A Modernist Manifesto

Of course a modernist manifesto in 2020 is a bit absurd (pun half-intended), but something has to be done -- or, to put it another way, we have to start somewhere. Postmodern culture, which has produced so few things that meant anything to me, has been stone dead for quite some time but its ability to envelop and ironize anything makes it hard to transcend. It's a blockage that needs clearing away.

I've always written manifesti of some kind at times like these, even if they were usually private, so here goes.

  1. No new words: not "neo-modernism" or whatever. Just "modernism". Non-specialists are always amused to discover that what cultural historians name "modernism" existed in the past and is no more. They're right; that's ridiculous.
  2. Seriousness instead of irony or "coolness". If you decide to do something, commit to it for the next ten years. Don't be ashamed to tackle serious subjects (if tackling subjects is your thing) or to go deep into your practice. If your practice is failsafe, or can fall back into an ironic stance, it's worthless.
  3. Polystylism is exhausted; no more pastiche or "cut and paste". Stop indecisively grazing at the buffet and order a proper meal. Be a distinctive flavour, pungent and divisive.
  4. The individual composer-genius or improvisor-genius is still dead.
  5. Honesty to materials. No fakery! Away with orchestral sample libraries and the like unless their digital capabilities are fully and audibly exploited. Always use the real thing, whether it's acoustic, analogue or digital. Never ever lie to your listener. If you can't afford what you take to be the real thing you're probably labouring under an illusion about who you are and what you're doing. Let's hear what's at hand.
  6. Functional harmony is suspect; functional tonal harmony is highly doubtful. A serious, long-term exploration of any musical system might be modernistic, you just have to go so deep that you invent your own (version of a) language. That's extremely tough to do with tonality.
  7. Music does not need an audience but it must serve a purpose. What can people use your music for?
  8. There are no longer any gatekeepers but ignorance is no excuse for mediocrity. Information about music is more accessible for the average Joe with an internet connection in 2020 than it was for a music undergraduate 50 years ago. Use it.
  9. Music has a social and economic context. That isn't usually what it's "about" but it also can't be ignored. The question of how music can play a critical role in society is still unsolved, but that doesn't mean we don't know anything about it (do your reading!).
  10. Financial success doesn't legitimate or delegitimate. Social media success doesn't legitimate or delegitimate.
  11. The quest for novelty is just consumerism; so are repetitions of what was previously successful. Tradition is alive and you are the growing flesh of it. Just don't try to insert yourself into a tradition you haven't earned a place in.
  12. People who say there's nothing new to be done haven't gone deep enough yet. There's music yet to be made that sounds nothing like anything you've heard before. Lots of it.
  13. Modernist music is far more popular today than at any time in the past. Your music reaches far more listeners now than it ever could have before.
  14. Theoretical justifications are dubious. Look at the mess gallery art is in with respect to "theory"; nobody wants to end up there. Real theory (philosophy) is important but demands seriousness. It's optional, though; better no theory attached to your work than the bogus kind.
  15. Conceptual stuff can be useful when it doesn't function as a justification so much as ways of working that you choose to expose to your audience. Showing your audience how you work isn't required but is worth considering. Either way, a way of working never justifies the end result.
  16. There might be something more important to do than music right now. In that case, stop making music and do that thing instead. Don't make bad music "about" that thing as a diversionary tactic. Do what must be done (care for your family, make a political intervention, pay your mortgage, whatever); music will still be there when you're ready for it.

All these may change in the future, of course. A manifesto is a piece of ephemera; it relates to the moment in which it's written. Nothing is permanent but for now this sums up where I'm at.

Yves Klein, "Leap into the Void"