Academic journal article New Formations

More Pomo Than Thou: The Status of Cultural Meanings in Music

Academic journal article New Formations

More Pomo Than Thou: The Status of Cultural Meanings in Music

Article excerpt

It happens. Overnight, you change from Young Turk to Old Fogy; the former avant-garde becomes rear-guard action. In the mythologised Sixties, we used to view the 1930s Marxists, with their class-based obsessions, as quaint; another thirty years pass, and members of the Youth Generation who first lived and later theorised the Postmodern Condition get to see their own ideals grow obsolete. In one's bleaker moments, one recalls how Boulez crowed in 1952 that 'SCHOENBERG IS DEAD', that he had not pushed his own insights far enough, that he had unwittingly perpetuated elements held over from Romanticism. (1) For, the so-called New Musicologists now face charges that our work bears the traces of (horror!) Modernism; that, even if we first introduced concepts such as poststructuralism, deconstruction and Deleuzian rhizomes into the discipline, we ourselves no longer qualify as postmodern. Move over: the genuine standard-bearers have arrived!

Well, maybe we had it coming. Milton Babbitt must have felt this way, too, when he got pushed aside. (2) As anyone who has studied history knows, such waves occur on a regular basis: like clockwork, today's cutting edge becomes tomorrow's ancien regime. To be sure, the Sixties generation has always believed it had some kind of trademark lock on the 'new', making it necessary for those coming afterwards to set off bombs under us to clear space for themselves. Since I don't want to be part of the revolution that eats its young, I suppose I should just graciously step aside--and, believe me, I'm very much looking forward to my retirement! In the meantime, I have mostly retreated into writing about early music, albeit inflected to some extent with my own antiquated version of postmodernism, leaving the battle over the present moment to others.

And yet, I would like to leave something of a PoMo valediction behind. In Ecclesiastes we read that there is nothing new under the sun, that all pretences to the contrary amount to nothing more than vanity. OK, but things do change, even if only on the meagre basis of two steps forward and one back. Women's movements may not have brought about all the permanent transformations they have sought, but the very fact that I am presenting this paper testifies to some modicum of progress along those fronts, even if my make-up argues that some of our more radical causes have bitten the dust. (3) Similarly, I'd like to think that my generation's contributions to composition and music studies--call them what you like--will have left some lasting traces.

In The Wild One, someone asks the Marlon Brando character: 'What are you rebelling against?' To which he replies: 'Waddya got?' Given that each generation feels compelled to rebel against whatever the previous one upheld, the 'post' of 'postmodern' always hauls along with it the particular vision of its predecessor--which actually makes this but one more version of the modernist paradigm, whereby one gets a thrill by identifying with the Moderns against the Ancients. Only, now, it is the Postmoderns against the Moderns. Or, more precisely, the Neo-Postmoderns against Those-Formerly-Known-as-the-Postmoderns, in a pattern of infinite regress. So, against what was my generation of postmodernists rebelling?

Forgive me if I begin to sound like the stereotypical curmudgeon railing on about what it was like to walk to school in the snow before the advent of automobiles. But back in the days, 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 Ginsberg, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by pitch-class sets. The same cultural imperative had put the kibosh on discussing meanings within musicology: one could perform archival work, make editions or analyse formal properties, but one could not suggest that a piece made any particular cultural difference. In both arenas, music mattered precisely because it had managed to transcend 'mere' meaning. …

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