Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Postmodernism from Grove Music

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 1, 2006

As a historical period, postmodernism can denote that which postdates the period 1450–1950, reflecting a crisis of cultural authority and world view, especially that vested in Western culture and its institutions (Jameson, 1991). A growing ecological sensitivity encouraged a broad critique of modernity and modernization (Huyssen, 1986). In music, Cage appears postmodernist because he threw into question both the concept of artistic genius that developed during the Renaissance (Hamm, 1997) and the notion of music as organized sound. Postmodernism can also signal a change from developments that began around the beginning of the 20th century. Some see this as a shift from imperialist centralization, nation states and utopian philosophies to a decentralized world economy, supranational entities and relativism. What is postmodernist in this sense depends on one’s definition of Modernism.

The concept may also refer to a socio-economic condition, a reaction to the ‘modern condition’ that began with the Enlightment (Habermas, 1981). Some have used it to describe the penetration of capitalism and mass media into all aspects of life, undermining faith in various religious and historical metanarratives. Others understand the postmodern condition as ‘marked by a plurality of voices vying for the right to reality – to be accepted as legimitate expressions of the true and the good’ (Gergen, 1991), or as a ‘time when no orthodoxy can be adopted without selfconsciousness and irony because all traditions seem to have some validity’ (Jencks, 1986). Similarly, in philosophy and the arts, it is often used to denote a way of thinking or operating (Eco, 1984) that sees the world as the product of multiple perspectives all of which have some truth. This has led to a breakdown in boundaries between élite and popular culture and to receptivity to those on the margins of power.

Postmodernism is also used to describe a style that throws into question certain assumptions about Modernism, its social basis and its objectives. These include faith in progress, absolute truth, emphasis on form and genre and the renunciation of or alienation from an explicit social function for art. Many use the term to describe a style that posits discontinuity over continuity, difference over similarity and indeterminacy over rational logic (Harvey, 1989). From this perspective, some aspects of postmodernism have Modernist antecedents (Dada, the futurists) or long traditions in music (collage, juxtaposition, appropriation, quotation). Questioning the modern aesthetics of the sublime which ‘allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents’ and leaves the ‘recognizable consistency’ of the form to ensure ‘solace and pleasure’ for the reader or viewer, Lyotard (1979) idealizes a postmodernism that ‘puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation itself’. Those who see it as an attitude that disdains analytic or perceptual unity and embraces other forms of order (J. Kramer, 1995) argue that postmodernism is an attitude recurring throughout history. From this perspective, the modern/postmodern dialectic is an alternating aesthetic cycle, like classic/romantic. Those who support this conclusion point in music to Alkan as a precursor because he wrote in an old style without seeking novelty, Reger for his ‘double coding’ and restorationist tendencies (La Motte-Haber, 1995), or Ives and Mahler because of apparent disorder in their music (J. Kramer, 1995).

Certain trends have determined the change from a Modernist to a postmodernist sensibility in music. First is the reaction to the internationalism of Modernism, to the centrality of Europe in that tradition and to abstraction as a universal language, particularly that which developed in Darmstadt after World War II. The Modernist drive for progress produced not only anxiety over influence but also exclusivity, an art increasingly limited to those who had the resources to support experimentation and technological innovation. In music, the institutional power of those composing in modernist styles fuelled this reaction; so did the ambitions of those using computers to increase their control over musical materials.

Cultural politics and critical theory of the last quarter of the 20th century focussed on the role that differences have played in society and culture, specifically those of race, class and gender. With the growing complexity of global interconnectedness and an increasing awareness of the need to respect rather than attempt to dominate non-Western cultures, attention turned to individuals and groups ‘whose histories have prepared them to make productive use of contradictions, to embrace the dynamism of difference and diversity’ (Lipsitz, 1994). The music of post-colonialist and other subaltern voices throughout the world and of immigrants struggling against power, poverty and discrimination within Europe and North America became recognized as a major form of subcultural as well as national expression (Slobin, 1993). In place of universalizing metanarratives, this music often addresses issues of personal or local relevance. Whereas some traditions communicate a sense of place, others express dislocation and privilege movement over stasis.

Since the 1960s and especially with the perceived end of the avant garde by the 1980s, some composers working within Western art traditions also re-evaluated music’s expressive potential. Rejecting the need for constant change and originality and the increasingly difficult and often intellectual approach to music espoused by Modernists, they returned to more traditionally accessible notions of music. Some sought to renew a connection to the past by re-embracing harmonic and temporal strategies characteristic of 18th- and 19th-century composition. Sometimes, as with George Rochberg, traditional forms and syntax serve as a foil to Modernist ideas within one work; other times, as in the music of David Del Tredici and Ellen Zwilich, they signal a wholehearted return to tonality and conventional narrative. With William Bolcom among others, they enable integration of popular idioms. Such concerns forced reconsideration of the concept of consonance (H. Halbreich in Kolleritsch, 1993) and new concepts of tonality, as in the music of L. Ferrero (T. Hirsbrunner in Gruhn, 1989): this trend has been called a ‘postmodernism of reaction’ (Foster, 1987). In Britain and the USA, it was associated with 1980s neo-conservatism. Music critics, especially in Germany, called it neo-romanticism, especially in works that appeal to the emotions such as those of Wolfgang Rihm. In Arvo Pärt’s music, it mirrors a return to spirituality and mysticism in the contemporary world.

Works embodying a second approach, ‘postmodernism of resistance’ (Foster, Huyssen, 1986) or radical postmodernism (Kramer), question rather than exploit cultural codes and explore rather than conceal any associated social or political affiliations. This music often addresses the ‘master narratives’ of tonality, narrative structure, Western hegemony and male dominance. In his music, John Adams makes puns or ironic commentary on these narratives while others deconstruct their inherently contradictory meanings. Composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and Louis Andriessen, for example, use continuous repetition to create non-narrative works that subvert the role of longterm memory in the perception of a work’s structure. Huyssen points out that resistance of this sort ‘will always have to be specific and contingent upon the cultural field within which it operates’; he argues that its point ‘is not to eliminate the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art. It is to heighten that tension’.

A third postmodernism, one of connection or interpenetration, results when a work’s juxtapositions involve an eclectic inclusion of material from disparate discourses, sometimes elements that are not musical per se (Pasler, 1993). Whereas quotation in a Modernist sense often implies a desire to overcome and surpass one’s predecessors, sometimes by distorting or satirizing the borrowed element, postmodernist appropriation functions without any desire to assert the dominance of one element over another. Works such as Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968) and Alfred Schnittke’s Third String Quartet (1983) quote predecessors’ and contemporaries’ music to comment on the history of musical traditions. They construct a sense of time as embodying many times, a self made of many memories. Stylistically what is important, from a postmodernist perspective, is not what is preserved from the past but the radical nature of what is included. And whether colliding new with old, original with borrowed, serious with popular, aesthetic with non-aesthetic, politically central with marginal, the ethics of postmodernism implies an acceptance of difference and sometimes a playfulness. Such works express a ‘longing for a both/and situation rather than one of either/or’ (Perloff, 1989).

The purpose of such collages can vary. In his Musicircus (1967), Cage shifted to the listener the burden of making sense of what he called the ‘play of intelligent anarchy’. Similarly, in some of John Zorn’s recordings, the effect of juxtaposing jazz, swing, pop, reggae, film and TV soundtracks and a recurrent Japanese voice is anarchic coexistence. This music’s noisiness is meant to challenge traditional expectations of music and transform the listening experience (McNeilly, 1995). In the work of Laurie Anderson and other female performance artists of the 1970s, these juxtapositions come from the use of autobiography, story-telling, self-referentiality and a collage of myriad personal tastes; these help return the composer’s ‘shadow’ to the music. In their pop-inflected music of the 1990s, Lang, Wolf, Torke and Daugherty incorporate commercial popular music not only to express their generational interests but also to challenge the troubling contradictions in American culture. In the popular music of migrants worldwide, music both expresses their exile identity and connects them to the real and imagined traditions of their homeland. This has resulted in works meant to help listeners reconcile profoundly different experiences. Postmodernism can thus be seen as ‘an aesthetic vehicle for this struggle’ (Manuel, 1995).


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