Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Rationalizing CultureIRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde$

Georgina Born

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780520202160

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520202160.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM CALIFORNIA SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.california.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of California Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in CALSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 29 June 2022



Modernism, Postmodernism, and Music

(p.40) Chapter II Prehistory
Rationalizing Culture

Born Georgina

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines musical modernism in relation to the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). It shows that the major characteristics of IRCAM culture are prefigured not only by musical modernism, but by significant features of modernist art in general, and suggests that the evolution of musical modernism must be understood within the context of broader cultural-historical forces. The chapter characterizes modernism and postmodernism in music, and considers experimental musical as musical postmodernism.

Keywords:   musical modernism, IRCAM, modernist art, cultural-historical forces, experimental music, musical postmodernism

I have suggested that IRCAM cannot be understood in isolation from the aesthetic and philosophical traditions that inform it and that in turn it aims to inform. Primary here is musical modernism. But IRCAM culture also evidences, in its internal debates and oppositions, wider historical and contemporary tensions between musical modernism and postmodernism.

In what follows I sketch, first, an analysis of the key discursive features of modernism and postmodernism in general, tracing a set of dominant, recurrent characteristics at the heart of these discourses.1 The point is to demonstrate that major characteristics of IRCAM culture are prefigured not only by musical modernism, but by significant features of modernist art in general. Thus the evolution of musical modernism must itself be understood within the context of broader cultural-historical forces.

Characterizing Modernism and Postmodernisms

Modernism is a composite term for the new aesthetic movements across the arts that date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among them, in the visual and literary arts, symbolism, expressionism, cubism, futurism, constructivism, dada, and surrealism.2 One defining feature of modernism is its basis in a reaction by artists against the prior aesthetic and philosophical forms of romanticism and classicism. This (p.41) general feature of modernist art is often referred to as the negative aesthetic or simply negation, since the prime motive is a negation of the principles of the previous tradition: in painting, a rejection of realist representation and the primacy of subject matter in favor of abstraction and an emphasis on formal and perceptual experiment; in music, the destructuring and rejection of the earlier harmonic, melodic, and sonata forms of tonality in favor of the extension of dissonance and ambiguity. In all the modernist arts there thus arose a self-conscious experimentation with form founded on a sense of the necessity of revolutionizing the “language” of art itself.

A second characteristic of modernism, linked to the desire for formal experiment, is a concern and fascination with new media, technology, and science.3 Modernist scientism arose as early as the 1880s, as shown in the work of Seurat and Cezanne. Both were centrally concerned with changing the basis of art perception and were influenced by its scientific study.4 The celebration of technology is clearest in early twentieth-century movements such as Soviet constructivism and Italian futurism, both of which advocated new media and drew analogies between industrial production and cultural practice.5 Technologies affected not only the artistic means of production and reproduction. They were also a new aesthetic stimulus in terms of the subject matter of art, for example in the way that cubist and futurist abstractions recall the forms and movement of machines.

Futurists were especially ardent and iconoclastic proponents of the aesthetics of technology and of science, as in the work of the futurist theorist Severini, who wrote that art should evolve hand in hand with science. His was an eclectic scientism: theorizing the interdependence of perception, psychology, and aesthetics, and also proposing an aesthetics of numbers (Apollonio 1973, 10–11). Futurist visual art was strongly influenced by the new technologies of film and photography. Russolo, the key futurist theorist of music, argued in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises that “musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines” (ibid., 75) and called for music to become an “art of noises” embracing the new urban and industrial soundscape. Futurist music theory influenced composers' turn to technology and their search for new sound materials throughout the century, as for example in the French movement musique concrète. The futurists' predominantly polemical and aesthetic concerns, however, suggest that this early modernist reference to science and technology was largely symbolic and rhetorical, embedded in a cultish fascination.6

(p.42) A third feature of modernism, implicit in those above, is theoreticism. Modernist art invests an unprecedented power in exegetical texts. Examples are the polemical manifestos and writings that accompany many of the early twentieth-century movements: constructivism and futurism, dada and surrealism. Huxtable writes of modernist architecture:7 Nor is it unusual in architecture for theorist and practitioner to be the same person—a notable phenomenon in “‘modern’ times from Serlio to Le Corbusier” (1983, 31). Art theory and practice were of course linked in earlier periods, but modernist artists attempted to solve the crisis in traditions which they faced by foregrounding theory to construct and determine their practice. This is a profound change of relationship between theoretical text and artistic practice: “The normal point of intersection between the creative process and its recording and analysis has been speeded up and even reversed” (ibid., 29) so that theoretical text precedes creative process. Further, theoretical texts take on the ambiguous role of exegesis and criticism, of proselytizing and publicity, of both expounding and legitimizing practice. Theoreticism, then, has been central to the legitimation of modernist art practices, and closely implicated in the avant-garde's pedagogic and prescriptive mission.

A fourth defining element of modernism concerns its politics and political rhetoric, its vanguard and interventionist aims. Many cultural historians see the politics of the modernist avant-garde as primarily rhetorical and metaphorical, confined to formal critique and terroristic attacks on extant tradition. From one perspective modernist politics was always largely rhetorical, limited to anarchic and libertarian gestures against the structures of official and bourgeois art (Shapiro 1976, Poggioli 1982, Haskell 1983, Williams 1988). Others argue that the avant-garde was gradually depoliticized, and has now become culturally dominant, so that any critical potential that it once had has been irrevocably compromised (Hughes 1980, Guilbaut 1983, Shapiro and Shapiro 1985). Certainly the majority of modernist movements centered on formal experiments designed to subvert and shock the avant-garde's dual enemies: the academic and official art establishment and the bourgeois audience. They sought no broader social engagement or political effect. In their formalism, they thus disdained an involvement with the broader social or political dimensions of culture, preferring critique to be confined within the artwork itself. However, as Haskell suggests, this did not prevent aesthetic experiment from being read as social or political critique, a phenomenon that rests on the close association between modernism (p.43) and the avant-garde and on the radical political connotations of the concept of an avant-garde.

The reasons behind these associations are both historical and discursive. They can be traced through three aspects of the historical context of the avant-garde. First, the origins of the concept in early French socialism (see chapter 3) and the shifting relations between artistic and political radicalism in nineteenth-century France. Second, the wider political climate of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—as Anderson puts it, the “imaginative proximity of social revolution” (Anderson 1984, 104)—and its influence on artists; although, as Anderson notes, modernist art was objectively transpolitical, capable of affiliation with both Left and Right. And third, the complete suppression of modernist art, beginning in the 1930s, in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.8 which led after the war to the perception of modernism as inherently antitotalitarian and antifascist.9

Several discursive features of the modernist avant-garde fill out its radical and “critical” connotations. First, in parallel with their interest in technology and science, modernist artists expounded arhetoric of progress, constant innovation, and change, and saw their role as leading this process through a radical intervention in art and culture. Poggioli 1982 calls this general characteristic “futurism”: the notion that the present must be subordinated to the future. Artists saw themselves as a vanguard charged with pursuing uncompromising progress, by definition ahead of current tastes, and so with a pedagogic mission to educate and convert the unenlightened audience. Haskell 1983 and Poggioli stress that while such attitudes had existed in earlier times, they became systematic and intensified to an unprecedented degree with the rise of the concept of the avant-garde in the late nineteenth century. In addition, modernist experiments in formal negation—expressed in new aesthetics of fragmentation (collage, montage in cubism, dada), abstraction, and the revealing of underlying structures (cubism, constructivism, futurism)—took on more than purely formal meanings. They were read as oppositional, as subversive, as politicized critiques of the extant moral and social order, so that the language of art criticism became politically metaphorical to an unprecedented degree. Discussions of “continuity” and “tradition” versus “change” and “progress” appeared to be at the same time aesthetic and political, both metaphoric and “real.”

Haskell relates the perception of the avant-garde as “critical” to artists' gradual internalization of an ideology which proposed that art must (p.44) attempt to subvert the (aesthetic) status quo, since artistic value depends on being “ahead” of current tastes, which implies that it must necessarily be incomprehensible to the present audience. He traces the institutionalization of the belief, still strong today, that “an instinctive hostility toward contemporary art … [is] the necessary breeding ground for true art” (1983, 25).10 Thus avant-garde artists have sought to alienate the general audience as proof of the value of their work.

However a different, influential reading of the politics of the avant-garde, and of the relations between it and modernism, has been proposed by Burger 1984. Burger suggests that although modernism has become hegemonic, a few historical movements—Russian constructivism, Italian futurism, dada, surrealism—did present broader critiques of the social functions and institutional forms of art. He reserves the term "avant-garde" for these politically engaged movements, distinguishing them from formalist or aesthetic modernism, and so retains a political reading of the avant-garde, arguing that it is still a viable concept. With other critics (Clark 1983, 1985a, 1985b; Foster 1985a), he proposes this as the basis for postmodern art: a renewal of the avant-garde's critical potential.

A fifth characteristic of modernism, indicating both the differentiation and the complexity of the discourse, is its oscillation between rationalism and irrationalism, objectivism and subjectivism (Bradbury and McFarlane 1976). Thus the rationalism inherent in the scientistic and technological aspects of constructivism contrasts starkly with the emphasis on intuition, the psychic, and the irrational associated with expressionism, while futurism was both ardently technophilic and irrationalist. In this sense different modernist tendencies took up and intensified two powerful strands of nineteenth-century art: on the one hand a positivistic naturalism and on the other late romanticism. While it is difficult to stabilize this oscillation and to gauge which side exerted the greater force, it is modernist rationalism that was so well allied to the importation of science and technology into art, while modernist theoreticism promoted the fusion between these elements.

Finally, a sixth feature of modernism—a significantly “unconscious” dimension—is its ambivalent relations with popular culture. The development of modernism occurred simultaneously with the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of urban popular culture and the new entertainment industries. The two—modernism and mass culture—coexisted thereafter in discrete domains. The early modernist period was also the height of French and British empire, and witnessed the importation and (p.45) exhibition of nonwestern art. So modernist artists confronted a variety of popular cultural forms, from the mass culture of the metropolis to “primitive” and “exotic” folk cultures from the colonies. Until recently, the question of the historical relations between high and popular culture had not received much attention in art history. A few writers are now tracing the often obscure congress between modernism and mass culture (Crow 1983, Huyssen 1986, Varnedoe and Gopnik 1990), just as others are beginning to focus on the influence of nonwestern cultural forms on twentieth-century art (Goldwater 1967, Rubin 1984, Hiller 1991).

The decline of overt modernist reference to mass culture and the simultaneous rise of formalist visual abstraction (Crow 1983)11—a process paralleled in music, as I will show—discloses as an implicit defining characteristic of modernism the assertion, under the guise of pure, formal autonomy, of its absolute difference from the popular culture with which it coexists. At the same time, stylistic reference to nonwestern forms has remained more acceptable (Coutts-Smith 1991). Thus writers focusing on the relationship between modernism and mass culture argue that the latter should be analyzed as the “other” of modernism (Crow 1983, Huyssen 1986). Modernist assertions of difference from mass culture are expressed variously as simple “uninterest” in that culture, hostility, and also in the occasional surfacing of fascination, envy, and borrowing from the “other.”12 Tellingly, the construction of difference becomes an active antagonism toward and repudiation of mass culture in the writings of major modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno.13 Popular culture may thus be considered the “other” of modernism, with “authentic” folk and “primitive,” “exotic” forms more acceptable and enduring as influences than urban and commercial forms,14 as, again, I show later in relation to music.

Turning to postmodernism we can examine, from recent debates, how it is held to make a decisive break with modernism. The concept of postmodernism, which arose in literary and architectural criticism (Hassan 1971, Jencks 1977), has been generalized to refer to new cultural forms from the 1960s and ’70s on. Like modernism, postmodernism subsumes different tendencies, and its character is still being fought out on the terrain of cultural theory and practice. However postmodernism is unified by common origins in the attempts of artists and intellectuals to supersede the impasses of modernism, and motivated by a common dissatisfaction with modernism.

There are two main senses in which proponents of postmodernism claim that it represents a radical departure from modernism. The first (p.46) argument itself has two inflections. One is that postmodernism involves an overcoming of the historical division between high and popular culture, a new cultural pluralism and heterogeneity in which those distinctions become obsolete. In this perspective postmodernism reacts against modernism's hostility toward or nonrecognition of popular culture. The other view holds that postmodernism supersedes the modernist negation of the earlier “languages” of art—realism and representation (in visual art), narrative (in literature and film), and tonality (in music). These postmodern works involve a reappropriation of earlier forms: hence neoclassicism, neoromanticism, and so on. In both inflections, however, postmodernism is defined by negation of a modernist negation, thereby reproducing a modernist mechanism and revealing, ironically, an essential kinship with modernism. Unlike many analysts of postmodernism, who stress the discontinuities with modernism, it therefore seems to me imperative that an account of the relation between the two must trace significant discursive continuities as well as divergences—continuities that include negation as well as the embrace of new media and technologies.

Some writers assert that the division between high and mass culture is already superseded (Crane 1987). Others see avant-garde music as having a key role in overcoming the division (Jameson 1984a),15 while yet others have traced how some popular musics have been influenced by the historical avant-gardes (Frith and Horne 1987, Walker 1987). It is notable that this view of postmodernism was propounded in the editorial of a new contemporary music journal—an issue devoted to “musical thought at IRCAM”—by a British composer who has himself composed at IRCAM (Osborne 1984) The implication of his argument was to link IRCAM with such a form of postmodernism. We will assess how justified this is later.

The second major divergence claimed by some advocates of postmodernism, to some extent linked with the first, also embodies the negation of modernist negation: it is a rejection of the predominantly asocial and formalist, pedagogic and elitist cultural politics of modernism. Foster calls this the “anti-aesthetic” (1985a, xv), by which he means a rejection of modernist belief in the autonomy of the aesthetic. This, and the turn to popular culture and earlier cultural forms, characterize two tendencies within postmodernism that I will call, respectively, the “vanguardist” and the “populist.”

The “vanguardist” position, epitomized by Foster (1985b) and Burger 1984, preserves the modernist notion of a critical avant-garde, now (p.47) allied to or rooted in the “new social movements” that have developed around race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Hence the prominence of feminist postmodern art (Owens 1985). Lyotard depicts postmodernism as the end of the grand modernist narratives (of humanism, Marxism) and as a celebration of heterogeneity, dissent, the proliferation of “petits récits” (1984, 60). Foster's view is similar: postmodernism as sensitivity to difference, linked with an interrogation and transformation of the social affiliations and institutional forms of art practice (Foster 1985a).

But rather than this politicized, vanguard postmodernism, it is the populist stream that is more visible. In terms of cultural theory this involves an optimistic pluralism and populism, a celebration of consumption and desire. In cultural practice, it encompasses one of the two strategies outlined earlier: either aesthetic reference to popular culture with the intention to overcome the separation between high and low culture and to appeal to the popular audience, or aesthetic reference, or return, to premodernist cultural forms—realism, narrative, tonality, and so on.

The claims made for postmodernism thus raise questions for the ethnography and history that follow. Does postmodern practice effect an engagement or “rapprochement” with popular culture or with earlier forms? And how politicized or socially engaged is “vanguardist” postmodern culture? This, in particular, demands realistic appraisal given the fact, summarized but not interpreted by Jameson (1984b, 62), of the transpolitical character of postmodern debate—a further continuity with modernism. More specifically, the analysis suggests two important dimensions for empirical enquiry with regard to IRCAM culture that provide clues to its placing in relation to modernism and postmodernism and to the continuing relevance of the concept of the avant-garde: its political character—does it evidence a critique of the social and institutional forms of art?; and its relations with the “other” of mass and popular culture and music. I address these questions below: first in relation to recent music history, including the cultural politics of music in France (chapter 3), and in later chapters in relation to IRCAM.

Modernism and Postmodernism in Music

In music, the advent of modernism is usually dated from the breakdown of the underlying musical system of tonality that had lasted for over three hundred years, and that formed the basis for baroque, classical, (p.48) and romantic music.16 The late romantic composers, such as Wagner and Scriabin, had expanded that system so much that it was under great strain, its basic principles in question, and composers began a search for new organizing principles. First, around the turn of the century, came a period of atonality—the suspension and avoidance of all tonal reference and of thematic form. But in the early 1920s a new compositional technique and philosophy called serialism was developed by Schoenberg and his pupils Webern and Berg (the Second Viennese School). Serialism, a stylistic revolution, became the most powerful development out of the crisis of tonality and was for some decades the organizing force of musical modernism.

Serialism as it was originally conceived focused on the organization of pitch. This approach involves the construction of a twelve-note series or row using all twelve chromatic notes of the scale in a fixed order, each of which must be used once before the series can be started again. To generate material for a piece, four basic structural transformations of the series are produced: the original form, backward (retrograde), upsidedown (inversion), and retrograde-inversion. The four transformations can then be transposed to start on each of the twelve chromatic notes, so giving forty-eight permutations that provide the seeds of the composition. Serialism implies the principle of the homogeneity of chromatic space,17 while by contrast tonality centers on the functional and symbolic hierarchy of the tonic or key note, its dominant and subdominant. In this sense, serialism negates the hierarchical ordering of pitch space in tonality. Compared with the negational character of abstract visual art, serialism—a highly rationalist and structuralist method that aspires to the status of a new musical “language”—can appear a positive and nonnegational development. But serialist principles nonetheless prescribe an aesthetic that is completely antithetical to and so a negation of tonality. We will see that Boulez, like Adorno,18 conceived of the mid-century serialist aesthetic as negational.

Given that tonal harmony is also one of the aesthetic bases of the history of commercial popular music, the absence of tonal reference is a key marker of the way that musical modernism asserts aesthetic difference from popular musics. Moreover, while the earlier period of atonality involved a “free” avoidance of tonality, serialism went much further than this simple negation by advocating a prescriptive, rationalized, and systematic basis for constructing aesthetic difference from tonality.

Schoenberg was an ambivalent revolutionary, believing his work to lay the basis both for continuing the Germanic tradition, and for an (p.49) irrevocable break with the past. He felt that he was impelled by a force greater than himself, necessary for the future of music. He wrote in 1910, “I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.… I am obeying an inner compulsion which is stronger than any upbringing” (quoted in Rosen 1976, 14–15). This indicates Schoenberg's self-consciousness about his vanguard mission, which he supported by a number of important teaching texts. In several ways, Schoenberg embodies the antinomies of modernism: advocating both tradition and rupture, instigating the rationalist method of serialism while returning periodically to an expressionist mode in both his music and painting. Adorno later elaborated upon Schoenberg's view of his work, seeing Schoenberg's uncompromising pursuit of the “immanent laws” of aesthetic development as the only progressive direction for modern music. Adorno's remains the most eloquent philosophical defense of the critical potential of modernist aesthetics (Adorno 1973).

But early century musical modernism was highly eclectic, and serialism was not hegemonic in this period. During the 1920s and 1930s it was paralleled by two rival tendencies, tendencies that might almost be considered “proto” postmodern, between which certain composers moved in different periods. One was the neoclassicism associated with composers such as Stravinsky and Hindemith: an attempt to reinvigorate the present by reference to the principles of musics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and earlier. The other main tendency of the interwar period involved a self-conscious appropriation of popular musics, both urban and folk-based, as in the work of the early modernists Debussy, Satie, and Ives. The 1920s saw a turn to jazz as a reference on the part of Poulenc, Milhaud, Krenek, Copland, Antheil, and Gershwin (whose work is perhaps better classified as popular music that sometimes aspired to the condition of “serious” music). At the same time, composers such as Bartok, Kodaly, Stravinsky, Falla, and Vaughan Williams drew on the folk musics that were increasingly available to them from archives and field studies and developed distinctly “nationalist” variants of modernism. Both kinds of popular music were used as influences, for their modes, their melodies, their rhythmic or structural forms. Significantly, popular musics were treated by these composers as an “other” to be drawn into their compositional practice or to be played in “other,” less serious contexts.19 By contrast, the serialist tradition in general disdained reference to popular musics altogether. Thus, popular music can be seen as the “other” of musical modernism—in both its serialist and its more eclectic manifestations.

(p.50) The early-century musical avant-garde also exemplified the phenomena of vanguardism, radical interventionism, and a defensive disdain for immediate audiences. Like the other avant-gardes of the early century, it aroused public scandal and moral outrage. An infamous occasion was the first performance of Berg's Altenberg songs in Vienna in 1913, which provoked such a riot that the police were called out, as did the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” soon after. This extreme public hostility caused defensive attempts by composers to get their music played. Schoenberg and his circle founded the “Society for the Private Performance of Music” in 1918. Performances were by invitation and unpublicized, and critics and the public were barred. They thus created an elite group by which their music was judged, closed against the ravages of commercialism and of the mass public. These early modernist composers supported themselves mainly by private teaching and occasional conducting jobs. They experienced the usual alternation between marginalization and ostracism, then sudden public acclaim, typical of an avant-garde.

Following the pluralism of the interwar years, the period after World War II saw a renewal and intensification of serialism, so that from the 1950s on it became the main theory and method of composition, eclipsing its earlier rivals. Aided by Schoenberg's pedagogic writings and by the aesthetic teachings of Adorno, as well as those of composers Rene Leibowitz and Olivier Messiaen, serialism became the ideological rallying point of the new postwar European avant-garde at their meeting place, the Darmstadt summer school. The generation of composers who came to the forefront in this period—led in Europe by Boulez and Stockhausen, in the United States by Babbitt—elected Schoenberg's Second Viennese School, and in particular Webern, as pioneering forefathers. But theirs was no mere reflection of earlier compositional practice. By constructing such a genealogy and making selective readings of the earlier work, the new generation tried effectively to legitimize their own increasingly radical discourse, a heavily theorized extension of serialism. Boulez and Stockhausen at Darmstadt, and Babbitt at Princeton, soon themselves became leading teachers; and through the ramifying influence of these figures and their serialist colleagues, serialism remained for some decades one of the main training techniques for composers.

The serialist composers of the ’50s tried in different ways to generalize serialism in order to produce a new, universal method of composition. Following their reading of Webern's late technique, they extended serialism to the rationalist and determinist control not only of pitch but of all (p.51) other parameters of composition: rhythm or duration, dynamics, and timbre. This became known as “total,” “integrated,” or “generalized” serialism. It was accompanied by polemical writings against the aesthetic “compromises” of much interwar composition, and, adopting the pedagogic and prescriptive vanguard mission, serialist composers attempted to purify the correct, rigorous direction of the avant-garde—a direction that was posed as absolute and inescapable.

The ’50s generation began to add further layers of rationalism to that inherent in earlier forms of serialism. They became involved with science, exploring the acoustics and physics of music. At the same time they began to scientize the conceptual basis of composition, drawing on mathematics, statistics, information theory, logic, and linguistics. Controversies between the serialists in this period illustrate the dominant scientistic discourse through which they conceptualized music. Babbitt, for example, criticized the Europeans for insufficient mathematical rigor in these terms: “Mathematics—or, more correctly, arithmetic—is used, not as a means of characterizing or discovering general systematic, pre-compositional relationships, but as a compositional device.… The alleged ‘total organization’ is achieved by applying dissimilar, essentially unrelated criteria” (Griffiths 1981, 93). He advocated a more unified and mathematically sound total serialism; whereas Xenakis criticized total serialism for complex incoherence: “[It] destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes” (ibid., 110). Xenakis's “solution” was to improve the mathematical infrastructure by bringing the laws of statistics, probability, and calculus into compositional practice.

In the same period, drawn by the new postwar electronic media, these composers turned to technology for the analysis and generation of sound. Both the scientism and the technological bent were legacies of early modernism in general (as we have seen), and of two specific musical influences. One influence was the sound experiments and philosophy of the Italian futurists, discussed earlier. The other was the work of the French-American composer Edgard Varese who, from the 1920s on, called for new sound materials, like the futurists, linked the progress of music to the development of new instruments, and pioneered a renewed concern with timbre. His early works explored percussion sounds, and later works the new “liberating medium” of electronics (Middleton 1978, 70). Varese was perhaps more responsible than any other individual for the importation of scientific terms and rhetoric—“research,” “experimentation,” “laboratory”—into the theorizing of music. He wrote (p.52) of music as an “Art-Science” and in 1936 condoned the view, prophetic of IRCAM, that “there should be at least one laboratory in the world where the fundamental facts of music could be investigated” (ibid., 68).20 Thus Varèse's discourse was an important precursor both of the tenor of the postwar avant-garde and of IRCAM itself.

By the 1950s tape recording technology and electronic wave generators became available to composers with access to radio stations or well-endowed university laboratories, so that access was limited in this period to those affiliated with large institutions, while less-credentialed composers had no such access. The leading Europeans, Boulez and Stockhausen, both worked in radio stations, Babbitt in university labs. Babbitt's combination of electronics with total serialism, extended particularly to rhythm, aimed to produce accurate performances of extremely complex serial scores. His work made use of an early large-scale synthesizer made by RCA and based at the Columbia-Princeton studio.

Stockhausen's work brought together serialism, scientism, and electronics with the aim of total control of timbre, at that time the most elusive and unanalyzable element of music. Stockhausen wanted to create a systematic repertoire of artificially generated timbres, analytically ordered and suited to serial manipulation. He aimed to achieve a combination of perfect sound material (pure sine tones) with a perfect theory (total serialism). But in fact the theoretical, scientific, and technological bases of Stockhausen's electronic music in this period proved reductive and inadequate, and indicate the weaknesses of the rationalism and determinism of the time. It was thought that any timbre could be synthesized simply by setting up a series of oscillators to produce each component partial frequency of the timbral spectrum as a steady-state sine wave. But this produced woefully poor results, since it omitted several other crucial and idiosyncratic elements of timbre, in particular the interrelated evolution of each partial in time and variable degrees of noise, both of which are now known to contribute to the organic quality of interesting timbres. Stockhausen's notion of total serialization of timbre was, then, an extreme expression of the scientistic and technological rationalism of the time. It exemplifies the high point of technological total serialism, while revealing its profound limitations. And it marks the transition to a postserialist discourse, one that, as we will see in the next chapter and in chapter 7, pursues the systematic combination of scientific and technological analysis and generation of sound materials for composition while loosening any necessary commitment to serial organization.

(p.53) Another characteristic of the leading postwar serialists is their theoreticism. Boulez and Babbitt have been among the foremost theoreticians of contemporary composition, and this is closely related to their scientism and rationalism, since they have drawn respectively on structuralism, linguistics, set theory, and on mathematics to theorize composition. Both have produced powerful treatises and have been very influential teachers. These composers followed Schoenberg's example in uniting theory and practice. The postwar period also saw the consolidation of the new academic music disciplines of musicology, music theory, and music analysis in the universities, and a proliferation of textual and theoretical analyses of music. Journals appeared as mouthpieces of the new theories, led by Perspectives of New Music on the American East Coast and Die Reihe in Europe. The theoreticist postwar serialists were at home in such a context. Babbitt's total serialism became the dominant school of composition in powerful American East Coast universities such as Princeton and Yale. Boulez, after stormy earlier relations with official culture, returned to France in 1970 at President Pompidou's behest to direct the planning of IRCAM, a large institution dedicated to technological and scientific research around music.

Kerman 1985, describing the bewildering specialization within musicology since the war, says that the new disciplines of music theory and analysis, as well as studying modernist texts, took a more complicit role in their construction. Music theory became not just descriptive but prescriptive: “Much of the power and prestige of theory derives from its alignment … with the actual sources of creativity on the contemporary musical scene” (ibid., 15). This incestuous union of theory and composition was cemented by the postwar academicization of serialism in the elite American East Coast universities. Kerman comments:

Babbitt at Princeton was pointing out that avant-garde music could find its niche after all—though only by retreating from one bastion of middle-class culture, the concert hall, to another, the university. Like pure science, he argued, musical composition has a claim on the university as a protector of abstract thought. (The complicity of composition and theory … was crucial to this argument, the complicity of theory and mathematics extremely helpful).… So Princeton … set up an academic program for the Ph.D. degree in musical composition, for which the final exercise consisted of a musical composition plus a theory dissertation or essay. The marriage of theory and composition was legitimized by graduate councils around the country; the avant-garde was house-broken into the academy.

(Kerman 1985, l01)

(p.54) We can discern, then, in this period a process of growing legitimation of serialism, to which the character of the discourse—rationalist, determinist, theoreticist, formalist, scientistic, concerned with high technology—was particularly well suited, a legitimation that enabled this tradition to become increasingly acceptable to state cultural institutions and to the academy. Central to this process was the fact of composers themselves becoming theorists, providing a metalanguage (science) to rationalize and assess composition—a metalanguage that was itself extremely powerful and legitimate; and the propagation of these ideas through newly established journals. (Kerman writes of Perspectives and Die Reihe, “Serialism was the main subject and mathematics the main mode of both journals” [1985, 102].) It is, then, the serialists who best exemplify mid-century musical modernism and who became established internationally, beginning in the 1950s, as the dominant tradition of the musical avant-garde. This was a hegemony in which the Europeans and East Coast Americans, despite the apparent conflict arising from their differing positions within the field, were ultimately collusive.21

Some argue that the method created by Schoenberg and others in the 1920s should properly be known as the “twelve-tone” or “twelve-note method.” In this view the technique was oriented primarily toward pitch in the early period. It was used relatively flexibly for expressive ends, and Schoenberg himself conceived of it not as a revolutionary tool but as a logical extension of historical techniques: it was practice rather than theory that led. From this perspective, it is only the postwar expansion of the approach by Boulez, Babbitt, and others to cover all dimensions of musical expression that deserves the name serialism. In other words, it should be reserved for the period that saw the rise of total serialism. This era was characterized by an intense ideological commitment to serialism as the only direction for composition, by a cult of systematicity, rigor, and purism in which serialism came to be conceived as the basis of the whole compositional frame. As we have seen, even here there were significant differences, with Babbitt the leading proponent of mathematical systematicity, while Boulez's pronouncements rested on a looser, more poetic, less rigorously scientistic relation to serialist theory. But the key point for advocates of this interpretation is that there was nothing immanent in Schoenberg's own work or that of his colleagues, except perhaps for aspects of Webern's work, that led inevitably to the deterministic and scientistic turn taken by serialism after the war, so that the compositional practice of Schoenberg, Berg, and others should not be tainted by association with the “sins” or excesses of the 1950s and after.

(p.55) However I follow in this study the other common use of “serialism” (for example Rosen 1976; Griffiths 1978, 1986; Neighbour et al. 1983). In this approach, “serialism” is used to designate both the method developed by Schoenberg and others in the 1920s and the postwar expansion of the technique, which may more specifically be termed total serialism. To adopt this usage carries major implications. One is that despite the differences in the two periods, the developments of the ’50s can be seen as strongly conditioned by, and in some ways continuous with, those of the ’20s. In other words, much of what occurred in the ’50s was prefigured by aspects of the thinking of key figures in the earlier period. My argument for this view rests on two observations. First, the “twelve-tone method” was a highly structuralist conception, and structuralist thinking in general, even in this early period, was courting, if ambivalently, scientific status. Second, whatever the subtlety and inconsistency of Schoenberg's own deployment of the method, it was one that was very liable—given its suitability for pedagogic and didactic purposes—to solidify into a rigidly deterministic, heavily theorized system and to be expanded in the scope and range of its applicability. I stress here that such an interpretation in no way condones the ideological gloss overlaid on it by Boulez and others in their writings of the time—that is, that the ’50s developments were both inevitable and progressive.

I am suggesting, then, that it was not difficult for the “twelve-tone method” to become a vehicle for a combined and intensified rationalism, determinism, scientism, and theoreticism in the ’50s—in line, moreover, with the wider intensifying scientism characteristic of postwar structuralism (Pavel 1989). If these were developments that Schoenberg would have deplored, in my view they are still ones for which he laid the foundations of possibility. There may have been nothing necessary about the later developments, but that they occurred is certainly, after the event, “predictable.” As I have continually emphasized, however, the developments of the ’50s did not rest on an appropriation of these influences alone. They depended on a discursive bricolage that brought these elements together with additional concerns characteristic of modernism in general: above all, an obsession with science and technology as forces for progress in culture.

Finally, I am using the term “postserialism” to refer to developments beginning in the late ’50s and ’60s following the demise and fracturing of the total serialist project. Rather than bringing the full range of compositional developments since the ’60s under this term, I reserve it for those that continued in the scientistic, deterministic, rationalist, and theoreticist (p.56) vein of total serialism, to which was increasingly added a prominent technological dimension. In other words, I use postserialism to designate the discourse that followed on from total serialism and that, even if explicitly rejecting serialism at times, attempted to salvage and reinvigorate dominant features of that approach, primarily by reference to science and technology. This was not the only development of the ’60s and ’70s, although it was a powerful one. As we will see in chapter 3, it is the discourse that Boulez began to enunciate in the late ’60s and that became the basis of his manifesto for IRCAM. It is, then, how I will characterize the contemporary discourse of music research and composition within which IRCAM has a leading place.

Experimental Music as Musical Postmodernism

But serialism, though dominant, was not the only development within the musical avant-garde after the war. In this period also, its fortunes developed in counterpoint with those of rival movements. The main alternative from the 1950s on was the tradition of experimental music that focused on the American composer and guru John Cage and his followers, including composers Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and later La Monte Young and Cornelius Cardew. This is often considered the centerpiece of musical postmodernism. For decades these composers remained less well known, less powerful and less legitimate than the serialists; they were the “unserious” dissidents of the avant-garde.22

Cage was subject to a wide range of American and European influences during his formative years in the 1930s. He was taught by Schoenberg and used serialist procedures in some early compositions. But during the mid-1930s he came under the influence of Henry Cowell, a key figure in the burgeoning American avant-garde, and by the late ’40s he was developing his own compositional philosophy opposed to the legacy of serialist rationalism. In reaction to serialist determinism and the hypercontrol of all parameters of sound, Cage and his followers wanted to liberate them by introducing aleatory and chance procedures: noncontrol. His watchword was indeterminacy. Nonetheless, experimental composers sought different theoretical determinants for their composition. Cage turned to antirationalist cosmologies—Zen and eastern mysticism—while other experimentalists became involved in alternative belief systems, for example Marxist-Leninist politics. Paradoxically, then, (p.57) the experimentalists remained theoreticist and determinist while searching for alternative philosophies—nonscientific and more social and spiritual—to legitimize and prescribe compositional practice. The music was still constructed in discursive texts. Cage, like Boulez, was also known as a writer and philosopher.

Against the often unperformed and unperformable complex scores and text-centered composition of the serialists, experimentalists wrote simplistic scores that broke away from traditional music notation: often just a short written description or graphic diagram, aimed at live performance, that was intended to give the performer maximum interpretative play. In opposition to the continuing primacy of pitch logics in serialism, Cage proposed that time should take the central position in music since it was materially central to both sound and silence.23 Against the serialist view of time as linear, “duration” as mathematically quantifiable, experimental composers viewed time as noncumulative, nondirectional, static, and rhythm as cyclical, repetitive, and processual. Cage called for “non-intention” and (after Satie) “purposeless music,” in rebellion against the teleology of classical form. This approach is well expressed in the minimalist, process, or systems music of composers such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, which developed out of the experimental tradition. Influenced by nonwestern musics, for example Javanese gamelan, this music sets up repetitive and cyclic rhythmic structures that permutate as the performance unfolds: a ritual process set in motion. Performances might last for twenty-four hours, and music was stripped to a minimal simplicity.

The mention of nonwestern music and ritual raises two key aspects of the experimental tradition and its postmodern legacy that are significant by their absence from modernist serialism. In other words, they mark the difference between the two avant-gardes.

First, like the eclectic modernists of the early century, experimentalists had an interest in, and made reference to, nonwestern and popular musics. Unlike serialism, with its genealogy centered on the Schoenberg school, experimentalism elected a range of musical ancestors, including Debussy, Satie, Varèse, and the Americans Ives and Cowell, most of whom had drawn in some way on the influence of nonwestern or popular urban musics. Like their forefathers, experimental composers drew on popular musics for their modes, their rhythmic, repetitive, or structural forms, or treated them as pastiche or parody, or created musical montage by overlaying one music upon another (as with Ives). These (p.58) techniques are now considered central to postmodern aesthetics; yet, as I have shown, they go back to certain early modernists, while they are largely absent from serialist modernism.

Second, influenced by ethnomusicological studies of the ritual and participatory nature of nonwestern musics, the experimentalists were centrally concerned with the social and live, performative aspects of music. Often themselves performer-composers, experimentalists gestured toward effacing the composer's authoritative role and wanted to lessen the hierarchical musical division of labor between composer as creative authority, performer as constrained interpreter, and passive audience.24 The emphasis was on the performance process, music as an unfolding and participatory ritual event structured by time. But the composer remained the author of these events so that, ironically, the division of labor remained intact.

There was a pervasive two-way influence between experimental music and a series of postwar American visual art movements—abstract expressionism, and then pop art—so that Cage and followers cited the influence of Duchamp, Pollock, Johns, and Calder, and vice versa. Music in its pure abstraction came to be seen as the paradigmatic medium during the heyday of American abstract art.25 Events were often multimedia, as with Fluxus performances in which the visual and ritual were as important as the sonic/aural, or Cage's long collaborations with the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg. Performances were, then, often less than serious events, and a dadaistic iconoclasm linked experimental music to the wider radical art movements of the 1950s and 1960s, including performance and conceptual art.

Beginning in the later 1960s, inspired in part by Marxist-Leninism or Maoism, there emerged out of this a set of experimental composers, including Wolff, Cardew, Frederic Rzewski, and their followers, who were more frankly politicized than those in the postserialist camp. In some cases they attempted to produce political effects through the use of, or by reference to, revolutionary popular musical material or lyrics.26 Another strategy, developed by some of the same composers but more widely influential, extended the critique of the musical division of labor. Composers such as Cardew, Wolff, and groups such as the Italian-American MEV (Musica Elletronica Viva), the British Scratch Orchestra, and AMM, emphasized changes in the social relations of music production and performance in their attempts at a new interactive, collective, and nonhierarchical group practice. The social dimension of music (p.59) was seen as a crucible for experiments in collective and democratic social relations.27

Many politicized experimental groups centered on live, free electronic music improvisation. Free improvisation was both a logical extension of indeterminism, and also in accord with a stress on collective group relations as determining musical output. But while some politicized experimental groups used electronics, not all did. In fact, if we examine the experimental music concern with technology, we can see that while it accommodated some sociopolitical experiment it was also autonomous and important in its own right and bore its own softer political connotations.

Like the serialists and postserialists, and after their common ancestor Varese, the experimentalists believed strongly in the necessity of technology as a source of new sounds, and, as their name implies, in the need for constant experimentation and “research.” But beyond this their relation to technology was polemically opposed to the serialists'. Experimental composers used technology artisanally and pragmatically, in contrast with the scientistic and analytical serialist applications. Experimentalists rejected both the implicit elitism of the serialist adherence to inaccessible and expensive high technologies found only in large and official institutions and the universalizing high rationalism and scientism with which these technologies were deployed. They countered determinism and formalism with technological empiricism and with live, social, improvised, and performance-based use. Above all they countered “high-tech domination” with a practice centered on the celebration of the small and low-tech.

We will see in the next chapter one European manifestation of this technological antagonism: how the opposition between experimental empiricism and postserialist determinism was played out in the major conflict in the 1950s and 1960s within French electro-acoustic music between the pioneers of musique concrète—Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry—and Boulez. This began a lasting tension between the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), home of musique concrete, and IRCAM, devoted to anti-empiricist technological and scientific research and development.

More typical of American and British experimentalism than this kind of conflict, given that experimental composers were usually unaffiliated with major institutions and so lacked access to high technology, was a commitment to small technologies, either commercial or self-made. This linked to the politics of musical performance. Nyman describes it thus:

(p.60) Composers began introducing electronics into experimental music in the early sixties, not by taking into concert halls the equipment from the electronic studios which had proliferated in the ’50s, but by inventing and adapting a portable electronic technology which was easily accepted into the … open world of performance indeterminacy. Live electronics were used in two related ways. First, electronic versions were made of scores whose instrumentation was unspecified … which could now draw freely on the new range of sound sources opened up by electronics. Secondly, the way was prepared for pieces which specify a particular electronic system, which may in itself be inherently indeterminate and may or may not include a score.

(Nyman 1974, 75)

Paradoxically, given the principle of indeterminacy, this last development indicates a kind of technological determinism in music, in that the technologies themselves become the composition. Thus, in contrast to the postserialist use of high technologies in the university lab and aimed at the concert hall, experimental composers sought flexible and portable small technologies for live performance, multimedia events and “installations,” for use in everyday situations or on the street. Certain composers themselves became electronics bricoleurs, artisanal designers of small technologies tampering with the sources of sounds—a direction initiated by Cage's own instrumental “engineering” in his early works for prepared piano.

The experimental composer as technological bricoleur is exemplified by several Americans, notably Gordon Mumma, David Behrman (members of another live electronics group, the Sonic Arts Union), Richard Teitelbaum (of MEV), and Max Neuhaus, and in Britain by Hugh Davies. All saw their compositional work as centered on technological invention, and designed and built portable electronic instruments and systems for use in live performance. Mumma has said: “My decisions about electronic … circuitry and configurations are strongly influenced by the requirements of my profession as a music maker. This is … why I consider that my designing and building of circuits is really ‘composing’” (Nyman 1974, 77). Writing of Behrman, Rockwell describes his strong commitment to homemade circuitry as a demystification of technology: “Behrman is not a trained engineer. He learned what he needed to know mostly by reading and by corresponding with Mumma” (Rockwell 1983, 139). Neuhaus, like Behrman, began as an autodidact designing his own circuitry and developed a new populist form of environmental electronic sound installation that put space at the center of musical experience. Rockwell notes that the “real revolution in electronic music” (p.61) for these experimental autodidacts was the access to small and cheap electronic synthesizers that followed the progressive miniaturization of the technology, which in turn followed the broadening of the electronic-instrument market through their use in rock music. It was this small, commercial-technology revolution that allowed Behrman and others to “liberate themselves from deadening institutional associations” (ibid., 135). Such ideological differences over technology between the two avant-gardes fed into continuing debates within computer music over small versus large system development, and over the role or necessity of theory—issues that, we will see, also surface within IRCAM.

Musical Postmodernism as the Negation of Musical Modernism

The differences outlined above between the experimental and serialist/ postserialist traditions define the break between musical postmodernism and modernism. However, it is necessary to scrutinize them and to perceive their limits. First, although a reference to popular and nonwestern musics is largely absent from serialism, the experimentalists' relation to these musics is limited to using them as a source—for quotation, for transformation, for use as an influence. A certain distance is thereby maintained: popular and nonwestern musics retain the status of an “other”—a quality, as we have seen, going right back to their eclectic ancestors, such as Debussy and Ives. Moreover, the popular music drawn on by postmodern composers has mainly been limited to noncommercial forms: to folk, ethnic, and nonwestern musics rather than the commercial stuff of the capitalist music industry and the tastes of the “mass.” In this sense, much musical postmodernism has continued to refer to an untainted and idealized notion of a noncommercial, authentic people's music and to disdain the aesthetics and circuits of commercial popular music. Since the late 1970s, as I mentioned in chapter 1, a few experimentalists—Glass, Michael Nyman, Laurie Anderson—have embraced commercial populism, using formats closer to rock and attempting to reach a large popular music audience. However even this work remains aesthetically, ideologically, and institutionally distinct from commercial popular music.28

In addition, while the politicization of experimental music has been more developed than in postserialism, it is confined mainly to critiques of the immediate social context and social relations of musical practice, as (p.62) in the neodada performance events. Only rarely or implicitly does this become a broader cultural politics aimed at transforming the institutional forms of serious music. Although the experimentalists' technological discourse has been in accord with these critiques, the technologies are just as often employed devoid of any political connotations. It is worth noting, finally, that many politicized and practical elements of experimental discourse are redolent of the influence of certain popular musics, especially the advanced black jazz of the ’60s—influences that are commonly unacknowledged.29

Placing the two traditions geographically and socioeconomically, the split between the postserialists and experimentalists was also one between the East and West Coasts of the United States, with Babbitt and followers based in the East, Cage and followers in the West. The Cageian postmoderns were thus susceptible to the Pacific and oriental cultural sympathies of the American West Coast and to the influence of Californian rock music in the ’60s, while the East Coasters looked toward and identified with Europe, birthplace of the modernist avant-garde. And institutionally, they had different bases. Rather than seek tenured professorships in the WASP universities, experimental composers taught in liberal arts colleges, untenured, or performed for a living. Experimentalists often depended on their close associations with the visual arts, with dance or film and their subsidizing circuits, thereby gaining support from galleries, museums, and art centers.

A polemical article by Cage,30 commissioned in 1958 by the director of the Darmstadt summer school and called “History of experimental music in the United States,” epitomizes the tensions between experimental music and European (and East Coast) postserialist modernism. It reveals Cage's active rivalry with, and desire to supersede, the European tradition. In his subtle rhetoric, Cage describes experimental music as “the” American movement, and then equates “America” with “the world” in describing the necessity of America taking the lead from the old European discourse. Such a blatant bid for hegemony reveals the profound cultural rivalry that existed at this time, at least on the American side.

In conclusion, we have seen that the musical avant-garde is far from unitary. The antagonism between the two main movements—postserialist modernism and experimental postmodernism—can be summarized at three levels. They are distinguished, first, by their different relations to popular music and culture; second, by the absence or presence of a supraformalist concern with the social and political dimensions of culture; (p.63)

PrehistoryModernism, Postmodernism, and Music

1. The antagonistic counterpoint of musical modernism and postmodernism.

and third, and related to this, by conflicting technological discourses and the use of different technologies.

The differentiation between the two movements involves a continuous counterpoint, an unfolding, antagonistic dialogue at times explicit, at others implicit. In this process, the postmodern experimental tradition is defined against postserialist modernism through a series of negations (Figure 1). And since the postmodern tendency to negation itself repeats a defining characteristic of modernism, it also embodies a basic discursive continuity. Thus the history of the two avant-gardes shows an internal pattern of simultaneous negation or opposition and continuity. We can describe the relation between the two factions abstractly as “A to not A”: a relation of antagonistic or oppositional kinship; whereas the relation between these two traditions and popular culture and music has been one of absolute difference, in abstract terms “A to B,” the other basic form of difference. Popular music is either unaddressed (by serialist modernists), or held as an “other” to be represented, drawn upon. as a source or influence (by postmodernists).

We have seen that the “innovations” often attributed to postmodernism have earlier precedents. Neither reference to nor representation of (p.64) the musical “other” are new, nor is a concern with the social functions of art; they are also evident in some early century musical modernism. The evidence of this analysis, then, is that postmodernism is defined in the first instance through a negation of modernism, that it remains locked into an implicit and antagonistic dialogue with modernism, and that throughout the century this has been the basis of its turning to the “other.” The counterpoint of modernism and postmodernism may thus be conceived as a continuous and centripetal antinomy, a kind of mobile stasis. Two unities bind the antinomy: a belief in the necessity, and the exploration, of technology (increasingly evident from the postserialist period); but above all the assertion of difference from popular music and culture. In this sense, modernist abstention from any aesthetic reference to popular musics is the “stronger” and more absolute statement against which later postmodernisms rebel, but without breaking free completely from this defining discursive trope. Modernist aesthetic nonacknowledgment of popular music therefore represents the more extreme denial of the rival aesthetic discourse, its (persecuted and persecuting) obliteration as an object of reference or interest. By contrast, postmodern reference to and transformation of popular music involves a less extreme splitting. That is, although some postmodern composition evidences aesthetic and broader sociocultural awareness of the “other,” this is no “neutral” acknowledgment of difference but, implicitly, another form of attempted control or domination—a statement that popular music, rather than being adequate in itself, must be brought into the ambit of art music for the full realization of its aesthetic potential.

Thus the most enduring, unchanging discursive feature uniting musical modernism and postmodernism—the assertion and determined maintenance of difference from popular music—is the one that is most imbued with varying degrees of splitting, denial and omnipotence. It may be conceived in terms of an antidiscursive denial that is both at times a purposeful and conscious offense, and a psychic-aesthetic defense. Popular music remains, for modernist and postmodernist composers, an “other” to be either ignored, or reformed, reworked, controlled at the composer's will.

We are now in a position to grasp, in advance, that many significant features of IRCAM culture and of Boulez's ideology—the founding principle, the “necessity” of bringing technology and science into music; the concern with new media, sound materials and forms; the self-conscious vanguardism and preoccupation with constant innovation; the theoreticism; the formalism, linked to an absence of critical concern with the (p.65) social and political dimensions of culture; the notion of a necessary alienation from the general public; and the antagonism toward commerce and toward popular music and culture—all of these are prefigured both by the general historical character of artistic modernism, and by its mutated expression in the serialist/postserialist tradition of musical modernism as revealed by its counterpoint with musical postmodernism.


(1.) My emphasis on the strong and enduring regularities of modernist discourse echoes the (varying) approaches of many writers including Bradbury and McFarlane (1976), Poggioli 1982, Anderson 1984, Calinescu 1987 and Wollen (1987, 1989a). As well as these, I draw on the following sources for my discussion of modernism and the avant-garde: Richter 1965, Gombrich 1966, Gay 1968, Apollonio 1973, Shapiro 1976, Laing 1978, Willett 1978, Bloch 1980, Hughes 1980, Frascina and Harrison (1982), Buchloch et al. (1983), Crow (1983), Greenberg (1983, 1985a, 1985b), Guilbaut 1983, Haskell 1983, Huxtable 1983, Burger 1984, Vitz and Glimcher (1984), Whitford 1984, Frascina 1985, Debord 1987, Williams (1988, 1989),Timms and Collier (1988), Wollen (1989b), and Varnedoe and Gopnik (1990).

On postmodernism: Jencks 1977, Jameson (1984a, 1984b, 1985), Lyotard 1984, New German Critique 33 (1984), Foster (1985a, 1985b), Huyssen 1986, Institute of Contemporary Arts (1986), Cultural Critique 5 (1986–87), Hebdige 1988, Theory, Culture and Society 5, no. 2–3 (1988), Harvey 1989, October 56 (1991).

(2.) Anderson has warned against the tendency to treat modernism as unitary, when in fact it spans a variety of aesthetic currents and was unevenly distributed both temporally and geographically (Anderson 1984, 102–3). Despite this I argue, as does Anderson himself, that there are certain defining attributes or “coordinates” of modernism.

(3.) Wollen summarizes these developments as follows:

The first wave of historic modernism developed an aesthetic of the engineer, obsessed by machine forms.… An art of the leisure class, dedicated to conspicuous waste and display, gave way to an art of the engineer, precise, workmanlike and production-oriented. This trend, which grew alongside and out of an interpretation of cubism, culminated in a wave that swept across Europe: Soviet constructivism, the Bauhaus, De Stijl, purism, Esprit Nouveau. All … saw artistic form as analogous to … machine form, governed by the same functional rationality.

(Wollen 1987, 5)

Wollen sees the machine aesthetic as closely linked with functionalism; I would argue that modernist fascination with technology and science was an autonomous force, separate from functionalism.

(4.) Seurat, for example, related his development of pointillism to scientific theories of color vision. The general appearance of a close interest in modern science by modernist artists is the theme of Vitz and Glimcher 1984).

(5.) The leftist Soviet art groups argued that post revolutionary art must seize on the new mass art forms: film, photography, the new graphic arts (posters, magazines), murals. In a 1920s text, Soviet poet Mayakovsky wrote of the process of writing poetry as a “manufacture” (Laing 1978, 32).

(6.) This view is supported by Poggioli 1982, 131–47) and Anderson 1984, 105). Poggioli stresses the avant-garde's rhetorical borrowing of terms from scientific discourse (“experimentalism,” “research,” the art “laboratory”); and the use of quasi-technical names for artistic styles (“pointillism,” “cubism,” “vorticism”). “Avant-garde scientificism remains a significant phenomenon even (p.347) when one realizes that a purely allegorical and emblematic use of the expression ‘scientific’ is involved” (Poggioli 1982,139).

(7.) These origins account for the double political and artistic meanings of the term “avant-garde” and the association, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, of artistic “radicalism” with radical politics (Manuel 1956; Shapiro 1976; Poggioli 1982.). Poggioli charts a gradual shift in the French avant-garde over the nineteenth century such that, by the 1890s, avant-garde artists had turned to anarchism and libertarianism, ending their uneasy alliance with socialism. Instead, they identified with Parisian bohemia, calling themselves “decadents”—a term of abuse by socialists. Thus, by the 1890s the two avant-gardes had become divorced, and the secondary, artistic-cultural meaning became primary, retaining powerful connotations of political radicalism (Poggioli 1982, 8–12).

(8.) Discussing the climate of social revolution and the effects of the Russian Revolution on early modernism, Anderson notes cautiously that “the possible revolutionary outcomes of a downfall of the old order were … still profoundly ambiguous” (Anderson 1984, 104–5), so that modernism's political affiliations were labile and unfixed. He pursues this point with regard to the modernist fascination with technology. “It was not obvious where the new devices and inventions were going to lead. Hence the—so to speak—ambidextrous celebration of them from Right and Left alike—Marinetti or Mayakovsky” (ibid., 105), i.e. Italian futurism (which became aligned with Italian fascism) or leftist Soviet constructivism. Thus modernism, like romanticism before it, had no inherent Left bias; indeed it was subject to Left critique, for example from Lukács (Bloch 1980).

(9.) Under both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes modernist art, including serialist music, was banned as decadent. In the Nazi case, modernist music was seen as exemplary of “cultural bolshevism” and of a “dangerous internationalism” (Levi 1990, 172, 175). This censorship, and its identification with totalitarianism and fascism, became the basis of the postwar championing of modernism in the West and of its reading as an expression of progressive rejection of totalitarian domination. This is nowhere better argued than in Greenberg's classic paper “Avant-garde and kitsch” (1985a). The process is analyzed by Guilbaut 1983, who charts the postwar promotion of American abstract expressionism, despite its political neutrality, as embodying a critique of Stalinism (see chap. 3).

(10.) Similarly, Haskell 1983 points to the rise of a new relation between artists and the public in early modernism, based on an unprecedented degree of institutionalized hostility and incomprehension toward a number of innovative painters. This codified a now familiar cycle of public hostility to modern art, followed later by reappraisal and rapprochement—with the art critic as mediator.

Central to the construction of that hostility was artists' self-definition around a double antagonism, toward commerce and the bourgeois market, and toward academicism and the canons of official art (Williams 1988; Anderson 1984; Poggioli 1982; Shapiro 1976). Hence their uncompromising ethos of progress and subversion of the status quo, their embrace of the notion that there is “some specific kind of art that is ‘ahead’ of others, an art that by definition would not run the risk of being contaminated by too early a welcome” (Haskell 1983, 24). (p.348) There was nothing natural about the transition to this view, which was only gradually internalized by artists, as shown, Haskell says, by “looking at the frenzied attempts made by artists on the one hand not to be liked too soon … and on the other to have anticipated the future” (ibid., 25).

(11.) Crow (1983), discussing the influence of mass popular culture, shows how the impressionists and postimpressionists, in their search for taboo subject matter to shock the bourgeoisie, made reference to urban popular culture. Hence the centrality in their work of representations of the “other”: the lives and leisure of the urban working class, the paraphernalia of mass culture. Crow describes a trade-off between this new subject matter and modernist formal experiment. Both were equated, for some painters at some times, with radical political allegiances. But he shows how, eventually, subject matter became subordinate, simply a carrier of formal play, as with cubist collages incorporating the debris of cafe life. Thus, reference to popular culture and its critical meanings gave way to a formalist modernism characterized by self-referential abstraction. Coutts-Smith (1991) argues that a similar process of formal subsumption, in the service of the “elevation of style to an absolute principle” (29), occurred in modernist artists' appropriation of nonwestern art.

(12.) Huyssen writes: “Ever since the mid-19th century, the culture of modernity has been characterized by a volatile relationship between high art and mass culture.… Modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture.… The opposition between modernism and mass culture has remained amazingly resilient over the decades” (Huyssen 1986, vii). Like Burger 1984, Huyssen makes a distinction between modernism and the avant-garde, suggesting that while modernism was founded on a hostility to mass culture, avant-garde movements (and he cites the same ones as Burger) tried to transcend it by effecting a new relationship with mass culture.

(13.) See for example Greenberg (1985a) and Adorno (1978a, 1990).

(14.) Modernism was continuous with nineteenth-century romantic and nationalist discourse in making a split between a denigrated urban “mass” and an idealized, “authentic” rural or “primitive” (nonwestern) people (Bürke 1981). Early and later modernists, like the romantics, have thus found it easier to idealize an exotic “other” than the nearer urban “mass.”

(15.) In Jameson's well-known essay on postmodernism, which is generally quite pessimistic, one significantly optimistic passage hinges on a reference to “the synthesis of classical and ‘popular’ styles found in composers like Phil Glass and Terry Riley, and also in punk and new wave rock” (1984a, 54). In this Jameson asserts that in musical postmodernism, modernism and the popular are finally reconciled. Another common position (e.g. Ulmer 1985) is to cite John Cage, musical forefather of composers such as Glass and Riley, as exemplifying the postmodern synthesis through his reference to nonwestern music and cosmologies (discussed later this chapter).

(16.) I draw on the following main sources for my account of modernism and the avant-garde in music: Schorske 1961, Boulez (1971, 1976, 1986), Adorno 1973, Cott 1974, Rosen 1976, Griffiths (1978, 1979, 1981, 1986), Hamm 1983, Neighbour et al. (1983), Weiss and Taruskin (1984), Franklin 1985, (p.349) Kerman 1985, Glock 1986, Smith Brindle 1987, Whittall 1988, McClary 1989, and Nicholls 1990. On postmodernism and music: many of the above and Cage 1969, Nyman 1974, Mertens 1983, Rockwell 1984, Griffiths 1985, Manning 1985, McClary (1985, 1991), Emmerson 1986, and Goodwin 1991. My discussion of experimental music is particularly indebted to Nyman's detailed and insightful account (Nyman 1974).

(17.) According to this principle, each pitch in the series has equal importance and is dependent upon its position relative to the other eleven notes.

(18.) Adorno advocates the negation in Schoenberg's serialism in these terms. “Advanced music has no recourse but to insist upon its own ossification without concession to that would-be humanitarianism which it sees through … as the mask of inhumanity. Its truth appears guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organized society … than by any capability of positive meaning within itself. Under the present circumstances it is restricted to definitive negation” (Adorno 1973, 20).

(19.) I refer here to the phenomenon of a strict separation between composers' serious, professional musical work and their unserious work or leisure pastimes—a separation that we will see is also characteristic of some IRCAM intellectuals. Thus, Schoenberg is known to have written cabaret music in “other” settings (Stuckenschmidt 1977, 47–60), whereas Babbitt briefly attempted a career in American popular music in the immediate postwar years and wrote an unsuccessful musical comedy. Right after, he joined the Princeton music faculty and became, eventually, the leading figure in American total serialism (Rockwell 1984, 35). At no time, however, is the interest in popular music allowed to affect modernist composers' serious compositional work.

(20.) The rhetorical nature of Varèse's views on the kinship between science and music is conveyed by this quote from a 1936 lecture: “The emotional impulse that moves a composer to write his scores contains the same element of poetry that incites the scientist to his discoveries. There is a solidarity between scientific development and the progress of music” (Middleton 1978, 68).

(21.) All of the dominant developments described may be contrasted to the one significant expression within prewar musical modernism of nonformalist critique: the work of composers Eisler and Weill. Their collaborations with Brecht in Weimar Germany during the late 1920s and 1930s engaged with the social and political functions of culture and were informed by Marxist cultural political debate, including the conflict between Adorno and Brecht over the limits of a purely formal cultural politics. With Brecht, Weill and Eisler advocated reworking the aesthetics of popular music in order to reach and influence the popular audience. As we have seen, although aesthetic borrowing of this kind occurred among other early modernists, it was not linked to a wider cultural politics, while such aesthetic strategies were altogether absent from mainstream mid-century modernism. Their experiments in critical musical populism, and Weill's work in particular, remain an extraordinary example of a politicized modernist intervention in popular music, an intervention so heartfelt that when Weill later arrived in the United States, alone of all modernists he “crossed over” completely and became a composer of the popular song that he had been parodying (Sanders 1980). It was not until the 1960s that any nonformalist cultural politics reemerged (p.350) in the work of some experimental composers, and of a few Europeans. Notably, given the hegemony of serialism, until recently the work of Weill and Eisler remained relatively marginal.

(22.) Nicholls 1990 traces the American experimental music movement back to the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. He argues that profound tensions were already apparent within American composition during the 1920s between the “radicals,” such as Ives, Cowell, and at times Ruggles, Varèse, Slonimsky, and others, and the “acceptable Europeanised modernists” (1990, 2) such as Copland, Piston, Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. These two groupings were quite self-conscious and carried strong ideological overtones. The “radicals” saw themselves in this period as pioneering an American national music: as Cowell put it, a music produced by “men who have studied in America, and who, although often cruder in technique than [those with a French training], are building up a style distinctly rooted in the feelings and traditions of the country” (quoted in Nicholls 1990, 4). At the same time, they were concerned to shed the legacy of European, and particularly French, teachings with which the other group were identified. Thus nationalist rivalry was apparent even in this earlier period among the “radical” American modernists toward European influences.

(23.) According to Cage, “The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence.… Therefore a structure based on durations … is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material), whereas harmonic structure is incorrect (derived from pitch, which has no being in silence)” (quoted in Nyman 1974, 28). Nyman notes that in this Cage was disdaining the “pseudo-logics” and methodological strictures of serialism and advocating a new, radical materialism based on the nature of sound itself, a direction also taken by followers such as Feldman. Cage's disparaging remarks on the primacy of pitch thus represent a direct attack on serialism, derived as it was from a logic of pitch.

(24.) Rather than for music to deliver a perfect experience to the audience, experimental composers called for interactive performance, for audiences to be active and participatory, for fluidity between the roles of composer/performer/ listener. Experimental scores typically set up series of tasks, actions, or games and described performance situations and strategies rather than predetermined sonic outcomes. Performers were expected to bring initiative, audiences would be thrust into the role of performer, and both were enjoined to explore their active subjectivities. Thus, in Cage's infamous piece 4’33” nothing at all happens for the duration of the piece apart from the pianist sitting at the piano, highlighting in this way the minimal and ritual requirements of performance and the audience's role in the production of meaning.

(25.) Greenberg articulates this view as follows: “Because of its ‘absolute’ nature, its remoteness from imitation, its almost complete absorption in the very physical quality of its medium, as well as because of its resources of suggestion, music had come to replace poetry as the paragon art. It was the art which the other avant-garde arts envied most, and whose effects they tried hardest to imitate … the advantage of music lay chiefly in the fact that it was an ‘abstract’ art, an art of ‘pure form’” (Greenberg 1985b, 41).

(26.) This ranged from Rzewski's treatment of the Chilean revolutionary song (p.351) “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” as the basis for a set of complex, quasi-serialist piano variations, to Cardew's founding of a Maoist pop group, called People's Liberation Music, that set didactic lyrics to wooden imitations of current pop. The results were often uncomfortable and cerebral aesthetic compromises.

(27.) The most extreme example was the Maoist Scratch Orchestra started by Cardew in 1969, in which the performer's role was democratized and “demystified” to the extent that anyone motivated to come together, whatever their skills, could play in symphonic works. Concerts took place anywhere: in town halls, pubs, playgrounds, weddings. The Scratch Orchestra constitution cited the “Research Project”—learning through direct experienc—as an obligatory activity for all members, to ensure cultural expansion. For Cardew the orchestra was “the embodiment of certain educational, musical, social and ethical ideals” (Nyman 1974, 113). It became the model for a number of similar groups.

(28.) To clarify, influenced by close encounters with jazz and rock, these composers have tried to cross over into popular music and to market their music commercially. This has been seen as a final postmodern turn away from modernism and toward overcoming the “otherness” of and separation from commercial popular culture. However, this trend has been exaggerated by commentators (e.g. Rockwell 1984; Jameson 1984a). To expand on my point in chapter 1, there remain significant aesthetic and socioeconomic differences between the postmodern and pop. Composers such as Glass and Nyman are not fully or successfully integrated into popular music, nor is that their aim. They want to infiltrate that market while retaining their “serious” status, their high-cultural bases and sources of legitimation. Glass's operas are produced at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at the British English National Opera, Nyman's at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. So this postmodern strategy is more accurately one of diversification based on antagonism to but inclusion within the spheres of legitimate culture.

(29.) Some of the main elements of experimental music practice—improvisation, live group work, the empirical use of small, commercial electronics in performance—were pioneered in the jazz and rock of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, the politics of experimental music are similar to those of the advanced black jazz of the ‘60s. Its musical collectivism, for example, was prefigured by the Chicago black musicians’ cooperative, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which became a model for later progressive, cooperative music organizations. The fact that these influences often remain unacknowledged and subterranean, even within experimental music, signals their status as deriving from an “other” culture and the reluctance of the postmodern sphere of legitimate music to admit its indebtedness to the “other.”

(30.) Cage comments on the state of the avant-garde: “The vitality that characterizes the current European musical scene follows from the activities of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna, Pousseur, Berio, etc. There is in all of this activity an element of tradition, continuity with the past … whether in terms of discourse or organization.… However, this scene will change. The silences of American experimental music and even its technical involvements with chance operations (p.352) are being introduced into new European music. It will not be easy, however, for Europe to give up being Europe. It will, nevertheless, and must: for the world is one world now” (Cage 1969, 74–75).