TC Wrap Up

At its close, Zach and Mark took some time to discuss the Taruskin Challenge and reflect on the experience.MS: Well, here we are at the end of the Taruskin Challenge. I remember when you called me up and proposed that we read through the OHWM together, discussing as we went along. How has the experience compared to your expectations for the project?

ZW: Originally, I was thinking that the blog format would simply be a good way for the two of us to stay in touch and reflect on the reading, not really a public outlet for the experience. (If I recall correctly, we even talked about keeping the whole site private initially.) My expectations at the beginning were pretty modest: after all, who would want to read the observations of a couple of grad students? A fair number of people, it turned out. Opening our thoughts to the public transformed the project from essentially a diary and conversation to a forum. And crucially, the sustained reader interest in the site has, in turn, sustained us in keeping the project going. I’m close to positive we would have fallen off and stopped reading somewhere around Vol. II had it not been for the public nature of the blog. Mark, as much of an enforcer as you are, I don’t think you alone would have been enough to motivate me through the whole text!

Blogging is completely transparent, immediate, and improvisatory: there’s no time for endless revisions, like in typical academic writing. How did the very public nature of this format, as well as its quality of immediacy, affect the way you wrote and thought through the text?

MS: I found it liberating to exercise a new writing process, one that I had little experience with when we began the Challenge. I’m convinced that the weight of the academic process can at times quash creative thinking before it gets off the ground, simply because one is writing to a set of specifications rather than giving the argument time to be messy and develop. (Bryan Garner calls this “messy” stage of writing the “Madman” stage.) I never posted something that I didn’t edit, but I think that the blog format allowed me to put off the “editor” in me long enough to allow for bolder assertions and more extensive historical imagining.

A couple of my faculty colleagues at the UO have used blogs in their courses. Students are required to post (and to comment on others’ posts) on lecture content or readings. And I’ve heard more than once from those faculty that the students’ blog posts are infinitely better than their formal writing assignments: clearer argument communication, more adventurous thinking, more interesting to read, etc. My hunch is that this change is partly due to a relaxing of the traditional academic strictures. As soon as I teach a course small enough to use this approach, I’m going to try it out myself.

There are many questions about the content of the OHWM I am eager to ask you, but I’ll start with a big-picture one. We subtitled our blog project, “Two grad students blog their way through the most monumental musical work in generations.” Now that we have actually read the work, do you think our label “the most monumental work in generations” is justified?

ZW: “Monumental” is a fairly loaded word. (I remember beginning the project with “important,” but a few well-taken comments from colleagues put that to an end.) I would say that “monumental” as a term denoting extreme size is certainly apt; after all, I can’t think of a single-authored work in our discipline that’s so massive in its scope. Being in Taruskin’s head for that long was a completely immersive experience: his style, favorite words, argumentation methods, pedagogical approach, etc, remained fairly consistent over the whole span of it, and as a result, I sort of came to fall into sync with the rhythm of the text in ways that shorter works don’t allow. The audacity of the endeavor, too, constitutes not a little monumentalism. However, defined in terms of significance, influence, and power to alter the discursive landscape of the discipline, I’m not sure I’d call it “monumental.” Of course, that’s probably too early to call. No doubt the work will be still be widely read 20 years from now, but will future scholars look back on it as a turning point for the discipline, the way people talk about Kerman and McClary’s 80s-90s writings today? It’s hard to say. What do you think?

MS: As you say, it’s too early to call. But I see Taruskin’s goal as different from those of Kerman and McClary. It is a culmination rather than a point of departure. As McClary herself said the other day at the Taruskin conference, the OHWM “may well stand as the last great attempt to make sense of the whole shebang.” (qtd. in James Oestrich’s NYT article). Perhaps, for now, but I doubt that will be true in the long run.

I see the OHWM taking up a place with Charles Burney’s (almost as) monumental General History of Music. And the fact that Taruskin’s is a general history may lend it to be even more influential than the more specific work of McClary, Kerman, and others. As opposed to scholars who wear their subversiveness on their sleeves, Taruskin has wrought changes “from the inside out,” so to speak, and with staggering completeness. (Yes, RT has worn some pretty subversive sleeves in his day, but the subversiveness is not as touted in the OHWM.) Who knows where the future musicological tides will take the discipline. But I could see, a couple hundred years from now, Taruskin’s work becoming emblematic (thus a generalization, simplification, and not disinterested representation) of an entire generation’s work. (I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions about this.) I don’t think Taruskin’s will be the last attempt to make sense of music history, but I think it will remain an influential one.

End of part 1 of the TC wrap-up.



The Taruskin Challenge is officially over for me. (How about you Zach?) It’s bizarre to think about what my life was like when we started this Challenge. I was a student and hadn’t started my dissertation yet. Now I’m no longer a student, and the dissertation has been on the shelf for 10 months. I have definitely taken a considerable amount of Taruskin’s arguments into the classroom, and not just for music majors. My Understanding Music students (freshman non-majors) have heard plenty of Taruskin as well, though they didn’t know it. One of the great strengths of Taruskin’s writing is that the reader doesn’t have to guess about Taruskin’s opinion on the matter. I find that his strong argument construction makes lectures infinitely more interesting—especially when I can get my students to critique the argument and decide for themselves if they agree.

This Challenge has been a unique experience for me; I don’t think I’ll ever read a book in quite the same way again. (No, we’re not planning to launch “The Strunk Challenge” anytime soon. We’ll leave that to other enterprising grad students out there…) And the next time I read the OHWM I will do it as fast as humanly possible. I’ll get a chance to do that for the last two volumes when I teach the 20th-century graduate survey this summer. (Having my students read the last two volumes in 4 weeks, counterpoints to Taruskin, plus primary sources, articles, and other book chapters is reasonable, right?)

Now it’s time to gather up my thoughts, ruminate, and come to some conclusions about this whole endeavor. Plus there is plenty more about the last volume’s content that bears comment. I imagine Zach and I will be doing just that over the next few weeks.

After the End

As we are at the end of our project, the conference honoring Prof. Taruskin is just beginning. This weekend at Princeton, “After The End of Music History: An International Conference in Honor of Richard Taruskin,” is underway. There look to be many exciting things going on there this weekend, including the world premieres of the Prokofiev/Krzhizhanovsky Eugene Onegin.

Find the conference program here, and if anyone finds a twitter tag, let us know in the comments. Alex Ross recently called it “Taruskinfest” on his Twitter feed… Wish we could be there, but we have 10 pages (only!) left to read.

Cognitive Constraints?

In the waning years of the Cold War, academic modernism began suffering from a gap in credibility, leading many (including defectors) to question its relevance. (In Susan McClary’s words, it was a victim of “terminal prestige.”) Objections to the handsomely brutal aesthetic of “Ph.D. music” were legion, but one of the most devastating blows came from composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff. Drawing explicitly on Chomskyan linguistics and cognitivist paradigms of the “mind machine,” the authors of A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983) postulated that there exist universal laws of listening, cognitive constraints that dictate how we make sense of our experience of musical sound. According to Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s research, listeners  intuitively comprehend structures of hierarchy when listening to tonal music, and it is precisely this perceived hierarchy that makes music intelligible. After laying out the theory, the authors go on to argue the inevitable point: some music follows the universal “listening grammar” to a letter; other music does not. Rather than an aesthetic, political, philosophical, or social rejection of the style, the authors play the “nature” card—academic modernism is “cognitive noise” because of the innate structure of human cognition, a biological and psychophysical fact over which we have little control. In this influential move, the authors establish their critique on the ultimate authority of nature (i.e., “Ph.D. music” is, in a sense, “unnatural”).

RT does a judicious job ferreting out the various complexities of this position. Most humanists today bristle at the very notion of “universality,” and with good reason, looking back on the barbarous last century of violence in the name of universalizing truths. Further, arguments of musical universals cut against ideals of human freedom, exposing us to the vulnerability of our own limitations. They also disturb the hard-won claim that music is an entirely culturally contingent social practice.

But can we discount this position so easily? As Leonard Meyer put it: “It is a mistake—albeit a common one—to conceptualize the problem as a search for ‘musical’ universals. There are none. There are only the acoustical universals of the physical world and the bio-psychological universals of the human world” (V, 450). This is a frustrating and misleading claim: the acoustical and bio-psychological factors Meyer dismisses are precisely the constitutive ingredients of all musical expression—after all, what else is there besides the “physical world” (sound) and the “human world” (perception)? (Perhaps he has in mind a purely intellectual, disembodied, transcendent realm of pure Kantian reflection? Or perhaps he’s reifying “Culture” as something that exists outside of material reality?) If there are universals here, as Meyer concedes, it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t also be universals in the realm of music. Octave equivalency, for example, appears to be a musical universal governed by a fairly simple (since the Greeks first recognized it) psychoacoustic fact (1:2). Granted, cultural context takes over quickly to shape our experience and understanding of such universals, but to not hear a quality of fundamental sameness in C4 and C5 would be to deny many millennia of shared, evolutionary perceptual and cognitive development as humans. Is it not also possible that we are evolutionarily programmed to hear hierarchy in musical sound?

Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s thesis has proven highly influential, and (at least according to my own grad school experience) the early controversy has dropped off in favor of general, if qualified, acceptance. It seems that on this point, at least, “universal” has ceased to be a dirty word, reflecting skepticism with the notion of “progress” and unlimited freedom underlying the ideology of academic modernism. I’ll close with RT: “Behind cultural universals, if they are truly universal, must necessarily stand biological limitations that are transhistorical (‘timeless’) as well as ubiquitous, and that must ultimately come into conflict with faith in unlimited or unlimitable progress” (V, 450).

Notation’s Last Hurrah?

As the opening frame to his final chapter on music in a postliterate society, Taruskin examines what he considers literate music’s last grasp for ultimate authority.

The music of two English composers, Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy, represents this final and—in Taruskin’s estimation—ultimately futile maneuver. Their music is typically incredibly dense on the page, and in some respects impossible to perform. Ferneyhough uses “nested rhythms” (-tuplets within -tuplets within -tuplets), and obsessively profuse articulations, giving off the general feeling of impenetrable intellectual prowess (or at the very least, committed laboring). Taruskin gives us a page of Ferneyhough’s string quartet to make his point, with the ominous assurance that this is “not an unusually complex page” for him (see the image below, which is similar to the one Taruskin uses on V, 477).

Ferneyhough and Finnissy form the core of the so-called “New Complexity” group of composers, which Taruskin baldly paints as a dead-end extension of modernism. When it comes to the notational complexity of Ferneyhough’s music, Taruskin confidently pronounces that “its intricacy set a benchmark that is never likely to be equaled, let alone surpassed.” (V, 476) That’s because this type of music is doomed. In a world “after everything,” the argument goes, literate music has been finally dethroned, with postliterate musical media taking its place.

The Ferneyhough example immediately made me think of another piece of music, which made the rounds among my musical friends several years ago. It’s a page of “notationally complex” music that, once a closer look is taken, turns out to be a gag (see image below; click for larger version).

The music pokes fun at far more than just “New Complexity” types. It’s an indictment of the whole lot of modernist (see the stacked articulations at the end of the third system) and post-modernist (“Gradually slide from 12-bar Blues to a more Vivaldi-like cadenza”) styles.

But above all it lampoons the idea that notational technology—and by extension literate music as a whole—holds the ultimate key to musical meaning. Notation has been so overburdened with meaning that it can become, well, just silly. Taruskin will press this point, and the postliterate alternatives that were developed in response to it, throughout the final chapter of his history.