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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

V. Conception vs. Perception

In the hands of a talented composer, serial composition could produce highly expressive, and often ingenious music, and it became fashionable, almost mandatory, among composers growing up after World War II. Probably its intellectual rigor and sheer difficulty for the creator, performer, and listener made it seem almost automatically worthwhile, regardless of how it actually came out.
(Philip Glass, Music by Philip Glass, 1987)

While it is agreed that the emphasis on means rather than ends as a Modern characteristic is more a product of Late or Ultra-Modernist activity (e.g. Cage, Babbitt, Boulez, and Xenakis) than that of the age as a whole, it can still be recognized as a distinguishing factor of Modern aesthetics for two reasons. First, while the mentioned figures may not represent mainstream activities in the Modern era, they do nevertheless occupy an acknowledged status and respected position in the context of Modernist artistic activity by virtue of their philosophical and procedural approaches as either a higher or at least equally important component of their artistic contributions. These artistic contributions are seen in a Modernist environment as a radical manifestation of the germinal precept of autonomy. In short, the works of these artists represent an almost mannered exemplification of an art turned in on itself; concerned not with the surrounding culture but with its own materials and aesthetic boundaries. Cage, in the footsteps of Duchamp and his followers, explored the outer limits of artistic consciousness by offering listeners an ideological framework which would allow them to accept any sound as a possible source for aesthetic appreciation. He offered listeners an opportunity to experience this musico-philosophical concept in his works by employing an elaborate procedural scheme through which all (or many) of the musical parameters were governed by chance operations. It is, of course, in this respect that we see a well documented connection between Cage and the likes of the Post-Serialists, both of whom establish sophisticated extra-musical structural principles to govern various parameters (e.g. pitch, rhythm, timbre, and dynamic), often at the expense of perceptually/aurally based gestural considerations in an effort to convey their own unique aesthetic message. The difference between the two approaches, of course, lies in the particular aesthetic context each group establishes in order to "properly" appreciate their work: Cage furnishing us with an Eastern based philosophical framework prescribing our indiscriminate acceptance of all sounds as music, and the Post-Serialists establishing an imperative of structural and, hence, perceptual sophistication as a necessary prerequisite for aesthetic enjoyment. So, while it's true that the Ultra-Modernists embody a more extreme manifestation of the Modern imperative of autonomy, it is also true that they shared this propensity, to a greater or lesser extent, with their contemporaries, however radical their approach is deemed in comparison. It is in this respect, that is, with regard to compatible aesthetic context, that the second reason for establishing these figures as representative of Modernist activity arises. In fact, this second pretext is equally applicable to all Modern composers, in that they embody to greater or lesser extent the same fundamental aesthetic principles. This distinguishing element can be understood as follows. While the artistic ventures of Modernist composers are defined as embodying, at varying degrees, the Modernist imperative of autonomy, the identical activities of these same artists, considered in a Postmodern aesthetic framework, would be understood merely as an another equally viable artistic contribution to an already rich aesthetic universe. That is, rather than being seen as representatives of a universal guiding aesthetic principle, these same artists are given a different identity under a Postmodern guise to that of just another contributor to the already existing artistic climate--one whose ideas and contributions are just as viable as any other for the purposes of artistic expression.

This Modernist fixation on procedural and ideological features in music is another reason for the characteristic divisionism between high and low cultures explained earlier, and the proponents of this approach have found a considerable degree of refuge and stability from popular culture in our academic system. The result of this increased sophistication in the handling of musical materials has lead to proportionally related decrease in the size of audience members. What is left is a small but dedicated group of listeners consisting of specialists (e.g. other composers, and music theorists) and the occasional supporter. Ironically enough, what hasn't changed in this course of events is the composers desire to affect her/his listeners, however small these numbers may be. Aware of the musical demographics characterizing their small public, composers inevitably work in a style that is most conducive to communication in the context of this specialized audience--that of complex systems of musical organization and intellectually intriguing ideological frameworks. Inherent in this state of affairs is the presence of a vicious, and ultimately self-destructive cycle. In an effort to meet and challenge the intellectual interests of their adherents, composers continually up the ante with regard to the promise of structural complexity in their works. The increased sophistication of means in order to achieve this goal leads to the proportional increase in emphasis on parametrical features in a composition, which, in turn, results in a gradual alienation of those in the already small ranks of supporters who are not able, or for that matter, not willing, to comprehend the complex constructive principles inherent in the composition. Hence, this vicious circle takes a form analogous to that of a black hole, destroying all those within a close proximity in an effort to increase its own power, marking those beyond it as merely the next level of its evolution. What results is a dynamic which will ultimately lead to complete and utter isolation--a state of affairs analogous to that of composers in the late 60's and 70's, which I have described with due regard to Morgan as the 'Delta of Modernism' [Morgan: 182-90].

In his autobiography, Philip Glass describes an apparently self-defining experience in his life as a student in Juilliard with regard to the composer's own view on what I've categorized as means oriented concert music. Glass often attended new music concerts in which many of the works seemed to be devoid of any a redeeming aural quality whose performance would elicit the completely serious remark, "It's actually much better than it sounds." from empathetic audience members [Glass: 13]. In consequence of this and other related experiences, Glass realized this aesthetic direction to be incompatible with his own artistic instincts and consequently pursued an alternate compositional course which was later to be coined (not with Glass' endorsement), Minimalism. While more will be discussed about Minimalism in the succeeding section, it is mentioned here to exemplify the beginnings of a fundamental shift in aesthetic beliefs which is inherent to Postmodern aesthetic principles, that is, a partial shift from a compositional emphasis on means to that of ends, or, in other words, from conception to perception. I say a partial rather than a complete dialectic shift in principles because one essential characteristic of Postmodern thought is a near militant disdain for exclusionist activities and beliefs. With this in mind, it would be inconsistent with contemporary artistic thought not to include the possibility of creative expression through conceptually oriented composition. In a Postmodern ideological framework aural considerations and contentual expression are given the opportunity to occupy a higher position in a compositional hierarchy in deference to elaborate formal schemes and syntactical explorations without penalty, but, more importantly, the fact that this opportunity exists as a compositional possibility doesn't negate the validity of other options, even if their origin lies in the practices of our immediate predecessors. It does however challenge the idea that any aesthetic ideological structure necessarily define itself by negation (as noted earlier), which is clearly a more fundamental oppositional difference between the two eras.

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.