Re: Quick guide to postmodernism (was: Re: Gibson (was: Re: Computer chicken))

Subject: Re: Quick guide to postmodernism (was: Re: Gibson (was: Re: Computer chicken))
From: Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (
Date: Mon Oct 03 2005 - 20:35:27 EDT

At 03:14 PM 10/3/05 -0700, Eliot Handelman wrote:
>The thing I said at the top is just a little clearer. I haven't changed
>my views between
>I was using "elvis" as an example of music that many people connect with
>or even directly.

Then I am mystified. No circumstance exists to test this hypothesis about a
society of children brought up with dodecaphonics over enough generations
to get past the ordinary generational rebellion. There is no society in
which these tonal/atonal tables are turned. Did I lose your point somewhere
along the way? Or was 12-tone composition the strawman to set up out of
which postmodernism has some visibility? (Postmodernist theory just about
invented the metanarrative as a strawman anyway.)

>This happened way before you were born, Dennis.

Of course. But the argument was maintained (is maintained?). People were
moving on while it was happening, so I'm not sure why it forms a linchpin
to your point about the value of intuitive perception. Pronouncements by
composers (or anyone, I suppose) about the future don't seem particularly
meaningful except in a kind of how-smart-are-we-now way. So why are they
important to this conversation? Or is it just in contrast to the "wha'ever"
approach of postmodernism that the 12-tone discipline seems so extreme, so
serious, and so fascistic?

>Schoenberg wrote, "I have discovered something that will ensure the
>supremacy of
>german music for the next 100 years." I'm quoting this here because
>maybe some people
>on the list never heard of this. He was referring to the "method of
>composing with 12 tones."
>Schoenberg looked DOWN on pop music of his time -- it was "trivial," as he
>said in "structural functions." What counted was what followed from
>"Talent creates because it can ... but genius creates because of
>NECESSITY." (A. Schoenberg)
>Notice I'm not saying ONE thing about the quality of S's music here. I'm
>speaking only
>of where he thought what he was doing fit in. It diodn't "fit in"
>anywhere but that didn't bother
>him because he thought he was creating the future of music, at least for
>the next 100 years.

There's no historical revelation here, but I still can't find the point
about the actual perception of music in this (though the discussion is
heading for the 100-year mark; perhaps Schoenberg just had the wrong artform).

Seriously, though, maybe the necessity to condense the discussion into a
few sentences has made it seem to me that you're conflating perception with
pronouncement. Would it have made a difference to the musical shifts if
Schoenberg had said nothing? If Boulez was a teddy bear? Were the
pronouncements themselves the entirety of what made 12-tone music
important? Or, if we take Kyle Gann's view, was it not actually important
at all and just a historical anomaly ("12-tone music's promise to create a
new, enduring musical language has been revealed to be a hoax" -- from ) Was
this a huge modernist conspiracy to take over the universities -- one that
succeeded for half a century, engendering a huge corpus of encoded art?
Where did they get their power, these little men with their steely eyes and
fascistic rules that, if violated, sent you to the composer career gulag?

Beyond that, I would submit that this relatively hard line of thinking
contributed enormously to the expansion of perception among musicians and
composers. Don't you think? Would many of the creative folks on this list
be the composers they are without having been directly or second-handedly
influenced by both the work and its promotion? Not merely in rebellion
against or rejection of, but incorporation or absorption? The consequences
of study and experiment? And then how does this subsequently shift the
perceptive mechanisms with experience?

>To the postmodern mind, this kind of individually assumed responsibility
>seems like
>a kind of fascism.

The "seems like" is an important component. There was a heavy dose of
is-ism in some of your previous statements. But I've been told by many who
felt the heavy-handed dodecacademic fist smash down on them that it was a
kind of fascism to them. Again, though, this recalled hurt appears to
encourage a tendency to mix perception and pronouncement.

And heck, dodecaphonics' failures as an artistic means for Schoenberg
himself were that he could never stop being an old-fashioned Viennese
romantic composer. As we move forward through the past century, we're
confronted not by stylistic, technical and perceptive failures, but by
competition from the unforeseen -- the recording. As much may be made of
this composer-unassimilated development as some idea of intuitive problems
with the nonpop. (Another long discussion, but ain't no composer competing
with $1 shellacs -- or 99-cent itunes.)

Not to metion the composers who violated the rules to make sure the
harmonic texture of atonality wasn't violated. But that's another
discussion, this bending the rules, this allusion to tonality...

>The listener might prefer the music of the pygmy
>molino festival. We're
>not going up, we're spreading out.

Wha'ever. Could just be fashion.

>The quotes above that were intended as vocalizations of feelings some
>people might have,
>expressed as a kind of social conscience.

Also as a kind of ignorance. Postmodernism seems to me an era of commitment
to pulling back from using all of our faculties in grabbing onto the arts
-- go wide, not deep. 500 channels, no matter what's on. The Raelians
Triumphant are like the nonpop world sometimes, all kinda blissed out. The
X-Files was the weekly religious gathering a decade ago.

Alas, I'm old enough to remember 78rpm recordings where the program notes
were a multi-page booklet full of analysis and musical examples. These
devolved into LP record jackets that jammed as much as possible onto on
12x12 space (and sometimes an insert -- I still have "Knobs"). Nonpop CDs
today are more often than not a few small pages made for their look rather
than their content.

The move toward the pretense of intuitiveness (no program notes, sometimes
no titles allowed! gotta keep to the postminimalist rules!), based on
intellectual laziness (like I should talk), is what troubles me -- that
it's become a good thing not to want to know anything about the art before
you. (I think of Zappa's wonderfully funny rising rage in his autobiography
that ends with boom-bap boom-boom-bap.)

>What makes 12-tone 12-tone is a TONE ROW -- the "secret code."
>The theory is that you "unconsciously" will be affected by the subtle
>forces of
>the tone row in 12-tone music.
>We can just as easily test the hypothesis "most, some, or no listeners
>can tell whether
>a piece has a tone row or not." I would think no one can tell by
>listening. You have to study the score
>to figure this out. If the piece is by Milton, all bets are off.
>The distinction I'm making is that the identifying characteristics of
>minimalism are
>very easily learned. This, partly, is what makes it postmodern.
>The characteristic of 12-tone music is that "the organziational factors
>are due to the
>buried extertions of underlying row." This is what I call "a secret
>code." The row can;t be
>heard directly, but muist be there for good reasons.

Distinction without difference, particularly if you base your argument on
what is said must be vs. what is in evidence. 12-tone music was a
discipline, a way of working with conscious and deliberate processes. There
is no Babbitt without it, but there's also no Reich. Because the latter
chooses to devolve the processes into simpler ones doesn't invalidate their
roots or the significance of their heritage (heritages, including African
drumming, rock and, if you like, half-millennium-old hocket), nor take away
from a developing ability to perceive more broadly and deeply that was one
of serialism's gifts.

The television commercial of today is so unlike those of past in its
breadth and depth -- the metaphors, the images, the sounds, the mixes, the
references, with layer upon layer of cultural pigment applied. Such density
is incomprehensible in a pre-dodecaphonic world. I'm not drawing a straight
line, but the culture that gave rise to it and kept it nurtured is the same
one that moved through it to that Areva commercial that combines computer
animation, Funkytown, and no direct message about what the company does
(yeah, it's nuclear energy).

In other words, 9/13 of postmodernism is still modernism.

>YOu may say, "but 12-tone music" is not really a style as such, in the
>way that minmalism
>is a style, to which I would agree.
>However, in one case, the techgnical characteristics ARE available at
>the surface. You can,
>in principle, figure out that Glass does 2+3+4+5 type rhythms. You
>CANNOT, in princple,
>figure out the technocal relation between pitch and duration in a milton
>babbitt piece, or
>any that I know of.

Okay, but postmodernism includes a vast swath of everything, making it
possible to pick and choose what can be perceived. Tough electronic noise?
Add a beat. Nothing to say? Pastiche it. Can't dig out an idea from inside?
Find something kitchy. Stylistically stunted? Get ironic.

Of course, I've also made the claim many times that this is a Golden Age of
new music. The experiment has largely fallen out the bottom of musical
invention, just as the rigorousness of serialism did before it. With it,
though, the postmodern absence of consistency has dealt a huge blow to the
composers who once could hide behind fixed rules or claim idle experiment
as a defense of music that was otherwise out of ideas.

I'm still typing as your messages come in. Something like, "there's no such
thing as a theory of music that isn't, in the first place, a theory of
musical quality." The advantage of postmodernism is its charming lack of a
theory of music, so that quality never need come into question. Despite
that, invention is dramatic over the past decade or so. Why is that?

>I'm trying to make a distinction between
>"inner" and
>"outer" in view of the organzing technical principles of a piece of
>music. And I'm
>sayiong that in PM there is a trend towards subverting an "inner" core
>that cannot
>be direct;y encountered.

That's a far cry from accusations of fascism, I think.

>I'm just trying to help a few people here understand the problems of
>because very little has been written about music and postmodernism
>that's at all
>musically informed.

Well again, why is that? A period where everything is acceptable (except,
perhaps, a consistently descriptive musical theory) would seem averse to
musically informed discussion. Try to describe it, and the irony machine
kicks in.

>Ok, Dennis, I'm going to have to have you read 1984 before we proceed.

It was my philosophical bible for years. I didn't think it was a depressing
story, only a lesson. And Burton's version on screen was staggeringly
powerful. The book speaks to individuality. Smith, after all, is the worst
example of an individual thinker, grabbing ideas and snippets from anywhere
and thinking he might be unique for it. His downfall was inevitable, as was
Sam Lowry's.

You don't need 1984. We're increasingly living it. But to your point....

>The underlying idea is that we should not allow our social world to
>instigate parameters
>on truth for us. Instead this must be individually accessible.

You're the intelligence theory guy, so I'll not be able to hold my own in a
discussion about how an individual can even be identified as such without
being part of a 'social world to instigate parameters on truth'.


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