Modernism: the people’s music?

Adlington, R. (2018) Modernism: the people’s music? In: The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music. Routledge Music Companions . Routledge. ISBN 9781472470409 (hardback) 9780367733032 (paperback) 9781315613291 (e-book)


Literary historian Rachel Potter has argued for ‘two genealogies of modernism’: the first is marked by hostility to a mass public and everyday life; the other champions democracy and the popular voice. This chapter examines the second of these two genealogies, as it manifests itself in music. What happens when music that rejects fundamental aspects of culturally dominant musical styles does so in the name of ‘the people’? Drawing upon a range of examples including early Soviet modernism, post-war Italian communist composition, African American free jazz and contemporary noise music, my chapter critically surveys the different stances that have been taken by musicians on this question. I then proceed to address two persistent problems that confront any progressive musician wishing to make the case that their practice serves the popular cause. The first of these is difficulty: what places do pleasure and challenge occupy in modernist music, and how might the apparent chasm between practitioners’ and audiences’ experiences be bridged? The second is difference: how does the modernist impulse to contest mainstream culture contend with the present-day heterogeneity of differing cultural norms, subject positions and concepts of the aesthetic?

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