The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century
Fox, Christopher, Musical Times
Volume 5: the late twentieth century 557pp. ISBN 0 19 522274 1.
IF HISTORIES are like great rivers, then their account of the recent past is the point where they run out into the sea in a complex, spreading delta. The landscape is flat, its features indistinct, making navigation an uncertain art. Whether or not the earlier volumes of Professor Taruskin's magnum opus are fluvial, the fifth volume is undoubtedly deltaic, necessarily so if he is going to represent the diversity of music in the last 50 years. The problem for anyone operating in such a landscape, however, is what viewpoint to adopt. To take the analogy a little further, while in an account of earlier periods the view from the river itself may be sufficient, since this is the course that history is believed to have taken, in the delta the river is divided and any attempt to follow it at sea level may well lead to confusion, to back-tracking and diversion. In his account of the late 20th century Professor Taruskin takes us down a number of branches of the river but, as we follow him through this complicated territory, we may conclude that perhaps we might have been better served by an aerial photograph or a map.
Volume 5 of the Oxford history of western music is in ten chapters which zigzag from decade to decade, back and forth across the Atlantic. We begin, conventionally enough, in the aftermath of the second World War with an examination of music on either side of the Iron Curtain: Stalinist attacks on artistic freedom in the Soviet bloc, self-imposed serialist restrictions in the West. The second chapter offers Cage as an indeterminate antidote, an opposition found in other histories of the post-1945 avantgarde. More surprisingly, Taruskin goes on to include Xenakis, arguing that both he and Cage are representatives of ' "Apollonian art" at its most extreme' (p.77) and that Xenakis is One of the European composers most often compared with Cage', although he doesn't tell us by whom these comparisons have been made. Next we have an interlude headed 'Music and politics revisited ' in which Wolff, Rzewzki and Cardew are discussed, before returning to indeterminacy in the shape of Fluxus and graphic notation.
One senses, even at this early stage, that Taruskin is struggling to balance the demands of inclusiveness and narrative coherence. He wants to impress order on musical events with chapter headings and provocative section titles - the first chapter is 'Starting from scratch' and it concludes with a section called 'Poster boy', a saucy title justified only by a discussion of the graphic score of Ligeti's Artikulation - but he also wants to draw in everything he knows. Rather too often he also wants to tell us things that everyone knows already; there are pages and pages of material quite familiar from other sources. Pages 27 to 37, for example, offer an analysis of the serial methods in Boulez's Structures Ia which is more or less the same as that provided by Ligeti in his 1958 Die Reihe article, 'Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structure Ja '.
At the end of the Boulez analysis Taruskin acknowledges 'the tediousness of the foregoing explanation; the reader is forgiven for skimming' (p.36). But why include it at all? To misquote Thumper in Walt Disney's Bambi, 'If you ain't got nothing new to say, then don't say nothing at all'. Or a cynic might suggest that, like others before him, Taruskin has analysed Structures Ia because it is easy to do. Boulez begins Structures with this 'automatic' music because he needed to define a musical zero after which composing would have to begin again. Ligeti's Die Reihe analysis was itself a strategic move in a musicopolitical game, baiting a trap into which almost every subsequent player has fallen. What would have been interesting would have been a Taruskin analysis of what Boulez did next, in the rest of Structures, but there are no off-the-shelf formulae to help there.
What serialism did next forms the subject of the third chapter, 'The apex: Babbitt and cold war serialism'. At 72 pages it is by some way the longest chapter in this volume and is perhaps the most telling demonstration of the Taruskin method. As the chapter's title implies, serialism is situated within its historical and political context and includes a discussion of the partial censorship of Copland's music during the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt against left-leaning artists and intellectuals. Taruskin argues that Copland's adoption of i2-tone composition in 1950, the same year that he was denounced for alleged socialist sympathies by the American Legion, a veterans organisation, suggests that he 'may been seeking refuge in the "universal" (and politically safe) truth of numbers, rather than the particular (and politically risky) reality of a national or popular music' (p. 109). A less charitable view might be that Copland turned to serialism in an attempt to invigorate his waning capacity for musical invention, but this interpretation of events does not suit Taruskin's purpose, and he goes on to conclude his discussion of Copland with the claim that serialism was 'a refuge from attempts to control art in the name of anti-Communism' (p. 116).
Nineteen pages later, after an extended account of Stravinsky's serial music, Taruskin has more to say about the political significance of serialism. Few American histories of 20th-century music have been able to resist pitching the serialist camps of Princeton and Darmstadt against one another and Taruskin is no exception. As European observers of these battles will know, American historians march behind two banners, one asserting that US serialism was much more sophisticated in its derivation of sub-sets than its European counterpart, the other that (of course) Babbitt got there first, writing his Composition for 12 instruments in 1948. This is, as Professor Taruskin is bound to tell us, 'before Messiaen wrote his Mode de valeurs, to say nothing of Boulez's Structures or Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel' (p.153). But there's a problem. Taruskin also tells us that 'Darmstadt serialism was the fruit of pessimism [...] Princetonian serialism reflected American optimism' (p. 135), yet surely his account of Copland's espousal of serialism is a tale of an American retreat from optimism into the 'refuge' of 12-note composition. More particularly, how does a listener with open ears square the Utopian energy of works like Gruppen and Kontakte with the charge of pessimism, especially when one recalls that Stockhausen was creating them at the same time that Babbitt was writing an article which asked 'Who cares if you listen?'?
There are times when one wonders whether Taruskin cares to listen either, attracted more by the flow of ideas around composers' work than by the flow of ideas within their music. From the apex of serialist endeavour we turn to 'The third revolution: music and electronic media; Varèse 's career', but before we can get to Varèse Taruskin is unable to resist a few more carping remarks about the European avant-garde. He gives an unremarkable summary of the musique concrète-elektronische Musik division between Paris and Cologne in the early 19505, but rather than talk about the best music made in these studios he uses a quotation from Herbert Eimert 'talk of "humanised" electronic sound may be left to unimaginative instrument makers' - to stand as a rationale for the work of the Cologne studio (p. 189). Then come three paragraphs on Stockhausen's Elektronische Studien with a diagram of the frequencies used in the second study; these are, says Taruskin 'symptomatic' of the Cologne studio's production. Gesang Jerjunglinge, the dazzling masterpiece which is truly symptomatic of what a great composer like Stockhausen could achieve in the studio, is dealt with in just four sentences. This surely is an opportunity missed, when an influential writer like Taruskin might have gone back to the primary sources. There is, for instance, a wonderful tape recording in the archive of the International Music Institute in Darmstadt of a mid-fifties public discussion between Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna and Berio on the future of electronic music. Better than anything in any history yet written it demonstrates the nature of composers' creative commitment to this emerging medium. Boulez is dubious, Maderna brief, Berio practical, but the intensity of Stockhausen's contribution is still spellbinding; one senses, listening to him, that he already knew what he was achieving in Gesang derjunglinge and would develop in Kontakte and the electronic works of the 1960s.
Varèse is a notoriously difficult subject, particularly in any consideration of his late works. From his own writings we know of the scale of his compositional aspirations for electronic music, but only the most diehard fan would want to claim that the works he made in the medium in the 19505 came close to achieving his intentions. As Taruskin acknowledges, while Varèse may have seen Poème électronique as 'the high point of his career, the single consummate realisation of his musical aims' (p.209), those of us who did not witness it in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair have only a 'pale reflection in the two channels of domestic stereo reproduction'. Deserts has survived better, its volcanic tape interpolations cutting into the bleak grandeur of the instrumental writing with real ferocity, although in writing these words I realise that I am identifying myself to Taruskin as 'an oldfashioned modernist'; he describes the enthusiastic response at the premiere of Deserts as being one of 'typically sadomasochistic delight'. But Taruskin hears a different Deserts from the one I hear. He says, for example, that 'the instrumental sections [...] are remarkably like Varèse's ensemble works of the 1920s; it is as if there had never been any break in his creative output, let alone one that lasted decades' (p.207). For me the opposite is true. While Varèse's registral deployment of individual instruments is reminiscent of their use in the earlier works, Deserts has none of the teeming futurist life of works like Intégrales or Octandre - not so surprising since the piece is, after all, called 'deserts'. Nor is Varèse's harmony the same in Déserts. Strangely enough, this is something that Taruskin himself seems to understand, since he includes a musical example showing Varèse 's use of symmetrical harmonic formations at key points in Déserts. These types of formation are hard to find in the works of the 19205 and their introduction suggests that, in spite of Varèse's public scorn for serialism, some influence from n-note composition had seeped into his compositional thought in the years that divide Déserts from the unique harmonic language of the earlier works.
After the third revolution Taruskin offers us a 'standoff: two chapters, one on Britten, the second on Carter, which consider the role of the composer. 'The essential question of modern art', we are told, 'as it was understood by modern artists during the first two thirds of the twentieth century, and the essential debate, was whether artists lived in history or in society [...] one had to choose'. Put simply, Taruskin situates Britten as a composer living in society, Carter as a composer in history, positions that they chose for themselves since, as Taruskin observes, Britten's 'commitment to social utility could not be attributed (as, for example, Shostakovich's often was) to totalitarian pressure' while Carter's 'commitment [...] to maximum complexity of utterance could not be attributed (as Babbitt's often was) to academic careerism'. The point is well made and Taruskin writes well about both composers, concentrating on Peter Grimes and Carter's chamber music, particularly the first three string quartets.
The final section of the Carter chapter is headed 'At the pinnacle '. In its immediate context this refers to the highpoint of Carter's quest for complexity in the Third String Quartet and the Symphony for three orchestras, works which Taruskin, rather curiously, chooses to discuss tangentially, through a review of their critical reception, and not through any sort of musical analysis. But it also marks the highpoint of this volume, the last point at which Taruskin is able to stamp his critical authority on the musical developments he is charting. Four chapters follow, but they are no more than compendia into which some of other events of the last four decades can be gathered. 'The sixties' deals mostly with pop (mostly the Beatles) and jazz fusions. 'A harmonious avant-garde ' tacks brief consideration of Andriessen, Part and Tavener onto a familiar trip down the Young-Riley-Reich-Glass route through minimalism. 'After everything' is about collage, polystylism and the regressive 'postmodernism' practised in the USA by David del Tredici, Fred Lehrdahl and, above all, by George Rochberg. Finally, we arrive at 'Millennium's end', a chapter with no discernible rationale at all. Given these ingredients - complexity, IRCAM, Partch, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, computers, spectralism, MIDI, John Adams what might the recipe produce?
There are many minor errors. Some are forgivable; time and composers carry on but books have to be finished. This book was published in 2005 but must have gone to press much earlier since on p.212 we are told that Berio wrote 13 Sequenzas 'the last being for accordion'. There are 14, the last (premiered in 2002) being for cello. Others suggest a rather slaphappy attitude to fact. On p-397 Taruskin is discussing Louis Andriessen as an example of the way in which minimalism 'Americanised' the music of other countries. He mentions the ensembles initiated by Andriessen, the Orkest de Volharding and Hoketus, and says that Andriessen wrote 'a series of cantatas' for them, one of which is De Staat. This is not so. As Robert Adlington's excellent book on De Staat has made clear, while the musical language of the piece was developed through Andriessen's work with de Volharding, its ambition, both in duration and instrumentation, takes it beyond the range of that ensemble. Other errors are just careless. On p-477 there is a musical example, black with notes, to illustrate what Taruskin terms 'terminal complexity'. The caption announces it as being 'Ferneyhaugh [sic], Quartet no.}'; unfortunately it'snot, it's from Ferneyhough's second String Quartet. And there are errors which might have been put there simply to irritate reviewers. On the page before the 'Ferneyhaugh' example Taruskin takes issue with Grove over the 'bravado' of its entry on 'New complexity' and quotes its author, 'Christopher Fox (a Finnissy pupil)'. I'm not and I never was.
If I seem impatient with this book it is because I am not sure what purpose it serves beyond bringing Taruskin's history to a near-contemporary conclusion. Taruskin might argue, justifiably, that the problem is as much mine as his: he has a view on musical modernism, which he sees as essentially disengaged from society, which I do not share. There is, of course, a cultural division here too. It seems to me that whereas modernist music in the USA has been locked into the conservatism of academia, in Europe it has had a much more dynamic interaction with social, economic and institutional politics. At his best Taruskin is a splendidly provocative, argumentative writer but, as he says in his final paragraph, 'At present, things remain in motion'; in this volume that 'motion', the sheer complexity of the ebb and flow of the almost-present, has overwhelmed his capacity for compelling argument.
Christopher Fox is Professor of Composition at the University of Huddersfield.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century. Contributors: Fox, Christopher - Author. Magazine title: Musical Times. Volume: 146. Issue: 1893 Publication date: Winter 2005. Page number: 104+. © Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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