An article from Bloomberg.com about Finnsh composer/conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen and his travails with the postponed-then-performed world first of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater includes this:

Also unusual is the clear narrative form of "Adriana Mater,'' in a continental context where new operas are generally modernist deconstructions.

"This is not a post-modern, distanced view of the very idea of opera,'' says Salonen. "It's an opera which absolutely believes in the art of opera, a simple story told in a linear way. It is a statement of faith in the fact that opera is an art form which can deal with big emotions and huge subjects. I'm very tired of the modernist idea that there are things you should not do because they are against the historic determinist paradigm or the Hegelian dialectical idea.''

Note that the writer of the article says that AM is not “modernist” because it has a “clear narrative form” and Mr. Salonen says it’s not “post-modern” because it’s a “simple story told in a linear way” and that he is tired of the "modernist" view of opera, which he says rejects linear story-telling. Mr. Salonen doesn't say he is also tired of modernism. His disavowal of modernism for AM seems like a continuation of his disavowal of pomo.

The issue here for me is not whether Ms. Saariaho’s opera is “modernist” or “postmodernist” but rather the use of those terms as a shibboleth to identify one as being among friends or as club with which to beat upon one’s enemies. In any case, it’s clear that there’s not clarity about what modernism is and what post-modernism’s relationship to it is.

And vice versa.

* * * * *

While we're on the subject of postmodernism, I recently read Christopher Butler's Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction and am now reading Glenn Ward's Teach Yourself Postmodernism. The two authors take very different approaches, with Mr. Butler adopting a very skeptical stance and Mr. Ward a more sympathetic yet questioning posture.

Neither writer has much to say about music. Even given that, I can highly recommend them both.

Reading both of these books and thinking about the ideas and issues involved made me thinkof this story from Silence:

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things are confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What is the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."


  1. I'm in the middle of that Butler book right now. I'm finding it very interesting. I tend to share his skepticism, particularly when he's discussing the postmodernists' attempts to apply their theories to hard science. The thing is, though, all the theory in the world, no matter how valid, doesn't change the fact that there's some part of the human mind that loves, indeed probably needs, to get swept up in a narrative and not worry about who's telling them what and why - there's a part of us that just loves being told a story. And that's why opera works (for those upon whom it does work, and I'm not one of 'em). I'm a big fan of genre fiction because ultimately, I enjoy a good story a lot more than I enjoy the theoretical unpacking of storytelling as a practice.

  2. Interesting thoughts. There's a brilliant essay by Leon Botstein on the stylistic shift in Richard Strauss's operas after Salome and Electra that I imagine you'd find very relevant, Steve. Botstein argues that the operas Strauss wrote from Rosenkavalier on, by abandoning the progressive chromatic idiom of Austro-German modernism and referring back to the tonal and textural language of Mozart and Verdi, prefigured the aesthetics of musical postmodernism that composers like George Rochberg and David Del Tredici developed in the 1970s as a reaction against serialism. The essay is included in the Princeton University Press monograph Richard Strauss and His World, edited by Bryan Gilliam.

  3. I'm in the middle of taking a seminar entitled "Postmodernism & Music" right now. Not until week 5 of a 10 week quarter will we have a day that is focused on actual musical products and how they relate to postmodernism. This seems to be typical. Postmodernism may be best characterized-via theory and criticism-in terms of a state of mind (one that resonates with my own experiences). When it gets to using it as a label in any "practical" way, things get maddening. I think I've decided that Rochberg was not a postmodernist. Anything beyond that is yet to be determined.