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Jonathan Cross

From the Technical to the Aesthetic: Analysing Modernism

Anxious debates surrounding the definition of musical modernism have proliferated over recent years, as exemplified by the 2014 round table on “Modernism and its others” published in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association. After interrogation of some of the contradictory positions, my concern in this presentation will be to attempt to evaluate the ongoing relevance (or otherwise) of the idea of modernism as a framing concept for understanding recent music.
I shall take a work for ensemble and electronics by Tristan Murail, Winter Fragments (2000), as a case study via which to explore some of the ways in which a technical analysis can contribute to a wider aesthetic interpretation. That so-called spectral music emerged, at least according to its principal early protagonists, as a reaction both to the serialism that had dominated mid-century debates about musical modernism and to what the composers involved termed ‘musical postmodernism’, and yet was at the same time so closely associated with IRCAM, one of the iconic post-war institutions of modernism, provokes important questions about the value of a monolithic idea of modernism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, about the usefulness of received approaches to the analysis of such music, and how such readings might play into a wider understanding of the social and cultural changes of which the music was a part.