Diving into a world where Foucault rejects his own influence over structuralism, and Lyotard debates the existence of a ‘grand narrative’, one could only assume that they had entered a Postmodern fantasy. In this world, the idea of a modernist scientific mentality is rejected, to be replaced with an emphasis on separation, textuality, and skepticism. This school of thought encompasses many cultural fields, influencing works in literature, art, and ultimately the works of contemporary composers. Composer and music theorist Jonathan Kramer suggests that in relation to music, Postmodernism is less of a “style or historical period”, and more of an ‘attitude’. In Kramer’s ‘The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism’, he outlines what is meant by a Postmodern ‘attitude’, describing it as “challenging barriers between high and low styles”, and “void[ing] totalizing forms”. This ‘attitude’ has inspired the works of many contemporary composers and the style in which they write.
Emerging in the latter half on the 21st century, Polystylism is a musical technique which can be seen as a direct result of this postmodern era. This technique combines elements of diverse musical genres and compositional techniques into a unified body of work. Polystylistic works often present a blunt juxtaposition of styles and incorporate elements of previous genres. A leading composer in this school is Russian-German born Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). In an essay entitled ‘Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music’ (1971), Schnittke introduces the idea of Polystylism, describing it as “not merely the ‘collage wave’, but also more subtle ways of using elements of another’s style”, and argues that Polstylistic elements had subconsciously existed throughout musical history. He cites Stravinsky’s famous work ‘Apollo Musagetes’, in which “the quasi-antique neoclassicism conjures up clearly defined associates with Lullym Gluck, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy”.
The influence of Polystylism has also spread to works within the rock genre. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, written in 1975 by British rock band Queen, embraces that concept of a musical collage, consisting of three main segments, each with a change in style, tone and tempo. Firstly the piece opens with a cappella four part harmony sung in B flat major. These multi-tracked vocals create a sense of eeriness and fantasy through a harmonic timbre and use of silence. Then moving into a 4/4 rock ballad for vocals, piano, bass and drums, the piece takes a standard rock, voice/chorus structure. At 3:03, a sudden modulation down to A major, altering of the rhythmic pulse, and rapid harmonic changes, leads us into a pseudo-operatic section. This is represented by a choir of voices, moving in chromatic step motion and voices in dialogue, both characteristics of operatic music. The vocals are supported by drums, bass, piano and timpani, all of which play in an imitative fashion, creating a “wall of sound”. A ‘bell like effect’ is also used during the lyrics “megnifico” and “let me go”, giving the appearance of a choir echoing the main operatic melody. At 4:07, the style once again changes dramatically, with a modulation to E flat major leading into a heavy rock section. The final section is characterised by a return to tempo and electric guitar solo, accompanied by bass and drum kit.
Through a look at the nature of contemporary music, we can see the influence of the Postmodern technique of Polystylism. Not only does this technique exist within orchestral music, but has spread into numerous other genres, as shown through an analysis of rock band Queen’s song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Joseph Henry Auner, ‘Postmodern music/postmodern thought’ (2002)- Volume 4 of studies in contemporary music and culture, Routledge Publishing
Arthur Asa Berger, ‘The Portable Postmodernist’ (2003)- Rowman Altamira
Alexsandr Ivashkin, Alfred Schnittke & John Derek Goodliffe, ‘A Schnittke Reader’ (2002)- Indiana Univeristy Press
Carl Johnston, ‘The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2004)- [Television Production] BBC