The Great American Music Book (Out of Print)

I had opportunity this week to teach with a classic music book that I rarely get to use: Sonic Design (Prentice-Hall) by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot. Published in 1976, the book was an amazing and long-awaited achievement: a culturally neutral attempt at general, analytical musical principles. Starting with abstract, non-Eurocentric concepts such as pitchspace, contour, and density, and usually starting by graphing scale steps and rhythms onto graph paper, Cogan and Escot came up with methods for approaching music that worked equally well with a Josquin des Prez mass movement, a Bach keyboard work, an Elliott Carter string quartet, the Ives First Sonata, a Zuni buffalo dance, a piece called “Plum Blossom” for Chinese Ch’in, Indian raga improvisations, John Cage’s chance works, and Gregorian chant. They approached each piece from the outside via descriptive analysis, only moving in toward culturally determined features of musical language after coming up with general insights about shape and gesture. In fact, it was their Zuni buffalo dance analysis that, in 1977, spun me off into a life of visiting American Indian reservations and studying Native American music and dance for integration of its rhythms into my own music. Add to that the fact that the Forward is by Elliott Carter, and it’s clear that this was an important, even revolutionary book with very widespread appeal and no axes to grind.

I’d construct a class around Sonic Design if I could order it for students, but, of course, I can’t: it’s out of print. (I Xeroxed a couple of chapters this week.) I don’t know how long it was in print, a few months, it seemed like. It can be just about guaranteed that any important book about music will disappear from print almost before the music community is aware of its existence.

For instance, Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources is the most influential book in the history of American music: it was published in 1930, remaindered in 1935, brought out briefly again in 1969, and picked up by Oxford again in 1996, and I’ve just heard a rumor that it’s going out of print again. For many years another crucial book in American music, Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music, was unavailable, though Da Capo managed to bring it back a few years ago with CRI’s help; I hope when I order it for class next week it’s still out there. Jonathan Kramer’s 1988 book The Time of Music was a ground-breaking study of 20th-century concepts of musical time: out of print. Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism: still relevant today, but a collector’s item that you can make a good profit off of on E-bay. And as for books on tuning, fugeddaboudit. My keyboard temperament bible is Owen Jorgensen’s Tuning: Containing the Perfection of Eighteenth-Century Temperament, the Lost Art of Ninteenth-Century Temperament, and the Science of Equal Temperament, but you’ll never find it. In 1992 Patelson’s Music in New York had a stack of them on the cut-out table and I grabbed several for friends, though the tome weighs a good ten pounds. And every microtonalist I know would give his left little finger for a copy of J. Murray Barbour’s Tuning and Temperament (Da Capo Press, 1972). Somehow Cage’s Silence and Charles Rosen’s The Classical Era manage to stay in the bookstores, but any other good-looking music book I snap up on first sight, because I never expect to see it again. There are thousands of musicians out there searching for rare copies of books that no one will publish because – “there’s no demand for them.”

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