Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The unwelcome new

Why are so many new works only played once and then disappearing into the drawer? Why are there hardly any new works establishing themselves as valuable additions to the existing repertoire? Why does the regular repertoire of orchestras seem to be shrinking instead of expanding - in spite of the regular premières?

There has arisen a great shift in the central performance culture since 1945. In earlier times, there was a filtering process in place, which gradually filtered-out the mediocre or bad until the best was collected, although some music lingered a long time before it was no longer deemed really interesting (Meyerbeer, for example). This filtering process consisted of a strong commitment of a large number of dedicated performers and audiences who felt music being a very important factor in ‘the good life’ (in spite of Bourdieu’s crazy claims that music was merely an instrument of bourgeois distinction). This commitment covered both ‘old’ repertoire and new works: premières were anticipated with the greatest interest and different opinions debated in heated exchanges, in newspapers, music journals, within family gatherings. All before the onset of music recording.

But since WW II the central performance culture has turned into a museum of which the heart is a programming routine of a restricted repertoire, only occasionally sprinkled with something new, be it from the past (an old work dug-up, dushed-off and wrapped in pep talk), or new (accompanied by hearing manuals). But the territory of ‘the new’ has diversified so much, and boundaries dissolved so drastically – leading to pure sound patterns or pop infested confections presented as serious music – that both musicians and audiences have become indifferent to anything outside the hallowed canon, duly accepting whatever is presented but without the commitment of yore. So, also any interest in debate has evaporated and the truly great performances of today are the achievements of performers in the museum repertoire, which are exclusively reviewed as performances, without any attention for the music. So, without the former filtering process, apart from the core repertoire anything goes, and if something good happens to be performed that also happens to be new, it is not taken-up elsewhere, because the wide-spread commitment which supported musical developments has disappeared.

There are many different factors contributing to this state of affairs, like the recording industry which on one hand has greatly opened-up music to so many people, but on the other hand has bereaved music of the rarity of its performance and led to a blasé and spoiled attitude. But maybe the greatest factor has been the development and claims of postwar modernism which has damaged the reputation of the art form immensily, since it destroyed the credibility with audiences. Even when its harshest products are no longer ‘de rigeur’, the echos of its ugliness and aggression are still in the air, feeding suspicion and indifference.

The late music publisher Ernst Roth, who worked at Universal Edition in Vienna and later at Boosey in London, had close contacts with Stravinsky, Strauss, Szymanowski, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. He was very sceptical about new music which explored ‘atonality’ and set-out to write things which broke with some fundamentals of the art form, like tonal coherence, expression (communication), and form which could be somehow experienced in the listening act, all this forming the basis of contact between composer, performer and audience. He said that he feared that if the audience’s commitment was lost, it would be very hard to get it back, it would unravel the fragile balance of the three parties of musical culture: ‘Even is a symphony in pure C major could be written today, the pulic, indifferent to all types of new music, would reject it.’

That is why it is important that debates are again initiated, and that performers, composers and music lovers begin again to think about the fundamentals of the art form they feel committed to, and its place within contemporary society. Hence the importance of initiatives like the Future Symphony Institute:

Monday, 18 June 2018

Three red warning signs

Important review of three books about the German nazi period, on the website of the New York Review of Books, which should warn us for the implications of the current rise of authoritarianism in the world - which is a slippery slope towards the unthinkable:


Important lesson: what happened in Germany in the thirties was not some particular crazy psycho quake which distinguishes that country from all other countries in the world, but the evil being possible at any place where the difficult, hard-won rules of civilization are put aside, for whatever reason. The current rise of populism, exploited by rightwing parties attempting to undermine the system of liberty and rule of law (and paid by the Russian regime), is trying to create the conditions in which collective evil can take place. Front National in France, the AfD in Germany (scandal of scandals), the other European parties hypocritically sporting names like 'Freedom Party' - which is the opposite of what they entertain, etc. etc. They all have to be resisted and fought against as much as possible. These are the enemies of civilization, and thus also of culture and the humanist, enlightened heritage of the West.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Various types of absurdity

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” (Albert Einstein)

This does not mean that ideas should be absurd to be able to be realized, but that ideas which are conventional, would not have the potential to really contribute to the world. This means that utopias have to be tested both on their constructive potential, whether they would - if realized -  contribute to the common good, and to their being unconventional, all in the context of their time and circumstance.

If we think of the history of art, we see that the best ideas were uncommon in their time and place. The building of large, entirely impractical spaces for worship in the Middle Ages, which developed into the truly insane gothic cathedrals which even transcend the wildest utopian dreams, was not only impractical and unnecessary but also had something absurd about it. Their greatness which still stuns us today, had not been possible if their builders and patrons had not cultivated some absurd wish and insane longing. The same with the idea of reviving the culture of Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance, or the merging of the old baroque counterpoint with the modern classical style as we find in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, Wagner's symphonic operas are 'absurd' from all angles, which ensures their enduring success. Debussy's transferrence of some techniques form the impressionist painters into his orchestral scoring was another absurdist idea, as was his complete discarding of all the compositional rules as were generally accepted and learned in his days, and as was Stravinsky's transforming of primitive folk music and 'circus music' in his ballets. And so on.

The creation of an entirely new art based upon pure sound patterns, the atonal modernism of the fifties and sixties of the last century, was also such an absurd idea, and a more nasty one because it claimed to be a continuation of the European musical tradition - complete with falsifying historic trajectories projected backwards to Wagner's 'Tristan'. The entering of pop into 'new music' of later decennia is another absurd idea, but showing that absurdity alone is no garantee for artistic quality or cultural understanding.

As the phenomenon of change in the musical language became a standard of artistic quality, the unconventionality of explorations for their own sake became a standard as well, with the result that these factors became the basis of music with the exclusion of anything else, and it all resulted in a sea of absurdist conventionality and stagnation. So, we should be looking for another type of absurdity, and hark back to that of the Italian Renaissance artists who dreamed of an utopia of nostalgic revival to create a fertile future.

“Let some holy ambition invade our souls, so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to obtain them, since we may if we wish.”
― Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Pioneering murder

As we know, in Euripides' "Medea" the protagonist murders her own children. But a columnist in the German magazine 'Die Zeit' (The Times) sees her as a pioneer for equal rights.

Euripides: Medea, die Urfeministin 

Viele Menschen befällt schon bei der Nennung des Namens das blanke Grauen. Aber für mich ist die Medea von Euripides eine Pionierin im Kampf für Gleichberechtigung.