Music 302: Musical Modernisms and Postmodernisms
(formerly: 20th Century Music)

I. Course introduction

“Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the twentieth century.”
    — Salman Rushdie

“The roar of the traffic, the passage of undifferentiated faces, this way and that way, drugs me into dreams; rubs the features from faces. People might walk through me. And what is this moment of time, this particular day in which I have found myself caught? The growl of traffic might be any uproar - forest trees or the roar of wild beasts. Time has whizzed back an inch or two on its reel; our short progress has been cancelled. I think also that our bodies are in truth naked. We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.”
    — Virginia Woolf, The Waves

“It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed.”
    — Pierre Boulez

The twentieth century saw massive and explosive upheavals in Europe and America. World Wars 1 and 2, globalization, industrialization, urbanization, the New Deal, financialization, neoliberalism, the gradual and partial political enfranchisement of previously marginalized groups, the advent of the computer, climate crisis — society destroyed and reconfigured itself at a rate that was arguably unprecedented in modern history. It’s no surprise that a history of musical activity during this time and place would be similarly fractured: the year 1909 saw the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung, two pieces of what one might call “classical” or "art" music which bear almost no stylistic similarity to one another.

This course looks at the wide expanse of Western musical activity in the 20th century and looks for continuity where there might seem to be none. We will consider inter-connected questions of history, aesthetics, and technique, moving chronologically and taking a composer-oriented rather than stylistic or nationalistic approach. Our historical inquiry will be grounded in the historiographical frameworks of modernism and postmodernism. Technical aspects of music will range from the atonal and serial works of the Second Viennese School, to French spectral music and microtonal music, to American minimalist music.

II. Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Aurally and visually identify major aesthetic trends in 20th and 21st century Western art music: atonality, serialism, spectralism, microtonality, minimalism, indeterminacy, extended instrumental techniques
  • Compose using the techniques described above
  • Speak and write with specificity about the interrelationship between a particular composer’s aesthetic aims; their geographic, cultural, and historical context; their ideologies; their politics

III. Course Materials

There is no book to buy for the course. The bulk of scores and readings will be distributed as a course packet on the second day of class. The material is cumulative so please keep all readings and scores for future reference. You must bring the materials with you to class every day. Recordings, as well as .pdfs of scores and readings, will be hosted on OnCourse. In addition, please bring ample manuscript paper to each class.

IV. Assignments/grading

The bulk of the work in this class will be to do regular reading and listening, and to reflect on that reading and listening in online discussion posts, in-class discussions, worksheets, and through model composition.

IVa. Discussion leading

You will be assigned one reading and one piece of music for which you will be especially “responsible.” You will start class off by drawing our attention to significant aspects of the work you studied. This is not a presentation, it is a discussion: ask questions in addition to relaying information, and bring prompts and rich examples to stimulate conversation.

For an article, aim at least to address the following:
  • What are some of the arguments made in the article? What “evidence” was used to support those arguments?
  • Were there claims that struck you as especially bold? Do you agree with the assertions in the piece?
  • What was hard for you to understand?
  • How does this piece fit in with themes discussed in class (for instance, regarding modernism, postmodernism, the role of tradition, etc.)?

For a piece of music, aim at least to address the following:
  • Did the piece have a form or sections that you could discern? If so, where were they?
  • Did you hear any techniques discussed in class used in the piece?
  • What were three spots in the piece you thought were especially great or notable? What do you think made those spots stand out to you?

I will evaluate you based on an earnest effort to answer the above questions with detail and nuance; and with your ability to engage the rest of the class in some discussion related to your analysis of the article/piece.

Attendance is required. There is no attendance grade but absences will significantly impact your ability to complete work to a satisfactory level. If absent, you must make arrangements with me to review what you missed. Whenever possible, let me know ahead of time if you need to miss class.

List of topics for each 90-minute course meeting (NB: I vary this from year to year based on student needs + instructor interests):

Introduction, Bruckner as Janus
What was / is Modernism?
Debussy / collections
Ravel / octatonicism
Bartok / octatonicism
Schoenberg / atonality and pcsets
Crawford Seeger / atonality and pcsets
Webern / serialism
Lutyens / serialism
Varese, Babbitt / science
Cage / agency
Messiaen / modes of limited transposition
Still / hybridity
What was / is Postmodernism?
Oliveros / Feminism and postmodernism
Minimalism 1 (Reich, Alice Coltrane, Fluxus)
Minimalism 2 (Eastman, James Brown, Belleville Three)
AACM / self-determination
Anthony Braxton / Improvisation
Grisey / spectralism
Saariaho / spectralism
IRCAM / institutions
Helmut Lachenmann, Ash Fure / extended techniques
Halim El Dabh and Pierre Schaeffer / musique concréte
Matana Roberts / musique concréte and narrative
Olly Wilson
Pamela Z / interactivity
Holly Herndon / Music, Artificial Intelligence, Property

Selected readings:

Johnson - Out Of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity
Forkert - Magical serialism - modernist enchantment in Lutyens
Piekut - Cage and Modernism
Hisama - Gendering Musical Modernism
Oja - New Music and the ‘New Negro’:  William Grant Still’s AfroAmerican Symphony 
Paddison - Postmodernism and the survival of the avant-garde
Gilliam - The annexation of Anton Bruckner: Nazi revisionism and the politics of appropriation
Born - Rationalizing Culture
Steinbeck - Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM
Lewis - A Power Stronger than Itself
Cohen - Sounds of the Cold War Acropolis: Halim El-Dabh at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
Mockus - Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality
Shreffler - Varese and the Technological Sublime
Schoenberg - Composition with 12 Tones
Babbitt - The composer as specialist
McClary - Terminal Prestige
McClary - The Lure of the Sublime
Brody - Babbitt’s cold war music theory
Saariaho - Timbre and Harmony Interpolations of Timbral Structures
Lewis - Virtual discourses of Pamela Z
Lewis - Improvisation since 1950