Once again, our definitions are vague. These labels that we’re using are becoming less and less useful. It appears that the term Totalism can be identified by two (or more) tempos going on at the same time, both of which are audible. I can’t help but think of Ives and wonder if, by that definition, his music would be accepted as Totalism. While listening to some samples, I ran across a lot of garbage, dredging up the bad memories of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives. One especially awful piece is Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, billed as a “Talk Show Opera.” The music is incredibly cheesy and the previews on YouTube are even worse. I get that most talk shows are “in the box,” but this piece fails to instill anything except disdain for composers who want to be innovative and end up with a fifteen-year build up of crap!
Another sad excuse for a musical composition is Michael Gordon’s Four Kings Fight Five. It’s as though Gordon took all of the cheesy electronica of the 1980s and crammed it together into one ridiculous episode.
And then I ran across a gem. I enjoy piano music, for the most part. I rarely find a piece of music these days that I’m listening to for the first time where I get a reaction different than “wow, that’s utter crap” or “that’s half decent.” With Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road, I was completely blown away. I haven’t responded to positively to a first listen of a piano work since I first heard Ives’s “Concord” Sonata a decade ago! Perhaps this reaction is relative to the previous drivel I had subjected my ears to, but Polansky’s writing is wrought with imagery and emotion and is easy on the ears, although atonal at times. A few of the movements walk a fine line of cliche, but Polansky always avoids the pitfalls that his colleagues have fallen into, and the result is quite appealing.
And then we come to Postmodernism: “Postmodernism describes a range of conceptual frameworks and ideologies that are defined in opposition to those commonly associated with ideologies of modernity and modernist notions of knowledge and science, such as, materialism, realism, positivism, formalism, structuralism, dogmatism andreductionism.”  That’s about as vague and all-encompassing of a definition as I could imagine. Great. So what does it mean? It’s as though a bunch of artwork has been made in which no one can quite label, so it’s all one “post-modern” movement.
From the handful of examples I’ve listened to, nothing stands out as terribly inspiring, however I must commend the composers for writing actual music. William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is especially successful in its orchestration! Thinking back on it, I haven’t heard the use of a full orchestra this well done since we were discussing Ives. The addition of electric guitar as well as harmonica were lost on me a little, but the transitions are smooth and the musical intent flows nicely.
Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle is an interesting selection. Composed in 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performed this work twice in one night on the eve of its world premiere.  Again, the orchestration is masterful! Due to the time period, it’s surprising this work wasn’t grouped into some other category, like, perhaps, neoromanticism… but George Rochberg’s music was also referred to as neoromantic postmodernism.
And so once again, our labels are unable to contain this music. What the future holds for music is difficult to predict, but I am certain we will continue to attempt to label everything as it comes out, but we will not be able to contain the success or the failures of that music under any one identity.