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Book Review

Modern Music and After

Modern Music and After by Griffiths

3rd Edition

Paul Griffiths
Oxford University Press (OUP) 2010, xviii + 456
ISBN-10: 019974050X
ISBN-13: 978-0199740505
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There are surprisingly few really informative, accurate and comprehensive studies of contemporary music. Amongst the most respected, durable and reliable has been Paul Griffiths' Modern Music and After (Oxford University Press). First published over 30 years ago, here is the third edition, which has been completely updated. Of particular note in this new edition is the fact that Griffiths addresses music, musicians and musical developments which have occurred since the last edition of the book, in 1996. Modern Music and After remains as close a definitive survey, study, guide and analysis to its field as there is; it can be recommended without reservation. The standards of scholarship and authorship are indeed high.

Like few other periods in musical history, that from the end of the Second World War presents challenges: there are so many currents and changes that a writer in the thick of it – even one as experienced and perceptive as Paul Griffiths (perhaps the most accomplished writer in his field alive today– author of A Concise History of Western Music and The Penguin Companion to Classical Music as well as three novels and the libretto for Elliott Carter's opera, What Next?) – has their work cut out to present such a rich tapestry in ways that make what we too can see sharp, not confusing; nuanced, not merely colorful. It also takes as much restraint as it does in-depth knowledge to deal with the "…after" phase. We are still learning to accommodate and contextualize the immense changes that have taken place in music in the past 65 years and more. We're not best-placed to distinguish the enduring from the ephemeral, the byways and incidental from the "mainstream". But here is a text that goes as far in the right direction so to do as any currently available.

Griffiths' greatest strength in Modern Music and After is probably to have succeeded in presenting a "roadmap", a survey of developments since 1945 – but in a more thorough and dispassionate way than has Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise, which anyway has a brief about twice as large as Griffiths', the entire 20th century; and with more soundly considered and, frankly, intelligent judgements. Few would deny that music in the period under consideration is as rich, diversified, challenging and multi-faceted as any other. Really to get to grips with it, a writer is needed who not only knows it inside out, but is able to attach relative analytical weights to its every corner and explain each current and set of advances in terms not only of what's gone before (the convention for much music history prior to that relating to our own age), but in terms of everything else that's happening simultaneously. Griffiths is such a writer.

He succeeds because, like all good historians, he is aware that events by themselves are only starting points. So Modern Music and After is emphatically not a narrative history in which compositions, figures and performers march across a static stage presenting their strong points one after another and then disappear. Rather, it is a series of related assessments of Modernism, a musical movement (upper, then lower case 'M,m's) which, in the years following the end of the Second World War, felt the need to pick up where innovative (revolutionary) composers from the first half of twentieth the century had left off. Such eminences as Boulez, Cage, Babbitt, Shostakovich, Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis and Berio can now be seen as avidly dedicating their life and work to updating the language, pre-occupations, successes, sparks, innovations and implicit iconoclasm (or at least avowed and unashamed espousal of modernity almost for modernity's sake) of music throughout that period. How this worked, why and how they interacted and developed separately is the subject matter of Modern Music and After.

Where outcomes, purposes, the scope of experimentation, likely successes and intentions have been unclear (the 1970s was a time of many such… "changes of course", for example) Griffiths says so. And puts the uncertainty in context without having to apologize for it. This is good history&hllip; causes, consequences, crosscurrents. Significantly, Griffiths deals with the extent to which the manifold musical aspirations of those seeking to rekindle modernism after 1945 (by which he means – essentially – that their work still fails to receive its due in performances) are successful sympathetically. This, too, is the "after" of the title.

With 100 musical examples, comprehensive and accurate references and suggested resources, there isn't a single major – and hardly a less prominent – figure who doesn't get a mention… the websites of Frank Denyer, Peter Ablinger and Steven Stucky are cited, as are all the relevant monographs and publications on composers from Schoenberg to Lachenmann and Sciarrino. But Modern Music and After is not primarily a work of reference, although it's well-enough indexed to be able to be used as such. In 28 shortish chapters (of between half a dozen and two dozen or so pages each), Griffiths looks at themes: the Rational and the Irrational; silence in music; political and social influences and currents; external influences (of time and geography); virtuosity and improvisation; theater; technology; minimalism; religion; the "New"s – Romantic, Simple, Complex; Spectralism; Transcendence and so on. Taking 1945. 1956, 1965, 1975, 1989 and 2001 as key years, or years indicative of key changes, almost every conceivable corner of serious music is detailed, assessed and illustrated.

If Modern Music and After were merely a survey, its scope would be noteworthy. That it's primarily an evaluative study as well is extremely impressive. That the style, approach and content of the book have all of these qualities, and in fewer than 500 pages, is truly remarkable. As is the fact that it's both accessible to the relatively non-specialist reader and substantial to the expert. Above all, Griffiths succeeds in answering the question which nobody asks any more, though to which most feel the need for an answer, "Why does modern music still sound new?"

Unlike biographies of composers, conductors and impressarios, Modern Music and After has no photographs, timelines, maps or other illustrations apart than the aforementioned apposite and easy-to-read score extracts. It's a book to be studied and enjoyed for its erudition and style; though it's never dense or dry. Production standards, are of course, high; and the price is beyond reasonable – that alone should convince you to buy this third edition, even if you've read the earlier one(s)… the updates and referencing are significant. For a comprehensive, readable, authoritative, entertaining, lively, open-minded and all round well-written book on the development of music in our time, there is no better.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.