The Quest for the Other: Beyond Formalism

1) Text & Act: Essays on Music and Performance by Richard Taruskin

2) The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy by Lydia Goehr

3) Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch (trans. Carolyn Abbate)

4) The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music by Lydia Goehr

5) The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays by Richard Taruskin

6) Music, Myth, and Nature, Or, The Dolphins of Arion by François-Bernard Mâche

7) Science, Order, and Creativity by David Bohm & F. David Peat

These are seven books, dating from the turn of the century, that I consider vitally important reading for the young, twenty-first-century classical musician. Important because each brings to light some aspect of the changing ideological lenses through which the performance of classical music has come to be viewed through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries – often pre-reflectively, without awareness of the lens.

A thread running through all seven is the rise of a positivistic formalism, the hegemonic ideology of Western art music since the 1920s and practically the only “appropriate” approach to its performance during the so-called “Golden Age of Positivism” of the 1960s through ’80s. Entailing a nuanced series of ideological variations, musical formalism would require a major academic study for its holistic unpacking. Taken collectively, these seven books from the period of interregnum between the previous (modernist) and the coming era, already go far toward expounding the influence, the significance, and the dangers, of musical formalisms. They shed light on why non-formalists, appreciated by the general public, were often ostracized by opportunistic critics. (On this topic, Richard Taruskin’s The Danger of Music includes the essay “Why Do They All Hate Horowitz?” An analogous argument would explain the case of the “wayward” Narciso Yepes in the context of the formalist classical guitar scene of the late 20th century.) These books also begin to point ways toward a rebirth of Western art music beyond creativity-blocking constraints.

On my view, such a “renaissance” is only possible if awareness is fostered of the arbitrary and unquestioned formalist assumptions – including those of the so-called “authenticity” movement – that have undergirded performance since the 1960s, and only if such awareness is supplemented by novel, truly pre- or truly post-modern ways of conceiving of musical “works”. (As Lydia Goehr rightly informed us in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, “Bach did not intend to compose musical works” (p. 8) – a 19th century concept.) In other words, a paradigm shift is needed to break classical music out of the “scandalously unsaleable” rut (Mâche, p. 2) in which it has atrophied since the height of formalist hegemony. These seven very important books clarify where we are coming from ideologically, bringing unquestioned assumptions into awareness, and begin to point out ways of moving forward.

Of particular interest is Goehr’s The Quest for Voice, which argues for the necessity of an enhanced formalism – formalism enriched by a transcendent “something” extra.  The nature of this “something” – call it Other, for lack of a better term – is of great interest to me and a subject to which I will return at length. For now, suffice it to say, as have the philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the physicist David Bohm, and the literary theorist Michael Marais (also, in a sense, Kant and d’Espagnat): whatever one thinks or says something [the "work", the Other, the Thing-in-Itself, the "composer's intention", Reality, "the truth"] is, it is not; it is always “something” more and different. Thus, as Goehr writes, via the parable of Die Meistersinger: “[instead of measuring by familiar] rules that which doesn’t run by [your] rules, [it is necessary to] leave behind your treasured rules, and look instead for its rules!” For reasons to be expounded elsewhere and another time, this quest for the other necessarily entails a movement of infinition, the Romantics’ interminable Sehnsucht or quest for the “blue flower” (Novalis’s Blaue Blume), a Derridean différance or Deleuzean “either/or…or”, eschewing naively positivistic formalist notions of knowable “truth” and achievable “perfection”, thereby maintaining a more open, pluralistic, and progressive practice than the ideological fashions of the 20th century permitted.

The Quest for Voice is available to read for free via the University of California Press website:

Also, a version of a central essay from Richard Taruskin’s Text & Act, “The Modern Sound of Early Music”, appeared under an editorial title in the New York Times and is available to read online:

Note: In the above essay, Taruskin lists three salient (though not exhaustive) characteristics of the formalist style:

* It is text-centered, hence literalistic.
* It is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity.
* It is lightweight, hence leery of the profound or the sublime.

It is so easy to establish that the desiderata of the classical guitar scene of the late 20th century were undergirded by these formalist assumptions about what performance supposedly ought to be like that it inspires incredulity that no one before me ever connected the dots. Just consider a few characteristic passages from Graham Wade’s dangerously utopian Traditions of the Classical Guitar (1980):

*Formalism is text-centered, hence literalistic:
“The Utopian idealism [†] of the purists may seem tedious. It is always easy to be sloppy and unscrupulous about the demands of the past on the present … This situation is however beginning to change as the public learns that what the composer actually wrote [*] may be far more exciting than the bogus ‘improvements’ of musicians living several centuries later.” (Wade, p. 70) [*What he wrote, yes, which the better informed musician knows is not the totality of what he actually played, or what his listeners actually heard.] This text-centrism extends even to prescriptivistic attitudes to fingering, as in the case of Segovia.

[†] Note: As Taruskin rightly states elsewhere (in the lecture “Where Things Stand Now” 2009): “Utopian idealism” is dangerous for “utopian thinking can easily lead – no, … has always led – to authoritarian thinking.” (Again, the example of the Segovian ideology of forced conformance exemplifies Taruskin’s point about the danger of utopian thinking leading to authoritarian thinking.)

*Formalism is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity:
“John Williams is a great artist who drew the guitar closer to the orbit of the ulterior impersonality of art, untainted by whim, mood or individual weakness. T. S. Eliot…puts the classic attribute of true creativity into words…[it is] a continual extinction of personality.” (Wade, p. 211)

*Formalism is lightweight, hence leery of the profound or the sublime:
“Segovia’s…true expressiveness…evokes but makes no undue display. The flashy shallowness of much [?] guitar performance is eschewed and any such player is cast, artistically, into outer darkness.” (Wade, p. 189) “Williams was the least exhibitionist of all musicians… In this he was a true disciple of Segovia. His playing demeanour was that of restraint, control and order, an Apollonian” (Wade, p. 208) Also, “transcription from the four-course guitar to its modern descendant is perhaps the most fruitless and destructive of all possible types of instrumental change. … [W]hat we lose are the sonority…and the overall atmosphere of this tiny voice.” (Wade, p. 55, my emphasis)

Equally telling of the formalist views underpinning prejudices within the classical guitar community is the 180-degree flip-flopping of the opportunistic Gramophone “critic,” John W. Duarte. Committed since the 1950s to a so-called “romantic” narrative about his friend (the neo-classicist) Andrés Segovia, by the 1980s Duarte had switched openly, if tacitly, to the formalist bandwagon, by then de rigueur, denigrating Segovia’s “rival” Narciso Yepes for his unfashionably “overcooked vibrato” and “distorted” note values (i.e., for being too “romantic”), where less than a decade earlier the story was the opposite, with Yepes being charged with a merely “accurate account” of the note values and supposed lack of rubato. (Contrast these conflicting “reviews”, or propaganda pieces, about the same recording.)

Duarte conflicting reviews

Given today’s political climate in which “fake news”  abounds, it is particularly important to be on guard for agnogenetic (“ignorance-generating”) tactics like Duarte’s. (It is worth noting that similar tactics were then being used by the tobacco industry to create confusion around links between smoking and cancer. Today they are being used to deny climate change by the fossil fuel industry, or to promote right-wing agendas, with no lower limit to which some people won’t stoop to get ahead.) I am aware of one particularly obsessive compulsive propagandist or troll – going by the pseudonym of “Mike”, among other noms de guerre – making its rounds on the internet, averring in the comments sections of various web pages that Narciso Yepes was a formalist! [*] Rather desperate and clearly a frightened case of projection, lacking cogent argument or proof.

*For example (agnogenetic propaganda at work in the comments sections):