Monday, March 16, 2009

Postmodern Music

I'm presenting on postmodern music and looking primarily at Jonathan D. Kramer's article “The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism” (you can check it out here:,M1).

here are some thoughts/questions to ponder:

How would you define postmodern music? Think of an example of what you would consider as postmodern music. Why?

In keeping with the discussion from last week about postmodernism and film, can a piece of music be exclusively postmodern? Can postmodernism be a specific genre of music?

Consider Barthe’s “Death of the Author”, does this apply to music composition as well? If so, where is the place for the songwriter? Can a songwriter or composer take ownership of their song? Does it make a difference to know who wrote a particular song?

Jonathan Kramer says that a characteristic of postmodern music is that “includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures” and that it appeals to and embraces the past. If postmodern music is appealing to the past and adopting musical techniques from other musical time periods, then can it be unique and creative?

This idea is similar to “pastiche,” which is a work composed from elements borrowed either from various other composers/songwriters or from a particular earlier composer/songwriter. We will be delving into the song “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles in class. If you have time, listen to the song and see if you can pick out characteristics of pastiche or postmodern music (based on the above quote) in it:

happy listening.


  1. Ashley Burtch

    Intertextuality in Postmodern Music

    We are familiar with the term “intertextuality” from our study of Roland Barthes’ “Death of an Author”. The term is usually applied to poststructuralism in literature, but like most postmodern concepts, can be used to analyze art, film, photography and music. “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles is an excellent example of this, as Hannah demonstrated in class. The inclusion of various melodic references, especially in the song’s outro, highlights the meaning of intertexuality: the integration of non-original thoughts in a single work. The result is a shift in the way we view the transfer of meaning. The meaning of the song no longer originates in the composer(s), but is filtered through the various references to create a meaning for the listener. This is where Barthes would argue that intertextuality is “the death of the [composer].”

    In the example of “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles, there are at least four melodic references to other songs: Bach’s “Two Part Invention”, “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller, “Greensleeves”, and the Beatles’ own “She Loves You”. What meaning is created by the inclusion of these references? I think it’s safe to say that these were not chosen at random, but represent pieces of a meaning that the Beatles are trying to convey (yes, for a moment, it seems I am disagreeing with Barthes). They had a plan in mind when they referenced the songs. They had a point. If only I could figure out what that point was meant to be. I could guess that it has something to do with love being the central theme of these other songs, though I have no idea if that’s true of the piece by Bach. I could assume there is some musical connection beyond the lyrics or theme that I am missing because of my lack of musical theory.

    But, by pondering the possibilities, am I not confirming what Barthes said? While I believe it is true that the Beatles had a point, a specific meaning, I have no access to that meaning through the song itself, or at least not definitively. Short of a conversation with John or Paul, or internet research that may or may not be reputable, I have no real means of determining the exact reason the Beatles referenced those four songs. All I am left with is my limited knowledge of each piece, the symbols they create in my mind, and the various ways those symbols may interact in my own mind. The symbols they created in the mind of the original composers will differ at least in part from this, as they will from your own.

    Barthes’ theory, then, is a limitless expansion of the origin of meaning. Not only can the origin of meaning spread infinitely backward into the various works, people, moments, etc. that influenced the creation of a piece of work, it can also spread infinitely forwards into the various interpretations of that meaning by its reader, listener or viewer. This leads me to two questions:

    1) Are some meanings more “true” than others, or more accurate, and is the accuracy dependable on either the author’s intent, or the generally assumed interpretation of a larger population?

    2)Barthes emphasizes the death of the author as necessary for the birth of the reader. Is this getting it backwards? What I mean to say is shouldn’t the birth of the reader be the more important thing to remember? The author is not dead; he is redefined as an interpreter, as a reader himself. It is only the concept of “author” popularized by the Enlightenment period that has died, much in the same way that the concept of “god” is dead according to Nietzsche.

  2. you have an amazing talent for writing simply and clearly, yet pulling the content of an entire course together in less than 200 words!