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  • The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology
  • Jonathan Hiam
The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology. Edited by Arved Ashby. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004. [viii, 404 p. ISBN 1-58046-143-3. $75.] Music examples, illustrations, index.

This collection of fifteen essays aims to "develop postmodern approaches to modernist music" (p. 2) as a means by which to reengage a repertory that throughout its history has been anathema to much of the musical public and at times, even the specialist. Centralto this task is the conscientious rejection by the collection's authors of those tenants of modernist discourse that served to oppress, willfully or otherwise, individualized modes of listening. In so doing, the volume creates a space within the highly polarized debates of the last century into which today's listener might experience pleasure and even discover musical meaning.

In dealing with the "difficult" works of the last century The Pleasure of Modernist Music necessarily restricts itself to the discussion of works generally considered "elitist and unapproachable" (p. 1). The composers whose works, musical and prose, are most heavily represented across these essays include Boulez, Schoenberg, Webern, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Babbitt. George Rochberg also receives a fair amount of ink given his public "anti-modernist" writings that, for the purposes of this book, serve to articulate some of the aesthetic conflicts inherent in a century dominated by the interrelated musical imperatives of structure, process, and autonomy.

Over the course of the book's five parts, "Reception and Politics," "Metaphors for Modernism," "Writing and Listening," "Case Study," and "Belated Modernism," an emphasis on listening takes on a cumulative weight, and indeed becomes the collection's most important contribution. The [End Page 973] authors each offer different ways of liberating the listener from a post-war project that demanded of them an attention to pitch structure, a project that denied the listener his or her need to create musical meaning relative to his or her own environment. This is a necessary endeavor, if not already too late, given the growing availability of this music to an ever-widening global audience. It stands to reason that people are going to listen to modernist music in ways that its composers could not have imagined, let alone intended.

Under such a light, Arved Ashby engages the very issue of intention in his first essay, "Intention and Meaning in Modern Music." In addition to tracing the pertinent historiography of the intentional fallacy, as well as other "death of the author" constructs, Ashby's discussion offers a fascinating look at the involvement of the composer in the dissemination and reception of his own ideologies, as opposed to musical works, particularly through the print media. He points out that, at least during the formative years of musical modernism, people were more likely to read about a new musical work than to hear it, given the wider availability of newspapers and journals than radio broadcasts or recordings. The result was that "many early modernist compositions became trapped in their composer's ideologies" (p. 42), and consequently, the authority of intention seems to have lingered longer in the musical realm than in that of art or literature, although there were important voices of "anti-intentionalism" during the early formation of the modernist canon.

One such voice was that of Theodor Adorno, who understood modernist music as an effective means of political and aesthetic resistance, thereby serving the needs of society over those of the composer. His ideas greatly inform Martin Scherzinger's essay, "In Memory of a Receding Dialectic: The Political Relevance of Autonomy and Formalism in Modern Musical Aesthetics." Scherzinger nimbly elucidates the aesthetic philosophies of Adorno, Benjamin, and Brecht, which posited aesthetic autonomy as necessarily antagonistic, and which sought to distance itself from the everyday, and therefore position itself as an agent of social change. This view is compelling, and by extension raises some important questions about the political implications of postmodern music. If indeed, as many would argue, postmodern art forms are largely a product of a present culture totally saturated by capitalism, we need to consider by what means today's art can...


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