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Postmodernism in Music by Kenneth Gloag (review)
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One of the essential intellectual questions of postmodernism was voiced in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an American TV series whose original airing more or less exactly overlapped with my student years. In response to a hedged-about prognostication by a comically befuddled English librarian, the title character asks: ‘Gee, can you vague that up for me?’ A scholar tasked with writing an introduction to postmodernism has two choices, either to describe, or better interpret, the phenomenon from an objective position (to make truth claims), which would be anathema to a postmodernist; or to play postmodernism’s game as an insider, ‘vagueing it up’ by forswearing objectivity and proclaiming the equal (in)validity of all voices, all conceptions (to deny the possibility of truth). Fredric Jameson and David Harvey make the former choice, but although he cites them approvingly in the opening chapter, Kenneth Gloag moves between the two positions, gradually fixing on the second, postmodern one.

The Cambridge Introductions to Music, of which this is a volume, are intended to focus ‘on a topic fundamental to the study of music at undergraduate and graduate level’ as well as to ‘appeal to readers who want to broaden their understanding of the music they enjoy’. Gloag is a good choice for a volume on postmodernism, and was jointly responsible, with David Beard, for the useful Musicology: The Key Concepts (London, 2005), which is an essential graduate teaching resource in many university music departments. The popularity of much music that might be considered postmodern, particularly minimalism, means that there is likely to be a good market for such a book, and there is a pleasing irony in its appearance in a series that conceives—I presume naively rather than oppositionally—of ‘fundamental topics’ for musical study.

Gloag’s presentation is admirably clear, and the book is essentially written as a single line of thought, each chapter reaching an argumentative plateau that provides the starting point for the next (which duly looks back, in its opening paragraph, to what came immediately before). Chapters introducing postmodernism as an aesthetic phenomenon emerging in a sketchily defined period (which may or may not have ended) and the influence of postmodern thinking on musicology are followed by chapters that discuss postmodern music either thematically (ch. 3 on anti-modernism and nostalgia; ch. 4 on ‘the challenge of the past’, which is to say postmodernism’s self-consciousness about the past, and its tendency to pastiche; ch. 7 on high–low aesthetic hybridization) or by composer (a chapter each on Rochberg and Zorn, one largely on Gubaidulina, and an envoi tracing generic developments in ‘postmodern jazz’). The book offers more or less throughout a technical discussion of the material musical features of postmodernism, written in a commendably pellucid manner that will not deter readers who lack analytical training, and this unavoidably leads to the presentation of something like a canon of postmodern works, a heuristically useful exposition that I do not find at all problematic in this context. The intended audience will, I think, find this a very useful and interesting book. It is a case for postmodernism in music that is, in its own terms, consummately put, and it should be an essential part of reading lists for courses on postmodernism. That I disagree so profoundly with much of what it contains is no negative judgement on the quality or value of the book. Quite the contrary: there is enough here to sustain a month of argument, which is what one hopes good scholarship should do. And in these terms, the book is an unmitigated success. But it was sent to a reviewer who could be predicted, I guess, to respond from a modernist, which is to say a Marxist, perspective, and I offer what follows in a spirit of appreciative but insistent critique.

The opening theorization of postmodernism, which draws on familiar commentators such as Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and David Harvey, sets up expectations that the book does not follow through. Gloag summarizes with exemplary clarity Lyotard’s view of modernism (‘metanarrative’) and postmodernism (‘micronarrative’), and adds the famous definition that postmodernism evinces an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ to Jameson’s...

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