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This 250-page study tackles the subject of modernist music from 1980. In his introduction, Metzer defines modernism as ‘the significant departures in musical language that occurred around the turn of the twentieth century’. However, he argues that modernism ‘has not been supplanted’ (by post-modernism) – on the contrary, modernist idioms remain vital in the contemporary scene. Post-1980 compositions have, Metzer suggests, followed lines of inquiry into diverse compositional and aesthetic topics – such as the ideals of purity or silence, or the problems of ‘how to deliver and manipulate expressive utterances’. The author demonstrates how particular compositional states have been prominent in modernism – ‘A compositional state involves the shaping of the musical language in a work so as to emulate a specific ideal.’ The ideal may be purity, silence, complexity or the fragmentary. ‘Works involved with compositional states do not merely mimic a specific condition; rather, they engage an ideal so as to delve into its unique associations and properties. A musical exploration of silence, for instance, can lead to suggestions of absence, death and mystery.’

In Chapter One – Purity – the selected works include Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) and Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco (1980). Chapter Two – Modern silence – ranges from Webern’s fi ve pieces for orchestra to Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima and works by Sciarrino (possibly ‘the only composer to have invoked a god of silence’ – Harpocrates). In Chapter Three, Metzer fi nds that the fragment is a type of piece almost exclusive to 20th- and 21st-century composers. Again Nono’s Fragmente-Stille features, as well as Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments.

The lament and sonic fl ux are the focus of Chapters Four and Five respectively. The adagio from Ligeti’s horn trio is examined, while works by Saariaho, Lachenmann and Neuwirth also feature in these chapters.

This superbly produced (and expensive) book is for serious students of musical modernism, clearly not for the casual reader.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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