saying things without Saying Things
|Will Robin||Aug 13, 2019|
Somewhat unexpectedly, I have found myself with a solid draft of an introductory chapter. Unexpected because, a week ago, no such introduction existed. And now it does! It was a productive week, and thus why you did not see a new issue of Industry in your inboxes.
There are a lot of things you can do in the introduction to an academic monograph. You can lay out your Big Argument, your methodology, the literature you’ve read (some of which you agree with, some of which you don’t), the outline of your book, the development of your research, how you got interested in the topic, and a lot more. You can go very narrow, or go very wide. You don’t have to do all of these things; you can sometimes get away with doing none of them. I know because I’ve been checking out a lot of intros to various recent musicology monographs, to figure out what scholars do and don’t do, what others have gotten away with so I could figure out what I wanted to get away with.
There are a couple things I needed to do with my introductory chapter that were necessary for this project. I definitely needed an opening anecdote (I have two!), and a clear articulation of my book’s main argument, and a brisk rundown of the chapters. Less necessary, but important, were a little section of the various kinds of narratives that have accrued around Bang on a Can, and a section exploring my own development of this project.
I also needed some kind of pre-history section: my book’s main narrative (Chapter 1) begins at Yale in the early/mid-1980s, with Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe entering the master’s program there, and goes backwards briefly to trace their pre-grad-school bios. But my book is about a bigger story of institutions and the avant-garde in the ‘80s, and so there has to be some kind of precursory context set up. Each of my main chapters does loop back a bit historically, depending on the context—I go back to 1979 to talk about New Music, New York in Chapter 3, for example, and go back to the mid-’60s to talk about the founding of the NEA in Chapter 4—but I needed a long section, before Chapter 1 begins, that lays out what was going on generally in new music before 1981 or so. The book is firmly U.S. based, but I wasn’t sure how far to go back — the ‘60s? the ‘40s? the 1890s? I eventually settled on setting out the post-WWII history of new music in the U.S., through a kind of Cold War institutional lens, tracing the development of the academic/uptown and downtown/experimental scenes, and their attendant ideologies. I dug up an old Copland speech as a framing device. Here’s an example paragraph of what I’m trying to do in that section:
Post-Cage graphic scores and improvisational practices provided not only new musical languages but also the dissolution of traditional hierarchies. In San Diego, Pauline Oliveros worked with an all-women ensemble on therapeutic body practices and contemplative text scores, which would develop into her series of Sonic Meditations; in New York, La Monte Young guided a small ensemble in evening-length buzzing drone improvisations; in San Francisco, composer Morton Subotnick helped create the Buchla box, a modular synthesizer whose lack of a conventional keyboard offered revolutionary musical potential; in Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective of black musicians whose radical compositions transcended genre boundaries, independent of the mostly-white Cagean avant-garde. These wide-ranging activities offered an implicit socio-political critique of the primacy of the musical score, eroding the modernist divisions between composer and performer that pervaded the academic scene.
This section, deliberately, is less about a survey of Important Musical Works than a survey of What People Were Doing, and what organizational forms they took (and what ideological underpinnings there might be to do them).
The itty-bitty “case studies” I give serve a secondary purpose, acting as a kind of review of recently scholarly literature. So that long sentence in the middle comes with this hefty footnote:
 For Oliveros, see Kerry O’Brien, “Experimentalisms of the Self: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), 1966– 1971” (PhD Diss., Indiana University, 2018) and O’Brien, “Listening as Activism: The “Sonic Meditations” of Pauline Oliveros,” New Yorker, 9 December 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/listening-as-activism-the-sonic-meditations-of-pauline-oliveros; for Young, see Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) and Patrick Nickleson, The Names of Minimalism: Authorship and the Historiography of Dispute in New York Minimalism, 1960–1982” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2017), 80–138; for Subotnick, see David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) and Theodore Barker Gordon, “Bay Area Experimentalism: Music and Technology in the Long 1960s” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2018); for the AACM, see George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
Generally, all academic work needs a literature review of some kind. When you’re in school, you do this to make clear to your advisor and readers that you know what’s been written on your topic, and you understand what new contribution you’re offering. When you’re done with school, you do this to demonstrate to peer reviewers that you’ve mastered the existing literature on the topic, and understand how your contribution adds to, complicates, or refutes it. In any situation, you’ve got to read all the stuff that’s out there in (and, ideally, beyond!) your subfield before you can really make a case for what you’re doing. That’s pretty fundamental to scholarship, I think.
What’s occasionally frustrating to me as a reader of published work (not dissertations or theses, where the goals and style are a bit different) is when you have to read a section that essentially just lists all of the relevant literature. The summaries often move so quickly that it seems the author has distilled so much that the scholarship they’re summarizing is no longer recognizable. It can feel like the author is insulating themselves from critique, using citations as a kind of protective shield. (The worst version of this is when the scholar sums up all the existing literature really quickly, only to then show how it’s all wrong, when what’s wrong about it is that they summarized it too hastily.) It’s also, quite frankly, often boring to read.
So as an alternative strategy, I’ve largely subsumed a kind of “lit review” within this prehistory section; the historical details I mention, like the Buchla Box or Sonic Meditations, are ways to gesture towards the fact that my understanding of the postwar avant-garde is grounded in the work of Kerry O’Brien and Patrick Nickleson and others. I could have written much of this section by just relying on my own memory and consulting, say, Taruskin’s Oxford History or Ross’s The Rest is Noise—and I did consult both, because they’re great!—but I also wanted to make clear that my thinking is indebted to a slew of recent articles, book chapters, dissertations, and monographs. This means that the main text is not cluttered with names of other scholars and books, and I’d like to think this makes the writing more accessible to a general reader; my hope is that these hefty footnotes will also make clear to musicological readers (and peer reviewers) that I’ve done my homework. (IIRC Tressie McMillan Cottom has a great line about this in Thick, but I can’t seem to locate it right now. Read Thick.)
Another thing about my intro, and book intros generally. One tends to write a proposal for a book—what you sent to the publisher explaining your book, along with sample chapters, to try to get a contract—before one writes a book. I think? Anyway, we academics write a lot of proposals: book proposals, dissertation proposals, grant proposals, abstracts aka conference paper proposals. A lot of proposals are 50% bullshit. Which is to say, you write them before you’ve written the actual thing you’re going to talk about—occasionally, before you’ve finished researching the thing you’re going to talk about. Occasionally before you’ve started researching that thing! This is a product of necessity. I do it, you do it, we all do it. (That said, we/I teach graduate students that, early in their studies, they shouldn’t submit abstracts to conferences without having written some early version of the paper they’re going to present, or at least really grasped the totality of the project they’re presenting on.) But even when you’ve totally mastered your material, a proposal still maybe includes 25% bullshit, stuff you’re hoping will be true but you won’t know for sure until the project is mostly done. At least that’s how my proposals work.
A lot of book introductions read very similarly to book proposals. This makes a lot of sense! Most of the material you have in a proposal can be copied, verbatim, into an introduction, and they accomplish very similar things in terms of elucidating a project, discussing the extant literature, providing an outline, etc. But there’s a risk, there, that a bit of the proposal bullshit might sneak into your book, which should, ideally, be bullshit-free. (It will not be.) I thought my book proposal was pretty strong, and largely the ideas expressed there have remained intact as I’ve written the book. (When I submitted my proposal, only about 30% of my book was written). But I decided to try to write my intro from scratch, to really let my main ideas about the project flow directly from how they stand in 2019 now that the big is almost fully drafted, rather than 2017 when I wrote the proposal and had only written 2 chapters. It led to a better introduction to the project as-is, I think. We’ll see.
The introduction went quickly because my ideas for it had been building up to a point where, if I didn’t start writing them immediately, my brain would start melting. I had a Scrivener folder where I had been amassing thoughts and musings for the introduction for months (years?), which helped form the kernel of what the Intro became. A lot of them were extremely didactic, rant-y observations about What The Book Should Do and What Other Scholars Do That I Refuse To Do! I will not be sharing those here. But when I was writing, I largely found myself excising those thoughts, or subsuming them into something that felt more narrative and less Manifesto-y. The very helpful reviews I got from my initial book materials suggested that I try to do less academic signposting (e.x. “This chapter ____ __ ___”) and I took that to heart: I’ve been trying to say things without Saying Things, if that makes sense. This loops back to the whole combining historical overview/lit review thing — I’m trying to make absolutely emphatic what my book’s main points are without having to say them over and over. I actually found myself, in this case, thinking a lot about my New York Times writing, where each 1,500-ish piece has some kind of central theme or even thesis, but which is rarely stated outright: instead, the reader will (ideally) come to understand it through the specific stories that are told and the specific components of them that are emphasized. Something like that is going on, hopefully, with my book. I’ll be curious to see, though, if people arrive at the conclusion I want them to arrive at!
Also, remember how I was at Bang on a Can? It was pretty great. Our four media fellows wrote a slew of excellent pieces — my favorites include Vanessa Ague’s piece on Eight Songs for a Mad King, Jeremy Reynolds’s story on backstage Dracula drama, Hannah Edgar and Elias Gross’s exploration of a didgeridoo controversy (which elicited a lot of interesting discussion online), and Edgar’s profile of one of Bang’s most interesting fans. I got to work with the amazing John Schaefer, saw some great concerts, went to James Turrell’s Into the Light four or five times, and got to hang with some excellent musicians.
And it was helpful, as you read already, to immerse myself in Bang-ness in the late stages of my book. (It probably contributed to my extremely productive writing week afterwards). I sat down with a few musicians I’ve been really keen to talk to but hadn’t gotten to yet. And I, thankfully, found two full hours to talk with David Lang. We had spoken at length in 2016 during my diss research, and at this point I think I’ve read every single thing he has said publicly, but I had a list of about 100 questions related to my book that I still hadn’t quite figured out the answer to. I talked with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe last summer, and cleared some of these questions up, but others still lingered. Some were small (Who wrote this 1992 grant application?) and some were…big (Is Bang on a Can capitalist?). It was, in all honesty, one of the best research experiences I’ve ever had, one that moved from a discussion of granular details of Lang’s studies to a grand exploration of the philosophy behind Bang on a Can, and ultimately to both of us grappling, in real time, with my book’s argument. It’s really hard to articulate why it felt so meaningful, but it’ll be in the book, so you’ll read about it then.
Here’s Georgia. See ya next week.