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