Crossing the threshold

Anyone who has spent any time at all around this internet ‘hood knows that The Death of Classical Music is to the concert music blogosphere what cats, George Bush and Google paranoia are to the rest of the world: it’s what 95% of us spend 95% of our time writing about. So, therefore, it’s no surprise to see that 95% of classical bloggers have spent time this week writing about Richard Taruskin’s ‘The Musical Mystique‘ (the rest of their time has been spent reading the damn thing).

What with Alex Ross and Norman Lebrecht all over the headlines at the moment, it seems like an article of and for this blogging moment. Taruskin himself can’t help being sucked into things, opening up with his take on that Joshua Bell stunt we were all twittering over back in April; he even approvingly quotes Boring Like a Drill‘s Ben.H., even if Ben has since confessed that he wrote that commentafter a night on the turps” (I can’t help but wonder where we’d be should we ever discover the same about Solomon Volkov…?). Hell, Taruskin’s article has a permalink and comments, so it’s practically a blog post itself.

I’ve made my criticisms of Taruskin on these pages before – and I stick by those – but this is a fabulous article (even if it could lose a few thousand words). The fact that even his detractors agree on is that Taruskin can write. He wins arguments by rhetoric alone. This makes him a very fine essayist (and this is a very fine essay), but it is a dubious credential as a scholar; as such, arguments should be won by the quality of research and style is a mere bonus. Which is not to say that academic writing has not benefited from the invigoration of prose like Taruskin’s. The problem comes when the lines between scholarly work and more populist writing aren’t so easy to distinguish: the common concern about The Oxford History of Western Music – that it looks like a textbook but reads like a rant – rests entirely on this (replace ‘The Oxford‘ with ‘Richard Taruskin’s‘ and those concerns are gone, spit-spot).

I have written in the past to the effect that the great joy of professional musicology is that you’re getting paid (in theory) to tell people about your enthusiasms.

Unlike novels, most musical works can be received in their entirety in a short space of time, and since recording – and more recently digital technology – made music a completely portable art form (unlike paintings or architecture), the exhortation “listen to this, I think you’ll like it” has become fundamental in human relationships.

Musicology is, at heart, an extension of this fact. A vast, all-inclusive extension that grew into an academic discipline all of its own, but an extension of that basic enthusiasm for musical discovery nevertheless. Most of us do continue to do it because we’d die otherwise. We can’t help ourselves.

Insofar as he is repeating this same call I warmly welcome Taruskin’s argument, even if I would wish to refine the boundaries between fanboy enthusiasm and scholarly enterprise. But, as Matthew Guerrieri forcefully puts it, there are more than just a few ways to receive pleasure: casting them as moral choices (as Taruskin does) is wrong.

The division between popular and academic, entertainment and prestige, heart and mind, apparently sits at the centre of Taruskin’s argument. Kyle Gann, applauding Taruskin, takes this division at stark face value:

I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I’m not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books.

And this is the common-sense tack Taruskin takes, with plenty of erudite historical context. Why does any of us get into music except for pleasure? And why would a composer try to do anything in his music except elicit pleasure?

Taruskin’s targets, one would imagine, should be equally upset over that same division: art is Art, first and foremost; pleasure comes second, and Taruskin would appreciate the precise parallel this makes between academic and populist modes of writing that I outlined above. The thing is, I’m not sure how real Taruskin’s targets actually are these days (or, one must extrapolate, Gann’s). The sort of knots Taruskin gets himself into by dividing the world into this and that, and then castigating people for living their lives according to those divisions, are apparent early on. In discussing the spurious prestige that became attached to classical music, Taruskin refers to an LP released as part of Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election campaign (a true blogger would have uploaded a copy to Rapidshare).

The musical selections include some that had plausible connections with Eisenhower, like Dmitri Tiomkin’s title theme for High Noon, as well as inspirational numbers such as Marian Anderson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (a paean not to the deity but to wise political leadership). But the bulk of the president’s musical offering consists of three orchestral overtures: Beethoven’s Coriolan (originally written to accompany a German tragedy, as the producers of the album had surely forgotten, about unwise political leadership), Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, and Strauss’s Fledermaus. I have no idea how much actual input Eisenhower had in the planning of this record, but it does not matter. What matters is that identification with classical music was considered, by him or his handlers as much as by the record folks, to be a significant enhancer of his image.

But, by the same token, why should we think of Bach as a ‘prestige’ choice, and not simply ‘inspirational’ in the way that ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’? Surely because to make such a claim would be Bach blasphemy: and thus Taruskin is organising the world according to the same value system he so despises.

Matthew Guerrieri and Jodru make more forceful criticisms of the article, and they are there to be made. We must applaud Taruskin for taking George Benjamin down a peg or two after his silly remark that no politicians show an interest in “the music of our time”, but I wonder how much the ivory-towered outlook that Taruskin sees personified in Benjamin has to do with contemporary composition anyway. And I’m not talking here about Stanley Kubrick film soundtracks or populist crossover orchestral commissions or even amplified downtown groups in jeans. Contemporary music is a much wider, richer and more colourful spectrum than Taruskin ever gives it credit for – this is my biggest beef with him – and I often doubt how much of it he has actually heard, and how much he’s just inferred from regular doses of Adorno and Babbitt (who cares about that bloody essay?). So, in generous spirit, I offer the following examples of (more or less) recent music that have given me great pleasure in the last few weeks. I’m in this job because this stuff thrills me to bits, and I would absolutely, sincerely, love to read Taruskin’s thoughts on some of these:

Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (natch)
Horatiu Radulescu: Cinerum
Tristan Murail: Désintégrations
Antoine Beuger: Fourth Music for Marcia Hafif
Brian Ferneyhough: Time and Motion Study II
Isabel Mundry: Penelopes Atem
Beat Furrer: FAMA
Wolfgang Mitterer: Konzert für Klavier

2 thoughts on “Crossing the threshold

  1. Taruskin is a moderately gifted rhetorician who loves the sound of his own voice (I found his article as dull as Lebrecht’s rants). Benjamin was, of course, making a dig at Tony Blair, above all – and like you, I notice, when he thinks of the “music of our time” (=”recent music” in your words) he thinks of searching stuff just like Grisey et al. You could, from my point of view, have mentioned some improvised music, as well (call it jazz or not), but I wouldn’t dream of putting you down because you didn’t. As a composer, Benjamin has an axe to grind – so what? The man actually writes good (no scare quotes) music; let him have his cracks at the sociopaths who run this world. – By the way, it’s “seuil” (threshold), not “seul” (only one).

  2. Well, I know practically nothing about improvisation beyond a handful of albums and live experiences (since he’s mentioned above, obviously I know of Mitterer’s improv work), so I wouldn’t want to make suggestions on that score. But yes, I suppose the same applies.

    Thanks for spotting the typo.

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