Academic journal article New Formations

Naming: Music and the Postmodern

Academic journal article New Formations

Naming: Music and the Postmodern

Article excerpt

Things postmodern have not been missing from music, but use of the term 'postmodern,' as either a descriptive or conceptual tool, has been sparse in professional and even journalistic writing about music. While Stephen Connor's observation, in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, that there has been a tendency toward 'conservatism' and 'autonomy' in the academic study of music is certainly apt, it cannot fully explain the 'absence of a mature discourse' on 'postmodernist formulations and arguments.' Connor recommends that music studies address the 'explosion of collaborations and fusions' and the narrowing of the 'gap between classical and popular music;' but music scholars are frequently distrustful of a simple valorisation of fusions and bridges because the bridges often entail movement in one direction and the fusions are only partial. (1)

I do not offer here an imperative for future directions in music scholarship, but rather take a historical view, addressing the issue of why music scholars and other music writers did not engage in substantial numbers in the postmodern debate, especially in the 1980s when the topic was burning. My argument is that while an explicit and focused debate was not present, musical practices and thought about those practices did manifest the issues that would come to define postmodernism from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. A more explicit engagement with the conceptual dimensions of postmodern thought emerged significantly in the 1990s, but even then (and now) there remains a lingering distrust of the term and its implications. (2)

If the discourse of music and the discourse about music in the thirty-year span between the 1960s and 1990s did manifest some of the characteristics of postmodern thought and the postmodern world, then why did writers avoid the term as a descriptive tool? In his 1987 book The Postmodern Turn, Ihab Hassan notes that 'there is a will to power in nomenclature, as well as in people or texts'. (3) About a decade later, the music scholar Leo Treitler would turn the formulation around, observing that 'labelling' has been a sign of the postmodern. (4) For both Hassan and Treitler, naming serves to make something appear, to give it shape - for Hassan it manifests a will to power and for Treitler it manifests a will to shape identities for marketing purposes. (5) The concern of each author for such naming draws attention to the resistance in discourse about music to employ the label 'postmodern'. (6) Music scholars and music critics are not averse to labelling generally, but in the instance of the postmodern, they avoided the term. The sources of this refusal of naming were varied.

In a 1969 essay 'Music Discomposed,' the American philosopher Stanley Cavell notes that there is little 'critical' writing about music and that technical analyses of individual pieces have become necessary aesthetic accompaniments to those works. (7) About a decade later, Jacques Attali makes a similar observation when quoting Michel Serres:

   'This remarkable absence of texts on music' is tied to the
   impossibility of a general definition, to a fundamental ambiguity.
   'The science of the rational use of sounds, that is, those sounds
   organized as a scale.' That is how the Littre at the end of the 19th
   century defined music, in order to reduce it to its harmonic
   dimension, to confuse it with a pure syntax.' Michel
   Serres [reminds] us that beyond syntax there is meaning. (8)

Writing at a time when the first instances of a postmodern music were emerging, Cavell and Attali wanted a critical address of musical meaning but found instead a technical address of musical syntax. In order to sort through both the historical implications of their comments and the divergence of disciplinary concerns, it will be helpful to consider who in professional music scholarship writes about music and why. For present purposes, I consider three categories of scholarship: musicology and ethnomusicology; music theory and analysis; and journalistic writing. …

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