It's a pretty overused word these days, for some synonymous with pretense, a category for confused art. People who don't know what they've made will often default to describing it as "postmodern". As in, "anything goes" or "I'm not sure...". As in, "it is what it is, that's just my take on things". You see I just spun around really fast seven times and then stopped suddenly and blurt out the first thing I thought of - there you go, that's art! Oh I just got out of bed, there's some more art! An easy solution, a creative crutch, some cheap ideas, a compromise, blinding the common folk with arty-farty-ness, wooing the academic stiffs with plastic soul, relying on a process to mask a gaping lack of ideas... Hacks, the lot of them! Right?
Ok, maybe that's a tad unfair - after all, we can't help but be influenced by the world around us, and we live a postmodern life - there is no escaping it. I grew up listening to a lot of The Beatles, around the same age I was playing a lot of Bach and becoming aware for the first time in my life of the power of film scores. Have these things imprinted on my music in any practically audible way? Probably not, but it's all in there... all bits floating around in the big soup in my head.
A good working definition of postmodernism that everyone can agree on is difficult to nail down - I'm not sure what I think of Kramer's itemised list of 'postmodern musical characteristics' ("multiple temporalities"?). Georgina Born puts it simply: a synthesis of modernist processes and mechanisms in popular-culture forms (where modernism is defined as music written to challenge and educate, popular music written to sell or promote). K. Robert Schwarz echoes this idea when, in discussing the creative approach of John Adams, he describes a blending of process-based creation and intuitive response as an "eclectic postmodern" ideology. Certainly all of my favourite composers and artists do this — from Fitkin to Eno, Warhol, Bjork, Bowie, Reich, Bryars, Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein. Mixing up approaches, consciously blending styles, "pick & mix"ing influences, using impersonal processes but treating or developing the results in an artistically intuitive way.
I guess this 'stylistic synthesis' definition works for me; if it is the right definition then that makes me one of them. How often does one ever talk about themselves in the context of an artistic ideology...? You may sound like a complete wanker if you keep banging on about how your work shows tendencies towards this and proclivities towards that, but every now and then it is good to think about these things - it helps to be reminded of what your priorities are, why you are compelled to create in the first place.
This postmodern ideology favours a communicative approach. The goal is not to educate or challenge, nor is it to sell or promote. The goal is to connect with a listener; to tell a story or influence a feeling using whatever tools are available. Film composers do this all the time - crossing stylistic barriers, working within cliches, anything it takes to create this connection. If the moment calls for the use of jazz elements, and he or she is not a traditional jazz composer, does this diminish the value of the music? Is it unauthentic? Pretentious? Can composers create music in different styles and traditions and still be taken seriously? Can Jonny Greenwood be a writer of pop songs and at the same time make experimental music, atmospheric soundtracks and then be a credible contemporary classical composer?
Of course he can - because he's a bloody marvellous composer. Music is a language, we use it to say things... and we can say whatever we like. It helps if there is someone listening to what you are saying though, if it can connect with people — at that point where music meets life, in those things that relate to the human existence: patterns, rhythms, melody, the tone of a voice, consonances and dissonances, memory and emotion. All the sounds and ideas that have gone before are now part of the vocabulary.
There is no real incentive for me to compose music that is deliberately challenging and impenetrable - if I were to try, it would be sad and pretentious and I'd probably fail hideously. Admitting alignment with the postmodern ideal is not pretentious, it's the truth about my own context. It's that soup in my brain that's been brewing since I first perceived music as a child, it's my preference to prioritise communication through music, using whatever means. Like Stewie here: