Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The postwar ideological narrative

On Slipped Disc an interesting comment was posted referring to a newly set-up Boulez Festival in the USA. I quote this comment entirely, because it is quite revealing in its sympathetic idealism and in the same time, paternalistic attitude towards performers and audiences, showing the core of a very general problem of presentation of contemporary music:


I’m working full time in contemporary performance. There’s an enormous output of very strong, interesting, even fun pieces which are simply overlooked.

There are many, many reasons for that. The two biggest factors are money and general interest. One doesn’t really find the former without the latter, but gaining interest without money is nearly impossible. It’s our Catch-22. 

Performers and audiences alike generally have the same issue with new music: a complete lack of exposure. People enjoy what they already know. Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire.

For performers, this is even more difficult. Not only should they understand the point, but they have to be technically prepared to play this music. Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training.

Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally. 

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That may all be true..... but what about the perspective?

"Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire." This assumes as taken for granted that music 'develops' from a state of 'less advanced' through 'advanced development' to 'speed', all terms which suggest that a preference for pre-WWII music betrays an outdated taste and ignorance and lack of understanding of post-WWII music. Also assumed is, that understanding of and information about post-WWII developments, i.e. developments which demonstrate 'advance', inevitably will result in acceptance. But what if these developments in being more advanced would be, in fact, erosion and decline? How could we know? Imagine: in a time where musical trends are judged in terms of advance, there is no way to make a value judgement if we don't know the goal towards music is advancing. And there is no understanding whatsoever what this goal might be, neither at the composing nor at the listeners' of performers' side.

"Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training." This suggests that post-WWII music advanced specifically in terms of notational complexity, i.e. advance = more complexity. But art history shows that this is not always the case, sometimes the arts focus on simplicity after a period of complexity - would this be 'advance' or 'decline'? Represented Mozart a decline after Bach? Also suggested is that a 'classical ' training, being 'traditionalist', is less concerned about 'complexity', i.e. notational complexity, and that it lacks flexibility. It can be assumed that this especially, probably entirely, refers to technique / notation. But what if a classical training is, in contrary, concentrating on musical complexity and flexibility? There are 'classical' pieces, which are quite simple in terms of notation and thus, pure technicalities, but very difficult to bring-off musically, i.e. in terms of expression, because of the psychological complexities. (Just two different examples out of thousands: Beethoven opus 109, and Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie opus 61, both pieces which require both lots of musical complexity and flexibility which are very hard to master for students.)

"Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally." This passes-by entirely the question of understanding the music and merely refers to marketing, and given the aural complexities of his work, people buying a ticket only on basis of a 'familiar' name and not much else, would be in for quite a surprise, and not a pleasant one.

The perspective from which the comment is presented, and for which it is interesting and revealing, is historicist: music history as a line of development from relatively simple old music towards complex new music, a line on which the transgressing works in terms of complexity articulate the advance of the art form. It is the progressive narrative of established contemporary music as developed by Schoenberg and since entering into academia and the hordes of new music advocates who deplore the lack of understanding of 'the audience'. But what if this perspective would be all wrong? With which framework could we better understand the numerous problems still surrounding new music today? I think the said narrative is entirely wrong and biassed, and a better one would be to see the different forms of music in terms of traditions, not in the sense of fixed, codified rules, but in terms of value frameworks. Then, it could become clear that post-WWII 'advanced' music operates within a value framework, quite different from 'oldfashioned' pre-WWII music. Audiences don't listen historically, but aesthetically, and their rejection of post-WWII 'complex, advanced music' is most probably due to conflicting value frameworks rather than audiences being conservative, ignorant, and resistant to absorbing something new. There is in such 'advanced music' narratives a paternalistic, arrogant undertone which I find thoroughly unsympathetic, however well-meant the attempts to create more place for new music in concert life.

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