MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER should really be kept in print, though the market may be small, as it is the best book on the subject. It serves, among other things, as the best record guide to the post-war avant-garde that I've found, although since '95 it has become somewhat outdated.
Griffiths imbues the story of the serialist avant-garde with high drama. The hero of his story is Pierre Boulez. Messiaen is the mentor, and Stockhausen the brother, a source of friendly but intense rivalry. Schoenberg is the father figure who Boulez "kills" even as he carries on his tradition, but of course crediting Webern. The history gives a palpable sense of the excitement of this avant-garde circle, which came together at Darmstadt. Cage and his zen anarchism presents a radical challenge to the integral serialist Project, and begins to explode it.
This takes us through the 1950s. The second part of the book is equally good, as the linear sense of progress unravels in the 1960s and '70s and fragmentation sets in. A fascinating development which Griffiths documents, but does not comment on, is the resurgence of sacred music as the secular avant-garde disintegrates. The Estonian composer Arvo Part is but one example of this trend, what might be called the reassertion of the pre-modern in the context of the post-modern. The third section is not as good, and resembles other similar books in being more an encyclopedia of entries on various composers and trends. There doesn't seem to be much alternative to this for now, but it's interesting to imagine how the present period may be reconstructed in light of future developments...
In his introduction Griffiths laments the loss of a sense of shared criteria for evaluating the diverse music of the moment. But of course books like this contribute to the construction of those criteria! Peter J. Martin's SOUNDS AND SOCIETY (see my review) is an excellent analysis of how music evaluation is socially constructed -- there are no objective, inherent qualities, and so something like writing a book or even posting reviews to a website serves to shape the reception of the art. An interesting topic to pursue would be the divergent paths of Boulez and Stockhausen, with the former becoming an esteemed conductor and not only championing the avant-garde, but also turning back to the once scorned romantic tradition, while Stockhausen followed an increasingly idiosyncratic path and became a revered figure for the 90s electronica movement, a "Father of Electronic Music"!
MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER is indispensable for anyone trying to understand the rich complexities of contemporary composition. I recommend Morgan's TWENTIETH-CENTURY MUSIC (see my review) for the pre-WWII period, and Gann's AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (see my review) for greater detail on the postwar U.S.
My writer brethren here neglected to mention that Griffiths in this reissue,brings us up-to-date a way of completing the tale he began over 20 years ago. Since that time composers have either grown up or become more important, some have fallen from graces completly. Brian Ferneyhough has grown up and Griffiths here gives ample evidence although brief and outlines in form, you read it,and it points you toward a greater exploration of his music. Likewise Morton Feldman became fascinated with the set of problematics concerning longer lengths in music's construction. Likewise the late Luigi Nono, this is the first real description in English of his summary work Prometeo,and gives a good perspective on him.Likewise the late Cage is discussed. Griffiths now writes for the New York Times, and he breathes some new life there of a seasoned reviewer.
Griffiths gives a survey that is clear, insightful and accessable to both musician and educated listener. After poring over many such books (twentieth century musical surveys), Griffths was a exciting and fun read. The detail on composition in the 1940', 50's and 60's is particularly well organized and concise, as well as ironing out many misconceptions regarding 'modernism' and serialism , to which many texts on modern music have fallen prey. The book is useful both for a didactic text and reference text. Unfortunately the latter half of the book, detailing composition in the 1970's, 80's and 90's, is not as well organized as the first half. The structure of Griffiths' discussion becomes less chronologically linear, focusing on individual concepts and composers, that (particularly in the last section 'strings and knots') seems to be in no particular order. Grittiths also seems less objective in the second half, betraying an odor of postmodern polemic. However, the discussion remains insightful thoughout, and still comprises one of the best texts that I've read on music after WWII.
This certainly is the book to get the low-down on contemporary music. However, here a few points of interest:
Firstly, I think the most glaring omission is Louis Andriessen, who not only co-wrote The Apollonian Clockwork, but has also composed some of the most important and exciting non-Webernian music around. What is especially important about Andriessen is that his own 'minimal' style is fully aware of the Modernist heritage at the same time as it critiques or refutes it, as oppoesed to others who just dismiss it outright and have no real understanding of post-Webernian serialism. Also, Andriessen's continuing political ideals make him an interesting study in current musico-poltical relations (now that most are dead: Nono, Cardew; or just write rubbish: Henze).
In fact, while I am no authority on comtemporary Dutch music, I certainly know no more about it through reading this book. Which brings me to my second point: the Anglo-West Europe-American-centricity.
Not only does he leave out the Netherlands, Finland, Scandinavia, South America, as well as the bizarre history of post-war Polish music, but also Australia and (South East) Asia. Now while I am no doubt partisan, his only mention of Australia is one line about the Elision Ensemble in relation to Richard Barrett, Chris Dench, and Finnissy. I think Australia has some of the best composers anywhere (Liza Lim, for instance), writing from a variety of perspectives and a fuller account of these
place-specific musics would have interesting, for instance examination of Australia's liminal position between Europe and Asia and how that affects attitudes to composition.
While his bit on Part is a witty piece of pomo gaming, he sometimes trips himself up in his pomo considerations (as other reviewers have pointed out): for instance, he says that the postmodern condition entails the loss (both through desire and circumstance) of the dominant-central figures crucial to the Modernist project (eg. Boulez) because there are now 'many streams' instead of a river, but he then later complains that no new 'Generals' have stood up to replace the these old ones in terms of central importance to the musical world. In this way, he doesn't really trace many new paths in his last section, but simply rings up his old mates (Boulez, Birtwistle, Berio, Stockhausen, Ligeti, etc) and asks them what they've been up to recently. But, then again, that is really what the book is for and it does it admirably.
And not only is his championing of Barraque timely, but Bill Hopkins too, whose music I was unaware of until reading his bit.
One hopes there will be a 3rd edition after most of the 'peace-time Generals' are gone and a final summation of the lasting effects of the immediate post-war project can take place. Until then this is the book to read if you want to know about the good-old music with no tunes that we all love.
Also the Strings and Knots is organised in reverse alphabetical (very postmodern!)
Most of the books I've found about post WWII composed music are either narrowly focused (like Joan Peyser on Boulez -good, just about worshipping Boulez most of the time) or intent on dismissing "total serialism" and its aftermath (Important to note that "total serialism" was abandoned by its primary practitioners -Boulez, Stockhausen, et al- within a few years of its inception). Even if the plethora of compositional concepts that flooded the world of composed music after total serialism ran its brief course have proven too abstruse to reach wide audiences or have proven (in many post Cage examples) to be too ephemeral to generate much more than transitory "happenings", a great deal of intelligence and discipline has gone into ways of thinking about and organizing sound. It would be sort of tragic to let all those investigations go to waste as many historians (Richard Taruskin in his final Oxford volume, for example) would.
No jazz here, no film scores, no pop, just composers and how they approach the work of organizing sound.
Pretty thorough and engaging. Not recommended for those who think Reich, Glass, and Riley are the summit of musical thought.