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Anachronism, responsibility and historical intension

Allan F. Moore

This article[1] proposes that crucial texts of the high modernist avant garde are marked by the refusal of the mantle of compositional responsibility at all bar the initiation stage, an aesthetic position which has continued into what some would label `postmodern' practices. Justification for it may be sought in a distinctly modernist philosophy of history, in which styles and approaches can call forth the epithet `anachronistic'. Such a labelling is difficult to sustain within the sphere of recent rock music (itself `postmodern' for some, although they are perhaps `some others'). An alternative philosophy of style history is proposed by appropriating Andrew Chester's widely known distinction between intensional and extensional styles and applying it to style history, and seeing what happens.


According to the Marxist social geographer David Harvey, under postmodernity, an orientation towards aesthetics has replaced a concern with ethics. According to the evangelical Christian sociologist David Lyon, that very postmodernity is marked by a `turn to ethics'.[2] This confusion underlying the ethical constitution of postmodernity is at the heart of this article, and will be counterpointed to three related concerns. The first of these is to exemplify the necessity of building a common platform for the treatment of music, whether `popular' or, `unpopular'. I undertake this through a renewed critique of Andrew Chester's formative article which attempted the erection of just such a stage.[3] The second is to embed, within the procedures of presentation, a timely acknowledgement of the very provisionality of all intellectual work. The third may be construed as an attack on both a high modernist conception of history where linear, teleological, development is the norm, and also on a postmodern conception of history, where all miraculously becomes available and possible. My reasons for this concern lie in the observation that some philosophy of historical change is one of the few areas which `popular' and `unpopular' musics are already accepted as having in common.


Consider first that moment when the respective compositional aesthetics of Pierre Boulez and John Cage ran so nearly in parallel. To do so is not a new strategy, of course: by the mid 1950s it had become a somewhat common observation that the former's supremely rational processes, and the latter's supremely irrational ones, were producing equivalent aural results. Consider, however, that this may not be the most pertinent observation. Boulez' Structures, written in 1951, is a work whose outcome is determined wholly by its pre-compositional plan, a plan which applied a numerical programme to discrete musical domains, that programme having been drawn impersonally from Messiaen's Mode de valeurs et d'intensités of 1949 for piano.[4] Everything was, in principle, foreseen by Boulez before the process of putting marks on manuscript began: there were no choices to be made during the act of composition. This might be described as a refusal of compositional responsibility at all bar the initiation stage, for the programme, rather than the composer, produces the actual work that we hear.

The point of contact between Boulez' position, when viewed in this way, and moments in the aesthetic of John Cage, are self-evident. For Cage, the programme (or, more usually, `system') which produces the work was the result of chance processes, whether radio station playlists in Imaginary Landscape no.4, or performer freedom in the later `number' pieces, such as Two for flute and piano. The parallel between these aesthetics, as focused on the relationship between chance and control, had been suggested by George Rochberg in 1959, in his insistence that total serialisation is, in practice, a chance process.[5] His argument rests on the observation that the composer who uses total serial procedures does not anticipate each `event' in all its individuality. Thus, both aesthetic positions represent a vesting of authority in an outside force, rather than in the compositional process. This refusal to intervene, this refusal of a particular compositional responsibility, is what the literary critic Matei Calinescu termed the `scientifistic' approach,[6] and is one aspect of the `responsibility' to which my title alludes. We might characterise `scientifism', or the more usual `scientism' as the belief in a Western, bivalent science as a fundamental `ground', a self-justifying initial axiom.[7] If science is taken as the means to determining reality, then it can be invested with the responsibility for the way that reality develops (for example in the fields of nuclear or genetic experimentation), in the same way that Boulez', or Cage's, system takes responsibility for the actual sounds heard.

There is, of course, a counter to this interpretation. Stephen Davies for example, claims that the `initial' responsibility, which I have slighted, remains important.[8] It seems only to do so, however, if we construct the composer as transcendent but not immanent creator. It is here that a multilateral ethical dimension opens. Firstly, Brian Appleyard powerfully identifies the scientistic approach with the fragmentation of perceived reality.[9] The splitting of domains which takes place under total serialism is none other than this process, taken to a further degree from the gestural fragmentation found in the modernism of the fin-de-siècle and inter-war periods. Secondly, according to David Harvey,[10] this positivist turn to modernism in the inter-war years was one with the concept of science as social control. And, thirdly, as Eric Clarke has pointed out, the aesthetic object resulting from such procedures encourages, and frequently obliges, a subject-position which the subject herself might well find ethically unoccupiable.[11]

A thorough treatment of this topic could, of course, take a number of turns. One of the most important, I think, is discussion of the hermetic nature of the pieces that result: we should note Robert Morgan's comment that "once one has described how the piece was made... one has also described the composition itself... The construction of the system has itself become an essential and inseparable component of the creative act."[12] The context of this article, however, suggests a different direction, one opened up by consideration of what might be thought the most surprising manifestation of this aesthetic position.


There is an evident lack of respect between high modernists and minimalists, encapsulated in Philip Glass' response to Boulez' Domaine Musicale concerts in the 1950s as "a wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music".[13] Yet, despite this lack of respect, the vesting of authority outside the creative process, the refusal to intervene, receives a strong impulse within minimalism, as in Glass' Music in Fifths, or in Steve Reich's Come out (a point Reich acknowledges[14]). Music in Fifths takes a five-finger exercise pattern, repeating elements of it according to a logic derived from arithmetic rather than tonal gestural rhetoric, each time the pattern is repeated.

Example 1

Example 1 supplies a quasi-paradigmatic layout of an early extract: the logic of its gradual additions should be self-evident. Come out takes a spoken phrase, turns it into a tape loop on sixteen tape recorders, which are then allowed to move out of phase very gradually. Both Christopher Butler and Leonard Meyer have called attention to the failure of `communication' in total serialism, due to the lack of redundancy in the musical patterns formed.[15] We may assume a similar failure of communication in Come out, due to its over-redundancy. What matters for the listener in this piece, the strange, progressive dissociation and dislocation of consonants within the original phrase, is what Rochberg would term a `chance' (because `unforeseen') event.

The situation in the second movement of Arvo Pärt's Tabula rasa (1977) is somewhat different, since its effects are reported to have been totally calculated, if rather transparent on the page. Nonetheless, the system of that piece, once set in motion, is allowed to continue to its logical end, specifying the process and controlling the progress of the work.

Example 2

As example 2 suggests, the `system' here is none other than the stepwise extension of a simple ornamental turn in D natural minor, which takes place simultaneously over three temporal and registral levels, a process which has come to be known as `Tintinnabuli' technique.[16] A similar argument can be made for the separate movements of John Tavener's Ikon of Light (1983), a piece emanating from a similar `spiritual' aesthetic, but where the `system' is (in the four outer movements) the gradual unfolding of a twelve-note sequence in canon over four levels. These examples suggest that this external vestiture is far from just being an `avant garde', high modernist, approach, but is one which can perhaps be more accurately identified as a mainstream, late-twentieth-century approach. Boulez may have made clear his ultimate acceptance of compositional responsibility as intervention, in the face of Cage, in various of his Apprenticeship writings[17] and, to be sure, both Pärt and Tavener, Glass and Reich have adopted other techniques as individual pieces may require them, but it seems that an idea once thought cannot be unthought. This idea remains part of the post-war canon.

Some years ago, Gilbert Chase noted a re-orientation in the mid twentieth century in many fields away from `discretely deterministic histories' towards studying `classes of inter-related events', drawing citations from Einstein and Heisenberg through to Wiener's Cybernetics, Lévi-Strauss' Cultural Anthropology and Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, where the "problem becomes one of modeling [sic] the structure of the system, rather than measuring each component".[18] This is clearly true in the `second wave of modernism' represented by post-war serialism, where systems are invented to logically pre-determine the place of every sound, whether in the work of Boulez or Babbitt, or even of the anti-serialism of Xenakis, rather than relying on inherited conventions of rhetoric and expression. Indeed, such a formulation might even include such neo-tonal writing as George Rochberg's: many of the movements of his Partita-Variations of 1976 make use of simple motivic patterns whose excessive sequences are in great tension with their strict diatonicism and gestural logic.

Some justification for this state of affairs may be sought in what we might dare to characterise as Boulez' philosophy of history, distinctly modernist, in which it is possible for styles and approaches to be labelled `anachronistic', that is, to declare their not belonging to the present chronon, however long that is taken to be. The force of this idea suggests an arena where there is some intrinsic (rather than simply associative) relationship between a cultural time (and perhaps space) and the styles and aesthetics which inhabit it.[19] We should note that this `philosophy' seems to be sustained by Boulez more by assertion than analysis.

There is, without doubt, a close relationship between the situation sketched here and the Adornian concept of musical material, which is purported to evolve in an autonomous fashion.[20] This brings the issue of responsibility into sharp focus, for we can easily imagine Boulez arguing that in a work like Structures, he maintains compositional responsibility to musical material (perceived as having this autonomous evolution), in the face of my criticism of his refusal to maintain compositional responsibility to musical material (perceived as the stuff of compositional intervention). Such an argument supports the trend highlighted by Butler[21] that the avant garde justifies itself through its emphasis on technique rather than content. This discussion needs, however, to be extended well beyond the avant garde.


The formative years of my own (British) late adolescence were largely manifested through sound, through what I and others often refer to informally as the `sound of 1967'. By this I refer not to Stockhausen's Hymnen, nor even to Berio's o king, but to a sound which became widely known for its presence within the burgeoning style known as `rock', and which is defined by such things as instrumentation,[22] vocal pyrotechnics, particular modes of guitar articulation, fuzz tone, etc. This sound was typified by the band Cream, to such an extent that each of its members (guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker) felt compelled to move in different stylistic directions on the band's demise in 1969. In 1994, two members of the original trio (Baker and Bruce) joined forces with established guitarist Gary Moore to record the album Around the next dream. [23] Although all three have produced a great deal of varied music since beginning their careers thirty years ago, and although production techniques have changed in the intervening years, the style of the album is unmistakably that of the late 1960s power trio and, even more, that of vintage Cream itself. The album sold well, although unfortunately we do not know precisely to whom. To judge by gig attendance in the UK, old fogies of my generation did not apparently form an appreciable majority. Following what I have characterised as the modernist philosophy of history, this recording should probably be dismissed largely as `anachronistic self-pastiche', as the nostalgic return to a comfortable style which all but ran its course before the advent of punk. Were it the sole example, it could be brushed aside, but in fact high selling UK examples proliferate. Also from the end of 1994, listeners encountered the album Coverdale Page[24] in which Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page attempted to recover the style of Led Zeppelin circa 1975, his more recent collaboration with Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant in recovering yet earlier material, [25] or Elvis Costello's Brutal Youth, [26] in which Costello is reunited with the backing band he jettisoned a decade earlier, rediscovering the style he buried at the same time. The only sense in which we can talk of historical development of the musical material present in these various albums is in terms of production values, which represent an appreciable, but limited, aspect of the style. David Brackett sees Brutal Youth simply as rock pastiche, and Costello's `flattening of history'[27] as a postmodern turn since, after all, the rock era is past. Simply to label this refusal of historical trajectory `postmodern' is, however, too facile. What is happening on these albums is neither an instance either of Jamesonian parody or pastiche, nor even is it the forms of primary signification which Richard Middleton describes as `quotation' or `stylistic allusion'.[28] For the latter to take place, a style is already fully constituted, `closed' if you like, as Brackett seems to believe. Of such a closure, though, there are better examples. Consider the loving, exquisitely executed covers of tribute bands such as the Silver Beatles, T-Rextasy, Limehouse Lizzy, or Bjørn Again, or the idiolectal allusions of Oasis (to the Rolling Stones), of Teenage Fanclub (to the Byrds, the Monkees and Neil Young), of Pulp (to Cockney Rebel),[29] or any number of contemporary `Britpop' alternatives. On Brutal Youth or Coverdale Page, however, we find a passive, respectful utilisation, almost a habitation, of stylistic characteristics still in communal circulation, rather than waiting on the dissecting table.


In 1970, Andrew Chester drew a distinction between two types of musical `construction', which he labelled intensional and extensional. The detail of this distinction has been critiqued elsewhere,[30] but in this context Chester's widely accepted formulation can stand. It had been my intention, when I began rethinking this problem, simply to adapt this formulation and apply it not to the way an individual item of music unfolds, but to the unfolding of a succession of such items, i.e. to a style history. This, of course, would not in itself be new: the concept of progress thought to be embodied within a classical symphony is often accepted as a metaphor for the concept embodied by the history of the classical symphony (in retrospect, of course). I had, however, overlooked what subsequently appeared to be a strange asymmetry within Chester's formulation, investigation of which has had interesting consequences.[31]

Chester distinguished between `classical' music, which consisted of small, indivisible musemes which were put together in additive fashion to form musical pieces, and `blues-derived' musics wherein large-scale structures underwent internal development through quasi-improvisatory practices. He typifies the `classical' tradition thus: "Theme and variations, counterpoint, tonality (as used in classical composition) are all devices that build diachronically and synchronically outwards from basic musical atoms. The complex is created by combination of the simple, which remains discrete and unchanged in the complex unity". For `rock', he suggests that "the basic musical units (played/sung notes) are not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by inflexion of the basic beat".[32] The listener's ear is directed, then, either to the large-scale result of adding musemes, or to the small-scale inflections of received structures.

Equate, for a moment, extensional construction, at the level of style, with what I have called Boulez' position. The result of so doing is the description of the modernist history of style as one constituted by a series of small, indivisible units (pieces). Each marks an advance on previous units, which are necessarily referred back to, but each reference is a reference back, since the past can only be recalled, but not recovered. The focus of time in this case, the chronon, is rather short, since each piece builds logically on what it chooses as its immediate forerunner, in the same way that temporal continuity and progression between contiguous musemes are intrinsic to the classical symphony.

The apparent asymmetry between extensional and intensional construction is seen by trying to equate intensional construction with what has recently been happening to British rock music. Intensional construction pre-supposes an existent structure which will necessarily have an historical dimension, a dimension absent from the `extensional' musemes. Chester himself is, in essence, describing the history of `blues-derived' style. This might be pictured as a large-scale plateau whose vegetation is subject to constant re-exploration, but in the sense of re-presenting it, of again making it present, since it never actually vanished. There are no ethical strictures on the received structures of Eric Clapton in 1967 not doing service for Gary Moore in 1994. In this sense, there is no `going back' to a style which becomes anachronistic, since that style, and that `time', never actually `went away'.

And yet, the existent structure, with an historical dimension, is equally present in Chester's `classical' music: it is incorporated in what we term `genre' or, more colloquially, `form' (the `theme and variations' or even the `counterpoint' to which he explicitly refers, and this is what I take him to mean by his insistence on `diachronic' construction). It is for this reason that any simple, bivalent equation of extensional construction, at the level of style, with the history of the modernist tradition, and an equation of intensional construction with the popular tradition, is inappropriate. At the level of style, it is only the intensional, i.e. that which does not deal with re-combinable, semi-autonomous musemes, which is actually applicable to the entire range of our contemporary music-making.


To return to the earlier form of my argument, the observation that Boulez abandoned the `systemic' approach does not make the work of Glass or Pärt, of Tavener or Rochberg (or even Cage), anachronistic. Boulez, after all, is not the guardian of the language. Rather than having to choose between a linear teleology and an atemporality, we need rather to conceptualise the cultural artefacts expressive of the late modernity which Johan Fornäs insists "have resulted from a real qualitative and quantitative change effected by the consecutive accumulation of modernization processes rather than their reversal".[33] A crude analogy will illustrate. In our current, post-Cold War climate, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has been described (admittedly only by professional politicians) as `anachronistic', but it would only require their use to prove such a description erroneous: to label something an `anachronism' is to presuppose an intrinsic relation between the practice and the historical conditions giving rise to it, a relationship which is being flouted. But the onus is on those whose history is so fabricated to illustrate those apparent conditions and the causative nature of the relationship. Otherwise, it becomes simply a term of abuse, in musical terms a weapon in the battle over musical styles, over the aesthetic value of the popular and the commercial value of the unpopular. Indeed, the notion of `anachronism' is surely a construct, not a description of the relation between events. Perhaps the object of our search should be, rather, the reasons for our error in assuming a particular mode of aesthetic expression to have lost its currency. Even in an age of modernist acceleration, the precise length of a chronon may be longer than we usually allow. Who knows: even Boulez' announcement of Schoenberg's death may prove to have been premature![34]


[1] Previous versions of this paper were read at the first Critical Musicology conference, Goodbye Great Music?, University College Salford, April 1995, and at the British Musicology Conference, King's College London, April 1996.

[2] David Harvey, The condition of postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) and David Lyon, Postmodernity (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1994).

[3] Andrew Chester: `Second thoughts on a rock aesthetic: The Band'; New Left Review 62, 1970, partially reprinted in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (eds.), On Record (London: Routledge, 1990).

[4] Part of that programme was first unpicked in Gÿorgy Ligeti: `Pierre Boulez - decision and automatism in Structure 1a'; Die Reihe 4, 1958.

[5] George Rochberg: `Indeterminacy in the new music' in The aesthetics of survival (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1984). Others had of course pre-empted Rochberg's criticism, most notably Iannis Xenakis' `La crise de la musique sérielle'; Gravesaner Blätter no.1, 1955, but I cite Rochberg here for my own subsequent purposes. Jean-Jacques Nattiez has recently drawn renewed attention to this position in his introduction to the Boulez-Cage correspondence where he points out, not entirely facetiously, that "... in a sense Boulez owed total serialism to Cage, and Cage the concept of chance to Boulez...". `Introduction' to Nattiez (ed.): The Boulez-Cage correspondence, tr. Robert Samuels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.15.

[6] Matei Calinescu: Five faces of modernity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1987).

[7] See, for example, Bart Kosko: Fuzzy thinking (London: Flamingo, 1994).

[8] Stephen Davies: Musical meaning and expression (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), p.362.

[9] Brian Appleyard: Understanding the present (London: Pan, 1992), pp.192-3 but also throughout.

[10] Op.cit., p.32.

[11] Eric F. Clarke: `Comments on "the subject-position"`; Critical Musicology Newsletter 3, 1993.

[12] Robert P. Morgan: `On the analysis of recent music'; Critical Inquiry 4, 1977, p.39.

[13] Cited in John Rockwell: All American Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1985), p.111. During Goodbye Great Music?, the Glass scholar John Richardson reported Glass admitting (as recently as 1994) to admiration for Boulez, so it may be that this story is not to be taken at face value.

[14] Steve Reich: Writings about music (New York: Universal Edition, 1974), p.50.

[15] Christopher Butler: After the wake (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), p.28 and Leonard B. Meyer: Music, the arts, and ideas (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1967), particularly pp.276-9.

[16] See Paul Hillier: `Arvo Pärt - Magister Ludi'; Musical Times, March 1989, and Merike Vaitmaa: `Tintinnabuli - elämänkatsonuis, tyyli ja tekniikka'; Musiikki 2/1990 (as paraphrased by a kind student).

[17] Pierre Boulez: `Current investigations' (1954) in Stocktakings from an apprenticeship, tr. Stephen Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), p.16, `Aléa' (1957) in op.cit., p.30, and elsewhere.

[18] Gilbert Chase: `Structuralism and music: a preliminary overview' in Two lectures in the form of a pair (New York: Brooklyn College Department of Music, 1973), pp.23-4.

[19] In the way that modernity is supposedly expressed by modernism in north-western Europe and the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.A.

[20] See, for example, Peter Osborne: `Adorno and the metaphysics of modernism: the problem of a "postmodern" art' in Andrew Benjamin (ed.):The problems of modernity: Adorno and Benjamin (London: Routledge, 1989), p.44.

[21] Butler, op.cit., p.115.

[22] The particular combination of electric guitar, bass guitar and drum kit.

[23] Virgin, 1994. Note that whereas albums of popular music require discographic identification through their record labels (following bibliographic convention), art music scores are not perceived to require identification through their publisher. Such is the embedded inequality of genres (to which I shall return).

[24] EMI, 1993.

[25] On the album No quarter (Fontana, 1994) which contains covers of songs originally released on Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic, 1969 and 1970 respectively).

[26] Warner Bros., 1994.

[27] David Brackett: Interpreting popular music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.167.

[28] Fredric Jameson: `Postmodernism and consumer society' in Hal Foster (ed.): Postmodern culture (London: Pluto, 1985) and Richard Middleton: Studying popular music (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1990), p.220.

[29] As on Oasis' `Rock'n'roll star' (Definitely maybe, Creation, 1994), Teenage Fanclub's `Sparky's dream', `About you' and `Neil Jung' (Grand prix, Creation, 1995) and Pulp's `Disco 2000' (Different class, Island, 1995).

[30] E.g. Allan Moore: Rock: the primary text (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993), pp.21-3.

[31] The observant reader will notice the sudden intrusion of the personal into this purportedly objective argument. Ellie Hisama, writing from within musicology, has recently praised the rejection by feminist theorists of styles of writing which take on "a disembodied voice of authority", in `The Question of Climax in Ruth Crawford's String Quartet, Mvt.3' in Elizabeth West Marvin and Richard Hermann (eds.): Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz since 1945 (Rochester, New York: Rochester University Press, 1995), p.285. I find it necessary at this point to adopt such a position, although without claiming for myself a feminist reading.

[32] Op.cit., pp.78, 79.

[33] Johan Fornäs: Cultural theory and late modernity (London, Sage, 1995), p.37.

[34] The reference is, of course, to Boulez' essay `Schoenberg is Dead', reprinted in Stocktakings.