Reviewed Elsewhere: Julian Johnson, Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity.

Lars Fischer's picture
Julian Johnson. Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 380 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19023-327-3.
 
In Out of Time, a fresh and often thrilling account of musical modernity, the British musicologist Julian Johnson writes that at every turn, “music’s nature is thoroughly mediated by history” (310). Performance settings and the disposition of audiences bear the imprint of larger forces. Conventions rooted in time and place govern tuning, notation, and interpretation. Local craftsmanship defines the capacities of instruments. Perceptions of space and time shape how composers plot a work’s architecture, rhythmic structure, and harmonic movement. Views of humanity’s place in the city, on earth, and in the cosmos—at home or rootless, empowered or oppressed, securely at the center of creation or at the remote edge of fathomless galaxies—impinge on geographies of sound. For Johnson, music is “a privileged site” for experiencing the world’s particularity. In modernity, music “fulfills its function” (311). ...
 
Among the many delights of Out of Time is its immense range of musical examples, both familiar and little known. The arc of Johnson’s story reaches from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) and to Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (1986). ...
 
The large themes of Out of Time include language, selfhood, history, time, and the body. What emerges across its chapters are voices at once sure of their particularity and diminished by a pervading sense of loss: alive too late or too early, caught in an onrush of movement and change, made small by growing webs of industry and commerce. ...
 
This deeply contextual book shuns traditional historical approaches. ...
 
By insisting on music’s physical immediacy, Johnson challenges views that it inhabits a realm beyond the human. The flaw in such thinking comes from judging musical sense by the standards of language: unable to deliver a proposition or mount an argument, tones without words remain ethereal. Ask any musician, Johnson replies, whether the placement of a pitch or the shape of a particular phrase can be vague. Yet in contrast to cultural musicologists whose focus remains on the ideological content of compositions, Johnson’s emphasis on music as embodied practice preserves a space for enchantment. Music “encircles, encompasses, engulfs, encloses, envelops,” he writes. It is also “utterly precise”: “linguistic, rational, self-reflective, self-aware, self-critical, ironic” (307, 309). 
 
... This book is much more about music’s plenitude—its active, constitutive presence in the history and culture of its own time, and of ours—than its evanescence.