I’m writing a book

OK, it’s time to come clean. I’m writing a book.

Quite an ambitious one: a history of composition since 1989. New music in the long 21st century. Modern Music After Modern Music And After. The Rest of The Rest is Noise.*

I’ve been thinking about this thing for a few years now, and nurturing the ambition for a few more than that. Yet it’s still in the very early stages. I’ve not spoken to any publishers yet, and I don’t have a huge amount of writing to show. Just a lot of plans, spider diagrams, lists, notecards and a slowly cohering concept. Here’s a representative photo of one wall of my study:


But although I’m still in the very early planning stages, I thought it about time to plant my flag in the sand.  If I don’t, it will never happen. This is the book I’m writing: TROTRIN, or MMAMMAA.

There are two reasons for starting in 1989. There is the obvious one: the end of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of globalization and a neo-liberal political consensus across Europe, North America and beyond have affected social and cultural activity across the globe. Music is no exception to this.

The second is related, and no less pressing. In spite of a steady stream of books on 20th-century music history in recent years, from Whittall to Griffiths to Ross, and the steady passing of years, a coherent approach to the recent history of composition has not yet emerged. In their histories of the later 20th century, these books all rely on a narrative that begins in 1945 and the implications of the postwar landscape: the rebuilding of Europe, the ascent of America and the tensions of the Cold War. If this framework holds true for the historiography of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and even 80s, it follows that it cannot function for the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the decades of the EU, challenges to American hegemony and the end of the Cold War. This is reflected in the relative success of these books to address the music of the last two and a half decades versus that of the preceding three or four. Reading these authors, one gets a sense of the ground falling away and the search for new foundations: postmodern fragmentation (Griffiths), or silence (Ross, who includes only a handful of pages on music since 1989).

So the primary aim of my book is to establish that foundation. By focusing, uniquely, on writing a history of modern composition that begins in 1989 I hope to effect a break from the post-1945 narrative. In doing so, I also hope to find a way to write about contemporary music that reasserts its position in relation to contemporary life, and reclaims its expressive language from accusations of irrelevance and elitism.

And drawing this line hurts, because there’s a ton of outstanding music from the 1970s and 80s that hasn’t yet made it into the history books, and that I’m going to have to force myself not write about. I’d love to include L’Itinéraire, the German Feedback Group, pre-LICHT Stockhausen, the best work of Lachenmann, Ferneyhough and Lucier, and much more, but that will have to wait.

However, I will be able to write about Peter Ablinger, Bang on a Can, Richard Barrett, Pierluigi Billone, Chaya Czernowin, Empreintes Digitales, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox, Alexandr Knaifel, Liza Lim, Annea Lockwood, Nico Muhly, R. Murray Schafer, Mathias Spahlinger, the Wandelweiser group, Hildegard Westerkamp … it’s not all bad. Hopefully the prospect of that book excites you as much as it does me.

*Thanks to Tom for that one.

28 thoughts on “I’m writing a book

  1. This sounds like a very cool project – but my only concern is that it will become dated quickly? Let’s say you are writing now and publish in 2015. Then it will be a book about music 1989-2015 and in 2020 it’ll be dated. Even TRIN is dated when it talks about the most recent music that it covers, but it sets out to cover a century so it’s a good historical text in that way.

    I would think you are better off doing this as a website that can be constantly updated … after all, what else happened around 1989? The dawn of the Internet. Surely that is shaping music far more over subsequent decades than the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    If your concern is earning money from the endeavour, there are plenty of ways to do this, and these days even academics will happily cite online resources (just not Wikipedia, ha). You can even do it as a mobile device app* with constant updates as you find new things to write about, as they happen, rather than a website per se.

    Kind of a hitch hiker’s guide to new music!

    A paper book is just so … pre-1989 🙂

    *I’ve yet to hear of an academic paper citing an app however, but surely this is not impossible

    1. You’re right on a lot of points. And I’ve not ruled out the possibility of online publication, or some sort of print/digital hybrid. In some of my more blue-sky moments I imagine the crazy possibilities of a really hyperlinked ebook.

      The Internet, naturally, figures massively as a theme – about half the notecards in that picture are connected to it in some way. And of course globalization and the net are interrelated.

      The dating thing is an issue. But it’s not necessarily a problem; it’s a question of framing. I call it a ‘history’ for convenience, but really it’s more of a snapshot, or series of snapshots. Or a door-opening. I’d hate for it to be the last word on the subject – what I really want is for the debate to move on, for the story to change a little.

      The appeal of a book, for me, is not so much about print per se but about the different kinds of things you can say on a page, or over a series of pages, and on a screen. A hitchhiker’s guide to new music would be great, but it would be more of a spotter’s guide than an extended study, I think.

      1. A really interesting project which will fill a gap in the literature! I don’t think the fact that the book would cover a (relatively) limited time frame would be a problem. As a history or “snapshot” (as you very well put it” of a specific period in the development of contemporary music it would remain relevant notwithstanding the passage of time. Good luck!

  2. Dated can cut both ways: there is the ‘omg they really had no idea back then’ kind of dated, and then there is the cult classic kind of dated 🙂 Every piece of writing, whether in a book or online, is a historical artefact. I reckon this book is a great idea. Go for it.

  3. Sounds good, Tim. This in particular interests me:

    “…to find a way to write about contemporary music that reasserts its position in relation to contemporary life, and reclaims its expressive language from accusations of irrelevance and elitism.”

    This isn’t the least of what we ‘owe’ such music, in my opinion: to save it, as art, from an exclusively academic reception

  4. “to save it, as art, from an exclusively academic reception”

    Hear hear!

    Re Tim Benjamin’s comment, btw, I’ll venture to disagree completely. I like books. They’ve lasted quite a long time (!), and I think we can afford not to consider them “pre-1989”. Also: framing something between the covers of a book forces you to make a narrative (or a deliberate anti-narrative, or whatever, but still …). Constantly updatable web resources are just that – constantly updatable, and that limits their ability to be one story, told from one perspective, at one moment in time (well, one extended moment, since books take a while to write).

    1. I was being somewhat tongue in cheek 😉 I like books too!

      I agree that when you write A Book then you have to take an angle (narrative / anti-narrative) to some extent, it has to be self contained within those covers. That isn’t a bad thing either, in fact it’s a good thing!

      I just think also that these days there are so many opportunities for something more than a book, but not just another online encyclopedia or directory. A book+ or book 2.0 if you will … ha.

  5. Best of luck, and I will snap it up, whatever the format! I do hope, however, that in your excitement over the returning of classical music to the un-tenured masses, you remember to bemoan the consequent dumbing-down of harmony and lack of spiritual depth and nobility, at least in American music post 1989. Not all of us are happy about GarageBand classical music!

  6. Fantastic! I agree, there’s always a chance of it being dated, as Tim Benjamin notes. But, then again, it’s a reflection of the time period you’re choosing. A book, or whatever form it can take, is a cataloguing of something, and it can be static. I think focusing on modern composition since 1989 is fascinating. Look how quickly it evolved with technology, styles, flexibility of groups, etc. Can’t wait!

  7. “a way to write about contemporary music that reasserts its position in relation to contemporary life, and reclaims its expressive language from accusations of irrelevance and elitism”.

    Yes please!!!

  8. 1989 is a perfect line to draw in the sand. We can see and hear pretty clearly what the 1980s and 1990s were “about” (about in a loose sense of the word) musically and otherwise. We can tell from this side what was embraced, what was ignored, what was considered “progressive,” and what was considered not worthy of attention by the powers that were. I wonder what “now” will look like when you are finished in a few years. In the case of “new” music, hindsight is really closer to 20/20.

  9. 1989 is a good place to start. It’s ironic that as much as music is now more global, it has also become more insular. With the end of the Cold War, a lot of government funding for international touring dried up – governments having used the arts as cultural ambassadors during that period. Also, visas became more of a stumbling block for touring musicians.

  10. Funny, I was just having an email exchange about writing something similar and had all but decided that the right place to begin was 15 August 1971, as a moment when the pleasant illusion of a western international style of high musical modernism could be said to have finally gone to sleep.

  11. Not really sure how you can write about music post-89 as so much of it seems to me to be a consolidation of what happened between ’45 and ’68 and then the 20 years after.

    Besides, Spahlinger was a student in ’68, most of his best music is from before ’89, and much of Finnissy’s best is from before then too.

    On a tangent, it would be good to have a ‘Have you heard this?’ (after Thomson’s ‘Have you seen?’) as a guide to the best pieces of music. Too much history of music is written around composers, and for me its about pieces of music: Barrett’s “Opening of the Mouth”, Berio’s “Coro”, Emsley’s “The Juniper Tree” etc etc.

    Anyway, it would always be good to see any more writing on this music in book form, so however it shapes up I hope it comes to fruition.

    1. Not really sure how you can write about music post-89 as so much of it seems to me to be a consolidation of what happened between ’45 and ’68 and then the 20 years after.

      That’s where I disagree. I think a critical consensus has arisen that that is the case, but I see/hear things all the time that wouldn’t have interested composers, or occasionally even have been possible, in the first postwar decades. At the very least it’s a consensus that deserves to be challenged, and I think the rewards (in terms of historiography) for doing so could potentially be great.

  12. Take a look at Amy Beal’s book


    Also, I wonder how you will differentiate between academic music, experimental music, and the new quasi-pop-cum-commercial model that some of the composers your suggest- which isn’t original, but co-opts the work of other composers and performers from other regions.

    The latter, in itself, is worth a volume of its own!

    1. Quick answer: I’m not going to, at least on stylistic grounds. The idea is that this will be a complete portrait – and that extends in all directions. There should be room for at least acknowledgement of everything (or a representative sample of everything …). Everything I do include will be examined against a framework which is, ostensibly, non-musical – so socially/politically/culturally/economically determined. Differentiations will arise out of the different ways composers respond to similar themes (or respond similarly to different themes …).

  13. I just found your blog, and I’m so glad to hear someone’s doing this! As a new music performer, I struggle to put together what’s happened in my lifetime (since, umm, I was born in 1989…), mostly because there’s just not much information out there. I know that’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’re still living this part of music history, but I would feel much better informed on how to move forward if I had a good overview of what had been happening recently. I don’t care how quickly it goes out of date; I would read it!

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