The Challenge

Monumental, gargantuan things captivate us. Whether it be the world’s biggest ball of twine, the county’s fattest pig, or the Grand Canyon, objects that are supersized and beyond all reasonable scale thrill people. We delight at the dwarfing influence of big things – standing next to a Redwood tree, one is less likely to reflect on the beauty of the towering green skyscraper than its sheer immensity. Indeed, you can’t even see the top. Its dimensions exceed our puny human senses.

The same is true with human creations of vast scale: they have the ability to exceed the parameters of normal, quotidian life. Like the mighty Redwood or the vertiginous canyons of the southwest, towering achievements of human ingenuity, endurance, creativity, and intellect can have an overwhelming, oceanic awe attached to them. And every discipline of human experience has its own equivalent to Mt. Everest. Literature lovers have Proust’s 7-volume In Search of Lost Time; thespians have the 8-hour Faust by Goethe (and Japanese thespians have even longer Noh plays); opera fans love to get lost in “The Ring” cycle; and for humble musicologists, we have Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music.

Taruskin, the controversial and undeniably brilliant UC Berkeley musicologist, has achieved what few scholars of music have the ability (or the audacity) to accomplish: a complete history of western music, from the earliest scribblings to the end of the 20th Century. Weighing in at 5 volumes and 3,856 pages, OHWM is the stunning life’s work of one of the greatest minds in the discipline, the product of over ten year’s labor. But Taruskin’s magnum opus is not simply an encyclopedic account of musical development in the west – it is also an analytic, descriptive, and interdisciplinary tour de force, weaving together complex history with the cultural movements, politics, and spirituality that breathed life into the music (or so I hear). This is not an objective, “scientific” account of what happened: it is Taruskin’s unmistakably original, sometimes unorthodox, and always fascinating reading of western music.

Few deny the richness of Taruskin’s ideas and the gravity of his achievement. In a Matrix world where knowledge and skill can be directly downloaded into the cerebrum, I’m sure that hoards would be rushing to plug in the book. But alack and alas, the sheer scale of OHWM is enough to deter all but the most stalwart of music lovers. It’s an intimidating load of paper, to be sure. Since publication in 2005 (it was just published in paperback last month), the OHWM has come to occupy the place of Mt. Everest in the intellectual lives of many a musicologist. Since I heard about it, I’ve always thought about how great it would be to read it all. “Great” in the same sense that it would be great to someday, before dying, climb Himalayan peaks and traverse the Amazon basin.

Last week I was thumbing through the Economist magazine only to find, with surprise, a review of Taruskin’s behemoth. This got me thinking: if a work so thoroughly intimidating to a self-styled initiate into the world of music scholarship is getting served up as a review to the lay-person, then how difficult could this thing possibly be? Have I just been blowing things out of proportion? What’s 3,865 pages in the grand scheme of one’s reading life, right?

Quixotic delusion, perhaps. Unrealistic, time-wasting foolishness, maybe. But I’ll be darned if I let this Mt. Everest loom over me any longer when the crampons, oxygen, and ice axe all lie in front of me. Sane mountain climbers, however, never travel alone. Mark Samples is one of the most big-hearted, intellectually curious, and passionate people I know. He’s also, like me, a tad crazy. Mark eagerly assented to the premise of the Taruskin Challenge – what good musicologist wouldn’t? – and we ordered copies of the book. We embark on this journey together both to have a sounding board for observations and opinions, but also to keep us both straight. Climbers who are tied to the same rope keep each other from falling. This is why we need a set of rules to ensure both of us are making progress through the melodious bowels of the OHWM.

The rules of the Challenge are thus: Mark and I will read 10 pages per day, or 50 pages a week (weekends are off). It will take us 77 weeks, or about 1.25 years, to finish the book. The bite-sized daily reading regimen is meant to do two things: with less reading, we can slow down a bit, dig deeper into the text, and reflect. It also allows us to continue our normal lives without growing long beards and becoming hermits. We will each post a blog entry at least once a week, although (of course) we’re free to write as much as we’d like. You, the reader, are encouraged to chime in, if only with words of encouragement (the challenger’s equivalent to a cup of water given a running marathoner). Mark and I will also try to post pictures and sound files to support our meditations. The Taruskin Challenge should first and foremost be fun (musicologists are known to have masochistic ideas of “fun”).

Look up! The clouds have parted for an instant to reveal the icy summit! Our path and our objective are clear. Let’s start climbing!


  1. marksamples says:

    This is great Zach! A perfect way to frame the task—I mean trek. On belay!

  2. Anne Dhu McLucas says:

    I love this project! May I join in? Of course, I’ll be behind from the beginning, since I’m still wending my way home from Europe–the long way (stuck in Amarillo, Texas at the moment).

    Meanwhile, I’ll live off the Mark and Zach blogs. . .

    Anne Dhu

    1. marksamples says:

      Anne—of course you can join in! The more the merrier!

  3. Marian Smith says:

    Hey — I’ll be reading this blog eagerly. I have a question: what makes you say this is the the most important musicological work in generations?! Aren’t you discounting a good many musicological works?
    Anne — good luck in Texas! I just got back from there — central TX was heavenly.

    1. zachwallmark says:

      Point well taken, Marian – thanks for your question. Perhaps “most monumental work in generations” would be more apt. We can’t be making judgments until we’ve read the whole thing! We’re happy you’re interested in the project and look forward to your thoughts and contributions in the future.

  4. Sara Grace says:

    I’m going to join in on the challenge as soon as I get my car sold. Yes, I am selling my car and using the money to buy the OHWM! Well, I’m not actually selling my car for that purpose but its funny to think of it that way. I’ll try to comment here and there but I’ll admit I’m a little intimidated since I’m less educated. Maybe I’ll be the youngest to read all of the OHWM?

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Now that’s some dedication to the OHWM! (I only had to sell my couch.) We look forward to having you read along and we really value your insights. It doesn’t take a doctorate to have interesting things to say!

  5. Sara Grace says:

    I’ve been thinking, what in the world am I doing climbing Mt. Everest when I haven’t been trained?

    A critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said this about the book:”The bottom line is that the level of readership that can understand
    this book already knows its contents and would never read it other than
    to criticize it. Those general or collegiate readers who don’t know
    music history will find it too dense.

    Professors would do well to suggest individual chapters to enhance
    their study, but the Oxford isn’t well-suited for reading straight
    through. For this reason, it will never become the standard text
    Taruskin envisioned.”

    I’ve climbed a foothill (the introduction of the OHWM), found it a bit slippery, but realized that Taruskin gives a clear map for climbing (the objectives of the book). Also, with two graduate students as my guides, I don’t see why this can’t be attempted (Will you catch me if I fall? ;). I hope I’m not a burden on this adventure.

    After ruminating on the introduction, I’ve realized how naive I have been when it comes to musicology. I somehow feel like I finally tapped in to this philosophical world of music history. The path looks clear to me now and what I am inexperienced at can always be learned (for example, Taruskin’s vast vocabulary). (I’m not sure if I’m making sense, my thoughts are a little mushed right now. It’s 5:30 in the morning; I couldn’t sleep long last night. I’m not sure what to compare this experience I am feeling to. Maybe I’ll find the words later.)

    The Grout/Burkholder is nothing compared to this. When I read the Grout/Burkholder I don’t feel like there is any room for questioning and analytical thought. It’s just so dry. Taruskin, however(at least from what little I have read which includes a little of the first chapter), seems to be more engaging and open.

    Anyhow, I think I am trying to say that it is doable even though many may think otherwise. I’m out to prove them wrong. I am so excited about what I will learn along the way.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      I admire your guts, Sara! I’ve actually read conflicting reviews of the OHWM: some say it’s too specialized, others say it’s too basic. Personally I think that it would be a tough read for a complete novice in music (someone who doesn’t know what ‘Adagio’ means, for example), but if you have some training (you do!) and perhaps a dictionary at your side it’ll be fine.

      Your thoughts about the philosophical nature of this behemoth really struck me as well. It seems that Taruskin is incredibly conscious of HOW he’s going to tell this history, not just WHAT he’s going to include. Historiography (writing about history) is really a fascinating topic – who knew reconstructing the truth could be such a philosophical endeavor? I think the point is that many historians don’t necessarily address the deep questions that lie at the heart of historical analysis. You mention Grout, an excellent example of the sort of ‘dates and facts’ history that Taruskin sets out to supercede. (Of course, in fairness, the newest edition of Grout is pretty good…) As you dig into your musicological studies, you’ll find that this question comes up often: how much of musicology is about music (ie. isolating composers and pieces and analyzing them as fixed objects) and how much of it is about music as a cultural phenomenon? Taruskin likes to dig into the social, political, religious, and philosophical contexts in which music – then as now – is created.

      One more thing: if a section is getting too knotty and technical, just skip over to the next sub-chapter heading. I’m finding that comprehension is not dependent on you reading every single word. If you run into a word that you happened to skip over, there’s a great index in the back to help you find what it means. Of course, this isn’t meant to discourage you from reading/understanding every passage – just a way to make it more manageable if it becomes overwhelming.

      We’re very happy that you’re participating and would be delighted to help out if ever you have any questions. Of course, we can learn just as much from you, so please feel free to post your comments liberally!

  6. Sara Grace says:

    I know! It was like I had an epiphany.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s