The above title is a response to one of my favorite phrases and concepts of George Carlin: “Simple, honest, direct language.” (Taken from 1990’s Doin’ It Again‘s closing segment on “soft language” and euphemisms, one of my favorite essays/monologues.)
As both a student and now a professor, I’ve long disliked dense, jargon-laced writing. Learning new concepts, both in graduate school and beyond, can be difficult enough, but it’s compounded when hidden behind opaque prose. Of course what I’m discussing here is simply writing itself, not the concepts and hypotheses it may (attempt to) describe. So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon this article by Barton Swaim on The Weekly Standard‘s website (yes, that’s right…ignore the overall source as I did) via The Dish. Key quotes:
• “Modern academics are not celebrated for the clarity and felicity of their writing… Typically, the only people who actually read academic books and articles are other academics, who only read them to know what they need to reference in their own books and articles. And that’s not reading; that’s trawling.”
• “…Many academic writers, even in the humanities, have legitimate and important insights to convey. Yet they genuinely believe…that it doesn’t serve their interests to write straightforward English sentences.”
• “Bad writing is institutionalized.” (Then paraphrasing the author whom he’s reviewing:) “…Academics learn how to write from three principal sources: their doctoral supervisors, their academic peers, and the academic journals in which they wish to be published.”
Such truth! (Yes, I’m aware that I occasionally ramble on and on here at MT-Headed, but thus is the nature of blogging. Like Stephen King, I tend to have “diarrhea of the word processor.”)
Given all this, I found it odd that the above article was published shortly after I began reading, the brand-spankin’-new Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition (2012) by Richard Taruskin and Christopher H. Gibbs, as SAU decided to make the switch from Peter J. Burkholder‘s A History of Western Music, 7th ed. (Burkholder had revised the infamous sixth edition by Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca.) Consider this – Taruskin/Gibbs, Burkholder, and Grout/Palisca – the newly-complete trinity of music history texts for music majors. I mention this lineage because I have experience with all three:
• I learned from the Grout/Palisca sixth edition as an undergraduate student
• I taught from Burkholder’s seventh edition as a graduate assistant and beginning professor
• I now use Taruskin/Gibbs in my current music history course
Burkholder’s seventh edition was supposed to clear the air that was polluted by earlier editions’ dense writing. It’s user-friendly and doesn’t get too lost in the weeds. This is obviously good for music history students being introduced to the material for the first time. While the new Oxford History… may also attempt to be user-friendly and engaging, it ultimately comes off, to me, as being written as much (if not more) for Gibbs himself and other professors as (than) for new students. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, it presents a problem when dealing with my students. Music history students are generally undergraduate music majors in their sophomore year, meaning that they have a basic musical foundation – music theory, aural skills, instrumental/vocal skills – on which to build a historical context and understanding. Consequently, a lot of the information is new to students. Instead of making the terms and concepts easy to digest, Gibbs at times obscures the main points by telling his “story.” It’s as if he’s going for the musicological non-fiction novel, but it’s important to remember that facts are more important than plot points.
Like the Burkholder – a major revision of an existing work – Gibbs’s book is a major revision, condensing Richard Taruskin’s multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music into a single 1248-page text. There’s of course nothing wrong with wanting to take great content and distill it for new students. Yet Gibbs intended more, as he ultimately had “the desire to tell a story,” writing in the introduction (p. xxvii). That’s fine and dandy, but what eventually occurs are prosaic flights of fancy instead of straightforward, lucid presentations of the material. Consequently, I spend a decent amount of my in-class time re-explaining the text to my students, or simply pointing out which paragraphs and/or passages to ignore outright. Gibbs occasionally goes on an editorial jag or makes his explanations via the scenic route. A couple noteworthy examples (buckle in, fellow music students), specifically about Medieval music (my bold):
• Regarding Notre Dame organum (p.71):
“The music of Notre Dame exemplified St. Augustine’s metaphor of ‘a mind poured forth in joy,’ but it also accorded with the size of the reverberant spaces it had to fill and with a message of institutional triumph at a time notable for its triumphant institutionalism.”
• Regarding Guillaume de Machaut’s motets (p. 101):
“In such an extremely formalized motet, architectural analogies are virtually inescapable, for the elaborate structure were probably planned in advance. The fourteenth-century isorhythmic motet, perhaps the most hierarchically conceived and rigorously ordered genre in the history of European music, was more concerned than any other to incorporate a representation of the higher ‘intellectual’ elements and their controlling influence, which, being hidden from the senses, were in the most literal and etymological way occult. That is another way of interpreting the enormous value and emphasis that was placed on the structure architecture of the motet.”
• Regarding form, formal training, elitism, and patronage (p. 121):
” Composers trained in the techniques of monumental musical architecture and who could produce works of grandiose design could put on particularly impressive legitimizing political shows for their patrons, and they found a rich market for their skills.”
Each of these passages could easily be nominated for The Dish‘s The Poseur Alert award given “for passages of prose that stand out for pretension, vanity and really bad writing designed to look like profundity.” For a side-by-side taste test, compare Burkholder’s and Gibbs’s explanation of the Squarcialupi Codex (if you don’t know what that is, even better):
Burkholder (his italics):
“Very few examples of Italian secular polyphony from before 1330 have survived, but after that date there are several manuscripts. The most copious source, unforutnately late and not altogether reliable, is the richly decorated Squarcialupi Codex, named for its former owner, the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480). This collection, probably copied about 1410-15, contains 354 pieces, mostly for two or three voices, by twelve composers of the Trecento and early Quattrocento (1400s). A miniature portrait of each composer appears at the beginning of the section containing his works… Three types of secular Italian pieces appear in this and other manuscripts: madrigal, caccia, and ballata.” (p. 136)
Gibbs (my bold):
“The sources of trecento polyphony often look like the big presentation chansonniers that retrospectively preserved the music of the troubadours. This is particularly true of the so-called Squarcialupi Codex (named after an organist who was one of its early owners), a magnificent compendium put together around 1415 as a memorial to the art of the trecento when that art had already faded. Its expensive materials and lavish illuminations make this codex literally priceless. It is priceless in another sense as well: It preserves dozens of compositions that would otherwise have been entirely lost. The contents of the Squarcialupi Codex are organized by author, each section introduced by a portrait of the composer. Nowhere do we get a more vivid sense of how consciously the poet-musicians of the trecento thought of themselves as the inheritors and reanimators of the lost art of Aquitaine.” (p. 115)
Whew. There’s a lot of information in each paragraph. Burkholder provides the information without too much colorful editorializing. Gibbs, on the other hand, is telling his story – you get the information along with his flowery discussion. As for the final, bolded sentence, I just don’t see the need for it. At least, I don’t know what it had to be written in that manner. Burkholder is more data-driven, whereas Gibbs strives for narrative. Pedagogically, I prefer the former, at least when using a textbook.
I should make it clear that I don’t think Gibbs’s book is bad. There are some wonderful aspects:
• The actual content is great: he not only discusses the relevant musical works, terminology, and figures, but he also provides a lot of cultural and historical context. For example, his discussion of the near-fallacy of “periodization” (pp. 124-7), particularly regarding Medieval and Renaissance music, is very insightful, and great advice for the student.
• Along with the textbook, there is a really nice anthology of scores (edited by separate authors) and recordings – better than the Burkholder/Palisca, in my opinion.
• As a reader, I enjoy the additional historical and cultural context he’s provided.
However, regarding the final point, I have to keep in mind that I’m not reading about the music for the first time. Gibbs’s intermittent editorializing and penchant for using “seven words when four will do” can obfuscate the core material for newbies. Students often have to dig farther than necessary for the actual content. And the digging often isn’t a result of theoretical, abstract concepts, but rather the author’s prose. I’m hoping a second edition will address this.
Of course, this is an issue that extends far beyond The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition. It may seem like my overall complaint lies with Gibbs, but he’s simply a convenient case study. This is an issue about which I’ve long been concerned, and it just so happened that Swaim’s article coincided with my beginning to teach with this new textbook. While I don’t think that music majors should be taught out of a Dummies book, I would like to see user experience become a more widespread concern.