Research Spotlight: Jack Boss, Music Theory

Associate Professor of Music Theory Jack Boss

May 12, 2014—Jack Boss, associate professor of music theory, tells us about his new book, and speaks a bit about the school's balance between performance and scholarship.

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

For my entire career, I have had the strong desire to make difficult, dissonant music, the music of the early twentieth century, more understandable to musicians and laypeople. There is tremendous beauty and logic in early twentieth-century music, but those qualities are by no means immediately obvious from the surface, and this music has always been in danger of being ignored and forgotten by the public.

The desire to make this music accessible has been the main motivating factor in my research and publishing, and that is why I chose Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal and twelve-tone music as my principal research area. Schoenberg is universally acknowledged as one of the most important and difficult-to-understand composers of the first half of the twentieth century. For more than twenty years I have attempted to explain his music in his own terms, exploring its relation to theoretical concepts he coined such as "developing variation" and "musical idea."

What can you tell us about your new book?

Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music: Symmetry and the Musical Idea, a 448-page survey of Schoenberg's twelve-tone music, will be published by Cambridge University Press in June 2014. It is the latest installment in their Music Since 1900 series, one of the world’s most prestigious book series on the topics of modern and post-modern music.

The publisher's blurb characterizes my book quite well: "[Jack Boss] takes a unique approach to analyzing Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone music, adapting the composer's notion of a "musical idea" - problem, elaboration, solution - as a framework and focusing on the large-scale coherence of the whole piece." The cover of Jack Boss' new book, "Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music: Symmetry and the Musical Idea"

Essentially, I take some of the ways of relating twelve-tone rows that have been described and developed by music theorists in the late twentieth century (like "invariance" and "combinatoriality"), and show how they work together to project the large framework of a musical idea. The book is available for pre-order now, from the Cambridge or Amazon websites.

How does the UO support your scholarship?

I've been privileged to serve the School of Music and Dance for almost twenty years, and have always been impressed by its balance between striving for excellence in musical performance and encouraging path-breaking musical scholarship by both students and faculty.

From my perspective, former Dean Anne Dhu McLucas worked hard to create that balance between performance and scholarship, and Dean Brad Foley has done a good job of preserving it. The school's new Research Spotlight plays an important role in alerting our larger community to the many exciting things going on at this school on the research side.