In 1992, music suffered the loss of three of the most outstanding composers of our century, the Frenchman Olivier Messiaen, the American John Cage, and the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. In these three figures, who all lived long and richly productive lives, can be found important clues about the passage of twentieth-century music, for they represent between them three of the great quests which have dominated contemporary musical experience: the metaphysical, the anti-metaphysical, and the popular. In short, we have lost in their passing our greatest religious mystic, our most radical inventor, and the maestro of the tango. And then, with the turn of the year, we also lost one of the great jazz musicians, Dizzy Gillespie, and an era seemed to be over. Four contrasting acoustic worlds, four unique and original voices.

Messiaen (born 1908) shared the metaphysical stance of composers as varied as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Britten, figures of radically different aesthetic persuasions who through their religious attachment all expressed belief in a superior moral order (a tendency more marked among composers than other artists, Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God notwithstanding, because the unsolved mystery of music’s provenance makes it more of a liability). Messiaen’s religiosity was divided between Roman Catholicism and pantheism. His musical idiom is similarly dualistic: both tonal and atonal, made up of both vulgar melody and mathematical construction. Furthermore, Messiaen is a pivotal figure, who occupied the position of father-figure to the composers of the Darmstadt school—the postwar European avantgarde of Boulez, Nono, Pousseur, Berio, Stockhausen and the rest who met at the famous Summer School and constitute the most extreme and uncompromising of the late modernists. It was in Darmstadt in 1950 that Messiaen demonstrated the technique of integral serialism which was adopted by all these composers and which ruled the roost until the 1970s.

Cage (born 1912) was also a mystic, but of a quietistic kind, who took his inspiration from Zen Buddhism, and saw no superior moral order beyond the chance operations of mother nature. This, his music rigorously sought to imitate, and he meted out the same treatment to all the available sonic material of the twentieth century. His originality lay not in the use of non-musical sounds—the Italian Futurists had done this already—but paradoxically in the systematic manner of his treatment of this material. The result: Cage did not compose music, but noise. He made noise musical—but this of course is to beg a number of questions in an age when music itself all too easily ends up as noise. That is, he made noise musical. One of Schoenberg’s pupils in California in the 1930s, he belongs to a tribe of anti-metaphysicals which includes Bartók, Varèse, and the aforementioned Darmstadt composers (except that Stockhausen inhabits a world of pseudo-Wagnerian mythology), who all treated noise in various ways as material for musical composition. As an American eccentric in the mould of Charles Ives, Cage served the Europeans as Messiaen’s foil. Fredric Jameson is correct when he calls him a postmodernist avant la lettre.

Piazzolla (born 1921) occupies a different cultural space. He is found in the company of names like Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose art lies in a special synthesis of idioms: composers who conjoin the techniques of written composition and those of the vernacular, in various different combinations. Piazzolla, whose roots were urban popular music, did this with the tango. In the process he combined the susceptibilities of three great musical cultures, Latin American, North American, and European, and points towards the cultural conditions of the late twentieth century, the breakdown of the hierarchical separation of styles which comes, we are told, with full-blown postmodernism. And because of the quintessential nature of tango, his music also voices that other crucial ingredient of postmodern sensibility, nostalgia.

If this is not an altogether familiar way of looking at music, it is partly because the public discourse of music remains entrapped in old and outmoded pre-technological habits of listening, in which different musics were kept apart because they generally belonged to different kinds of space, both social and physical. This is not the way we hear music nowadays. Nowadays, we experience an acoustic world saturated with recorded sound, spaces suffused with disembodied song. Whether we like it or not, music now comes to us from any direction and in any environment in the form of discs, radio, tape, cinema, television and muzak. Our musical experience is now predominantly what Pierre Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrète, called acousmatic: sounds which one hears without seeing their source. The times we live in: the modern mother is invited to lull her baby to sleep with a cassette, instead of singing the lullabies herself. Since the heterodox diet of music we are constantly exposed to belongs to every style, idiom, dialect, age and genre, the old definitions have become unworkable. When ubiquitous mechanical reproduction pushes music into the realms of noise pollution, it seems that musical values inevitably become relative. This of course is considered one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism, and sows the seeds of great confusion. But if the features ascribed to this cultural moment are such that any combination of them yields up contradictions, the crucial problem is not relativism, but that of heterophony. Not whether one thing can be judged better than another, but being able to hear them at all. Post-modernism is by all definitions neither a traditional kind of artistic movement, still less a singular style, but rather the force-field which has overtaken the former separation of cultural spaces, wherein different media, artistic forms and cultural styles all merge into an undifferentiated continuum, and all such spaces are globally linked in a network of networks which renders their original source invisible.

The emergence of the acousmatic world was already the subject of comment in the 1920s and 1930s by a number of observers in Germany including Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Walter Benjamin, Schoenberg’s pupil Stuckenschmidt, and above all, T.W. Adorno. Trained musician as well as critical theorist, Adorno (who also taught at Darmstadt in the 1950s) contributed a subtle, intricate analysis of the musical condition of the time, and of how the industrialization of culture over the preceding half century had markedly extended the social reach of the high musical tradition, transforming the conditions of listening and distorting the manner of its enjoyment. Using the method he called negative dialectics, he uncovered the process by which the commercialization of music leads to fetishization. The process exaggerates various sensual features of music at the cost of other qualities, the essence gets lost, and popular taste is subjected to the dictatorship of the unmusical ear—an ear trained in the barking of the fairground.

In the late 1940s, when they were all refugees in America, Schoenberg bitterly attacked Adorno in the press for helping Thomas Mann to insult him in Doktor Faustus. Schoenberg should not have complained: in the great rift which then divided the European avantgarde, the split between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, atonality and neoclassicism, Adorno was on Schoenberg’s side. For Adorno things were defined not by what they aspire to but by what they deny, and Schoenberg’s genius lay in his denying the appeal of beauty. He praises Schoenberg’s stance because it acknowledges the force of history. Stravinsky, said Adorno, denies history, by consuming it through infantile regression. At the same time, said Adorno, the terror Schoenberg spread was not the result of his incomprehensibility but came from the fact that he was all too correctly understood: his music gave form to that anxiety and insight into the catastrophic situation of the time which others (Stravinsky was not the only offender), by regressing, evaded.