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ContemporaryMusic Review, 9 1995 Harwood AcademicPublishers GmbH

1995, Vol. 12, Part 1, pp. 77-83 Printed in Malaysia


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Photocopyingpermitted by license only

Postmodernism in Music:
Retrospection as Reassessment
H e l g a d e la M o t t e - H a b e r

Musicologists were taken by surprise w h e n they o p e n e d their newspapers in


September 1981 and found themselves confronted by the concept of postmod-
ernism. What they discovered here was an article by J~irgen Habermas expressing
his horror at the conservative nature of more recent American architecture.
Surprise gave way to consternation, not least because musicologists had only just
come to terms with works composed during the second half of the 1970s: after all,
these works reinforced their own system of values, embodying the academically
buttressed category of the work of art and allowing themselves to be analysed by
traditional methods. The term 'postmodernisrn" spread like wild fire and through-
out the early 1980s was more or less universally defined as a neo-conservatism
which seemed to characterise the Neo-Romantic language of a new generation of
composers. Purely external factors contributed to the rapid spread of the term,
chiefly among music journalists. There was no formula, for example, to describe
the works of a younger generation since the term 'new simplicity', which was also
in circulation at this time, was manifestly unsuited to these pieces with their
extremely complex structures. Since then, linguistic confusion has reigned when-
ever postmodernism has been discussed in music, a confusion which, if not exactly
reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, is none the less extensive. There are various
reasons for this, and I should like to consider four of them here.
1. A concept of such affected gravitas as that of postmodernism seemed too
broadly based to characterise a p h e n o m e n o n specific to one particular country,
in other words, works written in western Germany as an imitation of a late-
romantic style, even though these works displayed all the characteristics which
constitute the definitions of the o v e r h y p e d theories of the architect Charles
Jencks. Above all, the criterion of 'double-coding', according to which the old
becomes new, seemed to be fully met. That the American culture industry had
produced a musical equivalent of this was not widely noticed in Europe and,
indeed, continues to be ignored even today in some quarters. People have
always expected something new to emerge from America, so that it is by no
means paradoxical that the reception of works by Morton Feldman is a 1980s'
p h e n o m e n o n . His earlier appearances - in Donaueschingen in 1954 and in
Darmstadt in 1958 - failed to make any impression. As a result of this belated
reception, N e w Music still seemed to justify its name in musical Europe. But the
fact that, as a term, 'postmodernism' was American in origin made it
questionable as a way of characterising what was largely a regionally coloured
restitution of the past.

77
78 H. Motte-Haber

2. The word soon lost its aesthetic meaning. Philosophers who appropriated it
used it to describe phenomena affecting the whole of society. A semantic wave
spilt over from France and proved difficult to contain within precise musical
channels.
3. Postmodernism is a relative term. Whether the prefix "post' is thought to
express distance or to have an antithetical force, it presupposes an under-
standing of modernism. That the term 'postmodernism' is so very imprecise is
due not least to the fact that our understanding of modernism is so varied, so
that one sometimes wonders whether those who theorise about it actually
share a common culture. A common understanding of modernism has fallen
victim to the scientific need for order, a need which results in compartmen-
talisations which, regarded as problematical, are compartmentalised in turn. It
is no wonder, therefore, that postmodernism has been so difficult to pin down.
Even today, "modernism' is a matter of ideological debate, with various
authorships being claimed for its demarcation. These events were accompa-
nied by the journalistic desire to be able to call on the simplest possible term
which could easily be explained to others. On the crudest level one can now
decide whether a condition moderne began with the Enlightenment or whether
it is rather artistic revolts of the twentieth century which mark the onset of
modernism. The latter alternative may sell the expression somewhat short, but
at least it comes close to the American understanding of the terms, which has
served inter alia to single out John Cage as a composer whose works go
beyond European modernism and who can therefore be reckoned as part of
the 'postmodernist' movement. There also appears to be no clear distinction
between postmodernism and antimoderism, the latter a term already in use by
1905. In this regard Hermann Bahr's 1890 study, 'A Critique of Modernism',
deserves greater attention than it has received hitherto. In a musical context,
the idea of postmodernism was particularly watered down by the fact that
modernism had been defined in highly specialised ways, a state of affairs
which I mention merely in passing, since to discuss it in further detail would
not advance my lines of thought.
4. Postmodernism was interpreted as the threshold of an epoch. This raised the
term to the level of a universal before which musicological analysis was bound
to retreat defeated since there is currently no analytical method capable of
doing justice to all music. Although the concept of pluralism has been
suggested as a way of characterising a postmodern era, the older generation
has fought shy of using it, not least because the term had already been
hawked around in the 1950s without ever managing to say anything
meaningful. Can one really speak of the threshold to a new age in view of the
fact that continuity is everywhere in evidence? Linguistic confusion confused
the issue itself. Although musical postmodernism cannot be defined at present,
this does not mean that it is impossible to describe phenomena which are
related in various ways to a reality weighed down by historical evidence.

None the less, it was impossible to avoid noticing that the avant-garde movement
had ground to a halt by the 1980s and that this development was nowhere more
obvious than in the case of New Music. The development had presumably already
begun at a time when musical activity seemed lively and exciting, in other words,
Postmodernism in Music 79

around 1960. At least it is an observable fact that the linear developments which
had taken place in certain areas of N e w Music were no longer in evidence at this
period - a period, moreover, which was already characterised by the prefix 'post'.
Of course, post-serial music still acknowledged certain styles and trends, but these
existed simultaneously rather than developing sequentially. The 1960s produced
further "isms' of a kind typical of the twentieth century's avant-garde. These 'isms'
became increasingly rare. In the case of music one can already speak of a
reclamation of traditional categories during the 1960s, a process which went
unnoticed beside the exciting, life-embracing activities of some of the composers
active at this time. The opening up of music to noise, which certain sections of the
public found so shocking, also had the aim of winning back semantic values that
were alien to the crystal-clear and rational structures of serial music. Noises entice,
threaten, flatter; they always suggest an emotional content and in that way create
extra meaning. There was also retrenchment in the narrower field of composition,
a process paradigmatically illustrated by the work of GyOrgy Ligeti: his Atmo-
spheres of 1961 was one of the most radical works of N e w Music in which pitch
and r h y t h m were replaced by tonal colour and all sense of musical development
largely superseded. But works such as Ramification, Lontano and Melodien can also
be seen today as attempts to retain at least a vestige of r h y t h m and melodic line
and to revitalise tradition in a novel way. Was it a threshold which young
composers crossed w h e n they tried to reapply traditional musical qualities to
music? Perhaps it would be preferable to describe it as a development which, like
a train travelling too slowly, rattled the sleepers beneath the track and, in the years
around 1975, brought them to our conscious awareness.
Without seeking to remove the lack of clarity surrounding the concept of
postmodernism by bringing it into greater focus, we must none the less mention
the Neo-Romantic works to which the term was applied. Recourse to traditional
genres and to standard orchestral forces is as typical of these works as a dramatic
gesture which would not be out of place in the concert hall alongside that of a
Bruckner symphony. All these things are well k n o w n and do not need to be
repeated here. What was novel was the active interest in the past, which seemed
to lie before composers like some fallow field waiting to be newly tilled. It is their
relationship to history which sets this younger generation of composers apart from
the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.
I have always thought that the widespread thesis which considered the
avant-garde movements of the twentieth century to be an attack on the institution
of art was incorrect, even though it involved the claim - at least since the first half
of the nineteenth century, w h e n the concept of the avant-garde was aesthetically
reinterpreted in Saint-Simonist circles - that art could be seen as a practical
expression of life. It can be shown, however, that the idea of autonomous art has
always been powerful and fascinating. If musicians w a n d e r e d too far away from
it with their noisy sensationalism or extreme functionalism, they were quick to
return to the concert hall. George Antheil - who, during the 1920s, is said to have
attended concerts only w h e n armed with a gun - soon turned to writing only
symphonies, while Paul Hindemith was another composer w h o exchanged
nightclubs and leisure centres for the concert hall. In m u c h the same spirit, Hanns
Eisler turned his film scores into chamber works. Typical of the avant-garde during
the first half of the twentieth century, however, was a defiant revolt against the
oppressive weight of works dating from the past and against the historicisation of
80 H. Motte-Haber

concert life. As Franz Marc put it in Der blaue Reiter, artists resented the idea that
it was only material possessions, not intellectual ones, that were to be increased.
What neutralisation has this century achieved for present-day artists - not only
musicians but painters, too - to relate directly to tradition? Without a gesture of
revolt. The raw materials of the past seemed to be laid out on display, as through
in some enormous grocer's shop. Composers helped themselves to the over-
expressive gestures of late Romantic music, reintroduced that emotional ebb and
flow that finds its most striking expression in dynamic gradings and in crescendo
and decrescendo markings. The increased use to which these qualities were put in
constant vacillations between one dynamic extreme and another is an outward
indication that the reintroduction of an emotional content was not so easy to
achieve, since these qualities were once associated with a hierarchy of musical
structures that was specific to a language of music which could not be fully
restored. As a result, surface and structure diverge in these Neo-Romantic works.
The grand expressive gesture only partially reflects a hierarchical relationship
between the parts, a relationship which, in earlier music, was guaranteed by the
relationship between thematic sections and development sections. Since it was
only the expressive gestures, not the tonal language as such, which was
reconstructed - for h o w otherwise would it have been possible to stage a display
of individual expressivity? - it is no longer feasible, in m o d e r n music, to travel
through space, as it were. Varying degrees of tension expressed by various chords
such as the combination of minor second and tritone which is augmented to a
chromatic cluster at the beginning of Wolfgang Rihm's Third String Quartet, for
example, create an appreciably weaker 'harmonic differential' than exists in
traditional music. Moreover, pieces written around 1975 and later often reveal a
structural thinking that is indebted to the music of a more recent past with its
equally weighted and equally worked structure, the most extreme example of
which was serial music. These works are densely woven, as though created from
a single formula. The opening m o v e m e n t of the Third String Quartet by Wolfgang
Rihm, to which reference has already been made, combines extreme dynamic
markings within the narrowest possible margins and attempts to stir up the
listener's 'innermost' feelings, while at the same time demonstrating a structural
thinking entirely typical of the twentieth century. As a result of its almost constant
presence, the note A flat (German as), which m a y represent the initials of the
dedicatee, Alfred Schlee, and which is absent for only a handful of bars in two
brief passages, has a structural function which is clearly emphasised in unison and
monorhythmic passages. Such rational structures make the emotional outbursts of
this music difficult to understand since they can no longer be e m b e d d e d within a
harmonic context that creates larger and smaller subdivisions in the way that was
possible with, say, Robert Schumann, w h o also worked with such initials.
The recourse to historical models that became manifest after 1975 could already
be glimpsed some ten or fifteen years earlier. But there are also important
differences, which I should like to illustrate by means of a comparison with
Mauricio Kagel's piano piece, AnTasten, which uses far more historical material
than Rihm's Third String Quartet. It uses only major and minor, diminished and
augmented triadic chords in a unbroken quaver movement. Kagel quotes not only
the means employed by tonal music, with its m a j o r / m i n o r tonal system, but also
a sensitive and emotional way of playing. With the exception of a single passage,
the regular quaver m o v e m e n t has to be played rubato, with a slight but sensitive
Postmodernism in Music 81

lingering over the first quaver of each new chord. It is an 6tude which would like
to become an arioso, an exercise in emphatic playing, never rising to the level of
a melody but remaining in the realm of accompanying formulas. Such 'illusions of
musical emotion', as Kagel has called the nocturne, Klangw6lfe, conjure up
associations of the bygone splendours of the concert hall, splendours which still
seem faintly discernible beneath a thick surface patina. The use of older musical
material does not necessarily make a piece of music postmodern. Quotations of
existing material have always been possible: one thinks, for example, for the use
of church modes in the nineteenth century. What distinguishes a work like
AnTasten, which draws exclusively on tonal material, from Neo-Romantic compo-
sitions is the aesthetic attitude which it embodies. Kagel gives the great works of
the past a wide historical berth, even if he avails himself of their stylistic devices.
The discrepancy which this piece reveals between the mindless drill of an 6tude
and the grandiose gestures of a virtuoso (what is being practised here is what, at
an earlier period, appeared as inspiration on the part of the performer) is different
in kind from that which was described between the technical structure and the
emotional surface of the music. This discrepancy is emphasised, producing
alienated and paradoxical effects and affording an intellectual pleasure. It involves
no direct appeal to the emotions. Integrated into a piece, it represents an element
of historical distance which seems neutralised in Neo-Romantic works. Although
heterogeneously structured, these latter compositions disguise the sense of
historical distance.
Modem European art is essentially characterised by an immanent relationship,
and the theorists who have concerned themselves with it have devoted their most
steadfast endeavours to making this relationship clear. Easily illustrated by the
relationship between Beethoven and Brahms, it has also served, however, to define
the position of the new as something genuinely autonomous. Such a definition,
which is valid until well into the twentieth century, becomes more and more
problematical following the breakdown of the avant-garde movement. Works
appear simply to stand alongside one another, as though there were models of
composition that are completely neutral from an historical point of view. The claim
of works of music, above all, to transcend their age and achieve lasting
permanence casts such long shadows at the end of the twentieth century that new
compositions are lost in them. It seems to be their function to make these shadows
even deeper and, as a result of the contrast created in this way, to enhance the
lustre of the great works of the past. The response which Neo-Romantic works
tend to elicit in the concert hall is that of compositions which preserve intact the
language of bygone works, works which display an integrity that more recent
pieces cannot achieve. Unlike retrospective pieces, the works of the past are
interpreted afresh by the audience and treated as though they belong to the living
present.
If it appears that such a phenomenon is more strongly developed at the heart of
Europe, then there is good reason for this, since we are dealing not with a state of
affairs that affects individual composers and compositions alone but with
fundamental developments which always move more quickly at their centre than
at their edges. And the self-service store is in any case much better stocked than
those people who only occasionally attend concerts of New Music might otherwise
be misled into thinking. It is becoming increasingly clear that very young
composers are now copying the music of the 1950s and 1960s as though it
82 H. Motte-Haber

belonged to some far distant, neutralised past. They are playing a by no means
inconsiderable part in ensuring that this more recent past is clearly circumscribed.
This recourse to the past also elicits a critical assessment, but this judgement affects
what lies in the past rather than what has just been written. The present seems,
rather, to produce a kind of colonisation of the past. A high price must be paid for
the fruits that are brought back from these colonies and that price concerns the
quality of freshness. In spite of the fact that composers fall back on traditional
models, there is none the less a compulsive urge to mount first performances. Works
are rarely performed more than once; last year's piece already seems outdated.
That few works have been written in recent years that reflect the conditions of a
bygone culture is perhaps also clear from the fact that it is possible to count on the
figures of one hand gramophone recordings which have opened up much New
Music to a wider audience. These new works reveal only individual facets within
the existing spectrum of culture and in doing so keep the culture industry going.
Although I personally feel sceptical about this colonisation of history, it is also
necessary to emphasise the need for it. After the many interruptions to which
culture has been subjected, this colonisation of history - which could continue
indefinitely - also preserves a sense of continuity. To pick up an expression of
Gottfried Benn's, it is not possible to throw out the historical baby with the
bathwater without suffering immense losses. The self-referential nature of art once
led to an immanent development which is now in urgent need of artistic reflection.
In fine, 'postmodern' is a term which composers can understand in an entirely
positive sense. But it can also be understood in a way that differs somewhat from
the trend discussed here. Bernd Alois Zimmermann was much imitated and
admired for his ability to handle materials that can be freed from the dust of
history, while at the same time rejecting regular stylistic copies. For Zimmermann,
pluralistic composition as a response to a musical culture characterised by the
simultaneity of the unsimultaneous meant a synthesis of the most disparate
material using serial techniques. For such recycling of the most varied historical
material, composition remains as much a challenge as ever, since new techniques
have to be invented to ensure that this material retains its referential character
while at the same time allowing it to emerge from its historical frame of reference.
The Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli is violently opposed to stylistic copies. He
regards all materials, including noise, as freely available, and although actual
quotations rarely appear, they too are also possible. Integration is created by a kind
of dramaturgical order which transforms historical meanings into symbolic ones.
The acceptance of an historically loaded present, which may bound up with great
difficulties for young composers, ensures a simultaneous openness towards those
novel art forms which deal with the phenomena of a world that can be simulated
by electronic means. These art forms cannot be classified within traditional genres
but are located in that intermediary realm between music, video and computer art
- 'whole art in the meaning of Mr. R. Wagner', as Nam June Paik described the
interface between electronic and other media. I do not want to prolong my initial,
and somewhat laboured, attempts to define the term 'postmodern' but will say
only that it would be shortsighted to speak of present-day art without considering
these forms as well, forms which do not relate, in the first instance, to a present
past (something which is easier for American artists than for their European
counterparts) but which seek, rather, to make us aware of the dramatic changes
taking place in human reality.
Postmodernism in Music 83

The virtual realities which have already been constructed in the mainframe
computers at NASA, with h u m a n sense data (above all, sight, hearing and touch)
entered into a computer and allowed to interact with other data (an interaction
intended to facilitate subjective transpositions to any other place, including space)
will one day make it possible to construct entirely new worlds. Such virtual
realities have been the subject of artistic reflection for some considerable time. The
confusing multi-media environments in which the visitor loses his or her bearings
were already well in advance of technical developments and n o w give the
impression of some presentiment of a immense fictionalisation of reality. The
dream-houses of former art will lose none of their grandeur, although it may no
longer be possible to go on building only detached family houses, h o w e v e r much
we should all like to o w n one.
At the same time a process is gathering pace which seems to be typical of
developments in music, namely the break-up of culture into isolated parts. Even
in the nineteenth century there were already signs of a gulf opening up between
art as entertainment and its more elevated counterpart, a division which, in
Germany, led to a secfionalisation and labelling as 'U' ( = Unterhaltung, entertain-
ment) and 'E' (= Ernst, serious), while the twentieth century witnessed a further
division of 'New Music' with Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Perfor-
mances. N e w Music, too, was subjected to further divisions: in the 1950s, for
example, a 'moderate' modernism appeared alongside the avant-garde. Links still
existed, however, to give a sense of cohesiveness. Karl Amadeus H a r t m a n n comes
to mind in this context. There were also scene changes which are harder to
evaluate, as with the late Stravinsky, for example. N o n e the less, the division of
culture and, above all, the culture of N e w Music is far advanced: as a general rule,
it m a y be said that any composer w h o writes computer music will rarely seen at
a chamber music festival. The division of culture was an object of violent debate
on the part of all w h o championed the cause of art. The concept of N e w Music has
impinged on a far wider consciousness as a result of the polemical criticisms of
writers such as Alfred Heu~. A debate in the pages of Melos around 1960 failed
to replace it by 'Non-Music'. This division had already been the subject of
considerable discussion among the champions of N e w Music at least since the
1950s, w h e n the question had turned on their claims to represent the truth.
Essentially, the argument supports Arnolds Gehlen's idea of crystallisation, an idea
given thematic treatment - especially by Jflrgen Habermas - in connection with
the concept of postmodernism. But this crystallisation of culture looks somewhat
different seen through the conservative eyes of Gehlen, which see only paralysis.
Indeed there is a complete lack of linear development. The utopian belief that
better times lie ahead has vanished. However, crystals grow in various directions,
and in doing so become increasingly complex. In this sense the term 'crystallisa-
tion' seems highly appropriate as a means of describing the structures of today's
musical culture, with their numerous subtle distinctions and clear-cut divisions.
Post-bourgeois society, with its highly u n h o m o g e n e o u s structures, reflects a
widely diversified art world in which no one artist can claim to stand at the centre.
This makes it more difficult to create art and burdens artists with tormenting
doubts. But the fact that a harmonising whole has become unthinkable helps to
keep alive the hope of artistic development and movement.