Music scholar Seth Brodsky takes the momentous fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as an opportunity to re-evaluate modernism through psychoanalysis and music in his first book, From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious (University of California Press, 2017), which received the Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society for 2018. Every year the Lewis Lockwood Award honors a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year by scholars in the early stages of their careers.
“In studying and analyzing the events of the remarkable year 1989, Seth offers a wholly new and exciting way of thinking about modern music,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities.
Since joining the University of Chicago faculty in 2011, Brodsky has found unending inspiration in the scholarship of his colleagues. His undergraduate and graduate education took place on the East Coast: his BA from Wake Forest University and his PhD from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. At UChicago, however, Brodsky immediately felt at home, finding a different way of thinking and a spirit of solidarity and collaboration among his peers.
“Modernity is not done with us,” said Brodsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Music and Interim Director of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. “And so I wondered: are we done with modernism? Modernity’s classic problems—the ‘disenchantment of the world,’ the ‘solid melting into air,’ the catastrophic reaction formations to this constant loss of footing—are still contemporary problems. So it would make sense that the aesthetic field is still—if not solving them, then at least processing them. This is what I call modernism: a way of trying to process the impossible problems of modernity, to render them sensible and thinkable, even enjoyable. In 1989, a year some claim as not only the end of modernity, but the ‘end of history’—how in such an end-year is this process unending? And what does it sound like?”
For Brodsky, answering that question began by revisiting the past.
“European composers in 1989 were rehearsing questions and contradictions that were not so different from those defined by Beethoven’s late style of the 1820s,” Brodsky said. “Those questions kept returning, insisting in an almost rhythmic way, in the 1890s, again in the 1910s, yet again in the 1950s, and so on. Freud famously distinguished between repeating and working through, but in music, we see a confluence: a ceaseless repetition of the attempt to work through. In From 1989, I wanted to look at this bigger picture—a long musical modernism.”
To develop his argument, Brodsky creates a speculative history, engaging theory and philosophy as much as the historical archive and prioritizing psychoanalysis to re-conceptualize the history of modern music.
“Thanks to his distinctive methodology, From 1989 is original, provocative, and seductive,” said Berthold Hoeckner, Professor and Chair in the Department of Music. “Above all, it will make a generation of musicologists rethink how music history can be written. The book enters into a major re-evaluation of modernism and offers multiple access points that coalesce around the historical datum of the so-called Wende year in Germany. It provides an inventive constellation of ethnographic and journalistic vignettes, music analysis and criticism, and, above all, a historical evaluation based on Lacanian psychoanalysis.”
Brodsky’s scholarship engages with several fields, including psychoanalysis, art history, and philosophy. However, it was his Wake Forest mentor David B. Levy who first inspired him to study his core discipline, musicology—especially the world of Beethoven that became essential to the project. Another major influencer was T. J. Clark, a giant in art history and Professor Emeritus at the University of California—Berkeley, who served as a constant presence as he wrote From 1989. Brodsky also drew from the work of Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič, Slovenian philosophers focusing on psychoanalysis, as well as Bruce Fink, a practicing Lacanian psychoanalyst and prominent translator of Jacques Lacan’s writing. Another of Brodsky’s mentors, Daniel Albright, passed away unexpectedly as From 1989 was going into production, and Brodsky dedicated the book to him—a tribute made more meaningful by its enthusiastic critical reception.
“Seth’s book is totally dazzling in its reinvention of the 20th- and 21st-century story of modernism,” said Martha Feldman, the Mabel Greene Myers Professor in Music. “Seth gives us an account that makes music central to modernism. From an avowedly psychoanalytic position, he presents a novel explanation for why modernism had to be filled with the new, including new forms, new movements, new claims about newness, and new notational practices. Modernism in this gloss is a kind of fantasy-driven impulse that has a compulsion to topple the known order, and one in which music, with its ambiguous relationship to language, is an ideal medium.”
While art and architecture may treat modernism as a more historical phenomenon, Brodsky believes music resists such periodization. “It’s not that music transcends history—not at all,” Brodsky said. “But it has a peculiar relationship to the historical. Music sticks to all kinds of contexts, but it also gets you in your bones. It’s singular in its ability to invade your space and take over your fantasies. Which means it is always involved in the ahistorical too, in what never was.” For his next scholarly project, Brodsky wants to think about musical repetition on a spectrum, ranging from the second-by-second experience of a pulse to the galvanizing return of history. It is certain to open up new scholarly and critical paths.