Writing for the August 27 issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross uses Pulitzer Prize history and his read of Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s dive into “Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989” (University of California) as a launchpad for his own reflections on how “contemporary composition has become as fractured as the art world—and that’s a good thing.”
Even for readers deeply immersed in contemporary music and its history, such a framing inspires further explorations:
[Rutherford-Johnson] presents a decentered, democratized scene, in which famous names collide with figures who may be obscure even to plugged-in fanatics. Reading his book took me months, as I stopped to search out Internet evidence of the likes of Cynthia Zaven’s “Untuned Piano Concerto with Delhi Traffic Orchestra” (2006), in which the composer improvised raucously on the back of a truck being driven around New Delhi.
In Rutherford-Johnson’s telling, composers are not sequestered monks but attuned social beings who react to cultural pressures. The book is organized around an array of such forces: late-capitalist economics, the breakdown of genres, sexual liberation, globalization, the Internet, environmentalism, the traumas of war and terror. Moving from nation to nation and continent to continent—the book includes not only British, American, French, and German composers but also Lebanese, Filipino, and Asian-Australian ones—Rutherford-Johnson hosts a musical version of the Venice Biennale. For a theoretical frame, he adopts the curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of “radicant” aesthetics—radicant being the botanical term for organisms with no single root, like ivy.