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Postmodernism in Music.

Postmodernism in Music. By Kenneth Gloag. (Cambridge Introductions to Music.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. [xvi, 204 p. ISBN 9780521766715 (hardcover), $85; 9780521151573 (paperback), $27.99.] Music examples.

The most immediate question raised by this book is "Why now?" Even in a field as fickle as cultural theory few terms have seen such a dramatic career as "postmodernism." While, with the customary delay compared to neighboring fields, postmodernism suddenly became the buzzword of choice in musicology during the 1990s, it just as quickly faded from view shortly thereafter. In this respect, it inversely mirrored the fortunes of modernism, which served as the preferred object of ritual denunciation at the end of the last century, only to be revived with surprising zeal and used with inflationary tendencies in our own. For me personally, the tipping point was illustrated during a discussion on research centers at the (then) School of Humanities at the University of Sussex where I used to work, in the course of which the Dean, to the chagrin of the assembled luminaries, suggested that there were some advantages to the difficulties in setting up such centers, since without these the University would have founded a center on postmodernism long ago and what an embarrassment that would have proved (the University had and still has a thriving Centre for Modernist Studies).

Whether such criticism of postmodernism is due to a negative (re)evaluation of the art and theories associated with it, or whether it is based on the view that the concept has little explanatory power is difficult to decide (although "a bit of both" is probably the best guess). In any case, it always seemed to me that such wholesale rejection is as shortsighted as the often uncritical embrace that preceded it before the pendulum swung in the other direction. What would be required, however, is a critical approach to the subject that places it in its historical context. In what, in my view, is the strongest part of his .book, the postscript, Kenneth Gloag demonstrates that he is fully aware of the issue, stating that "[Now, or when, we begin to theorize culture, and hear music, after postmodernism, and how that might be both conceptualized and represented, may well require ... new theories and concepts that subject postmodernism to the kind of critical response that was once projected against modernism" (p. 161). Unfortunately, however, the bulk of the book reveals little historical distance or critical perspective and no attempt to develop the "new theories and concepts" mentioned here. Indeed, much of it reads as if it could have been written twenty years earlier.

Gloag's view of postmodernism is based primarily on Jean Francois Lyotard's oftcited notion of "incredulity towards meta-narratives," in which place Lyotard puts "little histories" (pp. 5ff.). This is complemented with a historical perspective supplied by the work of David Harvey (writing in the 1980s) and, in terms of music-specific terminology, Jonathan Kramer. More demanding constructions of postmodernism that focus on its purported kinship with Derridean deconstruction or notions of decentered subjectivity as suggested by Lacanian psychoanalysis are only touched upon (in the former case) or ignored altogether (in the latter). Although this can be justified on account of the intended undergraduate readership of the book, for whom this kind of theorizing may well prove too challenging, it is somewhat regrettable since these theories have on the whole proved of more lasting value than Lyotard's, whose explanatory power seemed overstated at the best of times and which in retrospect has been largely overtaken by historical developments. To illustrate Lyotard's "shift in scale from large to small," as Gloag describes it, he quotes an observation by Jean Baudrillard, who in 1983 (four years after Lyotard's seminal publication of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984]) declared that "we are no longer in the age of grandiose collapses and resurrections ... but of little fractal events" (p. 6). This statement may have described the paralysis of that particular phase of the Cold War very well, but it only goes to show how distant that age now seems, after the fall of the Berlin Wall (surely one of the most "grandiose collapses" in world history), 9/11, the Arab Spring and the financial crisis--to say nothing of wider technological, social, and cultural developments.

A more critical historical approach would also have to examine postmodernism's relations with neoconservative political ideology and neoliberal economics. Is it more than a coincidence that the influence of all three peaked at roughly the same time? Gloag himself points out that chief among the metanarratives Lyotard bade farewell to was Marxism, yet he never really questions what the abandonment of such frameworks and its replacement by little histories meant in practice. It seems to me as if one of the results was an ideological void that was filled by the New Right. It is telling in this context that, in addition to the theorists mentioned above, Gloag draws heavily on Fredric Jameson. In doing so, however, he restricts himself to Jameson's description of postmodernism and remains silent about his Marxist-inspired and rather savage indictment of it, arguing that, despite their centrality in Jameson's own work, "these issues ... must remain beyond the scope of this introduction" (p. 164 n. 29). Similarly, although Gloag notes the prevalence of "end of history" ideology in certain formulations of postmodernism in music and its kinship with the neoconservatism of Francis Fukuyama, this seems not to give him pause. This is not to suggest that postmodernism can simply be equated with neoliberal and neoconservative agendas, nor should Lyotard's abandonment of Marxism be mistaken for sympathy for the New Right, but to argue that any mention of Lyotard's metanarratives needs to be accompanied by a deeper reflection than is offered here.

In this way, Gloag chiefly summarizes and synthesizes postmodernist thinking largely originating from the 1980s and 1990s, or rather some aspects of postmod-ernist thinking, instead of critiquing it even where its positions have become obviously problematic if not untenable.

These problems almost pale in comparison to the notoriously difficult task of defining musical postmodernism. Here Gloag largely relies on Jonathan Kramer's handy but arguably simplistic checklist. Thus we learn that postmodern music is "on some level and in some way, ironic"; that it "does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and the present"; that it "challenges barriers between 'high' and `low' styles"; and that "it shows disdain for the unquestioned value of structural unity" (p. 26). There are various problems with this formulation. One is that these claims do not really stand up to the observations that "on or about December 1910, human character changed" or "[a]ny work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery, is of little worth"--Virginia Woolf's and Ezra Pound's foundational formulations of modernist poetics, respectively (whatever one may think of them). Another is that it is not entirely clear how one gets from something as general as an incredulity towards meta-narratives to any of the specific stylistic criteria mentioned. To be fair, Gloag does attempt to do this, but with varying success. Yet another is that they are similarly characteristic of certain modernist positions: in other words, the music of Ives and Mahler mixes high and low, that of Stravinsky the past and the present; the latter is also arguably ironic and frequently shows "disdain for the unquestioned value of structural unity." Conscientious as he is, Gloag acknowledges this but that does not effectively address the problem. The final problem is that the claims are so broad that they can in some way be made for many if not most pieces of music. To be sure, it is similarly difficult to define musical modernism, but over the decades modernist thought has developed a rich and diverse discourse, so that the need to create a finite list of stylistic features never really arose. We typically operate with a potentially unlimited body of family resemblances that enables us to recognize the modernity of, say, Schoenberg, Bartok or Carter rather than with a checklist of defining features (the same could be said of romantic or classical music: we can all think of a number of characteristic features, but ticking off bullet points on a checklist seems beside the point). If you feel that you need such a list, chances are that the concepts you are operating with are not powerful enough.

So what music passes the test? There are chapters on George Rochberg, John Zorn, and Sofia Gubaidulina, with shorter passages on Michael Daugherty, John Cage, Luciano Berio, Nicholas Maw, Robin Holloway, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Alfred Schnittke, Elton John, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Frisell, DJ Spooky, and others. Many of these are among the usual suspects, although there are some welcome additions in comparison to earlier discourses. While questions of canon and taste are obviously subjective and contentious, the music of some of these artists has perhaps stood the test of time better than that of others. Some of these names seem to have come to prominence only on the back of the postmodernism debate because their music seemed to embody the otherwise elusive traits but has largely disappeared since. That cannot be said of the likes of Cage, Berio, Frisell, DJ Spooky, or Reich, but do we really need postmodernism as a concept to discuss their music? In the case of Berio, this identification was never more than a rather crude misrepresentation (which the composer himself protested against), and in the others, any application of Jonathan Kramer's abovementioned criteria seems to do a serious injustice to the seriousness and complexity of their art, which is presumably why most of the specialist literature shies away from employing postmodernism as a key concept. To be fair, Gloag's often subtle analyses go beyond simple box-ticking, but, in general, the more interesting his observations are, the less constrained they are by the exigencies of identification.

Although the inclusion of popular music is welcome and in keeping with the subject, the problems are even more apparent in the relevant sections. In their stale scholasticism, debates such as those about whether the Beatles, Rolling Stones, rock and roll, or rock should be regarded as modernist or postmodernist (p. 35ff.) are reminiscent of medieval disputes about the number of angels dancing on pinheads. Who cares? As a rule, those who are primarily interested in the music do not, and only people who are committed to the ontological exercise of dividing all phenomena into modernist and postmodernist camps do.

Maybe I am asking too much of a book that is billed as an introduction to "a topic fundamental to the study of music at undergraduate and graduate levels" (p. 205), as the blurb for the series has it. But one has to ask what is meant by the claim of fundamentality. I am not aware that there are lots of courses in "postmodernism and music" being offered at institutions of higher education. It is not as if most of the repertoire covered here were canonic and therefore truly "fundamental to the study of music." For that part which is arguably canonical, postmodernism is not necessarily the most fruitful theoretical concept to apply. In other words, even after reading the book, I am not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as postmodernist music (or that the music that can unequivocally be described that way is worth bothering with), nor that calling the music of Cage, Reich, Frisell or DJ Spooky "postmodernist" reveals anything essential about it that was obscured before, or, for that matter, that Lyotard's "incredulity towards metanarratives" or Kramer's criteria for postmodernist music provide a particularly useful analytical or interpretative approach.

In saying this, I don't mean to suggest that postmodernism is an irrelevant term in the study of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century music. Undoubtedly, postmodernism as an idea exerted a strong influence on many musicians and commentators, roughly from the 1970s to the 1990s (with a pre- and an after-history), and any historical approach with any claim for comprehensiveness would have to acknowledge this. As I have already argued, however, such a discussion would need to be more critical and more reflective of the historical context than what is offered here. Although Gloag is too subtle to speak of "postmod-ernist music" per se, the application of Kramer's checklist, however qualified, suggests otherwise. Furthermore, he does seem to employ the term as a period label. This never becomes entirely dear, but Gloag's distinction between different historical phases within postmodernism, inspired by the work of David Harvey, suggests as much. Witness too how he conceptualizes David Metzer's account of recent modernist music in Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) as "modernist music as a stylistic option in a postmodern context" (p. 164 n. 30). It is this concern with periodization and stylistic markers that makes the acknowledgment of postmodernist features in the music of Stravinsky, Ives, and Mahler such a problem. Rather than as a period with a distinctive style, I think it is much more fruitful to regard postmodernism as a particular aspect in the ongoing history of musical modernity, an aspect that is connected to a specific phase but not necessarily restricted to it. Such a construction would also alleviate Gloag's apparent difficulty with what comes after postmodernism. He has to resort to an exhibition by the London Tate Modern Gallery called "Alter-modern" (p. 160). This resort to discourses outside music seems surprising given that the issue is hardly new: following the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the composer and theorist Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, for instance, has spoken of "second modernity" (which is not without problems since in Beck's work the term is connected with enhanced and accelerated globalization, something Mahnkopf doesn't seem to be particularly interested in); I have myself proposed "critical modernism."

This brings me to another, final issue: all references in the book are in English, which does not prevent Gloag from pontificating about musicology's approach to postmodernism or, for that matter, music (his examples are dominated by artists from the Anglosphere or who happened to have made a particular impact there), without any qualifier such as "English-language" or "in the English-speaking world," as if the latter were all there is or all that matters. For a topic on which many of the foundational contributions were made in other languages (notably French and German), this is simply not good enough. Maybe students now have to be shielded from an awareness of the mere existence of other languages and discourses, but the fact remains that English-language sources alone do not provide an adequate basis for a topic such as "postmodernism in music." We are in danger of creating a culture that, in the complacent belief in its own centrality, only manages to insulate itself from any awareness of its provincialism.


University of Glasgow

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Author:Heile, Bjorn
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 30, 2013
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