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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

As with Chomsky's theories, the success or failure of Lerdahl and Jackendoff's arguments will have to depend on something other than direct empirical confirmation. That is because, as the authors admit, if the mind has a “hard-wired” structure that enables it to process only some kinds of information, then any inquiry into its nature is itself constrained by the limits that a preset structure implies. If the theory is true, the innate knowledge (or “unconscious theory”) that enables a human being to acquire and use a language without direct instruction is by its very nature “unavailable to conscious introspection.”58 All one can do is adduce the otherwise unexplained (if not inexplicable) phenomena that led to the suspicion that such mental predispositions exist. This scattered indirect evidence is of three types: (1) clinical, (2) anthropological, and (3) historical.

1. The clinical evidence59 comes from the negative results of experiments in which subjects are asked, for example, to complete twelve-tone aggregates, or to observe the boundaries between aggregates. The fact that trained musicians cannot do these things under laboratory conditions suggests that the completion of aggregates (on which the “composing grammar” of twelve-tone music is based) does not constitute a cognitively significant “closure,” and that the technical premises of serial composition are therefore not available to cognition.

2. The positive evidence for mental predispositions comes from anthropological (or within music, the ethnomusicological or “comparative”) observation and testing of universals, a process that was greatly complicated in the late twentieth century by its being politicized. Hypothesized universals are mainly tested by looking for counterexamples. Since much human oppression is justified on the basis of assumed biological imperatives (e.g., that women, since they are the ones who bear children, are “natural” caregivers and nurturers and therefore should be confined to the home), there has been a strong political incentive to find evidence that such imperatives do not exist—or rather, that our assumptions about human nature are based not on nature but on politically-motivated social consensus. Hence the strong political interest, for example, in the work of Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, whose 1992 book Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil asserted (or was read as asserting) a counterexample to the assumed universality of the “maternal instinct.”

Because belief in the existence of cultural universals is so easily turned to regressive (or repressive) political applications, an interest in establishing universals has sometimes been assumed to be in essence politically reactionary. That charge is certainly overstated and unfair; but even if not reactionary or ill-intentioned, belief in cultural universals is undoubtedly pessimistic and antiutopian. Behind cultural universals, if they are truly universal, must necessarily stand biological limitations that are transhistorical (“timeless”) as well as ubiquitous, and that must ultimately come into conflict with faith in unlimited or unlimitable progress.

These transhistorical constraints do not constrain music, which can assume any form composers can imagine for it (that is, conceptualize). But they do constrain listeners (including composers when they listen), and limit their ability to make perceptual sense out of musical concepts. The whole tragicomedy of twentieth-century music, for a believer in cognitive constraints, subsists in the lack of congruence between “composing grammars,” on which there are no limits, and “listening grammars,” on which there are inescapable limits.

Or as Leonard B. Meyer (already identified in this chapter as a precociously postmodernist music theorist) has put it:

It is a mistake—albeit a common one—to conceptualize the problem as a search for “musical” universals. There are none. There are only the acoustical universals of the physical world and the bio-psychological universals of the human world. Acoustical stimuli affect the perception, cognition, and hence practice of music only through the constraining action of bio-psychological ones.60

Among these possible bio-psychological universals, Meyer has identified the threshold of pitch discrimination, which has militated against the development of microtonal music; the so-called “Seven, Plus or Minus Two” rule about the number of elements that can be comprehensibly related (which might help explain the prevalence of pentatonic and diatonic modes); the need for functional differentiation of elements if utterances are to be memorable or even intelligible (obviously related to Lerdahl and Jackendoff's “time-span reduction” principle); and an inverse correlation between motor activity and cognitive tension (which may explain some of music's affective properties, or “why a plaintive adagio seems more ‘emotional’ than a persistent presto”61).

Meyer also proposes that we need to classify our sense impressions in order for them to communicate information, and that these classifications are perceived as “syntactic [i.e., structural] hierarchies.”62 Borrowing from information theory, he posits that redundancy is necessary for comprehension. For all these reasons, Meyer was prepared to conclude as early as 1967 (in a book called Music, the Arts, and Ideas) that serial music was, if not altogether cognitively opaque, certainly more difficult to comprehend than anyone's degree of exposure was likely to offset.

3. As for historical evidence, it goes back to the very dawn of recorded musical histroy—indeed, to a new dawn that broke when a new starting point was identified in what was billed as “the world's oldest melody,” a “Hurrian” (or Sumerian) hymn dating from somewhere around 1200 bce, and it was observed that the most remarkable thing about the song was how unremarkable it seemed. Already it used our familiar “diatonic pitch set” and accompanied it with harmonic intervals that we still classify as consonances.

The ancient song, excavated piecemeal between 1950 and 1955, was successfully transcribed in 1974, exactly when the controversy on cognitive constraints and their implications for musical practice was heating up. It may have been for that reason that Professor Richard Crocker, who performed the song before a scholarly audience, became perhaps the only musicologist ever to have his picture published on the front page of the New York Times as a direct result of his professional activity (Fig. 9-5).

Lerdahl attempted to address the problem of negativity, and proposed practical remedies for the malaise to which he and Jackendoff had called theoretical attention, in an article of 1988 called “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems.” To dramatize the problem of incongruity between composing and listening grammars, he cited a classic of cold-war modernism and its subsequent reception.

Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître (1954) was widely hailed as a masterpiece of post-war serialism. Yet nobody could figure out, much less hear, how the piece was serial. From hints in [a 1963 article by the composer], Lev Koblyakov at last determined [in a 1977 article] that it was indeed serial, though in an idiosyncratic way. In the interim listeners made what sense they could of the piece in ways unrelated to its construction. Nor has Koblyakov's decipherment subsequently changed how the piece is heard. Meanwhile most composers have discarded serialism, with the result that Koblyakov's contribution has caused barely a ripple of professional interest. The serial organization of Le Marteau would appear, 30 years later, to be irrelevant. The story is, or should be, disturbing.63

Where to Go from Here?

fig. 9-5 The musicologist Richard L. Crocker on the front page of the New York Times (6 March 1974), playing the world's oldest song on a reproduction of a Babylonian harp.

Whether readers were disturbed depended largely on their age. Le Marteau exemplified the lack of concern on the part of modernist composers for the comprehensibility of their music. In 1954, when composers were focused entirely on esthetics and ideology, few regarded that as a problem. By 1988, when composers were beginning to focus on psychology and to address their social isolation, many did. Indeed, many young composers were resentful. As a consequence of having been taught to divorce their conscious methods from the unconscious intuitions that they share with listeners, they found themselves painted into a cold corner. They were faced, as Lerdahl put it, “with the unpleasant alternative of working with private codes or with no compositional grammar at all.”64

What could be done about it? For those unwilling to employ “historical” styles—or rather, for those unable to regard traditional tonality as anything other than “historical”—Lerdahl tried to imagine what a novel composing grammar might be that took listening grammar into account. In this sense he was trying, ostensibly, to find a realistic (and more or less optimistic) middle ground between despairing postmodernists like Rochberg who were condemned to “a parasitic relationship with the past”65 and unreconstructed utopians like Babbitt or Carter or Boulez, who still found it possible to believe that “one's own new system was the wave of the future.”66

The bulk of the article consists of stipulating conditions or “constraints” (seventeen in all), derived from the earlier Generative Theory but not limited to tonal music, that would ensure that compositional grammars maintained contact with listening grammars. The objective was to enable listeners to utilize the unconscious strategies described in the earlier book to infer musical structure. Thus in order to enable grouping, a musical surface must present the listener with a sequence of discrete events; in order to enable time-span reduction, it must present a discernable functional hierarchy; in order to enable the perception of metrical structure, there must be “a degree of regularity in the placement of phenomenal [i.e., perceived] accents”; and in order to enable prolongational reduction, it must specify “stability conditions” (in effect, it must “de-emancipate” dissonance).

As Lerdahl's list proceeds it becomes more and more specific, shading from minimum necessary conditions into the ideal conditions that will satisfy the author's “aesthetic claims”: first, that “the best music utilizes the full potential of our cognitive resources,” and second, that “the best music arises from an alliance of a compositional grammar with the listening grammar.”67 Since the second esthetic claim merely restated the aim that furnished the argument's starting point, its placement as the argument's conclusion was obviously circular. Nor was that the only difficulty: by the end of the article, the author confessed a little sheepishly that, having pursued his theoretical insights into the realm of practical application, he found that “the constraints are tighter than I had bargained for.” Like Rochberg, he discovered by rejecting it a resistant utopian streak within himself: “Like the old avant-gardists, I dream of the breath of other planets. Yet my argument has led from pitch hierarchies to an approximation of pure intervals, to diatonic scales and the circle of fifths, and to a pitch space that prominently includes triads.”68

Yet, unwilling to admit that his proposed constraints “prescribe outworn styles,” he resolved to regard the constellation of traditional elements that have somehow forced themselves back into the picture not as an imperative but as “a reference point for other kinds of pitch organizations, not because of its cultural ubiquity but because it incorporates all of the constraints.” The article ends with a postmodernist “historical implication” similar to Rochberg's, but differently grounded:

The avant-gardists from Wagner to Boulez thought of music in terms of a “progressivist” philosophy of history: a new work achieved value by its supposed role en route to a better (or at least more sophisticated) future. My second aesthetic claim in effect rejects this attitude in favor of the older view that music making should be based on “nature.” For the ancients, nature may have resided in the music of the spheres, but for us it lies in the musical mind. I think the music of the future will emerge less from twentieth-century progressivist aesthetics than from newly acquired knowledge of the structure of musical perception and cognition.69

Lerdahl's conclusion was pounced upon at least as much as the conclusion of Babbitt's “Who Cares If You Listen?” Modernists going back as far as Schoenberg, after all, saw their mission as one of emancipation above all, and here was a call to de-emancipate not only dissonances, but composers as well. The theory's descriptive and prescriptive components were conflated by those who found intolerable the suggestion that humans are subject to innate limitations, and the word “constraint” was widely, perhaps deliberately, misread. A lecturer at Darmstadt accused Lerdahl of being “bent on enslaving the listener, who is expected to listen ‘correctly,’ by conforming to grammar-dictated conventions.”70 Despite his disclaimers, he was portrayed along with Rochberg as a purveyor of nostalgia.

But however controversial or unverifiable its claims, Lerdahl was expressing a view that over the course of the century's last decades, and hardly owing to his influence alone, gradually assumed dominance. Just as Charles Jencks could contend in 1986 that, although the critical consensus still favored modern architecture, “in any international competition now more than half the entries will be Post-Modern,”71 so by the late 1980s most young composers were persuaded, like Lerdahl, of the necessity for congruity between composing grammars and listening grammars.

Especially in America, virtually all the emerging talents in the last two decades of the century were “neotonalists” (or “neoromantics,” as they tended to be called by their critics), by upbringing or conversion. A short alphabetical list of them, confined only to Americans, would include *John Adams (b. 1947), *Stephen Albert (1941–1992), *William Bolcom (b. 1938), *John Corigliano (b. 1938), Richard Danielpour (b. 1956), *John Harbison (b. 1938), *Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960), Libby Larsen (b. 1950), Stephen Paulus (b. 1949), Tobias Picker (b. 1954), *Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), David Schiff (b. 1945), *Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943), Michael Torke (b. 1961), *Joan Tower (b. 1938), and *Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939). (The asterisks denote winners of Grawemeyer and Pulitzer prizes, the most prestigious forms of recognition available to “classical” composers; in 1999 the Grawemeyer Award went to the English composer Thomas Adès, born in 1971, who fits a similar stylistic profile.) It is worth noting, moreover, that composers born in the 1940s tended to be less equivocal about their embrace of a “tonal” composing grammar than those born in the 1930s, and those born in the 1950s and 1960s or later, who never went through a serial period, are the most straightforwardly “tonal” of all. Critics whose tastes and allegiances were formed earlier have been unpleasantly amazed to find that “the younger Romantics,” in the words of Jonathan W. Bernard, “are an even more conservative group, by and large, than their senior colleagues.”72 Bernard ascribes this “unnatural” situation to American provincialism and voices the

hope that, in all respects that matter, the expression “return to tonality” is a misnomer, that composers, audiences, performers, and critics will eventually tire of the dwelling on the past and other retrogressive aspects of this movement, and that the progressive elements that shine forth in some of its better products will win out in the twenty-first century.73

Robert P. Morgan, the author of Twentieth-Century Music (1991), probably the last survey of its kind to be written from an uncorrupted modernist perspective, ended it with a complaint that “the openness and eclecticism of current musical life has been bought at the expense of a system of shared beliefs and values and a community of artistic concerns.”74 The easiest dismissals come from those who invoke the traditional modernist taboo against popularity, accusing composers who have broken faith with the hermetic styles mandated by history of cynical pandering—“courting” fickle and recalcitrant audiences who have no real interest in the authentic tasks and purposes serious composers are required to face. “Composers anxious to make that career breakthrough see immediate public response as more important than approval by peers, conductors and music critics,” huffed one music critic (in the San Francisco Chronicle) after a concert season that had included premieres of new works by Adams and Tower. “Given the audiences and the commercialization of art,” he went on,

it's not surprising that many ambitious composers will try to tap that market any way they can. Simplified styles, borrowing on the tried and true, romantic and mystical cover stories, the parody and quotation of older music, and slick scoring are hallmarks of the new and chic “postmodernism.” With remarkable ease, the glib practitioners of the 1980s win grants, awards, commissions and residencies. The panels and juries that give these awards do not seem guided by criteria of quality.75

To grumblings such as these postmodernists retort that the progressive/retrogressive dichotomy on which Bernard's classification depends is a relic of an outmoded and rightly discredited philosophy of history. “Modernist ideology, while still dominant in an institutional sense, has become old-fashioned,” Lerdahl has written. “For a younger generation it embodies attitudes about human nature and history that are no longer credible.”76 It is those who hold on to their habitual views in the face of a changing set of sociological and epistemological conditions (or what scientists call a “paradigm”) who should be described as conservatives. As to Morgan's complaint, postmodernists contend that the “community” to which modernists nostalgically refer was more nearly a “hegemony,” a system of institutional domination rather than a consensus. Meanwhile, the San Francisco critic's impugning of postmodernist motives in defense of an undefined “quality,” like all ad hominem (or ad feminam) rhetoric, simply evades the issues. Modernists and their supporters were also, in their day, routinely accused of conspiracies.


(58) Ibid., p. 5.

(59) For a listing of some relevant articles, see Lerdahl, “Tonality and Paranoia,” p. 249n5.

(60) Leonard B. Meyer, “A Universe of Universals,” Journal of Musicology XVI (1998): 6.

(61) Ibid., p. 9.

(62) Ibid., p. 12.

(63) Fred Lerdahl, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” in Generative Processes in Music, ed. John Sloboda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 231.

(64) Ibid., p. 235.

(65) Ibid., p. 236.

(66) Ibid., p. 235.

(67) Ibid., pp. 255–56.

(68) Ibid., p. 256.

(69) Ibid., pp. 256–57.

(70) James Boros, “A New Totality?” Perspectives of New Music XXXIII (1995): 546.

(71) Jencks, What Is Post-Modernism?, p. 13.

(72) Jonathan W. Bernard, “Tonal Traditions in Art Music Since 1960,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 562.

(73) Ibid., p. 566.

(74) Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 489.

(75) Robert Commanday, “Composers Blow Their Own Horns,” San Francisco Chronicle, 30 October 1988 (Datebook, p. 17).

(76) Fred Lerdahl, “Composing and Listening: A Reply to Nattiez,” prepublication typescript, p. 5.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009010.xml