academic process can at times quash creative thinking before it gets off the ground, simply because one is writing to a set of specifications rather than giving the argument time to be messy and develop. (Bryan Garner calls this “messy” stage of writing the “Madman” stage.) I never posted something that I didn’t edit, but I think that the blog format allowed me to put off the “editor” in me long enough to allow for bolder assertions and more extensive historical imagining.

A couple of my faculty colleagues at the UO have used blogs in their courses. Students are required to post (and to comment on others’ posts) on lecture content or readings. And I’ve heard more than once from those faculty that the students’ blog posts are infinitely better than their formal writing assignments: clearer argument communication, more adventurous thinking, more interesting to read, etc. My hunch is that this change is partly due to a relaxing of the traditional academic strictures. As soon as I teach a course small enough to use this approach, I’m going to try it out myself.

There are many questions about the content of the OHWM I am eager to ask you, but I’ll start with a big-picture one. We subtitled our blog project, “Two grad students blog their way through the most monumental musical work in generations.” Now that we have actually read the work, do you think our label “the most monumental work in generations” is justified?

ZW: “Monumental” is a fairly loaded word. (I remember beginning the project with “important,” but a few well-taken comments from colleagues put that to an end.) I would say that “monumental” as a term denoting extreme size is certainly apt; after all, I can’t think of a single-authored work in our discipline that’s so massive in its scope. Being in Taruskin’s head for that long was a completely immersive experience: his style, favorite words, argumentation methods, pedagogical approach, etc, remained fairly consistent over the whole span of it, and as a result, I sort of came to fall into sync with the rhythm of the text in ways that shorter works don’t allow. The audacity of the endeavor, too, constitutes not a little monumentalism. However, defined in terms of significance, influence, and power to alter the discursive landscape of the discipline, I’m not sure I’d call it “monumental.” Of course, that’s probably too early to call. No doubt the work will be still be widely read 20 years from now, but will future scholars look back on it as a turning point for the discipline, the way people talk about Kerman and McClary’s 80s-90s writings today? It’s hard to say. What do you think?

MS: As you say, it’s too early to call. But I see Taruskin’s goal as different from those of Kerman and McClary. It is a culmination rather than a point of departure. As McClary herself said the other day at the Taruskin conference, the OHWM “may well stand as the last great attempt to make sense of the whole shebang.” (qtd. in James Oestrich’s NYT article). Perhaps, for now, but I doubt that will be true in the long run.

I see the OHWM taking up a place with Charles Burney’s (almost as) monumental General History of Music. And the fact that Taruskin’s is a general history may lend it to be even more influential than the more specific work of McClary, Kerman, and others. As opposed to scholars who wear their subversiveness on their sleeves, Taruskin has wrought changes “from the inside out,” so to speak, and with staggering completeness. (Yes, RT has worn some pretty subversive sleeves in his day, but the subversiveness is not as touted in the OHWM.) Who knows where the future musicological tides will take the discipline. But I could see, a couple hundred years from now, Taruskin’s work becoming emblematic (thus a generalization, simplification, and not disinterested representation) of an entire generation’s work. (I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions about this.) I don’t think Taruskin’s will be the last attempt to make sense of music history, but I think it will remain an influential one.

End of part 1 of the TC wrap-up.

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After the End

As we are at the end of our project, the conference honoring Prof. Taruskin is just beginning. This weekend at Princeton, “After The End of Music History: An International Conference in Honor of Richard Taruskin,” is underway. There look to be many exciting things going on there this weekend, including the world premieres of the Prokofiev/Krzhizhanovsky Eugene Onegin.

Find the conference program here, and if anyone finds a twitter tag, let us know in the comments. Alex Ross recently called it “Taruskinfest” on his Twitter feed… Wish we could be there, but we have 10 pages (only!) left to read.

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Cognitive Constraints?

In the waning years of the Cold War, academic modernism began suffering from a gap in credibility, leading many (including defectors) to question its relevance. (In Susan McClary’s words, it was a victim of “terminal prestige.”) Objections to the handsomely brutal aesthetic of “Ph.D. music” were legion, but one of the most devastating blows came from composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff. Drawing explicitly on Chomskyan linguistics and cognitivist paradigms of the “mind machine,” the authors of A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983) postulated that there exist universal laws of listening, cognitive constraints that dictate how we make sense of our experience of musical sound. According to Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s research, listeners  intuitively comprehend structures of hierarchy when listening to tonal music, and it is precisely this perceived hierarchy that makes music intelligible. After laying out the theory, the authors go on to argue the inevitable point: some music follows the universal “listening grammar” to a letter; other music does not. Rather than an aesthetic, political, philosophical, or social rejection of the style, the authors play the “nature” card—academic modernism is “cognitive noise” because of the innate structure of human cognition, a biological and psychophysical fact over which we have little control. In this influential move, the authors establish their critique on the ultimate authority of nature (i.e., “Ph.D. music” is, in a sense, “unnatural”).

RT does a judicious job ferreting out the various complexities of this position. Most humanists today bristle at the very notion of “universality,” and with good reason, looking back on the barbarous last century of violence in the name of universalizing truths. Further, arguments of musical universals cut against ideals of human freedom, exposing us to the vulnerability of our own limitations. They also disturb the hard-won claim that music is an entirely culturally contingent social practice.

But can we discount this position so easily? As Leonard Meyer put it: “It is a mistake—albeit a common one—to conceptualize the problem as a search for ‘musical’ universals. There are none. There are only the acoustical universals of the physical world and the bio-psychological universals of the human world” (V, 450). This is a frustrating and misleading claim: the acoustical and bio-psychological factors Meyer dismisses are precisely the constitutive ingredients of all musical expression—after all, what else is there besides the “physical world” (sound) and the “human world” (perception)? (Perhaps he has in mind a purely intellectual, disembodied, transcendent realm of pure Kantian reflection? Or perhaps he’s reifying “Culture” as something that exists outside of material reality?) If there are universals here, as Meyer concedes, it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t also be universals in the realm of music. Octave equivalency, for example, appears to be a musical universal governed by a fairly simple (since the Greeks first recognized it) psychoacoustic fact (1:2). Granted, cultural context takes over quickly to shape our experience and understanding of such universals, but to not hear a quality of fundamental sameness in C4 and C5 would be to deny many millennia of shared, evolutionary perceptual and cognitive development as humans. Is it not also possible that we are evolutionarily programmed to hear hierarchy in musical sound?

Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s thesis has proven highly influential, and (at least according to my own grad school experience) the early controversy has dropped off in favor of general, if qualified, acceptance. It seems that on this point, at least, “universal” has ceased to be a dirty word, reflecting skepticism with the notion of “progress” and unlimited freedom underlying the ideology of academic modernism. I’ll close with RT: “Behind cultural universals, if they are truly universal, must necessarily stand biological limitations that are transhistorical (‘timeless’) as well as ubiquitous, and that must ultimately come into conflict with faith in unlimited or unlimitable progress” (V, 450).

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Turning Back the Clock

Using an innocent language innocently—using tonality “in one’s own way”—is no longer even an option. The choice is bleak: either renounce expression altogether or borrow a voice.  — V, 435

The tumultuous late 20th century presented composers with a number of perhaps irreconcilable aesthetic challenges. Modernists like Carter and Babbitt pressed on with the historicist mission of musical progress, even though they had to rely on the largesse of universities and institutions to pay their bills. Minimalists opted out of the complexity arms race by radically scaling back their musical means, often under the influence of Eastern spirituality and popular music. But what about turning back the clock entirely to write music, unironically, in the “innocent” idioms of classical music’s hallowed past?

This is what George Rochberg attempted to accomplish in his string quartets no. 3-6. A university-trained modernist, Rochberg began turning his back on “progress” in the 1970s by adopting a purely tonal, Romantic idiom. His 3rd quartet, for example, is pointy and modernistic in all save the central Adagio movement, which jarringly pushes the listener into the Delorean and sets the gauge for 1820. This is music that Beethoven never got around to writing. But as RT (not to mention the composer) makes clear, there is no irony behind this gesture, no dark, sly, distancing maneuver a la Stravinsky’s neoclassicism (which never, of course, sounded remotely “classical”). Rather, what we have is a composer reclaiming a lost past of expressive possibility, and showing in the process that the very notion of stylistic obsolescence is bunk. Why not write a Beethovenian string quartet in 1972? Rochberg writes: “… I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with reactivated powers…” (V, 433).

There’s a lot of “re-” happening here. All this brings to mind Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” wherein a 20th century Frenchman decides that instead of translating Cervantes’s work, he needed to completely immerse himself in Cervantes’s world in order to recreate the book, word by word. To write Don Quixote, in other words, one had to become Cervantes, to hit reset and do it over again. There is something deeply charming about Rochberg’s expressive sincerity and lack of aesthetic “distancing” typically associated with postmodernism. But there is also something deeply sad and more than a little utopian. His embrace of the musical successes of the past, indeed, is all-too-uncomfortable evidence of today’s failures.

(I can’t find a clip of this Adagio on YouTube, but here’s something from the 6th quartet. Here, he takes perhaps the most canonical [and, by many modernists, despised, though don’t tell the bride] piece of music and sets it to a very pretty set of variations. Not entirely historically accurate, perhaps, but definitely not a ironic poke either.)

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Historicism in Rock

In the midst of the cultural turmoil of the sixties, popular musicians began drawing on the prestige (and dysfunctions) of the classical world. Thus in the middle of the decade we get some of the first rock albums that can be heard and respected as “art,” exemplified in Ch.7 (predictably) by Sgt. Pepper, an album filled with enough riddles, eclectic variety, and avant-garde dabblings to keep even a musicology grad student intellectually satiated. Stockhausen shows up on the cover, and to top it off, a few years later The Fab Four (or really, Lennon and his Fluxus-connected wife) were making their own Darmstadt-style tape pieces (“Revolution 9”). It’s a moment of giddy cross-fertilization, a rare episode in 20th-century music history when the masses willingly expose themselves to difficult “art” (or at least suffer through it to get to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”).

RT does his vast book a great service by showing how 60s popular music wrested cultural authority from the classical world, paradoxically by adopting art music techniques, ambitions, and pretensions. (Some critics argue he could have devoted more space to this vital issue.) I find it fascinating as well that rock criticism, which similarly experienced a boom in the 60s, likewise adopted a “classical” approach to its topic. Just as The Beatles borrowed tape techniques from the European avant-garde, writers and critics borrowed historicism from European (specifically, German) musical thought. The same criteria for historical value that was applied to music since the time of New German School—innovation, experimentation, and complexity—could now be applied wholesale to rock. Even though the sound and culture of rock often diverged significantly from art music, it could be aesthetically judged along the same lines as its classical forebears. Thus The Beatles trump The Beach Boys (at least until Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s bid for history).

This mode of historicist rock criticism is alive and well. To kick off the new year, Jon Caramanica of the NYT recently published a rant declaring 2011 “the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history.” Why? Among other reasons, because rock is becoming “a graveyard of aesthetic innovation and creativity”… “hiding out in a few comfortable modes” instead of playing the risky game of progress. He damns modern bands for “walking blindly in the footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier.”

Caramanica might benefit from reading RT’s history. Indeed, all of this could have been written by Brendel in the middle of the 19th century; it is virulently historicist in orientation, linking value with progressive tendencies. (This sort of perspective is why, according to Elijah Wald, pop music writers tend to elevate artists that weren’t very popular.) It’s a fun little irony that rock criticism, a genre born of the counter-cultural, defiant tendencies of the sixties, would come to reimpose the same aesthetic hierarchies of its stodgy older brother.

To close, I leave you with a tune by the band Sublime With Rome, a group singled out for vituperative dismissal in Caramanica’s piece. As epigones of the 90s band Sublime, they stand accused of the cardinal crime of derivativeness.

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The Key to Orderliness

Anyone who finds beauty in orderliness and control will find it here. (Vol. V, p. 142)

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Electronic Irony (I)

… the truly revolutionary aspect of electronic music was the new relationship it made possible between composers and works. The composer of an electronic composition can produce a “score” exactly the way a painter produces a picture or a sculptor produces a statue: what is produced is a unique original “art object” rather than a set of directions for performance. And therefore, obviously, “score” is the wrong word for it, since a score is something written, and electronic music can dispense with writing. It created the possibility of a postliterate musical culture. It spelled, potentially, the beginning of the end of the culture of which this book is a history.  — Vol. V, 210

Electronic musical media freed the composer from the pen-and-paper paradigm dominant in Western music (at least in its more socially elite forms) for hundreds of years. In so doing, it undermined the very rationale of musical literacy, and — as RT makes clear and any GarageBand-using kid can attest — we are still living in the rubble. Making music, to many in the electronic age (and even more in the digital age), begins with samples, oscillators, wave forms, band-pass filters, envelopes and a variety of other means, not with score paper. And ironically, it was Babbitt, our paragon of hyper-literate “Ph.D. music” that helped to usher in this profound shift. RT goes on: “The means that Babbitt chose for protecting his purely literate domain from social mediation — namely, the electronic elimination of the performing ‘middle man’ — was precisely the means through which the need for literacy might be transcended” (210).

In hindsight, it is hard to deny the “revolutionary” aspect of electronic music, especially when we factor in popular music (after all, sampled hip-hop beats are really just new wine in the old musique concréte bottle, and before that, the electric guitar demonstrated to the world how expressively potent a manipulated electrical signal can be in the hands of a skilled musician). But while I acknowledge the paradigm-shifting importance of electronic media for the music world at large, I’m struggling to understand how truly revolutionary electronic media were for guys like Babbitt. Yes, it gave him complete dictatorial control over sound (a Cageian nightmare) and it cut out the “middle men” of actual human bodies, but electronics to Babbitt really just represented an intensification of the old notational paradigm, perhaps even its ne plus ultra. Wasn’t electronic music, in many ways, actually the pure embodiment of the Werktreue concept, a “musical object” that exists entirely as sound without the vexing inconvenience of other people and their interpretive whims? Both the score and the tape are, after all, objects. The fixity of a recording can be just as stable and permanent as the fixity of notes on a page. Wouldn’t Brahms have preferred this level of purity to the primitive technology of the score?

RT is right in pointing out the revolutionary potential of electronic music, but this interpretation was certainly not a given when these technologies were introduced. Electronic music had to leave the laboratory for its real revolutionary powers to be unleashed; it had to be embraced by those outside of the academy, heard on the radio, tinkered with in garages, danced to. The biggest irony of electronic music is not that it overturned the reign of literacy; it’s that a fundamentally asocial form would go on to influence virtually every aspect of global popular music, the most “social” of musical practices. Babbitt was attracted to electronics’ solitude and disembodied purity, but the rest of us have fallen in love with its unique abilities to bring people together.

(More on this in another post.)

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