Outstanding Academic Titles 2023: Music

This week we highlight, Outstanding Academic Titles from the past year pertaining to Music.

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2023 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight, Outstanding Academic Titles from the past year pertaining to Music. A hearty congratulations to the winning authors, editors and publishers!

1. American song and struggle from Columbus to World War II: a cultural history
Kaufman, Will. Cambridge, 2022

Kaufman (Univ. of Central Lancashire, UK) explores songs of protest in the US across four and a half centuries, beginning with Columbus’s 1492 voyage to what became the Americas. Long before the songs of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Indigenous Americans sang about their lives and struggles. Invading Europeans brought their Christian music with the hope of saving souls while also claiming Native lands and eradicating/enslaving the Indigenous inhabitants. People brought from Africa aboard slave ships sang lamentations that later evolved into spirituals and the blues. Along the way, readers will encounter other Americans—colonists under British oppression, labor activists, abolitionists, woman suffragists, and immigrants from Ireland, China, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Japan. National disasters—the Great Depression, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s—weighed particularly on the most vulnerable and also contributed to the song literature. The thread running throughout is protest songs from Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, and native inhabitants of Hawai’i and Alaska. This thread loops back once again in the conclusion with this question: “Whose America is it anyway?” View on Amazon

2. Measure: in pursuit of musical time
Moskovitz, Marc D. Boydell Press, 2022

This book describes centuries-long efforts to communicate musical tempo (communicate is Moskovitz’s word, and it is the best word). Iterative natural phenomena, e.g., the human heartbeat, are too irregular to set and keep musical time; normal clocks and pendulums have all manner of problems and limitations. In the early 19th century Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel seemed to have answered the call by creating a mechanical metronome. Alas, Winkel did not protect his intellectual property, and Johann Nepomuk Maelzel appropriated it and then manufactured the devices that became essential to the practice of music in Europe. Moskovitz discusses efforts as early as the 1400s to construct something like a metronome; in essence the book is a history of a specific technology serving an artistic purpose. Mozkovitz’s narrative is compelling enough that musical readers may have to think more deeply about musical time. The essays in The Oxford Handbook of Time in Music, ed. by Mark Doffman, Emily Payne, and Toby Young (2022), include some references to metronome history, but that book has quite different goals and is not directly competitive. The current volume fills an obvious gap in understanding and is a welcome addition to the literature. View on Amazon

3. Bach in the world: music, society, and the representation of Bach’s cantatas
Rathey, Markus. Oxford, 2023

Rathey (Yale) has published extensively on the music of J. S. Bach. The title of the present volume is more than a pun: it directs the reader to the true point of this work, which is a study of public musical performance in the civil life of cities such as Leipzig in the 18th century. Rathey considers musical works, e.g., Bach’s secular cantatas, as an integral part of civic functions, such as city council installations. The musical examples the author includes point out the compositional ideas that Bach used to fulfill these public assignments. The 17-page bibliography directs one to additional research. In focusing on Bach, Rathey’s volume enlarges on Tanya Kevorkian’s Music and Urban Life (CH, Sep’23, 61-0060), a historical study of civic performance. Rathey’s works include Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (CH, Sep’16, 54-0137) and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (CH, Apr’17, 54-3662). View on Amazon

4. A little history of music
Philip, Robert. Yale, 2023

In this concise history Philip (formerly, Open Univ., UK) covers thousands of years of musical activity across cultures and continents. Philip begins with the earliest known musical instruments, flutes made from mammoth tusks some 40,000 years ago, and concludes with contemporary composers and performers such as John Adams, Beyoncé, and Rihanna, along the way looking at the various roles of music in society. Important themes emerge across chapters, for example the oral transmission of music through the centuries; origins and developments in musical notation; and the role of technology in support of advances in music, including music printing beginning around 1500 and adding valves to trumpets around 1850. The author’s connections between earlier and later developments and across musical styles are skillful. The gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, for example, is first discussed in its original setting more than a thousand years ago, but later in connection with its influence on Impressionist Claude Debussy beginning around 1890 and on minimalist Steve Reich around 1970. Important topics are addressed, among them slavery, racism, and obstacles women composers and performers faced. This accessible, enjoyable volume balances traditional classical music topics with sections devoted to folk and popular musics in all their various forms. View on Amazon.

5On music theory and making music more welcoming for everyone Ewell, Philip. Michigan, 2023

In this book Ewell (Hunter College, CUNY) examines racism in American music theory, not merely in employment but also in the structural, scholarly underpinnings of the discipline. Of course Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935) receives much attention here, since his work continues to be venerated despite his profoundly racist and nationalist views—views long ignored or suppressed in the world of theory. In 2019 Ewell delivered a talk titled “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” at the Society for Music Theory’s annual meeting, and he published a corresponding paper, by the same title, in Music Theory Online (June 2020). This proved disruptive, and Ewell describes some of the (surprising, disheartening) consequences in detail. The final section provides a positive prescription for music theory and classical music generally to broaden the outlook, consider the many preconceptions, and do better. This book may represent the cusp of a racial reckoning for music theory in the US. Ewell does not eschew technical matters, so the book may be a bit out of reach for nonmusicians. However, everyone—students and faculty—involved in music theory should read it. View on Amazon.

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