Cavell's influential mid-1960s critique of the “new music” of the postwar era poses significant challenges for contemporary composers who value this music. As with postmodernist critics, he has ably identified shortcomings in justifications for recent modernist music. With the benefit of time, however, the distance between Cavell's and the postmodernists' views concerning subjectivity and the role of the arts in defining it have become increasingly clear. In Cavell's scenario, a contemporary listener or critic confronted with the new music faces a sort of existentialist crisis: he or she is unable to individually affirm the value of a music that conforms to no recognizable models for music yet accepts the fact that this music is, according to Cavell's model of modernism, the fruit of an inexorable historical development. Cavell's interest in this dilemma stems from the wider aims of his philosophical project, particularly his focus on the perils of the nihilism he finds evident in deterministic and mechanistic theories of the arts. In this light, in both “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It,” Cavell appears to be using new music primarily as a vehicle to articulate his concerns and to criticize formalist theories of artistic interpretation, such as that of Wimsatt and Beardsley. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of an effort on Cavell's part to engage this music with the same seriousness that is evident in his writings on modernist authors and visual artists. Toward the end of the article, attention is drawn to the ethical responsibility, given the situation Cavell has sketched, for a critic of the modern arts to make a commitment, either to an existing modern music or to a possible future music.
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Research Article| April 01 2010
Franklin Cox; Stanley Cavell on Modern Music: “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” After Forty Years. Journal of Music Theory 1 April 2010; 54 (1): 37–60. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00222909-2010-010
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