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The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays Hardcover – December 2, 2008
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Whether or not I've agreed with all his very well buttressed arguments (he loves the pianist Horowitz, committing an entire chapter to defending and promoting him; he did not convince me to switch allegiance from Horowitz's peer, Rubenstein), I did find myself responding to his thoughtful takes on human nature and often questioning myself and softening my own stance. In his preface, for example, he immediately comes out swinging, defending his idealistic college students from academics like Russell Jacoby who diss them for not having more original ideas toward building a utopian world, settling instead for mundane suggestions like shorter work weeks, better health care, paid-for education.
"Jacoby's narcissistic contempt for what is unsexy and attainable resembles the contempt so many music critics (not only academics, but all who have accepted academic standards) entertain toward musicians who try to write good music (not "great music") and give good performances (not "great performances"), and who define the good in terms that relate to their actual, real-world audiences. There is the nexus between political utopianism and the kind that infests the world of classical music, and there is my reason for so passionately opposing the latter, even in the absence of a body count." (Taruskin, p. xiii-xiv)
Taruskin's view is that the process and the desire to get better vs. genius great (however that is defined - usually by academics/idealists-in-charge) is more humane and maybe ultimately more attainable toward building a better milieu/society than perfection and an original (perhaps restraining and at the very least, insulating and niche) utopian ideal. That shot was aimed at me (and others like me). It's a fair hit and I continually wrestle with it in my work as a classical musician and advocate for classical music, in my teaching and in my role as a human being in society. Enjoy!
I enjoyed the book (and learned from it), but I find it difficult to take Taruskin (and his opinions) as seriously as he takes himself (and them). I'm disappointed that a scholar of his caliber and a writer of his skill so often uses these opportunities (mostly reviews of books and concerts) as vehicles for expressing his own reactionary bias rather than engaging in discussion.
It saddens me to see how deeply neocon ideas and methodologies have penetrated our culture.
Taruskin is a formidable intellect but he doesn't always wear his erudition lightly. Writing both for popular audiences and the academy, he seems caught between the informality of the magazine and the overwritten style of academic prose. Taruskin suffers from the apparent need, observable in many modern-day writers, to stuff as much information as possible into every sentence, leading to a kind of cognitive overload. Some of the more scholarly pieces in the book are so dense and meandering as to be barely readable. Yet not all the pieces are like this: the New York Times articles, for example, are short and to the point.
Taruskin's belief in the validity of the social, political and moral dimension of music is one that I applaud in principle, but it impels him to get too deep into the socio-political weeds at times. (Witness his piece about Carl Orff, in which he obsesses over the composer's pro-fascist “taints” to the exclusion of the music). Taruskin is hard to pin down politically. He seems to be on board with a good deal of the PC multiculturalist program, and yet he is also a vigorous moralist. This last aspect causes him to get twisted around his own axle on one occasion, in the essay “The Musical Mystique.” Taruskin decries another author for moralizing about music, when that is precisely what he (Taruskin) does throughout his own work!
Still, in compensation for all these maddening aspects, there are the illuminating ones. Here are some of them:
-Taruskin's explanation, in “Et in Arcadia Ego,” of 20th century music history as a series of “zigs” and “zags,” a pattern taking us from Schoenberg and Stravinsky's early modernism through late 20th-century movements like minimalism.
-In “The Poietic Fallacy,” a discussion of Schoenberg and why his music has not survived in the repertoire (it's not because of how the music sounds so much as the cultural and philosophical biases that underlie it).
-“Sacred Entertainments,” in which the comforting postmodern spirituality of works like John Adams El Nino is compared with expressions of rigorously orthodox religious belief like Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise.
-In “The Danger of Music,” a valuable discussion of musical and artistic censorship in light of the anti-semitic implications in John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer.
For all his bluntly expressed and at times provocative opinions, Taruskin comes across in this book as fundamentally a humanist – someone dedicated, before all artistic concerns, to the great humane values of civilization. And this is what makes him a writer worth reading.