History of Electroacoustic Music


The term "postmodern" has become common, particularly in America, since the 1970s. The "post-" prefix is meant to signify a comparison to modernism, meaning a condition that has succeeded the modern condition, probably as a reaction to it. Postmodernism's broad range of meanings make it difficult to define precisely, which is perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the term.

In a nutshell, while modernism implies reinventing some medium's language (whether the medium be painting, music, or anything else), postmodernism implies recycling that medium's language.

More technically, postmodernism is characterized by hybridity, relativism (lack of absolute truth), heterogeneity (dissimilar elements superimposed), aesthetic hedonism, anti-essentialism, and rejection of grand narratives. The following paragraphs will explore these terms in more detail.

A Matter of Language
Postmodernism grew to a large degree out of the twentieth century philosophical debate over language. Language was seen as the key to understanding. Linguists contend that language allows humans to interact with the world, even in the case of a person alone, thinking to herself. If an idea should occur to her such as, "Maybe I could tie a piece of vine to a stick and use it to shoot sharp objects when I hunt," her ability to form such an idea is reliant on using language to conceive of it. Since ideas and meanings are formed through language, it follows that the structure of language is the key to meaning. Language does not describe things and ideas per se, but rather people's collective associations. Meaning is derived from a system of representation. Culture is a system of representation -- the field of semiology is a study of cultural representation. Thinking is a result of language, enabling humans to form social relationships and to categorize the environment with symbols. For example, totemism in some cultures is not simply a bizarre superstition, but rather a system of categorization of humans and nature that links humans, plants, animals, and gods into an ordered system.

The problem is that since we must use language to describe language, ultimately we are trapped in it and are thus unable to see beyond it well enough to describe it accurately. Reason is therefore not absolute, timeless, and stable. Meaning is relative. Signs and symbols can never be absolutely decoded. All is interpretation, even science. There is never just one meaning to anything. The closer science gets to definitive understandings, the further it seems to get from these understandings (read a history of theories on the nature of the universe for an example). Science and reason simply represent our mythology; they are not objective, but simply agreed-on conventions.

It should be noted that a scientist would disagree with this view. A scientist would point out that science is verifiable, making its points with equations and objective data. Furthermore, it is constantly held up to scrutiny, and equations are only accepted after rigorous examination. And they can be discarded as soon as a new equation disproves an old one.

Absolutely Eclectic
Postmodernism does away with absolutes, and views the world as being composed of multiple perspectives, each with some degree of truth to them. The "postmodern condition" is characterized by a skepticism towards the metanarratives that are at the basis of modernism. The postmodern condition is not based on universals, but on locals: what do people in a given time and place find significant? The vernacular prevails. While modernism was focused on social function of the arts, postmodernism is deliberately lacking in social function. The postmodern is eclectic, humorous, and unpretentious. Simulations via computer modelling allow styles to be manufactured, mass produced, and standardized. Electronic simulation creates the standardization of local phenomena, homogenizing them and commodifying them, de-contextualizing them, creating another type of uniformity than that proposed by the modernists. Thus the postmodern condition derives as much from the rise of computer technologies as from debates over language. The concepts of the "global village" and "virtual realities" are the result of breakdowns of physical location, new forms of interaction among people who may never actually see or hear each other, and instant transmission of cultural ideas to different places.

Hyper-realities -- simulated and controlled environments -- typify the postmodern condition. Disneyworld and Las Vegas provide artificial realities that refer to nostalgia, other times and places, fantasy worlds. To some extent this might also be true of shopping malls, with different theme shops and areas that allow shoppers to wander from environment to environment, culture to culture -- the world at their feet, available for easy purchase. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has been said to resemble a theme park. ID cards associate patrons with a Holocaust victim, whose progress patrons follow as they go through the museum by pushing the ID card through computer stations. The repetitious films of mass killings lose uniqueness, and thus their effect. There's a certain desensitization that can occur as the Holocaust becomes objectified and an element of a spectacle. Does the museum give people real insight into the Holocaust, or rather reduce it to a kind of virtual reality game?

Eclectic postmodernism refers to an absence of aesthetics or truth in the face of the capitalist market. With a lack of absolute truth in science and historical metanarratives, the only firm system to rely on is capitalism and the mass media. Commodification in its many forms -- fast food, genre films, trendy fashions, etc. -- results in a society embracing a hodge podge of cultures and styles, all superimposed. There is no attempt made at underlying meaning; there are just new forms of quotation. Appropriated images, like the masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, prevail. (Thus exemplifying the irony of critical terminology: this work of Picasso is generally regarded as the birth of modernism in painting, yet this appropriation of cultural imagery also falls within a later "-ism" of postmodernism.) Historical origins and motivations are disregarded entirely. An age of reproducibility often results in nostalgic imitations of yesteryear's mass-produced items (e.g., a CD player in a case resembling an old-time radio).

Often, the postmodern condition is cited as something that came about throughout the 20th century, as social organization shifted from imperial states to a decentralized world economy. With the world consisting of multiple perspectives, all with their own validity, distinctions between popular and elite culture become blurred. Discontinuity supercedes continuity, difference supercedes similarity, and indeterminacy supercedes logic.

The following examples might be said to typify the postmodern condition:

Soundbite Success
It has been said that little is actually new in this era. Like Hollywood box office successes, the past is "sequel-ized": quoted, re-invented, re-combined, and superimposed. The new consists of recombinations of the old. Foreign music is often blended with Western pop, and vice versa. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, devotional music is played over Western dance beats and synthesizers, and is popular with the young people.

In 1989, 20/20 Magazine referred to the postmodern condition when it described "...a movement that's already been dubbed Planet Pop, a world of Madonna rain-forest benefits, ideologically-sound World Peace ice-cream bars and electro-Israeli-hip-house dance hits."

Postmodern Music
In music, modernism began to be questioned in the 1960s. In America, rock and folk music became the language of the socially progressive. Modernism had become synonymous with "difficult" music. Postmodern music throws off pretensions of requiring audiences with a certain education or background, yet at the same time requires that its audience be able to understand the various quotations, references, and ironies inherent in its collages and quotations.

What is called postmodernism in music is based in the idea of various styles coexisting within single works. Composers such as John Cage either invite audiences to create their own concept of what music is ("4'33"), or to create their own musical sense out of controlled randomness (Williams Mix and other chance pieces).

Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1968-69) for orchestra and eight amplified voices is often cited as an early postmodern work due to its reliance on quotations. Berio described the third movement as follows:

The main text of the third section includes excerpts from Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, which in turn prompt a selection from many other sources, including Joyce, spoken phrases of Harvard undergraduates, slogans written by the students on the walls of the Sorbonne during the May 1968 insurrection in Paris, recorded dialogues with my friends and family, snatches of solfege, and so on.

It is an Gustav Mahler...The result is a kind of "voyage to Cythera" made on board the 3rd movement of Mahler's Second Symphony. The Mahler movement is treated like a container within whose framework a large number of references is proliferated, interrelated and integrated into the flowing structure of the original work itself. The references range from Bach, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Berlioz, Brahms, Berg, Hindemith, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky to Boulez, Stockhausen, Globokar, Pousseur, Ives, myself, and beyond. I would almost say that this section of Sinfonia is not so much composed as it is assembled to make possible the mutual transformation of the component parts...Quotations and references were chosen not only for their real but also for their potential relation to Mahler. The juxtaposition of contrasting elements, in fact, is part of the whole point of this section of Sinfonia, which can also be considered, if you will, a documentary on an objet trouvé recorded in the mind of the listener. One might describe the relationship between words and music as a kind of interpretation, almost a Traumdeutung, of that stream-of-consciousness-like flowing that is the most immediate expressive character of Mahler's movement. If I were to describe the presence of Mahler's "Scherzo" in Sinfonia, the image that comes most spontaneously to mind is that of a river, going through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another, altogether different, place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical presences.

William Bolcom (1938-) has written self-consciously polystylistic works such as Open House (1975), in which two movements sound like atonal expressionism, another sounds like a late Romantic symphony, the next is a light waltz, then there is a jazzy musical-theatre type movement, then a movement meant to sound like something written by Bach.

John Corigliano's (1938-) opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1992) mixes 18th, 19th and 20th century styles. Furthermore, it self-consciously refers to the European opera tradition by its examining the French Revolution through the eyes of the writer Beaumarchais, author of a Figaro trilogy (the first two of which were made into classic operas by Rossini and Mozart). The work contains quotations of these earlier operas, plus a reference to Wagner at the climax of the first act when a soprano valkyrie enters and proclaims "This is not opera!"

Jazz saxophonist John Zorn's (1953-) recordings juxtapose a variety of classic and popular music styles, along with television and movie soundtracks, plus selections from Indian ragas and Japanese vocals. Minimalists such as LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass rely on continuous repetition that denies any role of memory and expectation in the listener. And entertainment like MTV relies on quick image shifts to form (or substitute) its contents.

David Byrne, principal composer of the band Talking Heads, also made the following observations in a conversation with Timothy Leary that might describe the postmodern condition:

It seems that post-WW2 with television and movies and records being disseminated all over the globe, you have instant access to anything anywhere almost. But you have it out of context, free-floating. And people in other parts of the world -- India, South America, Russia -- they have access to whatever we're doing. And they can take what they need and leave the rest. They can play around with it, they can misinterpret it or re-interpret it. And we're free to do the same thing. It seems to be a part of the age we live in, that that's a unique thing about this period, that there is that kind of communication, even though it's not always direct communication with people in different places -- it can lead to direct communication if you follow through.

The use of a computer as a compositional tool also has postmodern elements. Since Lejaren Hiller's Illiac Suite, composers have used computers to model musical styles and to create new pieces that are about the modelling of recognizable styles. This methodology contains a number of postmodern elements, such as quotation, heterogeneity, and the commodification of cultural phenomena.


Richard Appignanesi, Chris Garratt. Introducing Postmodernism. Totem Books USA, Icon Books UK. 1995.

Henry Giroux, Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994.

JANN PASLER: "Postmodernism." The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1/13/03), (