I recently returned from a semester abroad in London, where I intensely studied art and culture. While I was there I was required to take a few different arts courses. This included a music history course entitled, “Topics in Music History,” which sounded absolutely thrilling. As a music major, I had already taken two semesters of music history and was feeling slightly unenthusiastic about a third semester of studying Gregorian chants and memorizing opus numbers. Little did I know that this course would open my eyes and ears to new musical understanding and fascination. Before taking the course in London, I had heard the term “postmodern” in my classes but had little knowledge about what it was or its musical application. After several lectures and articles, I am beginning to grasp the concept and would like to share my findings with you all.
Throughout musical history we have been able to name each musical era and pick out the characteristics that make that compositional era unique. However, the post-modern era is ambiguous and nonlinear. In fact, the name itself just lets us know it is the era after the modern era. So, what is the postmodern musical era, and how does it affect you? I will do my best to explain this musical era to you because I feel it is important to understand our current musical environment, and how it not only affects our music, but our daily lives.
Jonathan D. Kramer was probably the leading expert on Postmodern musical theory. His book, Postmodern Music, and Postmodern Listening, which he completed just before his death in 2004, was recently published in 2016. I highly recommend reading it, or at least skimming a few excerpts from it. However, if you are not inclined to spend hours reading up on postmodern music philosophy, I will attempt to break down some of his ideas for you.
The first step in understanding postmodernism is distinguishing the difference between postmodern and anti-modern. Often these two labels are used interchangeably, but there is a clear distinction. Anti-modernists reject modernist values and attempt to return to traditional musical values. Both styles look back to the musical elements of classicism and romanticism, but there is a clear distinction between the two. Anti-modernists, in their attempt to revive traditional values, still hold onto the elitist values of earlier musical periods. Postmodernists, however, both embrace and repudiate the past. They attempt to break down the barrier between “high-brow” and “low-brow” music. Postmodernists challenge the divide between popular and classical music, while anti-modernists prefer to establish themselves as a superior musical form. Both styles look to the past for inspiration but use the past differently within their compositions. Anti-modernists re-embrace earlier styles, techniques, phrasing, and structures. Postmodernists, on the other hand, take familiar elements of the past and transform them, and combine them with new elements to create something unique.
To give you a better understanding of what I mean by anti-modern and postmodern I will provide you with an example of each. The first example is George Rochberg’s Ricordanza. Once a serial composer, Rochberg returned to tonality and traditional techniques in 1964 to find more musical expression. This piece demonstrates the anti-modern return to earlier styles and has an unexpected early sound for a piece composed in 1972
Although Rochberg composed a quintessentially anti-modern piece, he also composed a quintessentially postmodern piece in that same year. Rochberg’s Third Quartet takes a traditional string quartet and moves beyond it and transforming it into something entirely different. There are moments of tonality and traditionalism, which become skewed by intense moments of atonality and extended technique. Rochberg has created something unique with his blending of styles, and clearly demonstrates a postmodern voice.
Now so far, I have been referring to postmodernism as if it fits perfectly on the linear timeline of Western music; the classical era followed by the romantic, followed by the modern, and so on, but I have been lying to you. Postmodernism no longer fits within our linear timeline of Western music. Kramer explains that it is an “attitude” rather than a musical period. Music from other eras can be listened to with a postmodern perspective. Some may even say that all works are postmodern at their conception. The French philosopher Jean-Francios Lyotard puts it beautifully when he writes, “A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.” All works in the beginning look to the past and simultaneously embrace and reject it, thus making them postmodern before they become anything else.
Postmodernists also have begun to question all elements of current Western musical understanding. Postmodernists believe in challenging social binaries; they question everything that we have believed to be inherent. I have, and I believe most people have, always considered a musical work as a whole. When I go to the symphony, I understand the entire symphony as a unified work made up of the sum of four movements. Yet, the postmodern composers and listeners reject this entire idea of musical unity. What if you were to accept each musical passage as it comes? Each passage is its own entity that does not add to an overarching narrative or structure. Is unity inherent or is it a value we have we have projected onto music? Postmodernists challenge all our preconceived notions about music, and what we believe to be inherent. Kramer explains that the postmodern listener is, “more willing to accept each passage of music for itself, rather than having- in accordance with the strictures of modernist analysis and criticism- to create a single whole of possibly disparate parts.” Occasionally, at a more contemporary music concert I find it easier to listen to each phrase as it comes, and not try and place it within a larger context. Perhaps postmodern listening helps make certain types of music more accessible for audiences.
The other components that postmodern composers really gravitate towards are intertextuality and eclecticism. Some take direct quotations from other works and place them within a new musical context. Postmodernism is about taking from a variety of sources and creating something new. Taking something that sounds familiar but adding something to it or giving it a new meaning. Postmodernists are about transformation of the familiar, all while taking from a variety of sources. Quotation is an important element in this process. A great example of this is George Crumb’s quotation of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra in his work Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale). Crumb takes a passage that originally is this triumphant and iconic moment between the brass and the tympani, and recontextualizes it into an eerie conversation between flute and piano using extended techniques. This is a great example of a postmodern composer’s ability to give the familiar a new identity.
A great example of a postmodern composer’s use of eclecticism is Laurie Anderson. Anderson was initially trained as a classical violinist, but as she developed as an artist she began to combine the elements of popular and classical music to create a unique avant-garde sound. Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science is a great example of postmodern music that fuses the separate musical worlds into one. As a listener you can hear the influences of classical, jazz, and pop, but ultimately Anderson has taken from a wide range of sources and created something truly original.
Now that I have given you a glimpse at postmodernism in music, I want to reflect on postmodernism in our own lives. You are most likely more postmodern than you think. One of the biggest causes of postmodernism is something Kramer refers to as “social saturation.” This is the saturation caused by the constant flow of information through technology. It causes us to have a life of fragmentation, short attention spans, and multiplicity; our attention is constantly drawn in several different directions. Kramer writes, “There is no time to reflect, no time to savor, no time for contemplation, no time for considered choice, no time for depth. Conflicting claims on our attention, as well as constant bombardment with information, lead to the fragmented sensibility associated with postmodern attitudes.” The other day I had a conversation with my friend, in which we both realized we are never really bored anymore; if I get bored with Instagram I’ll go watch Netflix or listen to Spotify. My attention is constantly pulled in several directions. Because of all these constant distractions, our sense of self is constantly in flux; we are constantly being molded by the information being fed to us. Postmodern music cannot help but reflect this societal state. In addition to personal fragmentation, our relationship with the past has also shifted. People from our past are no longer distant; I can search for my kindergarten classmates on Facebook right now. The past is no longer far and unapproachable the way it once was, and this is reflected in postmodernism’s nonlinear attitude.
Even artists who may not consider themselves to be postmodernists cannot help but be affected by social saturation and fragmentation, and thus ultimately end up making postmodern art. Although postmodernism is difficult to define, I find myself understanding where I fit in within postmodernism. We are no longer stuck within specific channels of life. Each of us can experience as many aspects of life as we want. I am a musician, a rugby player, and a cook. Many adults nowadays experience more than one career in their lives because they are no longer confined to specific social channels. Postmodernism is about accepting things for what they are, challenging norms, processing the constant stream of information, and transforming the past into a present context. The question is: are you postmodern?