Running the gamut from bhangra to Bach

January 26, 2001

Is the latest club anthem as worthy of scholarly attention as Elgar's Enigma? Sara Lloyd of The New Grove Dictionary of Music believes it could be.

In the halls of academe the debate rages. Should students study Star Wars alongside Chaucer? Ought they to be encouraged to analyse Eminem's latest outpouring in the same terms as a Beethoven opus? Popular culture has always been a challenge for academics.

For a publisher of scholarly reference titles, these issues are equally challenging. To what degree should a work of reference cover current "popular" topics, and what is the appropriate language for the analysis of new genres and subjects? How should Grove react to the opportunity to publish in real-time on the worldwide web, while preserving the standards of thoughtful scholarliness that have marked its reference publications over the past century and a half?

The editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias, ensconced in the lofty heights of their ivory towers, have traditionally enjoyed a historical distance from their subject matter, allowing them to make "objective" judgements about which figures or topics should be included. Biographical dictionaries have tended to cover the lives of dead white males; encyclopedias have given the impression of immutability by presenting information as fact. Increasingly, though, it has become necessary for reference works to reflect what is currently significant as well as what is of historical importance, and to distinguish between opinion and fact. This is partly because of changes in the way subjects are studied in the education and research sectors that we serve, and partly because of developments in technology, which create the expectation that we should publish more frequently and more up-to-date information.

This month, Macmillan published The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , a reference work with a worldwide reputation. Grove is treated with an almost devout respect that would strike fear into any publisher's heart. In embarking on the new edition in 1993, the seventh in its history, many new challenges faced us. Music scholarship had moved on apace since 1980, when the previous edition was published, and it is virtually unrecognisable from the time of the early editions, when Sir George Grove, the dictionary's originator, famously declared that it would not include reference to the musics of "barbarous nations".

It was deemed no longer acceptable to stop at the Beatles and Bob Dylan in our coverage of popular music, and, although the last edition had made strides towards the inclusion of non-western musics, it was clear that we needed to go further. Since the publication of the last edition and particularly from the 1990s on, the study of popular music has come into its own as a serious discipline, and world music has outgrown its position as a specialist subject confined to ethnomusicologists.

Laura Macy, newly appointed editor of the online Grove, says: "It is no longer acceptable to see western classical music as the sun and popular or world musics as moons. They are not satellite subjects when it comes to scholarly research."

But what makes these living subjects difficult to present is their ephemeral nature. As relatively new areas of serious study, there is no established language for discussing them from a scholarly perspective. When we are used to hearing pop music described in the language of the NME and MTV, it is easy to find it faintly absurd to read in our article on breakbeat that: "On Photek's album, Modus Operandi (Science, 1997) the drum beats are developed through rhythmic and timbral variation over cyclic bass lines and impressionistic synthesised chords and effects." However, this is an accurate description in musical terms, and one that goes some way towards conveying the technical brilliance and complexity of the music. We have regarded it as our duty to make the attempt to cover these subjects in a scholarly fashion and to describe their cultural significance.

We have had to make difficult choices about which artists are significant. Decisions were made on the basis of whether our editors and advisers thought a band, artist or composer had contributed on a level that would prove to be of lasting significance both musically and culturally. We tried to select those who had influenced a genre or who had been the progenitors of forms of music. Ultimately, these decisions are subjective, and, in almost every case, there have been scholars who have agreed with our line and those who have vehemently disagreed.

Although many popular groups were included, the Spice Girls were excluded on the advice of contributors who considered the group had not contributed significantly enough on a musical level. However, Macy is the first to wonder whether their cultural impact has been such that they should be accorded a discussion. Indeed, the group has already been the subject of heated debate at a dedicated conference session at the International Musicological Society.

There is no doubt that within a few years we will realise that some artists or composers were excluded in error, and that others who we believed would have a lasting impact should perhaps not have appeared. But thanks to online publishing we will be able to make quick amendments.

These are problems facing musicology as a whole, and Grove has taken the decision to tackle them head on rather than to sit back and let the scholars battle it out. Grove has always sought to be more than a reflection of scholarship. It has sought to lead the way and to inspire debate - the true mission of scholarly publishing.

In an effort to be at the cutting edge of scholastic debate, our online update programme will carry quarterly factual and bibliographic updates. There will also be annual reviews of themes and issues in musicology that cut across cultural and generic lines. For example, we will review our coverage of popular musics of every culture on a global basis, or update all aspects of theatre musics - not just revise the coverage of western opera, but revise and expand our coverage of Asian theatre musics such as kabuki and Beijing opera.

Grove has always had a broad appeal. We have adopted a potentially precarious position between presenting the scholarly treatment of a subject and ensuring that articles are written in a clear and lucid prose that is accessible to a wider market. The thousands of copies available in schools and public libraries worldwide bear witness to the fact that Grove is accessible to any "intelligent inquirer", as Sir George would have put it.

Developing The New Grove II Online has enabled us to open Grove up to an even wider market by creating sophisticated ways to access and understand the dictionary's 29,000 articles. Grovemusic.com utilises advanced search technologies that allow the student or non-specialist new levels of access to the content. A user can, for example, search for a term without knowing the exact spelling, using the "pattern" search option, based on the broad pattern of letters in a word. This is particularly useful when searching for a name that has a variety of spellings. Alternatively, there is a "concept" search that will find results that broadly relate to a search term.

Full text searching, one-click cross-referencing and the option to select related articles mean that users can follow serendipitous paths of discovery at the click of a mouse. In Grove's "explore" section, users can drill down through broad topics by date and geographical area to find a comprehensive list of articles. The addition of multimedia elements, such as rotating 3D images of selected instruments and sound files, bring the content to life.

As we further develop Grove online, we will strive still harder to ensure that we maintain its integral values of authority and accessibility, values that we believe need not be mutually exclusive.

Sara Lloyd is online publishing director at Macmillan. The New Grove II Online can be found at www.grovemusic.com . Online subscriptions start at £190 a year for an individual and £900 for an institution. A number of other pricing options are available for one-time personal use. The 29-volume set costs £2,950. Telephone 020 7843 4622 for details.

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