The Key to Orderliness

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


(click on the image for a bigger scale)

Many weeks and pages after beginning our project, The Taruskin Challenge has reached its 200th post. To commemorate, I used a handy tool to create this visual representation of the content of our blog. What you see here is a scaled representation of the words in all of our posts and all of the comments up through our 199th post (all 150,000 of them, give or take). Greater size indicates greater frequency of the word (common English words like “and” or “to” are discounted). It’s an interesting and, I think, insightful way to look back over the project so far, as we approach its end.

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… 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.)

Science Envy

Babbitt sought liberation … from the potential tyranny of taste when he tried … to make truth rather than beauty the criterion of artistic as well as scientific achievement. The measure of good music, like good science, would not be the pleasure that it gave, or the political tendency that it served, but rather the truth that is contained—objective, scientifically verifiable truth… (Vol. V, 156)

If one were to pinpoint the single theme that most dominates the first 200 pages of Volume 5, it would have to be the contentious issue of artistic freedom in the liberating but terrifying age of science. The act of music-making in the aftermath of WWII was indeed laden with heavy questions: What does it mean to be a composer in an era of imminent annihilation, when personal expression (not to mention existence) was just as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms over Nagasaki? And what use does beauty serve in such a world anyway?

Science had won the war, and many composers—reflecting the general cultural attitudes of the post-war period—were struck with an acute case of science envy. As RT’s passage above makes clear, beauty was a difficult objective for many to pursue in the zero-hour, not least because (as Adorno says) writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The empirical truths expressed through the musical vocabulary of total serialism (Boulez, Babbitt, et al.), a system of non pareil objective rigor, aimed to transcend the merely human, to strike at a more stable, lasting, and durable reality than fleeting beauty could afford.

Paradoxes abound. In some ways, total serialists espoused a rejection of the Self, that stable, subjective (and immanently vulnerable) wellspring of Romantic creativity. Boulez and Babbitt enacted self-loss through mathematics and rationality; rather than an arbitrary, personal mode of expression, one rooted in the biases of taste, they strove for purity and truth through the perceived universalism of numbers. However, as RT rightly points out, “Ph.D. music” in other ways represents the apex of authorial power and control in the Western musical tradition: rather than holding the self under erasure, it affirms the total freedom of the composer/music-scientist, freedom to create irrespective of whether listeners will like it or performers will play it.

This notion of freedom is a “political tendency” just like any other. Ironically, the science envy of post-war music—and the ideology of “purity” and “truth” it embraced—ended up being put to the service of Cold War politics.

(In closing, here are two of Babbitt’s greatest hits, the early Composition for Four Instruments (1948) and the pioneering electronic work, Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964).)


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.

As a part of our interregnum between volumes, we are going to update our musicology must-reads feature. Please feel free to add suggestions of your newest or rediscovered favorites in the comments section of that page.

I especially would like suggestions for a new section of the must-reads list: Primary Sources of Music History. This will be a list of texts not only on the topic of music history/musicology, but that have historical value themselves as influential texts to music history/musicology. They will be generally pre-1950. Some examples are below:

1773. Herder, Johann Gottfried von. Shakespeare.

1776. Burney, Charles. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Vol. I (1776); Vol. II (1782); Vol. III (1789); Vol IV (1789).

1824. Stendhal, Life of Rossini.

Please include as much bibliographic information as you have, especially year of publication, and perhaps where the resource can be found online (if applicable). I’m hoping that this turns into a useful resource for music historians, including students, professionals, and enthusiasts.