Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors
The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

“[eighth blackbird] were really cool, really nice. They really made me feel like an equal, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not an equal.”

—Composer Jeremy Sment, ca. 2007, as quoted in John Pippen, “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2014)

So, enough about how not to do the musicology of the present—on to those new paths I promised when I began this series. In today’s post and next week’s, I will present for your approval highlights from two recent musicological studies that, in my opinion, break methodological ground on their way to some mind-opening hypotheses about the structure of the contemporary art-music world. As we’ll see, each marshals an unusual array of evidence toward a new, counterintuitive conceptual parsing of today’s musical culture. In both cases, the framework can be boiled down to a single oxymoronic phrase that encapsulates the power of a fresh musicological idea to shake up long-held positions within the world of those who care about new music.

Disclaimer: These two vignettes are not the result of a systematic search through the newest literature, nor do they anoint one-of-a-kind musicological geniuses. (I don’t work for John D. and Catherine T.) These are two excellent young scholars doing interesting work of a kind being nurtured at many top institutions of higher musicological learning. But not my own institution—I thought it would be poor form to single out my own advisees or blow my own departmental horn. (Sorry, y’all at UCLA. Here’s an inside joke to make you feel special.)

The Ol’ Pomo Ro-Sham-Bo

Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors

To readers familiar with contemporary battles over contemporary aesthetics, the phrase “postmodern avant-garde” may sound odd, like a bad opening move in the extended game of rock-paper-scissors that often seems to monopolize trapped new music players: avant-garde smashes modern; modern cuts postmodern; postmodern covers modern; repeat until exhausted. This three-handed game is quite complex: postmodernism can be understood as both a negation and an extension of modernism; as either a (historicist, eclectic) reaction to the asperity and self-reflexivity of modernist aesthetics, or an even more radical resistance (by anti-art gesture) to entrenched aesthetic hierarchy and traditionalism. But the postmodern thereby re-enacts the historical revolt of the early 20th-century avant-garde, which deliberately shredded the pretensions of both traditionalism and modernism. And yet…that “avant-garde,” as its name reminds us, is also an affirmative desire, to be part of a (small) vanguard at the forefront of culture—the same desire that postmodernism, defining its essential position as belatedness, denies as a dangerous utopian fantasy. Ro-sham-bo.

In this context, talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

You Had to Be There

“Postmodern avant-garde” is the coinage of musicologist John Pippen, whose freshly minted doctoral dissertation is built around a detailed cultural ethnography of the new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Pippen has done what any musicologist must do if he or she wants to escape from the endless ro-sham-bo of modern vs. postmodern: he has gone out and done actual research on the world of the people and institutions trying to survive playing new music. The originality of his work inheres in its detailed look at a single new music presenter as the group attempts to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of commissioning, performing, and promoting new music inside a small musical world still dominated by the canonical “classics” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pippen has read concert reviews and their marketing materials; he has also interviewed the members of eighth blackbird, worked for them, attended concerts and rehearsals, talked to composers from whom they have commissioned, and even handed out questionnaires at a large public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His description of eighth blackbird’s world is thus “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense) than most; it allows him to grasp some of the most deeply rooted contradictions in contemporary musical life.

Pippen is not interested in asserting a causal relation between the modern, the postmodern, and the avant-garde, nor is he trying to fit these stances into an old-fashioned evolutionary narrative of works and styles:

Though I am not advocating for a complete abandonment of structuralist views, I do believe there is more to music than an accounting of the sonic qualities of works and their historical origins. Rather than simply summarize a series of aesthetic trends observable in new musical works, therefore, I have attempted to approach music as both object and practice.

As would any careful ethnologist, Pippen accepts that his informants are trying their best to find a “correct” mode of practice while harmonizing the conflicting imperatives inherent in their personal preferences and cultural position (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has famously called the habitus). In this case, eighth blackbird’s “struggle” (explicitly named as such by one of its members in conversation with Pippen) is to balance the tensions between a performing ethos and a concert world still dominated by modernist ideas (virtuosity, the work, progress, structural listening) and the reality of a post-industrial knowledge economy dominated by superficiality, image making, emotional work, commodification, and branding.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sextet

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
Photo by Luke Ratray

The tensions and contradictions are real. Pippen has been witness to some goofy interactions, as when the ensemble uses social media to create an illusion of nerdy intimacy with their followers:

One day in 2011 Tim Munro, the member generally in charge of the group’s publicity, shot video of Yvonne Lam and Nick Photinos as they worked out the bowing for a particular phrase, and posted the video on Twitter with the caption, “First bowing conversation of the season!”

This kind of promotionalism, in which eighth blackbird—a set of uncompromising new music virtuosos whose very name references one of the canonical moments of mid-century modernism—presents itself as “your friendly neighborhood sextet working hard—but always happily—as they get ready for their next sensational show,” might well be a turn-off for musical intellectuals. Pippen is not entirely taken with it either. He’s the one who recorded the self-deprecating comment from composer Jeremy Sment at the top of the page, evidence that just being “cool” and “friendly” does not erase hierarchies of power within the field of cultural production. I myself would add that presenting the hard, repetitive work of mastering difficult music as a kind of “fun” also fits into a neoliberal pattern where cultural workers exploit themselves under the sign of “doing what you love.”

The Struggle is Real

Crucially, Pippen is not particularly worried about whether the musical works eighth blackbird performs are themselves aesthetically progressive or reactionary; he sees the forces acting on the group as more eclectic than that, as “a particular mixture of modernist aesthetic goals, postmodern desires for accessibility, and fundamental concerns about the financial realities of the new music field.” This last concern is not one usually encountered in narratives of style history. In fact, this isn’t really a story about style at all; although Pippen uses the more compact term “postmodern avant-garde,” what he has uncovered is the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity.

A music historian of the old school would use the actions of eighth blackbird (and reactions to them) to determine whether there is a future for new music, and, if so, what part of the musical past such a future might most resemble. If that turns you on, go for it. The game of rock-paper-scissors is never ending. But the musicology of the present, under whose flag I have taken the liberty of enlisting John Pippen (if you disagree, please blame my reading, not his work), is less interested in declaring winners and losers in the game of history, and more sympathetic to the dynamics on the field of play at a given moment. Pippen’s summary take on eighth blackbird’s postmodern brand of avant-gardism seems, to me, very humane:

Here we find not the “anything goes” attitude described by [critics of postmodernism]. Rather, we find an acknowledgement of failure, a recognition of controversy and, in spite of all this, an ongoing commitment to the presentation of “difficult” music. This is not abject relativism. This is struggle.

Right on, brother. In my final post, I’ll feature another fascinating oxymoron taken from a recent study of the way university culture has figured in the development of late 20th-century musical taste. What would it mean to conceptualize an “elite popular music”? And would that concept help us navigate the dangerous passage between high and low musics in a post-hierarchical, omnivorous era of cultural consumption?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

  1. Virginia Anderson

    Very interesting post. It may be silly to respond to a PhD thesis I have not read, but what the heck…. Years ago I wrote an article that promoted a distinction between modern and postmodern experimental music. This distinction posited a shared aesthetic and ‘Musizierweise'(mode of music-making, as Cardew called it) between those non-tonal, improvisatory, indeterminate ‘modern’ pieces and the tonal, traditionally notated, and often static or pretty ‘postmodern’ pieces. Quite different music; similar thinking, spirit, associations, venues, etc. This was rubbished quite thoroughly by an anonymous reader (who in doing so questioned my qualifications to write about music, as well as my intelligence and ancestry) and never saw the light of day. Charles Hamm had established that Cage was postmodern from 1951–2, so once Hamm had decreed it, all experimental music was postmodern from there on and to think differently was wrong. But this ensemble’s work in the ‘postmodern avant garde’ seems to be even more diffuse than Hamm. According to Pippen (in your extracts at least), they seem to propose that whatever they do, no matter what technique, no matter how much they are tied to the Central European tradition or break away from it, it becomes ‘postmodern avant garde’ by them doing it. Or because they promote it and perform it in a ‘postmodern avant-garde’ way. There is some sense in mixing radically different musical styles to reveal aesthetic coherence (the Hilliard Ensemble performed primarily medieval music, but they mixed it in rather nicely with British postmodern experimental music, especially by Gavin Bryars). But examining the repertoire of eighth blackbird, one finds a soup of conflicting musical styles, aesthetics, and associations: New York avant-garde Crumb mixed with indeterminate Rzewski mixed with West Coast (slightly traditional) postmodern John Luther Adams — all of this postmodern? It might make exhilarating programming, but as a way of understanding the music and motivations behind the music — which is as much a social activity as the music management system that Pippen seems to show in the work of eighth blackbird — it’s confused. It might be better to establish what is already meant by ‘postmodern’ and ‘avant garde’ before piling new meanings on it.

    1. Robert Fink

      Virginia – just a quick clarification: eighth blackbird does not, as far as Pippen’s work discloses, identify themselves as part of a “postmodern avant-garde.” That’s Pippen’s analysis of their position, and his term. They do talk about a “struggle” between accessibility and a commitment to new music. So the terminological soup is being brewed up by the musicologists, as usual. :)

    2. John Pippen

      Virgina, thank you for your comment and questions. I infer that your opening deployment of postmodern has largely to describe the formal characteristics of art described as well as some of the intentions of Cage. This perspective of art has been much of what Bob is attempting to critique in his series. My concept of postmodern and of postmodernity owes much to David Harvey, a geographer and Marxist theorist who has offered a fascinating and usefully nuanced construction of the concept in his book The Condition of Postmodernity. We are well served, I believe, by attempting a somewhat broader view of given artistic practices that include an analysis of their form and content. “Postmodernism” is best viewed as an enthusiastic engagement with and reaction to a dominant modernism. Thus, I believe it tricky to deploy the word “postmodern” to individual instances of art outside of a broader socioeconomic context. As scholars such as Andreas Huyssen or Lydia Geohr have shown, the content of a given may be postmodern, but the context in which it is deployed can shape it into modernist museum holdings. Works or projects that are dynamic or even revolutionary become stable, ossified, and singular. This is the power of the institution. Thus the strange sound man John Cage becomes innovative composer in the Pantheon of History who, despite the truly radical nature of some of his works, becomes a (oft-maligned by the classical mainstream) member of the canon.

      To your second point, eighth blackbird’s repertoire, I love your statement that “one finds a soup of conflicting musical styles.” What a contentious soup it is! To answer your question, “all of this postmodern?,” it is not the works themselves that are postmodern (no, I don’t think we can really see Crumb as postmodern, despite the dates on his compositions), but that eighth blackbird has attempted to make them so. A postmodern avant-garde is not a movement that whole-heartedly embrace postmodernity. Avant-gardes have tended to be rather feisty. Instead, the postmodern avant-garde is a site of struggle in which issues of vanguardism, modernism, postmodernism are thrown together in a strange concoction. We ourselves are complicit in this construction, as when you react to the deployment of the perhaps overused and certainly poorly understood term “postmodern.” Strange soup, indeed.

  2. Liam Carey

    Perhaps the notion of a ‘postmodern avant-garde’ is actually about rethinking the relationship between modernism’s content (extended techniques, atonality, microtonality) and it’s style (that is it’s surface level of dense complexity, non-perceptible structural processes, maintaining a uniformity of musical language). Many of the composers who I think could be called ‘postmodern avant-garde’ seem to me to be coming from an approach of ‘actually, these strange new sounds being used by the ‘modernists’ are actually really cool to listen to, and can easily be appreciated by anyone who listens to modern popular music such as EDM and alt-rock – why can’t we just use these avant-garde sounds but in an accessible way?’ (Andrew Norman would be my example here, although he may well disagree with me – I don’t actually know the guy).

    It seems a shame to be thinking about this in terms of “the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity” when I hope that composers and the people that commission them aren’t all thinking ‘I’d love to be doing extremely complicated music, if only audiences weren’t such bunch of bloody plebs’; they might actually be thinking that whilst challenging the listener and ‘making it new’ is an important part of composing (anyone who respects their audience should never patronise them), so is charming them, comforting them, amusing them, entertaining them, turning them on – all of which may well be possible with extended techniques and microtonality.

    1. John Pippen

      Liam, I’m glad you took the time to reply. I feel that you’ve rather missed the mark in Bob’s summary of my work. (What a dangerous thing it is to correct someone on a blog comments thread! I’m nervous even attempting it. Truly, is there a forum more prone to alienation than this?) My project is not an inventory of musical techniques. It is an ethnomusicological study of a specific practice, the production of “new music.” The postmodern avant-garde is a way of theorizing the struggles endemic to this field of production, a perspective that aims to contextualize new music as engaged with history and culture. I would like to assess classical and new music’s place in our strange and fragmented worlds, some sort of theoretical device, I believe, can help us sort accomplish this.

      As far as the question of accessibility and the anxiety of reception, I would like to make two points. First, I believe that we who love new music have radically lost touch with what most find accessible. We have been trained in the atomized components of music and listened to so much of the strangest sounds for so long, that a great chasm has opened between our perspective and that of the average classical music aficionado. Furthermore, the classical music audience’s listening have become, I would suggest, reified, in the sense put forth by Lukács, by the monumentalizing tendencies of modernism. In creating a canon of masterpieces that most competent classical musicians have mastered (the ubiquity of virtuosity), we have created a culture whose expectations are shaped by the strange ritual of tonal musical museum pieces. Beethoven becomes hailed as a genius and we loose sight of the violence found in so much of his music. Beethoven’s music becomes accessible, when in fact much of it is truly bizarre. Andrew Norman accessible? Surely not. (Not that that should by the sole indicator of its value.)

      Second, defining the tension between innovation and reception is extremely challenging, and I hesitate to wade into that issue without a solid body of empirical research. I do suspect, though, that the prestige afforded to Glass, Reich, John Adams, and a few others owes at least in part to a new importance placed on being widely successful and well-received. There is, in the historical record from the 1980s a strong sense of “phew, we can use tonality again” and critics such as John Rockwell and composer such as David Del Tredici have said as much. Is this selling out? You tell me. Personally, I don’t think so, but I do occasionally mourn the end of the modernist vanguard’s prestige. There’s something intensely badass and even noble in sending a bunch of dudes to an underground lair in Paris to write music only an extremely small group will ever hear.

  3. Chaz Heinrich

    The difficulty I have with this series of writings is how they are based upon the presumption of being reasonable. Being reasonable is fine if you are carpeting living rooms, and laying tiles in bathrooms. Having reasonableness determine one’s modus operandi in exploring the current state of music is a recipe for boredom and conformity.

  4. Virginia Anderson

    I’m not convinced. There is an accepted modernist/postmodernist division within the arts (in music, articulated by Jonathan Kramer) that clashes with this social quasi-Marxist ‘social’ postmodernism. The problem is that Marxist methodology regarding history is linear: basically Hegelian and directional, linear. It is the historical model of Romanticism. No different thinking that Blitzstein’s MQ article on new music in the early 1930s. What makes Cage most interesting as a postmodern figure is the absence of linear thinking in his historical model. It makes a striking distinction between Uptown and Downtown, to give one historical example. Now, more static Marxist models can live with this in-house terminology, but this just applies old-school 19th C. German arts tradition and values on new arts that don’t need them.


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