Gordon Downie Interview- part three: is modernism still modern?

In part three, we stepped back from a discussion of Downie’s music and I asked Gordon directly whether monderist music is getting a little old-fashioned after 60 years… 

KW: We’ve spoken before about your music’s connection to the ideas and practices of the high modernist movement of the 50’s and 60’s. I’ve also heard you state that modernism is a programme, not a style. The notion of progress seems key to the modernist programme, but there is a perception that the programme itself has been fixed for some time and is therefore reactionary rather than progressive. Fifty years on, how has the modernist programme changed? Are there assumptions or axioms of the programme that have been challenged, changed or reformed in this time?

GD: We should be in no doubt about the revolutionary nature of the high modernist programme, in terms of how it redefines creative activity, in terms of how it repositions power relations between cultural producers (or artists) and forms of management and power, and in how it redefines the function of aesthetic objects. Once initiated, within our current regressive cultural and political climate, simply sustaining and defending it from counter-revolutionary attacks is enough of a problem. I always notice a strong reluctance to discuss music or culture in these terms, but I make no apology for invoking political language to describe these processes. They are political processes and we can only understand their real dynamic if we view them in such terms.

On a more practical level of analysis, we need to decide whether the explosion of formal possibilities that occurred after 1945 could ever realistically be maintained. Of course, they cannot: that isn’t how revolutions happen! Rather, they form a field of rich possibilities that require rigorous and systematic development and exploration. And we can see that process underway in the seminally important work of theorists such as Milton Babbitt, Robert Morris, and John Rahn in the US, and in research centres such as CCRMA and IRCAM, to take just two examples.

But I’m unsure I know what you mean by “reactionary”?

KW: I’m not personally asserting that contemporary modernism is reactionary, but I would like to hear you make the argument why it isn’t, as I’m sure you can articulate why it isn’t better than I could.

If I were to re-phrase the question- isn’t one of the differences between a radical idea, in the sense of something new, progressive and innovative, and a reactionary idea, in the sense of old, conservative and, for want of a better phrase, stuck in the past partly, or even solely, a matter of when the idea is expressed?

One could make the case that to say that for Boulez to say:

 “Any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but truly experienced — the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”

in 1952 means something completely different than to say the same thing in 2008, because ours is a different epoch. Fifty or sixty years is a long time in cultural history- is the modernist programme evolving, and if so, how? I expect you’ll hate this terminology but I really want to hear your thoughts- should we consider calling it Neo-Modernism instead? Is modernism still essentially a progressive and innovative way of looking at creativity, or is there a danger that it has become stagnant in some way?  Have there been innovations or discoveries made in other areas of contemporary music that modernist composers have learned from or further developed? Or does it even  matter whether art is created from a reactionary or progressive stance, or is the only thing that matters the substance and quality of what is created?

GD: I’ve heard arguments of this type many times before. I would repeat that the conditions that require the kinds of processes associated with high modernism, that require a response of this kind, haven’t changed. This being the case, neither should the response. It’s no coincidence that the rise of so-called aesthetic postmodernism and associated tendencies over the last 20 years or so is coterminous with neo-con triumphalism and the re-assertion of various forms of neo-liberalist ideologies that have celebrated “the end of history”. Indeed, the existence of the former is predicated on the latter, as my forthcoming essay in Perspectives of New Music 46/1, “Cultural production as self-surveillance”, attempts to make clear.

But we should also take care to separate concepts from the personalities in which they are embedded. Contemporary discussions about the progress of modernism are held, in the main, with reference to post modernism. This can distract us, however, from an analysis of those contradictions that are internal to modernism itself, contradictions that have an equal responsibility for the apparent decline of modernism as a strong and determining cultural force.  This is perhaps inevitable, as modernist factions close ranks in order to engage in those defensive and offensive struggles against the commodification and marketisation of culture and aesthetic action, for which postmodernism, once stripped of its aesthetic and discursive façade, is merely the epiphenomenal surface expression.

Internal failure has its source in the abandonment, deviation from, or selective adoption of, those principles that define the modernist programme at its most authentic and astringent, and thus at its most effective and, for me, most interesting. Deviationism and eclecticism, having their routes in reformist and coalition politics, are essentially opportunistic, and weaken the aims of the programme as a whole. And as aesthetic modernism is merely the cultural expression of a wider socio-political process, having its origins in projects of enlightenment and associated historical programmes of cultural maturation and advancement [emphasis added], its appropriation for individual acts of opportunism has implications that go beyond mere art making and cultural production. Such action becomes an aesthetic-behavioural correlation of that hyper-individualism that characterises market society as a whole. A large body of critical scaffolding has now been erected around these two forms of opportunism that legitimate such actions by giving them a purely aesthetic, and thus non-political, interpretation. These frequently take the form of a purely subject-centred, coarse biographical reductionism.

But in any artistic revolution, there is frequently a counter-revolution, in which elements representative of the former make various forms of opportunistic accommodation with the rear-garde.  This has given rise to the formation of a legal modernism that, though retaining features of the original, is more or less a simulation of it, with a more palatable user- and marketing-friendly complexion.  In such conditions, although various forms of neo-conservatism might constitute the immediate and most obvious opposition to modernist aspirations, the greater threat can be sourced in those tendencies that have occupied, distorted, and colonised its territory.

The juridical tincture of such a definition is not incidental: for any legality there is an illegality.  And though our concert programmes may still be littered with examples of aging, canonised moderns whose own reticence with regard to these processes only contributes to their apparent unassailability, given that they have been more or less absorbed by a new-music bureaucracy, and given that they can now be successfully mediated by their even more manageable simulations, and given that they themselves have engaged in significant acts of accommodation, re-asserting the authentic in this context is increasingly difficult.


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Interview Part Four is here

Broadcast information from BBC Radio 3 is here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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