AMN Reviews: Tim Rutherford-Johnson – Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 [U of California Press: 2017]

Certain years take on a talismanic significance. To conjure them is to call up a world—to provide a condensed description of an epochal shift in social arrangements, political structures, or cultural sensibilities. 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, is one such year, being shorthand for the end of the bipolar, Cold War order that held since 1945 (itself an epochal year). For music critic Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 1989 is a threshold year for music as well as for geopolitics; as he argues in Music After the Fall, his stimulatingly broad and broad-minded survey of new music, the period since then has brought a wave of globalization, liberalization and market economics as well as a revolutionary ubiquity of digital information and communication technologies, all of which have had significant impacts on the production and reception of new music.

The new music Rutherford-Johnson surveys is contemporary Western art music. The designation “Western art music” is a not always entirely accurate description of a music that has become internationalized both as a source of and a recipient of influence across borders, and has become hybridized through the influence of musical forms, techniques and technologies of other genres and traditions. But as Rutherford-Johnson notes, for historical reasons the label is still meaningful in that it usefully picks out music situated within a “tradition originating in the West [and which] maintains certain continuities with that tradition.” This is music generally taking the form of a notated score written by a composer and intended for presentation in a concert setting.

As becomes apparent in light of the many examples of recent work that Rutherford-Johnson deftly describes throughout the book, “Western art music” is a consummately porous category whose members are heterogeneous in style, form, materials and methods of realization. The work he surveys inhabits an epic range of difference. It can concern itself with large-scale harmonic movement or the timbral properties of a single, static chord; it can be conventionally notated or communicated through graphic symbols; it may embrace spectral analysis, generative processes, extended performance techniques, just intonation, metered rhythms, no rhythms, and silence. At its borders, it shades off into noise and performance art.

Western art music’s porousness and openness to outside influences isn’t a new development. American composers of the last century imported references to jazz, popular tunes and hymns; Eastern European composers drew on the modal materials and microtonal inflections of native folk idioms; French composers’ choices of scales and emphasis on timbres were inspired by gamelan and other Asian music. But the porousness of contemporary composed music seems qualitatively different from what came before. Rutherford-Johnson is right to suggest that music post-1989 appears to have reached a point where the external influences are stronger, more thorough-going, and as likely to change art music conventions as to be changed by them. The integration of elements of other musics to Western art music now seems more complex—in some cases less a matter of assimilation or absorption than a matter of co-adaptation or co-evolution.

This altered relationship between Western art music and musics outside of its tradition may partly be an effect of what might be called the subculturization of Western art music. Once a clearly dominant source of cultural capital that could define the main current of Western music, it now seems to be one musical subculture among many. Why this should be is an interesting question; what in effect is Western art music’s change in cultural status makes sense when seen against the background of the larger cultural changes Rutherford-Johnson describes.

Two of the most important of these changes are globalization and the ascendency of market economics. Both have been instrumental in influencing the shape of recent art music.  Partly this is because of the opportunities for cross-fertilization they have afforded, and partly because they have helped bring about changes in audience makeup and expectations.

Globalization has made possible what amounts to the internationalization of Western art music and the reciprocal Westernization of other forms of music not native to the West. Under these conditions categories and boundaries that, for historical and other reasons, were regarded as relatively fixed have overlapped, become transmuted or been effaced. In practical terms, this means an opening up of Western art music to new possibilities rooted in or influenced by once-foreign musical forms, materials and so forth, while at the same time altering their native Western counterparts. At the same time, through globalization the culture and status-defining values of Western elites are disseminated throughout the world and made into transnational standards. One of these status-defining values may be an acknowledgment of the importance of an art music continuing, in some recognizable way, the traditions established by music composed in the West since the late seventeenth century. In describing the state of contemporary music and culture, Rutherford-Johnson invokes Zygmunt Bauman’s idea that the condition of postmodernity is a “liquid” one–essentially a state of uprootedness and constant flux in which identities are unstable and/or profoundly malleable; nowhere is liquidity more apparent than in the exchanges of information, norms and human and other resources afforded, if not demanded, by globalization.

The turn away from government arts funding and toward the market economy made demands of its own on new music. In practical terms, it meant that new music would have to find an audience and thus, as Rutherford-Johnson remarks, would have to incorporate “more accessible, populist forms.” He offers as examples the “spiritual minimalists” Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, whose music attained popularity not only because of its spiritual program, but because its simpler forms and graspable harmonic structures were more easily assimilable to listeners than the complex, tonally decentered forms of modernism and its inheritors. For those same reasons it was also particularly well-adapted to use in television and film soundtracks—potentially lucrative markets that would virtually guarantee widespread dissemination of these composers’ work.

Technology, too, has had a hand in shaping the new music. Digital means of composing, producing and reproducing music of course have had a significant impact on contemporary music, but Rutherford-Johnson suggests that changes in listening habits have had a crucial influence as well. He points to the ubiquitous use of mp3 players under conditions that would favor shorter works or music without a good deal of surface complexity or nuance—either of which would be likely to be lost amid the encroaching wash of ambient noise, especially in urban environments. (36-37)

Not all of the new music is short, simple and direct, though. Post-experimental music with a strong conceptual dimension, or music engaged with innovative compositional methods and calling  for challenging instrumental techniques, as well as music based on and extending the High Modernist use of complex precompositional structures, all have a place in the new music, and provide Rutherford-Johnson with some of the book’s more thought-provoking examples.

If anything unites these quite disparate kinds of works, it is that they were created in an environment Rutherford-Johnson characterizes as “permissive.” Just as Cage’s music and aesthetic philosophy gave composers permission to experiment regardless of reigning orthodoxies, contemporary music has been given permission to draw on forms and materials covering the entire range from the non-musical to the intricately complex to “the simple and naively musical.” As a result, Rutherford-Johnson locates current musical practices within a “guiding ethic [of] choice rather than innovation” in which choice encompasses all available possibilities and precedents, be they formal, material, expressive, etc. Whereas Cage—and musical modernism generally–granted composers permission to innovate, the contemporary atmosphere has granted a type of permission just as important: The permission not to innovate. Consequently, it is the composer’s prerogative to choose from anything from within the history of Western art music as well as from musical traditions outside of that history. The legacy of Western art music is something ready-to-hand, an instrument among other instruments there for the attainment of present projects. But some pasts would appear to be more present than others. Rutherford-Johnson suggests that the most relevant past consists of the near past as embodied in “the musical legacies of the 1960s and ‘70s.”

It is this use of the past as a point of reference that underlies what Rutherford-Johnson argues is the common sensibility underlying much contemporary art music. He terms this sensibility “afterness.” It is comparable to the feeling of belatedness or of living and working after one’s time, often remarked on among postmodern theorists. To that extent, it is a sensibility that can be expected to permeate a music aware of its having come after the epochal developments of the past century, and consequently as being concerned with absorbing, assimilating and transfiguring the legacy of those precedents in order to make something of its own. (This is similar to the situation of painting and architecture in the 1980s, when a self-consciously postmodern sensibility pervaded works that appropriated or alluded to art-historical and pop-cultural conventions and images.) An additional factor to consider is that contemporary music is being made in an environment in which digital technologies have preserved and made widely accessible virtually the entire history of recorded music—time has in a sense collapsed into an encompassing contemporaneity in which all music coexists in this moment, now.

But whereas belatedness per se may lead to despair in the face of a present suffocating under the weight of the past—a sense that everything that can be done has already been done–afterness, at least in the sense that Rutherford-Johnson intends it, seems to mean something else. Afterness may just be a moment, albeit a necessary one, within any tradition. Consider that a tradition is a temporally extended, reciprocal negotiation of continuity and change—an interwoven set of historically contingent practices and understandings–developing as it forges a future through an ongoing dialogue of its present with its past. Its situation at any given time reflects the current state of its argument with itself—a self-conscious argument about materials, methods, meanings and forms, about who will create and consume it and to what uses it will be put once created. If “the Fall” is an image of the fall from innocence into self-consciousness, then I would suggest that this ongoing dialogue is indeed the situation of music after the fall—and that there never was a time before the fall. In that sense, music has always been after itself.

Daniel Barbiero