An Aesthetics of Past-Present Relations in the Experience of Late 20th- and Early 21st-Century Art Music

Sam Wilson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Focusing on a selection of musical works from within three genres –- symphony, string quartet, and the piano repertoire –- I argue that the experience of music from the late 20th and early 21st centuries must be understood in terms of its mediation by the continued presence of the past, not simply through reference to past musical formal materials, but also to the history of experience as musically mediated. Following this logic, I explore a discursive strategy based around philosophical tensions central to the aesthetics of post-Enlightenment musical experience –- in particular, the dialectics of nature and culture, and of mind and body. This allows me to interweave closely strands of musicological and philosophical thought, exploring and developing the latter as they have been taken into, exhibited, and played with in a range of late modernist works. I focus on works that draw attention to their historical situatedness, music by Wolfgang Rihm, Helmut Lachenmann, Giya Kancheli, Valentin Silvestrov, Alfred Schnittke, Thomas Adès, Morton Feldman, and Jukka Tiensuu. I draw on, though outline the need to take forward, Theodor Adorno’s understanding of the historical qualities of musical material, yet also foster an understanding of musical experience situated between past and present without recourse to explicitly postmodern quotation or “intertextuality”, something I implicitly critique. Through illustrating points of affinity and convergence between musical works and experiential issues, I pull together seemingly disparate methodological approaches. These include musical semiotics, Critical Theory, embodied phenomenology, and psychoanalytic theory.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Johnson, Julian, Supervisor
  • Beckles Willson, Rachel, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jun 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Contemporary music
  • Musical Semiotics
  • Critical Theory
  • Wolfgang Rihm
  • Helmut Lachenmann
  • Giya Kancheli
  • Valentin Silvestrov
  • Alfred Schnittke
  • Thomas Adès
  • Morton Feldman
  • Jukka Tiensuu
  • Historicity
  • Embodiment
  • Discourse
  • Modernism

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