Tag: Musicology

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.)

Noise Reduction

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Texas, a fellow musicology student told me once that if anyone could make sense of the state of contemporary music, it would have to be composers. She was saying that, in effect, most theorists and musicologists didn’t even know where to begin because the field had become too large, too diverse, too diffuse. Since then, I’ve heard fellow academics state similar concerns along with the common disinclination to point to any specific name, work, or musical trend (better known as “let history sort it out”). Anne Midgette illustrates both concepts in her end-of-year Washington Post column “This year’s bounty of CD’s: a reader’s guide“; not only does she colorfully describe the challenge of navigating the onslaught of new recordings as “like trying to drink from a fire hose,” but she decided to forgo making her own “Top 10 (or 15 or 100) Recordings of 2013” list and instead crowdsourced her readers’ picks.

Of course, how we communicate today—either directly via email, indirectly via social media, or passively through websites—only amplifies this growth and diffusion. Concert announcements, event invitations, and collaboration shout-outs were already commonplace when Kickstarter and Indiegogo ratcheted up the chatter considerably. There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors in and of themselves, but as more and more composers, performers, presenters, and managers clamor for attention, the overall result becomes as blended and indistinct as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.
While the echo chamber that I describe here is not the optimum, neither is an overly selective environment within which a privileged few who have a megaphone, be it through a newspaper, radio, website, or recording label, intentionally or unintentionally serve as tastemakers. Is it possible to find a balance between the two? I hope so.

Some might say that the new music community, even with all of its sub-groups, comprises such a thin slice of the overall “classical music” pie (much less the overall music pie) that there is little worth in trying to improve the situation—that one might as well let those in obscurity remain and work harder to intensify the spotlight on those who already reside in it. They very well may be right. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel the need to explore the possibilities, if for no other reason than to find a solid balance between a focused understanding of today’s new music and a broad accessibility to as many creative artists as possible, irrespective of style, locale, or pedigree.

Where could this exploration lead? I’m not sure yet, but it is what I shall be undertaking in the upcoming year. My weekly columns here at NewMusicBox over the past three years have been one of the richest and most unforeseen treasures of my career to date. I now look forward to delving into important issues within our art form and our community at a much greater depth and breadth than I’ve been able to do so far and to the vigorous and enlightening discussions that might result.

#FakeAMS: Musicology Jokes and Academia’s Online Future

If you haven’t given in to Twitter yet, or just missed the overnight #hashtag sensation that’s rocking the musicologists of Twitter, allow me to catch you up. The annual conference of the American Musicological Society is coming up, and the time has apparently come to lovingly poke fun. In recent years, a bit of an arms race has developed for attention-grabbing titles. With so many papers being presented at the same time, you need to catch the readers’ eyeballs in order to draw them in to seats. Alex Ross picked out some of the top contenders from the upcoming conference, including this gem:

Craig Monson, “‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ — ‘They Would Claw Each Other’s Flesh If They Could’: Conflicting Conformities in Convent Music”

It works, plus it can can definitely make you smile. Time for Twitter to jump in and invent fake attention-grabbing paper titles. Be warned: these jokes are extremely geeky. But also be encouraged: they’re very good. Will Robin (who you can find on Twitter at @seatedovation) kicked it off last night with this tweet:

And the Twitterverse took it from there. Here are some highlights, including Alex Ross’s astounding-as-usual meta-joke:

#FakeAMS has created the best imaginary musicology conference the world has never seen. Here are the search results pulled live from Twitter showing the latest contributions to musicological humor: