I recently finished reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s excellent Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989. (The “fall” in question is that of the Berlin Wall.) Instead of being organized around styles or “-isms”, the book’s chapters are thematically organized around, as Rutherford-Johnson puts it:
a series of quasi-psychological states… There are five of these: permission, fluidity, mobility, excess, and loss.
One benefit of this intriguing organization is that it lets Rutherford-Johnson bring into close proximity works that might not otherwise be discussed together in a stylistically organized book. A book that has insights about Ferneyhough and David Lang in the same paragraph (in the chapter on excess) offers a fresh perspective. Rutherford-Johnson is a virtuoso at weaving together a coherent narrative from diverse strands.
The number and range of pieces discussed is astonishing, with a great many artists mentioned whose work was new to me. This was partly because of the experimentalist bent of the book. That emphasis is not unreasonable; there is more music discussed here in which, so to speak, man bites dog instead of the other way around since the former is news in a way that the latter is not. However, much of the music described here strikes me as more interesting to read about than to hear, and a lot of music that is of interest to hear is left out. This is inevitable, given a book of finite length, and Rutherford-Johnson acknowledges the book’s limitations. Still, there must be a theoretical framework for a book on recent musical history in which conceptual art would be a bit less prominent while music of composers from my own generation like Augusta Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, or Eric Chasalow, as well as that of senior figures like Mario Davidovsky, Richard Wernick, or John Harbison would also find a place.
There is much to learn from Music After the Fall, and the book is gracefully written. I hope at some point someone writes a book of music history that encompasses even more of the new music I admire and love.