Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Devin King reviews Music after the Fall

Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. 368 pp.

Review by Devin King

25 April 2018

Though we can mark the beginning of contemporary Western art music at around 1945 with musique concrete and then the inventions of John Cage, its history—like the history of many avant-garde disciplines—has begun to muddy over the last 30 years. In his new book Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989, Tim Rutherford-Johnson rightly argues that this opacity is due, broadly, to two issues: the constant expansion and diversification of musical approach, and a loosening of contextual and historical backgrounds in which to situate this diversity.

To combat these problems, most recent books of new music history ground their readings in journalistic ethnography—as much of David Toop and Salomé Voegelin’s work does—or choose a pet theory to argue from—for example, Seth Brodsky’s use of psychoanalysis in From 1989 (2017), Steve Goodman’s use of Deleuze and Guattari in Sonic Warfare (2009), or Robin James’ use of Naomi Klein in Resilience and Melancholy (2015). Rutherford-Johnson ably combines these two approaches, utilizing his more than fifteen years as a critic of new music to situate a diversity of approach in the context of diverse theoretical and historical backgrounds. I don’t mean to be vague; the book covers so much musical and theoretical ground, it’s difficult to be precise about its exact focus. Rutherford-Johnson previously coedited the sixth edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Music (2013), and a similarly thorough structural organization is at work in Music After the Fall—though obviously this book is meant to be read from cover to cover, rather than picked at piecemeal.

The “fall” of the book’s title is, of course, that of the Berlin Wall, and Rutherford-Johnson neatly expands that specific moment to refer more broadly to how new music since 1989 responds to six concrete historical ideas: “social liberalization, globalization, digitization, the Internet, late capitalist economics, and the green movement” (p. 19). If only it were so easy! Rutherford-Johnson further breaks down the music of the last twenty-five years into five “quasi-psychological states” or theoretical buzzwords: “permission, fluidity, mobility, excess, and loss” (p. 20). The author’s argument is that he doesn’t want to label any composer or their work too pointedly, and that any new work should be beyond categorization in its own singularity. The effort is laudable, but in practice it means that each work referenced is categorized by the blogger’s choice—the tag cloud. Manfred Werder’s work stück 1998 (1997-2001)a 4,000-page work that takes 533 hours to perform—is part of the “Archipelagos” section of chapter 5, “Mobility: Worldwide Flows, Networks, and Archipelagos.” Rutherford-Johnson also notes that “his music also speaks of digital-age conditions of liquidity, transience, and obsolescence” (p. 151).

The book still astounds with the connections it makes. In Chapter 3, “Permission: Freedom, Choice, and the Body,” identity and body politics, the economics of recording, and the harmonic and metrical turn in post-minimalism frame the transition from an opera about Anna-Nicole Smith at Covent Garden, to the increases of crossover between techno musicians and classical composers, to the intense noise practices of Merzbow and Diamanda Galás, to the way current festivals of new music are curated. This is only about half of the topics covered in the chapter.

What does this eclecticism mean from moment to moment? Let’s turn to the “Networks” section of chapter 5. Rutherford-Johnson begins by taking us through some ’60s and ’70s works that engaged with human communication—specifically, how Max Newhaus’s Public Supply I (1966) and Radio Net (1977) use telephone lines and NPR call-in stations to make networked music. Rutherford-Johnson then moves to an exploration of how current strains of networked music like John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator (2007) (which uses routers to establish frameworks for sonic events) “become less about exploiting the possibilities of unimpeded flow and more about thematizing the tension between potential (a fully networked utopia) and reality (the limitations of technology)” (p. 144). The book plods along like this, changing every five pages like the weather in New England. The chapter on loss includes subchapters on such themes as broken instruments, ruined music, 9/11, preservation. . . .

If this sounds a little overwhelming, it isn’t, in the way you’re thinking. The book hints at the sadness present in all works—Rutherford-Johnson over and over again emphasizes how contemporary music is no longer interested in objects but in processes. As such, the critic is never able to choose some music or composer to champion, only the fact of his own listening. Like the music he writes about, Rutherford-Johnson is never quite able to steady himself.