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Reviewed by:
  • Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music
  • Jennifer A. Ward
Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music. By Nicole V. Gagné. (Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts.) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012. [xxiv, 367 p. ISBN 9780810867659. $80.] Chronology, bibliography.

Nicole V. Gagné is a composer and has written about music for over thirty years. She previously collaborated with Tracy Caras on Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982), and authored its follow-up, Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993). Her familiarity with contemporary [End Page 65] American music, as evidenced in those interviews, informs this Historical Dictionary.

This book is a handy reference tool for students and researchers who need basic information about modern and contemporary classical music and musicians, both famous and obscure. Gagné considers music, predominantly in the Western tradition, from two angles: modernism starting around 1890, when "modernist sensibilities were reaching a critical mass and emerging more frequently in music," and the postmodernist reaction, by composers who "eschewed modernist devices and wrote accessible works in a tonal idiom" up to 2010 (p. 1). There are more than 350 entries for composers, performers (typically performers who have also done some composing), and music ensembles, as well as around sixty subject entries for terminology.

What is excluded, as Gagné admits from the outset, are composers whom she considers "essentially postromantics" such as Giacomo Puccini and Jean Sibelius (p. xi). Also generally out of scope are pop, jazz, and rock musicians. Exceptions are made for composers with "a foot in modernism" (Gustav Mahler, Carl Nielsen), people who blur the boundaries of concert music (Ornette Coleman, Scott Joplin), and popular musicians whose music is "radical within its own field" (the Beatles, Sun Ra) (p. xi). Readers should also know that, in general, they will not find entries here on music festivals, radio stations, institutions, or patrons known for promoting or supporting modern music.

A typical person entry opens with life dates, nationality, and profession. A summary of important teachers and institutions attended follows, as well as names of other composers with whom the figure interacted, students of note, and major compositions and writings. In order to facilitate browsing, bolded words within each entry alert the reader to people or concepts with separate entries elsewhere in the book. See-also references appear at the end. Throughout the entry are titles of works that Gagné considers significant, representative, or exemplary. For any given person, the reader can easily pick out basic biographical information, style and influence, and major works. The longest articles are around two pages and the shortest ones just a few lines in length.

Many of the composers and performers are still alive, and Gagné frequently mentions works that were written within the past decade, making many entries in this book more up-to-date than Oxford Music Online. The author pays attention to different technology media as well. She reports CD-ROMs among the output of the Residents (p. 224) and Morton Subotnick (p. 263), and Internet-based projects as part of the work of Subotnick (p. 112), William Duckworth (p. 81) and I.lhan (p. 176). Occasionally, though, the entries for composers who used pseudonyms are unnecessarily allusive. A reader might wonder why the article on Dane Rudhyar begins with a statement about Daniel Chennevière, as Gagné does not directly explain that that was Rudhyar's birth name (p. 230).

The subject entries explain the "methods, styles, and acoustic and electronic media peculiar to new music" such as atonality, dissonance, and minimalism, and also broader themes such as instrument building, multiculturalism, and multimedia (back cover). Gagné frequently takes a step back from the concept to fit it into its historical context and visit what came before it. As a result, the actual definition for a term is usually nestled somewhere in the middle of the entry, rather than at the beginning for quick reference.

Gagné's approach to subject entries is most successful when a term such as "film music" or "multimedia" presumably does not need to be defined and its context, use, and practice in modern music may be discussed immediately...


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