Absolutely

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According to 19th century “absolute music” aesthetics (e.g. Hanslick, Gurney), in order for something to be considered art music, it must be autonomous – it must be governed only by its own internal laws (its “identity”) and not serve some social function such as entertainment, communication or expression. To serve a social function is to compromise its essence by conforming to power relations that exist outside of the work, the same power relations that are the subject of Foucalt’s theory. Modernist composers of the post-WWII period attempted to free themselves of these power relations by making music out of rationally constructed laws based on strictly ordered pitches, dynamics, timbres, articulations, etc. In this way, modernists separated the compositional process from their own artistic intuitions, which are tainted by power relations that exist outside of the music itself. Of course, Foucalt might make the argument that the very idea that progress and autonomy are valuable is itself a reinforcement of existing broader social power dynamics.

Until 1964, George Rochberg was a composer of serialist music which appealed to these modernist ideals. When his son died, he decided that serial music was not an aesthetically a viable option for coping with his loss. He needed to express, to communicate, and ultimately to conform to the power relations that value certain utterances over others (e.g. triads over 016 pitch class sets). As we established in class, these power relations are a prerequisite of meaning, and therefore, of successful communication. Eventually, he came to outright criticize modernist aesthetics, the ideals of progress and autonomy altogether. He wanted to embrace culture, the past, connotation and extra-musical baggage. It is these things, he argued, that enable meaning and expression. Excessive rationality, he argues, leads to a separation of oneself from one’s product, the death of true action. Arendt makes a similar argument in her warning against unbridled implementation of rational systems.

The ironic twist is that the broader power dynamics that value autonomy and truth above all are what enabled Rochberg to make this claim publicly. In other words, his music was only in a position to be heard because of his background in academic music and the legitimacy that comes with it. The world only valued his opinion because of his history in music and musical environment that he explicitly rejects. Had he simply begun writing music in A major when he was 20, he would have been the laughing stock of the “serious music” world and his music never would have seen the light of day. So it is power (that which valued modernist ideals over Romanticism in the serious music culture) that enabled him to speak legitimately, and it is another kind of power (the cultural environment that enables extra-musical meaning and expression in a work of music) that enabled him to speak expressively. His story is one of remarkable success, a man who traversed complex and contradictory power-value systems and arrived at the top.  His music’s okay.

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