Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors

The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

Talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

Written By

Robert Fink

“[eighth blackbird] were really cool, really nice. They really made me feel like an equal, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not an equal.”
—Composer Jeremy Sment, ca. 2007, as quoted in John Pippen, “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2014)

So, enough about how not to do the musicology of the present—on to those new paths I promised when I began this series. In today’s post and next week’s, I will present for your approval highlights from two recent musicological studies that, in my opinion, break methodological ground on their way to some mind-opening hypotheses about the structure of the contemporary art-music world. As we’ll see, each marshals an unusual array of evidence toward a new, counterintuitive conceptual parsing of today’s musical culture. In both cases, the framework can be boiled down to a single oxymoronic phrase that encapsulates the power of a fresh musicological idea to shake up long-held positions within the world of those who care about new music.
Disclaimer: These two vignettes are not the result of a systematic search through the newest literature, nor do they anoint one-of-a-kind musicological geniuses. (I don’t work for John D. and Catherine T.) These are two excellent young scholars doing interesting work of a kind being nurtured at many top institutions of higher musicological learning. But not my own institution—I thought it would be poor form to single out my own advisees or blow my own departmental horn. (Sorry, y’all at UCLA. Here’s an inside joke to make you feel special.)

The Ol’ Pomo Ro-Sham-Bo
Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors
To readers familiar with contemporary battles over contemporary aesthetics, the phrase “postmodern avant-garde” may sound odd, like a bad opening move in the extended game of rock-paper-scissors that often seems to monopolize trapped new music players: avant-garde smashes modern; modern cuts postmodern; postmodern covers modern; repeat until exhausted. This three-handed game is quite complex: postmodernism can be understood as both a negation and an extension of modernism; as either a (historicist, eclectic) reaction to the asperity and self-reflexivity of modernist aesthetics, or an even more radical resistance (by anti-art gesture) to entrenched aesthetic hierarchy and traditionalism. But the postmodern thereby re-enacts the historical revolt of the early 20th-century avant-garde, which deliberately shredded the pretensions of both traditionalism and modernism. And yet…that “avant-garde,” as its name reminds us, is also an affirmative desire, to be part of a (small) vanguard at the forefront of culture—the same desire that postmodernism, defining its essential position as belatedness, denies as a dangerous utopian fantasy. Ro-sham-bo.

In this context, talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

You Had to Be There

“Postmodern avant-garde” is the coinage of musicologist John Pippen, whose freshly minted doctoral dissertation is built around a detailed cultural ethnography of the new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Pippen has done what any musicologist must do if he or she wants to escape from the endless ro-sham-bo of modern vs. postmodern: he has gone out and done actual research on the world of the people and institutions trying to survive playing new music. The originality of his work inheres in its detailed look at a single new music presenter as the group attempts to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of commissioning, performing, and promoting new music inside a small musical world still dominated by the canonical “classics” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pippen has read concert reviews and their marketing materials; he has also interviewed the members of eighth blackbird, worked for them, attended concerts and rehearsals, talked to composers from whom they have commissioned, and even handed out questionnaires at a large public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His description of eighth blackbird’s world is thus “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense) than most; it allows him to grasp some of the most deeply rooted contradictions in contemporary musical life.

Pippen is not interested in asserting a causal relation between the modern, the postmodern, and the avant-garde, nor is he trying to fit these stances into an old-fashioned evolutionary narrative of works and styles:

Though I am not advocating for a complete abandonment of structuralist views, I do believe there is more to music than an accounting of the sonic qualities of works and their historical origins. Rather than simply summarize a series of aesthetic trends observable in new musical works, therefore, I have attempted to approach music as both object and practice.

As would any careful ethnologist, Pippen accepts that his informants are trying their best to find a “correct” mode of practice while harmonizing the conflicting imperatives inherent in their personal preferences and cultural position (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has famously called the habitus). In this case, eighth blackbird’s “struggle” (explicitly named as such by one of its members in conversation with Pippen) is to balance the tensions between a performing ethos and a concert world still dominated by modernist ideas (virtuosity, the work, progress, structural listening) and the reality of a post-industrial knowledge economy dominated by superficiality, image making, emotional work, commodification, and branding.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sextet

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
Photo by Luke Ratray

The tensions and contradictions are real. Pippen has been witness to some goofy interactions, as when the ensemble uses social media to create an illusion of nerdy intimacy with their followers:

One day in 2011 Tim Munro, the member generally in charge of the group’s publicity, shot video of Yvonne Lam and Nick Photinos as they worked out the bowing for a particular phrase, and posted the video on Twitter with the caption, “First bowing conversation of the season!”

This kind of promotionalism, in which eighth blackbird—a set of uncompromising new music virtuosos whose very name references one of the canonical moments of mid-century modernism—presents itself as “your friendly neighborhood sextet working hard—but always happily—as they get ready for their next sensational show,” might well be a turn-off for musical intellectuals. Pippen is not entirely taken with it either. He’s the one who recorded the self-deprecating comment from composer Jeremy Sment at the top of the page, evidence that just being “cool” and “friendly” does not erase hierarchies of power within the field of cultural production. I myself would add that presenting the hard, repetitive work of mastering difficult music as a kind of “fun” also fits into a neoliberal pattern where cultural workers exploit themselves under the sign of “doing what you love.”

The Struggle is Real

Crucially, Pippen is not particularly worried about whether the musical works eighth blackbird performs are themselves aesthetically progressive or reactionary; he sees the forces acting on the group as more eclectic than that, as “a particular mixture of modernist aesthetic goals, postmodern desires for accessibility, and fundamental concerns about the financial realities of the new music field.” This last concern is not one usually encountered in narratives of style history. In fact, this isn’t really a story about style at all; although Pippen uses the more compact term “postmodern avant-garde,” what he has uncovered is the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity.
A music historian of the old school would use the actions of eighth blackbird (and reactions to them) to determine whether there is a future for new music, and, if so, what part of the musical past such a future might most resemble. If that turns you on, go for it. The game of rock-paper-scissors is never ending. But the musicology of the present, under whose flag I have taken the liberty of enlisting John Pippen (if you disagree, please blame my reading, not his work), is less interested in declaring winners and losers in the game of history, and more sympathetic to the dynamics on the field of play at a given moment. Pippen’s summary take on eighth blackbird’s postmodern brand of avant-gardism seems, to me, very humane:

Here we find not the “anything goes” attitude described by [critics of postmodernism]. Rather, we find an acknowledgement of failure, a recognition of controversy and, in spite of all this, an ongoing commitment to the presentation of “difficult” music. This is not abject relativism. This is struggle.

Right on, brother. In my final post, I’ll feature another fascinating oxymoron taken from a recent study of the way university culture has figured in the development of late 20th-century musical taste. What would it mean to conceptualize an “elite popular music”? And would that concept help us navigate the dangerous passage between high and low musics in a post-hierarchical, omnivorous era of cultural consumption?