COMPOSERS: Various composers
LABELS: University of California Press
ALBUM TITLE: Music After The Fall
WORKS: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989
PERFORMER: Tim Rutherford-Johnson
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN 978-0-520-28315-2
As Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s fascinating chronicle of western art music notes, histories of ‘contemporary music’ usually begin in 1945. Not so this one. The cut off here is 1989: the year the Berlin Wall fell, the atrocities of Tiananmen Square unfolded and the first whispers of the World Wide Web were heard: ‘1989 was the tipping point for the forces that shaped much of the economics, politics, and, one might say, psychology of our modern world.’ And it is this sense of psychology – the complex, messy humanity that is the beating heart of all music-making – which elevates this astute and accomplished book. Rather than structure the text chronologically or by compositional technique, Rutherford-Johnson divides his book into five ‘quasi-psychological states’: permission, fluidity, mobility, superabundance and loss. It is an ambitious proposition – to explore an encyclopedic array of contemporary works across such abstract themes – yet Rutherford-Johnson pulls off the challenge with insight, wit and (an often-undervalued quality in musicological writing) compassion.
Be it unpicking the shrewd marketing ploys which helped spark the mass appeal of the ‘spiritual minimalism’ of Górecki, Pärt and Tavener in the early 1990s, or exploring the links between the ‘new complexity’ of Brian Ferneyhough and cloud computing, Music After the Fall presents something of the ‘eco-system’ of modern music-making, a network inhabited not only by composers but also by performers, promoters, record label executives and, crucially, listeners. And in situating contemporary music-making in this nuanced and ethical way, Music After the Fall not only topples the ivory towers of so much musicological analysis, but also makes for an enticingly good read. For at its core, this is a book of stories: stories of how certain music came to be, who heard it, how they heard it, and what happened next. And best of all, these stories make you want to get listening.