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Postmodernism for Beginners (with a Music Flavor) - Terri Senft

Terri Senft
Date: 2005-09-23 10:49
Subject: Postmodernism for Beginners (with a Music Flavor)
Security: Public
Apparently, my link to this lecture was broken, so I put it here for anyone interested. Enjoy (or skip) as you like!

Recently, my friend Stacy Horn asked two questions:

1. "Can someone explain postmodernism to me?"

2. "Why does Terri call John Rutter's *Magnificat* postmodern,
while the Bach Magnificat is not?"

To me, these questions are a piece, so I am going to try and answer them together.
I am sure I have made some errors in here, but this is an attempt to give an
overview, so please bear with me.

Let's Begin with Modernism.

I really think we need some sort of working definition of modernism before
we get to postmodernism. Do you guys use the Bloomsbury Guide to English Lit.?
I recommend it, and am stealing Bloomsbury's definition of modernism for today.
Here it is:


Since the term "modernism" was first used in earlier in the 20th century,
its meaning has been developed and revised. It now is agreed to mean the influentional
international movement in literature, drama, art, music and architecture which
began in the latter years of the the 19th century and flourished until at least
the 1920's.Modernism was felt to be a reaction to REALISM and NATURALISM, and
modernism worked to undermine the representationalism associated with those
movements..In fiction, the stream of consciousness novel was a prime example
of modernism.

By and large, modernism concerns itself with either with abstraction, minimalism,
and/or aself-aware examination of form. In addition, modernist work often espouses
a fascination with machinery, mechanics, science, and what has been called by
art critic John Hughes"The Shock of the New"."

Here are some other examples of modernism in the humanties:

In architecture, the maxim, "form follows function" serves as an example of modernism.

In choral music, the move away from late romanticism (Verdi, Faure) and toward suspended chords, atonality and "mixed rhythyms" (Bernstein, Bartok, Benjamin Britten, for instance) might be said to serve as an example of modernism.

In painting, the High Modernists include those who come after the impressionists:
the cubists, the fauvists (expressionists), the symbolists, the dadaists, and
proto-performance artists like Marcel Duchamps.

In critical theory, modernism was more or less dominated by the Dynamic Duo of Freud and Marx (with interventions from folks like Durkheim and Dewey and the like), and subsequent efforts to mix the terms "social" and "science" (ie: political science, structuralism, etc.)

Here are some critical things to remember about modernism:

1. The word, "modern" is a colloquial adjective, meaning, "current".

2. "Modernism", or modernity, is a coinage of the humanities to describe
a series of changes that occured in art, literature, music and
writing from approximately 1880-1920. (Note: we are talking about
a 40 year time span, here.)

3. Modern and modernist are not synonyms.

4. While all of these changes seemed to constitute a "movement" called
modernity, they all happened during different time frames. Thus,
modernism in art does not happen during the exact historical moment
that modernism happens in critical theory.

5. The fact that modernity took at least 40 years to "trickle down"
matters once we get to postmodernism, because the illusion is
that postmodernism has arrived, in all places and at all times,
like a wave, a force, taking everything in its path. Now while
forty years dont sound like much when you are reading a history
book, imagine if I told you postmodernism covers the period of
1920 onward in some disciplines, and 1968 forward in others.
Sounds strange, doesn't it?

6. Bloomsbury aside, the term modernity (and its sister term,
postmodern) are EUROPEAN critical inventions. When we talk about
modernity in Japan, for instance, we aren't talking about the same
set of historical artisitic and social forces that created and
continue to perpetuate modernism in Europe.

Okay, on to postmodernism? Sure, why not!

Postmodernism is a Condition, not a Thing.

Because we are "soaking in it", it is harder to pin down postmodernism
and say, "Here is the movement, here is the time frame, and here are some nice
clean examples of the phenomenon." Actually, this was the case with the Modernists,
too, way back when (heh). Lacan denied he was a structuralist. Cezanne thought
the term cubist was stupid. Etc.

For this reason, things get a little murky when we suggest postmodernism is
a movement. To get around this, many people have suggested that postmodernism
is better understood as a Condition, rather than a Movement. Particularly, suggest
writers like Habermas, postmodernism is the condition in which there is a "crisis
of modernity." But what does he mean by this?

Postmodernism is a Reaction to the Violence of Modernism

Modernity brought us some cool things: abstraction, mechanics, form, contracts,
documentation, social science, etc. It also brought a particular brand of violence,
one that had many horrific outcomes:

1. A celebration of primitivism (which translated to domestic racism at home, and international colonialist violence abroad: see Fanon, et al.),

2.A celebration of "high" art over low art (which translated to a devaluation of anything common that wasnt recuperated under the banner of "folk art")

3.An obsession with the feminine that strangely involved an exclusion of women (ie, freud's work on femininity)

4.A preoccupation with abstraction that called for a devaluation of artifice (for instance, Nietzsche's articulation of resentiment.) This translated into a certain textual homophobia (Eve Segwicks work on this is quite interesting.)

5. And what is perhaps the most well known: a program of "cleanliness" in art, contract and governmental relation that resulted in the eugenics of Nazi Germany.

On Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

It fascinates me that the most popularly assigned text to answer the question
"what is postmodernism" (at least in the universities I have been in) actually
speaks more precisely to the question "what is poststructuralism". I am referring
to Francois Lyotard's Report on the Postmodern Condition.In his book,
Lyotard takes on what he calls the "meta-narrative": the practice whereby modern
scholars produce quasi-scientific summaries of Western civilization, and posit
themselves as "disinterested observers" (think Freud, Marx, anthropology, etc.)
Structualism (typified by semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the anthropology
of Levi Strauss) is often called the last great meta-narrative.

Lyotard describes the history of the university (which he compares later to the smaller, more specialized "institute") to describe an example par excellence of the stupid, self-perpetuating logic of meta-narratives in late capitalist society. It is a fitting attack: western universtiies are an Enlightenment project gone awry, continually saying this: there is some way, unknown but not for that reason unknowable, in which academia contributes a piece to the puzzle of Truth, Mankind, Knowledge, etc. And we can say this with confidence, because we are, after all--the University.

By demonstrating that modernity sets up and perpetuates its own myth structures
(Truth, Justice, Education ,etc) through places like the university, Lyotard
shows how the our most precious modernist abstractions are basically the products
of a self-propelling machine, one which systematically locks out just as many
people as it invites in.


Postmodernism and Music

Different areas of the humanities are affected in different ways by the many
many concerns articulated in the catch-phrase, "postmodernism." For now, let's
look at music. Stacy asks, "Why is John Rutter's Magnificat considered postmodern,
while Bach's is not?" Stacy's question is a fair one, since both composers call
their piece "Magnificat," a form of chorale music that has its roots
in the Latin church mass. To answer Stacy's question, it helps to take a step
back, and look at the historical progression of choral music up til this date.

Baroque choral music

In music history terms, Bach's Magnificat exemplifies the Baroque period.
It was written in the 17th century, it uses figured bass (Bach'sinvention),
it features an abundance of contrapuntal movements, and it adheres to specific
chord writing rules that do not break harmonic conventions. And, of course,
there is the use of grace notes throughout.

Modernist choral music

Most modernist choral music pits itself against the whole of music history,
beginning with Baroque and leading up to the Romantics (think Berlioz, the Russians,
etc.) I can't name any modernist Magnificat pieces off the top of my head, but
I can think of a few Requiems. The one that jumps immediately to mind is Leonard
Berstein's Mass. Other composers one might listen
to are Bella Bartok and (for a much gentler version of all this) Randall Thompson.
A quick listen to any of these composers reveal the hallmarks of modernist composition:
multiple key changes in rapid succession; suspended chords that may or may not
get resolved; motifs that rarely end the way our traditionally trained ears
want them to.

One massive influence on modernist composers was American jazz, and you can
see it in the chords. When you play these pieces on the piano, rules about "crossed
hands" and such go out the window. Iinstead, you wind up thinking, "I
wish I had 57 fingers to play the notes in this chord!" Singers in choirs
normally have to break into roles like 1st soprano, 2nd soprano, uh 3rd soprano,
you-over-there-sit in the back and sing this weird note that fits nowhere soprano,

Postmodern choral music

Now that we have a sense of modernist choral music, how do we distinguish postmodern
choral music? For an example, let's examine John Rutter's Magnifcat.
Rutter treats the traditional Magnificat with your usually modernist
flair: big, suspended, delicious chords, just dissonant enough in places to
make you sure you aren't listening to Tvaichovsky or some other Romantic windbag.
But then something else happens.

The first time I really realized something was up was during the fourth movement
of the piece. Right in the middle of the "Jesus is Risen" part, I
heard (of all things) the theme from Hawaii Five-0. Later, I heard
Mission Impossible and at least one other TV theme. Prettycheesy, but
for me, it worked. TV is often held up as the n postmodern metaphor par excellence.
After all, it's low-brow and full o' consumptive goodies--everything modernism

The Postmodern as Inspiration for Theory

As I said earlier, different art forms (writing, architecture, etc.) engage different strains of postmodern critique. And these critiques continue to emerge. On the flip side, different "flavors" of postmodernism (queer theories, postcolonial critiques, continental feminism, ethnographic writers like James Clifford) are spreading out the definition of "postmodern music criticism", expanding it beyond just the "incorporation of pop culture in music".

For instance: Do you think that classical rules for music can't be formally
read as a hetero-normative system? Check out the book, Queering the Pitch.
Do you think that theories of "pure sound" don't carry an explicit sexual
politics? Check out The Acoustic Mirror, by Kaja Silverman. Think that
race plays no part in what we think of as "legitimate" music? Check out
any of the amazing boks on creolization and music by John Szwed, or Tricia Rose's
great work on rap music.Think that music and nationalism are completely unrelated?
Take a look Noise by Jacques Attali, or any book by Dick Hebdige.

And this is just for music! People smarter than me can recommend other texts
that treat other subjects with a critical lens inspired by the "crisis
of modernity." I'll write more later, but for now, I leave you with:

Terri's Rules for Postmodern-Busting

When someone calls something "postmodern", here are some questions to ask of

1. What precisely is the object in question? Is it a piece of art, a book,
a performance, a political occurence, what?

2. What, for the particular object in question, would constitute "modernism"?
You need something modern to which to compare a postmodern object, otherwise
you are babbling.

3. What specific components of the object in question seem to raise the "Crisis
of Modernity" issue? A preoccupation with low art, an explicit critique of nationalism,
hetereo-normative imperative, meta-narrative making, what? Make them identify
*specifically* what they mean, by calling something, postmodern, so you can
get to the REAL important question:

4. Why is postmodern a useful term to describe this object, to you, in this
moment? What does it say that other words cannot? What is the goal of the speaker
when they say, "such and such" is "postmodern." If you cannot get an answer
to this question, nod politely, and move on. It aint worth your time, and it
aint because academics are all stupid, nor is it because you dont "get" postmodernism.

5. Never, never believe anyone who says a PERSON is "postmodern". What the
hell would that even mean? The concept of "personhood" is left over from the
Enlightenment, anyhow.

Post A Comment | 5 Comments | | Link

User: comitto
Date: 2005-09-23 15:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
*waves* Hi, I'm Jessica. I found your journal through a link in the applyingtograd community. I just wanted to drop you a line letting you know I added you.

PS - I *love* John Rutter's Magnificat. I was introduced to it when I was in a chorus performing it at Carnegie Hall with him... what an introduction!
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2005-09-23 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Wow! That must have been a thrill, to perform with the composer.
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User: stylishbastard
Date: 2005-09-23 15:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That was really good. You are a kind and noble lady.
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2005-09-23 15:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, my friend!
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[you'll find a light, find a friend, find a way]
User: artemii
Date: 2005-09-23 17:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
my anth-major friend who studied in morocco was once standing alone on top of a small mountain there when someone walked up to her and asked, "excuse me - are you a structuralist or a cultural materialist?"
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April 2011