The late Jonathan D. Kramer’s* list of “traits” of postmodern music provides one starting place. For him, postmodern music
- is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension;
- is, on some level and in some way, ironic;
- does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present;
- challenges barriers between “high” and “low” styles;
- shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity;
- questions the mutual exclusivity of elitist and populist values;
- avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not want entire pieces to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold);
- considers music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts;
- includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures;
- considers technology not only as a way to preserve and transmit music but also as deeply implicated in the production and essence of music;
- embraces contradiction;
- distrusts binary oppositions;
- includes fragmentations and discontinuities;
- encompasses pluralism and eclecticism;
- presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities;
- locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers.
Mr. Kramer offers the following caveat:
Not many pieces exhibit all of these traits, and thus it is futile to label a work as exclusively postmodern. Also, I would find it difficult to locate a work that exhibits none of these traits. I caution the reader, therefore, against using these traits as a checklist to help identify a given composition as postmodern or not: postmodern music is not a neat category with rigid boundaries.
These traits will certainly come up time and again in our exploration of the 101.
* Kramer, Jonathan D. The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism. In Lochhead, Judy & Auner, Joseph (Eds.) Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought (pp. 13-26). New York: Routledge.