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let me tell you: Twenty-First Century Musical Modernism

Online / Zoom
Wednesday 13 January 2021 (13:00-14:30)

Hosted by the Centre for Modernist Cultures

Full description: In 1912 Ezra Pound claimed that poetry should be composed ‘in the sequence of the musical phrase’, and in 1942 T. S. Eliot wrote of ‘The Music of Poetry’. The modernist interest in music’s ability to communicate without words is well documented, and it was always political as well as aesthetic: musically informed writing sought to contest existing forms of art and ways of thinking. Twenty-first century novelists continue to use music to investigate the relationship between art and politics. Richard Powers’s Orfeo (2014) explores the ideological challenge twentieth-century dissonance poses to a composer who prefers tonal music, while Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you (2008) – which is narrated by Hamlet’s Ophelia – uses an Oulipian constraint that draws on modernist musical techniques and aims. Both novels demonstrate an enduring interest in modernism and music, but while Orfeo merely has characters who talk about those topics, let me tell you is itself a modernist novel. Through this distinction, I explain how and why a twenty-first century novel can be modernist. If modernism was a consequence of the early twentieth century, why are writers returning to its preoccupation with musical methods of formal innovation today? Attending to music shows that modernism is not a fixed aesthetic category, and its time has not passed. Music’s non-lexical ambiguity still appeals to novelists like Griffiths who participate in the recurring, modernist attempt to use aesthetic forms to engage with otherness and break thought of its habits.

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