Friday, March 21, 2014

Contemplating Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music

Back in the beginnings of the musical blogosphere (about ten years ago) a great number of academically-minded musicians (i.e. musicologists) used blogs as places to "publish" some of the papers they wrote in graduate school. Yesterday we lost Joseph Kerman, one of the shining lights in the world of musicology. In honor of him and in honor of the (now vanished) tradition of exposing graduate-school writing to the larger world on blogs, I offer you my graduate-school "take" on the first two chapters of Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music:

The first two chapters of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music are extremely well organized and packed with information about the origins of musicology and its “founders,” the disciplines related to musicology, and attitudes and concerns about contemporary music. He discusses musicology as a profession and addresses what he considers some conflicting issues concerning musicology at the time of his writing (1985). Kerman defines musicology in both a broad way and a narrow way, and makes a case for the former. He cites Charles Seeger as his model for a comprehensive musicologist. Mainly thought of as an ethnomusicologist, Seeger was a virtual musical omnivore who, because of his many different interests within the field of music, basically created the field of musicology in America.

In the process of talking about the world in musicological terms, Kerman manages to weave in some very interesting information about music of the past, and he cites the trend for musicologists to be conservative. I am very impressed with his discussion of the work of Philipp Spitta. Kerman's discussion of the re-assessment of Bach by the New Bach Scholars illustrates the need for a community of passionate musicologists with different areas of expertise to do the work of authenticating and dating Bach's music correctly. Kerman mentions that, at the time of his writing, musicologists had done comprehensive work on the music of Bach, but they had not begun to critique the broadly accepted evolution of Bach’s style. I’m sure, partially due to Kerman's comment here, there is now a whole library of opinion on the matter, as well as a library of commentary and criticism on the critical writing.

Kerman asserts that the discipline of music criticism is not on par with either musicology or music theory. He mentions that in 1985, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and serious feminism were not present in either the study of musicology or the study of music theory. This statement must have been seen as a feeding ground for topic-hungry scholars. Though post-structuralism has not yet made it into music criticism, we now have dozens of books and essays written in the 1990s that include feminist music criticism and gender studies, as well as a healthy (or maybe an unhealthy) handful about deconstruction and music.

Kerman writes rather scientifically and factually about the disciplines he respects, but he tends to get more emotional when he writes disparagingly about journalistic criticism. Some publications and newspapers from the 1980s employed excellent music critics, but many did not. I think that Kerman, for better or for worse, might have bruised the egos of a few competent journalists by writing about the journalistic criticism the way he did. It is also important to remember that the journalistic record is very valuable for understanding music history, and is vital for people who want to follow musical activities in places where they are unable to attend concerts.

In the course of discussing some of the major figures in musicology, Kerman writes about material, attitudes, and styles that concern 20th century music. He discusses the prescriptive as well as the descriptive nature of modern music theory, mentioning that composers often feel the need to write music using the analytical methods devised by theorists in order to keep in step with the times. To give weight to his argument, Kerman mentions key composers, schools and styles.

Kerman's perception regarding the once-progressive Peter Maxwell Davies and conservative trends in British music is remarkable. Kerman mentions Davies fleetingly in the context of British music as a student in the 1950s in need of a teacher, and then he goes on to discuss the generally “behind-the-times” nature of British music. In the 1980s Davies, with his extraordinary imagination, proved to be an exception to the rule that British composers were more traditional than everyone else, but in the later 1990s his music became almost archetypically conservative.

Kerman mentions that musicologists are respected for what they know about music but not their insights into the aesthetics of music. Nowhere in either chapter does he mention anything about the real stuff of musical performance, the only real way that music is able to live. The performing musician, it seems, is not as important to the musicologist as the non-performing musician.

Music is far more than a historical, theoretical, and social practice; it is an expressive and emotional artistic one. Music offers a vehicle for expression of emotions that can be appreciated on many levels, especially on the non-intellectual level. It seems that the study of musicology, according to Kerman, is intended for musicologists and scholars rather than for practicing musicians. When he talks about the implication of musicologists as failed musicians, Kerman writes about the way musicologists separate musical passion and insight in their scholarly work, but he does not address this issue in any detail. I suppose it is out of the realm of musicology.

These chapters are a terrific introduction to the vast field of musicology. Even though they look at musicology from the musical atmosphere of the 1980s, they still serve as a point of departure for creative thinking about music.

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