Theorizing Modernisms: Essays in Critical Theory

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For Eisler, 'composers. Dissonance can refer here to consciousness of contradictions in the conditions of practice, and can lead to critical action. He seems to be convinced by Eisler's social analysis and develops his own structural version: 'dissonance can be directed towards displacing idealizations of music as an engrossing, spectacular object; it can prepare reflection on social relationships rather than offer a reflection of them'.

But then he drops this, and returns to dissonance as sound. He cites extended instrumental technique, violence of rhythm and texture, or the electronic distortion of rock, to illustrate dissonance as 'arrangements of sounds for which there are no established conventions of association [and which] open up possibilities for new attachments of meaning and value'.

I return to this 'structural' reading of dissonance below.

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Attali's sense of postmodern 'relevance' is refracted through an evolutionary prism, his book being in the tradition of speculative Foucauldian historiography. It is, like Chambers's, an extraordinarily seductive and compelling text, both post-structuralist and Adornian in style. The bones of the argument are rapidly drawn. Music 'simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities.


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The code of music simulates the accepted rules of society. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.

For each, he discerns in its musical practice the typification of the era, and the premonition of the following age. Attali calls the first order, an era before exchange value when music is purely social and ritual, 'sacrificing'. Of this he says: 'Primordially, the production of music has as its function the creation, legitimation and maintenance of order.

Adorno's position is intensified: use value wither away. Music 'serves to silence, by mass-producing a deafening, syncretic kind of music, and censoring all other human noises'. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear. Use- time and exchange-time destroy each other. It is 'elite, bureaucratic music. The absence of meaning is the necessary condition for the legitimacy of a technocracy's power.

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This future order is called 'composing' - 'not a new music, but a new way of doing music. Doing for the sake of doing': 67 This does not constitute.

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Production takes the form of one collective composition, without a predetermined program imposed upon the players, and without commercialization. No study is required to play this kind of music, which is orally transmitted and largely improvisational. This is a neglected side of Barthes's work on music, compared with the semiotics of 'The grain of the voice'. Attali closely echoes Barthes's vision of two musics: the music one listens to, the music one plays. The music one plays comes from an activity that is very little auditory, being above all manual and thus in a way much more sensual.

noc18- hs31-Lecture 01-Introduction:What is Literary Theory?

The concert will be a workshop 'where all the musical art is absorbed in a praxis with no remainder'. These two themes are not just analytic tools.


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  • In other words, and most important, they together express ideas at the heart of analyses of contemporary socio-cultural change, and in doing so they carry strong ideological resonance. I want to look critically at both of these arguments. In the first part of this article I analysed negation as a basic defining characteristic of the modernist avant-garde, reproduced, paradoxically, in postmodern discourse.

    In depicting a postmodern synthesis of the avant-garde and the popular, writers often fail to note that there are two sides to that process - that the avant-garde becomes integrated into popular culture, and vice versa, that popular culture becomes part of the postmodern avant-garde. But before assuming a synthesis, questions arise.

    One could also ask whether cultural and discursive forms defined by negation - deconstruction, for example, or Barthes's jouissance, desire beyond and outside culture - are themselves embedded in, and limited to, a modernist cosmology. Or are they 'structural constants', cyclic positions or moments, in all cultural change? In either case, have they any relevance for understanding change in popular culture and music? References to the avant-garde often overlook three characteristics that together combine to define it. The characteristics emerge from studies - those by Renato Poggioli72 and Francis Haskell,73 for example - charting the historical rise of 'the concept of the avant-garde' in art practice and critical discourse.

    First, the avant-garde should be seen as a small group in relation to a dominant larger whole. Second, the avant-garde takes on a self-consciously 'critical' function aesthetic, political, or both merged towards the dominant whole. And third, the avant-garde group claims a leadership role, with associated commitments to conversion and to the pedagogic and prescriptive functions of art - functions which bring full circle the contradictions of the avant-garde, since successful conversion is incompatible with a marginal, critical position and with being socially outcast.

    In writing about popular music, there seem to be two positions on the avant- garde and its mechanisms.

    Modernism and New Criticism Essay

    The first approach, found in Chambers and Laing and common in pop journalism, is to delineate an avant-garde within popular culture. The implication is that a postmodern rapprochement - consisting of a 'mixed' aesthetic and economy of pop and postmodern avant-garde - is in process, at least on the side of pop music. The second approach is taken by Laing and Durant on, respectively, the shock effect and dissonance. Both discuss these mechanisms, derived historically from modernism, as structural and cyclical, trans-historical strategies, invoking the modernist connotation of them as aesthetic but also 'critical' cultural political devices.

    Thus Laing cites Walter Benjamin's idea that the 'avant-garde movements of one artistic form are the heralds of a future cultural medium' 74 in which the shock effect will be more naturalized. This is akin to Lyotard's view of postmodernism as a structural moment within modernism, such that there is no historical break: 'In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves.

    A work can only become modern if it is first postmodern. Post- modernism thus understood is not modernism at its end, but in the nascent state, and that state is constant. Laing's example is that 'the punk opening up of self-production and distribution represented a relatively painless achieving of something avant-garde rock bands of a few years earlier had to go through debilitating tussles with record companies to get'. Just after this, Durant suggests a critique of Barthes that applies to the general position, including his own, but he fails to follow it through: 'But it remains nevertheless a weakness of these observations, when reworked as a more general critical orientation, that what is sought everywhere is a kind of musical modernism.

    Theorizing modernism: essays in critical theory

    The weak version consists of Laing's proposal, or Lyotard's, that small-scale social and cultural experi- ments can be influential on later forms and can even become dominant. This is analogous to a market model of commercial development and innovation and can be subsumed within theories of fashion. The concept of an 'avant-garde' is so weakened as to be meaningless. Alternatively, the strong version of the argument is that modernist aesthetic and discursive forms based on negation always constitute both a critical position in relation to extant cultural forms, and also a premonition, a cutting edge of what is to come.

    The strong version universalizes certain historically specific modernist characteristics, and grants them discursive and epistemological privilege. It splits off the avant-garde and negation from the discourse of their birth - modernism - to be treated as structural, trans-historical and trans-cultural mechanisms. This bid for univer- sality, for strategies beyond culture Barthes , is clearly a bid to retain some power for modernism.

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    One could ask: why bother? More analytically, the splitting and universalizing are symptomatic of a profound ambivalence towards modernism - an ambivalence based on a sympathy for its Utopian, transgressive and alienated beginnings, as against aesthetic dislike, distrust of its rhetoric, and disillusion at its later co-optation and hegemony. The first position above - the suggestion of a synthesis of avant-garde and pop in some pop music - is less imbued with modernist ideology than the 'structural' position, and is useful once it is integrated into a socio-historical analysis.

    Allied to the new enquiries into the role of art schools in British pop culture and situationists in punk , 78 this suggests the mundane hypothesis that the influence of modernism in pop is a highly self-conscious cultural allusion or reference, by pop practitioners, to an earlier art and politics of transgression and negation.

    It is a reference that has occurred at certain conjunctures in pop history, and has affected only certain limited areas of pop music and culture. This implies, further, that the critical and premonitory functions supposed to be inherent to negation and an avant-garde stance, once they become pure historical allusion, have no more necessary effect on the larger aesthetic and political evolution of pop music and culture than any other stylistic and educational device.

    It is also important to look at the 'other side' - serious contemporary music. Having sketched a social analysis of avant-garde influence in pop, we should now consider the 'populist avant- garde': serious composers who are trying to effect a reunion with pop music and who, in doing so, identify themselves as postmodern composers. These developments are mainly associated with the 'unserious' post-Cage experi- mentalists, and especially with systems and minimalist musicians who, inspired by ethnic and eastern musics, use bare modal and tonal harmony, and simple cyclic and repetitive structures and rhythms.

    Since the mid s, composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and their English counterpart Michael Nyman have been claiming to bring elements of pop into their music and have produced records that they try to market commercially. They are thus keen to be accepted as popular musicians. In fact, they still inhabit a mixed economy of art and commerce. Unlike most pop musicians, for example, Glass has his work performed at the English National Opera; he also has a lifetime record contract with the CBS Masterworks label - an honour shared only with Stravinsky and Copland.

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