Monday, February 17, 2014

Observance of Pluralism, a Progeny of Postmodernism (Part 1)


I have two listening examples.

The first contains an example of musical postmodernism. Postmodernism came into being in the mid-1960's when some composers in the United States and Europe decided to react against the music of serialism by writing music that both promoted new musical techniques and styles and inserted old techniques and styles to convey a sort of irony or a commentary about whatever the music wanted to convey. William Bolcom is one of those reactionary composers. His Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984) is a 150-minute behemoth of a work that is a musical setting of the complete set of the poems of the same name written by William Blake. The piece is written for various solo singers, chorus, and and a rather eclectic orchestra that includes an electric guitar, a bass guitar, and an harmonica. The musical style and the genre of each song is very diverse as well--the Songs contain modern classical using pentatonic scales, tonal classical, jazz, bluegrass, musical and "popera," and even reggae--and each strives to text-paint a given poem or to convey a deeper meaning. Take, for example, the reggae, which is the style of the last poem of this piece:

For me, reggae usually sounds happy and carefree, and Bolcom's version is indeed jovial; but the poem that is contained in this setting is anything but jovial in meaning. The direction that is given to the musicians at the point where reggae starts also seems to betray the seemingly innate mood of the music:

What is going on? I asked the composer in 2012 about this apparent paradox.

Bob Marley had just passed away when "A Divine Image" was being written, he said, and what struck him when he listed to Marley's music was that the music itself sounded "happy" but that the lyrics were serious in meaning. He decided to incorporate this element to this last song of the piece:
Experience tells you, after the innocence, what really happens to people, and it somehow gives you a sense to distance yourself a little bit...and I think that reggae...allows the same kind of distancing because you can see the anger of the words versus the seemingly positive, bounciness of the music.
It seems that the definition of postmodernism may not be sufficient enough to describe this method of putting seemingly disparate elements--musical or extra-musical--harmoniously in a single setting; perhaps it can be better explained by incorporating a term called "pluralism."

Click here for Part 2

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