Since I finished Music after the Fall in spring 2016, the world has, let’s say, changed a bit. Did I accidentally capture an era, from 1989–2016? What do I think has happened since then that will change the direction of music? (It might not be what you think.)
This paper is an edited version of a keynote speech given at the New Music Conference ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, 8 November 2019.
Two and half years ago, my book Music after the Fall was published. (Rutherford-Johnson 2017) It was a history or survey of Western Art Music composed since 1989. When it came out, I hosted a launch event at Goldsmiths College in London, where I had studied and where I had done a lot of my research. I gave a talk to a room of students, staff and a few friends. We drank some wine, chatted, and eventually ended up in a pub down the road.
When you have just written a book – when you have just sweated blood for two or three years, have run you and your family into debt, have made yourself half blind from reading and typing, can hardly stand from sitting at your desk for so long, and haven’t seen sunlight or your children for months – people only want to know one thing: So, what’s the next one about?
This was February 2017. The impacts of the Brexit referendum were starting to be felt. Donald Trump had just been sworn in as President of the USA. We were all still reeling from the catastrophe-stream that was 2016. When someone in that pub asked me, ‘So, what’s next?’ it was a question that carried a lot of extra weight. What was next for new music? If 1989 had been the momentous year that my book claimed it was, would future historians say the same about 2016? Was my book already out of date? Had Music after the Fall accidentally captured a complete historical era?
The question was not a frivolous one. In Music after the Fall, I justified my choice of beginning in 1989 by comparing it with 1945. Most books on later twentieth-century music take 1945 as their starting point. The story that they follow is familiar: at the end of the Second World War, Europe, the home of post-Enlightenment Western culture was devastated and in desperate need of reconstruction. The financial power America had promised since the 1920s was finally achieved, initiating its dominance over the second half of the century. And the postwar settlements with Soviet Russia had set the stage for the Cold War that was to come. New technologies and sciences, many of them developed in wartime, such as tape recording and information theory, were finding wide peacetime application; and the postwar industrial boom – as well as the increasing importance of cultural soft power as a Cold War weapon – was beginning to fuel a rise in the public’s consumption of the arts.
As a place to begin a history of music, or at least to reboot one, 1945 makes sense. It helps us understand how and why the musical innovations of the postwar decades came about, from musique concrète to minimalism, from Etude aux chemins de fer to Different Trains. However, by the end of the century this narrative begins to unravel.
Many of the precepts on which the post-1945 narrative is based were no longer applicable by the start of the twenty-first century: Europe had been rebuilt and, as the European Union, had become one of the world’s largest economies. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union had brought an end to the bi-polar Cold War world. Even the United States’ claim to global dominance had begun to be threatened after China’s opening to the global trading market at the end of the 1970s, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, and the global financial crisis of 2008. The social democratic consensus that had steered the West through postwar reconstruction had been replaced by market-led neoliberalism. Finally, the birth of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, as well as the widespread use of digital technologies, had utterly transformed the production and consumption of culture. Music after the Fall therefore concentrated on a new global situation that had come about in the years after 1989, and that was quite different to the era after 1945.
Yet after 2016 this set of circumstances looks very different. In the wake of Brexit the European Union appears to be on the brink of breaking up. With the election of Donald Trump the United States has entered a new and possibly transformative phase in its relationship to the world. Economic and political power is beginning to shift towards Russia and China. And the Internet is falling increasingly prey to malevolent and corporate actors. It is hard to shake the feeling that much that defined the post-1989 era no longer applies. Is it time to start thinking about music after Music after the Fall?
Questions like these were already being asked, even when I first considered them in February 2017. Musical responses to Trump’s election, in particular, have come about fairly swiftly.
One of the first, at least among the experimental music community, was Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground. This was an impromptu downloadable compilation of ‘music, sound and assorted aural ephemera’, released to coincide with Trump’s inauguration on 20th January 2017. (Feely & Just 2017) The work was an act of protest, a statement of artistic solidarity, and a means of fundraising – all proceeds from sales of the compilation were donated to the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the frontline organizations in defending against the worst civil rights infringements of the Trump regime). In the words of Object Collection themselves, ‘Notes from Sub-Underground is not a substitute for direct political action in the face of difficult circumstances. But as purveyors of experimental performance/music/theater/art, producing work is something we are good at. Subterranean networks are the lifeblood of experimental art. It is a corollary for political activity. We flex these muscles now, to strengthen the ties across our communities.’ (Feely & Just 2017) These are words, then, that reflect an acute sense that something had to be done, something musical, in response to recent events.
Other musical responses have found more particular inspiration in the sounds of protest and the peculiar theatricality of Trump’s presidency. The pianist Nicholas Phillips began a project under the title #45miniatures, inviting composers to contribute pieces for piano that ‘use anything related to our 45th President (tweets, speeches, etc.) as source material to create a miniature, or small collection of miniatures, for solo piano. These serve as commentary on, or reaction to, words, attitudes, policies, and general behaviour that they find amusing, unacceptable, confusing, disturbing, and so on.’ (Phillips 2018) Techniques that Phillips encouraged included pieces limited to 140 notes (to reflect the Twitter character limit); erratic shifts of character, dynamic or tempo; ‘improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way’; playful or childish outbursts; an unwavering sense of self-importance, regardless of audience response; and so on. A representative example is Twitler Tantrump by the Wisconsin composer David Bohn. (Bohn 2018)
The British-based American composer Kevin Malone often incorporates recent American history into his works. In The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe, written for the pianist Adam Swayne, Malone incorporates transcripts from anti-Trump political rallies held in the UK and USA. He also asks the pianist to wear a knitted pink ‘pussyhat’, like those worn by participants in the 2017 Women’s March held on the day after Trump’s inauguration. At the end of the piece, the pianist throws hats into the audience, and encourages them to chant along in a protest of their own. (Swayne 2019)
Yet, when one speaks to musicians, it is clear that they fear the impacts of Trump and Brexit in more practical terms. At the Classical:NEXT industry gathering of May 2017, held in Rotterdam, figures from the UK and Dutch music industries debated the topic of ‘From Trump to Brexit: Classical Music in a Post-Truth World’. Debate revolved around the impact of populist politics on the classical music market, and according to the conference’s promotional materials, was framed in distinctly Cold War terminology:
Is it business as usual, or are there dark times ahead? If the latter, what can we do to pre-empt or deal with the fall-out. … we take a close look at the challenges ahead in Europe and the USA, and the role of ‘soft power’ in maintaining open borders and cultural exchange. (Classical: NEXT, 2017)
Practically speaking, in Europe, for example, barriers to trade and travel will affect the future creation of works such as Michel van der Aa’s 3D opera Sunken Garden. (Van der Aa 2013)  Like many large-scale compositions today, this was funded jointly by institutions across Europe and the UK; in this case, English National Opera, the Barbican Centre, London, the Toronto Luminato Festival, Opéra National de Lyon, and the Holland Festival. It is not yet clear how these effects will be felt over the next few years, but it is likely to get more difficult to co-commission and fund large-scale, complex musical works like this, particularly for artists working within the United Kingdom. These remain practical effects, however. The long- or medium-term impact of Trump and Brexit on music and musical aesthetics is so far unclear. However, the effects of another event that has taken place since 2016 – one that will probably have a greater and more lasting impact on all of us – are already being felt.
IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC
On 8 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, also known as Special Report 15, or SR15. (IPCC 2018) This dramatically set out the requirements for, and urgency of, rapid decarbonisation and gave a timeframe of just 12 years in which to do so in order to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group II, and one of the contributors to the report, called it ‘the largest clarion bell from the science community … I hope it mobilizes people and dents the mood of complacency’. (Watts 2018)
The way in which the report drastically shortened the timeframe for action drew worldwide media attention, as well as widespread activism. The most high profile response has been Extinction Rebellion, which was founded on 31 October, just three weeks after the report’s publication. XR’s demands have been for immediate and concerted action – ‘Act Now’ – and for governments to tell the truth about climate change: to be honest with voters about the urgency and scale of the challenge. Greta Thunberg, who began her school strike protests on 20 August, became an international figure after the publication of the IPCC report and the founding of XR.
In the long run, my belief is that SR15 – and the urgency of climate change in general – may prove more significant to art and music than Trump or Brexit, and not only in practical terms. This is because it is more than a political issue to which attention needs to be drawn, or against which protest needs to be made – like the re-appearance of far-right politics in Europe and the US, for example. Music and art only have a limited capacity to effect change in these areas; very often the most they can do is draw attention to an issue.
What SR15 does, however, is redraw our psychology: how we think of ourselves, how we think of our humanity. Artworks that respond to this challenge do not need to serve as propaganda, campaign literature, or fundraising. These are limited functions that have little impact on aesthetics. As I will show, the news about climate change acts on a more profound artistic level, and in fact, its impact can already be seen.
If we want to try to describe the music of today—and perhaps how it differs from the music of the period 1989–2016—we need to try to describe what is particularly characteristic about our present time. The period after 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet and the increasing presence of social equality, access and civil rights in contemporary politics, may be characterised by terms such as permission, fluidity and mobility: all terms that I used as chapter headings in my book. They refer to different forms of freedom that the digital, globalised, postmodern age enabled, and that were articulated by artists and composers through the 1990s and early twenty-first century.
If I were to try to find a similar theme that characterises our current period, it would be to do with our uniquely heightened and magnified sense of the now. To begin with, we are more sensitised to the impacts of our actions than we ever have been. Everything we do—whether it’s remembering to bring our reusable coffee cup to work, or choosing not to amplify the voice of Donald Trump on Twitter—has an impact on the global ecosystem. Moreover, we are, for the first time, acutely aware of that fact. We make decisions like these about plastics, shopping, public transport, Twitter and so on precisely because we are, or think we are, aware of their impact.
Secondly there is postmodernism. Suspicion of grand narratives has drawn our gaze down from the horizon of posterity, of greatness, of progress, of history, and down to ourselves and our experiences. We don’t think so much about the role of music in creating or building a better future for society, because postmodernism has taught us how exclusionary and how damaging such narratives can be.
Digitization, and the creation of the vast archive that is the Internet has also had an impact on compressing history. We have, for a few years now, been living in a time of ETEWAF—everything that ever was, always, forever. (Oswalt 2010) With all of culture available to us online, in theory, the past is no longer a foreign country, but something we can immediately step into. Paradoxically, the same technologies have also enabled a trend, and a philosophy, known as accelerationism. (Williams & Srnicek 2013) This is based on the principle that historical eras, aesthetic trends and political movements, are growing increasingly short-lived, approaching a point when they recur and reiterate at such speed that the whole system breaks down. At this point, it is thought, society can be ‘rebooted’, as it were, and break through to a new technological utopia.
Just as postmodernism compresses our past, so accelerationism compresses our future. Yet it still envisages a future of some sort. In contrast, the IPCC’s Special Report actually foreshortens our future. Moreover, it puts a fixed date on it: twelve years away. Actually, eleven years now, and soon it will be ten. With accelerationism, at least there is a future. With SR15, there may not be. What SR15 does is create a radical focus on the now.
This particular ‘nowness’ of our present moment, in which the past has been eliminated by digitization and the future has been eliminated by global heating, can already be detected across the arts. Yet this new relationship to time is not unproblematic. Consider the novel Spring by the British novelist Ali Smith. This is the third book in a ‘seasonal quartet’ Smith is writing in response to the Brexit referendum. (Smith 2019) The first book in this quartet, Autumn, was written and published within just four months of the 2016 referendum. The fourth part, Summer, will be published next year. They are, therefore, novels written very fast—at a speed that borders on journalism or live-tweeting. They are full of contemporary references, to the extent that the question is often asked whether anyone will be interested in reading them in five years’ time. (Of course they will.) Smith herself has said that time itself is her theme: ‘what time is, how we experience it’. Just one passage of Smith’s novel will do to illustrate the complexity of modern-day temporal experience, leaping freely between past, present and future.
Richard, a down-at-heel film director, visits his friend Paddy, who is coming to the end of her life. He calls into a branch of Maplin’s to buy—of all things—a memory stick. Maplin’s was real-life chain of UK electronics shops that ceased trading in June 2018. Richard visits in April and the store is closing down. When he arrives at Paddy’s house, Richard finds that she has ‘become philosophical about things she was still raging about just days ago’, when she accused the British government of ‘messing with ancient hatreds’ in their treatment of the Irish border question. ‘Windrush, Grenfell, they aren’t footnotes in history. They’re history’, she continues. By ‘Windrush’ she is referring to the UK Home Office scandal that led to numerous British citizens who had immigrated to the UK from Commonwealth countries prior to 1973 (colloquially known as ‘the Windrush generation’) facing deportation. ‘Grenfell’ refers to the catastrophic fire at the Grenfell Tower residential block in West London that broke out on 14 June 2017 and led to the deaths of 72 people. ‘The whole of history is footnotes’, replies Richard. Needless to say, Maplin’s had sold out of memory sticks. (Smith 2019, 65-66)
The passage of time, and our human understanding of it, is also problematised in the music theatre work Time Time Time by the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, which has been performed at festivals throughout Europe this year. A co-commission of several international festivals this is, incidentally, another work that post-Brexit barriers will make harder to fund. Walshe herself says that ‘to talk about life is to talk about time. If we’re going to think about the world that we live in, we have to think about time. Which means hacking our brains along geological timescales as well as thinking along biological timescales.’ (Sonic Acts 2018) Time Time Time brings together many such scales, from geological eras to the millionth-of-a-second clock rate of a computer processor.
Time Time Time is a collaboration with the philosopher Timothy Morton. Morton’s ecological philosophy, outlined across books such as Ecology without Nature, Hyperobjects and Dark Ecology, confronts our need to change our consciousness, aesthetics and philosophy in response to the challenges of climate change and the sixth mass extinction. (Morton 2009, 2013, 2018) In particular, he considers questions of scale (the problem of how our own individual actions make no difference at all; it’s seven billion of us doing them that is the problem); of time (the need to think about ecological problems on a geological scale); and of the need for an ontology that encompasses both humans and nonhumans.
Another composer who has engaged with Morton’s work is the Australian Liza Lim. Lim’s 2017 piece Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, written for Klangforum Wien, is in five movements. The title of the first, ‘Anthropogenic Debris’, most explicitly sets the tone of ecological crisis. The debris in question is, on a programmatic level, the vast collections of plastic that have ended up in the world’s oceans and have been gathered by circulatory currents into giant, swirling patches of rubbish and pollutants. As they turn, plastic is drawn into them and then ground into smaller and more dangerous particles – which themselves pose an existential threat to life on Earth. Lim’s piece is therefore full of representations of looping and turning, as well as degradation and loss. Her materials include a recording of the mating call of a now-extinct bird (the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō from Hawai‘i); tracings of a ninth-century Chinese star map (recycled from an earlier violin solo The Su Song Star Map, 2018); and allusions to historical music, in the form of warped spectral readings of bars from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. All of them represent forms of extinction or lost forms of knowledge. The star map predates Western astronomy by five hundred years, but its achievement has been erased by history. The Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō mating call is of the last of its species, and will never be answered. The Janáček was described by its composer as comprising reminiscences ‘so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish’. (quoted in Matthews 2008)
The image of circulation, analogous to the turning ocean gyres, is extended to the music itself. Particularly important are the use of short repeats – sometimes nested within other repeats, or played misaligned from one another – and Waldteufels, a percussion instrument made from a wooden stick and a small drum, attached to each other by a string and played by turning the stick to make the string vibrate. As so often in Lim’s music, a central poetic image is extended and explored across every dimension of the music, creating a work that is not programmatic or narrative in the conventional sense, but that offers an experience – for performers as well as audience – of the presence of that idea in sound.
Circulation also entails slippage: as debris loops back, it recalls both the past (nostalgically) and its present (abjectly). Lim’s music creates a space in which such slippages in time and identity occur on every level, whether that is the timbral slippages created by brass instruments playing unstable half-valve sounds, or the larger-scale slippage of identity in the fourth movement, ‘Transmission’, in which a solo violin attempts to ‘teach’ musical material to a percussionist playing a rudimentary string drum. Through loops of repetition and retracing, the limits of that knowledge and its transmission are exposed. Lim’s looping structures recall words of Morton’s: ‘An environment is not a closed circle but a veering loop. A thing is in a loop with itself: a thing and a thing-pattern.’ (Morton 2018, 96)
In the final movement of the piece Lim introduces a remarkable sound, based on a real phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning; a mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds, transcribed by Lim through the sound of Waldteufels and windwands being swirled in the air. As the music passes below the range of human hearing (thanks to a contrabasson that has been extended with a metre of plastic tubing), we end listening to a song that we can no longer know nor understand, looking to a future perhaps no longer meant for us. Following Morton’s advice, Lim appears to be searching in this last movement for forms of nonhuman music – or, rather, ways in which to erase the anthropocentric division between human and nonhuman altogether, in pursuit of a truly ecological way of thinking.
What links all of this? To go back to my student questioner in February 2017, what would I write next? How might I group together music written after Music after the Fall?
In trying to think of a way to bridge the gap between ecological responses to SR15 and the isolationism of Trump/Brexit populism, I have come to consider ‘Self’ as a possible connecting theme. That is, the way in which our understanding of self, and of our relationship to and place within the world, might be articulated in music.
This is not a new subject for art or music. But it is one whose contours have been changed dramatically by ecological catastrophe, globalization, digitization and fluid modernity. Trump/Brexit, and other turns towards isolationist and/or far-right politics, are responses to this.
Some of this turn towards the urgency of now has come about in response to recent politics. Many Americans would accept the urgency of defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 US Presidential elections, for example. Even more of it has come about in response to the IPCC Climate Change report: what was just 12 years in which he had to act is already only 11; and will soon be just 10.
Yet some of it is also to do with the affective turn that has taken place across culture in the last two or three decades: a mix of identity politics and neoliberal society-bashing that has made what I think and what I want (and what facts I believe) into an unbreakable defence. All of which is amplified by social media, smartphones, streaming, curation and so on. Consider the two aural perceptions of the city captured by Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark and as mediated through Apple earbuds and your personalised Spotify recommendations: one portrays a form of exterior, objective and communal reality; the other is a form of solitary, privatised mediation. Each of them presents a dramatically different interpretation of a common subject, the landscape of the city.
I want to end with a dramatically different interpretation of another ancient subject: the operatic love story. It is also an example that brings us right up to date. Chaya Czernowin’s new piece for Deutsche Oper Berlin, Heart Chamber, will receive its premiere on 16 November. Although it narrates the coming together of a man and a woman, and them falling in love, it is not a love story – at least not in the traditional sense. At its core are questions that could not have been asked seriously before. Is it inevitable that two people should be joined in a physical, emotional, social and familial bond? Do we want to be alone, or do we want to live in a couple or in a family? Must we sanctify love above all else?
Falling in love, argues Czernowin, is a huge risk. To share your life and your self with someone is to risk pain and suffering – and in extreme circumstances even torture and death. This is very rare, of course, although movements like #MeToo have made us all more aware of the amount of physical abuse that does take place. And even in a kind and caring relationship in which each partner is able to grow, to love is to lose something – other lives, other loves. It means giving up our autonomy and independence in order to become part of something larger. It is an opening up that is both physical and psychological. In Czernowin’s words: ‘In all this process of falling in love or opening your life to somebody else there are so many emotions, and they are all very focused, all very concentrated. It is almost like the whole body – and the whole body of the personality – know that they are going to undergo a huge change. And that change is described to us by society as something so idyllic: not many people talk about the risk, of opening an organism into another organism.’ Insofar as it tells a story – or describes a series of scenes – Heart Chamber does so in ways that engage us listeners aesthetically, psychologically and physically. As far as is possible, we are drawn into the same adventure into the unknown as the lovers themselves. The electronic sounds in the opera, for example, make use of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), that physical sensation of tingling skin that can be triggered by quiet, intimate sounds such as crumpling paper, crushing eggshells, brushing hair, or writing. Elsewhere, the music and the drama zoom in, magnifying tiny sounds and moments to highlight the catastrophes that they contain: as though every point in time is a wormhole through to a universe of its own. ‘When you come close to something you don’t only notice the outlines of the most important things in the room’, Czernowin has said. ‘You suddenly notice the air, you suddenly notice the heat from the radiator. When you get into an internal space you actually notice everything in the room. That also happens when you experience something very, very strong, when you have a strong emotional experience. You see how light works, how the dust is in the air, because everything slows down, and the room becomes audible, visible, and it brings itself into existence.’
In Heart Chamber, therefore, we have a story that is told in extreme close-up, in an extremely compressed form of the now (it is not a coincidence that Czernowin’s previous opera was in fact called Infinite Now). It is also a story that is told through direct sensory experience: it is a story that is shown, not told. It places the self of the listener – her ears, her skin, her mind – at the centre of its conception. Although it is not an ecological work, at least not in any explicit sense, it shows how preoccupations of the now and the self may be manifest across contemporary music of today. It forms part of the picture of a music after Music after the Fall.
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About the Author
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He is co-authoring a history of music in the twentieth century for Cambridge University Press.
 First performed 12 April 2013, Barbican Centre, London.
 At the time of writing there is one more performance scheduled, at the London Contemporary Music Festival, 14 December 2019.
 To be released on KAIROS recordings. This section is based on my sleevenotes for that recording.
 The recording on which Lim based her transcription may be heard at https://www.newscientist.com/article/2106331-fish-recorded-singing-dawn-chorus-on-reefs-just-like-birds/
 See, for example, Bull, Michael. (2014) ‘iPod Use, Mediation, and Privatization in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, ed. Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 103–117 for a discussion around the iPod and private listening, although one written from a pre-streaming perspective.
 This section is based on a programme essay I wrote for this performance, a full version of which may be found at https://johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/this-is-not-a-love-story-chaya-czernowins-heart-chamber/