Sunday, 15 October 2017

The inhumanity of 'forgotten' people

Shocking interviews on TV with both refugee families in Germany, and local Germans who voted for AfD, the extreme-right, one could say: almost neo-nazi party, who play the card of German national identity and the 'threat' that refugees form for the 'Germanness' of 'Das Volk'. You see very young refugee children, full of life and joy (because of ignorant of the fragility of their position, with only temporary permit), speaking German already, and worrying parents because of permit issues, work issues and hostility of the locals, and seemingly civil, simple German people, who feel threatened by foreigners, fear for their childrens' future ('will this then still be Germany?'), and who calmly, friendly but pertinently explain that 'these people' don't belong here and should go home. That their home no longer exists, is not their problem, it's the foreigners' problem. Question: 'And the children being born here, going to German schools, speaking German, must they go too?' The answer is also calmly and steadfastly given: refugee children, even if they are born here, are and will remain foreign and will never be German, because being German means background, which has been built-up over generations, they have no roots and will not get roots. All without any hint of awareness of the inhumanity, cruelty, and thoroughly un-European, un-civilized nature of their opinion. When the interviewer says: 'What you say, isn't that just racist?' then they are shocked, oh no, this is not racist at all, race does not come into question, these people just have to go.

Now, strictly speaking, such opinions are not directly racist, but they are cruel, uncivilized, primitive, and come from a layer of society of simple, hardworking people, who do not have any intellectual background which would enable them to understand the time in which we live and the bigger questions of Europe and the world. You will have to accept that these people watch the news, see the endless streams of refugee families with little children on the shoulders, ploughing through barren lands in an effort to save their lives, and it does not touch them in the least, because that is not happening in their backyard. It is a grave deficit of imagination and humanity, on a very basic level. One of these Germans said - a worrying house wife: 'We never get the feeling that the government listens to us, that we have a voice'. That there are also other voices, which may have something better to say, simply does not come-up into such minds. These are the people who do not consider themselves neonazis or extremists, but they partake in massive rallies screaming: 'We are the people!' (the regular 'pegida' rallies). No awareness of history, of the wider world, of Europe. Just primitive instincts.

To my feeling, the mistake by European politicians was - and is - not that they take-in refugees, that is only normal and absolutely necessary given the wider context and Europe's identity as a civilization - that is why the resistance against accepting refugee numbers by EU member states is so embarrassing, although again understandable from a historic perspective: eastern Europe has been isolated from the world for half a century. No, the mistake was and is, that the political parties don't stress the process of Europeanization enough or just not at all. Immigrants in the USA have, mostly, two identities: that of their culture and the American identity, and that combines quite well. A Chinese family in Kentucky has the American flag in the front yard and eat Fu Yong Hai for dinner (their children may opt for a Big Mac). Since culture is different from the political and social context, Europeanization can be achieved in such a way that the original culture of immigrants are left untouched - except where it is in conflict with Western civilizational values, like sharia, genital mutilation, burning of widows, killing the neighbour when he talks dirty to your wife. Within Europe, mixing of nationalities and cultures is going on already for a very long time, but of course, the differences between north- and south-Europeans and West- and East-Europeans is not so big as - presumably - between a Danish bourgeois family and a Syrian one (although I bet these differences are not at all as big as people may think). People who fled death and destruction can adapt easily in Europe, if they are helped and educated in European ways of life, and most of these ways are entirely beneficial, especially for women and children. Of course there are, and will be for a long time, problems of assimilation and employment and education, but Europe is certainly able to handle them - it is in its own existential interest, failing is no option.

This wave of rightwing extremism and entirely outdated nationalism, which threatens to undermine all the achievements of Europe since the Second World War, is also - and maybe foremost - a reaction against a modernity which has neglected two important things necessary for a normal, balanced and civilized society: culture (in the widest sense) and the cultivation of home, of feeling safe and belonging to a place, a location. Both elements are not entirely rational but mainly emotional. It is the elites who, without financial worries, easily travel from one place to another, within or outside Europe, who enjoy holidays on the Fuji Islands or go on safari in Kenya because they are bored, but the majority of people focus on the everyday burdens and consider everything that does not directly affect their life, as something happening far away, as if on another planet. If they are feeling at home in their environment, and their income is not threatened, the information coming from the media about 'life out there' is consumed but not digested - why should it? But if there are not enough reassurances from the state, and appropriate measures taken, to convey the message that Europe will continue to be Europe, and Germany and any other European nation will continue their identity, because newcomers will become Europeans, there will be rebellion. It is all about insecurity and the lack of reassurance.

All this has influence upon culture: where orchestras and opera houses confront cuts in their subsidies because they are considered no longer representing a cultural 'centre' of some community, of a shared civilization, and are seen as 'no longer relevant for modern times', this would reflect the giving-up of an age-old, highly developed cultural identity, which does not need to be xenophoob to maintain its viability. It is not relevant whether every type of civilian does or does not visit concerts or operas; it is the sheer presence of cultural institutions and the art forms they represent, which is the point. From this centre of cultural identity, education and Europeanization can open the institutional doors to people from other cultures, and we see this already happening on a small scale.

Decennia of leftwing social engineering, mixed with populism and a superficial, 'progressive' idea of modernity, have eroded Europe's cultural identity, and such things trickle-down to the base of the human pyramid, there where levels of education and intelligence are lowest. And now these levels protest - without understanding that in fact, while they think they only raise their voice, on the longer term they are damaging their own interests and the interests of the whole of society. It is a protest against an eroding modernity which, in combination with an unfair globalism and sudden appearances of a head scarf in the local street, creates instinctive reactions rooted in primitive feelings of being threatened - understandable but very dangerous. Hence the inhumanity of those simple Germans, who think they are defending Blut und Boden by voting for an extremist party and feel no qualms in wishing innocent children to meet their hopeless fate the ruins of a destroyed country and continuing death threats. If such thing would happen to their own children, they would take to their axes and knives and hammers and anything that would provide a weapon - but then, 'that would be something different'. In other circumstances, they would wholeheartedly vote for the nazis, as they did in the thirties, when they were really threatened by existential problems on a hughe scale, and did not mind the craziness of the nazi ideology because they lacked the imagination to understand what they meant.

One can only hope for the other Europe, the other Germany: that of the humanist tradition, of civilizational values and imagination, which has given the world one of the greatest flowerings of the human mind. Rightwing extremism has to be opposed with all the available forces, political, cultural, intellectual, educational, and its causes be tackled.

Premodernist qualities

Postwar modernist ideology infiltrated music life in Germany immediately after the Second World War (and naturally, often with the same people who had served nazism enthusiastically), in France a bit later (but not much later), and in Italy it flowered in an especially colourful way in the sixties with Berio as its spearhead. In England, which had not suffered occupation and nazi rule, modernism got some foothold in the seventies but never occupied the entire field of new music, where Benjamin Britten represented the still developing musical tradition. In smaller European countries, sooner or later, modernism as an ideology defined by political positions, was embraced, with more or less success. Where it was heavily supported by the state, to protect it from 'conservative bourgeois resistence' (as in the Netherlands), it got pecularly strong, marginalizing or completely destroying the tonal competition.

In the Netherlands, new music was in a process of development and professionalization from ca. 1900 onwards; after WW II the interrupted thread was picked-up again, to be suppressed again with the intervention of younger composers in the sixties who wanted to follow international modernist ideologies rather than further develop the musical tradition. Dozens of active composers were condemned for being oldfashioned, bourgeois, 'behind the times', or worse, representing an ideologically-burdened past, like the excellent tonal composer Henk Badings who opportunistically took his chances with the German regime to boost his career which resulted in total censorship of his music after the liberation.... this despiccable collaboration threw a shadow over all of his collegues who had preserved their human dignity and had either emigrated or stopped writing and performing.

To show the impressive level of serious composition in those premodernist times, here is a specimen of symphonic music by Marius Flothuis, who survived concentration camps and after the war was artistic leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was also an internationally-renown musicologist who presided over the Zentralinstitut für Mozartforschung in Salzburg.

This is his 'Symphonic Music' from 1957:

Flothuis is hardly played nowadays, only his chamber music occasionally finds a hearing. But if there had not been war, serious music in the Netherlands could have developed in an internationally-appreciated and performed body of music, comparable with music from England, Poland, Spain, or Italy. The 'new music establishment' in Holland, centered around the national and monopolizing Fund for the Performing Arts which 'controls artistic quality' (its openly formulated mission), now prefers hip, conventional modernism mixed with Americanism, and nonsense, to the detriment of older existing music like Flothuis', or Hans Kox, who stubbornly worked on the fundament of serious music.

Some samples of representative Dutch 'new music':

There is hardly an audience for this stuff, but that does not matter since both its writing and its performances are subsidized.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Boulez, again

Searching the internet for something, I stumbled upon this interesting discussions about Boulez again, which I had forgotten about, on the roaring music website Slipped Disc where people contribute from the most diverse corners of life, bound by only one thing: a feeling of commitment to the noble art form of classical music. Some comments and reactions demonstrate how much of postwar ideology has persisted, even after such long time, among music lovers. Also it is interesting and instructive to see that what any musically-trained ear can perceive immediately, can be veiled by theory, conformism and plain ignorance.

Experiments against reality

I stumbled into an interesting article of amost 20 years old, but with strikingly appropriate overtones for our own time.


The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once described totalitarianism as an “experiment against reality.” Among other things, she had in mind the peculiar mixture of gullibility and cynicism that totalitarian movements inspire, an amalgam that fosters an intellectual twilight in which people believe “everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”


What is 'renewal' in the arts, in art music? From Romanticism onwards, it has been the individual, subjective approach of the artist which was considered the 'essence' of art. If a work was not very different from all other works, it could not be really good. Hence the drive to transcend boundaries and limitations, in an intense search for 'originality' which was seen as the expression of a unique personality, the only existing one-off personality of genius. Hence the many 'isms' that emerged in the arts, and in music, in the course of the 19th century, when the romantic ideal of the unique, anti-bourgeois artist was the ideal. This development created many new possibilites in the arts, and most of them were enrichments, in the sense that the repertoire of means available to the artist was considerably extended. Also it meant that a much greater diversity in styles was possible, much more so than in former ages.

When the drive of originality becomes more important that the awareness of artistic quality however, originality becomes meaningless: also a serial killer can be very original. In serious art, the notion of originality can have different meanings: before 19C romanticism, originality was the way in which the artists handled the means which were generally accepted, without undermining the fundaments of the art form. But which are the fundaments of the art form? This is nowhere 'fixed' in an orthodoxy and subject to continuous assessment. But that does not mean that there is no fundament and that everything determining a work of art is entirely random and merely a 'cultural construct' which can be changed at will. Art is born from deeper layers in human psychology than the nature of its means.

In the 17th century, one custom in painting was to use a brownish underpainting, which forms the basis of the work and which is then covered with the appropriate colourings, more or less transparent according to their expressive function, so that the underpainting would shine through the whole at the end of the process. This aspect gives an atmospheric effect which enhances visual depth and unifies the image; it was one of the extensions of means that Leonardo da Vinci achieved (and experimented with by the earlier Bellinis) and which was followed by most of the painters afterwards. Johannes Vermeer however (17C), used a lightish-grey underpainting, which made it possible to enhance the brilliance of the colours being added to it. It was this brilliance and clarity which struck the French painters in the 19th century who later-on became 'the impressionists', as something to be further explored, and hence the striking effects of light and atmosphere they achieved. This is an example of renewal of means which left the fundament of the art form untouched; before Leonardo, painting was - most of the time - also including underpaintings, but not as an atmospheric effect, and those paintings are clear and sharply-defined as a result (and not less good for that reason). Using a brownish underpainting was not suddenly 'exposed' as something faulty and undesired, there came simply more different possibilities available, depending upon the vision of the artist. A tradition was broadened, not demolished or fundamentally changed.

When an art form begins to express itself in forms which are entirely personal and subjective, it stops communicating and it becomes something else (Ligeti: 'My work is not for the public, not even for myself, it is a thing in itself'). It is then no longer part of a living tradition, and as we know, 20C modernism was based upon a very narrow, limiting sense of what a cultural tradition is - in fact, it was a  very 'kleinbürgerliche', populist idea of what tradition means. A clear formulation of tradition, convention, and canon can be found in 'Classical Architecture; The Poetics of Order' by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (MIT Press 1986). It is not about music, but the same processes can be found in the history of art music:

'Classical architecture, as we have seen, is based on formal conventions that can operate perfectly without being explicitly stated. Being able to design or see classical architecture is like being able to speak or understand a language; one joins a cultural tradition, a social universe. It implies the incorporation of formal conventions and the fitting of these conventions into a larger receiving structure in the mind. In real life, people are not shown the classical canon and all its levels and schemata. They simply come into contact with buildings, with events about buildings. Only slowly is the canon and its schemata crystallized. [...] They [the schemata] are tacitly nested in the building beheld. [...] The formal system of classical architecture has been a domain with blurred boundaries; the classical canon has been constantly modified, like any social convention. The classical building is an expression of this evolving canon that it confirms. At the same time it is the product and the creator of the canon.' (Page 172-173)

This is an apt description of a living process, and not of an abstraction or an orthodoxy. Also, it should be noted that such description has nothing to do with politics or ideologies, or with progressiveness or conservatism - the existence of a cultural tradition is in itself not a political or ideological thing, however ideologies have tried to annex cultural traditions for their own ends. People try-out things and those which work, are repeated and varied. The elements which 'work', are experienced as such because they relate to 'the holistic nature of human perception', which is part of our biology and part of evolution. Therein lays the hope of a renaissance of art, and of art music.

Circular Zeitgeist warnings

All those numerous atonal / serialist / sonic works, written by (counting from WW II onwards) thousands of composers, have been - if taken seriously, not as music persé but as cultural deeds - warnings of the Zeitgeist of the last century. As musically expressive works the artistic palette, I think, was quickly exhausted by the expressionistic works of Schönberg, Berg and Webern. Warnings against what? Against the descendence of Western civilization into barbarism, sterility, destruction, in short: inhumanity. That serious warnings became fashionable and thus, meaningless as warnings, is part of the thing against which the genuine works warned against - an ironic circle.

But what does one do with warnings? Perpetuate them, turn them into establishments and reward them with subsidies? This latter process reminds me of the shocking play 'The Chinese Wall' (1961) by Max Frisch, in which serious warnings of total Untergang are applauded by the very agent (the emperor) who is part of the forces which form the threat in the first place. But taken seriously, one draws the consequences from the warnings and an alternative route is explored which may eventually open-up new perspectives which are constructive and serve civilization. Is such attitude merely a form of hopeless romanticism, a powerless gesture against evil? But as long as humanity wants to be more than blindly-driven animals, deaf to their own potential, such gestures are the only proof left to demonstrate man's real nature, of which culture is the reflection.

In music as an art form, one such route is the revival of the classical tradition, taken in a broad sense, which is tried nowadays by different composers in the Western world. My own development began with Schönberg, and indeed an understanding of what his work really meant, inevitably led towards the very tradition he tried to supplant with something else, a cultural construct disconnected from nature and from humanity.

Therefore I cannot stop being amazed about the willingness of performers, especially symphony orchestras who thank their existence to humanistic ideas about art and culture, to open their doors to some of the very forces who set out to destroy them.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

French tragedy

Some time ago, I had an interesting exchange with a french modernist composer, whose work had impressed me by its orchestral sonic brilliance, but which in the same time I found quite repulsive because of its aggression and aural ugliness, as if someone had tried his very best to find the most pulverizing sounds an orchestra could produce and then, organized it in a quasi narrative. I had met him once, before having heard any of his work, and his personality had struck me as sympathetic, mild, sophisticated, civilized and well-mannered, apparently an introvert, serious artist. All the more the surprise when I heard what he had wrought. I sent him a message asking him about his intentions, because I felt he was a gifted man but locked-up in some claustrophobic view of what music is, or had to be, and I wanted to know what kind of serious intention could be behind such self-refuting, intense efforts to bring something into the world which was so negative. I had expressed my doubts whether anybody with a musical sense would be interested to get to know such sonic art, and that such intentional ugliness did not particularly contribute to the world.

His last message was a strong defence of his aesthetics and intentions, which I reproduce here, together with my comments which were my answer. I find this particularly interesting because the man's explanations reflect so clearly a postwar modernist consensus, while he was much too young to have lived through the fifties and sixties, and was born in a non-European country which had not suffered through the Second World War. One would expect that someone like that would not quickly be sucked-in into postwar fashionable misery, but his education having taken place in Paris, he apparently had embraced the modernist gospel wholeheartedly. He was not a fool, and he is a well-known and respected composing member of the french new music establishment. It will be understandable that I won't mention his name, out of respect - he obviously is a genuine, and very talented man.

In France, modernism is still the established, heavily-subsidized form of 'new music', and the alternatives (Bacri, Connesson, Escaich, Beffa) are looked upon with horror.

My italics underneath were inserted in his last message and sent-back as a whole. And of course the exchange was in french.


Que vous n’appréciez pas mon travail, je le comprends et l’accepte cela ne me pose aucun problème. Il y a des personnes qui aiment et d’autre disent que c’est de la musique de fous. Mais je ne peux accepter que vous disiez que  ma musique ajoute à l’inhumanité du monde. Elle est profondément humaine et sincere. C’est je crois le plus important pour un compositeur, conscience et sincérité.

Agréé. Mais la sincerité du ‘message’ de la musique est, dans votre musique, la chose qui est  préoccupante: la voix d’une vision entièrement négative et nihiliste.

J’écris par une nécessité profonde…..

C’est pour cela que j’ai réagit, clairement vous êtes très doué et sérieux.

….. ma musique est violent, oui mais pas agressive, je n’attaque personne. C’est votre problème si vous la voyez comme ça.

Non, ce violence est une attaque au public. Qui voulait acheter une billet pour une concert qui ne présente qu’une réflection des choses violantes qui nous entourent dans le monde?

Ma musique n’est pas la pour vous apaiser, vous divertir , vous distraire ou vous soulager, ou vous donner une image idyllique du monde, je me fiche de cela  … je crois que le véritable   art, est celui qui dérange, vous éveille, qui vous fait vous questionner, qui vous emmerde aussi, …  je crois qu’en se posant des question on s’eleve.

Tout cela est dans les limites de l’idéologie moderniste après-guerre (Adorno etc.) et, après 70 années après cette catastrophe, une catégorie historique comme toutes les categories historiques. Et c’est une insulte aux tous les mélomanes qui expériencent, disons, les oeuvres de Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy pas comme distraction mais comme des expériences profondes….. pas comme image idyllique etc. etc. C’est très naif de penser que la seule alternative du ‘commercial entertainment’ est: le son du nihilisme et catastrophe. C’est comme dire: ‘Si vous trouvez quelque chose de beau et de valeur dans une musique, c’est parce-que vous ne comprenez pas qu’en effet vous n’êtes que des monstres vides et catatrophiques, et c’est moi qui vous l’informerai’. C’est un peu bizar, ne pensez-vous pas?

Ma musique n’est pas la pour repondre a une demande du public, a une attente…  elle conduit le public vers des plaisirs différés, des connaissances complexes et variées. sans concessions. Je ne negocie rien.

Ce n’est pas héroique mais suicidale. Normalement, le compositeur veut partager sa vision individuelle – sans concession - avec le public, qui forme un part normal de la culture musicale: trois parties – compositeur, musicien, public. Si toutes les 3 parties sont du même culture, il y a un rapport, et si la vision du compositeur est ‘trop individuelle’ on peut s’attendre à une période de accoutumance. Mais ça ne veut pas dire qu’une musique qui est reçu par le public chaleureusement, n’est qu’une concession etc. etc. …. n’est qu’une tentative à apaiser, avertir etc.…. ça n’est que le cliché moderniste. Comme cette vision, presque TOUT le repertoire qui existe soit sans valeur.

Ma musique a une pulsion fondamentale à transmettre, elle travaille aux racines, au plus profond de l’être humain, elle est imprévisible….

Alors, les racines de l’homme ne sont que nihilistes, confuses, laides? Quelle vision négative des racines de l’homme. Encore, ce n’est qu’une convention du modernisme.  

…. foudroyante….

Voilà l’agression et le nihilisme, comme les fous qui ne savent que de se battre dans le monde.

Je vous l’avez deja dit , ma musique touche l’intuition ( j’essaye) et chaque fois que l’on veut fixer l’intuition on touche à la violence. c’est inevitable. Essayez d’ecrire en ayant en tête cette idee d’intuition de fulgurance … vous verrez la violence.

Mais si ça est vrai et pas simplement suivre le conformisme moderniste, ce n’est qu’une signe d’un problème psychologique qui demande thérapie. Je ne me moque pas, je suis sérieux: tout ça porte à croire qu’il y a un sentiment de la vie très malheureux, et c’est ça que j’entends dans votre musique et je le regrets, considérant votre talent. Tout ce que vous dites ici n’est pas héroique et indépendent, mais tragique et une prison émotionelle.

Ma musique est la mienne et celle de personen d’autre… je ne rentre pas dans le moule  je ne viens pas de la lignée de ceux qui ont tout appris dans les conservatoires… Murail disait de moi : "Son expérience diffère de celle de ses collègues. Son parcours in-orthodoxe donne à sa musique une force très personnelle ». Oui je n’ai pas suivi le parcours traditionnel et je n’ai surtout pas suivi le developpement historique musical… J’ai devcouvert la musique contemporaine avant la musique classique, romantique ou baroque… j’ai fait le parcours inverse de la plus part d’entre vous.… je suis comme ça… tous vos modèles de compositions, vos systèmes, vos trucs, vos développements historiques de la musique … je m’en moque … ce n’est pas cela qui m’intéresse…

C’est seulement se barrer d’une richesse et d’une libération. Le repertoire n’existe pas des formulations academiques - c’est quelque chose vivant - tous les compositeurs qui ont écrit le mieux du repertoire n’ont jamais aimé l’académisme.

Je voudrais vous recommender à lire le petit livre de Nicolas Bacri, qui était un compositeur très moderniste mais qui a découvert la libération offert par la tonalité, le sentiment constructive, l’expression de quelque chose plus précieuse que le nihilisme et la violence, et qui n’écrit pas ‘des images fausses du monde’:


And the rest was silence, regrettably.