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American Record Guide, October 2006

This set, part of Naxos's ambitious "Discover" series, seeks to "demystify the whole subject of 'modern' music" in a "comprehensive and easily digestible" manner. There is a little over 2-1/2 hours of music on these CDs (all from the Naxos catalog), a 25,000 word (127 -page) essay by musicologist David McCleery, a timeline, glossary, maps, and ample photographs in the beautifully produced booklet. There are no examples in musical notation; the material is obviously geared to people with no musical background.

Let me state at the outset that this is an outstanding job. The musical selections and esthetic point of view are extremely fair-minded, remarkably free of prejudice, and meticulously researched. Mr McCleery's tone is engaging and non-academic, his prose readable and inviting. His worthy aim is to fight "intimidation" through "understanding", and his mission is accomplished with flying colors. I have taught this material at the university level for many years, and would have no problem using this set as an introductory resource.

Many today will wonder what "music of the 20th Century" requires "discovery": after all, music is all around us. McCleery calls the material collected here "great music" on p. 11 and "classical music" on p. 12. What this set actually deals with is "composed" music reproducible by performers skilled in instrumental and vocal techniques developed in post-renaissance Europe. There is no American popular music here, no rock, "alternative", rap, or any such music produced by modern commerce and aimed at adolescents. (The only exception is a pass at movie music with a sample of John Williams.) In other words, this is "Not-Pop" music (my term), and most of what this set documents will be new to most of the novice listeners to whom the release is presumably addressed. It's difficult for me to remember encountering any of this music for the very first time (at least the standard reper­toire pieces), but I can't imagine a clearer way of introducing such a potentially turbulent topic to willing listeners.

Disc 1 opens with a lovely performance of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and moves through three samples of the Second Viennese School, Ravel, and Stravinsky (Petrouchka and Pulcinella, but no Sacre), the English (Vaughan Williams and Britten), and some prominent Eastern European and Russian Nationalists (Janacek, Bartok, Prokofieff, Shostakovich). Disc 2 begins in America with Gershwin and John Williams; Ives acts as a bridge to the avant-garde (Varese and Cage for America; Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen for Europe).

Anti-modernist reactionaries are represented by Steve Reich (for minimalism), John Adams (for "postminimalism"), Tavener and Gorecki (for "holy minimalism"). The British neomodernists (the "Manchester group") get a hearing with a selection from Harrison Birtwistle and three pages on Peter Maxwell Davies. The set closes with a nod to distant shores, a little avant-garde flute piece from 1971 by Takemitsu.

It's easy to throw darts at a project like this, but I'd like to repeat that this really does a rea­sonable job at what it sets out to do. The booklet offers plenty of names for further exploration. Surely a more detailed text like Eric Salzman's 20th Century Music: an Introduction (Prentice-Hall) will build on what is offered here; more recent developments may be studied in texts like Kyle Gann's American Music in the 20th Century or this magazine, for that matter.

American Record Guide, October 2006

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