A note on modernism and style

It is convenient to see musical modernism as a style, one that might be held beside the Baroque or Classicism. Its tell-tail signifiers give us bearings by which we might orient ourselves interpretively. They also allow us to categorise it as a movement or a concept and, indeed, to make it safe – to neutralise what Adorno and others identify as its “critical” qualities –  in so doing making this style something more-easily commodifiable alongside the Baroque or Classicism.

Modernism of course has outward hallmarks. But it is more than the sum total of these. Modernism encompasses acts of self-reflexion and sensitivity to the medium of one’s art, including style. To put this dialectically, this is to say that modernism is stylistic whilst finding style to be insufficient.

This insufficiency reveals itself, perhaps most prominently, in what many have called modernist works’ always “unreadable” remainder.  It would be trite to merely pass off this quality as itself a stylistic signifier of modernism; this isn’t just a word or symbol like any other but rather a destabilising influence on the unproblematic functioning of words, symbols, and conventionalised (conventionalising) practices. To reduce modernism’s self-reflexive attitude to merely one of its “signifiers” is to cover over ontological and experiential effectiveness (affectiveness) of this attitude – that is, its capacity to bring about changes in how we make sense of, interpret, and experience the world and our places in it.

Some modernists were themselves aware of the ossification of “New Music”, its becoming a determined self-identity as a set of signifiers. György Ligeti, for instance, when invited to talk at a 1965 congress on “form” in Darmstadt, took this opportunity to warn against the reification of New Music as a set of outward appearances. He noted that, throughout twentieth-century musical development, an ‘arsenal of types came together in due course, such as: aperiodic jumps to and fro in wide intervals, followed by sudden inertia and then a resumption of the jumping movements; unbroken, fixed layers of sound usually built up like clusters…[etc.]’.[1] At the same time, he also warned against the over-reliance on compositional systems that gave rise to similar sonic results: ‘Instead of the coherence-establishing systems themselves [i.e., traditional tonal schema], it is the same types [of sounds] resulting from different such systems that become the established thing.’[2] He practiced what he preached, at this time exploring new directions that broke from many “conventionalised” modernist sounds in works like Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962-65).

In bringing up this question of modernism and style, I’m not thinking about reasserting an early-twentieth-century modernist mind-set of “modernism as vangardism”/”modernists as the vanguard”, as an always necessarily pushing of the sonic or aesthetic envelope. We’re past New = Modern: consider much late-twentieth century modernist music – I’m thinking here of the music of Ligeti’s late period (e.g. the Horn Trio), of Wolfgang Rihm (the Third String Quartet), Helmut Lachenmann (Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied), and others – that seeks to explore ways in  which the past plays a role in the present (of course, this concern isn’t limited to music of this period).

Style – and the reproduction and consumption of style – is a central aspect of our contemporary period, what Fredric Jameson calls late capitalism. Thus, I want to end by reflecting on, if only briefly, what the modernist style’s dialectical insufficiency means now. Reducing modernism – and indeed many other forms of music – to one style among many is no-doubt a convenient practice in a capitalistic culture that values commensurability, exchangeability. This is not to grossly write off semiotic modes of analysis as inherently capitalist.

Rather, in the spirit of self-reflexion, in saying this I hope to point toward a critical mind-set: one that considers why music is viewed stylistically and what happens when one takes outward appearances as modes of identification and interpretation. This is to consider the values implicit in practising different kinds of thinking and methodological actions. It is to attempt to resist the reinscription of dominant discourses – discourses capitulating with dominant ideological frameworks – in our thinking about modernist music; to resist, in the manner practised in modernism’s own dialectical self-problematisation of style, what has famously been called the cultural logic of late capitalism.[3]


[1] György Ligeti, “Form in der Neuen Musik”, trans. as “Form”, in Ruth Katz and Carl Dahlhaus (eds.), Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music, vol. III (New Yrok, 1992), 790.

[2] Ligeti, 790.

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