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.

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.

The Taruskin Challenge’s 200th Post


(click on the image for a bigger scale)

Many weeks and pages after beginning our project, The Taruskin Challenge has reached its 200th post. To commemorate, I used a handy tool to create this visual representation of the content of our blog. What you see here is a scaled representation of the words in all of our posts and all of the comments up through our 199th post (all 150,000 of them, give or take). Greater size indicates greater frequency of the word (common English words like “and” or “to” are discounted). It’s an interesting and, I think, insightful way to look back over the project so far, as we approach its end.

orderliness: a precompositional blog post (à la Structures Ia)

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The Final Volume Begins

We knew it couldn’t go on forever and the end is in sight. 11 weeks. 528 pages. That’s what’s left of a Challenge that we started many many weeks ago. Tomorrow Zach and I (anyone else out there?) will launch into Volume V of the OHWM, “Music in the Late Twentieth Century,” a final shove off the shore into the deep waters of music’s most recent history.

I thought it would be a good time also to update the must-reads list, so I’ve added Brown, Gracyk, Korsyn, and Tucker; I also added a new section called “Primary Sources of Music History.” Thanks to all of the reader suggestions.

Primary Sources of Music History—A Call for Suggestions

As a part of our interregnum between volumes, we are going to update our musicology must-reads feature. Please feel free to add suggestions of your newest or rediscovered favorites in the comments section of that page.

I especially would like suggestions for a new section of the must-reads list: Primary Sources of Music History. This will be a list of texts not only on the topic of music history/musicology, but that have historical value themselves as influential texts to music history/musicology. They will be generally pre-1950. Some examples are below:

1773. Herder, Johann Gottfried von. Shakespeare.

1776. Burney, Charles. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Vol. I (1776); Vol. II (1782); Vol. III (1789); Vol IV (1789).

1824. Stendhal, Life of Rossini.

Please include as much bibliographic information as you have, especially year of publication, and perhaps where the resource can be found online (if applicable). I’m hoping that this turns into a useful resource for music historians, including students, professionals, and enthusiasts.

Vol. IV Discussion—What Say You?

With very little fanfare save for the light breeze made by page turning, Vol. IV came to a close a week ago. That’s four down and one to go—though if you’re like me, you’ve peeked more than once at the final volume.

As is our custom, we’ll take a week or two of wrap-up time to comment on more of the text, as well as to perhaps ask some global questions and discuss the big points of the volume.

And what a volume it was. Prof. Taruskin rocked several boats holding the traditional thinking on twentieth century music. Some of the biggest he salvoed and aimed to sink. He moved the inception of the musical “twentieth century” back by more than a decade, redefined its central characteristics (neoclassicism, ban of pathos, irony), and argued for a repositioning of the era’s most important philosophers (notably a increasing the importance of Ortega y Gasset and decreasing that of T.W. Adorno).

The influence that these changes and challenges might have on the teaching and understanding of music history is well worth discussing, and I’d like to open up a discussion here.

Teachers: how have you used Taruskin’s arguments in your presentation of the narrative of twentieth century music? To what effect?

Students: how have Taruskin’s revisions and emendations affected the way you understand early twentieth century music?

Challenges of your own? Seconding Prof. Taruskin’s arguments? Questions or ruminations? Let’s get this comments section working—pathos and irony allowed.