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 The Death of Modernism in Contemporary Music
>Autonomy vs. Heteronomy
Ahistoricity vs. Historicity
High/Low: Divisionism vs. Synthesis
Conception vs. Perception
Conclusion: Postmodernity

II. Autonomy vs. Heteronomy

All art stands outside life, in a space of its own, metaphorically embodied in the plexiglass display case, the bare white gallery, the aluminum frame. When one seeks a deeper connection between art and life than this, Modernism is over.
(Arthur Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box, 1992)

Social isolation and emphasis on formal considerations (art for art's sake) is a hallmark of Modernist aesthetics. In the field of music this view is exemplified in the works and writings of the Post-Serialist generation whose major proponents include: Boulez, Adorno, Babbitt, and Stockhausen, as well as a host of other composers primarily associated with universities. The main interest of the group's adherents was to exploit the formal possibilities inherent in the sound medium by manipulating materials in a completely self-referential manner. The goal was to create a piece of music which was as close to it's own nature as possible, untainted by extra-musical considerations, as this would only serve as a barrier between the composer and her/his materials and would consequently impede one's capacity to express oneself in a purely abstract, musically exclusive context. "The disappearance of all syntactical and grammatical paradigms, of all lexical tokens, focus it unremittingly to generate connections from within itself, connections which no longer emanate from elsewhere, and if they did they would just be dismissed as alien." [Adorno 1963: 258]. In consequence to this approach, two implicit concepts arise. First is the notion that art is created not for the consumption of contemporary society but for posterity. Art is supposed to be misunderstood by the unenlightened, in fact, one may go so far as to say that good art, to be considered such, must fulfill this criteria if it has something to offer beyond the scope of concurrent compositional procedures and mannerisms. Second is the idea of the isolated genius--an individual "gifted with a personality that puts him ahead of his time--his followers, although they are already, as such, an elite, have something 'compact' about them--that he is destined to the solitude reserved for the elite of this elite." [Ferry: 200]. These two concepts as a pair, as they relate to music, represent what I believe is a Modernist misinterpretation of an artistic philosophy attributed to Ludwig von Beethoven. Using this misconstrued version of Beethovenian integrity as a spiritual guide, Modernist composers equated these two aspects of Beethoven's personality with artistic supremacy. In this framework, composers were content in their autonomous explorations, for success was just around the corner: "bitter though this disagreement may be, it is, I believe, only a question of the two parties being 'out of phase' with each other, and the next generation will fairly soon correct the unhappy relationship between society and the individual." [Boulez: 38]. Success will happen soon enough; in the mean time we, as composers, must content ourselves with small audiences consisting mostly of specialists and the occasional sympathizer. After all, no one else is expected to understand - how could they? "Apart from the highly sophisticated and complex constructive methods of any one composition, or group of compositions, the very minimal properties characterizing this body of music are the sources of it's 'difficulty', 'unintelligibility', and isolation...each component of a musical event also has been 'multiplied'...each such atomic event is located in a five dimensional musical space determined by: pitch class, register, dynamics, duration, and timbre. These five components not only together define a single event, but, in the course of a work, the successive values of each component creates an individually coherent structure, frequently in parallel with corresponding structures created by each of the other components. Inability to perceive and remember precisely the values of any of these components results in a dislocation of the event in a work's musical space, an alteration of it's relation to all other events in the work and, thus, a falsification of the composition's total structure." [Babbitt: 279]. With this state of affairs in mind, Babbitt concludes with a practical word of advice: "The composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventful service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from the public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with it's very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition." [Babbitt: 279-80]. I say this interpretation of Beethovenian artistic precepts is somewhat Procrustean in its Modern guise because the one vital characteristic which is overlooked in Beethoven's artistic persona is his ability to communicate with the public in his own time. After all, what use is their in leading people to new artistic heights if nobody has the desire to follow? I term this peculiar Modernist dilemma the 'Beethovenian Complex'.

In reaction to Modern autonomist principles, composers representing the new Postmodern artistic philosophy, (e.g. Monk, Reich, Zorn, Daugherty, and Anderson), confronted the old order with it's diametrical opposite--complete and indiscriminate heteronomy. No longer concerned with formal/aesthetic purity, Postmodern composers turn their attention to content, using as a source for ideas, the immediate social structure and the characteristics arising from its context, reveling in the new found "freedom to choose or reject alliances according to the internal imperatives of style." [Krukowski 1992: 137]. The inherent lacuna present in the Beethovenian Complex is now recognized, and the Postmodern reaction to this dilemma is compensatory. Art eats it's surrounding culture, uses it for nourishment, to give it life and return life to its constituents. An artist's influences are as vast as our society's technological capacity to collect, store, and retrieve information. Contentual sources range from world musics to television, from personal experiences to political issues, in fact, procedures of the Modernists themselves become nothing more than an option--another product in the marketplace of ideas. This democratization of influences leads to an ironic turn of events with regard our immediate predecessors, described by Krukowski as a "demotion of artistic autonomy from artistic ideal to a specific kind of image--one of many images in the crowded lexicon of newly reputable images." [Krukowski 1992: 213]. This indiscriminate assimilative dynamic applies equally to the Postmodern composer him/herself, as a new discovery is immediately shipped, stored, and shelved for the next interested consumer. The contemporary artist perceives formalism as removed, irrelevant, and ultimately dangerous to her/his existence. Autonomy is lamented as an aesthetic error, as Krukowski explains: "The growing disparity between social and musical development couples formal freedom with social alienation. Within its development music discards its traditional service function, yet it is unable to assume a new symbiotic relation to its culture... Music's formal victory is thus rendered hollow by society's indifference." [Krukowski 1987: 50]. An additional consequence to this democratization of influences is the demystification of the act of artistic expression. No longer is the ideal artist a fated inhabitant of Zarathrustra's mountaintop--isolated and, hence, beyond the affairs of everyday existence. The myth of the solitary, self-destructive artist has been dispelled: dismissed as just another example of Modernist exclusionism, as Krukowski advises "beliefs must be updated... first belief to go is about the rarefied nature of genius--second... identifies creativity with illness...maladjusted and self-destructive, third... the primacy of value judgments on interpretation." [Krukowski 1992: 182-4]. As a result of this demystification we find that we are, in fact, all creative, that creativity doesn't necessarily lead to self-destruction or marginalization, and finally, that all art, good or bad, is valuable because the act of creativity itself is valuable.

In the midst of this seemingly insatiable pluralistic universe one can easily suffer from aesthetic vertigo, or from anxiety caused by Icarian nightmares, but they can do so without shame--what one won't encounter here is the imperative of originality.

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]

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Copyright © 1996 William Rhoads. All rights reserved.
Last updated 26 June 1997. Contact information.