Frameworks, Perspectives, and Issues in OHWM

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

Before launching into the project tomorrow, I wanted to briefly take stock of the critical and analytical perspectives Taruskin discusses in the introduction. At a diminutive 9 pages, the intro essay lays out a handful of musicological issues that will be taken up in greater detail throughout the work. Taruskin’s list of analytical frameworks expresses a catholicity of approaches, from good old, staid archival work digging up primary documents, to broader historical methods, to even a touch of what I could call “New Musicology” (although he firmly dismisses this school of thought). Be on the lookout for the following issues as we progress through the OHWM:

  • Literacy vs. Preliteracy vs. Postliteracy: Taruskin is quite clear right from the beginning that his multivolume work addresses only the “elite genres” (I, xv) of Western musical history. In other words, it works with what is known from the written record. Perhaps the defining feature of the Western “art” music tradition has been the technology of notation. Of course, this technique underwent its own incredibly complex, sprawling evolution over the centuries, as anyone who has tried to sing from original plainchant manuscripts knows. The question of how transmission methods affect the dissemination of music is a fascinating one – I just hope Taruskin doesn’t skimp on thoughts about preliterate modes of thinking. (His meditations on postliteracy should be interesting as well – I’m curious how he will handle the issue of recording technology and the transmission on music. Any comprehensive history of music that leaves this last bit out is useless.) [Wow, that last comment was very Taruskin-esque!]
  • Reigning Narratives – Aesthetic and Historical: I guess this might go without saying, but the study of music history has traditionally focused on aesthetic value (the presence of beauty) and the determination of historical context and facts surrounding the creation of music.
  • High Art vs. Low Art: This is a thorny one, especially since the scope of the work is delimited by literate genres. Music is a powerful cultural tool for social identification, and this dichotomy has played out in every quarter of the Western world (indeed, the planet) for as long as we know. What the culture puts on a pedestal and what it puts on the street says a lot about the value systems at work in a particular time and place. The concept of musical “taste” is a rich analytical tool, and Taruskin (immodestly) lets the reader know that it receives “unprecedented coverage” in the OHWM.
  • Semantic: The objective, technical parameters of a piece of music. The field of Music Theory is the ultimate method of semantic analysis for notated Western music. Semiotic: This category concerns musical meaning (see last two posts). Evaluative: The point at which judgments, either aesthetic or historical, are made. A historian exercises the evaluative aspect both knowingly (ie. arranging the narrative of history into what’s important) and unknowingly (any evaluation is personal and thus limited – or enlivened – by taste).
  • Reception History: Taruskin is right on top of the contemporary conversation in his respect for not only the creation of a musical artifact but its record of reception. This plays a huge role in the evaluative aspect of analysis mentioned above.
  • The “Art World”: This final entry isn’t a critical perspective so much as an ideal paradigm for viewing the study of different musics (from art historian Howard Becker). An “art world” is “the ensemble of agents and social relations that it takes to produce works of art (or maintain artistic activity) in various media.” Taruskin goes on: “To study art worlds is to study processes of collective action and mediation, the very things that are most often missing in conventional musical historiography.” (I, xx) We’ll hold you to that, Prof. Taruskin!


  1. marksamples says:

    Nice summation of the various threads that Taruskin sets out. We are going to need to look back at this often as we read, to keep track of how they all play out.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    Some thoughts/reactions to stuff in the intro, and my favorite quotes:

    On xiv Taruskin talks about the hodgepodge nature of the musics we lump together under the category “Western classical” and suggests that this heterogeneity contributed to its enduring popularity. I rather like this thought, especially when carried forward to apply to the increasing eclecticism in musical tastes of our generation. It’s not so much a matter of tossing out the old canon as recognizing that the canon is open-ended and can be freely added to as individuals (particularly influential individuals such as us teachers!) see fit.

    I notice that Taruskin intends to take a neutral view on various controversies in his text (for example regarding the political meanings of Shostakovich). Shades of our old Intro to Musicology discussion of “The Whig View of History”!

    I like the quote “The historian’s trick is to shift the question from ‘What does it mean?’ to ‘What has it meant?'” As a theorist with some historical leanings as well, I like to think that my duty to my students is to present three things: 1. What is it?; 2. What has it meant?; and 3. What does it mean to YOU, NOW? I do think that the third question (qualified and personalized as I have phrased it) is as important as the second (even if the second definitely applies more to a History of Western Music addressed to a large audience).

    I rather like Taruskin’s goal of bringing back the human element of music history, rather than focusing entirely on general trends and developments to the point where it seems that individuals are mere pawns of overriding forces. Individual behavior and societal trends have interesting, complex circular relationships, and I look forward to seeing how Taruskin navigates between the two (hints arise in his quoting Bartok that both Hungarian peasant music AND Kodaly were needed to produce “Psalmus Hungaricus”).

    Looking forward to delving into the meat of this series! Thanks again for setting up the challenge–I may or may not set my own pace, but I look forward to participating in the conversation (and thus maintaining some ties to my old friends and colleagues from Oregon)!

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Nathan. You’ve really condensed some important opening patterns and thoughts and touched on some feelings I had reading the intro as well. I really respect Taruskin’s general approach, and I’m excited to read into the series and see if he upholds some of the high historiographical ideals presented here.

      If you have the time for it, we’d REALLY love for you to participate in the challenge and contribute often. Mark and I are thinking about adding another column in the sidebar listing fellow travelers. You’d be the first name to go up! (Anne McLucas is going to be joining in as well and may be a guest contributor.) Also, if you’d ever like a forum for a complete post, you have it – just send Mark or me your text/link/sound file or whatever and we’ll post it in your name.

      1. Nathan Baker says:

        Sounds great! I’ll definitely keep making comments, and I’ll send complete posts along anytime I have the time to make them (the first year of being completely in charge of a theory curriculum, naturally, does tend to consume a decent amount of time and energy).

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