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Book Review

Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music

Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music by Gagné

Historical Dictionaries Of Literature And The Arts

Nicole Gagné
Scarecrow Press 2012 pp xxiv + 368
ISBN-10: 0810867656
ISBN-13: 978-0810867659
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Obviously, on line sources for factual information about (modern) music are likely to be more up to date than print ones. They will often be able to take advantage of greater available space. They will certainly have more sophisticated and immediate systems of cross-referencing. Yet there is surely still a vital role for print media: it can be handier; ought always to guarantee authority… it is likelier to be double-checked; print sources can reflect in their design and selectivity a thoughtfully-crafted view of the subject – rather than perhaps follow a perceived need for comprehensiveness and currency at the expense of discrimination.

Such a well-produced and authoritative book is the newly-published Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music by Nicole Gagné from Scarecrow Press. It is indeed far more than an excellent dictionary of modern composers and music – although it is those too. It amounts to a perceptive and ultimately very creative assessment not only of how "classical" music (with all its many influences) has developed since the 1890's; of who has played which roles; where have been the developments, major and minor; in which contexts; but – significantly also – why music has developed as it has. How it has happened that music has made the progress which it has; how the slices of these changes fit and clash, bend and sprint. Of the 400+ cross-referenced (in bold type) entries the majority (350 or so) are devoted to composers and musicians, educators and performers. Additionally, there are 60 equally well-written entries on methods (from dodecaphony to Extended Techniques), styles (from Sprechstimme to Spectralism) and media (from Bitonality to Sound Sculpture) etc.

The average length of each entry is a third to half a page; major figures and themes warrant more, sometimes much more. By and large this allocation reflects what most music-lovers would understand as the relative importance of each composer, musician or topic; though there are exceptions: Ross Lee Finney, Alvin Lucier, Otto Luening and Morton Subotnik each get more space than either Lutoslawski or Musique Concrète – and see below. This is probably because of the wish on the part of Nicole Gagné to draw more attention to the experimental and technologically innovative than do most other printed source currently available; and that's very welcome!

Dates are given; all those checked were found to be accurate. There is a ten-page chronology of musical history stretching from Satie's Trois Gnossiennes (1890) to Branca's 15th Symphony (2010). The main Dictionary entries are usefully supplemented by a table of acronyms and abbreviations, a very lengthy (almost 60 pages) and useful bibliography with journals and much web material as well as books; these are both divided into general sources, history, composers, organizations and journals (including those no longer publishing, with their dates) etc.

The style of the entries is informative, authoritative, packed with always relevant information without ever being too dense to follow. Above all, the Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music was conceived and written with the premise that the music of the past 120 years has rarely operated in a vacuum. Influences, teachers, schools, currents, trends, groups, models, and "-isms" are all described as well as individual composers because they are completely interdependent; not merely because they're each of interest in their own right.

After even a cursory glance for favorite composers or techniques, Gagné intentional selectiveness becomes obvious. The emphasis really is on those individuals and topics which can be seen to have contributed (or still be contributing) to progressive, contemporary and/or experimental and innovative music. De Falla and Ravel are included, for instance. So are John Ireland and Scott Joplin. But there is a preponderance of what to some may be seen as more recherché figures… Barbara Monk Feldman, Charlemagne Palestine, Proportional Notation, Jessica Rylan, Ned Sublette, the Telharmonium and the Once Group. It's hard to believe that everyone won't learn something new.

As must be almost inevitable, there are some odd inclusions and allocation of spaces: major British composers Brian Ferneyhough and Alexander Goehr only get about a dozen lines each while Robert Graettinger and Dane Rudhyar twice to three times as much. The Arditti Quartet and Heinz Holliger are missing while Duke Ellington gets over a page. The inclusion of various "pop" groups and entertainers (fortunately a very small proportion overall) is hard to justify – although Gagné does try to do so in her well-written introduction.

That introduction would serve as an excellent précis of musical trends in the period which this book addresses: Gagné traces developments "From Modern to Modernist", "From Modernist to Postmodern – and Beyond", and "Contemporary Music and Personal Music". Each section is based on the facts, the chronological expansion over the period. But it also comprises a critical assessment of how and why music advanced as it did. No easy task, but one she does well, and one which will be well understood as one works with the entries themselves… "Indeterminacy", "Impressionism", "Stochastic Music" – all thus make good sense as discrete entries. But it helps to appreciate the rationale behind Gagné's approach. And to understand the relative weight she gives to the themes and directions of music of our time. Individual entries are then well contextualized.

Production standards are high; the few unambiguous typographical conventions that are employed consistently throughout the book do aid in using it. It is a little expensive as a hardback costing well over US$50. But it's well worth it. Comprehensive and clear, brimming with information sensibly grouped and transparently laid out, the Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music does a difficult job very well.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.