Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives

Reviewed by Dan Wang


Published by Ashgate, 2010   |   406 pages

A follower of new music in Chicago will have noticed, in past months (at the time of this writing), two significant premieres of works with environmental themes: Mason Bates’s Alternative Energy in early February, and Victor Gama’s Vela 6911 in early March. Bates is one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s two composers-in-residence, hence currently one of Chicago’s most public figures of new music; Alternative Energy was plugged in blogs and promotional videos and will be heard again when the CSO opens in Carnegie Hall next season. Gama’s Vela 6911, a thirty-four-minute work that is paired with video taken by the composer in Antarctica, was the centerpiece of a concert devoted to new music and treats of secret nuclear tests (and their consequences, among others, for animal life). It’s not new for composers to find subject matter wherever they will. But in a period of history that has lost its confidence in history, when composers can no longer assume a shared musical tradition or even a language, subject matter can be especially revealing. Merits of this music aside, it’s noteworthy that two major Chicago premieres so far this year assume an impetus for writing music that is in some sense ethical, that draws on an importance or urgency that is not only aesthetic but also moral and political.

If, as Max Paddison and Irène Deliège say in the introduction of their edited volume, Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, the problem of how to deal with “the essential arbitrariness of musical materials” becomes, in a sense, the problem for contemporary composers—if the wealth of sounds and styles from past and present offers itself up carte blanche to the modern artist, with no guidelines for their use, then a reassuringly real-world concern like alternative fuel, or nuclear power, can be a lifeline out of indecision. The composer’s energies can be directed toward this theme, this “issue” (as they are called), whose importance cannot be questioned. As an aesthetic strategy, it may be seen as a welcome grounding of a high art tradition in matters of social change and activism. But, may it also reveal that art has lost its own ethic, that composers either no longer feel the imperative to work out music’s own problems and questions, or no longer feel they are up to the task?

Contemporary Music is a volume devoted to the roots and rootlessness of recent music written in the “high art” or “classical” tradition, already inadequate terms that are quickly losing whatever descriptive power they once held. The book is an English edition of a series of papers first published in French and originally presented at a colloquium on contemporary music held in Brussels in 2000. On the side of roots, the essays in Part I (“Theoretical Perspectives and Retrospectives”) offer attempts at synoptic views of the last century of music. What these attempts at summarization share is the belief that we have come to the end of a historical period, or at the very least to a paragraph break, and that it is now time for theory to step forward and take stock.

Part II (“Philosophical Critiques and Speculations After Adorno”), while not explicitly future-oriented, nevertheless shifts its focus from the achievements of the past to a rumination on the ideas and ambitions that spurred them on, most notably, as the title suggests, in the work on aesthetics of Theodor Adorno. That the book continues to look to Adorno, a critic primarily engaged with the developments of modernist art around the middle of the century, suggests that whatever was promised in Adorno’s vision for music has not yet been delivered. Or it may mean, as Marc Jimenez suggests in his essay, that the crisis facing music is really a crisis of judgment, that we no longer know how to value things or what value might mean. The yearning for Adorno may simply be a yearning for ethical clarity, for a time when what music ought to be and sound like could be declared with confidence, whatever the content of those declarations. (It’s a yearning, we might say, that makes the promise of ethical certainty in environmental issues all the more tempting.)

A major polarity that drives the book—and would inescapably drive any book on twentieth-century art—is that of modernism and postmodernism, two terms whose definitions remain difficult even now that, according to some, postmodernism is already behind us (or did modernism never really disappear?). To put it roughly: if modernism is the phase of art pushing itself to its limits, of struggle with tradition, and of increasingly alienated audiences, postmodernism can be seen in contrast as a stance of openness to the past, a finding of new licenses in the scene of modern life, and a return (in some places) to a kind of accessibility. Composers who find themselves at the end of this historical tunnel, and who may want to maintain an aesthetic purity and seriousness in a world where purity and seriousness of a certain order now smell of old-fogeyism, might suffer the fate of “an avant-garde alienated by its inability to engage with the cultural totality, and yet compelled through self-reflection to present a critique of the falseness of that totality,” as Paddison puts it.

If Contemporary Music offers little prescription, it compensates with plenty of example, not only in the form of historical surveys but in the composer profiles and interviews that form Part III. Here, the book descends from theoretical and philosophical heights to the ground floor of active musical practice in the figures of Brian Ferneyhough, Pierre Boulez, Jonathan Harvey, Helmut Lachenmann, and Wolfgang Rihm. The interviews offer a welcome contrast in their everydayness, in their sense of rumination and remembrance and opinion, to the intensely bird’s-eye view of the theoretical sections that precede it, although—since the featured composers all made their mark in the latter half of the last century—their inclusion in a volume from 2010 cannot entirely escape a posthumous air.

The combined result is that Contemporary Music feels much more like a history of an increasingly distant past than an account of the world of modern music as it stands today. If it serves as a useful stepping stone for theory and music to come, it will be because it bracketed the concerns and developments of the twentieth century as a period we can no longer claim identity with. The other day I heard a performance, R We Who R We, by a New York duo currently in residence at Chicago’s High Concept Laboratories, in which songs by the likes of Eminem and Ke$ha are subjected to increasingly distorting feedback loops, auto-tune, and layered electronic textures. Bringing pop music into high art venues is no longer anything new, but this show points to, as well as any number of other new music efforts today, the difficulty of saying precisely what this is. A theory that accounts for music like this will show the way forward; anything else can only show where we’ve come from. What this may mean is that a truly critical theory of music today can only be either historical or prophetic.

Dan Wang is a graduate student in musicology at the University of Chicago. He hails from Toronto.

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