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Checking the Post: Music, Postmodernism or Post


David Bennett

Introducing the twentieth anniversary issue of new formations in Autumn 2007, David Glover and
Scott McCracken agreed with the journal’s founding editor, James Donald, that the days when
the prefix ‘post’ seemed to capture the Zeitgeist were severely numbered. If the prefix (or, as
Glover and McCracken’s Freudian slip had it, ‘the suffix “post”’) had signalled a pervasive sense
of an ending when it came into vogue during the 1980s, we were finally, the editors thought,
glimpsing light at the end of the postmodern tunnel: ‘It has been a long time coming, but
now, at last, “pre” does seem more appropriate than “post”’.1 How long, after all, can a sense
of ending last (the proverbial example of Beethoven’s symphonic endings notwithstanding)
before it becomes a steady state? A feeling that it had been going on just a bit too long seemed
the main rationale for Linda Hutcheon’s call for a re-minting of the term ‘postmodernism’ in
her epigraph to the second edition of her popular book, The Politics of Postmodernism, in 2002.
Having built a distinguished academic career largely on writing about postmodernism in
literature, photography and critical theory, Hutcheon reported her feeling that the term had
reached its use-by date, suggesting that ‘our concepts of both textuality and worldiness’ might
now be changing significantly under the influence of ‘electronic technology and globalisation’-
two factors which, as Hutcheon admits, were nonetheless fundamental to other writers’ analyses
of postmodernity from the outset. Sensing that ‘the postmodern moment has passed, even if
its discursive strategies and its ideological critique continue to live on’, Hutcheon signed off
her epigraph with the invitation: ‘Postmodernism needs a new label of its own, and I conclude,
therefore, with this challenge to readers to find it - and name it for the twenty-first century’.2
In short, the question needs to be addressed: why ‘return’ to that cornerstone or kingpin
of 1980s posts, postmodernism, in this special issue on music? Might there be grounds for
distrusting the numerous obituaries for both the term and the phenomenon (variously defined)
that have been appearing in recent years?
Several commentators in the higher-brow US press have been a good deal bolder than Glover,
McCracken or Hutcheon in announcing the advent of post-postmodernism, and they have
dated postmodernism’s death with even greater precision than Virginia Woolf famously dated
the birth of British modernism by declaring that ‘in or about December, 1910, human character
changed’.3 Among those who date their death-certificates for postmodernism on September
11, 2001 is the press columnist and Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism,
Todd Gitlin, whose 2006 book The Intellectuals and the Flag undertook ‘to resurrect a liberal ideal
of patriotism in the awful aftermath of September 11, 2001’.4 Diagnosing what he termed ‘the
Postmodern Mood’ as a now-obsolete habit of theory-addled scepticism and oppositionality,
Gitlin assured his readers that ‘the Marxism and postmodernism of the left are exhausted’ and

doi:10.3898/newf.66.editorial.2009 Checking The Post 
declared that the time had come to discard the cynical playfulness and ‘oppositional anarchism’
identified with postmodernism and to embrace a positive conception of power and its potential
affinity with truth. In a nation ‘besieged by murderous enemies’, the now-old New Left had to
abandon its fatal attraction to ‘negation’ (‘resistance is the more glamorous word’) and recover
the Old Left’s capacity to think positively about power, progress and knowledge. Gitlin’s call
for a new, post-postmodern kind of left political theory, then, turned out to be a call for a pre-
postmodern kind, a return to the tradition of thought of 1950s American public intellectuals
such as C. Wright Mills, David Reisman and Irving Howe.5
To suggest, as many have done, that irony and cultural relativism became unpatriotic in
post-9/11 America is to suggest that the postmodernist mindset has been out- manoeuvred by
brute historical fact. With the West’s corporate media staging Barak Obama’s election to the
White House as proof of the ‘health’ of American democracy, we can expect a fresh surge of
such diagnoses of the terminal postmodern condition.
Further to the right of the political spectrum from Gitlin, Terry Teachout, drama critic for the
Wall Street Journal and music critic for Commentary, published his own obituary for postmodernism
under the title ‘The Return of Beauty’ in the journal of the US State Department’s Office
of International Information Programs, US Society of Value, in 2003. Taking the hallmark of
postmodernism to be what Perry Anderson characterises as ‘a street-level relativism’,6 Teachout
described it as a wrong turning in the otherwise un-erringly forward march of a clear-thinking,
‘straight-talking’ American culture:

Starting in the 1960s, American culture, for the first time in its brief history, fell victim to a
bad idea, one that for close to a quarter-century held considerable sway over our artists and
critics. All at once, it seemed, we had lost our collective willingness to make value judgements
- to take Duke Ellington seriously while simultaneously acknowledging that Aaron Copland
was the greater composer. In its place, we got postmodernism, which not only denied that
either man was great, but rejected the very idea of greatness itself. 7

Teachout glossed this ‘bad idea’ as a postwar reaction to a once-experimental, progressive
modernism that had since degenerated, ‘as movements will do, into a rigid ideology’, imposing
on American artists, as a historical ‘necessity’ or ‘inevitability’, the aesthetic precepts of atonalism
in music, abstraction in painting and plotlessness in dance. Struggling out of the straitjacket
of such modernist diktats, postmodernists had repudiated aesthetic hierarchies and cultural
absolutes, decoding beauty and truth as ideological ‘constructs imposed by the powerful on the
powerless for political purposes’, and welcomed back into their indifferently eclectic aesthetics
the stylistic options that the high-modernists had declared anathema; but the result had been
the ‘sterile’, theory-driven conceptual art and minimalist music of a movement that, ‘ultimately,
amounted to little more than a set of attitudes, foremost among them the marginalisation of the
idea of beauty and its replacement with the sniggering, fearful Irony Lite that was the hallmark of
American culture in the 1990s’.8 The terrorist attacks on the twin symbols of American economic
and military hegemony, however, had consigned postmodern value-relativism and irony to the
historical waste bin, revivifying for Americans the dichotomies between ‘beauty’ and ‘evil’, ‘art’ 

New Formations
and ‘barbarism’, which underpin the Western cultural tradition now under attack from ‘Osama
bin Laden and his cronies, the ones who banned secular music from Afghanistan’. Within a
few days of the 9/11 attacks, American musicians had begun giving memorial concerts - not of
Schoenberg, Stockhausen or Cage, but of Bach, Brahms and Verdi - to which the public had
flocked, demonstrating that ‘what Americans wanted in their time of need was beauty’. While
Teachout suggested that 9/11 ‘may well have brought an end to the unthinking acceptance of
postmodern relativism’, he acknowledged that the ‘collective renewal of belief in the power of
truth and beauty did not suddenly take place on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was
already in the wind’ - as was evident in the emergence of what Teachout identified as a new,
post-postmodern kind of concert-music that combines the postmodernists’ tolerance of stylistic
eclecticism with a new-found, irony-free faith in beauty.9 The ‘New Tonalists’ include composers
such as Paul Moravec, René Gruss (whose project of ‘New Media, Old Beauty’ promises to marry
the Internet with the ‘natural classical’ crafts of realist drawing, melodic music and metrically
regular poetry, ‘bypassing the moribund modernist-postmodernist order’10) and Rabbi Arnold
Saltzman, whose 2003 American Symphony, subtitled Religious Freedom in Early America, was
welcomed as ‘unabashedly patriotic’ by a reviewer in the Washington Times who characterised
the New Tonalists as ‘composers advancing into the past’.11
Much the same story of post-postmodernism as a re-connection with Western European
aesthetic traditions that were ‘interrupted’ by modernism and postmodernism can be found in
criticism of the visual arts. The American poet and art-critic, Donald Kuspit’s 2004 book, The
End of Art identifies postmodernism with ‘suicidal intellectualism’ and the ‘anti-aesthetic postart’
of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst - the death-gasp of a tradition of devaluing the aesthetic
that was begun by Duchamp and Barnett Newman.12 In his concluding chapter, however, Kuspit
reassures the reader that what Alan Krapow dubbed ‘postart’ (which ‘elevates the banal over
the enigmatic, the scatological over the sacred, cleverness over creativity’13) was, after all, ‘not a
point of no return’. The lifeless, litter-strewn, inspirationally-bankrupt studio of postmodernism,
emblematised in Bruce Nauman’s video-installation, Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John
Cage) (2001), ‘has come to life again, signalling what might be called post-postmodernity’.14
As for Gitlin and Teachout, so for Kuspit, what postdates postmodernism turns out to be what
predated it: post-postmodernism ‘is a New Old Master art’ that ‘brings together the spirituality
and humanism of the Old Masters and the innovation and criticality of the Modern Masters’,
placing a new-old premium on craft, embodying its concepts organically in its objects, while
offering ‘aesthetic transcendence’.15 Such New Old Masters as Lucian Freud, Avigdor Arikha,
Jenny Saville, Julie Heffernan and David Bierk - all ‘visionary humanists with a complete mastery
of their craft’ - ‘attempt to revive high art in defiance of postart’ and thus ‘restore art’s depth
of meaning’ and ‘offer something that does not exist in post-art: beauty’.16 The cover of The
End of Art features one of Damian Hirst’s notorious ashtray artworks, which a janitor famously
swept up and binned after an opening at Eyestorm Gallery in 2001, taking it to be the fallout
of a gallery party. Kuspit’s book undertakes a similar clean sweep of the postmodern Augean
studios, in order to make room for the hitherto sidelined new-traditionalists who have kept faith
with the canonical tradition of Western bourgeois art.
The neo-conservative signatures on many of the death certificates of postmodernism and

Checking The Post 
birth certificates of post-postmodernism have meanwhile prompted some vigorous rearguard
defences of postmodernism as a cluster of critical and aesthetic tendencies that are not so much
threadbare or obsolete as freshly pertinent. Much has been written about the resurgence of
fundamentalisms in the post-9/11 West, not least by Stuart Sim, whose books, Fundamentalist
World (2004) and Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First
Century (2006), characterise the putatively post-postmodern period as a ‘new dark age of dogma’
in which religious, economic, political and nationalist fundamentalisms have been rapidly
expanding their ‘empires’ and prosecuting their grand narratives of global history.17 Empires of
Belief builds not on Fredric Jameson’s seminal analysis of postmodernism as the ‘superstructural
expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the
world’,18 but on Hal Foster’s influential discrimination of a ‘postmodernism of resistance’ from
a ‘postmodernism of reaction’;19 Sim locates the former, as a critique of Western modernity, in
a ‘tradition of scepticism that has a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy’.20
Arming the résistants against fundamentalism with his attempted synthesis of Enlightenment
empiricism, scepticism and postmodern relativism, Sim explains that ‘postmodernists envisage
a world in which authority is kept under constant surveillance … Postmodernism is essentially
anti-empire-building’,21 and he promises to present scepticism itself ‘as a “little narrative”: a
loose conglomeration of interests resisting the might of the many empires of belief that have
come to dominate our social and political landscapes’.22 When introducing the second edition
of his Routledge Companion to Postmodernism in 2005 (separated from the first edition by 9/11 and
its global fallout), Sim depicted postmodernism as a cultural tendency that had, in effect, been
demoted from a dominant to a residual and newly oppositional status in an era of triumphal
grand narratives, and he dedicated the second edition to showing ‘that what postmodernism
represents is still valuable and that it is more than just a brief historical episode of late twentieth-
century culture that has now exhausted its cultural role’.23
Another critic convinced that the word ‘postmodernism’ retains a vocation in the twenty-first
century is the American composer and music critic for The Village Voice from 1986 to 2005, Kyle
Gann. An over-zealous exponent of what he calls ‘the great divide’ between ‘Uptown’ music-
making (meaning ‘academic’, ‘high modernist’, technocratic, complexity-for-complexity’s-sake
music) and ‘Downtown’ music-making (meaning non-academic, street-wise, market-canny and
‘simply’ creative music),24 Gann has argued that it was only with the turning of the twentieth
century that the notion of postmodernism could begin to come into its own in critical debates
about music, since the ending of the millennium meant that music critics could no longer treat
‘modernist’ and ‘twentieth-century’ as synonyms, and the concept of postmodernism could now
help us get over the long nightmare of musical modernism-proper. To explain the stakes of
Gann’s modernist/postmodernist distinction in specifically musicological terms, it may be helpful
to consider some of the ideological parallels between musical and architectural modernism.
If postmodernism can be characterised, in Lyotard’s familiar formulae, as ‘incredulity
toward grand narratives’ and as ‘wag[ing] a war on totality’,25 then nowhere more so than in
architecture and ‘art music’ (a.k.a. ‘concert music’ or ‘classical music’) could high modernism be
identified so clearly with the notion of ‘grand narrative’. When Le Corbusier posed the question,
‘Architecture or Revolution’? at the end of his Vers Une Architecture in 1923, the unequivocal answer

10 New Formations
was ‘Revolution can be avoided’: modernist architecture would solve class-society’s historical
problems through its reinvention of lived space. The modern movement’s International Style
dictated a tabula rasa approach to local topography, the creation of a universal, place-less, flat
site; the eradication of all ‘bourgeois’ ornament from buildings; the determination of form by
function; use of only the most ‘rational’, efficient, modern materials and the supposedly class-less
aesthetic appeal of simple geometrical forms such as squares, circles and triangles. Promising
emancipation from tradition, superstition and hierarchy, architecture’s grand narrative of
modernisation promised a moulding of rational social behaviour with rational design. It was
the anomie and vandalism that had, by the late 1950s, signalled the failure of the International
Style’s rationalistic mass-housing projects and anonymous, curtain-wall office-blocks that would
vindicate postmodernist architecture’s altered modes of addressing its users with stylistic diversity,
hybridity, neo-traditionalism, irony and play.
Of the multiple strands of musical modernism that competed for ascendancy in the early
twentieth century, the one that proved most successful in prosecuting its claims to be more modern
than the rest, and hence in rewriting musical history to justify itself as the telos of that history,
was the so-called Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, Anton Webern
and Alban Berg (the first Viennese school having supposedly comprised another triumvirate,
Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven). The metanarrative of musical modernism traditionally begins
with the hybris of Schoenberg and his hard-line advocacy of atonal and serialist composition as
the ‘logical’ culmination of musical history, and it continues with the vehement championing
of Schoenberg’s faith in the ethical and historical ‘necessity’ of his methods by post-World War
II critics of the stature of Theodor Adorno and René Leibowitz. Schoenberg’s theory of ‘the
emancipation of the dissonance’26 has been described as a metanarrative to justify atonality. Much
as his modernist counterparts in architecture, economics, psychology or political science were
constructing metanarratives of ineluctable, universal human progress in their own disciplines,
Schoenberg elaborated a theory of irreversible progress in the history of music, whose telos
was the liberation of sound from the tyranny of a tonic or ‘key’. The extreme chromaticism of
Wagner and Franck in the nineteenth century had gradually obscured the tonal foundations of
music and they were disappearing altogether in the twentieth century, making atonalism - music
completely emancipated from the diatonic scale and traditional chord sequences - the logical
outcome. Departures from the rules of tonality produce dissonances, which create tensions,
which are the source of much of the dynamism of tonal music; but their legitimacy in tonal
music depends on their being ‘resolved’ - on the neutralising of their disruptive effect on the
whole. As Adorno would explain in The Philosophy of New Music (1949), the unity of tonal music
is the very image of bourgeois or ‘organized society’.27 The new in ‘New Music’ is what stands
out and is not neutralised; it is the dissonance that is not resolved back into unity: an expression
of singularity, of the concrete individuality of the single element, which resists participating
in the unity of the work. Tonality is social: it is both a convention and expression of social
experience. And just as the modern, post-fascist individual is alienated, alone, so modern art
must be an expression of alienated subjectivity. Twelve-tone composition (alias dodecaphony
or, combined with set theory, serialism) was the rigorously ‘logical’ elaboration of atonality that
Schoenberg unveiled in 1923 as the ‘method of composing with twelve tones which are related

Checking The Post 11
only with one another’.28 All twelve degrees of the Western tempered scale were to be sounded
in a chosen sequence or ‘row’, which could be run forwards or backwards, sounded ‘inverted’ or
in ‘retrograde inversion’, or transposed up or down the scale; but central to dodecaphony was
its rejection of any centre, its refusal of any hierarchy of pitches focused on a single, central tone
as the foundation of the work. In Schoenberg’s serialism, since there is no centre around which
a key, and thus an identity as a whole, can be perceived, every sound, in a sense, is a surprise,
and may bear no relationship, other than simple juxtaposition, to any other. As Adorno put
it in Philosophy of New Music: ‘Schoenberg - who developed all possible motivic devices - lets
them go unimpeded and, eyes shut, allows himself to be guided where tone after tone takes
him … The power of forgetting has been retained by Schoenberg in his late works … As an
artist, he wins back freedom for mankind’. (And yet the end-result, as Adorno would complain
- to Schoenberg’s fury - could be a paradoxical effect of stasis, for without repetition there
can be no variation. In Adorno’s words, a feature of ‘the peculiarly rigid systematic character
that Schoenberg’s composition acquired in its late phase’ is that ‘variation, the instrument
of compositional dynamism, becomes total, and is as a result annulled. The music no longer
presents itself as being in a process of development … Variation as such no longer appears at
all. Everything and nothing is variation …’29)
In his 1946 essay, ‘New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea’, Schoenberg spelled out
the main precepts of the Second Viennese School: modernist music must be idea-driven, not
style-driven; to be of any artistic value it must be dense, deliberately difficult and disdainful of
popular tastes (‘intelligent people have always been offended if one bothered them with matters
which any idiot could understand at once’); it must be ‘autonomous’, answerable neither to
the marketplace nor to any social or political utility (‘because there is only “l’art pour l’art”’);
and serialism, which rejects tradition and imitation, inventing new rules, with every piece, for
‘democratically’ combining all twelve tones of the chromatic scale without hierarchy or centre, is
the full realisation of music’s vocation of autonomy and the telos of a grand narrative of global
art music.30
It was just such qualities of elitism, autonomy and inutility that would help guarantee the
moral authority and ‘political correctness’ of atonalism and serialism for their proponents in
the middle decades of the twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, the canon of classical
music suffered a loss of moral authority as Hitler and Goebbels invested the masterpieces of the
German art-music tradition with propagandist meanings. At the same time, atonal music was
stigmatised by Nazi ideologues as ‘cultural Bolshevism’ and Entartete Kunst (the organiser of an
exhibition of Degenerate Music in Düsseldorf in May, 1938 - the year in which Webern’s music
was officially proscribed - condemned atonality as a degenerate ‘product of the Jewish spirit’ of
Schoenberg).31 Its stigmatisation as degenerate by the Nazis, combined with its self-proclaimed
transcendence of ideological and market interests, would make the Second Viennese School an
ideal vehicle for the metanarrative of American liberalism during the Cold War, when Nicolas
Nabokov’s CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom promoted modernism as the musical face
of Western artistic freedom in its campaign against Communism and Soviet Socialist Realism,
which called upon the proletarian composer, no less than the painter or novelist, to faithfully
reflect ‘the Soviet people’s perception of the world’.32

12 New Formations
Meanwhile, Schoenberg himself had reinforced the ‘necessity’ of his atonal experimentation
with the language of Social Darwinism and eugenics. His Harmonielehre (‘theory of harmony’,
written during the summer of 1910) is an autopsy of a diseased system, a musical language
that had become degenerate - lost its purity and strength - through ‘inbreeding and incest’ in
the nineteenth century.33 The need to ‘emancipate’ sound from a decadent tonal system into a
‘healthy’, ‘democratic’, atonal music was both historically logical and morally necessary.
In the same year as The Philosophy of New Music appeared (1949), Schoenberg and his School
was published by René Leibowitz, who has been described as leading ‘a one-man propaganda
campaign of formidable intensity for the Schoenberg school’.34 A Polish Jew who had drafted
most of his book while in hiding in the French countryside during the Nazi occupation, Leibowitz
explained in his preface that atonality displayed ‘uncompromising moral strength’ and that he
had ‘understood from the beginning that it was the only genuine and inevitable expression
of the musical art of our time’.35 Twelve-tone music, for Leibowitz, was ‘a new path untainted
by fascism … it expressed for him freedom of the human spirit through its very materials’.36
Meanwhile, Adorno’s insistence that modern music had to eradicate all familiar sounds and
conventional ideas of beauty, and that in a world of ascendant kitsch it had to become a mirror-
image of spiritual and physical destruction, proved a call-to-arms for young iconoclasts like Pierre
Boulez (dubbed ‘the arch-apostle of modernism’ by Shostakovich)37 and Karlheinz Stockhausen
(‘the crown prince of the new-music kingdom’, in Alex Ross’s phrase)38 to re-forge the avant-
garde during the 1950s in modernist music-gatherings at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen,
where the so-called ‘new politics of style’ were played out between opposing schools centred
on Schoenberg and Stravinsky. With Stravinsky’s neoclassicism clearly in his sights, Adorno
argued that any preservation of tonality in the modern period betrayed symptoms of the fascist
personality, and he tarred Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik (‘music for use’) with the brush of Nazi
kitsch. Stockhausen meanwhile summed up the emancipation that atonalism and serialism had
achieved: ‘Schoenberg’s great achievement … was to claim freedom for composers: freedom from
the prevailing taste of society and its media; freedom for music to evolve without interference’.39
Schoenberg himself mobilised the rhetoric of messianism in support of his utopian vision of
emancipation and salvation, professing a mystical conviction that he had been elected to proclaim
the ‘law’ of dodecaphony (and suffer for it) on ‘orders from the Supreme Commander’.40
With the benefit of twenty-first-century hindsight - knowing, in other words, how Schoenberg’s
dissonances would filter ‘down’ into such distinctive genres as bebop jazz and horror-movie
soundtracks, and how such seminal works of postmodern art-music as Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ would
reassert tonality with a vengeance - it can be hard to imagine an earlier historical moment when
Schoenberg’s atonalism carried the threat that all music would sound like that.41 But such was
the hegemonic view in many conservatoria in the 1960s and 1970s, according both to now-
‘canonical’ postmodern composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass42 and to the author
of the first essay in this special issue, the distinguished musicologist Susan McClary. McClary
recalls how ‘Composers who wanted to gain any foothold in North American and European
circles had to - I repeat: HAD to - submit to serialism. To paraphrase Allen Ginsburg, I saw the
best minds of my generation destroyed by pitch-class sets … In many parts of Europe, North
America and Australia, the stranglehold of serialism was such that composers in the 1970s

Checking The Post 13
actually risked their careers in departing from the mandate’. Adorno’s characterisation of the
‘tyrannical’, ‘mathematical’ logic of serialism’s ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ as a ‘reversal
into unfreedom’ had proven institutionally prescient.43
Such, then, was the background of Kyle Gann’s vigorous thumbs-up for the concept of
postmodernism in his Village Voice articles. In January, 2000, Gann used his column to heave a
huge sigh of relief that the twentieth century had ended, making it impossible to keep confusing
‘modernist’ with ‘twentieth-century’ music, and he wrote of high modernism’s legacy:

… the late twentieth-century’s bad music was pervasively ugly, pretentious, and meaningless,
yet backed up by a technical apparatus that justified it and even earned it prestigious awards.
Twelve-tone technique - the South Sea Bubble of music history, to which hundreds and
perhaps thousands of well-intended composers sacrificed their careers like lemmings, and
all for nothing - brought music to the lowest point in the history of mankind. Twelve-tone
music is now dead, everyone grudgingly admits, yet its pitch-set-manipulating habits survive
in far-flung corners of our musical technique like residual viruses.44

Stressing the cathartic psychological benefits of a fin de millénium, Gann pointed out that
‘postmodern 21st-century music has been around for years, and the last argument for denying
its existence has just collapsed. Treating “20th-century” and “modernist” as synonymous was
a critical ploy for keeping modernism alive and current-seeming long after the aesthetic had
begun to erode in the 1970s’.45 Gann went on to accuse Uptown critics of pouncing ‘on every
young composer, no matter how mediocre, who promised to extend the lease on modernism a
few more years’, and provocatively suggested that composers such as John Zorn, Tan Dun, Aaron
Kernis, Brian Ferneyhough and Thomas Ades had all benefited from that psychology.

It’s not that Uptowners still write 12-tone music—they boast that they’ve transcended the
‘row’ concept, and they have to boast because you can’t tell that by listening. But they do
believe that the tenets of high modernism, like the Third Reich in 1933, are here to stay for
a thousand years. My friends in other arts find this incomprehensible, for in no other field
do academics insist that history has reached a stopping point.46

If we are to credit critics such as Sim and Gann, then, rumours of postmodernism’s death
have been exaggerated. Some takers of our cultural pulse clearly think there is still breath left
in the body of postmodernism and good critical work for it to do, not least in interpreting
contemporary music. Meanwhile, the complaint that ‘postmodernism’ seems an inadequate
label for the rich multiplicity of ways in which musicians and sound-artists have departed from
or ignored the precepts of musical high-modernism since the 1960s is at risk of missing the
point that one of the things ‘postmodernism’ names is precisely the ethos of pluralism that
becomes institutionalised when hierarchies of tastes, styles and cultural traditions - which once
ordered a plurality of practices into ranks of relative merit and modernity - have lost their
authority. This was something on which both the high priest of post-war musical modernism,
Pierre Boulez, and the Ur-theorist of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard, could agree. Both

14 New Formations
of them looked down with Adorno’s Olympian disdain on the stylistic pluralism and ‘levelling’
of taste-cultures that develop with the globalisation of cultural markets and a corresponding
suspicion of universal yardsticks of aesthetic value, which typify music’s postmodern condition.
What others have celebrated as a postmodern democratisation of taste-cultures, both Boulez
and Lyotard lamented as a laissez-faire pseudo-aesthetic - an anything-goes-if-it-sells ethos, in
which artistic value becomes indistinguishable from market value, alias ‘popular’ tastes. Here
is Boulez, in dialogue with Michel Foucault in 1983:

Ah! Pluralism! There’s nothing like it for curing incomprehension … Be liberal, be generous
towards the tastes of others, and they will be generous to yours. Everything is good, nothing
is bad; there aren’t any values, but everyone is happy. This discourse, as liberating as it may
wish to be, reinforces, on the contrary, the ghettos, comforts one’s clear conscience for being
in a ghetto, especially if, from time to time one tours the ghettos of others. The economy is
there to remind us, in case we get lost in this bland utopia: there are musics which bring in
money and exist for commercial profit; there are musics … whose very concept has nothing
to do with profit. No liberalism will erase this distinction … an ecumenicism of musics …
seems to me nothing but a supermarket aesthetic …47

And here is Lyotard, airing his modernist aesthetic credentials in his 1982 essay, ‘Answering the
Question: What Is Postmodernism?’:

Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary culture … It is easy to find a public for eclectic
works … Artists, gallery owners, critics and public wallow in the ‘anything goes’ … But this
realism of the ‘anything goes’ is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it
remains possible and useful to assess the value of works of art according to the profits they
yield. Such realism accommodates all tendencies, just as capital accommodates all ‘needs’,
providing that the tendencies and needs have purchasing power.48

As Lyotard later illustrated in his writings on music and postmodernity, his avant-gardist aesthetic
had no time for Warholian deconstructions of the modernist dichotomy between Art and the
commodity-form, nor for the discourse of cultural fluidity and hybridity that underwrites the
eclectic polystylism of much postmodern music. Few of the disparate developments characteristic
of postmodern art-music since the 1970s - ranging from minimalism, ‘process music’, ‘the new
simplicity’, polystylistic pastiche and the ‘nostalgia mode’ to ‘complexism’, ‘crossover music’,
‘world music’, and ambient interactive sound-art - would have passed Lyotard’s aesthetic
Another reason for ‘returning’ to postmodernism in this special issue is to review what
amounts to a truism, if not a truth, in the survey-literature on postmodern culture, which still
reports that musicologists have been reluctant to come to the postmodern party and lend a hand
in mixing the cocktails of aesthetics, politics and philosophy that theorists and practitioners of
postmodernism in other arts have been stirring and shaking for a good three decades. Such
Virgilian guides to the terrain as Tim Woods, Christopher Butler and Steven Connor (whose

Checking The Post 15
Cambridge to Companion to Postmodernism offers no discussion of music) have all represented
musicians as conspicuous by their absence from such debates, attributing their absence to the
‘relative autonomy’ of musicology as a discipline and of art music as a cultural form.50 This
clearly is not a truth of popular-music studies: Andrew Goodwin, Simon Frith, Timothy Taylor,
George Lipsitz, E. Ann Kaplan, Will Straw and Neil Nehring are only some of the writers who
have been articulating pop-music culture with theories of the postmodern since the 1980s. And
the degree to which it is only a half-truth of art-music criticism can be gauged from the first and
last essays of this issue, whose authors reflect on their own and their colleagues’ efforts to open-
up music scholarship to postmodernist perspectives during the past four decades. This special
issue offers both a historical ‘stock take’ of musicology’s engagements with postmodernism since
the 1970s, and illustrations of how music itself has both figured centrally in poststructuralist
theory and can open fresh perspectives for reassessing that theory.
A sense of the pastness and yet incompleteness of the project of postmodernising musicology
haunts the opening essay, ‘More Pomo Than Thou’, by a leading exponent of the so-called ‘New
Musicology’, Susan McClary. A distinction sometimes drawn between New Musicology in the US
and the Critical Musicology movement that emerged in Britain in the late 1990s is that while
the latter focused its ‘postmodernising’ critique of traditional music studies on deconstructing
the hierarchy of popular and classical musics, New Musicology has tended to concentrate on
reinterpreting the classical canon from the variously cultural, political, sexual and economic
perspectives that the high-modernists ruled out as ‘extra-musical’ but which postmoderns
recognise as integral to musical meaning and value.51 Hence Babette Babich’s suggestion that
all postmodern musicology aspires to the condition of ethnomusicology: by reinterpreting
the Western ideal of ‘art music’ as a projection of the values of a culturally specific, European,
upper or middle class that had its heyday in the nineteenth century, postmodern musicology
re-articulates musical aesthetics with ethnography or cultural studies. Defying the orthodoxy
that music is or moves rather than means, McClary argued that all music - instrumental no less
than vocal, classical no less than pop - is implicated in issues of gender-construction and the
channelling or disciplining of sexual desire. The essays and lectures gathered in McClary’s
books, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (1991) and Conventional Wisdom: The
Content of Musical Form (2000), were widely influential in opening academic musicology to the
considerations of gender and cultural politics that the formalist ideologues of modernism had
outlawed from music-analysis, and in dismantling the ‘great divide’ between ‘classical’ and
‘popular’ musical genres in the bourgeois economy of aesthetic value. Exploring the gendered
ways in which music arouses and channels desire, McClary sparked a notoriously scorching debate
among composers and music scholars in 1987 by describing the frustration of a carefully-prepared
cadence in a passage of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as ‘damming up
energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining
release’.52 Still damned and celebrated for such musicological transgressions more than twenty
years later, McClary here reflects on how the New Musicology reacted in the 1970s against a
conservatorium culture that demanded trainee composers and critics focus single-mindedly
on analysing what the music-theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) called the ‘structural
complexity’ of a piece, detached from its social and cultural ‘contexts’, and compose exercises

16 New Formations
in ‘integral’ or ‘total serialism’, in which not only the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale but
also other elements such as rhythm, dynamics, register and instrumentation are organised into
ordered sets on mathematical models. In ‘More PoMo Than Thou’, McClary recalls how the
New Musicologists’ insistence on finding contestable meanings in musical form coincided with
the emergence of such ‘Downtown’ composers as Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson and Meredith
Monk, whose music embraced pop-cultural material and spoke to the life-worlds of its audiences.
McClary also correlates postmodernist stylistic eclecticism with the rise of identity politics in the
US. Reporting her generation’s sense of the plurality of ‘little narratives’ (to use Lyotard’s term)
that seemed capable of blooming once high modernism’s metanarrative had been demoted to
the status of just one among other little narratives, or merely ‘one particularly stringent special
interest’, McClary recalls how ‘suddenly it was possible - even desirable - to compose from the
subject-position of a woman, an Australian, a gay man, an African American or a mystic from
the former Soviet Union’. But this opening of the art-music terrain to identity politics also
raised divisive questions about the ethics and economics of cultural exchange, appropriation,
commoditisation, and the reconcilability of aesthetic pleasure with ethics - questions McClary
explores in the latter half of her article through her commentary on the work of ‘a recent
posterchild of postmodernist music’, Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinian composer of Eastern-
European Jewish descent and a bricoleur of musical appropriations from Yiddish, Catholic,
Protestant, folkloric, flamenco and Afro-Cuban traditions. Writing in valedictory mode about
her generation’s contribution to the overhaul of high-modernist musical aesthetics, McClary
imagines possible musicological post-postmodernisms and suggests that one of them might be
precisely a rejection of the New Musicology’s view of music as meaning-laden sound - a prospect
from which McClary is ready to retreat back into ‘that Old Time Postmodernism’.
It was that Ur-text of ‘post’ thought, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
that inspired what Perry Anderson calls ‘a street-level relativism that often passes - in the eyes
of friends and foes alike - for the hallmark of postmodernism’; but a curiosity of the book was
that it didn’t investigate the implications of postmodernity for Lyotard’s own twin passions of art
and politics.53 Lyotard partially redressed this omission in his essay ‘Musique et Postmodernité’,
published in Canada in 1996 and re-published in English translation for the first time in this issue
of new formations, with the kind permission of Lyotard’s literary executrix, Mme Dolores Lyotard.
At the time of writing The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard had been unaware of postmodernism’s
currency in architecture as a label for the stylistic eclecticism and pastiche that were anathema to
his own avant-garde tastes - or what, in ‘Music and Postmodernity’, he dismisses as the ‘citation,
ornamentation, kitsch, parody, the neo-this and the post-that’ which he saw as pandering
to the lowest common denominator of aesthetic populism. Explaining how The Postmodern
Condition’s arguments about grand narrative bear on the history of Western art music, ‘Music
and Postmodernity’ illustrates how central music was to Lyotard’s aesthetic theory, as it was to
that of other French poststructuralists. (Even Derrida - having confessed to a tin ear when he
admitted that ‘music is the object of my strongest desire, and yet at the same time it remains
completely forbidden. I don’t have the competence, I don’t have any truly presentable musical
culture. Thus my desire remains completely paralyzed’ - later accepted Ornette Coleman’s
invitation to collaborate with him by writing and performing words for a jazz concert staged at

Checking The Post 17
La Villette: an event that would end prematurely for Derrida when his recitation of his written
meditation on the event, interlaced with Coleman’s sax-playing, was drowned-out by audience
disapproval.54) Figuring the advent of postmodernity in the West in the late 1970s as an ‘event’
in the post-Heidegerrian sense, Lyotard’s essay rehearses his theses about postmodernism as
incredulity toward the metanarratives that have, from Christianity through to Marxism, served
to legitimate Western modernity, and follows Schoenberg and Adorno in suggesting that the
history of Western music may be thought of as ‘the grand narrative of the emancipation of
sound’ from the inherited rules and customs of composition - rules that were discovered to
be neither natural nor necessary but purely contingent. Yet, the postmodern response to the
discovery of this radical contingency should not, Lyotard argues, be conceived as a revolutionary
liberation since ‘the very idea of a revolution belongs to the modern vision of a sudden progress
accomplished in the march towards freedom’. To the contrary, Lyotard proposes understanding
the artistic value of a musical composition in terms of its status as a sonic ‘event’, or ‘geste’,
which gives us an intimation of the ‘sonorous matter’ that is before or outside of all musical
expression or meaning, and hence of all communication between subjects (something like
the acoustic instance of the Lacanian Real). Such an ‘event’ or ‘geste’, he suggests, throws all
narratives of development, modernisation or revolution - all periodisations of art and culture
- into crisis insofar as it puts into question what music, listening and ‘sonorous material’ itself
might be.
Lyotard suggested in 1973 that aesthetic perspectives subtend all insurgent politics: ‘Aesthetics
has been for the political man I was (and remain?) not an alibi, a comfortable retreat, but the fault
and fissure to descend to the subsoil of the political scene, a vast grotto from which its underside
can be seen upside-down or turned inside-out’.55 Nonetheless, ‘Music and Postmodernity’ makes
no mention of politics. Hence the essay that follows it here, ‘Lyotard, Post-Politics and Riotous
Music’, in which I situate Lyotard’s musical aesthetics in relation to his political or ‘anti-political’
theory as a soixante-huitard manqué who wished to conceive of the May ’68 student-led uprising
in France as an ‘event’ that threw the rules of historiography and political praxis into crisis, just
as the postmodern musical ‘event’ puts the epistemology and phenomenology of sound into
crisis, destabilising the subjects of musical creation and appreciation. Testing Lyotard’s theory
against an example of musical practice, I ask whether it can be squared with a composition such
as Bob Ostertag’s All the Rage, which appears to answer to Lyotard’s definitions of an ‘absolutely
aporetic’ post-musical event while nonetheless serving an emancipatory project (in this instance,
gay rights).
Lyotard suggested in his 1996 essay that the current situation of music is characterised by
the convergence of three things: ‘the deconstruction of the codes according to which’ ‘sonorous
material’ has been treated in musical tradition; physiological and psychological research into
the human body’s capacity to ‘endure auditory situations foreign to nature and culture’; and
the exploration of these situations by means of computer and electronic technologies. This is
an apt summary of the state of the acoustic economy upon which Steven Connor ponders in
‘Strings in the Earth and Air’. Connor, however, reflects on a kind or condition of music that is
the antithesis of the punctual, rupturing event: namely, ‘atmospheric’ music, or sound-saturated
space in an era that can entertain all sound as potentially music since it no longer believes there

18 New Formations
is any essence of music. Connor posits an antinomy between two ‘characteristically postmodern’
principles: the ideal of an unrestricted economy of music, facilitated by new technologies of
sound (re)production and transmission that allow for a spatial diffusion of music which he
describes as its conversion from form into field; and the ideal of what the Canadian acoustic
theorist and composer R. Murray Schafer called ‘acoustic ecology’. The self-styled ‘father’ of
the acoustic ecology movement and founder of the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s,
Schafer undertook and inspired a wide range of research into humans’, animals’ and insects’
sonic and acoustic plottings, readings and manipulations of space, and into the question of
what might constitute a ‘balanced’ acoustic economy, which he defined as a hi-fi environment,
possessing a favourable signal-to-noise ratio, in contrast to a lo-fi environment in which
excessive ambient noise destroys acoustic perspective. Approaching ‘the world soundscape as
a macrocosmic musical composition’, Schafer’s The Music of the Environment (1973) proposed
an Adamic view of the composer as sonic gardener, charged with the responsibility of tending
the world’s soundscape and preventing it from running to acoustic weed: ‘Is the soundscape
of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control’, he asked, ‘or are
we its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?’56 In an era of
increasingly naturalised noise-pollution, Schafer argued, noise-abatement programmes were
not enough: ‘We must seek a way to make environmental acoustics a positive study program.
Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply? … Only a total appreciation of the
acoustic environment can give us the resources for improving the orchestration of the world’.
Schafer warned sound-artists, composers, installation-artists, planners and architects of their
responsibilities toward the Nature of this global soundscape: ‘If synthetic sounds are introduced,
if we venture to produce what I would call “the soniferous garden”, care must be taken to ensure
that they are sympathetic vibrations of the garden’s original notes … reinforcements of natural
sounds’.57 Implying that such a project and even such a distinction between original and synthetic
sounds are a lost cause, Connor proposes an ‘auditory ecology’ concerned not with preserving
and clarifying sound-objects in a ‘balanced’ sonic economy, but with negotiating the distinctions
between listening and hearing in which musical and non-musical sounds are phenomenologically
constituted as such. Connor concludes with the distinctly post-Cageian proposition, ‘Now that
music can be anything, perhaps it should not be everything’.
The constructivist critique of the avant-garde’s fetishisation of ‘the surprise of the event’
(to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase) as a moment of radical rupture poses such questions as: who
decides what counts as an ‘event’, when it begins or ends, and what is ‘internal’ or ‘external’ to
that event? Notwithstanding my criticisms of Lyotard’s avant-gardism in ‘Lyotard, Post-Politics
and Riotous Music’, the idea of music-as-event is developed in a Deleuzian direction in Claire
Colebrook’s and my article, ‘The Sonorous, the Haptic and the Intensive’. Reflecting on works
of contemporary sound-art and music by the Australians, David Chesworth and Sonia Leber,
and the Scottish composer, James Macmillan, we contrast two possible understandings of
musical postmodernism: on one hand, as a deconstructive art that denaturalises preconstituted
relationships between composition, performance and listener; and, on the other hand, a more
‘positive’ understanding of musical postmodernism, as sound that has the power to constitute
relations through its capacity to transform bodies, organs and territories. ‘The Sonorous, the

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Haptic and the Intensive’ is an exploration and defence of this second postmodernist approach
to music, informed by Deleuze’s vitalist and expressivist philosophy and proposing ways of
conceiving in music what Deleuze called the ‘minoritarian’ in literature. According to the
‘linguistic’ paradigm of Derridian poststructuralism, an event can only be understood as always
already situated within a system of relations; hence the modernist view of musical quotation as
parody, a mournful recognition that all we have are copies and doubles without any grounding
original. Hence, too, the qualitatively different postmodernist use of musical quotation, as in
John Zorn’s celebrated pastiche of Warner Brothers cartoon soundtracks, ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails’
(1988), which presents itself not as parodic but as a celebration that there is no ‘outside’, nothing
other than system, difference, relation, quotation or simulation. But there is an alternative (here
marked as Deleuzian) postmodernist view of quotation and repetition as a drawing-out of the
originality, rather than the derivativeness, of ‘sonorous matter’, its potentiality for variation
and difference, and hence its capacity for constituting new relations through its transforming
affects. In contrast to the dominant, ‘linguistic’ strain of postmodern theory, then, we propose
a new way of thinking positively about difference in music, using the Deleuzian concepts of the
sonorous, the haptic and the intensive.
The concept of quotation traditionally presupposes a distinction between original and copy
- a distinction that the digital sampler has been eroding (to the vexation of copyright law) as
surely as the synthesiser’s capacity for reproducing micro-tones eroded the distinctions between
the twelve tones with which the serialists composed. In ‘Sampling, Cyborgs and Simulation:
Popular Music in the Digital Hypermodern’, Nick Prior examines ways in which computer
technology has increased the elasticity of the popular musical text, lending it, as digital code,
to repeated creation, formation, iteration; how this technology has dislocated popular music
from a given place of creation and from the co-presence of its creators, facilitating a dispersed
and mobile creativity; and how it has dissolved distinctions between technological automation
and human creativity, turning musicians into partners, not masters, of machines. Prior argues
for an understanding of the digital mediation of popular music as a condition of radicalised
modernity, or hypermodernity, rather than of postmodernity.
One of the defamiliarising synonyms with which the shop-worn ‘postmodernism’ has
been displaced on the cultural-theory shelf in recent years is ‘globalisation’ (now preferred by
Fredric Jameson, despite being presupposed in his 1980s definition of postmodernism as the
cultural logic of late, ‘multinational capitalism’). New technologies of sound-recording and
mass-distribution have not only globalised access to what were once region-specific musics, and
democratised access to once-elite kinds of music, but they have also dislocated musical styles
from the settings and functions to which their generic names often refer. In Bruce Johnson’s
words: ‘it is no longer necessary to go to the “country” to hear country music; to church to hear
religious music; to Arnhem Land to hear particular forms of Australian indigenous music; or to
Bulgaria or Lebanon to hear their “ethnic” or “world music” manifestations’.58 Among the tag-
terms for the experience of dislocated listening in a globalised musical marketplace are ‘world
music’ and ‘iPod culture’ (the latter Michael Bull’s coinage for a new kind of cosmopolitanism,
carried in the pocket rather than in the head).59 The musical counterpart of literary debates
about the ethics and politics of postmodernism and postcolonialism have tended to centre on

20 New Formations
the concept of ‘world music’ (or, in US parlance, ‘world beat’). World music has been defined
variously as: the generic hybridism resulting from Western appropriations of non-Western folk
and traditional musics; as the soundscape of the decentred global cultural marketplace; as
progressive multiculturalism in the music industry, indicating postcolonial ‘feedback’ in the
previously ‘one-way’ flow of cultural influence in global communications; or as an early 1980s
marketing concept and signifier of a Western taste-culture disaffected with the hype of global
corporate culture and looking to non-Western music for local tradition and ‘authenticity’.60 Two
discourses have tended to dominate debates about the ethics and aesthetics of world music since
the early 1990s: a discourse of authenticity, ownership, theft and appropriation; and a discourse
of fluidity, hybridity and collaborative exchange. The first discourse is informed by neo-Marxist
analyses of imperialism, and the second underpinned by postmodern anti-essentialist theories
of the performative, dialogical and porous nature of all cultural identities. These two discourses,
in turn, have generated two kinds of narratives of world music, which have been characterised
as ‘anxious’ and ‘celebratory’ narratives respectively.61 Andrew Hurley’s article, ‘Postnationalism,
Postmodernism and the German Discourses of Weltmusik’ explores the tensions between such
‘anxious’ and ‘celebratory’ narratives in a specifically German debate about Weltmusik, to which
musicians as diverse as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Joachim-Ernst Berendt (organiser of the Jazz
Meets the World Series and Weltmusik summits) and the ‘Krautrock’ group CAN have contributed
since the 1960s. Hurley shows how the distinctively German anti-nationalist Weltmusik discourse,
emerging from the German jazz scene well before the marketing tag ‘world music’ caught on in
Anglophone culture in the 1980s, has been informed by the trauma of National Socialism but
also by anxieties about the breakdown of grand narratives, utopian hopes inspired by processes
of globalisation, and dreams of a new wholeness. Hurley’s overview of the origins and trajectories
of the debate illustrates how Weltmusik discourse plays out the simultaneously fragmenting
and homogenising tendencies of postmodern culture by uneasily combining its celebration of
cultural inauthenticity and questioning of earlier German notions of cultural essentialism with
fantasies of racial harmony which displace the trauma of the Holocaust.
In contrast to the located yet mobile, gendered and ethnicised yet hybrid and even cyborgian,
postmodern composer, high modernism’s composer was nothing if not a transcendent Expert
whose unique intentionality - distilled in what Schoenberg called ‘the idea’ of the piece, inscribed
in its score - it was the duty of the serious listener to recover through the practice of ‘structural
listening’.62 The traditional hierarchy of composer–performer–audience in the concert tradition
is a hierarchy of diminishing authority over the meanings of music: the composer conceives,
the performer interprets, the audience receives, while the conception of music-as-score, or text,
abstracts music from the contingent events of its performances and predicates immutability of its
‘idea’, its ‘meaning’, even its value. (From Schoenberg and Webern to Boulez, the serialists typically
treated music as language - as in Boulez’s description of the twelve-tone system as ‘le langage
dodécaphonique’.63) John Scannell explores a very different view of the composer in his article on
the so-called Godfather of Soul, ‘James Brown and the “Illogic” of Innovation’, in which he brings
Deleuze’s concept of the ‘Idiot’ to bear on the relationship between compositional expertise and
innovation in contemporary popular music. Brown’s public acclaim as a musical ‘visionary’ was
counterpointed by the private disdain of many of the ‘trained’ musicians in his bands, who scorned

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his ‘musical illiteracy’. Scannell develops his own unorthodox valorisation of Brown’s approach
to composition through Deleuze’s account of the Idiot, in Difference and Repetition, as the pedant’s
polar opposite, whose naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of
thinking - whose capacity, in other words, for ‘thought without presupposition’ - enables modes
of conceptual originality that evaded Brown’s more musically-trained colleagues.64
A different image again of the composer, though one closer to Prior’s portrait of the
hypermodern cyborgian music-maker, is projected in ‘Chair Creaks, Though No One Sits There’
by the renowned sound-artist and contemporary-music scholar, David Toop. The title of Toop’s
essay, borrowed from Virginia Woolf, is also the title of one of his compositions, and his essay
both reflects upon and enacts a compositional practice that Toop characterises here as ‘destructive
composition’, or ‘decomposition’. Confounding modernist dichotomies between control and
exstasis, intentionality and aleatory procedures, authoritarian composition and utopian free
improvisation, Toop’s decompositional practice involves commissioning recorded sounds from
a variety of musicians and ‘other sonic technicians’ unaware either of the decomposer’s plans or
of one another’s contributions, and subjecting them to improvisational processes of ‘destructive
composing’ with his digital audio software - a method Toop describes as ‘paradoxically both
isolated and communal, autocratic and collaborative, controlled and accidental, accretive and
decayed, hypertextual and linear, analogue and digital’. A decentring, at once, of the composition,
the performance and the relations of authority and ownership among the composer-performers
who contribute to its assembling, Toop’s sound-art is often poised on the thresholds of audibility,
treating the ‘decay’ of sounds - in the ear and mind - as a zone of creative potentiality and a
metaphor for blurred boundaries between composer and listener, ownership and loss, presence
and absence. Describing his method as ‘both modernist and postmodernist’, Toop also conceives
of it as a reflection on ‘the uncomfortable business of exploitation, negotiation and sharing’ that
participating in contemporary musical cyberculture inevitably entails.
Laurie Anderson, in her film Home of the Brave, recycles an adage attributed to musicians
as disparate as Thelonius Monk and Elvis Costello: ‘writing about music is like dancing to
architecture’ (to which Costello is reported to have once added, in an interview with a music-
journalist: ‘it’s a really stupid thing to want to do’). If Susan McClary is right in guessing that
one possible reaction against her generation’s New Musicology might be a rejection of the very
notion of music as contestable meaning, then one form that reaction may take is an inversion of
the traditional interpretative relationship between music and language. Gay Breyley’s ‘Music as a
Model for Postmodern Textual Analysis’ proposes such a reversal: rather than subjecting music to
hermeneutical procedures that purport to make explicit its implicit motives and meanings, Breyley
proposes employing musical concepts, ranging from pitch, tempo and dynamics to counterpoint
and atonality, to analyse the drifts and strategies of thought, memory and imagination in verbal
texts. Breyley points to the dominance of visual and spatial paradigms in canonical Western
‘theory’: Benjamin’s spatial schema of labyrinthine cross-connections; Deleuze and Guattari’s
territorial and rhizomatic ‘images of thought’; Foucault’s genealogy, which privileges spatial
rearrangements of events - and she suggests how such paradigms may be re-inflected by focusing
on their repressed aural dimensions. Arguing that musical analysis is especially pertinent to the
literature of memory, Breyley focuses on three memoirs from Australian ‘minor literature’ (‘minor’

22 New Formations
in the Deleuzian sense of literature constructed by a minority in a major language), approaching
them as compositions of memory in the genres of, respectively, folk, country, atonal modernist
and rock music. Breyley suggests that the memoirists’ texts be read ‘as a kind of “vocalese”, the
adaptation of new words and many voices to pre-arranged ancestral melodies, to tell stories and
pay tribute to the composers and previous performers of those tunes’. In such works of memory,
popular and national discourses can be heard as key-setting ‘bass drones’ underneath the ‘melodies’
of personal memory, and narrative voices and themes can be recognised as organised by principles
like counterpoint, improvisation, ornamentation, and what Schencker called the ‘horizontalising’
or ‘melodicising’ of chords.
In the concluding essay of this issue, the musicologist Judy Lochhead takes stock of American
debates about postmodernism in art music since the 1960s. When Lochhead and Joseph
Auner introduced their conference collection Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought in 2002,
they suggested several reasons for what they saw as a paucity of critical debate on ‘issues of
philosophical, cultural and aesthetic postmodernism’ in music studies, including the tendency
of many New Musicologists to focus their analyses on pre-1945 concert music rather than
on contemporary music, and the reluctance of contemporary composers themselves to write
commentaries on their own or their colleagues’ music, in striking contrast to the manifesto-
penning habits of earlier generations.65 In ‘Naming: Music and Postmodernism’, Lochhead
concedes that there is some truth in Steven Connor’s verdict that ‘the relative conservatism
and autonomy of academic music study may account for its long resistance to postmodernist
formulations and arguments’,66 but she suggests that musicologists are distrustful of reflex
valorisations of cultural fusions, hybridisations and border-crossings for their own sake, given
how asymmetrical the economic and cultural exchanges involved in them often are; hence their
mistrust of the concept of postmodernism, Lochhead suggests. But she also points out that,
after World War II, music-theory and music-analysis became the job of composers primarily
interested in writing technical accounts of how music is made and confident that musical structure
determines musical experience. Since most music scholars still begin their training as composers
and performers in conservatoria and not in arts faculties, they are products of an academic
culture that has kept itself comparatively immune from the theory-virus that was transmitted so
rapidly between humanities disciplines in the 1980s and 1990s. Lochhead’s article samples art-
music compositions from the 1960s to the 1990s, by such composers as Luciano Berio, George
Rochberg, Charles Dodge and Sofia Gubaidulina, and sounds contemporary critical responses
to them for evidence of the concerns that have clustered under the postmodern umbrella in
other disciplines, suggesting that they can indeed be found there, but often by other names.
What Lochhead’s brief survey suggests, in the end, is a satisfactory absence from recent art-music
history of a grand narrative that we could agree to label postmodernist.


1. David Glover and Scott McCracken, ‘The Bad New Days’, new formations 62 (Autumn 2007): 7.

2. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, second edition, London and New York, Routledge, 2002,

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3. Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ (1924) , Critical Essays, Volume One, London, Hogarth Press,
1966, p320.

4. Todd Gitlin, The Intellectuals and the Flag, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006, p7.

5. Ibid., pp1-7.

6. Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso, 1998, p26.

7. Terry Teachout, ‘The Return of Beauty’, US Society of Values, an electronic publication of the Office of
International Information Programs, US Department of State, April 2003:
itsv/0403/ijse/teachout.htm (accessed 13/3/07)

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. See Gruss’s NewBohemia website at, and Frederick Turner, ‘New Media,
New Beauty’, New Bohemia, Web-zine of New Realism in the Arts,
NewMedia_OldBeauty.htm (accessed 4/4/08).

11. T. L. Ponick, ‘Composers Advance Into Past’, Washington Times Arts supplement, 28 June, 2003, p1.

12. Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

13. ‘Dialog between Donald Kuspit and Donna Marxer’, Artists Talk On Art: Critical Dialog in the Visual Arts,
ATOA Panel Transcript, 10 December 2004: (accessed 4/4/08).

14. Kuspit, The End of Art, p182.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., pp183, 191 and 185.

17. Stuart Sim, Fundamentalist World: The New Dark Age of Dogma, Cambridge: Icon, 2004, and Empires of Belief:
Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First Century, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

18. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC, Duke University
Press, 1991, p5.

19. See Hal Foster, ‘Postmodernism: A Preface’, in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern
Culture, Port Townsend, Wash., Bay Press, 1983, pxii.

20. See Stuart Sim, ‘Don’t blame the postmodernists’,, 21/02/07 http://www.signandsight.

21. Sim, Empires of Belief, p3.

22. Ibid., p11.

23. Stuart Sim, ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Stuart Sim (ed),
London; New York, Routledge, 2005, ppvii-viii.

24. See Kyle Gann, ‘The great divide: uptown composers are stuck in the past’ (9 July 1996), in Music
Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006, pp136-39.

25. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington and Brian
Massumi (trans), foreword by Fredric Jameson, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984, ppxxiv and 82.

26. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, Leo Black (trans), Berkeley, University of California
Press, 1975, p216.

27. See Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, Robert Hullot-Kentor (ed and trans), Minneapolis and

24 New Formations
London, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp50-53.

28. Schoenberg, Style and Idea, p218.

29. Adorno, Philosphy of New Music, p50.

30. Arnold Schoenberg, ‘New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea’ (1946), in Style and Idea, Leonard Stein
(ed), Leo Black (trans), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975, pp113-24.

31. Hans Severus Ziegler, ‘Die Düsseldorfer Reichsmusiktage’, Völkischer Beobachter, May 27, 1938, quoted in
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p321.

32. For discussions of the politics of the US government’s promotion of modernist music during the Cold War,
see: Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London: Granta Books,
1999; Ian Wellens, Music on the Frontline: Nicolas Nabokov’s Struggle Against Communism and Middlebrow Culture,
Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002; and Mark Carroll, Music and Ideology in Cold War Europe, Cambridge: CUP,
2003. For the Central Communist Party directive to the All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers in 1958, see
C. Vaughan James, Soviet Socialist Realism, London, Macmillam, 1973, p88.

33. Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, Roy Carter (trans), London: Faber and Faber, 1978, p314.

34. Anne C. Shreffler, ‘The Myth of Empirical Historiography: A response to Joseph N. Straus’, Musical
Quartlery 84, 1 (Spring 2000): 5.

35. René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music, Dika Newlin
(trans), 1949; New York, Da Capo Press, 1970, ppxvi and x.

36. Shreffler, ‘The Myth of Empirical Historiography’, op. cit., p35.

37. Isaak Glikman, Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dimitri Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1914-1975, Anthony
Phillips (trans), Cornell University Press, 2001, p193

38. Ross, The Rest Is Noise, op. cit., p393.

39. Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music: Conversations with Composers of Our Time, J. Christensen and A. Beyer (ed
and trans), London, Ashgate, 2000, p178.

40. Schoenberg, quoted in Joan Peyser, To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring, New York,
Billboard Books, 1999, p35,

41. Ross, The Rest Is Noise, op. cit., p35

42. For Adams’ verdict on his experience as a music student at Harvard in the late 1960s (‘I was interested in
jazz and rock, and then I would go into the music department, which was like a mausoleum where we would sit
and count tone-rows in Webern. It was a dreadful time’), see Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century,
New York, Schirmer Books, 1997, p229; and for Glass’s famous verdict on the modernist music-scene presided
over by Boulez in Paris in the 1960s (‘a wasteland dominated by these maniacs, these complete creeps, you know
- who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music … My music is an affront to anyone who
takes that kind of music seriously’, see his interview with Robert Ashley, (Landscape with Philip Glass’, in Music
with Roots in the Aether: Opera for Television 2, New York: Lovely Music, 1976, p43. See, too, John Rockwell, All
American who takes that kind of music seriously’), see his interview with Robert Ashley, ‘Music: Composition in the
Late Twentieth Century, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, p111.

43. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, op. cit., pp53-54.

44. Kyle Gann, ‘Ding! dong! the witch is dead: modernism loses its grip as the odometer turns over’ (25 January
2000), in Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006, p145.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., p137.

47. Boulez, ‘Contemporary Music and the Public’, 1983, op. cit., ppp317 and 321.

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48. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, op. cit., p76.

49. For a detailed discussion of trends and debates in postmodernist art music and sound-art, see Part 1 of my
Sounding Postmodernism: Sampling Australian Composers, Sound Artists and Music Critics, Sydney, Australian Music
Centre, 2008.

50. See Steven Connor, ‘Introduction’, Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 2004, p17; Tim Woods, Beginning Postmodernism, Manchester and New York, Manchester
University Press, 1999, p179; and Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 2002, pp74-75.

51. Derek Scott stresses this difference between American New Muscology and British Critical Musicology in
his ‘Postmodernism and Music’, in Stuart Sim (ed.), The Icon Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, Cambridge: Icon
Books, 1998, pp144-45.

52. The phrase appeared in a piece by McClary in the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers’ Forum
Newsletter and was modified for inclusion in her Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, University of
Minnesota Press, 1991, p128.

53. Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, op. cit., pp26-27.

54. See David Wills, ‘Notes towards a requiem: or the music of memory.(Jacques Derrida)’, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
39, 3 (Sept 2006): 27-47.

55. Jean-François Lyotard, Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud, Paris, 1973, p20, translated and quoted in Anderson,
Origins of Postmodernity, op. cit., pp27-28.

56. R. Murray Schafer, ‘The Music of the Environment’, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Christoph
Cox and Daniel Warner (ed), New York and London, Continuum, 2005, p30.

57. Schafer, ‘The Music of the Environment’, op. cit., pp29-39.

58. Bruce Johnson, The Inaudible Music: Jazz, Gender and Australian Modernity, Sydney, Currency Press, 2000,

59. Michael Bull, ‘Sounding Out Cosmpolitanism: iPod Culture and Recognition’, keynote lecture at Music,
Culture and Society conference, Monash University, Victoria, Australia, 6 March 2008. Cf. Michael Bull, Sound
Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience, London and New York, Routledge, 2007.

60. For a range of perspectives on world music, see Viet Erlmann, ‘The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination:
Reflections on World Music in the 1990s’, Public Culture 8 (1996): 468-87; Andrew Goodwin and Joe Gore,
‘World Beat and the Cultural Imperialism Debate’, Socialist Review 20, 3 (July-September 1990): 63-80;
Steven Feld, ‘Notes on “World Beat”’ and ‘From Schizophrenia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and
Commodification Practices of “World Music” and “World Beat”’, in Charles Keil and Steven Feld (eds), Music
Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp238-46 and 257-89; Martin
Roberts, ‘“World Music” and the Global Cultural Economy’, Diaspora 2, 2 (1992): 229-42; Jocelyne Guilbault,
‘Interpreting World Music: A Challenge in Theory and Practice’, Popular Music 16, 1 (1997): 31-44; Philip
Hayward, Music at the Borders: Not Drowning, Waving and Their Engagement with Papua New Guinean Music, 1986-
96, Sydney, John Libbey & Co., 1998; Simon Frith, ‘The Discourse of World Music’, in Georgina Born and
David Hesmondhalgh (eds), Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation and Appropriation in Music,
Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2000, pp305-22; Timothy Brennan, ‘World
Music Does Not Exist’, Discourse 23, 1 (Winter 2001): 44-62; and Jack Bishop, ‘Building International Empires
of Sound: Concentrations of Power and Property in the “Global” Music Market’, Popular Music and Society 28, 4
(October 2005): 443-71.

61. See Steven Feld, ‘A Sweet Lullaby for World Music’, Public Culture 12, 1 (2000): 145-71; and David Bennett,
‘Postmodern Eclecticism and the World Music Debate: The Politics of the Kronos Quartet’, Context: A Journal of
Music Research 29-30 (2005): 5-15.

62. For the concept of ‘structural listening’, see Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Developing Variations: Style
and Ideology in Western Music, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, pp277-78; and Andrew

26 New Formations
Dell’Antonio (ed), Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, Berkeley, CA, University of
California Press, 2004.

63. See Pierre Boulez, ‘Eventuellement . . .’, La Revue musicale 212 (April 1952): 119.

64. See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, London, Continuum, 2004, p165.

65. Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner, Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, pp2-3.

66. Steven Connor, ‘Introduction’, Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, op. cit., p17.

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