Alastair Williams reflects on writing Constructing Musicology…

9780754601340I am delighted to have been offered the opportunity to reflect on how Constructing Musicology has fared during the years. The idea for the volume came from my first book New Music and the Claims of Modernity (Ashgate 1997), in which I build on Adorno’s view of modernism in music. During the 1990s, there was a surge of interest from English-language musicology in Adorno’s writings on music, since they focus squarely on meaning and subjectivity – areas that had been neglected by the positivist musicology of previous decades. So I was able to develop this tendency and to link it to a growing awareness of the resources that a broader range of literary and critical theory could bring to musicology. My intention in writing the book was to provide a guide to how musicology was absorbing critical theory, while demonstrating the wider importance of the theories being used.

In particular, I was keen to demonstrate that these theories have significance beyond the confines of postmodernism. And this aspect of the book has certainly proved to be prescient, because the once ubiquitous postmodernism is now an historical phenomenon. This is partly because terms such as ‘intertextuality’ and ‘deconstruction’ have become so commonplace that they do not require a larger framework, and partly because postmodernism turned out to be more an expansion of previous views than their antithesis. Beyond the postmodernism debate, critical theory has remained an important resource for musicology, but with growing familiarity (which the book has facilitated) it no longer seems so different. What, however, has remained is my argument that critical theory is democratic, because it facilitates the understanding of music from more than one perspective.

Another topic that the book addresses, from a theoretical perspective, is the widening repertoire that is increasingly being considered by musicology. Notably, the volume looks at the field of popular music, showing how identity is constructed by a struggle between authenticity and mobility, and between production and reception. On the flip side of the coin, the reduced cultural prestige of classical music has taken place at a time when there are increasingly diverse ways of encountering it, through a variety of media such as film, TV, radio and internet. Debates about identity in popular music have expanded since my book was published, just as there is now increasing significance attached to the ways in which classical music can connect with modern life.

There has been consistent interest in Constructing Musicology ever since it was published, from students and professionals alike, and readers have generally fallen into two camps. The first of these is readers who are seeking some assistance with what can be the bewildering terminology of critical theory, and are grateful to receive some help. The second group of readers is one that values my argument for its willingness to use critical theory to push beyond the postmodern consensus and for its insistence on understanding music in terms of subjectivity. In addition, there are readers from both camps who use the volume as what Professor Nicholas Cook has called a ‘Rough Guide to a changing discipline’. Published in 2001 Constructing Musicology has managed both to reflect on the achievements of the 1990s and to set the tone for the following decades.



williams_alastairAlastair Williams is Reader in Music at Keele University, UK. He has research interests in modernism and modernity, Austro-German music, critical theory, and subjectivity in music. He is the author of New Music and the Claims of Modernity (Ashgate, 1997), Constructing Musicology (Ashgate, 2001), and Music in Germany since 1968 (Cambridge, 2013), and a contributor to The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music (2004). He has also published articles in a wide range of music journals. He has received funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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