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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Our ease with fragmentary listening may be an artifact of (or an adaptation to) modern living. But it might also be “natural,” as at least one recent theory of music, itself possibly an artifact of the burgeoning postliterate age, contends. That theory, called “concatenationism,” received its most extensive exposition in a 1997 book called Music in the Moment. The title reflects an abiding interest of many theorists of avant-garde music (like Jonathan Kramer), who have responded to Karlheinz Stockhausen's notion of Momentform, the idea that contemporary composition is (or may be, or should be) based on a series of unique irreducible impressions or Gestalts, a concept that obviously points toward the “musical atom” theories of high-tech theorists of the 1990s like Kyle Gann.

Music in the Moment, however, was the work of a philosopher, Jerrold Levinson, rather than a composer or a music theorist, and the theory it propounded was instantly controversial. Levinson maintained that the idea of “moment form” actually described all actual musical listening (no matter who was doing it), and that holistic (or integrated, or unified, or “organic”) theories of musical form, as well as holistic or unifying systems of formal analysis (up to and including the vaunted Schenkerian method, taught by the 1990s in many European and virtually all American conservatories and universities, which reduced complex compositions to a single underlying or overarching basic progression called the “Ursatz”), were based not on listening to music but on looking at it—or rather, at its notation.

Musical coherence as actually perceived by listeners, Levinson argued, was based on moment-to-moment connections, grasped and processed “additively” as the music actually unfolded in time, not on the far-ranging “global” relationships analysts analyzed (and which composers trained to analyze that way might try to conceptualize in composing). Such relationships, Levinson argued, being atemporal, were essentially amusical. Inquiring into “the degree to which musical understanding requires reflective or intellectual awareness of musical architecture or large-scale musical structuring,” the philosopher concluded that “that degree is approximately zero.” Instead, he maintained, “all that basic understanding requires is, as it were, listening in the moment.”77

The position was surely overstated for effect. Everybody knows from experience that memory and prediction play a significant part in musical understanding, just as they do in understanding any temporal unfolding: all speech (not only narratives), as well as drama, cinema, and dance. Experience, moreover, hones everybody's memory and prediction skills, and our understanding of any utterance is laden both with unconscious theory and with awareness of context. Nobody literally listens only in the moment. But as Levinson forcefully argued, nobody literally listens to musical wholes either. He stated the “concatenationist” position in the form of four postulates:

  1. 1. Musical understanding centrally involves neither aural grasp of a large span of music as a whole, nor intellectual grasp of large-scale connections between parts; understanding music is centrally a matter of apprehending individual bits of music and immediate progressions from bit to bit.

  2. 2. Musical enjoyment is had only in the successive parts of a piece of music, and not in the whole as such, or in relationships of parts widely separated in time.

  3. 3. Musical form is centrally a matter of cogency of succession, moment to moment and part to part.

  4. 4. Musical value rests wholly on the impressiveness of individual parts and the cogency of successions between them, and not on features of large-scale form per se; the worthwhileness of experience of music relates directly only to the former.78

This argument, which has been confirmed in some of its aspects by empirical psychological testing, was widely welcomed as being at the very least a healthy corrective to its opposite extreme; and its welcome was enhanced by its timing. It joined the other forces and tendencies toward postliteracy that this chapter has been describing.

It had always been one of the main virtues of musical notation that it enabled music to become visual as well as aural, and to occupy space as well as time. In this way music could be stored and stockpiled, easily taken from place to place, learned otherwise than by rote, and conceptualized in new ways, some of them indispensable to the art of composition as it evolved over a thousand years of development. But it also always fostered the vices of its virtues, at least potentially, since it always offered lettered or “learned” musicians the temptation of concentrating on the virtual reality of music-as-seen—“spatialized representations”79 of music, as Levinson called them—in preference to the physical reality of music-as-heard.

As related in chapter 3, that trend reached a disquieting peak, in some of the music composed in the mid-twentieth century, especially in the academy, the seat of learning. And at the same time another peak began to be decried, namely the bland literalism that had become the norm in academically influenced performances of classical music, which strove above all to reproduce the music as it looked on the page, sometimes in active contemptuous rejection of the traditions of performer-to-performer dissemination that persisted as an oral component of modern musical culture. Both kinds of hyperliteracy were significantly reined in during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

In its more radical formulations Levinson's theory was obviously a reaction (and probably an overreaction) to these unhappy peaks. But more significant was the seriousness with which it was taken to heart by many turn-of-the-century musicians, including repentant analysts and composers, despite Levinson's specific disclaimer that he was addressing not learned musicians but musical amateurs like himself, whose habits of listening and appreciating music he had set out to defend against academic snobbery. “No doubt some people,” he conceded,

having acquired analytical dispositions and descriptive technical resources in the course of their musical education, found their fundamental listening transformed to a truly significant degree. But I am not one of them, and I suspect that such listeners are not the norm among those who can rightly claim both to know and to love the bulk of what constitutes the broad repertoire of classical music. It is an implicit aim of this book to defend such listeners—ones who, though untutored, are experienced, attentive, and passionate.80

But he had touched a nerve among the tutored as well, many of whom had to agree with Levinson, in spite of themselves, that much of the theory that supported twentieth-century composition (and performance) was based on a “tendency to misapply the results of musical analysis,”81 and ultimately, therefore, on a misapplication of musical literacy. The swerve toward postliteracy, instigated by “Green” mavericks like Partch and Monk and powerfully abetted by new technologies, had received a theoretical reinforcement within the very bastion of the literate tradition. It is less relevant to our present purposes to try and decide how valid Levinson's theory is than to see it (and, more particularly, its reception) as a symptom of a general tendency that had many other symptoms as well. Suffice it to say that such a theory would never have gained a serious hearing in the musical academy had it appeared a quarter of a century earlier than it did.

One final augury of an emergent postliterate culture, and a particularly vivid one, was the rise at the very end of the twentieth century of “interactive sound [or sound-and-image] installations”—computer software programs that allow users to call forth very complex sound patterns, sometimes allied with visual patterns as well, merely by moving through a space equipped with sensors and deploying an electronic glove or handheld signaling device. The creators of such programs—Luke DuBois, Mark McNamara, Timothy Polashek, Jason Freeman, David Birchfield, and others whose installations were displayed at a spectacular and widely reported exhibit mounted at Columbia University in connection with an electronic music festival in July 2000—call themselves “sound designers” rather than composers. (Recall Beethoven's insistence, near the end of his life, on calling himself a “sound poet” or Tondichter rather than a composer.) And rightly so, for their work eliminates distinctions between composers, performers, and listeners. The user of an interactive installation is all three at once—or none of the above.

Anthony Tommasini, a reviewer for the New York Times, found the exhibit “seductive and unsettling,” not least (he thought) because once listeners become empowered to create music instantly to their individual taste, there will be no need for critics, either. But he managed to console himself with an interesting thought:

For those of us who persist in thinking of a musical composition as a creative statement of a trained and artistic individual, there was one reassuring thing: though the users of these interactive installations worked alone, having witnesses watching and listening on extra earphones seemed a large part of the enjoyment. So composers as we have known them may disappear someday. Yet perhaps the concert, or at least a new kind of collective listening experience, will continue.82


(77) Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. xi.

(78) Ibid., pp. 13–14.

(79) Ibid., p. ix.

(80) Ibid.

(81) Ibid., p. x.

(82) Anthony Tommasini, “Music, Minus Those Pesky Composers,” New York Times, 6 August 2000, Arts and Leisure, p. 28.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010016.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 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010016.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 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010016.xml