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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 9 After Everything

Postmodernism: Rochberg, Crumb, Lerdahl, Schnittke

CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The Modern Age, which sounds as if it would last forever, is fast becoming a thing of the past.1

Charles Jencks, What is Post-Modernism? (1986)

we realize that only the present is really realbecause it is all we havebut in the end it, too, is shadow and dreamand disappearsinto what?2

George Rochberg, epigraph to act 3 of Music for the Magic Theater (1965)

Where does all this lead us? Quite appropriately, nowhere.3

Leonard B. Meyer, “Future Tense: Music, Ideology, and Culture” (1994)

What it does do, I think, is threaten the mind-set of modernists who believe that the artist is a high priest who breaks laws and creates new ones that advance civilization.4

Fred Lerdahl, “Composing and Listening: A Reply to Nattiez” (1994)

Because it was often relatively consonant in harmony and employed ordinary diatonic scales, minimalist music was frequently attacked as “conservative” by academic modernists, for whom the term was the deadliest of slurs. But the charge was unconvincing. The contexts in which familiar sounds appeared in minimalist music, and the uses to which they were put, were too obviously novel, and the effect the music produced was too obviously of the present. Besides, “progressive” music, against which minimalism was being implicitly measured in such a comparison, was following a technical and expressive agenda that had been set at least a quarter of a century, even half a century, before. It no longer seemed quite immune to the epithet it habitually hurled.

It was this very confusion (at least in rhetoric) between what was progressive and what was conservative, and an attendant loss of interest in making the distinction, that seemed to signal a fundamental ideological change in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Even if it could not be dismissed as conservative, the music of the minimalists did affront and threaten progressive musicians of the older generation in some fundamental way. And that way had to do with another, older, less overtly politicized sense of the word “progressive.”

Describing the intended effect of his pattern-and-process compositions, and the sort of listening approach that it required, Philip Glass warned that he aimed for a musical experience that “neither memory nor anticipation,” those most basic cognitive tools, “has a place in sustaining.”5 Here was the threat: as Leonard Meyer pointed out in the article from which this chapter's third epigraph was drawn, “if musical experience does not involve development or remembrance, expectancy or anticipation, then many of the ideas and values that until recently informed the aesthetics of music become either untenable or irrelevant.”6

Meyer called these threatened values “Romantic.” But since (as Meyer himself liked to say) what we usually call modernism is really “late, late Romanticism,”7 it was modernist values that were under threat of being supplanted. What do you call the ism that supplants modernism? Why, postmodernism, obviously (if you're in a hurry); and so a term was coined that gained considerable currency in the mid-to-late 1970s, and that by the middle of the 1980s had become a cliché. Like many terms coined in periods of uncertainty, it was a notorious catchall. Defining it is a notorious fool's errand. But it is an errand we have to at least try running.

The field in which the term was first applied, or in which it first cropped up, was architecture. That might have been expected, since architecture was the field in which the “modern” had (or seemed to have) the most stable definition, and it was also a field from which utilitarian concerns could never be entirely eliminated. Modern architecture was associated with abstraction, functionalism, streamlining, and economy. It sought to embody the universal values of an industrial age, and express them in the “pure,” nonrepresentational terms of its media—glass, reinforced concrete, steel.

Postmodern architecture made a somewhat ironic peace with ornament, with representation, with pluralities of taste and, above all, with convention. Its motivation, frankly asserted by Charles Jencks, both a practitioner and a historian of the trend, was “the social failure of Modern architecture,” its inadequacy to “communicate effectively with its ultimate users.”8 It did not make people feel at home. Used extensively in public housing projects, it amounted, in the eventual view of many disillusioned architects and disgusted urban planners, to an insult delivered by well-fed snobs who could afford comfort on their own terms to people forced to inhabit inhospitable buildings that gratified the builders’ romantically “disinterested,” purely “esthetic”—that is, dehumanized—tastes and their infatuation with science and technology, epitomized by Le Corbusier's definition of a house as a “machine for living.”9 But postmodern architecture, Jencks pointed out, was no simple rejection of the modern style. Rather than mere “revivalism” or “traditionalism,” it was a compromise solution that tried to balance ideals and social realities by means of what Jencks called “double coding,”10 a strategy of communicating on various levels at once. To put it oxymoronically (hence postmodernly), postmodern architecture was “essentially hybrid.” The only exclusive “ism” postmodernism upheld, Jencks insisted with a twinkle, was pluralism.

Jencks's discussion raised familiar issues. We have encountered a similarly unhappy split between aesthetic and social values in modernist music, and have heard grumbling about its elitism and inhospitality. But the social issues can never be as acutely drawn in music as they can in architecture, since nobody is forced to live in a musical composition. A building can be, both literally and figuratively, a prison; and that is why architecture became the bellwether of the reaction against the oppressive effects of modernism and the oppressive values they were seen to embody. But while (to risk a pun) the musical situation was less concrete, there is ample evidence that musical postmodernism (or, more cautiously, the music associated by commentators with postmodernism) arose in comparable reaction against a perceived aesthetic oppression, and that the move led to a comparable outcome. A condition formerly considered necessary was eventually judged to be both unnecessary and undesirable, and was accordingly overthrown.

Among the Romantic (modernist) values Meyer saw threatened by the attitude that Philip Glass expressed was that of organicism, the belief that “all relationships in a work of art should be the result of a gradual growth,” a “process of development … governed by an inner necessity and an economy of means such that nothing in the work is either accidental or superfluous.”11 This ascetic ideal, reminiscent of the strict functionalism of much modern architecture, was what caused so many to reject the repetitiveness of minimalist music (and notice nothing else about it). It violated what Meyer calls the “almost religious reverence for the values of necessity, economy and unity.”12

Whatever unity repetition conferred on a minimalist composition was more than outweighed by its sinful superfluity. And because minimalist repetitions, unlike Wagnerian sequences, did not quicken desire in anticipation of a goal, they lacked “inner necessity”—or, in the more damning variant hurled abusively by offended modernists, they lacked “inner life.” In a word, although they were obviously processual, minimalist repetitions were not “progressive” in that older meaning of the word. They did not progress to a determinate end.

That lack of “progressiveness” or goal-oriented purposiveness implied an even greater threat to the values modernism had inherited from Romanticism. For, ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the ideal of goal-oriented purposiveness provided Romantics and their modernist progeny with their theory of history as well, and all its attendant obligations. Historicism was an even more fundamental modernist drive than organicism. It was historicism—belief in what the postmodernist theorist Jean-François Lyotard called the “master narrative”13 that defined values and imposed obligations—that convinced so many artists that the austerities of modernism were necessary whether one liked them or not.

But in the shadow of nuclear holocaust and threatened environmental disaster, even natural scientists—the very ones who first infected Romantic artists with ideas about organicism and historical determinism, the very ones whose values had been so aggressively appropriated by academic modernists—were abandoning their previously unquestioned faith in the desirability of continuing growth and innovation. The march of knowledge and technology was not a value in itself, some scientists began to argue, and the purportedly “objective” or value-free ideology that underwrote scientific advances (and, for modernists, artistic ones as well) was not blameless when it produced harmful or inhumane effects. Progress, it was increasingly recognized, came at a price. It did not lead inevitably to utopia; it could just as well lead to disaster. In any case, it could no longer proceed without a moral reckoning.

Taking these “dystopian” rumblings into account as early as 1961, the political scientist Robert Heilbroner wrote presciently about the loss of what he called “historic optimism—that is, a belief in the imminence and immanence of change for the better in man's estate, the advent of which can be left to the quiet work of history.”14 By 1994 it was easy enough for Leonard Meyer to connect the dots and conclude in retrospect that “the end of historic optimism marks the beginning of postmodernism.”15 This suggests a connection between postmodernism and the “Green” movements that emerged in the politics of Europe and America in the 1970s in opposition to continued industrial expansion—economic modernism—in the name of “timeless” human and environmental values. And that is perhaps as close to a general definition of postmodernism as we are likely to get.

The “postmodernism” that became a subject of angry academic—and to a limited extent, political—debate in the 1980s and 1990s was the extension of this loss of faith to nihilistic extremes like radical skepticism or radical relativism. The first was the refusal to regard any proposition as inherently true or definitively proven; the second was the refusal to accept any hierarchy of values at all. One could regard these extensions as abuses—intellectual or moral aberrations all too easily exploited by cynics like “Holocaust deniers”—without necessarily opposing the original postmodernist impulse.


(1) Charles Jencks, What Is Post-Modernism? (London: Academy Editions, 1986), p. 7.

(2) George Rochberg, epigraph to Act 3 of Music for the Magic Theater (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Theodore Presser, 1965).

(3) Leonard B. Meyer, “Future Tense: Music, Ideology and Culture,” postlude to Music, The Arts, and Ideas (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 349.

(4) Fred Lerdahl, “Composing and Listening: A Reply to Nattiez,” in I. Deliège and J. Sloboda, Perception and Cognition of Music (Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press, 1997); quoted from prepublication typescript (1994), p. 4.

(5) Philip Glass, quoted in Wem Mertens, American Minimal Music, trans. J. Hautekiet (New York: Alexander Broude, 1983), p. 79.

(6) Meyer, “Future Tense,” p. 327.

(7) Leonard B. Meyer, “A Pride of Prejudices; or, Delight in Diversity,” Music Theory Spectrum XIII (1991): 241.

(8) Jencks, What Is Post-Modernism?, p. 14.

(9) Cf. Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture (1923): “A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in a sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.”

(10) Jencks, What Is Post-Modernism?, p. 14 (Jencks dates his coinage to the year 1978).

(11) Meyer, “Future Tense,” p. 327.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Éditions de minuit, 1979), p. 2. The English term “master narrative” was coined by Frederic Jameson in his foreword to the English translation of the book (Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984], p. xii) as a rendering of Lyotard's term grand récit, of which, according to Lyotard, there are two basic strains: the master narrative of emancipation, which governed modernist theories of history, and that of speculation, which underlay modernist theories of science.

(14) Robert L. Heilbroner, The Future as History (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 47–48.

(15) Meyer, “Future Tense,” p. 331.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-009.xml