The Universe of Music: A History

Barry S. Brook, Executive Director (1979–1997)
Malena Kuss, Executive Director (1997–)

Finding Aid for the Barry S. Brook and Malena Kuss Collection: The Universe of Music: A History, 1979-2007, held in the Music Library of the University of North Texas

The following text was written by Malena Kuss, Cold Spring, New York, February 2017. It was prepared for the Round Table, “Towards a world history of music,” chaired by Reinhard Strohm at the 20th Congress of the International Musicological Society held in Tokyo, March 21, 2017. In Malena Kuss’s absence, the text was read by Daniel K. L. Chua, IMS President-Elect.


The Universe of Music: A History (or UMH) owes its existence to the imagination of Barry S. Brook (1918–1997), which knew no limits. A distinguished 18th-century scholar, he was a futurist who rekindled the spirit of French encyclopedism in vast international projects whose boundaries were set only by the size of the planet. Driven by an insatiable curiosity that defied confinement to “areas of specialization” (in one membership directory he appeared under “interests unlimited”), he wrote as much about his beloved classic period as he did about computer applications to musicology.  If he saw the need for bibliographic control of literature about music, he envisioned a tool that could serve the needs of scholars worldwide in RILM, which he created in 1965; and if recovering 18th-century French symphonies in a 3-volume dissertation (1962) was only a start, he set out to capture The Symphony 1720–1840 in a 60-volume set published between 1979 and 1986. After these and other projects were well under way, the challenge had to be upgraded.

The idea of creating a world history of musics, which the Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa had advanced in the 1970s, found fertile soil in Barry Brook’s imagination, and he proposed it to the International Music Council (IMC) of UNESCO during his term as president (1982–1983). We had worked on preliminary steps since a conference in São Paulo, at which I presented a paper on Africa’s legacy in Latin America, organized by the Brazilian National Committee of the IMC in 1980, with J.H. Kwabena Nketia in attendance. The project, then known as MUSIC IN THE LIFE OF MAN, however, was formally established in 1983.

This was a humancentric cultural adventure, as Chilean Samuel Claro used to call it.

When in 1988, at a meeting at the Smithsonian Institution, Carol Robertson objected vociferously to the use of “man” in the title, the project lost its luster and became THE UNIVERSE OF MUSIC: A HISTORY. Since then, I have had to explain that, unlike other monumental projects undertaken in the past decades to record knowledge about music worldwide (including The New Grove and MGG/2), UMH is not an encyclopedia but a HISTORY, the most ambitious collaborative history of musics ever conceived. Only the volumes on Latin America and the Caribbean involved 136 scholars from over 40 countries. Multiply by 8, the number of major regions that were covered, and you get more authors than the total of 800 IMS members.

The roster of contributors was a slice of state-of-the-art historical musicology and ethnomusicology in the 1980s and 1990s. The team of coordinators included J.H. Kwabena Nketia (Africa), TSUGE Gen’ichi (Asia), Trân Van Khê (Southeast Asia), Habib Touma (the Arab world), Ingmar Bengtsson (Europe), Charles Hamm (North America, to include the U.S. and Canada), Malena Kuss (Latin America and the Caribbean, to include Mexico), and Mervyn McLean (Oceania). Russia and China were assigned their own sub-coordinators and the archive at the Music Library, University of North Texas, includes all the contributions by Russian scholars.

As in Reinhard Strohm’s Balzan Project, Towards a Global History of Music, The Universe of Music centered on relationships. LINKS, ALWAYS LINKS, was Barry’s motto. In UMH coalesced fluid concepts, dynamic processes, resignifications, and “relationships within networks of relationships,” as in Eric Wolf’s definition of history in Europe and the People Without History (1982).

To understand what UMH was about we must step back, as did the German musicologist Walter Wiora more than a half century ago, in a visionary little book called The Four Ages of Music (1961/1964), He sees the great millennium of Western predominance and influence NOT as eurocentric or ethnocentric (an attitude that always betrays a residue of colonial mentality), BUT as one of four ages: prehistory, high cultures of antiquity, the age of Western predominance, and the 20th century: an age of technology and global interactive culture. Ours is the age of “micromusics” (Mark Slobin), transnational musics (the tango in Tokyo and Helsinki), and constant resignifications (like huayno and cumbia in chicha), all dynamic, not static concepts. This is the time when “nobody” is driving the car (James Clifford, Predicament of Culture, 1988), when the center and periphery model is a thing of the past, while the canonized, great tradition of Western art music endures as remains of the day, in parallel fashion to globalized composition and performance, and institutionalized in academia, concert life, and festivals.

Wiora, in his small visionary book, could only suggest these relationships and complex cultural transactions. The huge canvas of UMH would have materialized what Wiora could barely intimate in 1961, had circumstances not derailed completion. (We ran out of money.)

Much, however, was accomplished. In 2004 and 2007 I published 2 of  5 completed  volumes on Latin America and the Caribbean. If in volume 1, Performing Beliefs: Indigenous Peoples of South America, Central America, and Mexico (2004), “Most fascinating of all was being invited into worlds where myth is real, time is cyclical and music and sound are altering, metamorphic powers” (Mary Helen Klare for La Frontera, Autumn 2005), the commitment to perspectives of cultural insiders had a considerable impact on the Caribbean, according to Simon Lee’s review of Performing the Caribbean Experience, edited by Malena Kuss, in The Caribbean Review of Books (18 November 2008).

Before getting inside those covers, however, it might be helpful to locate Performing the Caribbean Experience in the creole canon, to which it is a classic addition. In terms of documenting, conceptualising, and analysing Caribbean music, this is probably the most important text published since Alejo Carpentier’s Music in Cuba …. Performing the Caribbean Experience belongs on the same shelf as José Martí’s Nuestra América; Jean Price-Mars’s Ainsi parla l’oncle; C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary; Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar; Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos / The Lost Steps; Césaire’s Cahier; all of Fanon; Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse; Chamoiseau, Bernabé, and Confiant’s Éloge de la créolité; Kamau Brathwaite’s Development of Creole Society in Jamaica; Benítez-Rojo’s Repeating Island …. there are other texts on this shelf, but these are some of the most significant in establishing the conceptual framework for engaging with the creole aesthetic. Performing the Caribbean Experience takes its rightful place in the Mundo Nuevo canon and even carves out its own niche, as the most comprehensive creole investigation of cultural forms to date.

Performing the Caribbean Experience (2007) essentially tells the story of how Caribbeans transcended slavery through music, as told by actors who are or were a part of that historical experience. After many prolific years of producing “work in progress” that saw the publication of hefty bibliographies of each major region, published in-house by the IMC/UNESCO in 1984; tables of contents for each of the regional volumes; an entire collaborative volume on Africa produced by Nketia in 1992 from a Bellagio seminar; the entire coverage of Australia and New Zealand, with a few essays on Pacific islands; a classic chapter by José Maceda on gongs and gong ensembles in Asia; and much more, what was most significant for me was a notice in the Bajan Reporter of December 20, 2008 reporting an interview with Archivist Victoria Borg O’Flaherty, who had been so helpful to me in covering St. Kitts/Nevis, who proudly announces that “Music Anthology acknowledges St. Kitts’ Cultural Heritage.” “Music in Latin America and the Caribbean is important because the authentic rhythm, sound and lyrics of the Federation are now documented and recognized as part of the Caribbean culture.” The slogan used by curators at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “A people’s journey, a nation’s story,” is easily applicable to the volumes on Latin America and the Caribbean created for The Universe of Music: A History.

In the words of J.H. Kwabena Nketia, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, writing in 1980 about the need for a world history of music at our first conference in São Paulo, as cited in Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje in “The Present State of African Music Historiography and Sources of Historical Data” (1992).

What is needed at this time then is a panoramic view of music history which does not obscure historical processes in different musical cultures in order to create the impression that music history everywhere follows one unchanging course. We need a world history of music that brings out not only the development of forms and structures but also the role that music has played in different musical cultures in different epochs [the role of music in human life, or, MUSIC IN THE LIFE OF MAN], a world history of music that demonstrates how musical cultures expend and reintegrate themselves in response to both internal and external factors, a history that identifies and evaluates the specializations that lead to the development of distinctive traditions shared by members of families of musical languages or clusters of musical cultures cultivated over a large geographical area of social and cultural interaction. We need a world history of music that stimulates general awareness and deeper understanding and appreciation of historical processes in music as an artistic and socio-cultural phenomenon. (In International Conference on African Music and Dance, The Universe of Music: A History, convened by J.K. Kwabena Nketia, Bellagio Study and Conference Center, October 12–16, 1992, p. 73.)