What does it mean that we perform, study, and teach music in a "post-modernist" period?

The term itself might be conceived in either of two ways:

(1) If we hyphenate the word as "post-modernism," it signifies, relatively straight-forwardly, that a "modernist" view of the world is passé. The term suggests that modernist values—rejection of tradition and striving toward a hopeful future for its own sake—now seem, oxymoronically, old-fashioned. Western culture since the fifteenth century has been generally modernist-presuming that culture, and with it music, moved directly forward through history. The designation "Post-modernism" indicates that twentieth-century Modernism, with all the modernism leading up to it, belongs to our past and that today we can no longer justify naively modernist presumptions.

We must recognize that, rather than progressing in a straight line, our musical life has branched out in multiple directions, grown "bushy," including music by neglected composers of the past (especially women), popular musics, world musics, and new musics generated by the encounters of these with each other and with "classical" music.

Post-modern pluralism in our musical environment means that we and our students must learn to hear and to perform diverse styles and repertoires, not just add new music to the canonic tradition in a blindered pursuit of "classical" culture.

(2) If we hyphenate the term as "postmodern-ism," we refer to a more philosophical aspiration toward new values. This aspiration has produced the present striving for different directions, a purposeful diversitarianism in thought.

Postmodern-ism in music scholarship has meant diverse new approaches, including feminist, gay/lesbian, neo-Marxist, deconstructionist, and others. There is no uniform way of understanding music and its meaning; indeed, we have become increasingly aware that music becomes meaningful in different ways in different frameworks. Scholarship has grown as "bushy" as practical musical life.

In college and university music departments, therefore, we and our students must deal with postmodern situations and postmodernist thinking. We have to learn and teach for a postmodernist period.

We cannot, however, simply go on learning and teaching less and less about more and more. The solution cannot be to dilute our efforts so that musicians play more things less well and so that listeners feel comfortable with more musics but hear them only superficially.

It is increasingly important that we give attention to approaches that will support effective learning and teaching in our postmodernist, pluralist musical world. This does not mean that we simply have to go off in all directions, but rather that we must find ways to prepare ourselves and our students to deal with diversity itself. We can start to do this if we:

Ground our studies of music and of performance on wide-ranging issues. The broader our view of music itself, the more easily we will with Robert Freeman's regret, voiced in his article in the September CMS Newsletter, at the loss of Latin from school curricula. Studying Latin led to an understanding of grammatical issues in language itself that one does not get from the empirical learning of one's native language and without which it is hopeless to try to branch out into new ones).

Make the experience of learning itself the first and ultimate goal. Particular music, techniques, or facts that are learned will differ in value with different times and situations. The joy of learning and an understanding of how musicians learn will be valuable in any circumstances.

Increase experience with diverse musics and musical approaches. Although it is impossible to spread ourselves across all the diversity that beckons us, we can learn to be comfortable with the idea of difference by getting over the strangeness barrier itself.

When we work with our "classical" repertoire—hearing, playing, learning, or teaching—open our perspectives as wide as possible. A first step is to force ourselves past the unquestioning belief that the works in the Western musical canon are inherently great. If we and our students ask "Why is this music great?," answering that question will lead us to useful insights.

Again in regard to the "classical" repertoire, take heart from the postmodernist idea that old music can be welcomed into present musical life. The early music movement (since the early nineteenth century) has always been postmodernist in this sense. If our college and university music departments are merely trying to preserve the "great works" in academic formaldehyde, the canon and our music departments are surely doomed. We in our colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to contribute the music of the "classical" Western tradition to the diverse, postmodern musical scene, and this will bring to life the music, our institutions, and our communities.

1916 Last modified on November 19, 2013
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