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Essential 20th-century reading list

This reading list was compiled by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, co-editor of the sixth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music and published writer on contemporary music.
Last updated September 2009

Composer tracts

M. Babbitt: ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’, High Fidelity, viii/2 (1958), 38–40; repr. in The American Composer Speaks, ed. G. Chase (Baton Rouge, LA, 1966), 234–44; repr. in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, ed. E. Schwartz and B. Childs (New York, 1967), 243–50

Babbitt is an important theorist as well as composer, and has written prolifically and perceptively on contemporary music theory. This article, his most notorious, examines the social function and status of the composer of ‘specialist’ contemporary music of which the general public is largely unaware.

J. Boros and R.Toop, eds.: Brian Ferneyhough: Collected Writings (Amsterdam, 1995)

This collection of essays, lecture transcripts and interviews brings together most of the composer’s important writings to this time. These include essays on musical aesthetics, notation, rhythm, as well as detailed descriptions of his own works and compositional methods.

P. Boulez: Relevés d’apprenti (Paris, 1966; Eng. trans., 1968, as Notes of an Apprenticeship and, 1991, as Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship); and Points de repère (Paris, 1981; Eng. trans., 1986, as Orientations)

Boulez remains one of the most outspoken of postwar composers and is an incisive writer on contemporary music. Relevés d’apprenti contains many of his sharpest articles on technique and aesthetics, written in the years after the total serialism of Structures I. Points de repère is a second, later collection of Boulez’s writings, and in conjunction with Relevés contributes to a rich understanding of this central and often controversial figure.

F. Busoni: Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Trieste, 1907, 2/ 1916/ R; Eng. trans, 1911); Eng. trans. repr. in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York, 1962); repr. with marginalia by Schoenberg, ed. H.H. Stuckenschmidt (Frankfurt, 1974)

A bold and prophetic vision for the future of music. Busoni did not implement all the ideas explored in his treatise, which included proposals for the use of microtones and of mechanical or electronic instruments, but his book was one of the first and most influential visions of a new musical language for the 20th century.

J. Cage: Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT, 1961)

Cage’s first published collection of writings is also his best and most well-known, and contains pieces such as ‘Lecture on Nothing’, ‘Indeterminacy’ and ‘45’ for a Speaker’. Probably more than any other single production, this collection turned him into a composer of international renown and notoriety.

C. Cardew: Treatise Handbook (London, 1971)

Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (London, 1974) may be the better known text, famous for its political polemic as well as its critical insight, but the Handbook Cardew wrote to accompany his epic graphic composition, Treatise (1963–7) gives more insight into the philosophical and technical preoccupations of this experimental composer.

H. Cowell: New Musical Resources (New York, 1930/R)

Self-styled as a ‘theory of musical relativity’, this collection of new compositional and notational possibilities has influenced several generations of radical composers, in both America and Europe, and has secured Cowell’s position as one of the most innovative of American composers.

M. Feldman: Essays, ed. W. Zimmermann (Kerpen, 1985)

A collection of Feldman’s writings, which combine description and defence of his unique methods and aesthetic (‘Crippled Symmetry’, ‘The Anxiety of Art’) with autobiographical reflection (‘Give my Regards to Eighth Street’).

L. Feneyrou, ed.: L. Nono: écrits (Paris, 1993)

Nono was a leading figure in the postwar European avant garde, and perhaps its most politically engaged figure. This collection of published writings and correspondence is a valuable key to understanding his thought and music.

H. Lachenmann, ed. J. Häusler: Musik als existentielle Erfahrung: Schriften 1966–1995 (Wiesbaden, 1995)

In parallel to his development as a composer, Lachenmann has given many lectures, and has written essays and introductions to his works which may be regarded as attempts to make himself understood on unknown and uncertain ground. This collection contains the majority of those writings, and includes items on the analysis of sound (‘Klangtypen der Neuen Musik’) as well as his later focus on the historical aspects of his musical material (‘Vier Grundbestimmungen des Musikhörens’).

O. Messiaen: Technique de mon langage musicale (Paris, 1944; Eng. trans., Paris, 1956)

It predates his innovations of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but Messiaen’s concise and lucid treatise contains many of the keys to unlocking his unique compositional methods.

S. Reich: Writings About Music (Halifax, NS, 1974), expanded as Writings on Music 1965–2000, ed. P. Hillier (Oxford, 2002)

In both its original and expanded editions, this book collects interviews and Reich’s writings on his own music – many of them originating as programme notes. Most important of these is his influential treatise ‘Music as a Gradual Process’. The expanded edition includes items on his later music, as well as on other composers, including Cage and Schoenberg.

G. Rochberg: The Aesthetics of Survival: a Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music (Ann Arbor, MI, 1984)

Rochberg contributed to many music periodicals, and this collection of his best essays includes his penetrating critique of modernism, ‘The Avant Garde and the Aesthetics of Survival’.

A. Schoenberg: Style and Idea, ed. L. Stein (London, 1975)

Schoenberg’s original collection under this title, published in 1950 and edited by Dika Newlin, included just 15 essays and articles. The 1975 book of the same name includes over 100 items on the composer’s own music as well as studies of many of his colleagues and predecessors. As a guide to Schoenberg’s technique and aesthetic outlook it is indispensible, and it contains some of the most influential writings on 20th-century music available anywhere.

K. Stockhausen: Texte, i–x (Cologne and Kürten, 1963–1991)

Stockhausen’s collected writings on music, published in ten volumes, includes the composer’s influential essays on form and musical time. A shorter selection of lectures and interviews is available in English as Stockhausen on Music, ed. R. Maconie (London, 1989).

I. Xenakis: ‘Musiques formelles’, ReM, nos. 253–4 (1963); repr. as Musiques formelles (Paris, 1981); Eng. trans. as Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Bloomington, IN, 1971, enlarged 2/1992)

Compiled from articles written early in Xenakis’s career, Musiques formelles lays out the theoretical support in geometry and probability that gave rise to such ‘sound-mass’ compositions as Metastaseis and Pithoprakta and that underpinned all of the composer’s subsequent music.

Theory and history

T.W. Adorno: Philosophie der neuen Musik (Tübingen, 1949, 3/1967; Eng. trans., 1973/R)

Adorno was one of the most important philosophers of music in the 20th century, and this dialectical study of Schoenberg and Stravinsky as the polarized extremes of the ‘New Music’ (strongly favouring Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition over Stravinsky’s neo-classicis,) was a seminal influence on the post-war Darmstadt avant garde.

D.W. Bernstein: The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde

The San Francisco Tape Music Center was a site of influential early experimentation and performance using tape recorders and electronic instruments in the early 1960s, and attracted composers such as Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick. This study is one of the first to explore in detail this side of the American experimental underground.

G. Borio: Musikalische Avantgarde um 1960 (Laaber, 1993)

One of the best available studies of Darmstadt and postwar modernism, focusing on the period around 1960 and sketching the appearance of an ‘informal music’ of the sort first theorised by Adorno.

G. Born: Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (Berkeley, 1995)

A rare example of an ethnomusicological study of a Western musical institution, Born’s book is a detailed and critical examination of the French centre for research into new music and associated technologies in Paris.

M.J. Grant: Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics (Cambridge, 2001)

A detailed and extremely thorough study of the aesthetics of European serial music of the 1950s, explored through the writings and analyses of Eimert, Koenig, Schnebel, Stockhausen and others that were published in the journal Die Reihe.

P. Griffiths: Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945 (Oxford, 1995)

There are many books on the history of the postwar avant garde, but Griffiths’s is one of the most thorough and most accessible.

M. Nyman: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London, 1974, 2/1999)

This book is the most important early history of experimental music, and charts the influence of John Cage’s aesthetics on the techniques of not experimental music but also early minimalism.

G. Perle: Serial Composition and Atonality: an Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern (Berkeley, 1962, 6/1991)

Perle was one of the first American composers to be attracted to serialism, particularly that of the Second Viennese School. This book has become a standard text in the use of 12-note and serial procedures.

K. Potter: Four Musical Minimalists (Cambridge, 2000)

Approaches the same four composers – Glass, Reich, Riley, Young – as in Wim Mertens’s pioneering study (De Amerikaanse Repetitieve Muziek, 1980), but does so in far greater depth and with greater attention to the musical and artistic context from which they emerged.

A. Thomas: Polish Music Since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005)

A comprehensive survey of Polish music since the 1930s, covering many well-known and neglected figures from the periphery of the European modernist mainstream.

Interviews and collections

C. Cox and D. Warner: Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (London, 2004)

This is one of the best anthologies of writing on contemporary experimental and avant garde music, and includes articles by writers as diverse as Luigi Russolo, Derek Bailey, Glenn Gould and Brian Eno.

R. Dufallo: Trackings (New York, 1989)

A number of collections of composer interviews are available. This, by the late American conductor Richard Dufallo, is among the best for the range and prestige of its subjects, including many of the greatest composers of the century.


Die Reihe

Although it only ran to six volumes, between 1955 and 1962, Die Reihe had a major influence on music in the second half of the 20th century. Edited by Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen, it became the principal publisher of analyses and essays by the leading figures of the European serial avant garde, and includes important articles by Boulez, Cage, Kagel, Koenig, Ligeti, Pousseur and Stockhausen.

Perspectives of New Music

Launched in 1962 by Arthur Berger and Benjamin Boretz, in part as a US counterpart to Die Reihe, it has published continuously since then and has long been established as one of the leading academic journals covering the musical avant garde.

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