book review

Materials and Techniques of Twentieth-Century Music, 3rd ed.

Stefan Kostka
Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006 (334 pages)

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Materials and Techniques of Twentieth-Century Music, 3rd ed.

Stefan Kostka
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I n the years leading to the twentieth century, tonal classical music found itself stretched to the breaking point, as the drive for increasing expressiveness and a reaction against the excesses of romanticism led to greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity and to an extensive use of chromaticism that ultimately made earlier forms obsolete. This authoritative textbook describes this transition and the music that followed, from the point of view of the composer. Kostka discusses chords and simultaneities, atonality, rhythm, serialism, minimalism, and aleatory music, by analyzing a variety of examples from classical, transitional, and contemporary works. Exercises after each chapter allow readers to test their knowledge.

Analyzing serial music is far more difficult than analyzing tonal music. Tonal music is adequately described by such tools as pitch classes, roots, and chord progressions. Serial music abolished these, and segmentation and other tricks are needed to derive parameters such as "subsets" and "interval-class vectors" that characterize atonal music. Other modern types of music (such as postserialism and electronic music) defy analysis altogether, and once again we are forced to fall back to analogies and stylistic descriptions. Indeed, some compositions, such as Dick Higgins's The Thousand Symphonies, which was produced by firing a machine gun at manuscript paper, are best analyzed using the same tool that was used to create them. Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, which consists mainly of violins making a continuous unpleasant high-pitched screeching noise, is perhaps better left unanalyzed altogether, as is the music by composer John Cage, whose composition titled 4:33, which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of dead silence, is generally regarded as his best work. The reader is expected to have some familiarity with music theory and the ability to read music.

Unlike New Directions in Music by David Cope (score -4), which gets caught up in the anti-intellectualistic and destructive (or as some would say "transgressive") social aspects of the 1960s counterculture scene, Materials and Techniques of Twentieth Century Music encourages the reader to analyze and understand the structure of modern music for its own sake, as it evolved from earlier forms. Interesting and playable examples from serious 20th century works, including several fragments from Debussy's Preludes and parts of works by Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, and others, make this an excellent way to get acquainted with modern music.

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June 30, 2007; updated Aug 4 2007