I was really looking forward to spending time this Winter with Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, now available in paperback with a reasonable discount). I have long admired the author's work, especially for his willingness to question received wisdom as when he has famously and fearlessly entered controversies on "historically informed performance practice" or the politics of Shostakovitch. In particular, the two volumes of his Stravinsky and Russian Traditions (which I read last summer in the reading room of the local University library, as it is one of those books which is considered too valuable to lend out), in which the mixture of historical, cultural, and biographical context was consistently (and admirably) balanced with musical analysis betraying a gifted ear are a stunning achievement. What I had heard or read of Taruskin's Oxford History in advance was very encouraging; the balance of topics considered — with two of the five volumes reserved for the 20th century — seems right in proportion to their variety and volume, and it has substantial and serious reflection on music historiography. Enthusiasm for Taruskin's project has been widespread, with even a pair of musicologists-in-training blogging their way through the books ("The Taruskin Challenge" is here, and they're already up to the Glogauer Liederbuch of 1470).
The five handsome books arrived in this morning's post and I thought I'd ease in to reading by sampling the volume with the content matter I knew best, the fifth, which is dedicated to Music in the Late Twentieth Century. Unfortunately, each of my first samples, arrived at by looking up the name of a favorite west coast composer from the index, has turned up some weirdness:
— In an odd paragraph on Richard Maxfield, Taruskin seems to connect Maxfield's death by suicide to the violence of some Fluxus works (Maxfield's Concert Suite from Dromenon, the Danger Musics of Dick Higgins or Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage) and to sadomasochism. There is, however, no documentary evidence connecting Maxfield's death to his compositional work, and implying this — suicide as an aesthetic project — without mentioning the more plausible cause (Maxfield had long-term psychological difficulties and was a drug abuser; see, for example, the poem Richard Maxfield by Diane Wakoski) does not seem altogether responsible for a major reference work.
— Looking up La Monte Young turned up a passage with errors that some basic fact-checking should have corrected: Taruskin describes La Monte Young's Trio for strings as unpublished; in fact, the score was available for purchase for several years in the 1960's through George Maciunas's Fluxus Edition.* Taruskin also underestimates the number of performances of the Trio; I heard four professional performances in Germany alone during the 1990's by three different ensembles and know of several other performances which I was unable to attend. This underestimate may appear to be trivial, but it is made as part of an argument that the work was almost unheard.
— In another passage, in an ample section on Harry Partch, Taruskin makes a mistake about the disposition of Partch's unique instruments after his death, writing that they went from Montclair State University in New Jersey to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, the instrument collection was housed for many years at San Diego State University in California before moving to SUNY Purchase in 1990 and then to Montclair State in 1997, where they remain today. Late in Partch's life, there were vague plans for the Smithsonian to receive the originals and to have a set of copies built for performance, these did not go far. (Fortunately, people like John Schneider of Los Angeles's ensemble Partch have been building duplicate sets of the instruments and are actively presenting his scores.) Again, this is a trivial matter, with only a remote possibility that some enthusiastic music lover will ask in vain at the Smithsonian Institution to see the Partch instruments, but when texts associated with the first three names I happen to look up are each found to have something problematic, and not problematic as a matter of differing opinions — which I would welcome — but problems due to research, it's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence.
Reading a project like this History, it is easy, too easy, to build a critique around the presence or absence of particular names or works. While it is heartening to find the names of the three musicians I happened to search for in such a major reference work, their presence or absence is not critical to my appreciation of the book. Likewise, while I certainly would have chosen alternative works as exemplifying many of the composers included (e.g. where is the late Cage?), I recognize that, given the quantity and diversity of the repertoire, much of importance will have to be passed over or even omitted. But a judgement about this can only come after reading the whole thing, and getting a feel for the flow of Taruskin's narrative(s) and argument(s) as something larger than an assembly of facts. So, my confidence is a bit shaken, but judgement is suspended until I get through one big Winter read.
* Young, in a realistic assessment of personal finances, withdrew the work from the Fluxus catalog because the score was receiving too many performances without his participation, thus restricting his potential income from the work as a coach; later, in the 1990's Material Press (i.e. me) offered the score as a rental in connection with a contract for Young's rehearsal supervision.