Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989

Oakland: University of California Press

In the introduction to Music after the Fall, Tim Rutherford-Johnson acknowledges the arbitrariness of delineating historical boundaries. It is, he writes, difficult to discuss the collective recent developments in music in a historically cogent way. In order to limit the survey, Rutherford-Johnson quite reasonably suggests, a line must be drawn, a beginning found. Biographers are advantaged by the mortal limitations of their subjects. They work outward to find the frontiers of biographical inquiry. Historical analysis works inward, exploring the cultural topography of a bounded period of time. Where biography venerates depth, historicism tends naturally toward breadth.

Cover of Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer Books, 1974.
Cover of Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer Books, 1974.

We are not short of books on contemporary music and sound art. Unfortunately, substantial monographs on the work of living artists remain a rarity, conferred parsimoniously upon the anointed few. The absence of concentrated studies impedes substantive knowledge of the most compelling current music. In place of focused inquiry, historical accounts rush to force the entirety of contemporary sonic arts into a thematically sound digest of collective creative practices. The thematic undergirding varies, but the overarching goal of inclusivity remains. In order to undertake a decent musical survey, the author is compelled to identify a theme of best fit. Given the many and varied practices that characterise contemporary music, this is no easy task. A line must be drawn. As in the case of Rutherford-Johnson’s book, such lightfooted adaptability can lead to tendentious links being forced on disparate practices, all in the service of a thematic through-line that can only fail to live up to its purpose.

Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony no.2: True and Eternal Bliss, for voice and small orchestra (1979). Manuscript page. Image © ustvolskaya.org
Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony no.2: True and Eternal Bliss, for voice and small orchestra (1979). Manuscript page. Image © ustvolskaya.org

Historical surveys tend to depart from a geographical, philosophical or chronological premise, of which the Music Since… strain is the most straightforward example of chronology. The Music Since… model is, at first blush, least open to running afoul of its own limitations and could not be any clearer in its intentions. Arnold Whittall’s Music since the First World War, Paul Griffith’s Modern Music: The avant garde since 1945 and Jennie Gottschalk’s recent experimental music since 1970 are all valuable surveys of important music made by important composers.

Whittall and Griffiths identify seismic sociopolitical events as coincident with the beginnings of musical modernism and the avant-garde. Gottschalk suggests 1970 as a useful start date for the straightforward reason that it is the point at which Michael Nyman’s still influential book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond left off. Her book is a sequel of sorts to Nyman’s seminal text. Unlike Gottschalk’s eminently practical choice of 1970 as the start line for her survey of Experimental Music, Rutherford- Johnson attaches great expository import to 1989. The book is worse for it. His choice betrays a psychic need to identify the singular instant from which current intellectual trends originated. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that singular events, real or imagined, enable us to procure the heroes, icons, relics and sacred places that good storytelling demands. Processes such as those that characterise artistic development are more accurately described as fuzzy continua that devolve evolutionary responsibility to a nebulous collection of loosely affiliated occurrences.

The sanctified moments of the Western canon, codified by historicist narratives, feed the psychic need for a good creation myth. We are drawn to the historical big bang event whose aftershock continues to resonate. It links the present to the past, providing reassuring continuity, and direction. A line must be drawn. When chroniclers of twenty-first century culture cast about for a suitable origin story, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a seductive signifier. Rutherford-Johnson is so in thrall to the partitional logic of Soviet collapse that it obstructs what could otherwise have been an enlightening tour of the experimental margins of music. The book begins with an exploration of a single work by each of a diverse set of five composers: minimalist pioneer Steve Reich; sound ecologist and radio artist Hildegard Westerkamp; Chinese bi-cultural modern classicist Bright Sheng; trenchant Russian iconoclast Galina Ustvolskaya; and Japanese noise artist Merzbow. He contends that trauma is imprinted upon the work of these signature artists and demonstrates how each piece of music in turn betrays its traumatic conditioning – all except for that of Merzbow, whose work is determinedly non-programmatic. In spite of Merzbow’s explicit renunciation of links between his work and real world events, the author speculatively asserts that the harshness of Merzbow’s recordings ‘imitate trauma’ and that ‘this shared ground may suggest a connecting force.’ Here, and throughout, the reader can’t help but feel that the author is stretching his thesis a little thin to fit the material. Yet his deeper point, that trauma is a condition of groups that have historically been marginalised by mainstream culture, whether as a consequence of gender or racial discrimination or economic inequality, is salient. Though still insufficient, there is, thankfully, increased opportunity for these voices to be heard.

This is one of a number of broad observations that suggest interesting avenues of exploration. Unfortunately, time and again, Rutherford-Johnson contorts the narrative to demonstrate that neoliberalist market forces direct the creative impulse of composers. He equates the understated, tonal eccentricity of Laurence Crane’s music ‘to a pole of maximal accessibility and therefore acquiescence to the desires of the listener and of the market.’ Though Crane bases his music on basic, even ordinary harmonies, the original contexts in which he places them make the ordinary extraordinary. The clarity and conviction of his music demonstrate a singular, and brave, compositional voice. It is not easy or acquiescent in the least.

Elsewhere the author asserts that the common theme, underlying the transformational stream of variations in Enno Poppe’s Thema mit 840 Variatonen and the unfolding loops in the music of Carl Stone, is that of a relation ‘to the identity, freedom and movement of the unencumbered individual, a story belonging to the decades after the Cold War rather than during it.’ It is true that economic patronage and authoritarian diktat have historically had a significant say in music and in art more broadly, but does the starting condition of unencumbered individuality not characterise any amount of art-works, whether originating before, during, or after the Cold War? The question of globalisation is certainly a pertinent one, but the author strikes the wrong note here also. He says that ‘[g]lobalisation today is almost synonymous with the Internet,’ a remarkable assertion in light of the present questioning on both the left and right of many of its doctrines, a direct result of the real-world effects of trade and migration.

Throughout the book Rutherford-Johnson downplays the influence of composers whose work precedes 1989. Ironically, the author’s wilful negation of the past is more evocative of the historical tenets of modernism than the trends he documents. As discussed, these lines are both arbitrary and necessary if we are to avoid absurd degrees of abstraction. However, the whole premise of Rutherford-Johnson’s book is explicitly tied to the musicohistorical significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately the book is at its most problematic when trying to substantiate its geo-political claims and their effects on music.

When not accounting for its locus of origin, the book has many instructive observations of current practices. In her text The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1994), the musicologist Lydia Goehr observed that musical works ‘are treated as ready-made or as belonging to the past, rather than as existing in the process of their being crafted or constructed.’ Rutherford-Johnson’s book illuminates the ways in which composers are now explicitly examining the creative process, playfully pulling at the processual thread to see what artistic opportunities might be revealed. The author identifies a number of dominant themes that have grown from this interest in process and translation. He lists them as Transmediation, Transcription, Transformation and Wandering. Each of these categories of activity emphasises a desire to conceive of music as an open, dynamic continuum, a journey which is in ongoing dialogue with the modifying feedback of lived experience. Translation is at the historical core of the musical process (notation undergoes translation by a performer into sound). The author shows that digital technology affords users new and efficient tools by which to effect this process while at the same time bringing the act itself into renewed focus. It is in his discussion of this ‘ontological dissonance’ between object and process, and the creative impetus that many contemporary composers have derived from it, that Rutherford- Johnson’s book is at its most compelling.

The author develops the overarching theme of translation with accounts of disparate pieces such as Peter Ablinger’s Piano and Record (2012), Jennifer Walshe’s examination of transmediation THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS/AND JUMP FROM THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE (2004) and Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000). Each of the composers discussed playfully explores the creative journey, in their work, from inception to realisation.This journey endures from the initial seed idea through to the performance, the recording, retrospective editing, score revision or any other action associated with the work. The embodied presence of the performer or composer underpins all of these compositional states. It is the central structure upon which the music is founded and which gives it meaning. The genes of this self-reflexive sonic exploration of process can be traced back before the fall of the Berlin Wall to works like visual artist Robert Morris’s Box with the sound of its Own Making (1961), and pieces by John Cage such as 0’0’’ (1962), Et Cetera (1973) and Et Cetera 2/4 Orchestras (1985).

It is notable that the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe does not limit herself in her work to interrogating the creative act. Her interventionist impetus extends to a mischievous re-write of the historical narrative. In 2014, Walshe launched the Aisteach Foundation, a fictional history of the Irish avant-garde which she, and a number of co-conspirators, documented in a book, website and hours of recordings, available through the website www.aisteach.org. The foundation is, in the words of the composer, ‘a revisionist exercise in “what if?”’. Walshe’s project is perhaps the inevitable rhetorical climax of the creative myth-making used to craft and sustain the type of good origin story that Rutherford-Johnson’s book aspires to provide.

Rutherford-Johnson’s book is certainly a useful overview of current practice and no doubt a helpful first introduction for many readers too. However, though promising much, its failure to convincingly substantiate its overarching theme leads to as much frustration as enlightenment. A line must be drawn.

Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 was published by University of California Press in 2017. It is available in a number of formats, including paperback (ISBN 9780520283152), which costs €28.50.