About Our Project

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 we 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 published in paperback over the summer of 2009), the OHWM has come to occupy the place of Mt. Everest in the intellectual lives of many a musicologist. Since we heard about it, we’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 August we were thumbing through the Economist magazine only to find, with surprise, a review of Taruskin’s behemoth. This got us thinking: if a work so thoroughly intimidating to  self-styled initiates 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 we 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 we’ll be darned if we let this Mt. Everest loom over us any longer when the crampons, oxygen, and ice axe all lie in front of us. Sane mountain climbers never travel alone. The two of us, Mark Samples (University of Oregon) and Zach Wallmark (UCLA), 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: we 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 going to try to write as much as possible. 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). We 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 a masochistic idea 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!

28 Comments

  1. Who could not be impressed by the scope of your project? Your willingness to publicly dedicate yourselves to the task?

    I suppose one could be impressed by the scope of Taruskin’s book but, hey, he’s been on the musicology radar for so long, putting his work out there for all to see, embrace, critique, and absorb, this big book about music is just something I expected from him. Would anyone else dare to do such a thing?

    You are right. Fun for musicologists is often seen as torture for the rest of the planet.

    Mark, your involvement is all the more impressive given your recent journey into the realm of the sleep deprived.

  2. What a fantastic undertaking! Maybe, when I still thought music theory would be my life’s work, I would have finished Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony if I had gotten someone to read along with me. Alas, the masochistic fun of 18th-century tonal practice and the mathematics of consonance wore out my solitary mind long before information technology took the focus of my career and study.

  3. A friend (Blacktorrentguard) referred me to your site, I love it! I’m a fellow grad student, and I now own the set as of about a month ago. Regarding the name of your blog, I’m considering a drinking game centered around scarequotes or puns. Taht’s knot godo fro cmporehension, tohgh.

  4. I think you need a photo of you at a desk with the complete collection next to you…also you should have some kind of special post and photo at the completion of each volume.

  5. Dear Dr Samples,

    Congratulations on this blog! I have only just discovered it and will be following it assiduously.

    On an unrelated matter, I wonder if you would be so kind as to contact me by e-mail. I want to ask you about a paper of yours, but I can’t find an email address for you anywhere.

    Many thanks.

  6. Wow, this is great. It has inspired me to read along at 10 pages per day… I’ll be reading the blog as well! I just got wind of this today, so it looks like I have a lot of catching up to do, which may not be possible.

    1. Catherine, You may wish to begin at the beginning (all our previous posts are available for perusal), or feel free to just hop in at the closest natural break (Ch. 5). Welcome!

  7. So impressed by your approach that I might sit reading all day – and pondering everything I read.

    A question I am new to the Web. I would like to send a sample of this blog to a friend. How would I do that?

    Would I just send him the blog html etc. and urge him to go to it?

    1. Brenda—
      I’m very glad that this site has intrigued you! And yes, you can just point him to the web address: taruskinchallenge.wordpress.com (note that there is no “www” prefix on that address), and then he can poke around on his own. Or you can copy and paste specific text into an email as well.

  8. Am I missing something but I do not see an index so someone could read all of your comments for example, on volume II.

  9. Hello.
    I am doing some writing for the education series of a major symphony and would like to use the art piece of Beethoven called “Kyrie” that I saw on your website on the cover page of the Teacher’s Guide. Would you be willing to grant permission for that?

    Thanks for considering.

    Becky

  10. Great idea, guys. I received the box last week and have been making my way through volume 1, with occasional forays into later volumes (had to see what he had to say about Bruckner and Bach, and loved his treatment of Tristan).

    One idea/request: as you know, there are lots of dates in the book, and I think it would be great to gather them all into a timeline. The thought of doing it alone is daunting, so I thought I’d mention it to everyone out there. Would anyone like to collaborate on this? I envision an Excel spreadsheet with columns for date, description, citation, notes, and key words. There are sites which will take a spreadsheet and create a timeline (e.g. http://www.timerime.com/).

    Any takers? We could divvy up the chapters and attack it like that.

  11. Guys,

    If you’re still reading comments this far down, allow me to say,
    “AWESOME”….I go to a local bookstore, Elliot Bay Book Company, and “pick” at Taruskin on occasion, 2 or 3 volumes remain.

    I am inspired to read the bloody thing and touch the summit of Taruskin’s Brain….

    James “Shoes” Walker
    Seattle, currently

  12. I look forward to learning a lot from your blog. I recently checked out some 1000-odd paged book by Taruskin about Stravinsky. I was wondering where the index was, only to realize that I was holding in my hands only the first of two volumes. Needless to say, Taruskin’s books can easily induce the worst kind of back pain.

  13. Laughing my ass off! I just read Taruskin’s introduction to the OHWM. The intensity of it, though appropriate to it’s epic object, was causing great existential strain for me. Luckily, a friend referred me to the Taruskin Challenge. I think you just saved my sanity.

  14. This seems like a worthy challenge to me!

    Good luck! And I hope you will post a review, or some sort of a reflection on it once you’re done! I eagerly await…

    Best wishes

  15. Hi! I write you from Mexico, I’ve decided myself to read from the very beginning in order to have “school” (you know what I mean). When I am very excited about something I learned then I cry (what a reason for crying) or I tell my mom. I try to do my best explaining so it’s wonderful that you can share with a partner like climbers… Are we mind athletes indeed? Thank you Prof. Taruskin for such insight, knowledge and humor!! Thank you for this blog and idea!!!

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