The trombone ensemble, Slide Action, performing as part of Robin Haigh’s THE DREAMERS
Here at What is Metamodern? we’ve written quite a bit about indie, popular, and rock music, but we’ve not felt quite knowledgeable enough to discuss the possibility of metamodernism in contemporary classical music. Luckily for us, we recently met Zygmund De Somogyi (they/them) — Zyggy is a London-based composer and music essayist with a Master of Music degree in composition from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. They are here to help fill in the gap! Among many other accomplishments, Zyggy founded the contemporary music magazine, PRXLUDES in 2020. Their debut opera, hikikomori! premiered in 2022 in Oborne, Dorset, directed by the Royal Opera House’s Susanna Stranders. They are also vocalist and guitarist in punk rock quartet, Trouble Sleeping.
As a composer in the midst of developing my own stylistic lexicon, I’ve become interested in what the birth of a metamodern composer, or metamodern contemporary classical music, might look and sound like. What makes a piece “metamodern”? What techniques would it use, aesthetically – and how could one realize different tropes of metamodernism in an art form as abstract as music, while still conveying its many facets and nuances?
These thoughts about what a metamodern composer could be have not existed in a vacuum. Particularly in my academic compositional training, I’ve found myself developing somewhat of a disdain for the environment of “postmodern” contemporary music analysis. While there is no doubt that many of the movements that encompass what we call “process music,” alongside new complexity, spectralism, and minimalism (among many others) have deservedly earned their place in the twentieth-century classical music canon, the way many composers have been “told” to compose – with an approach that emphasizes formulae and emotional distance – just doesn’t sit right with me in 2022. As composer Robert Crehan told me in an interview for PRXLUDES, “I feel like music should be less academic and more intuitive, more impulsive… spontaneous” (Crehan, 2022).
It’s for that reason that when I stumbled across the term metamodernism in early 2022, I was immediately obsessed. It felt as if there was a sudden revelation of “everything I’ve been feeling suddenly makes sense now.” Despite the relative newness of metamodernism in cultural theory, I wouldn’t say that tropes of metamodernism have only just started developing, or that they occur only within a niche group of artists: I would rather say that metamodernism seems to be the order of the day when it comes to composers of my generation. Many of metamodernism’s core markers – elements of ironic sincerity (or ironesty), pastiche, the performatist narrative double-frame (Eshelman, 2008), and the focus on hyper-self-reflexivity (a term coined by the editors of this website!) and engaging with our felt experience – are themes that I feel many of us young composers experiment with and explore, whether or not we understand them in that way. While I can think of many pieces I would consider to be “metamodern” compositions, two pieces in particular have stood out to me as being indicative of what an understanding of metamodernism can bring to the field of contemporary music, these being: Jennifer Walshe’s “symphony,” The Site of an Investigation; and Robin Haigh’s quadruple concerto THE DREAMERS.
(A quick note: if you’re a composer or musician who’s new to metamodernism and its terminologies, I would highly recommend reading this article by Greg Dember, to get some more general background and examples of this trend in arts and pop culture!)
Jennifer Walshe, The Site of an Investigation, and the New Discipline as a Metamodern Practice
Jennifer Walshe, The Site of an Investigation. World premiere by Jennifer Walshe and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. (note: this version is not the same version as the performance I discuss in this article.)
The experience of witnessing the UK premiere of Irish composer Jennifer Walshe’s The Site of an Investigation is hard to truly put into words. In itself, the piece defies categorization. Calling it a symphony — while technically true — does a disservice. Its twenty-six “micro-movements” present a window into the hyper-sensory, “hysterical sublime” (Jameson, 1991) that encapsulates a sociologically postmodern landscape. But for me, the piece goes much further than purely being a postmodern commentary.
Probably one of the most defining moments of The Site of an Investigation happens early on in the piece. In a moment backed with confused laughter from the Royal Albert Hall audience, the percussionists on stage bring out a plush giraffe, before covering said giraffe with masking tape. This could mean a great deal of things. However, for me the giraffe and the masking tape seem to serve less as symbolism, and more as an invitation to delve into Walshe’s performative world: not a world in which music is a static, abstract, purely sonic art form, but a world “in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.” (Walshe, 2016) In The Site of an Investigation, lines between composer and performer are blurred. Walshe herself sings alongside the orchestra, sometimes a sentimental crooning, other times nonsensical ranting about microplastics, Facebook likes, and about using Google AI to bring back your deceased father.
While these themes could have easily been delivered with a sense of ironic distance – as much postmodern literature and music seem wont to do – Walshe chooses instead to lean into the sincerity of these moments of hysteria, invoking, as Rob Laidlow writes, “an incredible line between tragedy and comedy, ironic and unironic simultaneously” (Laidlow, 2022). You can’t help but buy into her world. This feeling is also aggravated by the contrasts and oscillations Walshe makes between irony and sincerity: sometimes you’re covering a giraffe with masking tape, or building a lego-esque pyramid out of plastic boxes, or watching a group of trumpeters shouting like they’re rowdy football fans; and sometimes you’re enraptured by lush harmonies, and string sections – moments of genuine capital-R Romantic bliss – culminating in the final, intimate lines, “We will repair ourselves. We must repair ourselves.”
This blurring of lines that is emblematic of much of Walshe’s work, as well as that of others who see their practice as falling into what she calls the “New Discipline,” not only embodies an oscillation between moments of genuine, unironic pathos and ironic distancing, but also touches on metamodernism as an element of felt experience. For myself, writing with the understanding that our performers are living, breathing humans is paramount to our discipline as composers. This kind of creation that attends to the performers’ physicality feels like just one of the many natural progressions beyond and necessary rebellions against many of postmodernism’s musical offerings. The emotional distance of process-driven austerity – which I see in the works of composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Gerard Grisey, and Steve Reich – is being eroded in favor of an “emergent neo-romantic sensibility” (Vermeulen and van den Akker, 2010) that I see characterizing the next wave of contemporary music practitioners.
However, this is not to say that Jennifer Walshe is the defining metamodern composer (if you Google “Jennifer Walshe metamodernism,” nothing of note comes up, except this article, probably!) – especially as these qualities are often picked up by audiences ahead of the artists themselves. There isn’t one particular way that metamodernism can manifest in composition.
Robin Haigh’s THE DREAMERS and the Braiding of Tragedy, Banality and Uplifting Heroism
Robin Haigh, THE DREAMERS: World premiere, performance by Slide Action and Britten-Pears Contemporary Ensemble
When I watched the premiere of Haigh’s piece SLEEPTALKER with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in June 2021, I was so taken aback by the mesh of styles – not because I couldn’t understand what I was hearing, but I couldn’t understand why I was hearing it. Much of Haigh’s recent work expertly crafts together these bizarre, almost unnatural contrasts. In SLEEPTALKER, moments of atmospheric, textural, almost Lawrence Dunn-esque timbres are interrupted by sleazy muted trumpets and lines reminiscent of musical theater, creating a blurry, romantic haze of surrealism, with just enough nostalgia mixed in to keep it sincere. In AESOP 2 for Orchester im Treppenhaus, the role of the concerto soloist is flipped on its head as Haigh adopts the role of an amateur recorder player, with an accompaniment of flutes imitating trap drums and uncanny microtonal inflections – culminating in a frenetic climax as Haigh’s recorder takes on the cadence of a guitar solo. As Neue Presse writes (translated), “there’s something about making the artless so artful” (Neue Presse, 2022).
Haigh’s most recent piece,THE DREAMERS – a twenty-minute quadruple trombone concerto behemoth – absolutely floored me at its premiere with Britten Pears Arts at Snape Maltings. From the get-go, the piece’s performance was made to feel postmodern – from the spaceman-esque jumpsuits worn by the trombone quartet soloists (shout out to the tromboys at Slide Action!) to the piece’s opening, as the trombone soloists are cast aside in favor of an overtly kitsch commercial jingle – almost like a conscious effort to create a deconstruction of the concerto format, aligning with Haigh’s approach to his ‘AESOP’ series.
Despite this undisguised lean into postmodernism, THE DREAMERS is at its strongest when these moments of irony oscillate with invitations into genuine manifestations of sentiment. Juxtaposing these self-aware reflections of postmodern tropes – or hyper-self-reflexivity – with moments of romanticism and sincerity serves to amplify the impact of both. The most striking moment of this is in the chorale – the piece’s fourth movement – in which the orchestra remains completely silent, with the four trombone soloists emoting together, unconducted. You are invited to take in this moment of air, this moment of stillness. To harken back to the piece’s concept: the chorale invites you to find genuine comfort and emotional value in between the cracks of the insincerity and surface-level appeals of the banal.
My thoughts so far haven’t even touched on Haigh’s idiomatic and unique compositional approach, blending together styles and creating pastiche in a way that feels genuine, honest, real. While many postmodern applications of pastiche combine different idioms and styles to, for example, highlight disparities between them, or even overtly pit elements against one another (AKA what Dember calls destructive pastiche), metamodern versions of pastiche juxtapose elements not to disengage, but to create space, build a sound world, and amplify one’s felt experience. Adding to this metamodern sense of constructive pastiche (Dember, 2018) is Haigh’s use of microtonality: not just quarter-sharps and quarter-flats, but even smaller cent increments, going down to a sixteenth-sharp! These elements serve the uncanny, to let you know something is just off. Even when familiar elements are being juxtaposed against each other, there are subtleties that signal that we’re not just re-treading familiar ground: we are going somewhere else.
Altogether, Haigh’s method creates a work that quite expertly oscillates between the modern and the postmodern, conjuring a metamodern uncanny valley in which both irony and sincerity are hinted at, but never fully realized. This culminates in the final movement, in which one of the most powerful finales I’ve heard this year – the trombonists almost blasting me out of my seat – is suddenly juxtaposed with a quiet, unassuming “thump” which ends the piece. This single, final chord leaves me unsure as to Haigh’s motivations: perhaps the chord is firmly rooted in postmodern ideas, an emotionally distant nod to the traditional “grand finale”? Or, perhaps its meaning lies in its metatextual elements, this “sense of tragedy mixed with banality and uplifting heroism” (Haigh, 2022).
Whatever it is, even more than five months later, THE DREAMERS simply cannot leave my head. There is something so refreshingly honest about Haigh’s writing. While his music feels like it’s pushing boundaries in the perfect way – against the consensus of academic complexity – it never feels like it’s trying to be revolutionary, nor that Haigh is attempting to start a movement. It feels like it channels the hyper-self-reflexivity and felt experience of the composer, and the ironesty and constructive pastiches while “composing millennial nostalgia” (Haigh, 2022), in a way that feels new, refreshing, a mindset that is so ostensibly now.
Conclusion: The Birth of the Metamodern Composer?
Ever since I discovered the term, I’ve started to see elements of metamodernism sprinkled throughout the works of many different composers operating today – even in those whose works overall may fall under more postmodern and twentieth-century aesthetics. It also feels like the call for this cultural zeitgeist has only been getting stronger throughout the world. As Russian composer Polina Korobkova told me a couple of years ago, “I don’t think that it’s possible to talk about feelings completely seriously; it would be naive, you can’t be fully serious, but irony or avoidance is not the solution anymore either. It’s some kind of strange phenomenon of being serious, but at the same time, pointing out the impossibility of this seriousness” (Korobkova, 2020).
It would be disingenuous to say that this article represents the only discussion of metamodernism in composition circles. Other examples of composers writing about metamodernism in their artistic practice include the creation of a “magnetic” harmonic language (Voltz, 2020), or the rediscovery of a way to “compose beauty” in the wake of postmodern deconstructions of the very concept of beauty itself (Meelberg, 2014). And as I’ve shown here, there isn’t a singular approach that characterizes the work a metamodern composer may write. Jennifer Walshe and Robin Haigh are not bravely pioneering through uncharted waters with torches in hand, as great as the imagery is. As I search for ways to create authentic music in today’s turbulent landscape, I find it essential to understand how tropes of metamodernism apply not just to the music I listen to and am surrounded by, but also how they could apply to my own compositions. Perhaps the birth of the metamodern composer is with all of us. It’s not that metamodernism is just some newly emerging phenomenon. It’s already here.
Addendum: Here are some links to a few pieces by British (and Irish) composers working today, in which I’ve noticed some aspects of metamodernism. You may disagree with me on some of these – and some may be more overtly “metamodern” than others – but I implore you to give these a listen (and watch):
- Zhenyan Li – Joker
- Ben Nobuto — i carry your heart
- Andy Ingamells — Petting Zoo
- Genevieve Murphy — I don’t want to be an individual on my own
Crehan, R. (2022) Interview by Zygmund de Somogyi, PRXLUDES, 31 January. Available at: https://prxludes.net/2022/01/31/robert-crehan
Dember, G. (2018) “After Postmodernism: Eleven Metamodern Methods in the Arts,” WiM on Med, 17 April. Available at: https://medium.com/what-is-metamodern/after-postmodernism-eleven-metamodern-methods-in-the-arts-767f7b646cae
Eshelman, R. (2008) Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism. Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group.
Haigh, R. (2021) Composing Millennial Nostalgia: Microtonal Techniques as Tools to Express a Twenty-First Century Malady in Tonal Music, PhD thesis, University of York. Available at: https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/31286/
Haigh, R. (2022) THE DREAMERS, music score and program notes. Access given by the composer.
Korobkova, P. (2020) Interview by Zygmund de Somogyi, PRXLUDES, 5 November. Available at: https://prxludes.net/2020/11/05/polina-korobkova
Neue Presse (2022), review of AESOP 2, quoted on the website of Robin Haigh. Available at: https://robinhaigh.com/AESOP-2
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Laidlow, R. [@positive_ears] (2022) “The Site of an Investigation” by @JenniferWalshe perf last night at the proms by @BBCSSO … [Twitter] 29 July. Available at: https://twitter.com/positive_ears/status/1552935467561242624
Meelberg, V. (2014), “Composing Beauty,” Notes on Metamodernism, 5 May. Available at: https://www.metamodernism.com/2014/05/05/composing-beauty
Vermeulen, T., and van den Akker, R. (2010) “Notes on metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 2(1), DOI: 10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677
Voltz, A. (2020) Metamodern Composition: In Search of an Authentic Harmonic Language, Honours dissertation, University of Queensland. Available at: https://adkvoltz.com/essays/metamodern-composition
Walshe, J. (2016) “The New Discipline by Jennifer Walshe,” Milker Corporation, January. Available at: http://milker.org/the-new-discipline