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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Thursday 27 June 2019

Postmodern knots

We know of the medieval theologians, who spent many years and numerous meetings with collegues to debate entirely non-existing problems derived from religious ideas, like the number of angels capable of dancing on a needle's point, the exact location of the saints in heaven and their mutual relationships after their earthly martyrdom, or the duration of purgatory in relation to the various sins of its clients, etc. etc. - which may seem idiotic today but are somehow understandable if the mental context and the reigning paradigm is taken into consideration, in the sense that chess moves are logical and meaningful within the context of the game but pointless outside of it. For a medieval mind, questions like the above-mentioned are in themselves not nonsensical. That mind has built the cathedrals.

With the demise of modernist ideologies in the last quarter of the last century, some music theorists saw an opportunity to find a new subject for their ever searching mind: postmodernism. This is an entirely fuzzy term, which has been used in the arts for many different phenomenae, often mutually exclusive, and contradictory, but that fitted nicely within the philosophy of the concept itself. The only more or less concrete definition of the concept of postmodernism, the only usable one, is: postmodernism is a description of a state of mind, of the awareness that modernism as a cultural movement has entered into a state of a historic period, has become historical, related to a certain period and place (for instance: the period ca. 1850 - 2000 in the West in the field of culture).

This awareness is in itself interesting, and has opened-up the possibility of looking at cultural history in a non-linear way (as was custom within modernist ideology). In fact, this is merely back to common sense and an understanding of culture in a wider, humanist way, a view in which historical cultural artefacts remain relevant beyond the period of their creation because of inherent artistic qualities. But some musicologists find such understanding not rewarding enough, not challenging enough, and they plunge into the muddy waters of postmodern 'thinking' with the broad range of their intelligence and erudition to come-up with something which may clarify the subject. Inevitably, given the character of postmodernism if seen as a cultural movement or philosophy or ideology, such mind gets into knots while trying to organize something which is in itself meant to be 'non-organizational', which is a negative attitude and contrary to some fundamental assumptions about 'the work of art' - for instance, the idea that 'unity' in art is important and a conditio sine qua non for any true aesthetic quality and universality - reflecting a deep human need for harmony, unity, and the urge to organize the varieties and contradictions of life experiences. Paintings have a frame, pieces of music a beginning, a middle and an end, theatre plays have a number of rounded-off acts, architectural monuments have internal relationships which organizes their spaces, etc. etc. Which aesthetic, artistic meaningful experience can be get from discontinuity, inner conflict, contradiction, randomness, emptiness, meaninglessness? This emotional territory has been exploited by artists for ages, but they tried to organize these materials in such a way that both the experience depicted was recognized, and was ordered into an aesthetic whole, including its contradictions and the like. It was exactly this combination of order and chaos which has shown to be the most durable appeal for the Western works of art and music. Mahler's symphonies are the most successful where they both express discontinuity and discord, and bring the conflicting materials together in a satisfying whole, like the famous adagio of the 10th symphony or the 1st movement of the 9th. The movement called Vergangenes in Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces is an utterly refined, organized and aesthetically satifying depiction of profound melancholia and nihilistic despair. Beethoven was the first drastic master of contradictory combinations, of course, but also in earlier music we find the reflections of conflicting life experiences within one unifying structure (Bach's Passions, Monteverdi's operas). 

I hit upon a review of Jonathan Kramer's book on postmodernism: Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, and stopped reading after:

John Zorn gets particular praise for his radical postmodernism and 'Forbidden Fruit' is repeatedly cited as an example of this aesthetic, even though his quotation from Zorn's own self-reflection about the work seems to indicate more continuity with traditional compositional values.

Of course this made me curious, so I listened to a recording of this particular work on the internet, which made me realize that Kramer fell into the trap of the medieval theologians and took seriously a type of ideas which is in itself nonsensical and incapable of creating anything like a work of art with aesthetic meaning. The only meaning it is capable of conveying, is the meaninglessness of the thing and its 'aesthetic' idea. By tying himself into postmodern knots, Kramer has seriously compromised himself and shown that, to be able to seriously discuss works of art or cultural ideas, one does not only need intelligence and erudition, but also a sense of the aesthetic and of cultural value, and what it means to be a work of art. This is not a traditional, conservative notion, but awareness of something much more fundamental: the concept of description of realities within a human civilization. Zorn's 'piece' is something very different from a work of art, in the same way as we confer the word 'cupboard' to a certain object and not to the object we have chosen to call a 'dustbin'.