Journal of the Royal Musical Association Round Table: ‘Modernism and its Others’

We’re delighted to launch a new feature in collaboration with the Journal of the Royal Musical Association: a discussion board in response to the journal’s recently published round table, ‘Modernism and its Others’, to which as RMA members you have free access. We invite you to read the article and share your responses via the comments section at the bottom of the page. If you know anyone else who is interested in the topic, then please encourage them to take part in the discussion!

Editor of the JRMA, Laura Tunbridge, explains more below:

Welcome to the discussion board attached to the Journal of the Royal Musical Association round table, ‘Modernism and its Others’. This is the first time the Journal has linked up with the RMA Student Blog, and many thanks to the student representatives, Emily Payne and Peter Atkinson, and to the Journal’s publishers, Taylor and Francis, for making this possible.

The contributors to the round table—Gianmario Borio, Peter Franklin, Christopher Chowrimootoo, Arman Schwartz, Alastair Williams, and Christopher Ballantine—have all offered brief accounts of or responses to the idea of modernism in relation to their research and methodological approaches. My aim as editor was to try to solicit a wide range of views (before someone else points out their absence, some female academics were invited but for various reasons couldn’t take it on). Hopefully the round table will stimulate some discussion and debate on the Blog. You might take issue with some of the authors’ claims, or put forward alternative perspectives on how to define, critique, or problematize modernism. To what extent is modernism, as a concept or practice, relevant to your own research?

I’d welcome any feedback about whether you think this kind of link up between JRMA and the Blog is a good idea, other topics for round tables, or further ways in which we might work together.

Laura Tunbridge

Editor, Journal of the Royal Musical Association


  1. I believe it was Karl Popper who observed that there is no true history of mankind, there are only various historians defining the narrative. This profound realization should set many minds at ease over the historiographical issues inherent in discourses concerning modernism in the twentieth century. There will always be a shadow filtering the narrative we digest, it is the unfortunate product of our inability to travel through time and experience an event with our own two eyes.

    In regards to Ballantine’s opening query, I would suggest that, as evidenced by the myriad discourses produced by this very roundtable discussion, modernism is by its very nature a rather fluid and durable concept, open to redefinitions into other contexts. I also think it is quite perceptive that Mr. Ballantine frames modernity’s attitude to its own history as reckless and even destructive. Picasso seemed to echo this exact sentiment when describing artistic creation as an act of destruction. Musically, this notion reached an almost feverish pitch after World War II. The young Pierre Boulez, with his polemical calls to burn down opera houses and destroy the Mona Lisa, comes to mind when thinking of who might constitute the most extreme and dedicated disciple of modernity. It is not enough to simply forget the past; the physical presence must be wiped away as well!

  2. If modernism typically figures as a period of loss after German Idealist thought became untenable, then it is particularly interesting that modernist thought is experiencing a revival in our supposedly postmodern time (Gianmorio Borio touches upon this). Issues like a preoccupation with innovation, an obsession with trade and the love/hate relationship with urban, Western life (all beautifully pinned together by Peter Franklin in his lucid Artushof example) are all central issues in contemporary culture and support an intense, even violent, object-oriented mode of desire caught up with the fetishisation of Otherness.

    Other avenues to explore, then, could be the overlapping of modernist discourse with discourse on capitalism and Marxism, and continental critical theory in general, a central focus of which is the post-Hegelian state of Western philosophy and culture that is such a preoccupation of modernism. This could also be a way of interesting younger scholars whose point of contact with modernist music might be very different to that of the contributors to this round table.

  3. I wonder whether modernism’s mutability is something of a double-edged sword. Granted, it goes some way towards explaining why modernism persists as such a significant axis for musicology: the anxiety surrounding its definition is the basis for much critical and self-reflexive scholarship. Yet to engage with ‘modernism’ is often to seem ever further from a clear understanding of the term. The word and its associations somehow manage to exceed everything it is used to describe.

    I think, then, it would be interesting to take a wide view of modernism’s role within the disciplinary structure of musicology, and to develop an idea that Laura Tunbridge hints towards when she calls modernism ‘monolithic’. Borrowing Alexander Rehding’s definition of monument in ‘Music and Monumentality’, would it be illuminating to think of modernism as one of musicology’s definitional monuments, as a kind of pillar around which the discipline is structured by the incremental process of references and deferrals to the concept in scholarship? Modernism has the same false sense of tangibility as the musical monument – we feel we have a collective understanding of what it is, and that its traction is rooted in an idea of a shared disciplinary history – but this certainty dissipates on closer examination. This idea also picks up from Tunbridge’s observation that modernism may be entrenched within musicology since it reflects a dominant aesthetic fault line from the historical sites where the discipline was first emerging.

    Might we in this case be able to imagine a differently shaped ‘musicology’ otherwise historically or geographically configured, in which modernism plays a very minor role? What might this look like? Does it matter that in allowing modernism the disciplinary status it enjoys today we might perpetuate the aesthetic fault lines of value from 1920s and 1930s Europe and America in the twenty-first century discipline? If it is indeed a paradigm around which the discipline is (unconsciously?) oriented, we might want to reflect on what it continues to offer us.

  4. The sheer richness in offers for definitions of modernism as well as refusals to define it in the parts of this roundtable can induce vertigo – and this feeling of vertigo is perhaps still that which characterizes the common response to modernism after all this time it has been in use. What seems to emerge from the article feels like a breakthrough of the overwhelming need to ‘deconstruct’ (Chowrimootoo) or ‘expand’ (Williams) or ‘modernize’ (Ballantine) modernism or at least its ‘gatekeepers’. This I find done as elegantly as brilliantly in this roundtable article, whose authors seem to confirm my suspicion that modernism is misunderstood on many levels. If I understand them correctly, we have misunderstood modernism’s relationship to modernity, to romanticism, and to post-modernism, we have confused its signifiers, and have overlooked its middle-brow and popular aspects. Which makes me wonder what we have understood, if anything at all. We disagree on when and where it starts and ends, who is, and is not, a modernist, and whether it is a style or a movement, or a response to modernity.

    I cannot help thinking that as we stand on the edge of the cliff at this point, we might as well jump, by which I mean to ask as well what modernism is, exactly. So far, it has always belonged to someone: to Schoenberg, for one, or to Boulez, or to the futurists. Or it has been made applicable to someone, for example to Elgar, or to Strauss, or to Mahler. It is somehow dominant, but it is difficult to expand satisfactorily. To illustrate this situation, a metaphor might be permissible. If early to mid-twentieth century music is the solar system, then modernism has been one of its planets so far – let’s say Mars, or in any case Schoenberg and Boulez’s planet. But what if modernism were the sun? That would make it even more dominant, granted, but it would also make it different in kind from the responses that music would then give to this phenomenon, and would stop modernism from belonging to a group of composers and from being in need to be expanded and redefined all the time. Would modernism, as the idea of the extremities of twentieth-century modernity, not as their extension, perhaps be able to work to our advantage again? Would it perhaps even be able to reflect certain changes to the discipline of musicology that Emily envisages?

  5. ‘I should have thought that a pack of British boys… would have been able to put up a better show than that’. – William Goldings, Lord of the Flies (1954)

    Modernism begets modernism. That is, one can only proclaim oneself and others modern only after one has become modern. Modernism with a suffix that implies a process of becoming is always a Nachträglichkeit. Modernism is the default school for philistines to be made civilised, akin to the mission civilicatrice in Africa and elsewhere. Affirmed by the subalternists, the complicity of colonialism with modernism is politically inevitable. Yet, despite the extensive exposé into current intellectual forays, only one contributor to this roundtable has identified colonialism as an accomplice with modernism. From this perspective, the ‘final call’ for non-Western and popular music to be institutionalised into the modernist discourse can be hypocritical given that the birth of slave songs, ghetto sounds and other reactionary music represents the affective resistance against the modernist/colonialist agenda (cf. Walter Mignolo).

    Following Borio’s explications of the modern/postmodern divide, Ballantine’s reading of contemporary kwaito practices as a progressive form of modernistic ‘internationalism’ veers towards romantic revisionism. Here arises an ontological exceptionalism vis-à-vis the reasons why ‘fusion music’ in southern Africa is posited as modern when those in the Western milieux are considered postmodern. For one, ‘modern kwaito’ contradicts the Cavellian deontology that modern art remains aligned with the traditional. For another, Western/European modernism has relegated all of the world’s sonic cycles under the democratic superstructures of ‘time’s arrow’ that forgetting such a fact would be provincially middlebrow. Precisely because the ‘special relationship’ between the US’s and UK’s avant-gardes is showing signs of ‘modern decadence’ (judging from their diverging foreign policies as well as transatlantic musicological dissidences) that the epistemic spectre of modern/colonial expansionism is returning to haunt the erstwhile imperial strongholds.

  6. While modernism has defined areas of study in musicology (Tunbridge), recent examinations of modernism often seem to approach modernism in one way or another from a ‘post-modern’ perspective, accommodating (but not limited to) the range that has been included in this round table. It has been ‘expanded’, ‘pluralized and contextualized’ (even though also ‘surmounted’ and ‘squashed’). Perhaps the very title of the round table, ‘Modernism and its Others’, suggests a set of specifically present-day methodologies that look at – and through (Chowrimootoo) – modernism’s conventional binary with a sense of rebellion and even indifference.

    Musicology’s fascination with twentieth-century modernism comes no doubt partly from its continuously felt relevance to our everyday life, whether technological (ways of travel and the construction of cities) or more abstract (socio-political, economical, and musical-linguistic). Against our constantly shifting (academic) world order, modernism’s changing meanings under various ‘post-modern’ approaches deserve, I think, some celebration. Unlike the equally discipline-dominating area of (German) Romanticism, modernism, having emerged from the first post-1980 decades of musicology (with the inclusion of theories and methodologies from Gender Studies and Critical Theories etc.), has seen its defining styles, philosophies, membership, and canon changed – and drastically so. I concur with Emily’s and Annika’s points above concerning modernism and musicology as a discipline; perhaps we might even ‘bypass’ Romanticism and the later more rigid professionalisation of musicology in the early twentieth century (and the monstrosity that this move could have said to have resulted in), and ‘revert’ to a renaissance-style eclecticism that could contribute to diverse ways of hearing. That would perhaps be my generation’s metaphorical slap in the face to the sense of righteousness that has been claimed for and by the High Modernists, such as the mature Schoenberg, Babbitt, or Adorno. Perhaps we might even agree with Taruskin in ‘The Musical Mystique’ that ‘change is not always loss, and realizing this should not threaten but console’ – as Franklin says in the round table, he is pleased by recent students’ willingness to be open.

  7. In not one of the above comments is there any serious engagement with any of the actual music which might be called ‘modernist”; this sort of disengagement may be one of the reasons why these types of discussions have the feel of a rather twee common room discussion, combined with a bit of self-fashioning on the part of musicologists, which composers and performers (including many of those working in academia) happily ignore. Why should those interested in music (often far from uncritically and far from aesthetically unanimously) wish to pay much attention to those who appear not to be? Why were no composers or performers invited to participate in the roundtable?

    With this in mind, I would like to ask any of the contributors above how their ideas might apply in the context of the following sixteen post-1945 compositions:

    1. John Cage, Music of Changes (1951)
    2. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56)
    3. Pierre Boulez, Improvisation sur Mallarmé I-III (1957-59, rev. 1962 (I), 1983-84 (III))
    4. Mauricio Kagel, Anagrama (1957-58)
    5. Iannis Xenakis, Eonta (1963-64)
    6. György Kurtág, The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza (1963-68, rev. 1976)
    7. Luigi Nono, La fabbrica illuminata (1964)
    8. Luciano Berio, Laborintus II (1965)
    9. Helmut Lachenmann, temA (1968)
    10. György Ligeti, Second String Quartet (1968)
    11. Sylvano Bussotti, The Rara Requiem (1969-70)
    12. Elliott Carter, Third String Quartet (1971)
    13. Emmanuel Nunes, Impromptu pour un voyage I (1973)
    14. Gérard Grisey, Partiels (1975)
    15. Brian Ferneyhough, Time and Motion Study II (1973-76)
    16. Michael Finnissy, English Country-Tunes (1977, revised 1982-85)

    Another group of equally contrasting pieces would do equally well. And of course some might question whether some of the above should be categorised as ‘modernist’ or not – fine, so long as some definition of ‘modernism’ can be provided such as can make clear why such works do or do not deserve to be categorised as such.

    Amanda Hsieh writes about ‘my generation’s metaphorical slap in the face to the sense of righteousness that has been claimed for and by the High Modernists, such as the mature Schoenberg, Babbitt, or Adorno’. Over and above the issues of what gives anyone the right to speak for a whole generation, or the value of using metaphors implying domestic violence, I would ask what is the ‘mature Schoenberg’? That of Das Buch der hängenden Garten (1908-09), the op. 11 Klavierstücke (1909) and Pierrot Lunaire (1912), or of the Suite op. 25 (1921-23), Suite op. 29 (1925-26) and Variationen für Orchester (1926-28), or that from his American period such as Kol Nidre (1938), the Ode to Napoleon (1942) and the String Trio (1946)? I believe each of these periods of work to be quite distinct (not to mention all sorts of diversities within such periods). And is the ‘high Modernist’ Adorno that of ‘Zur gesellschaftliche Lage der Musik’ (1932), the Philosophie der Neuen Musik (1949), ‘Das Altern der Neuen Musik’ (1954), Mahler: Eine musikalische Physiognomik (1960), or ‘Vers une musique informelle’ (1961)? It would be a bold claim to maintain that the positions struck in these articles and books are both essentially synonymous with one another (not least because of the considerable shifts in Adorno’s whole paradigms brought about through his experience as an exile witnessing the destruction of German society into barbarism and genocide from a distance, which haunts much of his post-war writing) and also presumably with that of the ‘mature Schoenberg’ (bearing in mind that Adorno was more than a little critical of dodecaphony) and other composers (of whom Babbitt is the only one named) seen as emblematic of the movement. Perhaps such an argument could be substantiated, but it needs arguing rather than simply asserting.

    If arguments about modernism are not founded upon some degree of familiarity with the body of work under consideration, they amount to little more than cheap rhetoric.

  8. Why no composers and performers? Because my interest, as editor, was primarily in thinking about how musicologists write about–and how they use ideas about–modernism. That’s not to say that there couldn’t have been performers and composers as contributors or, indeed, that they’re not welcome to respond with their own thoughts on the position of musical modernism today–within academia, performance, new music. In the space available, though, my immediate concern was covering a fairly broad historical time span and a variety of nations and genres.

    There’s nothing to say that the contributions could not have considered particular pieces in detail (a wide range of examples are cited, way beyond the conventional canon); but then again nothing to say that they had to. It’s also been pointed out that musicological writing outside of the Anglo-German tradition gets hardly a look-in. The round table was intended as a start, not an endpoint.

  9. ‘It’s also been pointed out that musicological writing outside of the Anglo-German tradition gets hardly a look-in.’

    What constitutes that ‘Anglo-German tradition’ of musicology? A large amount of musicological writing in English primarily draws only upon English language sources (including those in translation) – a very large amount of musicological writing in German has never been translated and is little known or cited in much Anglophone scholarship that I know, except that done by specialists on German music. If anything, I would observe more citations of French work than German (because French tends to be taught earlier than German in the English-speaking countries). Obviously this is different with work like that of Borio, which draws upon a wide range of scholarship in different languages, from different intellectual traditions, and with different ideological assumptions.

    I would say it is more accurate to point out that musicological writing from outside the *Anglo-American* tradition often hardly gets a look-in, in what can be an extremely provincial and narrow field, in which Anglophone scholarship is frequently assumed to be all that matters (not least amongst the new musicology). This is the same attitude which assumes you can say something about Columbia-Princeton and Babbitt, and the same will automatically be true of Darmstadt and Stockhausen (in the manner of the slapdash, uninformed prouncements of the late Joseph Kerman on such matters).

    And very few of those writers in English who pass lofty judgement on a vast field of activity termed ‘modernism’ ever seem to engage with a wider body of thought. Citing the handful of writings of Adorno and Dahlhaus which exist in (sometimes questionable) translations does not entail a familiarity with the breadth of German scholarship. How often do does one find references in Anglophone scholarship to the historical writings on modern music by Karl W. Wörner, Hans Mersmann, Winfried Zillig, Hans Vogt, Andreas Liess or Helge de la Motte Haber?

    A sort of anti-Germanism seems a prevailing and frequently unquestioned force in a good deal of Anglo-American musicology today, usually undertaken from a position of relative ignorance (whether of the music or the scholarship). At best, I would attribute this to casual xenophobia borne of fear and envy; at worst it is not so different to anti-semitism (try replacing the word ‘German’ with the word ‘Jew’ in a lot of writings to see what I mean).

    Also, incidentally, what constitutes the ‘conventional canon’ of modernism? I am not convinced that such an object is so easily definable in such a way that would receive a fair degree of consensus.

  10. Anglo-German – what you describe in terms of a dependence on English-language literature, including translations of some German thinkers. I take the point that there is a much greater range of work in languages other than English to be taken on board, and that there are multiple canons. In some ways we’re proving Emily MacGregor’s point “that to engage with ‘modernism’ is often to seem ever further from a clear understanding of the term”. As this is the students’ blog, what do they think?

  11. ‘Anglo-German’ is a very odd formation. German scholars tend to read English rather well, but the reverse is much rarer, and the Anglo-centric dependence on translation has skewed many people’s understanding of discourses around modernism in German to the point where one wonders if there’s any point in continuing such an ill-informed debate. Far better to listen to the music and see what it has to say.

  12. As a rejoinder to Mr. Ian Pace’s call for contributors to respond, my critique on colonialism and imperialism still stands for music by Europeans and United Stateans (I refuse to use the imperialist noun ‘Americans’). Being neither British nor German, I say there should not be any imposition on anyone to read material written in an alien tongue. Framed within disability studies, it is irresponsible for a linguistic-abled person to demand a linguistic-disabled to know information in another language. I am sure you will agree with me that, because music is universal, so should musicology. Obviously, we understand the historical reasons why the Germans and I, a post-colonised subject, can read English and not vice versa. Unless you can claim aural knowledge of Singaporean new music composed post-1945, your argument will not stand.

    Being equally familiar with Schoenberg’s music (see and the post-1945 group of ’16’ (why no woman or non-white composer?!), I say there should not be any requirement for anyone to know any of these ‘modern’ composers and compositions. It would be highly elitist and authoritarian to impose one’s musical diet and taste upon another. Finally, I don’t think Prof. Christopher Fox meant to discriminate, but there are many Anglo-German speakers/readers including myself in the world, and we and our work are definitely no oddity in shaping the scholarly tradition.

  13. As someone coming from America (the continent) I appreciate your differentiation, Jun, and wish it was more broadly adopted by English-speakers.
    Now, on what follows in your comment, I suspect you might be missing the point. “I say there should not be any imposition on anyone to read material written in an alien tongue” there isn’t such an imposition, unless, of course, you claim expertise on a repertoire and scholarship cultivated and written about primarily in such “alien tongue”.
    You say: “there should not be any requirement for anyone to know any of these ‘modern’ composers and compositions”, again, there’s no such requirement, unless, of course, those composers (or others) conform the main corpus of actual music that your research encompasses. To put it in the simplest terms, you have to know what you’re writing about, and you have to know it well.
    If your research deals with ‘Modernism’ in the music of written tradition, then it’s not optional to engage with the actual music such label (however you define it) might encompass, as well as the discussions and cultural context that surround those practices (you’ll find many people won’t suscribe your claim for music’s ‘universality’).

  14. ‘Universal’ is another difficult word. I take Jun’s point about colonialism but I am uneasy about the idea of a universal musicology which is only conducted in English. My original post was written in frustration that Adorno (to take the most obvious example) is generally not well-translated, in part because many words in the German musical vocabulary don’t have exact English equivalents. Any discussion of modernism which involves a close reading of Adorno’s texts on the subject should at least recognise this.

  15. My point of entry with modernist music is not that of the 50s, 60s and 70s – I am more interested in contemporary composers who are called modernist, such as Ades or Turnage, or any composers who continue to use outwardly tonal or vernacular-sounding musical languages within a ‘difficult-modernist’ context. This is essentially because I am interested in the constructed tension between atonal modernism and a tonal popular music, for example, Turnage’s ‘Hammered Out’ or ‘Anna Nicole’, or ‘Ecstasio’ from Ades’ Asyla.

    So the issue of goal-orientation is definitely musical: the way in which tonality is continually chewed up in contemporary modernist and popular music flags up the difference between diatonicism and large-scale resolution of dissonance. And this often happens in what are publicised as ‘modernist’ works: the atonal modernism in this case is a straw man, a public example of Emily MacGregor’s idea of a modernist ‘pillar’, or Annika Forkert’s modernist ‘sun’, against which Others are defined, or around which they revolve.

    And this is all related both to Hegel and to capitalist discourse, so it is a question about the status of German Idealism in musicology and general contemporary discourse. I think anti-Germanism does run very deep in scholarship, to a degree that we might not realise, so we need to remain critical.

    I would also like to praise Laura for her forbearance.

  16. For my area of study on fin-de-siècle Vienna, I am specifically concerned with the ‘late romantic’ composers such as Schreker, Zemlinsky, Mahler, and Berg, who, in recent years, have come to be relabelled as ‘modernists’ (Franklin, Lee, Hailey, Monchick). I agree that Schoenberg’s oeuvre deserves a more nuanced presentation, and in many ways he has become the wholesale target for those arguing from the ‘wrong side’ of the so-called ‘Great Divide’. Yet the general narrative of ‘Schoenberg and Others’ remains crucial to understanding how Schreker and his peers have come to be written as the last ‘late romantics’ instead of the ‘moderns’ in music history. This is also the reason behind my urge towards more diverse ways of hearing.

    I see my primary role as a music historian and cultural theorist; in this discussion thread on the student blog, I have also echoed my colleagues and focused primarily on recent methodological approaches. The suggestion that many of us are not interested in the ‘actual music’ seems undeserved, and perhaps I should only speak for myself this time. I listen, and I have gone into musicology because I wanted to know more about the music, whatever that might mean today.

    Pardon my earlier inappropriate use of the English language as a postcolonial subject.

    I would also like to praise the editor for her forbearance. – Bravo.

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