postmodernism in philosophy and music
“Postmodernism,” as a term, is historically and morphologically bound to Modernism. It is customary to introduce it as a heterogenous “movement” evoking “a number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, [and] a repertoire of procedures and attitudes,”  which arose in reaction to and out of modernism—more specifically, in reaction to the operating “leftover” Enlightenment projects concerned with “truth” present in twentieth-century modernism. On a morphological aspect, Jurgen Habermas qualifies “modern” as a term that “appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when the consciousness of a new epoch formed itself through a renewed relationship to the ancients – whenever, moreover, antiquity was considered a model to be recovered through some kind of imitation.” Therefore, defined in its broadest way, modernism borrows a term that has been freely adopted throughout history, which furthermore, simply characterizes the present and contemporary as opposed to the past and antiquity. Under this light, it makes little sense to speak of post-modernism as post-present or post-contemporary, thus barring one from simple etymological definitions.
When following a historical investigation of concepts that have influenced postmodernism, one mainly deals with the past in the form of its re-description. Yet, it would be a mischaracterization to understand it as ahistorical; quite the contrary, dominant postmodern themes like fragmentation and multiplicity were latent currents fixed in writings even before Romanticism. Furthermore, reading prominent postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, one gets the sense that a key concern is, precisely, the past and its infinite re-reading(s). Tracing postmodern tendencies back in time, one could arrive at Friedrich Nietzsche, who persuasively attacked nineteenth-century European uniformity, thus supplying a dominant contemporary philosophical precedent for postmodernism. It is in Nietzsche that postmodern theories (e.g. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard) typically find an ally who equally “emphasizes the deep chaos of modern life and its intractability before rational thought.”  Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not linear and self-consistent, since in the particulars, Nietzsche cultivates various ambiguities and contradictions. His influence on postmodern theories, at least in my view, is less that of a “traditional” philosopher propounding a unified theory, than that of a poet, writing intense, emotionally charged “aphoristic” concepts.
Similarly, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger — to name but a few core philosophers considered precursors to postmodernism — complicate matters even further. Each philosopher, operating unknowably in the radius of postmodern debates-to-come, fractalizes the idea of constructing a unified (whole) theory of postmodernism. Therefore, it should be no surprise that arriving at a definition of postmodernism is difficult, precisely because on one hand, the term’s etymology is malleable, and on the other, it offers fragmentary historical precedents that are difficult to coalesce into a coherent definition.
A more fertile (practical, yet equally fragmentary) approach in defining postmodernism entails displaying its contrasting relationship to twentieth-century modernism, while bypassing the problematic historical excavations. This method usually results in juxtaposing schematic differences between prominent twentieth-century works and concepts. Literary theorist Ihab Hassan conveniently schematizes some of the differences in Table 1, which “draws on ideas in many fields – rhetoric, linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, political science, even theology – and draws on many authors European and American – aligned with diverse movements, groups and views.” 
Form (conjunctive, closed)
Art Object/Finished Work
God the Father
Antiform (disjunctive, open)
The Holy Ghost
Table 1. Hassan’s schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism. 
Hassan further qualifies the table by adding that the “dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences shift, defer, even collapse; concepts in any one vertical column are not all equivalent; and inversions and exceptions, in both modernism and postmodernism, abound.”  Hassan cautions that although postmodernism exists as a designation, it should not be taken wholesale as if it represented a homogenous movement. Therefore, for all practical purposes, a definition cannot be found, since at best, one can only discern fluid and insecure dichotomies, but never “truth” statements. The same definitional problems plague music that has been influenced by postmodern thought. In fact, music may fare even worse, since it is not clear the degree to which a linguistic comparison is justified.
The problem of definition in music is itself nothing new; it harks back to problematic and dubious associations of musical periods with their historical counterparts in other areas. Impressionism in painting and Impressionism in music, to take a popular example, are concepts that converge in order to help introduce composers like Debussy in introductory music courses. However, if minimal scrutiny is exerted, one must dismiss the comparison as useless and misguided, as did Debussy himself.  Writers addressing postmodernism in music, incapable of reaching a satisfactory unified definition, have also been resorting to schematic comparisons.
To my knowledge, the most thorough book on postmodernism in music was written by theorist-composer Jonathan D. Kramer, and published only recently, posthumously under the title Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening. The first sentence of the book immediately rings the familiar bells of undecidability:
“Postmodernism is a maddeningly imprecise musical concept. Does the term refer to a period or an aesthetic, a listening attitude or a compositional practice? […] And, simply, what is musical postmodernism? […] Many composers I know use “postmodernism” in the corrupted sense of the press, in apparent ignorance of the thinking of critical theorists such as Eco or Lyotard. Yet the ideas of such writers are relevant to today’s postmodern music. A more subtle and nuanced understanding of postmodernism emerges once we consider it not as a historical period but as an attitude.” 
Just like Hassan, Kramer (understandably) proceeds to enumerate postmodern musical traits in the hopes of contrasting them from other types of works. Kramer considers postmodernism to be an attitude and not a historical period; this view would consider Beethoven, for example, as a postmodernist given that it is the listener’s ethos that grants Beethoven’s work its authority and not the other way around. Since Kramer is mainly interested in discerning a postmodern attitude of listening, his enumerated traits occupy an ambiguous position that is more dependent on the listening subject, and less dependent on a priori assumption of traits.
1. is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both
2. Is, on some level and in some way, ironic
3. Does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present
4. Seeks to break down barriers between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” styles
5. Shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity
6. Refuses to accept the distinction between elitist and populist values
7. Avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not allow an entire piece to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold)
8. Includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures
9. Embraces contradictions
10. Distrusts binary oppositions
11. Includes fragmentations and discontinuities
12. Encompasses pluralism and eclecticism
13. Presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities
14. Locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers
Table 2. Kramer’s list enumerating postmodern traits in music. 
“I am writing in such detail because I want to declare my intentions […]
I strive for: complete liberation of all forms
from all symbols
of cohesion and
away with ‘motivic working out’.
Away with harmony as
cement or bricks of a building.
Harmony is expression
and nothing else.
Away with Pathos!
Away with protracted ten-ton scores, erected or constructed, towers, rocks and other massive claptrap.
My music must be
Concise! In two notes, not built but ‘expressed’!! […]
And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, the illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the sense or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music. It should be an expression of feeling, as our feelings, which bring us in contact with our subconscious, really are, and no false child of feelings and ‘conscious logic.’ […]
My only intention is
to have no intentions!
No formal, architectural or other artistic intentions […], no aesthetic intentions – none of any kind; at most this:
to place nothing inhibiting in the stream of my unconscious sensations. But to allow anything to infiltrate which may be invoked either by intelligence or consciousness.”
1. The postmodern musical work is hedonistic; it displays an enjoyment of its own combinatorial imagination with a certain frivolous air unique to music; its reception occurs in the mode of pleasure (e.g., Kagel, Match).
a. Poly-stylistic postmodernity: here the dominant aspect is pluralism, and thus the availability of different historical periods.
2. The postmodern musical work is narrative; it presents a musical narrative, not a composition of sounds or structures (e.g., Rihm, Musik für drei Streicher).
b. Ironic postmodernity: the main intention is that of travesty, parody, irony and excess
3. The postmodern musical work is formally heteronomous, i.e., the difficult problem of form is solved, this being achieved through a strong connection to previously existing and functioning forms (e.g., Ligeti, Passacaglia ungherese).
c. Hybrid postmodernity: crossover effects are intended, primarily with forms of music outside of European art music (e.g., pop music or “world music”)
4. The postmodern musical work refers outside of itself; its material is taken from other music (e.g., Schnittke, Third String Quartet).
d. “Naïve” postmodernity: this does not react to the developments of modernity or the avant-garde because it does not, or does not want to, recognize them. Examples are neo-traditionalism and some minimalism
5. The postmodern musical work is ironic, and thus pushes artistic truth towards a distortion of the truth and shows that what is presented is not intended in the way it is presented (e.g., Thomas Adès, Brahms).
e. "Bad” postmodernity: this would be an expression of formlessness, a proximity to trash, amateurism, and charlatanry
f. "Epigonal postmodernity: this would be a form of “New Music light”– not primarily poly-stylistic or ironic, but drawing on material from an earlier generation, especially atonal music (in contrast to the postmodern preference for tonal music in the 1970s)
Table 3. Mahnkopf’s schematization listing characteristics and traits in postmodern music. 
 Ihab Hassan, “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” In A Postmodern Reader, ed. Joseph Natoli, Linda Hutcheon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 280
 Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project,” In Postmodernism, ed. Patricia Waugh (London: Edward Arnold, 1992), 160
 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 44
 Ihab Hassan, Ibid., 281
 Ihab Hassan, Ibid., 280-281
 Ihab Hassan, Ibid., 281
 “I tried to make ‘something else’ of them and to create – in some manner – realities what imbeciles call ‘impressionism,’ a term as poorly used as possible, especially by art critics.” Eric Frederick Jensen, Debussy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 125
 Jonathan D. Kramer, Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, ed. Robert Carl (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2016), 5
 Jonathan D. Kramer, Ibid., 9
Jonathan Kramer, “Postmodern Concepts of Music Time,” In Indiana Theory Review, Vol. 17/2 (1997), 21-22.
 Jonathan D. Kramer, Ibid., 10
 Jonathan D. Kramer, Ibid., 178
 Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Rutledge, 1996 / Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2006), 203
 Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 10-11; 25-26
 Arnold Schoenberg, “Two Letters to Ferrucio Bussoni.” in Source Readings in Music History rev. edition, ed. Leo Treitler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 1283-84; 1288
 Piece written in the same period (1808-09) as Schoenberg’s letter to Busoni quoted above.
 Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Musical Modernity from Classical Modernity up to the Second Modernity—Provisional Considerations. http://www.claussteffenmahnkopf.de/pdfs/Mahnkopf-Musical-Modernity.-From-Classical-Modernity-up-to-the-Second-Modernity–Provisional-Considerations.pdf
 Ibid., 6
 Ibid., 7
 Ibid., 8
 Ibid., 11
 Richard Rorty, “Deconstruction,” in Literary Criticism Volume VIII, ed. Raman Selden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 172-73
 Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Ibid., 12
 Dylan Evans, Ibid., 113
 The current version of the essay does not include anymore David Harvey’s critique of postmodernism. In summary, Harvey argues that postmodernism is a product of late-capitalist society, and despite some of its innovations, in the end, it serves as Capitalism’s schizophrenic apology. This conclusion is, generally speaking, a politically profound and meaningful understanding of some postmodern trends, yet, as far as aesthetic and artistic private judgments go, this same conclusion is similar to the empty (and ever perpetuating) “political” attacks of past music in past eras of human history. In any case, I simply judged the section to be too peripheral to the essay’s flow.
 Richard Rorty, “Response to Dennett,” in Rorty and his Critics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 105. C.f. Rorty’s definition of truth to J.T. Fraser’s: “… Truth is that class of knowledge which individual and communal perception judge to be timeless.” from Julius T. Fraser, Ibid., 438
 Richard Rorty, “Habermas, Derrida, and Philosophy,” in Truth and Progress (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
 Here Rorty is paraphrasing Akeel Bilgrami’s position. In Richard Rorty, “Response to Dennett,” Ibid., 105
 Richard Rorty, “Habermas, Derrida, and Philosophy,” Ibid., 311
 Ibid., 310
Luciano Berio, Two Interviews, (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985), 79
 Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 97
 Ibid., 99
Bejo, Ermir. “Postmodernism in Philosophy and Music.” July 8, 2018.