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Postmodern music

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Postmodern music

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Postmodern music is both a musical style and a musical condition. As a musical style, postmodern music contains characteristics of postmodern art—that is, art after modernism (see Modernism in Music). It favors eclecticism in musical form and musical genre, and often combines characteristics from different genres, or employs jump-cut sectionalization (such as blocks). It tends to be self-referential and ironic, and it blurs the boundaries between "high art" and kitsch. Daniel Albright (2004) summarizes the traits of the postmodern style as bricolage, polystylism, and randomness.

As a musical condition, postmodern music is simply the state of music in postmodernity, music after modernity. In this sense, postmodern music does not have any one particular style or characteristic, and is not necessarily postmodern in style or technique. The music of modernity, however, was viewed primarily as a means of expression while the music of postmodernity is valued more as a spectacle, a good for mass consumption, and an indicator of group identity. For example, one significant role of music in postmodern society is to act as a badge by which people can signify their identity as a member of a particular subculture.

Jonathan Kramer posits the idea (following Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard) that postmodernism (including musical postmodernism) is less a surface style or historical period (i.e., condition) than an attitude. Kramer enumerates 16 "characteristics of postmodern music, by which I mean music that is understood in a postmodern manner, or that calls forth postmodern listening strategies, or that provides postmodern listening experiences, or that exhibits postmodern compositional practices." According to Kramer, postmodern music:

"(1) is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension; (2) is, on some level and in some way, ironic; (3) does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present; (4) challenges barriers between 'high' and 'low' styles; (5) shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity; (6) questions the mutual exclusivity of elitist and populist values; (7) avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not want entire pieces to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold); (8) considers music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts; (9) includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures; (10) considers technology not only as a way to preserve and transmit music but also as deeply implicated in the production and essence of music; (11) embraces contradictions; (12) distrusts binary oppositions; (13) includes fragmentations and discontinuities; (14) encompasses pluralism and eclecticism; (15) presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities; (16) locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers."


The postmodern musical style

Modernist influences and postmodern philosophy

In the modern period, recording of music was seen as a way of transcribing an external event, as a photograph is supposed to record a moment in time. However, with the invention of magnetic tape in the 1930's the ability to directly edit a recording, and create a result which did not actually occur, made it possible for a recording to be viewed as the end product of artistic work itself. Through the 1950's, most music, even popular music, presented itself as the capturing of a performance, even if that performance was mic'ed to improve hearing of different parts.

Antecedents to this process, including the electronic music of Edgard Varèse, can be found dating back for several decades, and in 1948 Pierre Schaeffer would use tape to "compose" pieces, however it is with the advent of Rock 'n' Roll and particularly producer Phil Spector and Glenn Gould in classical music in the late 1950's that the idea of using tape to create a stand alone artistic work became more and more prevalent. However, it was with the studio recordings of the Beatles where the full use of multi-track recording and layering became common to popular music. The creation of this recording process transformed pop music. Rock and hip hop both extend this process further, by using more and more sophisticated techniques to layer and mix individual tracks.

The rise of popular music created another pressure on music, which would lead to another strand of post-modernity, namely the ability to create a sufficiently large audience for works. In the Modernist view, such a connection was unnecessary - people would naturally gravitate towards "serious" music as the place where ideas could be presented in musical form, rather than "popular" music, which was seen, as the Victorians had seen it, as subsidiary to the more "weighty" genres. As with Post-modern philosophy, post-modern music questioned whether this hierarchy of "high" and "low" culture was correct or appropriate.

A third strand of post-modern music is a change in the fundamental idea of what music is supposed to be "about". As the period wore on, the idea that "music is mainly about itself", became more and more firmly entrenched. Reference was not merely a technique, but the substance of music. Musical works allude to other musical works, not because they can, but because they must. This is part of the general change from Modernism which saw the basic subject of art being the most pure elements of musical technique - whether intervals, motivic fragments or rhythms - to Postmodernism which sees the basic subject of art being the stream of media, manufactured objects, and genre materials. In otherwords, post-modernity views the role of art to be commenting on the consumer society and its products, where as modernism sought to convey the "reality" of the universe in its most fundamental form.

Postmodern techniques and their application

The ability to record and mix, and later sample, would feed into this idea, with the inclusion of "found sounds", snippets of other recordings, spoken voices, noises, and sampled tableux into music. Pioneers include Edgard Varèse, who began to experiment with the possibilities of new electronic instruments, using synthesizers and tape loops. John Cage used tapes, radios, and record players to reproduce prerecorded sounds in a wide variety of ways in works such as the series "Imaginary Landscape" and "Europera." Early examples in popular music include Abbey Road, Pink Floyd's Meddle and the "dub" style of music of Lee 'Scratch' Perry. As digital technology has made sampling easy, it has become very common in hip hop, and is taken to its extreme in Bastard pop.

As composers became interested in incorporating pre-existing sounds, they also looked to emulate the effect using only conventional instruments, by extensive quotation from pre-existing material. Quotation and reference to earlier work in principle was not new, as composers such as Richard Strauss and Charles Ives are famous for its use in their tone poems and symphonies nearly a century before and after, and it is essentially the basis behind organum, parody mass, and other early musical genres. However, the completeness of the collage or thorough use of a pre-existing piece went far beyond earlier composers' brief quotations or use of a cantus firmus. George Rochberg has used pieces from the classical repertoire as the basis for many of his compositions, essentially composing a frequently ironic commentary on an earlier work. Olivier Messiaen's "Oiseaux Exotiques" and "Catalogue d'Oiseaux" are collages of bird songs, precisely notated by species in the score, gathered together in a musical form.

Another often cited post-modern musical collage is the third movement of Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia," which uses the scherzo of Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony" as a musical foundation, and text from Samuel Beckett's "The Unnameable," but adds quotations spanning classical repertory, as though they were sampled or found haphazardly by spinning a radio dial. Berio himself, though, in "Two Interviews" and elsewhere, rejects and distances himself from notions of "collage," arguing that each reference is hardly haphazard; rather, each quotation carefully evokes the context of its original work, creating an open web, but an open web with highly specific referents and a vigorously defined, if self-proliferating, signifier-signified relationship. "I'm not interested in Italic textcollagesItalic text, and they amuse me only when I'm doing them with my children: then they become an exercise in relativizing and 'decontextualizing' images, an elementary exercise whose healthy cynicism won't do anyone any harm," Berio tells interviewer Rossana Dalmonte, in what reads like Berio attempting to distance himself from composers like John Zorn or Uri Caine, for whom juxtaposition itself can provide meaning. Berio's self-distinction, while it does not need to be believed by analysts or musicians, nevertheless runs counter to the later postmodern practice of mixing "high" and "low" found objects "haphazardly" or without regard to an affirmative or negative sense of constructive quality. In other words, it is not only the composition of the "collage" that conveys meaning; it is the particular composition of the component "sound-image" that conveys meaning. (And in the sense Berio clings to the notion of music conveying an affirmative, even extra-musical, meaning, perhaps he, or other "academic" composers like Messiaen or Stockhausen, is not so postmodern in the sense that it is, for better or worse, used in current critical circles to convey some sort of eternal, neutral equivocation between musical texts.)

A related aspect of post-modern classical music was an interest in reducing the role of a composer in musical composition, not by the use of pre-composed material, but instead by the use of random procedures in composition and performance. This began as a reaction to elements of late modernism, specifically the modernist project of atonality, begun by Arnold Schoenberg, which had been taken to its logical conclusion, total serialism, by such late modernist composers as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others. A group of composers, including Boulez, Stockhousen, and especially John Cage began introducing elements of 'chance' in their music to create aleatory music. Cage is famous for using the I Ching to direct his compositions, essentially removing himself from the compositional procedure. On the other hand, his piece 4'33" is performed by a silent pianist, and is said to consist entirely of environmental noise. Aleatory music began to blur the boundaries between the composer and the audience, and between the musician and the environment, which was a postmodern trend.

At the same time, there was also a new interest in non-Western music, early music (typically meaning pre-Baroque), and popular music. This attention to all musical traditions is a general post-modern feature; for them the division between "high" and "low art" is illusory. György Ligeti found rhythmic elements of Pygmy song that fit his own sensibilities, and they influenced his later compositions. Olivier Messiaen studied Indian music and medieval music thoroughly, and some of his scores make reference to Indian tala or plainchant. Tan Dun, born in China, has sought ways in his compositions to unite the Chinese and Western strands of music. Steve Reich studied West African drumming, Indonesian gamelan, and Hebrew cantillation, and his works are sometimes compared to Perotin or rock music. Further eroding the wall between "art music" and "popular music," a number of DJs have remixed his work on the album Reich Remixed. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham have worked with rock musicians and combined the techniques of classical and popular music.

The approach of post-modern and modern composers with regard to foreign, obsolete or popular musical idioms differs substantially from the "exotic" references of earlier composers. One key difference is the thoroughness of the study. Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca" is supposedly influenced by Turkish music, but it is a superficial and stereotypical reference imposed in a pure classical form. Post-modern composers have continued the modern trend begun by Béla Bartók in making systematic studies and have generally sought in earnest to understand the underlying principles of exotic music by years of study or performance in the idiom. The result is often more subtly incorporated into the composer's vocabulary, so much that one may not imagine the source of the foreign elements until they are pointed out.

The emergence of postmodern styles

In the late 1950s and 1960s began both a series of new styles, influenced by post-modern conditions, and an incorporatation of post-modern elements into existing styles.

In popular music, jazz, rhythm and blues, and early rock and roll, all begin to become shaped by not only new technology, but a fundamentally different way of producing recordings. Instead of trying to achieve a rounded three-dimensional sound in imitation of the concert experience, recordings increasingly brought vocals to the fore and made the rest of the sounds into a single "wall" behind the main track. By the mid 1960s this "wall of sound" style was the standard of most commercial radio. The full incorporation of the studio mixing techniques, electronics and use of layering would lead to the establishment of rock. "Pop" music, as a specific sub-genre, would eschew the prominent electric-guitar sound of rock in favor of synthesizers, acoustic instruments, and more subdued rhythm sections.

At the same time, dance music, particularly the "disc jockeys" at urban parties, was creating a different road into post-modernity in music. Their approach was to take records on turntables, and by hand control the speed of the turntable, and using the mixing board as an instrument, add reverb, suburb and other sound effects. At the same time they would speak into the microphone, using the dance tracks as a background for their own speech, which would lead, eventual to eventually evolving into the DJing and MCing of hip hop music. Further evolution in the 1990s turntablism movement focused on the DJing aspect of hip hop, with music made almost entirely of samples. DJ Shadow is the most well known turntablist DJ, but Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DJ Spooky and Cut Chemist were also highly influential.

In classical music, minimalism is usually regarded as the first "post-modern" style. Minimalism was in part a reaction to the perceived inaccessibility and sterility of modernist classical music of such composers in the tradition of Arnold Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, the early John Cage, and others among the avant-garde. The earliest minimalist composers included LaMonte Young, who had studied under Schoenberg and incorporated elements of serialism in his early minimalist works, and Terry Riley, who was largely influenced in his composition by the repetitiveness of Indian music and rock music.

Minimalism and related postmodern musical styles laid the groundwork for re-integrating popular and 'highbrow' music, which had been separated since the rise of modernism. By the 1970s, avant-garde rock and pop musicians (such as Suicide and Throbbing Gristle) had become interested in electronic instrumentation, the use of Eastern rhythms and unconventional instruments (for example the use of the sitar by the Beatles) and drone-like or repetitive music, stylistically similar to minimalism (such as the music of The Velvet Underground, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and later, Stereolab). Tape loops also prefigured the use of 'sampling' in techno music and house music, and the 'scratching' of hip hop music. Moreover lessunder the 'ironic' 'cut and paste' approach of Stockhausen's later work (which used elements from both 'high' and 'low' art) was highly influential on many pop and rock composers in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s: see, for example, or The Residents.

Postmodern jazz, also, has influenced contemporary pop/rock music. This has developed from two main sources, the innovations of Charlie Parker in the immediate post-war period, and (again) Arnold Schoenberg: this time, however, not so much his serial work as his pre-WWI 'atonal' style, where all forms of tonality were abandoned. The merging of these two traditions led to the development of free jazz in the 1950s by Ornette Coleman who went onto inspire a new generation of musicians in the 1960s and 1970s: for example, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. Free jazz was hugely influential on many avant-garde rock musicians: for example Captain Beefheart, and, in a completely different way The Stooges and Lou Reed (who eventually worked with Coleman in 2003 on the Raven album). These artists themselves were influential on a generation of punk musicians in the 1970s and 1980s (see for example The Lounge Lizards and The Pop Group). In the 1970s Miles Davis repaid the compliment by incorporating elements of funk and rock into his sound, most notably on his Bitches Brew album. Again, this has been hugely influential on contemporary rock and jazz.

Post-rock is a term that has begun to be used for bands that used "rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and power chords" as was originally described by Simon Reynolds in issue 123 of The Wire (May 1994). Although the concept may refer to bands having dissimilar music, most post-rock music is mainly instrumental and of an introspective sort.

The number of bands within the post-rock movement has increased significantly during the last years. Bands such as Mogwai, Tortoise, Explosions in the Sky, Mono, Sigur Rós, múm and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have become fairly known. Their melodic, rich instrumentalization and strong emotional content have become the epitome of most post-rock music composed nowadays.

The postmodern musical condition

As a musical condition, postmodern music is music situated after the modern age, during the present period, where music has become valued primarily as a commodity and a culture, rather than a form of idealized modernist expression for its own sake. Some authors have suggested that the transition in music from modern to postmodern occurred in the late 1960s, influenced in part by psychedelic music and the late Beatles albums. (Sullivan, 1995, p.217.) In the 1970s, the postmodern condition continued with the advent of disco, heavy metal, hip hop, and a newly-commodified country music.

The difference between modern music and postmodern music then is that modernist music was characterized by a focus on musical fundamentals and expression. In postmodern music, however, the commodity being sold by record companies and pop stars is not the fundamentals of the music, but the cultural image surrounding the music, which reverberates through film, television, and other media.

Causes and theories of post-modernity in music

For some, post-modernity is degenerate modernity, the critic Theodor Adorno being a prominent example of the idea that trends of music after serialism represent the banalization of and regression from modernity.

Others follow Fredric Jameson, who holds that post-modernity is the condition of late capitalism and the decline of identity creating metanarratives, such as nation-states. Some bands which may be considered post-modern such as Radiohead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have indeed presented a strong opposition to current capitalism ideals and state of western society.

Another theory advanced is that post modernism is the explicit reaction to the rise of a mass production consumer society, and is linked to the need to create coherence and aesthetic value from the artifacts and patterns of that society.

As with modernity and postmodernity in general, modernity may be considered to not have yet ended, and thus there is no postmodern condition.

See also


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.
  • Kramer, Jonathan (1999). "The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism." Current Musicology 66, pp.7-20. Reprinted in Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought (2002). Edited by Judy Lochhead and Joseph Aunder. Routledge. ISBN 0815338201.
  • Sullivan, Henry W. (1995) The Beatles with Lacan: Rock ‘n’ Roll as requiem for the modern age. (Sociocriticism: Literature, Society and History Series Vol. 4). New York: Lang. xiv. ISBN 0820421839.

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