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  • Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
  • Martin Iddon
Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. By David Metzer. (Music in the Twentieth Century.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. [x, 254 p. ISBN 9780521517799. $90.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Metzer's study sets out to demonstrate, above all else, the "obstinacy of modernism" (p. 1). Indeed, his introduction argues that, far from the decaying corpse it might have seemed likely to become in a world after the much vaunted "end of history," musical modernism remains vital, while musical postmodernism has fallen by the wayside, a victim perhaps of its own prophecies of pluralism. Metzer broadly falls into line, in this context, with the theorizations of a "second modernity," as promoted by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, or of a sort of neo-modernism, as theorised by Alastair Williams, beginning around 1980. Metzer's approach is twofold. The first strand of his enquiry, which dominates the volume structurally, examines four of what Metzer terms "compositional states"; the second considers the ways in which late modernist music approaches expression and, indeed, expressivity. Four of his five chapters are principally devoted to compositional states, examining purity, silence, fragments, and "sonic flux," with one, on the lament, taking expression as its central theme, though it should go without saying that expression is hardly ignored in those chapters concerned with "states." [End Page 317]

In the first two case studies, on purity and silence, examples of undeniably modernist musics—Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge and Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra—are contrasted with pieces from the post-1980 era. The use of boys' voices, the harmonic spectrum of bells, and sine tones in Stockhausen's piece and in Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos plango, vivos voco, also for tape, show, for Metzer, strong kinships in terms of an ideal of purity, as expressed through evocations of childhood and the sacred. Silence is less bluntly conceived since, where purity was conceived through a set of relatively similar musical signifiers, here musical timbres and textures evoking stillness are shown to represent different things. Truly, what Metzer describes as silence might perhaps better be termed stillness, since his discussion is of "the brief phrases, very soft dynamics, and fleeting timbres, all of which place the listener at the border realm between music and silence" (p. 68). In the Webern, this borderland is a landscape of nature; fragmentary instrumental utterances intensify the experiences of that silence. Similarly, Nono's string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, emphasizes a still interiority, exemplified by the fragments of Hölderlin in the score (to be recited silently by the performers as they play) and the marking mit innigster Empfindung, borrowed from Beethoven. In Sciarrino's Infinito nero (in what is probably the finest exegesis of the volume), Metzer shows how similar textures act as a sort of screen, from behind which expressionist gestures reminiscent of Pierrot lunaire are muffled and stifled.

No such literal forebears are presented in Metzer's description of fragments, which, in combination, form not a whole, but a state termed by Metzer "the fragmentary." Again, Nono's Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima is a touchstone and, again, a small musical event is construed as highlighting the possibility of something beyond its own bounds. In this case, Metzer follows Nono's suggestion that the fragments of his quartet were explicitly not aphoristic in proposing that fragments need not be self-enclosed statements, but rather can propose to the listener a window onto potentially infinite meanings. Nono's quartet is juxtaposed against Kurtág's Kafka Fragments, a set of forty movements, ranging from the extremely brief ("around twelve seconds") to the relatively substantial ("approaching seven minutes," p. 124). These fragments, so Metzer suggests, mix the self-contained aphorism with the open, emotional outburst. This balance between two states is hardly what unifies the Kafka Fragments, but it is what sustains them: they share their undecidablity in the broader world of the fragmentary. The fragmentary, then, is "a state in which pieces are suspended" (p. 137).

If Metzer's chapter on the lament has a model, it is one which remains only imagined: the...


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