An Interview with Tim Rutherford-Johnson

By · Illustrations Alex Ketzer · Date 03/16/2016

In his first book, Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 (University of California Press), Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Searching for or describing unities in the present age, which is usually described as fragmentary, may be foolhardy. But as economic, political, and technological forces conspire to create a world that is more homogenous and interconnected, it should not be a surprise to find composers responding—albeit in very different ways—to common sets of questions. As our world is reconfigured in terms of flows (and resistances), perhaps the way past this fragmentation is to turn things on their sides, to seek out the continuities across relationships and networks at the same time as we relish the differences between individuals.” Recently, we had a conversation about some of these ideas through email.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson • Photo Anton Lukoszevieze

Tim Rutherford-Johnson • Photo Anton Lukoszevieze

VAN: Why write this book? Why now? What do you hope to achieve with Music After the Fall?

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Three main reasons. First, there isn’t a history of recent music that covers the wide range of what composers are up to, or at least not in any great depth; what there is is often relegated to the last chapter or two of much longer surveys. I wanted there to be something dedicated and specific, to find out what that would look like. Second, and arising from this, I felt a real need to reboot the history of contemporary music. So many surveys of the late 20th century (in books, in teaching courses) start from 1945, which is a great way to explain the 1950s, ‘60s and even ‘70s, but by the time you get to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, most of the premises that underpin that narrative (the Cold War, social democracy, the rebuilding of Europe) have started to unravel. It seemed to me that those musical histories found themselves unravelling too. Which brought me to my third need: public discourse around new music is weaker than it ever has been. As the histories have unravelled, so has the critical language and frameworks for understanding new music, and [our ability to] communicate it to the wider public has also suffered. There are wonderful exceptions of course, but the way we talk and write about new music today often lags behind how we write and talk about literature, theater, popular music, architecture or the visual arts. My most utopian ambition was to help a little in that respect.

As for why now: it’s a project that I’ve been working on for several years, and the idea itself for longer than that, so any concept of “now” is pretty elastic. But I felt that a generation’s distance had opened up between today’s composers and those of the postwar decades, and between those who wrote about that period and those who are writing about today. If there was a need to rethink how to write about new music, a window was opening up in which to do so. That feeling seems to be supported by the recent surge in books on new music, by G. Douglas Barrett, Seth Brodsky, Jennie Gottschalk and others.

How did you select what composers appeared in the book? It’s nice to see less well-known artists like Will Redman alongside famous names like Brian Ferneyhough.

Early on I knew I wanted to get away from the canonic names of the ‘60s and ‘70s: they wouldn’t help my goal of breaking away from the post-’45 narrative. A few of them are still in there, very much in the context of their later work, but the center of gravity has shifted towards composers who started to hit their stride in the ‘80s and ‘90s or, like Redman, even later.

When it came to choosing, I had to make some straightforwardly pragmatic decisions. Even though I give time to more than 100 composers across the book, I barely begin to offer a complete picture of what music is being written today, there’s just so much of it. So composers, works, performers and other actors were chosen along a range of axes, not all of them compatible with each other: Did I know their work well? Were there recordings and secondary writings I could draw on? Was there in fact nothing about this person, so I could contribute something new? Did I find their music interesting, did I find it problematic? Did it support my thematic framework, did it challenge it? Then there were other factors: Was my definition of “composition” too narrow—what about electroacoustic work, sound art and so on. Finally, were my own biases showing through: Was there a female or non-white composer I could talk about instead of another European man? On this I accept there’s still a way for me to go, but I hope to have made a few small steps in the right direction.

Peter Ablinger, “A Letter from Schoenberg” from “Quadraturen 3.” Winfried Ritsch (Computer-controlled piano-player). Software by Thomas Musil. 

How did you decide how to shape the book? Seven of the eight chapters are centered around themes like “Loss,” “Fluidity,” and “Superabundance.” Why are these overarching ideas important to consider when thinking about classical music since 1989?

The themes evolved organically, in the pre-compositional phase, as it were. For two or three years before I even had a pitch for the book, I’d been been jotting down ideas—themes, pieces, people—that I thought should be in a book like this. I started to arrange them on my wall on notecards, trying to discern what shape they wanted to be, and gradually they sorted themselves out. Books outside music were big inspirations: discovering the art critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s writings in the middle of this process was hugely important. They gave me a vocabulary for a lot of what I’d been trying to figure out. Books by Zygmunt Bauman and Marc Augé—theories of what contemporary life is actually like, its demands, pressures and pleasures—were also really valuable.

One of the larger concepts you talk about is the idea of mediation, which you describe as “the transmission of music from originator to listener via one form of media or another [which] has been a factor in Western art music since the invention of musical notation itself.” Why is this a key concept in classical music?

Like other big topics in the book—globalization, digitization, the environment and so on—I don’t see it so much as a key concept in classical music as a key concept to contemporary living; which as a consequence had to play a part in my description of contemporary music. You’re right, though, that mediation is something with a longer historical precedent in composed music than in many other forms of art. One of the defining features of what we all call classical music is the fact that it’s written down, for someone else to play, so there are stages of mediation built into the art that aren’t there in, for example, painting or literature. (Theater is a closer analogy, of course.) And that aspect of mediation is a deeply embedded feature of the art: just look at the debates there have been around musical notation over the centuries, and then around recording, to say nothing of the philosophical debates around the ontology of music, over where the piece exists: in the score, the performance, the mind of the listener?

Cassandra Miller, “About Bach” (Excerpt); Quatuor Bozzini

You talk about Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of the “radicant aesthetic” which you identify as “the principle that identity is not a constant value but rather one that is in permanent motion” through “three broad concepts–translation, transformation, and wandering.” How are these three ideas expressed in modern classical music?

In various ways, and in some examples more than others, of course. I’m struck, for example, at how important the process of transcription is to many composers—re-notating a sound or another piece of music to give it a new musical identity. The example I dwell on is Peter Ablinger, so much of whose work is concerned with aspects of transcription or translation: images or places into noise, noise into music. Then there composers I deal with elsewhere in the book, including Isabel Mundry, Michael Finnissy or Cassandra Miller (all very different from one another!), who have written music that deals with other aspects of transcription, writing historical or non-Western music and ideas into a contemporary context. This in itself isn’t new, but what does seem new is that in some way it’s the act of transcription that is foregrounded: the subjectivity of the composer involved, the sorts of decisions they’ve taken in making that transcription, and what this has to say about the presumed permanence of a work of art in the 21st century. Then there are others, Stefan Prins or Liza Lim, for example, whose music doesn’t generally work on the basis of transcription, but that exhibits similar features of displacing or transforming its source material so that what you hear seems to be just one point along a potentially endless series of compositional warps, like a ball of clay at any given moment. Finally, there are still other composers, such as Enno Poppe or Carl Stone, whose music works through those processes of transformation as they are played, creating chains of variations in which nothing seems stable, only the process of constant change.

The feeling of an identity being something that is in constant motion, in continual need of updating, will be familiar to anyone on Facebook. That’s a trivial example, but it speaks to a much wider mode of being—“liquid modernity,” in Bauman’s terminology—that seems distinct to our time, and is inevitably reflected in the music that people write.

Someday, assuming Trump doesn’t nuke the world, someone will be writing a similar book covering music between our time and 30 or 40 years from now. Any advice for the next person attempting to survey a few decades of recent music?

Keep an open mind. Don’t only read about or think about music. Keep good notes—start now! ¶