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.



  1. SW says:

    Odd response, Ms. Tomkins. Mr. Sage peddles books about getting rich, which is rather rich, don’t you think? So was this an advertisement? Must have been, for Chiyson leads no nation, no academic institution, no major movement save his own, and apparently leads you. And what the post has to do with music history, whether Taruskin or McClary, is what?

    I suggest the blog adminstrator remove her comment, which is nothing more than spam, as evidenced by the link in her name and “web site.”

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Done—Thanks SW.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    Mark, I mentioned the UO music history blogs idea to a colleague currently teaching the undergrad history sequence here at CC, and he was quite interested in the idea and would like to see some examples. Are any of these student blog posts available for viewing by the public, or were they privately run (possibly through Blackboard)?

  3. operajuice says:

    hi your work is most terrific, I hope you will come back to this often with new insights and perspectives on taruskin, musicology etc. and that your comment sections evolve beautifully thank you!

  4. Pablo Aslan says:

    Hi guys, just stumbled upon your blog while searching for OHWM-related information (namely, has anyone compiled audio examples of the notated examples?)

    This sounds like a great blog to hang out in my time off from reading Volume 2 (I started there)… I got 400+ pages under my belt – a newbie. Hoping to finish V2 this month and get on to Vol 3 as summer reading (I started V2 on the beach in Delaware on Memorial Day weekend!).

    I’m having a deep revelation every time I pick up the book. My listening and composing will never be the same.


  5. Lara says:

    I’m no musicologist and I have no education whatsoever in music, I’m a law student who found this blog on a random search about Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde; but I couldn’t stop myself from reading a lot of posts since I’m such a music lover (don’t fool yourselves by my mention of Wagner, my musical taste is much less fancy). Since I don’t feel prepared to read Taruskin, for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve decided to go through my own challenge, the “Tarusking Challenge” Challenge!

    I’ll be reading the posts on this blog daily, since they’re so lovely written.

    Just so you know you’re making somebody really happy. 🙂

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Lara—Here’s a much belated response to say that I’m glad these posts are of interest to you! Keep reading…

  6. Peter W says:

    I’m very much in the same boat as Lara. I’m not exactly educated when it comes to music but i do know a few things here and there, I’m a huge Wagner fan, but my musical tastes are also much less sophisticated and sometimes bordering onto commercial.

    I too will be following on with any future posts you put up in the future.

  7. Taruskin has greatly inspired me. I’ll be reading along.

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