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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Even composers who do not use samplers use sequencing programs, and this has affected virtually everyone's musical style. Very common since the 1980s have been “layered” textures of polymetrically superimposed instrumental ostinatos, something that can be produced effortlessly by a computer with a MIDI connection to a bunch of synthesizers. Laying down track upon track is curiously reminiscent of the techniques of “successive” composition associated with the medieval motet. As in the case of Meredith Monk's vocal compositions, the late-twentieth-century avant-garde links up with musical practices prevalent in an age when literacy had not yet gotten very far in supplanting oral composition and transmission. Computer-assisted “real-time” electronic composition—used sometimes in performance, sometimes as a basis for written elaboration—is another aspect of the same resurgence of “orality.”

Computer interface has affected performance as well. Digital “controllers” that record and store information that tracks the physical actions of players can be hooked up via MIDI to virtually any instrument to reproduce, edit, and modify a real-time performance: a player-piano, for example, that can reproduce a pianist's rendition at any tempo, at any transposition that the keyboard will accommodate, with changed dynamics, even with octave doublings (not to mention corrected errors). Other machines (e.g., “electronic gloves”) can complement the sounds of a live performance with computer-controlled modifications instigated by the players’ movements. Dancers can create their own musical accompaniments in the act with movement sensors that activate synthesizers.

Nor have basic changes been exclusively technological. As always, technological breakthroughs have had unpredicted reverberations and will go on having unpredictable ones. Gann notes a basic “philosophic” or attitudinal change in composers since the advent of samplers: rather than the individual note, he has declared, the musical “atom” or minimal manipulable unit has become any sound complex that can be recorded and stored. To use his actual words, sampling has “led music away from atomism toward a more holistic approach.”75 If one regards serialism, which manipulates individual notes with singular assiduousness, as the most “atomistic” style, then Gann's remark offers a possible explanation for the paradoxical effect that working with computers has had on so many composers who originally approached the medium as a means of securing easier control over an ever greater range of serial algorithms, but who instead found themselves seduced into rejecting their motivating premises.

A Glimpse of the Future?

fig. 10-8 Tod Machover (b. 1953), director of computer music applications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modeling his “electronic glove,” officially named Exos Dexterous Hand Master.

But the implications do not end even there. Observing that it is notation that creates the “note” (as opposed to the “tone”), Gann suggests that “the sampler frees composers from the habits inculcated by Western notation.” And indeed, it is now not only possible, but increasingly common, to create, “perform,” and preserve music that is recognizably within the traditions of classical music without ever using notation. Music, without any necessary loss of conceptual complexity or novelty, can now take leave of the eye. The lineaments of a postliterate age are clearly discernable.

“Composed” (that is, fixed rather than improvised) music will surely go on being not only possible but common in a postliterate age, just as it had been possible and common in preliterate ages, and as it remains in nonliterate societies. In preliterate cultures compositions can be fixed in memory and reproduced orally or (with rehearsal) by ensembles of performers; in the postliterate future pieces will go right on being fixed and reproduced in those time-honored ways, but it will also be possible to fix them digitally and reproduce them via synthesizer or via MIDI. Indeed, it is already possible to do these things, even if only a minority of composers now work that way.

When a majority of composers work that way, the postliterate age will have arrived. That will happen when—or if—reading music becomes a rare specialized skill, of practical value only for reproducing “early music” (meaning all composed music performed live). There has already been much movement in this direction. Very few, especially in America, now learn musical notation as part of their general education. The lowered cultural prestige of literate musical genres has accompanied the marginalization of musical literacy and abetted it; the availability of technologies that can circumvent notation in the production of complex composed music may eventually render musical literacy, like knowledge of ancient scripts, superfluous to all but scholars.

Related to the general loss of musical literacy in the wider culture has been the decline of the music-publishing industry. Amateur and school performance of literate repertoires having become far less prevalent than in the past, the demand for “sheet music” shows signs of eventually drying up. New music being at once the most expensive of all types to publish (because it must be freshly set up and edited and because the composer must be paid) and the least promising of a financial return, it is no wonder that, as Gann puts it, “music publishers have quit publishing all but a tiny amount of the most conservative new music.” Interestingly, though, Gann does not see this entirely as a loss. Like many adventurous composers at the end of the twentieth century, he looks forward to the benefits as well as the costs of the coming postliterate musical culture:

It is nearly impossible for a composer to get his or her scores distributed through commercial channels in the 1990s. On the other hand, compact discs have become relatively cheap to produce, and distribution channels have multiplied. Therefore, whereas the mid-twentieth-century composer distributed his music through scores and had a difficult time getting recorded, those possibilities are reversed for today's young composer. To at least some extent this reversal has been healthy, for midcentury composers showed a tendency to consider the score the actual music, with a corresponding loss of concern for how the music sounded; today, more and more music can be judged only for how it sounds, for the score may either not exist or be practically unavailable.76

And yet, although in the long run it cannot help affecting style along with every other aspect of musical life, it is by no means clear that the advent of postliterate composition will necessarily produce any immediate change in musical style. After all, the advent of notation did not have any immediate effect on the style of the music it was invented to preserve. It coexisted with oral methods for at least a couple of centuries without gaining the upper hand; nor have oral methods been wholly supplanted. There is every reason to expect a similar period of coexistence at the other end of the history of music as a literate tradition, one that will last far longer than this book will go on being read.

And yet eventually the advent of literacy did have a profound impact on musical style. Twelfth-century plainchant (for example, the Kyrie Cum jubilo, discussed and analyzed in the first volume of the Oxford History of Western Music), composed after notation had been in wide monastic use for at least 200 years, and after a body of “theory” or analytical work had grown up around the written-down and musically (or “modally”) classified Gregorian chant, was written in an elegantly integrated and interwoven form that bore all the earmarks of analytical thinking—the kind of thinking that relates parts to wholes. That is the kind of thinking that notation facilitates (or, indeed, enables).

Now compare John Zorn's description of his music, quoted above, as being shaped by an “additive process, with the musicians concentrating on the details of one section at a time, but relatively blind, as far as where the piece is going.” That is nonanalytical, indeed antianalytical thinking. Still an exceptional (and therefore noteworthy) way of thinking about composed music at the end of the twentieth century, it may be a harbinger of the postliterate future, when such thinking about music will be considered normal and undeserving of comment.

To a considerable extent postliterate media have already accustomed us to non-analytical or additive thought processes: think of broadcast news with its “sound bites,” or MTV with its brusque nonlinear cutting techniques that have influenced all movie editors. Additive thought processes are no less intrinsically “intelligent” than analytical ones, but they require different skills: quick processing of impressions rather than “deep” reflection, the drawing of inferences from surface juxtapositions (contrasts) rather than underlying connections (similarities). That is the way one has to listen to Zorn's music, and that of many if not most of his contemporaries, to say nothing of his juniors. Postliterate listening as well as postliterate composition is already upon us.

But we are not unprepared. As the epigraph atop this chapter from the theorist Jonathan Kramer reminds us, “we all spin the dial.” Even when we listen to the traditional repertoire of classical music at the start of the twenty-first century, we often if not usually listen to it out of context and out of sequence. If we turn on the car radio en route to the shopping mall, we may briefly visit the development section from the first movement of a favorite symphony, and encounter the finale on our way home. Our clock radio usually greets us in the morning with the middle of a highly structured piece, but we experience no serious disorientation even if the piece is unfamiliar, as long as it conforms (as “radio music” is sure to do) to one or more of the many prototypes we have stored in our memories. The same process of comparison with prototypes makes collage compositions intelligible and (sometimes) interesting.


(75) Gann, “Electronic Music, Always Current,” p. 24.

(76) Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, p. 354.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010015.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 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010015.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 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010015.xml