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!