VI. Conclusion: Postmodernity
So all in all, things don't look so bad. We are in a position where one style can feed the other, where one technique enriches the other, thus enriching all of music. We have reached that supra-level of abstract musical semantics, of pure Idea, where those apparently mismatched components can unite--tonal, nontonal, electronic,serial, aleatory--all united in a magnificent new eclecticism.
(Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, 1973)
By way of conclusion, I will make good on my promise to furnish the reader with a more positive characterization of Postmodernism as a new aesthetic/cultural context for contemporary concert music. In order to do so one must first accept the premises outlined above distinguishing Postmodernism's existence as a separate ideological entity characterized by its own unique aesthetic precepts and fundamental cultural beliefs. As I have described Postmodernism's birth as having risen from the ashes of Modernist individualistic imperatives, I believe I've established quite clearly Postmodernism's coming into existence not merely as a direct result from a dialectical aesthetic response to previous artistic beliefs, but more importantly, as an elegant transformation of ideas given rise in consequence to the pluralistic state of affairs in which composers found themselves during the aesthetic 'delta' described by Morgan. In their isolation, composers were given the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of their art anew, to entertain other aesthetic possibilities without the outside influence of competing 'isms', and, by virtue of their dispersion into society as individuals, were able to regroup under a completely distinct set of artistic beliefs. It is in this sense that the period of Pluralism can be understood as the concomitant Postmodern equivalent of the Delta of Modernism, as this transitional period marks a vital stage in the development of both ages. In this respect, the last gasp of Modernism serves simultaneously as the first breath of Postmodernism; the dawn of a new age rises from the dusk of the one preceding. This change, however, was as gradual as it was subtle, and the eventual appearance of Postmodernism in its present state can be most easily understood as having been marked by several important contributions toward aesthetic self-definition. These contributions, which are concomitant rather than evolutionary in nature, are categorized in contemporary aesthetic discourse by the following terms: 1. Eclecticism, 2. Minimalism, and 3. Disturbationism (or Disturbationary Art). What marks these activities as contributions toward a Postmodern aesthetic rather than that of a Modernist context is their subscription to the uniquely Postmodern precepts of heteronomy, historicity, and inclusionism. Gone is the Modernist imperative of perpetual revolution and the artistic climate of competing 'isms'. What we are left with is a democratized aesthetic setting where new ideas vie not for status as cultural messiah but for that of an engaging contributor to the already complex rubric of artistic ideas. In the world of painting Danto describes this state of affairs with the following scenario: "There were many options for painters--Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, of course; Futurism, of course; varieties of Realism--but only one true option. But now, if Pluralism was accepted in 1981, one option was as true as any other. It is not that everything was historically correct, historical correctness has stopped having application." [Danto 1992: 218].
The term "Disturbationary Art" originates with the philosopher Arthur Danto in his classification of culturally referential, sociopolitically charged artworks intended to modify the views and perhaps even transform the lives of the perceivers [Danto 1991: 299]. While Danto's definition is concerned primarily with explaining the artistic practice of desecrating recognized masterpieces and traditional gestures for the dual purpose of engaging the viewers attention and protesting the oppressive nature of European art-historical accounts, it nevertheless describes, on a more general level, the practice of many artists who use socially/historically referential images to protest current moral corruptions and social injustices. The main purpose of Disturbationary artists is less a concern for purely formal characteristics of the medium than with the powerful representation of the desired content. Often this power is realized by presenting morally/socially disturbing images to the viewer/listener, which, by virtue of their capacity to shock the sensibilities, captures the viewers attention. Examples of this type of activity in the current art scene are far too numerous to give an adequate account of them, however, the most recognized representatives in music are somewhat less copious, the most obvious examples include such composer/performers as Lori Anderson, Diamanda Galas and Meredith Monk. Since music by its very nature is less capable of conveying literal messages without the aid of textual or visual accompaniment, the disturbationary content found in contemporary concert music is inevitably much more subtle, and arguably more personal (and hence, more effective), in virtue of this abstractionary characteristic when it does successfully communicate the desired message to the listeners. With this in mind, this disturbational character can be traced to a greater or lesser degree to those composers who use their music to convey strong, socially referential, moral messages with the intent of modifying the listener's consciousness in favor of a particular ethical position. In addition, the works of these composers, because of their referentiality to prevalent social issues, can be seen as a manifestation of the Postmodern affinity toward social heteronomy. Some examples of a disturbationary approach are apparent in the works of Steve Reich (Different Trains), John Adams, (Christian Zeal and Activity), and John Corigliano, ('AIDS' Symphony: No. 1), all of whom touch on sensitive social issues with the hopes of effectively moving the listener in a particular moral direction.
The Minimalist aesthetic is said to have arisen partially as a result of a dissatisfaction with an over-intellectualized approach toward composition attributed to the Ultra-Modern or Post-Serialist generation of composers who were at the time significant members of the more 'prestigious' universities in Europe and the United States. The representatives of this Ultra-Modern approach include such composers as Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Martino, and Wuorinen--a group which, in all fairness, are often deemed representatives of such an aesthetic by virtue of a relatively small number of compositions with regard to their entire output. That said, that fact that they did employ such conceptually (as opposed to perceptually) emphasized principles at one time or another is enough to consider them as having some interest in such activities and was certainly enough to grant them the status as antithetical figures in the eyes of the Minimalists, if not for the reason of their output then for their widespread influence on the musical ideology of the time. Along with this opposition to 'means-oriented' composition, the Minimalists also expressed in their music a fervent interest in the repetitive structures and rhythmic regularity of popular and ethnic musics, in particular, the repetitive patterns found in Rock as well as East Indian and African music. As New York Times critic, Robert T. Jones explained, "These were young, talented and ambitious would-be composers who had grown up with the rhythms and philosophical content (notably cynicism and despair) of rock music socked into their souls as solidly as the traditions of Bach, Beethoven, and Bartók." [Glass: xiii]. Aside from the obvious strains this type of approach places on the Modernist division between high and low forms of expression, the Minimalist musical aesthetic also entails the acceptance of the Postmodern principles of heteronomy and historicity. I say the Minimalist approach embraces the Postmodern concept of historicity since the musical materials used are most commonly drawn from the tonal tradition rather than from a newly created syntactical context. However, it can be argued that, while Philip Glass and his contemporaries (e.g. Lamonte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich), did effectively define a new aesthetic, their hopes of creating music that was perceptually more accommodating than their predecessors was virtually unfulfilled, since sitting through a twenty minute piece consisting of intermittent bleeps and spontaneous clusters is scarcely less tolerable to the average concert goer than sitting through a four hour composition featuring a seemingly infinite repetition of a 4 or 5 chord chaconne figure. It is in this respect that we can appreciate the developments apparent in the activities of the more recent Minimalist influenced composers. In this second generation, often called Post-Minimalist (Adams, Nyman), Mystical-Minimalist (Taverner, Gorecki), or Totalist (Gordon, Branca), we see a more concerted effort to reconcile the earlier generation's 'weaknesses' in the realms of aural accommodation and structural simplicity.
The terms 'Eclecticism' and 'Pluralism' have often been used interchangeably in aesthetic discourse. This practice is particularly evident in the writings of composers George Rochberg and William Bolcom. The result of this terminological ambiguity has been the indiscriminate application of either expression for two fundamentally separate aesthetic activities. With this in mind, I will attempt to place each of these terms in their definitionally proper contexts by first contrasting the two with regard to their unique definitions, and then by proposing a more appropriate application of these terms with regard to the classification of analogous aesthetic activities. The following is an excerpted definition of both terms taken from the Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:
While both classifications necessitate the existence of a diverse universe, the one fundamental factor which distinguishes the two terms is the concept of autonomy. A Pluralistic environment is one in which the constituents contribute to the inherent cultural diversity by virtue of their own unique features, which are necessarily distinct from that of the other members. In music, this scenario is analogous to the state of affairs characterizing the artworld in the late 60's and early 70's in which the Modernist imperative of artistic autonomy reaches its highest point, its teleological utopia; where each composer was defined as the product of her/his own autonomous artistic explorations--that period which Morgan appropriately calls the "Delta of Modernism", and which I have, I believe, also rightly termed the period of "Pluralism". The term "Eclecticism" implies the existence not of autonomous subjects defined through their own isolated and unique features but of a universe consisting of heteronomous individuals who draw freely from their surrounding environment. Hence, self-definition comes not from isolated discoveries and autonomous explorations but from the creative assimilation and personal interpretation of outside influences. An aesthetic analogue to this state of affairs is present in the works of composers such as John Zorn, William Bolcom, George Rochberg, Easley Blackwood, Frank Zappa, and John Corigliano. Apart from a complete disregard for traditional autonomist principles, the common thread between all these composers is their desire to incorporate diverse musical influences into a personal aesthetic framework. In such an approach, these artists benefit not only from the freedom to draw from their surroundings, but also from the ability to reach a larger audience by virtue of the possibility of using a musical vocabulary which is familiar to the listener.
The two most frequent criticisms one encounters in current discussions regarding this type of compositional approach refer less to the procedures involved than with the end product. The first complaint stems from the pastiche-like manner in which music of this sort is often presented, as is evident in the works of Zorn and Bolcom. The grounds for this critique are usually based on the principles of unity and organicism. That is, the apparent complete disregard for unifying musical elements and the fluid transformation from one idea to the next yields a composition which is characterized by a somewhat chaotic and haphazard succession of ideas whose relationship to one another seems more dependent on arbitrary temporal succession than on shared relational elements. The main problem with this argument is it's rather myopic conception of what is needed in order to make a valid work of art, namely the existence of some arbitrary unifying agent. Proof of the claim that the criterion for validity is in fact an arbitrary product is glaringly revealed in the myriad aesthetic practices and imperatives instantiated in the course of this century, all of which employ some type of agent to justify and establish the identity of given group of artworks. Examples of such unifying agents come in many guises which include philosophical/aesthetic frameworks,and complex structural systems, as well as the more traditional examples of programmatic content, organicism, and variation. The Eclecticist, having benefited from retrospection with reference to the artistic practices of her/his immediate predecessors, recognizes the arbitrary nature of such a decision to employ a unifying agent, and as a result, places it on a higher level of abstraction. In other words, the decision itself to utilize a unifying framework is now seen as just another aesthetic option, which may or may not be considered in deference to its complete or incomplete negation. The consequence to this state of negation can be understood as a kind of pure temporality. In this respect, pure temporality is understood as the musical dimension wiped clean of its potential unifying agents and either replaced with a new one or simply left without a replacement--thus, relying solely on its intentional existence within a particular 'time-frame' to establish its artistic identity. On a less abstract level, the frenetic manner in which these musical ideas are presented within a particular temporal 'space' can be seen as an artistic expression of the overall diversity and rate of change we are accustomed to in contemporary society. As Stephen David Ross correctly points out, "Postmodernism is as much a result contemporary technological developments as of a sensibility to language and discourse." [Lyotard: 538]. We live in a culture saturated with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of latent information made readily available to us at the touch of a button, the turn of a dial, or even the prompt of a voice. The potential rate of consumption in virtue of this technology is dizzying, and the number of choices presented to us as a result of this increased availability of information verges on a uniquely Postmodern form of cultural decadence. The ubiquity of this information and the seemingly endless variations through which this material is conveyed is unprecedented in its efficiency and staggering in its proportions. It is in this respect that we can interpret the frenetic pace and characteristically schizophrenic character of the Eclecticists as an artistic exemplification of this peculiarly Postmodern state of affairs.
The second argument against the Eclecticist compositional approach is somewhat easier to dispel since it relies on an inherently Modernist belief as its foundation. Antagonists point out that a prominent feature of compositions which employ preexisting musical idioms or styles (e.g. Rochberg, and Blackwood) is an almost complete lack of artistic individuality and stylistic originality. Rather than contributing something personal to the adopted system, composers seem content working within a chameleon-like aesthetic framework, mimicking the gestures and mannerisms of another era at the expense and compromise of their own artistic identity. In addition, the Eclecticist composer is accused of artistic insincerity, using well worn musical formulas and illustrative gestures in order to elicit particular emotional responses from the listeners rather than expressing themselves in a personally relevant manner with their own unique musical vocabulary. The conceptual foundation underlying this entire argument rests squarely on the Modernist imperative of originality, which, in turn, necessitates the characteristically Modern fixation on novelty and innovation as criteria for artistic validity. As is the case with any uniquely Postmodern phenomenon, the fundamental problem underlying many of the critiques regarding Postmodern activity lies in the misapplication of irrelevant aesthetic criteria to an essentially distinct artistic practice. In a Postmodern aesthetic framework the Modernist imperative of originality is rejected, not because of it's subscription to the concept of originality, but because of the exclusionary repercussions inherent in the establishment of any principle as an imperative for artistic validity. As a result of this characteristic disdain for all things exclusionary, in a Postmodern aesthetic context the idea of originality is reduced to the status of merely an aesthetic option, one among many, each being endowed an equal degree of potential significance and importance. Consequently, the accusations of artistic insincerity and aesthetic compromise are equally dispelled, in virtue of the fact that the derivative application of preexistent musical languages and gestures is no longer defined as a taboo aesthetic practice with reference to the precept of originality. In other words, since derivation is no longer equated with creative weakness or artistic compromise, the act of derivation itself is no longer stigmatized as an aesthetic iniquity. On the topic of artistic insincerity, this claim again results from a misapplication of Modernist views on history to that of the Postmodernists, and should be sufficiently nullified in virtue of their distinct ideological perspectives with regard to this topic (see section III). In further defense of the Postmodern position on the subject of history I will pose the following question: As residents in a society characterized by the unprecedented availability of historically and ethnically diverse musical information, both in the form of recorded/live performances, and educational materials, is it really implausible to consider the music of other cultures and historical eras an integral part of our experience and hence an important part of who we are? If this indeed is the case, then the issue of sincerity, as it refers to the artistic expression of culturally/personally relevant content is truly a non-issue in our current social context, and should be dismissed as such. In an effort to remedy the dilemma of aesthetic misapplication, I propose that we first establish a plausible aesthetic context within which we can postulate the goings on of contemporary composers with due regard for their artistic integrity. Once this framework is created in the prescribed manner we should then analyze the possible ideological incongruities and aesthetic contradictions with an intent to ameliorate the problematic discoveries by furnishing viable solutions. With this in mind, getting back our original argument regarding the derivative practices of the Eclecticists, it is also important to note that, while originality is no longer considered a necessary criteria for artistic value in contemporary aesthetic thought, this doesn't negate the possibility of employing a self-created, autonomous musical vocabulary. The difference lies not in it's preclusion from current artistic activities but in its relative importance compared to other compositional possibilities. It is less a matter of critical aesthetic prohibition than that of the assimilative democratization of all artistic contributions.
In closing, it seems appropriate, with reference to an artistic age dedicated to the principle of cultural heteronomy, as well as an era plagued with the seemingly constant prospect economic instability in the arts, to contemplate the possible function and relative importance of contemporary concert music in its surrounding social context. In a society defined by the increasing fragmentation of special interests, the disintegration of communities, and the alienation of the individual, the one factor that seems to link the whole of its members together is the existence of a shared source of association; a society bound together by virtue of a common experience, and, hence, a common identity. The means through which we are able to recognize, express, contemplate, criticize, and celebrate the dynamics of this relationship between the individual and society is through culture, in its many forms and manifestations; whether it be through music, television, literature, visual arts, cinema, or computers. It is, however, the unique property of music, in its various forms, to be able to communicate with individuals on an more abstract, and, hence, potentially more direct emotional/personal level. In virtue of this innate ability to forge personal connections through its medium, music not only serves to express this relationship between individual and society, but also, perhaps more importantly, it is, in its most glorious manifestations, able to bridge the immeasurable abyss that exists between one human being and another. The establishment of a new, Postmodern aesthetic framework which allows one the opportunity to draw from shared cultural experiences and musical traditions for the purposes of artistic expression will become increasingly more important as the world continues to fragment into smaller groups, facing us with the very real danger of social estrangement and cultural alienation. It is with regard to our capacity as artists to exemplify these points of reference that we as composers hold the power to affect the lives of our fellow human beings, right now, at the time in which we live--herein lies the greatest source of our artistic vitality.
The Death of Modernism in Contemporary Music
[Introduction] [Autonomy vs. Heteronomy] [Ahistoricity vs. Historicity]
[High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis] [Conception vs. Perception]
[Conclusion: Postmodernity] [Bibliography]
Copyright © 1996 William Rhoads. All rights reserved.