Steam locomotive enters tunnel

It Ain’t Us, Babe

Beware of musicologists bringing hegemonic narratives to discipline the chaos of the contemporary.

Written By

Robert Fink


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!