Notes 60.2 (2003) 448-449
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Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Larry Sitsky, with foreword by Jonathan D. Kramer. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. [xx, 660 p. ISBN 0-313-29689-8. $114.95]. Work lists, bibliographies, charts, index.
Steve Reich: A Bio-Bibliography. By D. J. Hoek. (Bio-Bibliographies in Music, 89.) Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. [xiv, 171 p. ISBN 0-313-31207-9. $72.95.] Index.
The term avant-garde used to conjure up military associations—images of elite troops venturing boldly into foreign or enemy territory, well ahead of the rest of the forces. In music, the word is usually used to refer to innovators setting out to conquer the unknown—but hardly as a technical term whose meaning needs to be narrowly circumscribed. Yet that is precisely what editor Larry Sitsky, aided by no fewer than fifty contributing scholars, seems to be intent on doing: determining the exact meaning of avant-garde, as well as who is and who is not. At the same time, though, they widen the circle of candidates for the honor in such a way that the composers included span every possible stylistic direction in the twentieth century. This forces Sitsky and his collaborators to make some exaggerated claims about the "avant-gardeness" of certain composers who are not ordinarily seen as tradition-breakers. Granted, most composers worth their salt have done something others had not done before, but doesn't classifying so many of them as "avant-gardists" rob the word of whatever meaning or usefulness it might have had?
The book itself would be much better than the concept upon which it is based if it were not marred by an unacceptable number of errors and editorial inconsistencies. Indeed, the book appears hardly to have been edited at all. Foreign words and names, in particular, are misspelled with an appalling frequency. Even so, the book is a useful compendium of information on a total of eighty-three composers from twenty countries. (There are, in fact, eighty-two articles, as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry are treated under the same heading.) A breakdown of the composers by countries would be: twenty-seven Americans, ten Russians, nine Frenchmen, six Austrians, six Italians, and five Germans, with the remaining nationalities represented by one or two composers each. The survey articles are accompanied sometimes by worklists, mostly selective, but on occasion inexplicably absent, and bibliographies, some much more complete than others. It would be futile to quibble with who was included and [End Page 448] who was left out or who can be rightfully considered an avant-gardist and who cannot. The principal merit of the book as written is to bring under the same cover George Gershwin and Iannis Xenakis, Percy Grainger and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sofia Gubaidulina and Pauline Oliveros (incidentally, the only two women among the eighty-three composers). The oldest composer included is Leos Janácek (born in 1854), the youngest, Brian Ferneyhough (born in 1943). The discussions vary greatly in methodological approach, informational value, depth of insight and, indeed, prose quality. A few entries go into great detail about their subjects' personal lives, while others treat us to in-depth discussions of a composer's personal aesthetic or musical technique. A few are rather dry and offer little more than a basic chronicle of works. The majority of the evaluations are positive or at least neutral, as may be expected, with the exception of the entry on Pierre Boulez which is, for some reason, overtly hostile.
Occasionally, essays on living composers fail to follow their oeuvres to the present day: Elliott Carter's worklist stops in 1993, György Ligeti's in 1996. Some chapters, especially those on the classic masters from the first half of the century, do little more than summarize information easily available in other sources. More interesting are entries on certain obscure figures, and the articles by scholars with an especially strong personal or professional connection to the composers...