In the introduction to his Oxford History of Western Music (2005), Richard Taruskin writes that his account of music history is based in the work of individual people, their statements, and their actions, as opposed to the power of ideas, teleologies, and romantic attachments to style criticism. He also claims that a “true history” of music can overcome the survey genre by offering causal explanations of historical events. In his discussion of the Cold War avant-garde, however, Taruskin points the way toward a slightly different kind of historiography by employing what I call a critical explanation. It is based in a causal question—Why was this desirable?—but the ensuing explanation resembles the hermeneutics of suspicion typically associated with thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, all of whom were skeptical of the view that individuals are agents of their actions. I argue that Taruskin’s approach to the era has a methodological upshot, enabling readers to evaluate how the Cold War avant-garde might be linked with social and intellectual history in new ways. To demonstrate this, the article begins with a theoretical discussion of causality and its complex relationship to empiricism, proceeds through a survey of Taruskin’s use of existentialism as a critical explanation of the Cold War avant-garde, and ends with an account of some historical details concerning the era’s intellectual actors that expands on a few of the issues his critical explanation presents.

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