Author: Robert Fink

(Don’t) Leave it to Bieber

concert crowd

Ezra Koenig in particular immersed himself in courses [at Columbia] which examined inequalities in the global fashion and music industries. He took two courses, “Imperialism and the Cryptographic Imagination,” and “Plagiarism, Parody, and Postcolonialism,” where, in his words, he learned how “relationships between imperial powers and colonized peoples could involve lots of codes.” Koenig transferred these interests into a broader awareness of how western clothes reflected the histories of their colonial others….He infused his interests in music, fashion, and colonialism into his senior writing project, a collection of short stories written around the same time Vampire Weekend formed. This collection he titled “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”
—David Blake, “Bildung Culture: Elite Popular Music and the American University, 1960–2010” (Ph.D. Thesis, Stony Brook University, 2014)

Some incautious words in my second posting have caused consternation from readers; I didn’t mean to put up a sign post back there saying, “Hey, you’re a racist.” Let me begin this final dispatch by clarifying (but in no way retracting) my claim that those who frame the history of the musical present by categorically denigrating contemporary commercial popular music in favor of art music are holding on to a crude cultural distinction that mimics structural racism in America. I did not choose my verb lightly (“denigrate, v. ‘to blacken, defame,’ from de- ‘completely’ (see de-) + nigr-, stem of niger ‘black’ (see Negro)”); whatever the race of the artist writing or performing this music, its difference from the classical and avant-garde art music of the West is rooted in the influence of the African diaspora. To trash that difference, even though far too much easy money has been made off it by bland Caucasian exponents, is to rubbish an entire cultural patrimony; it’s about as ham-fisted as claiming that because you last heard Pachelbel’s “Canon” while on the massage table, all European art music is designed to put you to sleep.

I’m not saying you can’t hate some pop music; I’m just saying you can’t, in the presence of a practicing postmusicologist, hate on all pop music just because it is popular, disguising elitism as self-pitying pride in new music’s marginalized market position. When I have articulated the above in public, I have been dismissed with another dreaded “N-word”—neoliberal—and accused of market fundamentalism, which, in this context, seems like a rather high-pitched way of claiming I don’t understand that music ought to be judged according to what Karl Marx would call its use value, not as an object whose prime justification is to be exchanged for currency.

Elite Popular Music and the Culture of Self-Fashioning

Never mind that socialist analyses of use value are both badly out of date and not simple to pin down when the commodities in question are cultural, like music; the underlying question—what is music for?—actually has little to do with the market as arbiter of value. Most debates over the “value” of new music take place within a scholastic ambit defined by the values of the university; the great virtue of David Blake’s work, which I’ll be glossing for the rest of this post, is that it considers the university not just as the kindly employer that cut Milton Babbitt’s monthly paychecks, but as a key incubator and determinant of 21st-century America’s omnivorous elite music culture.

Linking the Germanic ideal of education as self-fashioning (Bildung), a characteristic of the liberal arts university since the 19th-century, to the explosion of musical youth culture since the 1960s, Blake identifies, with oxymoronic élan, a new cultural field he calls elite popular music. This is music that uses the sounds and forms of entertainment music, but is both made and consumed as part of a general project of self-fashioning through art that the great expansion of college education made available, in principle at least, to the entire American middle-class. Accepting the centrality of an elite-yet-popular music centered around the values of both rebellious youth and traditional higher education resolves so many awkward class- and race-based anomalies in the study of contemporary musical taste that it amazes me nobody else seems to have thought of it before.

The early chapters of Blake’s thesis are archival and historical, focusing on the records left by ’50s and ’60s university students and their professors as they brought American music from outside the literate tradition onto campus. The musical practices in question (folk revivalism; Aboriginal song) were “popular”—i.e., vernacular, of the people—but resolutely non-commercial; in retrospect it is not hard to see how encounters with this kind of musicking could be incorporated into a high-minded ideal of liberal arts study as a path to self-realization.

Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, Blake shifts methodological gears, analyzing the distinctive urban geography of the “college town” and the socio-economic opportunities it offers denizens during, after, or entirely aside from undergraduate life on campus. As he notes, most histories of the “college rock” scene in Athens, Georgia (birthplace of Pylon, the B-52s, and R.E.M.), go along with post-punk mythology and simply ignore the influence of the college itself as tastemaker; evidently all that the University of Georgia provided to these D.I.Y pioneers was a non-profit radio station to listen to and a steady supply of frat house gigs to play at. Blake, on the other hand, puts the university and its “liberal arts disposition” at the center: inside the town-gown matrix of the college town, the elite ideal of music as a vehicle for artistic self-expression and the populist drive for commercial success fuse, giving rise to a distinctive, if depoliticized model for an “alternative” mass culture:

The liberal arts disposition encourages musicians to pursue rock as a form of self-expression, valuing its critical purpose over its commercial worth. Yet the tension between disinterested study and career requirements manifests itself in the complex negotiation over rock music’s purpose as self-development or as a career. Success in college rock scenes like Athens stemmed not from actualized alternativeness or political resistance, but through pursuing self-development while maintaining enough commercial success to sustain the endeavor.

A Bildungsroman from an Omnivore
As Blake arrives at the 21st century, he turns directly to sociology, identifying Brooklyn hipster bands like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors as exemplars of what Richard Peterson influentially dubbed the “omnivorous” style of cultural consumption. Sociologists of taste generally agree that this omnivore stance (“I like all kinds of music”) has replaced the older model of distinctive taste as a marker of dominant class attitudes toward art. (The one exception they usually note is older, still univorous devotees of Western art music and jazz.) Recent studies have refined the omnivore hypothesis, parsing the field of musical taste into multiple orientations and levels of voracity; but I am not aware of any persuasive theories about why elite class taste has shifted so dramatically. (Of course, technology and media have made it much easier to be an omnivore; but that does not explain why liking “all types of music” is a sign of status now, to the point that most upper middle-class people under 50 claim to, even when they don’t, really.)

Blake points out that, while Brooklyn is hardly a college town, both Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors count as baccalaureate projects on the part of their founders: Ezra Koenig developed his Afro-pop meets Baroque aesthetic while working on a senior paper at Columbia; David Longstreth dropped out of his music degree at Yale and then dropped back in again while Dirty Projectors evolved from dorm-room tinkering to a twenty-five person rock operatic ensemble. The university connection has usually been featured in a story of déclassement: that Ivy League education was wasted on a budding countercultural rock star, right? Longstreth, at least, has played into this trope, claiming to be an “autodidact” and rejecting Yale’s music programs as primarily interested in “preserving old things, establishing canons.” Underneath the studied pose of the amateur, though, Blake can still see the effects of university training: despite his “distaste for academia,” Longstreth’s omnivorous musical tastes, and the inner-directed intellectual scaffolding he tends to erect around them, epitomize the academy’s “liberal arts mission of self-discovery through musical engagement.” Vampire Weekend is a less strenuously intellectual band; still, in a 2013 interview quote that Blake grabbed for his chapter’s epigraph, Ezra Koenig told critic Jon Pareles that “if people could look at our…albums as a Bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.”

Koenig and Longstreth are, technically, commercial popular musicians. But, as David Blake has done us the real service of arguing, their kind of popular music was nurtured, at least in part, by the university and its values. Those within the university who care about new music can no longer ignore the world of commercial pop by assuming that no one in it takes music seriously as a liberal art. Studying Dirty Projectors or Vampire Weekend can, if done right, advance the liberal arts project of self-formation just as effectively as research on Mahler or Messaien might have done for previous generations.

Envoi: Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head

So don’t just leave it to Bieber. Blake doesn’t make this point, but I will: it is the hunger to account for Koenig and Longstreth, not the fear of having to swallow too much Britney and Justin, that should determine the menu when we sit down to the postmusicological banquet. Orthorexia can be a debilitating scholarly disorder.

The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

“[eighth blackbird] were really cool, really nice. They really made me feel like an equal, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not an equal.”
—Composer Jeremy Sment, ca. 2007, as quoted in John Pippen, “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2014)

So, enough about how not to do the musicology of the present—on to those new paths I promised when I began this series. In today’s post and next week’s, I will present for your approval highlights from two recent musicological studies that, in my opinion, break methodological ground on their way to some mind-opening hypotheses about the structure of the contemporary art-music world. As we’ll see, each marshals an unusual array of evidence toward a new, counterintuitive conceptual parsing of today’s musical culture. In both cases, the framework can be boiled down to a single oxymoronic phrase that encapsulates the power of a fresh musicological idea to shake up long-held positions within the world of those who care about new music.
Disclaimer: These two vignettes are not the result of a systematic search through the newest literature, nor do they anoint one-of-a-kind musicological geniuses. (I don’t work for John D. and Catherine T.) These are two excellent young scholars doing interesting work of a kind being nurtured at many top institutions of higher musicological learning. But not my own institution—I thought it would be poor form to single out my own advisees or blow my own departmental horn. (Sorry, y’all at UCLA. Here’s an inside joke to make you feel special.)

The Ol’ Pomo Ro-Sham-Bo
Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors
To readers familiar with contemporary battles over contemporary aesthetics, the phrase “postmodern avant-garde” may sound odd, like a bad opening move in the extended game of rock-paper-scissors that often seems to monopolize trapped new music players: avant-garde smashes modern; modern cuts postmodern; postmodern covers modern; repeat until exhausted. This three-handed game is quite complex: postmodernism can be understood as both a negation and an extension of modernism; as either a (historicist, eclectic) reaction to the asperity and self-reflexivity of modernist aesthetics, or an even more radical resistance (by anti-art gesture) to entrenched aesthetic hierarchy and traditionalism. But the postmodern thereby re-enacts the historical revolt of the early 20th-century avant-garde, which deliberately shredded the pretensions of both traditionalism and modernism. And yet…that “avant-garde,” as its name reminds us, is also an affirmative desire, to be part of a (small) vanguard at the forefront of culture—the same desire that postmodernism, defining its essential position as belatedness, denies as a dangerous utopian fantasy. Ro-sham-bo.

In this context, talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

You Had to Be There

“Postmodern avant-garde” is the coinage of musicologist John Pippen, whose freshly minted doctoral dissertation is built around a detailed cultural ethnography of the new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Pippen has done what any musicologist must do if he or she wants to escape from the endless ro-sham-bo of modern vs. postmodern: he has gone out and done actual research on the world of the people and institutions trying to survive playing new music. The originality of his work inheres in its detailed look at a single new music presenter as the group attempts to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of commissioning, performing, and promoting new music inside a small musical world still dominated by the canonical “classics” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pippen has read concert reviews and their marketing materials; he has also interviewed the members of eighth blackbird, worked for them, attended concerts and rehearsals, talked to composers from whom they have commissioned, and even handed out questionnaires at a large public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His description of eighth blackbird’s world is thus “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense) than most; it allows him to grasp some of the most deeply rooted contradictions in contemporary musical life.

Pippen is not interested in asserting a causal relation between the modern, the postmodern, and the avant-garde, nor is he trying to fit these stances into an old-fashioned evolutionary narrative of works and styles:

Though I am not advocating for a complete abandonment of structuralist views, I do believe there is more to music than an accounting of the sonic qualities of works and their historical origins. Rather than simply summarize a series of aesthetic trends observable in new musical works, therefore, I have attempted to approach music as both object and practice.

As would any careful ethnologist, Pippen accepts that his informants are trying their best to find a “correct” mode of practice while harmonizing the conflicting imperatives inherent in their personal preferences and cultural position (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has famously called the habitus). In this case, eighth blackbird’s “struggle” (explicitly named as such by one of its members in conversation with Pippen) is to balance the tensions between a performing ethos and a concert world still dominated by modernist ideas (virtuosity, the work, progress, structural listening) and the reality of a post-industrial knowledge economy dominated by superficiality, image making, emotional work, commodification, and branding.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sextet

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
Photo by Luke Ratray

The tensions and contradictions are real. Pippen has been witness to some goofy interactions, as when the ensemble uses social media to create an illusion of nerdy intimacy with their followers:

One day in 2011 Tim Munro, the member generally in charge of the group’s publicity, shot video of Yvonne Lam and Nick Photinos as they worked out the bowing for a particular phrase, and posted the video on Twitter with the caption, “First bowing conversation of the season!”

This kind of promotionalism, in which eighth blackbird—a set of uncompromising new music virtuosos whose very name references one of the canonical moments of mid-century modernism—presents itself as “your friendly neighborhood sextet working hard—but always happily—as they get ready for their next sensational show,” might well be a turn-off for musical intellectuals. Pippen is not entirely taken with it either. He’s the one who recorded the self-deprecating comment from composer Jeremy Sment at the top of the page, evidence that just being “cool” and “friendly” does not erase hierarchies of power within the field of cultural production. I myself would add that presenting the hard, repetitive work of mastering difficult music as a kind of “fun” also fits into a neoliberal pattern where cultural workers exploit themselves under the sign of “doing what you love.”

The Struggle is Real

Crucially, Pippen is not particularly worried about whether the musical works eighth blackbird performs are themselves aesthetically progressive or reactionary; he sees the forces acting on the group as more eclectic than that, as “a particular mixture of modernist aesthetic goals, postmodern desires for accessibility, and fundamental concerns about the financial realities of the new music field.” This last concern is not one usually encountered in narratives of style history. In fact, this isn’t really a story about style at all; although Pippen uses the more compact term “postmodern avant-garde,” what he has uncovered is the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity.
A music historian of the old school would use the actions of eighth blackbird (and reactions to them) to determine whether there is a future for new music, and, if so, what part of the musical past such a future might most resemble. If that turns you on, go for it. The game of rock-paper-scissors is never ending. But the musicology of the present, under whose flag I have taken the liberty of enlisting John Pippen (if you disagree, please blame my reading, not his work), is less interested in declaring winners and losers in the game of history, and more sympathetic to the dynamics on the field of play at a given moment. Pippen’s summary take on eighth blackbird’s postmodern brand of avant-gardism seems, to me, very humane:

Here we find not the “anything goes” attitude described by [critics of postmodernism]. Rather, we find an acknowledgement of failure, a recognition of controversy and, in spite of all this, an ongoing commitment to the presentation of “difficult” music. This is not abject relativism. This is struggle.

Right on, brother. In my final post, I’ll feature another fascinating oxymoron taken from a recent study of the way university culture has figured in the development of late 20th-century musical taste. What would it mean to conceptualize an “elite popular music”? And would that concept help us navigate the dangerous passage between high and low musics in a post-hierarchical, omnivorous era of cultural consumption?

It Ain’t Us, Babe


I imagine [musicologists Leonard] Meyer and [Richard] Crocker on a stroll through wooded countryside. ‘We have passed through the forest,’ says Meyer, ‘and now we are lost in a multitude of trees, with no prospect of finding our way out.’ ‘This is no multitude of trees,’ replies Crocker, ‘it is a forest like the last one. And if you will just follow me, I shall show you the path into the next forest.’
Leo Treitler, “The Present as History,” Perspectives of New Music 7-2 (Spring-Summer 1969): 22.

What kind of a story is music history, anyway? Why do we tell it? Does history actually exist in some objective way, in the world, ready to be reported on, or is it, rather, a construction, a framing device we use to reduce the radical contingency of “one damned thing after another” to the comforting story of cause and effect? Can you ever really see the forest for the trees?
All these questions and more are considered at length in the article from which the pastoral episode above is taken. It was a review of four synoptic surveys of music history, written for an audience of new music composers and theorists, but from the perspective of a musicologist who studied the oldest of old music. Leo Treitler might, at first glance, have seemed like exactly the kind of Germanic camp follower about whom Joseph Kerman had twitted American musicology in 1964; what could this guy, whose area of research was chant repertories in 11th- and 12th-century Aquitaine, possibly have to say about the writing of contemporary music history?

History as Runaway Train

But Treitler’s Germanic inheritance included serious training in historiography, the philosophical study of historical writing as a discipline, and he was ready to drop some Wissenschaft on these suckaz. His review shows, ineluctably, how each historical survey constructed an arbitrary “motor” of spurious causality and then set it in motion, mass-producing explanations for changes in musical style that might otherwise seem too random. As the late-’60s present approached, Treitler demonstrates by unkind quotation how the sheer momentum of these historical narratives had enabled historians to ride roughshod over the actual complexities of recent compositional trends (atonality, serialism, chance operations). In their hands, history became a runaway train demolishing the station at which it was supposed to arrive.
Steam locomotive enters tunnel
Treitler advised his readers to beware of musicologists bringing hegemonic narratives to discipline the chaos of the contemporary: “Systems of history, which are invented as useful and even necessary ways of lending coherence to the varieties of artistic expression, end by dictating how art shall be.” Surely this is not what today’s composers want from music historians! Because all we can really offer in that line is the cold comfort of tautology. The newsworthy compositional trends of the present will be those which exemplify whatever cycle of cause and effect we have all agreed can explain the past. But how will we know those are the newsworthy composers and trends? Because the agreed-upon narrative of cause and effect points to them. In this musicologically “totalitarian” version of the present—Treitler ironically notes that it represents “the highest refinement of the historian’s technique”—today’s art is reduced to nothing more than the shadow of yesterday’s ideology.

Philology and the Canon

OK, fine, respond the composer’s advocates, so maybe you shouldn’t try to cram us into the Big (Historical) Picture. But couldn’t you at least do some on-the-scene reporting—you know, dig up some facts, find interesting documents, make performing editions, help rescue potentially great music from obscurity? Isn’t that what musicologists do?

Well, it’s what musicologists mostly used to do, and proudly. The academic discipline of musicology was founded on the model of scientific philology, the study of classical Greek and Latin texts, and what still comes to mind when one says “musicology” is time spent in exotic archives with unpublished sources; the ability to read ancient or personal musical scripts; systematic knowledge of paper, ink, watermarks, and copying techniques; and the discovery, dating, and transcription of hitherto uncirculated musical works. The idea that scholars should serve art by devoting themselves to curating a “canon” of authoritative classical texts was imported into musicology right along with the forensic techniques of classical philology. This is why musicologists spent all that time in the archives—not, as it might seem in retrospect, to enlarge the performer’s repertory. New old pieces to play were just a fortunate byproduct of the real goal, which was to serve Genius by assembling a canon of authentic Masterworks.

An alert reader will have guessed that the use of archaic capitalized nouns and the past tense in the paragraph above is a tease for this (not very surprising) reveal: most musicologists—especially those interested in contemporary art music—no longer believe that philological curation of a canon of musical artworks is their defining job. Let’s get practical for a minute: in the era of Finale™ and Sibelius™, copy machines, laser printers, and PDFs—when the typical composer’s “archive” is a thumb drive or a DropBox link—can’t the textual study of music be democratized? Rather than a musicological priestly caste assembling masterworks, it is today’s performers and composers, who have a pragmatic interest in situations where interesting or historically significant new music is not available in usable texts, who should do this work. And if they want to anoint new geniuses so be it; let us joyfully accept the priesthood of all believers.

Pop Triumphalism and the Necessary Postmusicologist

Me, I’m more of a Social Gospel type. And what I am going to argue by (other people’s) example in the following posts is that the musicology of the present can fruitfully take wide-ranging, decentered socio-cultural analysis of new music as a goal, loosening the death grip of cause-effect history and canon worship. This point has been made eloquently and repeatedly over the last three decades by the prime movers of the cultural turn in musicology, first among them Susan McClary. That bend in the path did not at all strand the field in “gender studies” of the masterwork canon (although there was, of course, some work to be done there)—in fact, the question of how musicology might approach present musical life was central to its initial appeal. Although McClary is no more a specialist in contemporary music than was Leo Treitler, she dropped some new musicological science back in the late 1990s for those who want to study it:

I take as my model the great medieval theorist Grocheo, who impatiently pushed the “purely musical” speculations of Boethius to the side in order to produce a socially grounded inventory of the many distinct music cultures flourishing in Paris around 1300—an inventory that included explanations of the preferences of the aristocratic and ecclesiastical elites, the laboring classes, and even hot-blooded youths. What would our histories look like if we took note of the many kinds of music surrounding us—observing differences in social function and technique, to be sure, but acknowledging them all nonetheless as parts of a shared universe?

There has recently been something of a backlash against these home truths under the guise of resisting “pop triumphalism.” Implicit in McClary’s position, we’re told, is the danger of intellectual capitulation to popular music’s market hegemony, allowing its economic dominance to set the agenda of cultural criticism and analysis. Devotees of “minority” non-commercial musics like classical, jazz, and avant-garde have sensibly retreated from borderline racist positions that denigrate commercial popular music as “trash” or “crap.” (Well, except when it’s U2.) But, they now ask, can’t we be left in peace to tend our own gardens? Is there no place for a considered elitism? A retreat from the marketplace?

Well, says the musicologist who once published a piece called “Elvis Everywhere,” actually no, there isn’t. For one thing, at least three generations of new music composers have ceased to see the musical world this way. (I borrowed my title from what was at the time a brand-new string quartet by American composer Michael Daugherty.) It is no longer even news, as it seemed to be in the mid-1990s, that “popular” styles like indie rock and hip-hop have more artistic credibility for the average reader of, say The New Yorker, than the sound of the downtown avant-garde. Vernacular music is, by now, so interwoven with remnants of the Western canons of art music and jazz that today’s hard-working and adaptable composers don’t even expect special credit for knowing and loving it all.

The pervasive influence of popular and non-Western music on contemporary composers inscribes new music in different and larger cultural narratives. Even if we refuse Treitler’s pitcher of historiographic Kool-Aid and persist in trying to fit the present into (some kind of) history, we will have to work in the shadow of the triumph of pop. And models of causality and style change based in a segregated canon of “classical” music are just not going to cut it.

And, so, at the half point of this four-part exploration, let me return you to that bar in New York City where two philologically inclined composers are asking themselves where all the musicologists went. Had I been there, I like to think I’d have gargled my best Bob Dylan: It ain’t us, babe—It ain’t us you’re lookin’ for, babe. What you really need is an interdisciplinary team: maybe a musicologist, but also an ethnomusicologist, someone who does popular music studies, perhaps a media scholar, someone familiar with current debates on race, colonialism, and culture. Let’s roll all that and more into one byline: the postmusicologist. (Thanks to Asturian postmusicologist Maria Vázquez González for the term, and the excellent Tyson Reaction meme which kicked off this series.) In the next two installments, some preliminary adventures of this new action figure. Till then, keep on changin’ the paradigm!

The Musicology of the Present

One night in New York City after a concert I was having a drink with my fellow composer Larry Polansky. He was talking about the musicological and restorative work he was doing on music by Johanna Beyer and Harry Partch, I spoke of my analytical writings on the music of Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse. Finally, Larry said, ‘Composers are now doing the work that musicologists used to do, while the musicologists are all off doing gender studies.’
—Kyle Gann, Rey M. Longyear Lecture, University of Kentucky, 2008

If I’m going to be a musicological guest blogger for NewMusicBox, I thought, I’d better come up with something fresh and relevant to its readership. I’ve written on the cultural significance of minimalism, music that was still new (and terra incognita for musicology) when I started researching it; I’ve also stood back at least once and lobbed spitballs into the fray over the “death of classical music,” arguing that the ubiquity of the trope means, among other things, that we inhabit a post-canonic musical world in which challenging new music might not be where you expect to find it. (Like, here, for instance.)

But this seems like the perfect venue to take up a challenge laid down by composer-journalist-scholar Kyle Gann, who in 2008 tasked a generation of music historians with having “dropped the ongoing narrative of composed music.” Failing to follow the example of the great Leonard Meyer, who composed his 1967 study Music, the Arts, and Ideas as a preliminary sketch for an art music “history of the present,” we became caught up in gender, sexuality, performance practice, popular music, post-colonial theory—anything to allow us to study the same old music in a (fashionably) new way, and delay setting out across the treacherous, shifting sands of postmodern musical historiography. The trained professionals weren’t doing what composers like Gann needed done; so this self-declared amateur had to do it himself. (And brilliantly, too, as anyone who has read his work can attest.)
This is an old complaint, and it has some merit. Musicology, at least in the U.S., has its deepest disciplinary roots in music history, and a particularly documentary, evidence-hungry form of “scientific” history at that. Almost exactly 50 years ago, the American musicologist Joseph Kerman drily noted that his colleagues were still following “the true objective path which the German scholars stamped out generations ago,” and gently suggested that perhaps the time had come to loosen up and stray a bit toward a critical engagement with the present. He tweaked a conservative field in which even the canonical composers of the 19th century were a little too fresh for serious academic work:  in the year 1964, the American Musicological Society, he noted, had “more Wagnerians than any organization west of Seventh Avenue—but no professed Wagner specialist.”

Kerman himself was no partisan of avant-garde music, but, as a critic, at least he was interested in what was going on around him; most professional musicologists were not. They were serious historians, and believed it impossible to study the present with the scientific rigor their own teachers had taught them to bring to the past. Musicologists of middling age can still remember when living composers were completely off-limits; and it is true that, even after musicology underwent its critical turn, the innate bias toward the past remained. But as the 20th century fades in the rear view mirror, a new generation of musicologists is beginning to change the conversation. Contrary to what today’s composers might think, these new musicologists are not afraid of new music, nor do they think contemporary composition is of little consequence. The AMS is presently being asked by some of its younger members to charter a study group devoted to “classical music as a contemporary practice,” alongside those already devoted to gender studies, politics, philosophy, popular music, the environment, etc.

Not Dead Yet

But don’t get your hopes too far up; I’m afraid the musicology of the present might not look very much like the musicology developed in and for the past. However useful it might be for contemporary composers to be professionally historicized, musicologists who turn their attention to the present moment will not necessarily bring along with them their trusty narrative-machines, ready to process yesterday’s news into tomorrow’s historical truth. Meyer’s musical “history of the present” was, I would argue, not a way to keep on writing music history, but a way to deal, once and for all, with its End, in much the same way philosopher Arthur Danto would later deal with the “End of Art,” by which he meant not the end of art production, but of a certain kind of historical narrative about the cultural significance of art production.

For the professional historian, schooled deeply in this collapse of the master narratives of modern art, perhaps even conscious of having played some small part in their deconstruction, it is a little late in the day for composers and their advocates to demand another chapter of the old familiar story:  pre-classical, classical, mannerist; minimalist, postminimalist, maximalist; lather, rinse, repeat. The bafflement with which contemporary composers have read the final volume of the recent Oxford History of Western Music stems in part from this frustrated desire for more stories (about them); Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.

So what would a post-narrative musicology focused on the present actually look like? Probably not very much like traditional music history. One can’t do better here than recommend a very practical 2012 collection of essays on method, Doing Recent History. In the tartly titled lead, “Not Dead Yet,” editor Renee C. Romano notes that her own historical research on U.S. black-white intermarriage, a story which lies largely within living memory, is often not even recognized by many of her readers as “history”; she’s more usually filed under political science or sociology. She still feels like a historian, but admits that the experience of writing in the present tense has repeatedly sent her back to rebuild the intellectual foundations of the very histories she sought to extend. If a music historian chooses to work on music that is not yet part of settled history – not dead yet – she might face the same risk, but I submit that if one is eager to find a new path, this could be an historic (sorry) opportunity.

New Paths

In the posts that follow, I’m going to borrow a tactic from Robert Schumann. Rather than blow my own horn, I’ll point out a couple of the new paths—new sociological and cultural frameworks within which to understand some issues in the production and consumption of new art music—implicit in the most recent work from emerging musicologists. This will be really fresh stuff that you can’t find (yet) on the scholarly equivalent of Pandora or Spotify. But first, in next week’s installment, I’ll offer a cautionary look at some of the methodological pitfalls that await when one tries to extend traditional narrative strategies of music history into the present. Can the old paths even lead us through the art-musical present, that undiscovered country where the composers, performers, and historians are, first and foremost, not dead yet?


Robert Fink

Robert Fink

Robert Fink is a professor of musicology at UCLA and president of the U.S. Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US). He is the author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, and writes on popular music, contemporary art music, opera, and politics, and “classical” music in a post-canonic era. The noted scholarly reference source Buzzfeed recently proclaimed his lecture course on the History of Electronic Dance Music the #1 “coolest” class at UCLA. (James Franco’s screenwriting class came in at #7, so that’s pretty unusual.)