The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century

By Fox, Christopher | Musical Times, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

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'. …

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