- Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 by Tim Rutherford-Johnson
It seems of late that many contemporary music scholars have decided that they're going to party (or periodize) like it's 1989. The year has gained a level of musical and cultural significance of mythic proportions in several high-profile publications, including Seth Brodsky's From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious (2017), Joshua Clover's 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About (2009), and now Tim Rutherford-Johnson's Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989. For a year that has been described as the end of history, it has instead been the start of much more. Brodsky largely focuses on art music, and 1989 brought an unexpected confluence of events that, from a Lacanian perspective, guaranteed the survival of modernism. Clover, on the other end of the spectrum, uses popular music to trace the dialectical nature of history and the exponential expansion of musical subcultures. Arguably, 1989 was the most generative for Rutherford-Johnson: '1989 was the tipping point for the forces that shaped much of the economics, politics, and, one might say, psychology of our modern world' (p. 7).
Music after the Fall marks the first book-length survey of compositions and world events in recent history. Rutherford-Johnson occupies a middle ground between Brodsky and Clover, drawing upon both art and popular music with an inviting, journalistic ease. A dizzying number of pieces, composers, and world events fly from page to page with a terseness and breadth that would have made Donald J. Grout's publishers proud. The text could easily have been twice as long, and every page provides a wealth of information on innovative figures in new music. However, it is in this excess of fascinating stylistically and structurally overlapping artefacts that Rutherford-Johnson both thrives and suffers his own fall.
To his credit, Rutherford-Johnson boldly eschews the tendency to impose -isms. Neoliberalism, postmodernism, and other buzzwords maintain a haunting presence, but he generally makes good on his ethical promise to avoid the categorizing impulse. Rather than structure parts of the text around one particular organizing force (school of thought, composer-formed collectives, or journalistic terms like Indie Classical or 'spiritual minimalism', which receives an extensive treatment in the second chapter), he constructs many vast, overlapping networks. This practice 'better reflects the reality of how musicians actually operate', he writes: 'They talk to one another, they have respect for each other's work, they attend each other's concerts. . . .A history that can reflect such friendships and conversations will better capture the reality of the contemporary music ecosystem than one that is organized by artificially determined technical correspondences' (p. 20). As such, he makes a noteworthy attempt to 'show the full spectrum' of contemporary composition by including the perspectives of performers, composers, promoters, publishers, record executives, and listeners (p. 23).
In place of problematic taxonomical efforts, Rutherford-Johnson proposes that we examine the ways in which social liberalization, globalization, digitization, the Internet, late capitalist economics, and the green movement are the six primary developments of the past twenty-five years that might be said to have enabled the aesthetic departure from post-1945 Milton Babbitt-style musical modernism. secondary themes include mediation and the marketplace, boundary regressions, fluidity, mobility, superabundance, [End Page 753] and trauma, each of which generally corresponds to a chapter. At times, the expansive reach of these networks gets muddled, and Rutherford-Johnson seems to lose track of the nucleus to which these branches were connected in the first place. For example, the second chapter traces the record sales of spiritual minimalist music by Górecki and Pärt, glosses over Bang on a Can's entrepreneurial, non-classical aesthetic, and lands on the decentred network of the Wandelweiser group. The connection between these three vignettes is unclear: to reiterate a question already asked by Rutherford-Johnson, how do these musicians interact with...