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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Four Organs marks a divide in Reich's output between the rigorously experimental works of the sixties and what proved to be the more immediately appealing works that followed. The piece is still sufficiently uncompromising in its minimalist approach to serve as a litmus test dividing “mainstream” listeners from the coterie of its devotees. The latter notice, and become fascinated by, the gradual processes; the former mainly notice, and become irritated by, the repetitions. This became clear in January 1973 when the young conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944) offered the piece to a Boston Symphony subscription audience in New York's Carnegie Hall, and elicited perhaps the last memorable twentieth-century succès de scandale. (Among the uncorroborated details that went from mouth to mouth was a woman shouting, “All right, I'll confess!”) For the next decade, Reich's primary venues would remain the art museums and downtown halls where various “alternative” musics rubbed shoulders, and his principal means of disseminating his work remained his own touring group. Further exposure to concert audiences would wait. But in the meantime, Reich's style underwent a change.

His output in the 1970s was dominated by two hour-long works. Drumming (1971), which can last up to eighty-six minutes depending on how many times the basic units are repeated, is scored for a nine-piece percussion band plus a piccolo player and two women vocalists singing “vocables” (nonmeaningful syllables). Both the rhythmic patterning of the piece and the integration of voices into the ensemble were influenced directly by the African music Reich had studied on location in 1970. The rhythmic unit is expanded from the eleven pulses of Four Organs to twelve. The addition of that extra eighth-note makes a huge difference, of course, because it allows the exploitation of hemiola effects by grouping the subtactile eighths, variously and/or simultaneously, into tactile pulses—“felt” beats—of varying length: two (six to a bar), three (four to a bar) and four (three to a bar).

The unfolding process is complex, combining the older phase technique with the “rhythmic construction” (or gradual fill-in) of Four Organs, now balanced against its opposite, “rhythmic reduction” (the gradual replacement of notes with rests). The piece achieves its grandiose length through contrasts of tone color. The first of its four large sections is scored for tuned bongo drums; the second, for marimbas and voices; the third, moving into an unsingably high register, uses glockenspiels, with whistling and piccolo piping replacing the voices; the fourth combines all forces. As a result of all of these interacting factors, Drumming was a technical tour de force, creating (in John Adams's words) “an interesting large-scale musical structure without recourse to harmony.”30 It served for several years as the staple of Reich's touring group, greatly increasing the size of his coterie of devotees to the point where he began filling large halls (mainly on college campuses) and attracting imitators.

Perhaps more noteworthy than its structural principles, of interest primarily to other composers, was the effect that Drumming had on audiences. Its complexity notwithstanding, the euphoria it produced in receptive listeners (so much more typical of pop than of contemporary classical composition) made it newsworthy and, of course, controversial, not only because it challenged the basic definition of avant-garde art, but also because listeners were obviously responding to more than just the beguiling sound patterns. There was also the unstated but strongly implied (or metaphorical) social meaning that arose directly from its African antecedents. When witnessed live, Adams noted,

performances of Drumming have the flavor of a ceremony, with the performers uniformly clad in white cotton shirts and dark pants, moving gradually during the course of the work from the bongos, to the marimbas, to the glockenspiels, and finally to all the instruments for the finale. The sense of ritualistic precision and unity is furthered by performers playing from memory and by their performing face-to-face, two on a single instrument.31

To put it another way, the work presented a model of harmonious social interaction that bore interesting comparison with theories just then being advanced about the primary value of music. In an influential book ambitiously titled How Musical Is Man? (1973), based on lectures delivered in 1969–1970 at the University of Washington, the English ethnomusicologist John Blacking (1928–90), then occupying the chair of social anthropology at Queen's University, Belfast, presented a thesis that argued that “humanly organized sound” was a necessary precondition to “soundly organized humanity,” from which it followed that music could—should?—be valued according to the degree to which it reflected that reciprocity and furthered the implied objective of social harmony.

Blacking in effect renewed (or modernized) a position that went all the way back to Plato (at least), and that had Count Leo Tolstoy as its most prominent recent exponent in Europe. Though venerable, it had been much weakened in the West by cold-war suspicion of the social as a criterion of artistic value. It was indeed obvious that social criteria of artistic value had been tyrannically abused under totalitarian regimes. But Blacking, who in addition to being an anthropologist was a trained classical pianist, argued that the opposite tendency—toward individualism and the competitive display of skill and originality—had reached a similar, no less deplorable condition of abuse in the highly developed technological societies of postwar Western Europe and America.

“All Music is Folk Music”

fig. 8-4 Steve Reich and Musicians performing Drumming.

Basing his thesis on observations made during two years of fieldwork among the Venda, a South African tribe, Blacking noted that among his informants, and in most sub-Saharan African societies, all members are considered to be “musical” in that they are “able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music,”32 while in his own British society only a few specially gifted people are credited with “musicality.” “Must a majority be made ‘unmusical,’” he asked, “so that a few may become more ‘musical’?” Did that heightened and exclusive conception of musicality lead to the creation of a better or more valuable music than is available in societies where everyone is considered musical? Or did the concept of musicality with which he was brought up reflect a more general abuse of technology to further the social hierarchies and exclusions on which the British class system depended?

Those technologies began with notation, by means of which “music could be handed down by a hereditary elite without any need for listeners.” They included complex machines, like the piano, which relatively few could afford, and to operate which required years of training. By the modern period they entailed advanced and esoteric techniques for encoding sound, the products of which were indecipherable except to those trained in producing them. The difficulties of such procedures, and the special qualifications they called for, were habitually taken in advanced societies as evidence of their value. But what did such values say about such societies?

Ethnomusicology, Blacking asserted, was the discipline best suited—indeed, created—to answer such questions. It was a new discipline, named (by the Dutch music scholar Jaap Kunst) as recently as 1950. It was often thought of by “Westerners” as the study of “non-Western” musics, or “oral” musics, or “folk” or “traditional” musics, and when defined in this way it could be seen as the continuation of an older tradition in musicology, sometimes called “comparative musicology” or “musical ethnology,” that took as its subject matter anything that was not “urban European art music”33 (to quote the definition of ethnomusicology given in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). That was the view of the field from within academic musicology, as laid out by the German founders of the discipline in the 1880s.

Blacking, following an alternative model proposed by anthropologists like Alan Merriam (1923–80), granted ethnomusicology a much wider purview. Merriam called it “the study of music in culture,”34 and Blacking went so far as to declare it to be the only truly universal musicological method. The first chapter of How Musical Is Man? ends with a ringing manifesto:

Functional analyses of musical structure cannot be detached from structural analyses of its social function: the function of tones in relation to each other cannot be explained adequately as part of a closed system without reference to the structures of the sociocultural system of which the musical system is a part, and to the biological system to which all music makers belong. Ethnomusicology is not only an area study concerned with exotic music, nor a musicology of the ethnic—it is a discipline that holds out hope for a deeper understanding of all music. If some music can be analyzed and understood as tonal expressions of human experience in the context of different kinds of social and cultural organization, I see no reason why all music should not be analyzed in the same way.35

It is not difficult to discern the political subtext that undergirded these opposing views of ethnomusicology, the one arising out of musicology and the other out of anthropology. The first kept “urban European art music”—a genre traditionally studied through its outstanding individual practitioners, the great composers—front and center. The methods it employed were analysis and style criticism, the first showing how “the music works” as an autonomous structure and the second “how the composer worked” as an autonomous individual.

That approach was often justified by calling on a distinction that anthropologically inclined ethnomusicologists themselves had coined: etic versus emic. “Etic” was short for phonetic, a kind of linguistic (or, by extension, musical) transcription that sought to record everything heard by the transcriber, without any consideration of its significance. “Emic,” short for phonemic, was a transcription that sought to reflect what was of significance to the informants (that is, the speakers whose language was being transcribed). A phonetic transcription, for example, would include every tiny variant in vowel sounds made by the utterer of a sentence, and every tiny variation in pitch produced by the singer of a melody. A phonemic transcription would exclude chance variations (slurred speech, singing out of tune) that did not affect meaning as perceived by the informants. Since only an insider to a language or a musical system (whether native or “acculturated”) can apply the latter criterion, etic and emic are anthropologists’ shorthand for “outsider's perspective” and “insider's perspective.”

It is natural, according to the older view of both musicology and ethnomusicology, that Western musicians will study the music of “their own tradition” (that is, the music to which they are insiders) differently, both as to approach and as to method, from music of traditions to which they are outsiders. The one is central to their experience and interests, the other peripheral. Ethnomusicology, in this view, is by definition an etic discipline, suitable only for “other” music, or else, exceptionally, to music within the Western tradition about which “little or no historical information is available and no body of music theory exists”36 (to quote again from the New Grove Dictionary), and where, therefore, scholars must proceed entirely by inference (that is, “etically”).

The newer, more inclusive view of ethnomusicology, as expressed most militantly by Blacking, refuses to recognize the special position of urban European art music or its special relationship to the musicologists who study it. Those special privileges maintain an unjustifiable status quo in support of a socially destructive value system. Rather, by stripping the products of European art music of its privileges and studying it “etically” alongside the other musics of the world, one can bring to light that overly individualistic and socially exploitative value system, and possibly find within scholarship the means toward social betterment. To say, with Blacking, that “all music is folk music,”37 enabled one to expose and counter the ways in which the seemingly innocent study of music, by endorsing a hierarchy that places the great composers (all white, male, and of European stock) at the incontestable top, has lent support to imperialism and racism and sexism. Adopting an openly and actively political stance, the new ethnomusicology (and the “new musicology” that emerged in response to it) refused to allow that there is any nonpolitical alternative; there are only covertly political ones.

As the next chapter will make plainer, these principles are among the ways of late-twentieth-century thinking that have been collectively labeled “postmodernist.” The way in which they oppose some of the basic tenets of modernism should already be plain. The way in which Blacking's ethnomusicological position and its social implications parallel the development of Steve Reich's compositional practice (and its social implications) should also be clear, even though there is no evidence that Reich studied Blacking (or even heard of him) despite the fact that they often echo one another's words. Reich, equally unbeknownst to Blacking, had written in 1968 that “all music turns out to be ethnic music.”38 Both Reich and Blacking were part of a growing wave of “sixties” skepticism that had ample repercussions, beginning in the 1970s, both in scholarship and in the arts.

Reich has often said that he is interested not in imitating the sounds of African or Asian musics (mere “chinoiserie,” as he calls such imitations) but rather in adapting their structural principles in order to achieve similar effects. “The pleasure I get from playing,” he wrote, regardless of whether the music played is Balinese, African, or his own, “is not the pleasure of expressing myself but of subjugating myself to the music and experiencing the ecstasy that comes from being a part of it.”39 His aim in composing—that is, setting up musical processes—was to provide himself and his audience with something to which they could subjugate themselves together.

Now compare Blacking:

Performances by combinations of two or three players of rhythms that can in fact be played by one are not musical gimmicks: they express concepts of individuality in community, and of social, temporal, and spatial balance, which are found in other features of Venda culture and other types of Venda music. Rhythms such as these cannot be performed correctly unless the players are their own conductors and yet at the same time submit to the rhythm of an invisible conductor. This is the kind of shared experience which the Venda seek and express in their music making.40

Blacking was describing the way in which Venda musicians perform intricate complexes of hemiola patterns that together cooperate to produce a series of equal subtactile pulses at the heard surface. He could just as well have been describing Reich's Drumming. The crucial difference, however, was that Reich sought not to express concepts found in other features of his own culture, or other types of “urban European art music” (especially the types written by his established contemporaries), but to propose an alternative to them that implied both a musical contrast and a social critique. That critical perspective, hostile to existing institutions and established social relations and even threatening them, makes it not only possible but essential to regard Drumming as being, within its own context (and despite its mounting popularity), an avant-garde composition. It produced historical change.


(30) Adams, “Reich,” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. IV, p. 25.

(31) Ibid.

(32) John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 4.

(33) Barbara Krader, “Ethnomusicology,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. VI (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 275.

(34) Alan P. Merriam, “Definitions of ‘Comparative Musicology’ and ‘Ethnomusicology’: An Historical-Theoretical Perspective” (quoting Merriam, The Anthropology of Music [1964]), Ethnomusicology XXI (1977): 202.

(35) Blacking, How Musical Is Man?, pp. 30–31.

(36) Vincent Duckles, “Musicology,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 ed.), Vol. XII, p. 836.

(37) Blacking, How Musical Is Man?, p. x.

(38) Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” in Writings on Music, p. 35.

(39) Steve Reich, Writings about Music (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974), p. 44.

(40) Blacking, How Musical Is Man? p. 30.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008008.xml