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Jarrid Crook

Dr. Pierce

MUSC 302

10 March 2010

Modernism and Post-Modernism in Music

The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries were times of great change and revolution.

Two world wars were started and ended, the most powerful weapon in the world’s arsenal was

unleashed, and one of the most powerful distractions, television, was developed, revolutionizing

communication and entertainment. With so many powerful events taking place, it was only

natural that the art world would follow the rapidly changing culture that these things had

influenced. No longer were the techniques of expressing feeling in art working; each artist and

composer now needed new techniques and ideas in order to express their inner most feelings.

Thus, as in the radical times before, these artists drastically altered what was seen as the “right”

way to compose and paint. But, do not believe that radical events alone changed the art of

expression. No, it ultimately came about through the artists, who, through their want of

expressive freedom, explored and continue to explore extreme ways of fully expressing

themselves. In addition there are also those that truly find the current art boring and tasteless.

Nicolas Slonimsky once wrote about traditional music, “The first measure assails your ear with

the boredom of the already-heard and causes you to anticipate the boredom of the measure to

come.” (Weiss, Taruskin 376- 378) These feelings ultimately ushered in a new era in art known

as Modernism. This was ultimately followed by the continuation of these advances ultimately

known as Post-Modernism. Though the terms Modernism and Post-Modernism do not solely

apply to music, this paper will strictly deal with the two periods in respect to music. Modernism
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evolved greatly in America, though it was through the work of mostly non-American composers

composing there. The speed of which technological and cultural advances were attained was

unlike any time before it, and thus none can be compared to its diversity and extremes of its

expressions. What made the music of this period so different was the never-ending search for

originality from its composers. No longer was it necessary or expected practice to pay tribute to

the composers before you by imitating them. Every composer wanted to have his or her own

sound, to be recognized by listeners instantly. One historian writes that, “The insistence on

originality was so compelling that its end results often appear questionable.” (Wold, Martin,

Miller, Cyker 177) Because of the wide range of techniques and styles used, it becomes difficult

to summarize Modernism with a single definition. But it is possible to create a working

definition of that can encompass this diversity. Modernism can be defined as, “Music composed

around 1890, extending to the 1960’s, reflecting pure, raw emotion created through the use of

musical noises, serial music, freedom of expression, exploration of the human psyche, and the

abandonment of its predecessor’s musical laws.” I chose to include the “exploration of the

human psyche” because it interested many scientists, as well as artists of the time. This interest

and integration of it into music can best be viewed in Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. In it the main

character shows deep obsession which ultimately consumes his mind and drives him to murder.

The composing of pure emotion is the highlight of the period and can be seen in Schoenberg’s

pieces such as Erwartung. It is also in Schoenberg’s music (as well as his students and

contemporaries) that we find the total control over music known as Serial Music, where all or

almost all aspects of the music are strictly thought out and follow pre-determined, inflexible

rules. And lastly, the most interesting aspect of modern music in my opinion is the integration of

musical noise. John Cage’s 4’33” is the best example of this. It aims to prove that the noises in
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the world around you can be music if you stop and pay attention to them. Post-Modernism

started in the late 1960’s and where Modernism was a revolt against all previous music, Post-

Modernism was a revolt against Modernism. In his book The Nature and Origins of Musical

Postmodernism, Jonathan Kramer suggests sixteen characteristics of Post-Modern music, and

these are used to define a contemporary piece as Modernist or Post-Modernist (since one cannot

fall into both categories). Using these characteristics, Post-Modern music can be defined as,

“Music composed in the 1960’s to the present that is a continuation and a break from

Modernism, employing new techniques with previous ones, yet not letting a single form or idea

dominate, and incorporating the most eclectic of sounds into one piece.” This definition can

seem a little vague and because this music is so varied, it is much easier to recognize it aurally

than by trying to attach a definition to it. On example of this would be any of John Cage’s

compositions for prepared piano. The wide variety of timbres and noises that come together to

form music in these compositions is amazing, and shows that noises can be arranged into music.
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On the Transmigration of Souls

By: John Adams

On the Transmigration of Souls is a work composed by John Adams (1947 – Present) that

graciously falls in to the Post-Modern category. The work is for orchestra, children’s chorus,

chorus, and pre-recorded sounds and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln

Center’s Great Performers, and a generous New York Family. The piece was written in 2002 and

was premiered by the New York Philharmonic on September 19th, 2002. It was written to

commemorate those who lost their lives in the September 11th terrorist attacks the year before.

This piece has many attributes that place it into the Post-Modernist category, besides the obvious

fact that it was written after 1960 and is “fresh” music. It combines pure emotions, noise music

from a recording, two choruses, and tones common in the Asian tradition of music. The piece

begins with pre-recorded sounds of the city, starting with traffic, then footsteps, and lastly a

siren. The notation of the “Tape” part is quite interesting too, looking like:
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In addition to using sounds of the city, one singer’s voice was also pre-recorded and combined

with synthesizer tones to create an almost “robotic” sound. Like many other Post-Modernist

pieces, this one combines forms, so that no single form dominates the entire time. In this piece he

combines minimalist techniques with a form he refers to as a “memory space”. A memory space

is a place where one can go to reflect on things, to think about them away from all distractions,

to simply be alone with one’s thoughts. Although the piece is linked with the September 11th

attacks, it is hoped that it will also summon human experiences that go far beyond that particular

event. John Adams is best known as a minimalist composer, and forty-nine seconds into the piece

we see those techniques start to be employed. A lone boy’s voice enters repeating the same word,

“missing”, and the other singers’ texts build on top of it one at a time.
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The text seems to become more and more unusual as the piece progresses, but this is due to the

fact that Mr. Adams collected info from the “Have you seen me?” signs that were posted by

grieving family members looking for their loved ones after the attacks.

By doing this Mr. Adams makes the posters of these signs “pseudo-librettists”, helping the piece

to connect with the event all the more. As stated before, the piece incorporates techniques that

are most common in Asian cultures. One of these techniques is the use of tones not found in the

Western scale, notes in between our notes. In this case, Adams uses a piano and a small ensemble

to sing quarter tones under the Western style notes. The effect is not a distinct one, but the timbre

that it creates is one that I had not experienced until this piece.
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Also, in keeping with music from the East, Adams uses distinct rhythms that, while becoming

less uncommon in the West, are still new to our ears.

As music continues to advance, composers are continually looking for new ideas, something to

catch the audiences’ attention, and odd rhythms are one of the most common tools they use. The

incorporation of African drum music and Indian music has flourished in the Post-Modern Period,

even finding its way into popular music. Lastly, one of the more common techniques that Mr.

Adams uses is that of cluster chords. This piece has many instances where the music seems
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almost chaotic, and it is partly due to the use of these chords being played aggressively by the


The entire piece relies on layering one idea on top of the next, and the cluster chords are only one

example of this. Each new voice that enters is placed on top of the previous, the piano holds the

sustain pedal down so that all the notes sustain over each other, the quarter tone ensemble is

played on top of the original, the list goes on. This technique is a very new one to me and one

that I hadn’t noticed until now. Music that I have encountered usually relied on preciseness and

always cleared the way for a new idea to come through. Mr. Adams though doesn’t feel any one

part to be more important than the last and the effect this has on the color of the music is very

noticeable. It really makes you pay attention, while at the same time it lets you ignore everything

and simply let the music encompass you. This is truly the effect that he was talking about when

referring to the piece as a memory space. Meditation is possible because of the constant drone,

with nothing drastically popping through the texture. Because of the multitude of new

techniques combined with the ones I have listed, we can see that On the Transmigration of Souls

is really a refreshing piece, and easily stands in the Post-Modern style of music.
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Works Cited

Weiss, Piero, and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Document.

California: Schirmer, 2008. Print.

Wold, Milo, Gary Martin, James Miller, and Edmund Cykler. An Outline History of Western

Music. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998. Print.

All musical examples taken from: Adams, John. On the Transmigration of Souls. New York:

Hendon Music, 2009. Print.

Sarah Cahill. "Adams, John." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 15 Apr.