Postmodern Music

Postmodern music challenges the idea of high art. It often indulges in minimalism, which simplifies music through repetition of a short series of notes. This creates a repetition of texture rather than structure. Microtones divide an octave into an unusual number of parts. Postmodern music often incorporates sounds not normally associated with music, like other media used to present the postmodern style, postmodern music often makes use of, bricolage, pastiche, collage and montage. Collaboration between different types of art, painting, dance, sculpture and music are common, creating a new type of pastiche. Randomness is often employed in compositional approaches.

Postmodern Music, John Cage (1912-1992)

The American, John Cage’s work demonstrates that there is no such thing as silence. He took joy in use of ambient and unexpected sound. That is the music of life. One of Cage’s most important contributions to music was his interest in including sounds not normally considered to be musical. Cage was always interested in experimentation, collaboration and stepping outside the bounds of conventional western musical forms.

Cage developed methods of creating music through random processes. He was interested in chance as a guiding principle in much of his work. His method of relying on chance came to be called, indeterminism. A reflection of Cage’s interest in eastern philosophy, he abolished ego by incorporating elements in his work that he purposely relinquished control over. He also loved to modify instruments, expanding their musical possibilities. An example is when he placed objects between piano strings to modify the sound. He included the use of tape recorders, record players and radios.

The concert he and his percussion ensemble performed in 1943 marked the first step in his rise to becoming the leader of the avant-garde musical movement. Cage collaborated with the generation of dancers and choreographers that taught him, with other rebels of his own generation, and with up-and-coming young artists that would influence future generations. He worked with dancer/choreographers Pearl Primus, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Paul Taylor to name a few.

His work with the Judson Dance Theatre allowed him to collaborate with other rebels who were pushing the boundaries of modern art in search of new and exciting possibilities. In the article, “It’s Less Like an Object and More Like the Weather the author notes, “As Cunningham’s singular style and technique coalesced, his company did as well, and by the 1950s he had established the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cage, Cunningham, the company dancers, and crew members (along with their costumes, set pieces, props, and food) traveled the country in a VW Microbus.”1

Cage’s most fruitful collaboration lasted for half a decade. His life partner and long-time collaborator, Merce Cunningham was also a member of the Judson Dance Theatre. The two artists worked with others but always returned to collaborate on projects together, but it was not a typical collaboration. John Cage put it this way, “In our collaborations Merce Cunningham’s choreographies are not supported by my musical accompaniments. Music and dance are independent but coexistent.”2 This is the core of both artists’ work. Both were interested in the possibilities of random creation so they worked separately, only coming together occasionally to review their progress. They combined the works later, creating moments when the music and the dance came together by pure chance.

One of the things that Cage is best remembered for is the varied methods that he developed for including chance in his compositions. He also included ambient sound and sounds not formerly considered to be musical. Click on the links below to listen to some of his work.

la cage a’ john 5:58

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QuickStep 1:57

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VII.wavWaltz 1:57

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XVII.wav 6:22

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Postmodern Music, Philip Glass

Philip Glass (1937-still living) is an American composer and pianist. He wrote symphonies, movie soundtracks, operas and minimalist and experimental compositions. Glass developed a style later dubbed minimalism where he used short groupings of notes and repeated them over and over with tiny changes that keep the piece from being merely repetition. Instead, one senses a gradual development within the piece. In the 1970s Glass expanded his interests to include more work with harmony, melody and chordal structures.

During the past 25 years, he has composed 24 operas, large and small; eight symphonies; two piano concertos; concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra; string quartets; a growing body of works for solo piano and organ; and soundtracks to films ranging from new scores for the stylized classics of Jean Cocteau to a documentary by Errol Morris, from the groundbreaking soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi to Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (for which he won a BAFTA Award). His collaborators have ranged from pop artists such as Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt to writers Allen Ginsberg and Doris Lessing, among many others.3

To hear more about Glass and to hear parts of one of his pieces, click on the video link below.

Philip Glass Harmonium Mountain 2:17

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Here are two short pieces by Glass that to listen to.

Otomatic #1 :59

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Otomatic-repeater #2 1:44

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In performance, Glass dresses like an average Joe, denying the tuxedo look of most classical performers. He both rejects and incorporates his classical training in the creation of his original work. Because Glass is still working there are not a lot of samples that are free of copyright but there are lots of his works that can be heard on you-tube and other sites that are accessed without charge. His most accessible piece is the album, Glassworks.

Other postmodern composers to investigate are:

  • Pierre Boulez
  • Zygmunt Krauze
  • Earle Brown
  • Luciano Berio


1 “It’s Less Like an Object and More Like the Weather.” Northwestern Libraries. https://sites.northwestern.edu/cageanddance/jcmc-late/
2 Ibid
3 “Philip Glass – composer” National Endowment for the Arts. https://www.arts.gov/honors/opera/philip-glass accessed 09/17/2022.


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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