Richard Taruskin, “Music in the Late Twentieth Century” (2005)

I have been collecting histories of 20th c. music; I have read about six so far. Taruskin’s is far and away the best, not because everything he says provokes assent—this is unusually opinionated and idiosyncratic for a multivolume Oxford project—but because he is consistently an historian and not a critic. By that I mean the characterizations he makes are aimed at understanding why music was received as it was, both at the time of its production and afterward, up to and including the present. In that sense he conforms to Rosalind Krauss’s criterion for the critic: he is interested primarily in the conditions under which judgments seemed plausible, rather than in opportunities to deploy new judgments. His account keeps a good  distance from the more straightforward criticism that occurs, for example, in Alex Ross and Paul Griffiths (both of whom Taruskin succinctly locates in particular historical streams of thought).

1. Parallels between postwar music history and art history. I was struck by potential parallels between the history of modern and contemporary music, on the one hand, and visual arts, on the other. There are in a sense too many of these to list. The book is continuously provocative in that it suggests how much richer a history of 20th and 21st century art would be if it included music.

Take, for example, Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, a work that is arguably more pivotal in postwar music than any comparable single piece of visual art. Boulez’s attempts to use the sonata as a vehicle to demonstrate the destruction of music history, and the strange effect the sonata produces in the listener (who is aware of a tremendous impatience, but cannot register each polemic act of compression and destruction), are said to parallel Abstract Expressionism, but they are different in kind, and in some ways Boulez’s work is the more radical. Pollock has nothing like Boulez ‘s sarcastic, violent mastery of a full range of technical and structural possibilities; Abstract Expressionism picks and chooses a limited palette of strategies to expand or skills to abandon. Much more should be said on this. The ambition and reception of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata would be a welcome addition to the baseline understanding of modernism in the visual arts and literature.

In the art world, scholars who pay attention to music almost always focus on the work and influence of Cage, Reich, and Feldman at the expense of “composed” music after World War II. Here Taruskin’s account can be read as providing a bridge back to the other practices of postwar music. He stresses Cage’s initial sense of insecurity when he saw Boulez’s technical accomplishments, and Boulez’s anxiety when he realized that his own work held on to too many older European practices when his theory suggested he shouldn’t. The uncertainty was mutual, and it would be a good reason for art historians to encounter the composed, non-aleatoric practices of the 1950s and beyond.

In general, Taruskin’s book is focused on modernism and postmodernism, with shorter passages on popular music and nothing on jazz. He says at one point that his “relative lack of attention” to non-modernism, including tonal 20th century composers, “shows how influential the modernist ‘master narrative’ has been on historical writing.” The problem of writing outside the “master narrative” is not easy to solve. In the visual arts, the book  Art Since 1900 includes some material on anti-modernisms (especially in the Soviet Union), but nothing on what Taruskin calls “non-modernism” and not a word on conservative “perceptual,” realist, or otherwise recherché work. It is instructive to see what happens when Taruskin tries to include rock, pop, performance, and popular opera (Adams, Glass). The results are uneven, just as they would be in a textbook of visual art that made a concerted effort to move away from the “master narratives.” (My own attempt, which is abandoned, is here. In general, the problem is avoided in art history by the existence of visual studies.) But there is more popular music in Music in the Late Twentieth Century than there is popular or conservative, “non-modern” art in Art Since 1900 or comparable texts, and the results are instructive.

2. Parallels between postmodernism in musical and visual art. Music has its postmodernism, and like postmodernism in architecture, music’s postmodernism is significantly different from the postmodernism known to the visual arts. Taruskin is especially good on George Rochberg, whose unexpected quotations from tonal music seem superficially similar to architects’ postmodern quotations—just as they seem profoundly different from the gender- and identity-based postmodernisms in visual art. For Taruskin, Rochberg “must count among the earliest self-conscious proclamations of postmodern sensibility in—and for—music,” because of his critique of historical time, his move from citation to pastiche, and his sense that every artist has to take the “historical temperature” of the time.

Each of these has resonance with developments in the visual arts, but there is no prominent postmodern visual artist whose practice includes extended, unironic emulation of premodern modes. Moments of the past in postmodern visual art—as in Rauschenberg, Rivers, and other “appropriation” artists—are hedged by irony. Schnittke would be a closer parallel, but his different historical context makes that parallel unavailable. I don’t have a conclusion here, except to say it’s fascinating that a “rum” composer, given to pastiche more than quotation, or emulation more than appropriation, and with a deeply idiosyncratic, heartfelt sense of premodern music, could come to stand for the inception of musical postmodernism.

Another model for this kind of unironic anachronism, which does not occur as much in visual arts, is Adams, whom Taruskin showcases at the end of his book. “Adams’s harmonies move around circles of major and minor thirds as traditional harmony moves through circles of fifths, thus making the early 20th-c. ‘Franco-Russian’ idiom the foundation of his late-century style, and making the same sort of end-run around the 20th century’s German and German-influenced music that the midcentury ‘neoclassicists’… had made in their day arouns the Germanic music of the 19th century.”

(Parenthetically, on pastiche: Taruskin notes that “pastiche composition [as opposed to actual quotation] had never before been used for any other purpose than instruction… to use it as a method for sincere expression of personal emotion seemed a contradiction in terms.” There wasn’t anything like this in visual art in the 1970s, and even now it would be associated more with artists like Odd Nerdrum than with mainstream postmodernists. In this regard, one of Taruskin’s few missteps is explaining Rochberg by association with Eco, who is far more historically disengaged and relativist than Rochberg. From a visual art perspective, Rochberg can’t be a quintessential modernist: he’s more a conservative composer given to heartfelt emulation of a pre-modern past.)

3. Parallels between the music PhD and the studio art PhD. Babbitt’s definition of music as knowledge, which he articulated in defense of the PhD in composition, sounds surprisingly familiar: there are interesting parallels here with the PhD for studio artists, which also stress knowledge (see Artists with PhDs,  ¶ 164 ff.). The Princeton music PhD probably had no influence on the practice-led PhD, which began in the U.K. and Japan a decade later, if only because “new knowledge” is a rubric throughout university administration. Even so, it is intriguing to consider that Babbitt’s position against expression and in favor of knowledge was conceptually clearer than the studio-art PhD, where expression, affect, and other purposes blend, sometimes uncomfortably, with the requirement that the art produce knowledge.

The other guiding term of studio-art PhD programs, research, also appears at significant moments in Taruskin’s narrative. He quotes Carter as saying that “the primary questions” he set out to answer in his work involved questions like “What kind of changes can previously presented events undergo while maintaining some element of individuality?”—which is precisely the sort of research proposal that a PhD student in visual arts might present to her advisor. Taruskin’s narrative suggests that the research paradigm is modernist; if that is true it should give contemporary educators pause for thought.

4. Parallels between Taruskin’s history and accounts of global art history. The journals Perspectives of New Music and Die Reihe are close to October or Texte zur Kunst in their emphasis on analysis and their mobilization of new theory. The music periodicals predate the art periodicals, suggesting a possible model. As in the case of October, it is difficult to name the house school or style:  “Babbittian (Princetonian? American?).” My own solution is to call the October influence “North Atlantic” (link here; scroll down for the text). The expression “North Atlantic” has several drawbacks, but it signals the insufficiency of the synecdoche October, and the unhelpful nature of appeals to the global.

It might not seem that Music in the Late Twentieth Century is “global,” because he spends only a little time on developments outside Europe and North America. But his book has instructive examples of the conflicting interpretations given to composers in and out of the Soviet influence, a subject that has resonance for eastern European art historians. Volkonsky’s Musica stricta, “the first twelve-tone composition by a Soviet citizen,” “was only a facet of a more general cold-war irony: musical behavior that in the West would have been regarded as the height of conformity meant just the opposite within the Soviet sphere of influence.” Similarly Schnittke’s tone clusters “must have sounded fairly old-hat” in Germany in 1969, but because Schnittke was Russian, his work was “tinged with iconoclasm—a typical cold-war inversion.”

There are dozens of such examples throughout the book, and they don’t all have to do with Russia: Taruskin is excellent, for example, on the different  meanings and motives of serialization on both sides of the Atlantic. North American serial and atonal music was a normative academic project that expressed American values (as Carter said); Darmstadt school post-tonality was a “zero-hour” response to the Second World War, and the loss of confidence in the inherited tools of musical culture. Distinctions like these are at the heart of projects to write global art histories, and they could add richness to accounts of 20th century modernism in the visual arts.

5. Music that is visual: when playing is secondary to composing, analyzing, and viewing. I’ll just end with a note on the visual nature of some scores. From a player’s point of view—from the perspective of this site, where I am mainly concerned with piano music—it may seem that the piano repertoire is equally available across the last century of music. The only obstacles to playing everything are skill and time. Taruskin’s book is an articulate counter-argument to that, because he is interested in those movements and moments when music was meant to be seen (on the page) in addition to being heard, or even when it was meant to be analyzed rather than heard.

Usually this theme—of music intended partly or wholly to be seen—is confined to “graphical music notation,” as in Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Bussotti, or Logothetis. (Parenthetically, because this theme is not in Taruskin’s book: for me scores like Bussotti’s raise a question of performance: how does a given performance show evidence of its dependence on a graphical score? How does a picture by Bussotti, or a nearly blank sheet of paper by Wolff, influence the performance? Most of the writing on graphical notation is on the notation itself, and not on its effect on performance.)

Taruskin isn’t interested in graphical notations, but he is concerned with what is arguably the larger and more difficult issue: how to know when a score exists partly, or mainly, to be read or seen or admired.

For Babbitt and his followers, composing is “a fascinating game, as is analyzing it. It is the listening process that has proved durably problematical,” Taruskin writes. It’s possible the music is “just an enormous flowering of Augenmusik,” and if it is, “does that invalidate… its crucial truth-claims?” And if so, “in what way: aesthetically? scientifically?”

Even stronger claims have been made about the new complexity; Taruskin notes that Ferneyhough’s “notational detail was significant, even if the music was not”; it can serve as a guide for what Eric Ulman calls the “inevitable inaccuracy of interpretation,” and also as a document of unsurpassably intricate “colorful notational and verbal detail.”

The issues raised by Babbitt, Ferneyhough, and others is different from the problems raised by graphical notations. What matters here is the performer’s awareness that placing a score by Webern on the piano is different from placing a score by Babbitt. The difference—aside from complexity, difficulty, and other contingent distinctions, and even aside from the question of whether or not listeners will be able to follow—is that Babbitt’s score exists as information (as he said), and its fascination is unambiguously in its achievement and its composition, as well as its analysis. The question, which Taruskin doesn’t raise, is how such scores should best be studied: how to attend to their visual complexities, how to think about the relation between the seen and the heard.


Much more could be said here. It would be wonderful to pursue these parallels in a conference—say on the comparative historiography of 20th and 21st century visual arts and music.