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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Yet at the same time another point emphasized throughout the present multivolume narrative has been the persistence of the oral tradition. It has never been fully supplanted in Western classical music or anywhere else. To learn any instrument one needs a live teacher who instructs as much by example as by verbal precept. We all know songs—including “composed” songs like “Happy Birthday” or “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—that we learned by ear. No musical repertoire, not even the Beethoven symphonies, is wholly fixed and transmitted by its text; there are always unwritten performing conventions that must be learned by listening and reproduced (and that, like spoken languages, change over time).

The point has already been made, moreover, that the one musical medium that originated in the twentieth century—namely, the electronic—is the one that depends least on writing. It achieves what written texts achieve—namely, the fixing of the unique artwork—even better than written texts can do, and it does so without the use of texts. Or rather, “text” and “work” can fuse under electronic conditions so as to produce a definitive work-object (phonograph record, tape reel, cassette, CD, MP3 file) in a way that the intervention of human performers inevitably precludes.

So there have been two ways of doing without writing since the mid-twentieth century: the novel “autographic” or performerless way, in which the composer creates a unique object (as a painter produces a canvas) that can be mechanically reproduced but requires no reenactment in order to go on existing; and the age-old, traditionally “oral” way, in which there are only live performances, not objects (only acts, not texts). But an orally transmitted performance can also be recorded. And so twentieth-century technology has provided a bridge between the two methods of nonliterate art-production; or rather, it has enabled the two methods to surround and attack the literate tradition like pincers. The paradoxical fact is that recording and electro-acoustical technologies have not only produced their own media, but also spurred the professional revival in the late twentieth century of age-old oral practices normally associated with folklore, giving rise to the genre that is known, for want of a better term, as performance art. So before resuming our account of the digital revolution of the 1980s, we need to fill in a bit of “oral” background.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010005.xml