Saturday, 27 May 2017

High culture as commodity

"Die große Herausforderung für Kunstbetrieb und Kulturpolitik in Deutschland besteht darin, die bestehenden Institutionen gemeinsam mit neuem Publikum, neuen Nutzern, neuen Akteuren zu verändern. Zudem müssen dem institutionalisierten Kulturbetrieb neue, flexiblere Organisationsformen entgegengesetzt werden, die auch kulturelle Interessen zukünftiger Generationen und Kulturschaffender berücksichtigen."

Thus Mrs Birgit Mandel, Professorin für Kulturvermittlung und Kulturmanagement der Universität Hildesheim in an interview on the website of the Goethe Institute. After claiming that high culture forms a structural part of Germany's national identity, she observes a decline - in Germany - of public interest in this type of culture, and foresees the necessity to change the cultural institutions (orchestras, opera houses, theaters, museums) so that they will also answer the interests of future generations and creators. Of course such perspective is defined by the increase of pop culture as offering in public space and the increasing numbers of immigrants who could not care less about Goethe, Beethoven and - who shall we name? - Thomas Mann. Let alone 20C culture figures. Suggested is the function of cultural institutions as merely providing service to a clientèle, as on a market. In fact, professor Mandel treats the subject as commerce, and not as the formation of cultural identity. Namely, something like identity is not a commodity, the price of which is determined by demand: it is the center of a being, or a culture, or a nation, and a value in itself. Where identity is sold, it becomes prostitution. Germany has understood itself always as a Kulturnation, but if its self-understanding is treated as a commodity, it throws away its greatest asset and its strongest means of creating an important part of a European identity.

Here we look into the dark heart of the identity crisis of the West, under the pressure of populism, pop culture and immigration. Because, this is not only happening in Germany but everywhere in Europe and America. Who are the culprits? Wild capitalism, populism, the egalitarian world view where there is no value distinction, relativism which claims that culture is merely a human construct which can easily be replaced by some other (non-cultural) construct, and postwar guilt about colonialism and exploitation of the Third World. Added can be: modernism in all its forms, from glass and steel buildings destroying, like a cancer, traditional urban fabrics, to concept art which is merely an offence of intelligence and sensitivity, to sonic art as a state-subsidized playground for eternal toddlers. In Germany the hangover of two world wars and the holocaust adds extra weight to the pressure to give-up the family jewels and replace them by plastic and ephemeral bubbles.

And yet, a renewal of Western culture, and especially art music, should start at the location where the concept of culture is still an important part of most national identities - Europe, and especially Europe's heart: Germany. If Germany wants to be Europe's real and respectable leader, instead of a war-mongering psychopath, and become entirely European, it should - as an example - invest in cultural Bildung instead of commerce and create, through Bildung, the new audiences and practitioners that will preserve and further develop the heritage that has remained the best that the West has given to the world.

Friday, 26 May 2017

European art as the nazis envisaged

"Europe has always been a grand idea. But it is more flexible than we realize. We must deliberately invest it with the meaning we wish for it to have. If we don't, others will."

A new book about the history of nazism, now focussing upon its art policies, offers a warning that seems to be quite apt in these days.

The nazis rejected both democratic cosmopolitism and modernism, and wanted a European culture rooted in the 'Volk', and purified from 'decadent elements' among which the 'Jewish element' was, of course, the most conspicuous. They believed in 'purity' along ethnic lines and authoritarian directives, as a solution for the mess Western societies had got into after WW I, with their economic crashes and general confusion, also and especially, in the arts. (The resemblance with the rise of rightwing parties in Europe today is obvious.) The traditionalism that the nazis advocated was, of course, a perversion, and from their rejection of modernism should not be concluded that traditionalism is inherently fascist; if this were so, eating meat and heavy smoking and drinking would be necessary proof that one does not cultivate fascist sympathies - Hitler was vegetarian and did not smoke or drink. The entire project of a fascist European cultural reform was a sickening pipe dream of amateurs and diabolical nitwits.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Symbolism, terrorism, urinalism and value

The diabolical atrocities we are witnessing in these days, are to a great extent the result of Western free society letting salafist ideologies blossom in muslem communities, which somehow legitimizes them. At the heart of this problem lies, of course, a cultural conflict: islam being both a religion and a culture, without division of religion and state as has developed in the West, can only be integrated in Western societies if it accepts the same limitations and restrictions as other religions in the West have been forced to implement under the pressure of secularist Enlightenment values as far as they (the latter) are supposed to regulate public space and thus, politics. Only within the framework of a secular society where religion is a private concern, different religious world views can live next to each other. This does not mean that religion is not important, but that religious world views which claim truth over other religious world views, are not allowed power in the public realm, so that religious freedom be maintained.

Culture operates often with the means of symbolism. The arts are strongly symbolic, as Duchamp's urinal demonstrates as clearly as Tintoretto's 'Deposition of Christ'. There is a deep instinct in humans to seek the support of symbolism under the pressures of life, hence the strongly symbolic nature of religious rituals. The more immigrants feel they are not allowed to share the benefits of Western society, the more they will cling to compensating symbolism, which creates the humus on which perverse ideologies can foster their hatred.

The problem with Western-born terrorism is not immigration or islam in itself, but education. The better Westerners understand their own society, the more chance newcomers will become, over time, Westeners and will no longer be immigrants. But a Western society which has lost its belief in itself and in its values, a society which cultivates egalitarian relativism and nihilism (as symbolically represented in the museums of contemporary art and at new music festivals), and which celebrates its creativity in the form of pop and commerce, will find it very hard to help people from other cultures where such self-defeating ideas have not as yet taken root, integrate. The West should not merely present its urinal to newcomers, but something of the best that has developed here.

How come that an over-developed society neglects the growth of such potentially dangerous ideologies in its midst? Recent history demonstrates how important it is to keep an eye on mental abberations that seek to destroy civilization, as in the thirties. I think there are at least three conspicuous, interrelated reasons: the notions of freedom, relativism and multiculturalism.

Freedom: as we know, human life is per definition not 'free' but limited on all sides by physical and circumstantial restraints, and whatever freedom there is to obtain in life, has to be created, to be striven after and often to be fought for (as any conductor knows all too well). As long as too many people in a society are incarcerated in circumstances not of their own making and don't have any means to overcome them, living in 'the free West' becomes meaningless; they may decide to vote for Trump or Le Pen or a brexit or to opt for a world view which promises them an unimaginable number of unspoiled virgins in heaven as a reward for fighting these circumstances.

Relativism: the idea that values are merely human constructs and do not relate to some objective truth, of whatever kind, denies a deep human need to find meaning in a world seemingly determined by blind natural forces which in themselves don't provide any meaning that can be experienced as such. To some extent values are indeed human constructs, as the many different forms of culture are, but underneath there is a universal basis which is related to how the human mind works: we can call them 'universal values', operating on universal dynamics defined by biology, as expressed in the 'holistic nature of human perception' (Steven Semes) and which is currently being confirmed by neurobiological research. The reason that so many migrants come to the West, otherwise than for pure survival as war refugees, is because these deeper inner needs are not answered in the areas they come from. Being fed with mostly misleading images in the media about Western life, the infantilism of which may relate to underdeveloped people in desastrous circumstances, migrants naively assume that once arrived in Europe, by whatever means, they will be able to share the normal life of the West, with a normal house, nice job, nice clothes, cell phone and possibly a blitzy car. The thought that 'they' might actually be like us, sends the European rightwing extremists into the curtains, but it does not automatically follow that the West should open the doors to the millions of the world. The only conclusion would be that the West - next to controlled immigration - has to contribute to improvement of other areas of the globe out of a sensible sense of selfpreservation, strengthening and helping to liberate the above-mentioned underlying universal values. It will be clear that a self-defeating relativism and lack of confidence in Western universal values won't be of much help in such policies.

Multiculturalism: Western imperialism in the past, which tended to view other cultures as 'primitive' and open to exploitation, has created a strong backlash of penitence so that immigrants from non-Western cultures are encouraged to keep their own home culture as much as possible when living in the West, which unintentionally hindered integration in society and the development of understanding of Western values. It is the old story of the child and the bathwater: some of these Western values are mere culture like dress, hand shaking, hair grooming, traffic rules and eating habits, and others are universal and were thus feeding the wish to migrate at all. Hence the continuation of certain entirely unacceptable cultural traditions like genital mutilation, the suppression of women, forced arranged marriages, the condemnation of homosexuality, family violence, sharia law etc. etc. - that is: unacceptable according to Western values and not values as a mere human construct, but as universal, civilizational values. The wearing of a head scarf or turban, or avoiding porc, or keeping the ramadan or the sabbath, are phenomenae on the level of culture (however religiously inspired), but the mentioned abberations are in conflict with the level of universal value, they are primitive and need to be overcome, wherever they are practised, not only in the West. The blindness to this distinction, in the understandable penitential mood of the 20th century, has had enormous consequences which are now surfacing in the disruptive violence which is now so often in the daily news. But this does not mean that the idea of a multicultural society is a mere pipe dream. Different cultures can live perfectly well within the framework of a relatively (!) free society where the rule of law is based upon these deeper civilizational values which are longed for by all human beings, and at large such a multiculti world is already functioning well, proving the point. Civilization is not dependent upon culture but can outgrow its cultural roots and become universal. Therein lies our hope.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Failure of intellectuals

With the rise of populism, as seen with the election of a buffoon in the US, the success of rightwing extremists in France and the Netherlands, and the appearance of an extremist party in Germany (where also neonazism raises its ugly head again), as well as the brexit drama apparently stimulated by irrational nationalist identity instincts, I got the feeling that Western free democracy demonstrated it could destroy itself entirely legitimately within its own system and method. So, I began to suspect that it would be better if the unthinking simpletons of society would somehow be filtered-out from the election system, to protect democracy and the fundament of a free society: the rule of law, from this central flaw: that everybody has the same right to vote, entirely irrespective of understanding, knowlegde, moral development, etc. Maybe some sort of exam as a precondition for the right to vote would be better, as to make sure that some knowledge and understanding of the values of society and the meaning of democracy would underpin the choice made in the cubicle. Building-in an intellectual barrier to keep-out self-destructive stupidity seemed a logical conclusion.

But then, I hit upon this review about the treason of so many intellectuals in the past, and had to conclude that intellectual capacities do, in general, not garantee protection against self-destructive stupidity, and that such protection may be found in some kind of religious / spiritual awareness:

These intellectuals sought a spiritual element that would bring meaning into a meaningless view of the world. But then, also religion (that is, organized religion) brought some desastrous trouble into society, as history learns, so it would seem that an element of spirituality combined with Enlightenment ideas would do better - after all, modern Western free society was born from such combination. Obviously, this society is still in development, and this development is of importance for the developments within the field of culture.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." (Albert Einstein.) In the same way, the music of Bach is comprehensible but why this is so, remains a mystery, that is not explained by musical analysis. The music of Debussy is entirely logical, but it is very hard to uncover the logic, although the sensitive listener feels clearly that it moves on the same tonal dynamics like any other great music, like Bach's. With music, the comprehensibility is located at a level, different from sonic art. For instance, through-composed serialism (an early form of sonicism) is entirely logical but in the same time, entirely incomprehensible - that is, from a musical point of view (from a sonic point of view, the concept of 'comprehension' is irrelevant). Music is aural mathematics, but in a different way from pure mathematics, which is about proportions and relationships; in music, the proportions and their relationships are fluent, shifting, and including both provisional and anchored articulation points, and leaving an open space between lines and points which makes it impossible for the composer to precisely 'calculate' his piece.

Where mathematical method is applied literally, as Schoenberg tried in the twenties of the last century, all those ambiguous and floating qualities of musical mathematics disappear. Hence the impression of both stiffness and chaos of Schoenberg's serial works.... he tried to create a music that would be entirely logical and comprehensible but sought those qualities on the wrong level: on the literal one, and he was followed by a lot of composing people who found such approach less hard to grasp than the other, more fluent and ambiguous logic, which requires not rational but intuitive and sensitive capacities.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The end of Boulezbianism

The French new-tonal composer Nicolas Bacri got an all-Bacri concert by the French Radio Orchestra on 27th of April. This signifies a definite break with the Boulezbian domination of modernism in the French new music establishment:  

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Steiner on the humanities

On the website of 'Standpoint', a review of a new book on George Steiner draws attention to one of the most eloquent self-destructive postwar voices that use the holocaust to finish its job also on the level of the humanities - i.e., claiming that the most abject evil is an organic, natural part of Western high culture.

So, where a concentration camp brute combines his daily murderous job with his love of classical music, it is the art form's failure to sensitize the psychopath which demonstrates music's culpability. But as we know, psychopaths have no difficulty with putting different experiences into different boxes and failing to comprehend what they are doing, feeling, thinking. That is why they are considered psychopaths. Steiner made his claim a Leitmotiv of his career, while defending the elitist attitude of the humanities, including high art.

The accusation that the humanities / the high arts are potentially capable of 'dampen' moral awareness, of 'making us bad', is based upon the misunderstanding that when elites fail to 'fight against barbarism', it is because the humanities are somehow culpable, because of somehow approving evil and destruction. The more obvious explanation is, that the practitioners - where they fail to raise their voice against injustice and barbarism - don't understand the humanities enough.

Also there is the distinction between levels: the humanities take place on another level than politics, and only when the real world threatens to intrude into the quiet study, elites may wake-up and often it is then too late. To make victims culpable is relocating the problem. Steiner's claim that evil and selfdestruction are at the heart of Western civilization, is plain ridiculous and utterly stupid. When you read Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle' you realize he has built an enormous polemical edifice upon most feeble grounds, and it is self-defeating: he wants to defend high culture and is attacking it in the same time.

And his celebration of Jewry is quite nonsensical too: it is entirely irrelevant which ethnicity brilliant people have. Jewry being a combination of ethnicity and culture, gets into scrapes when confusing culture with race, the same mistake Wagner made. As far as culture goes, it is the liberation from orthodoxy, and the cultural training of text interpretation, that contributes to the skills of people of Jewish descent (something that the philosopher Brian Magee has already explained very clearly). The 'Jewish renaissance' that happened since the beginning of the 19th century was made possible because Jews got civil rights and could freely partake in society. It was this sense of liberation and no longer being locked-up, both physically and mentally, within a ghetto, that stimulated people from Jewish descent to develop and to achieve. This, together with the continuous confrontation with antisemitism - mostly based upon envy - made them 'fanatically' over-achieving. Once I talked with a refugee musician from the Soviet Union, who said about his Jewish family that they were raised with the continuous instruction 'to be better than anybody else', to fight for your place in the world because of 'being Jewish' and thus, being discriminated against all the time and everywhere.

Culture is something that can be absorbed and identified with by anyone, as people from Jewish descent have already proven extensively over the last ages. Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Einstein etc. etc. were Europeans through and through, and Steiner's inclination to give them special status as 'Jews', is misplaced and, basically, racist.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Krier on modernism

“Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of a monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong—like communism—to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. . . . Modernism’s fundamental error, however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e., unavoidable and necessary) phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions.” The architect Leon Krier. Equally applicable to music.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The smell of the lamp

  • "I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map." A most striking remark that is as appropriate for today's new music scene as it was around 1900 - it was written by Debussy in 1901 in a letter to one of his collegue-friends, Paul Dukas. So much new music of today - be it atonal, or tonal, or multiculti, or hip or whatever - sounds contrived, rationally-constructed without much feeling going into it, without depth. And the 'smell of the lamp' has in itself nothing to do with the style or progressivenss or conservatism of the composer, but is simply a matter of emotional capacities. The best music has an emotional dimension, and that has always been the case, from Gregorian chant onwards. It is this dimension which garantees the survival of musical works of the passing of time.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Again, the Western crisis considered

Another attack in Paris.... and the extensive media coverage unintentionally helps the terrorists by sensationalizing the information, and treating such attacks as terrorism instead of crime. The aim of terrorists is, of course, to destabilize society by spreading fear and stimulate antagonism against immigrants and especially, muslem immigrants, so that jihadists can more easily recrute disenfranchized locals with their narrative of 'the West' being against 'Islam'.

As we know, it is not religion turning people into killers of innocent people, but individual personal frustrations and psychopathological problems, which are then wrapped in religiously-informed myth (mostly entirely misunderstood) to enhance an abject criminal deed towards the level of heroism for a worthy cause.

As we also know, it is not religion making people religious, but the other way around: people have religious / spiritual instincts and needs, and finding a religious form to express them.

When, years ago, North-Irish terrorists tried, over long tragic periods, to undermine British society and politics with terrorist deeds, they were treated by the British media as crimes, thereby removing the political overtones of such deeds. It would be much better if the media today would follow that example and thus de-politicize the avelanche of these crimes perpetrated by entirely deranged individuals.

What we now see in the West is the rebellion of the disenfranchized masses, neglected by the political elites who seem to have mainly supported big business and globalization without providing enough protection for the 'losers' of what only can be called wild capitalism. The rise of populism, which finds expression in extreme rightwing parties entering governments, is also being stimulated by terrorist attacks, which - for the masses - seem to be the result of both immigration and globalization, the same causes of the wide-spread distrust and suspicion of 'the system'. All this results in a strong backlash towards nationalism, rekindling neofascist ideas and emotions, anticultural and anticivilizational movements, and will relate terrorism again and again to muslems - since most of the attackers claim to represent Islam. If borders will be closed to any immigrants, hoping to stop incoming terrorists, that is forgetting that most of the attackers are home-grown young petty criminals, finding in the jihadist narrative an 'ideal' which gives 'meaning' to their miserable life. Closing borders and condemning 'Islam' will not stop these people, as re-nationalization and the cultivation of 'das Volk', an entirely fake idea and loaded with destructive potential, will only offer more munition to attackers of Western / European society.

If, in Europe, nations of the European Union will leave the union (as the French Front National intends if they win the elections), this will not offer any solution to the problem. The only direction in which something of a solution can be found, is the Westernization of immigrants, and in Europe: Europeanization, with drastic educational programs which already happen in Germany, and the reinforcement of a European, not a national, identity. What could be done against these undermining attacks? I see only the necessity of at least doubling police forces everywhere, working together with the armies to protect public space, and an ever closer collaboration between nations on the points of information and policing, in the context of EU institutions. What is needed, alas, is a society that will look like a police state, where the presence of authorities is not there to suppress the people but to protect them. However unpleasant, it cannot be escaped, until the breeding ground of terrorism within Europe has been treated effectively. Also, freedoms will have to be restricted and limited, as already is happening in terms of self-censorship. (One would wish that the media would begin to censor their own coverage of terrorist attacks, as to stop helping terrorists with their sensationalism.)

If everywhere in Europe nationalism and rightwing politics win the day, this will isolate immigrant communities and add to the breeding ground of aggression and discrimination. It will set in motion a downwards spiral which will, if not stopped, end in civil wars all over the place and the breakdown of economies and the accessibility of public space. But if more rational ideas will prevail, this may help reform the EU, create a different momentum towards unification where social justice will undercut the instinctive but self-destructive movements of the masses who vote for the extreme right.

What does all this mean for culture? It underlines the strong necessity for culture to work towards a reinforcement of European, or/and Western, identity, towards civilizational values as expressed through mimetic art, reminding audiences of their humanity and the civilization they inherited. The West, including Europe, is in a crisis not only of politics (democracy underming itself), but of values and identity. This is something to be dealt with by all the thinking and artistic elites, to mobilize all the civilizational forces which are still there and embodied in the best of what Western civilization has achieved in the past. In political terms, this will have to include a thorough reform of aims, to begin with the awareness of the obligation to make sure that everybody in society has access to the basic assets which have been fought for over the ages, in short: a more socially-just politics instead of the wild capitalism we see today. That does not mean a totalitarian society but a free society with a strong legal system protecting civilians against both the inroads of economic exploitation and the regulation of the effects of globalization in such a way that there are no victims of what is seen as 'progress'.

At the heart of all these problems lies the strange fact, that Western civilization as it has developed over time, has reached a universal level of humanistic values, which can be implemented everywhere on the globe. Western, free, democratic, liberal, secular society however, merely creates an overall framework based upon universals that leaves most of culture untouched. Hence the possibility of people living in the West, well-adapted to these universals, and in the same time living in the style of a non-Western culture. Where these cultural values clash with the overall Western framework, they are adapted, simply because that makes life easier. And that is something that is happening all the time. This means that religion or culture are no longer part of the overal Western civilizational framework, but belong to the private sphere. In this direction, certainly a lot more research and exploration can be done and results formulated which can clarify, for both the Western locals who don't understand their own society, and for non-Western immigrants who need to understand and adapt.

The distinction between these two levels: the overall framework of universals and the cultural and religious level, is a key to understanding both the predicament of the West and of the process of globalization.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Chaos and order as seen in early 19C

In 'Ueber dramatische Kunst und Literatur' the early 19C German poet A.W. Schlegel describes the relationship between order and the underlying non-order which he calls 'the romantic imagination'. Schlegel, who was a strong influence on the early developments of romanticism in the arts, sensed something about nature and the human psyche, seeing in both the outer form of nature and human consciousness as floating on a layer of chaos. So, within the universe which appears to be ordered, a chaos lies concealed, striving after new births of order.

19C romanticism found 18C rationalism, of which the Enlightenment is the most important fruit, a bit on the dry side, and tried to compensate for it by pointing towards the irrational, the mysterious, the far-away or deeply-hidden, to the secret forces of nature and the unfathomable workings of fate, and the often un-ordered flows of human emotions. Related to the art of music, one could say that these undercurrents represent the expressive layer of a musical work, which is given form by a superstructure of order. This explains the intensity of much of Bach's music, which is so well-ordered on the surface, and the balance of freedom and order in Beethoven's works.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Music and interiority nr 2

There were some interesting comments under the post 'Music and interiority' of 4th March.... which make you think again. There was not enough space for an adequate response, so here we go - it is recommended to first read the comments concerned.

That different people with different types of perceptive sensibilities experience different music differently, does not mean that the characteristics of the music concerned, can only be found in the listener.

The similar aspect of Bach and sonic art (say, of Boulez) is that both forms use patterns. Compared on the point of pattern making, Bach is very regular and rather straight-forward in terms of timbre, and Boulez extremely rich in variety in both patterns and timbres. Listening to Bach in terms as with Boulez, Bach is rather boring. But in music like Bach's, the pitches are tones in a musical network of relationships which together form an 'inner space' where energies flow from one note to the next and from one location to the next in a linear narrative, creating an imaginary space as if something flows like a river in a bedding, forming a structure from A to B to C etc., complete with directions, articulation points, balanced stretches and the like, creating a coherent structure in the mind during the performance. This creates a certain emotional effect in the listener, unfolding the many layers of meaning embedded in the structure. With Boulez, the pitches do not form such relations and do not create this inner space, and the patterns as such (and the gestures they make), is all there is. This is the difference between music and sonic art, and expecting mere patterns from Bach and a musical flow in a bedding within an inner space from Boulez, would be unfair to both art forms. 

Order and chaos: I just wanted to describe how music reflects the dynamics of the human psyche. And music which creates the balance in such way that both aspects are working together in a harmonious way, has the effect of harmonizing such dynamics in the listener, or at least: getting the listener in touch with the 'Self' on the level where these dynamics are operating. This is the 'therapeutic' effect of much classical music and the reason that so many people want to hear such music again and again, and again. They derive not only pleasure from it, but feel the restoring effect of the listening experience. This is not some sort of nice romantic wishful thinking, but is evidenced by many music lovers, and has been described by people capable of putting such interior experiences in words. I can't remember the author, but somewhere in a novel, the protagonist - a young woman in some difficult situation - unexpectedly hears some classical music coming from an open window, and she suddenly has the strange experience as if the music is 'speaking' to her, as an individual voice with something stringent to tell her, and telling her something about herself, touching her on a level deeper than words. That is why it is so hard to describe the experience and you have to be a novelist, a poet or a philosopher to find the right terms.

Music is 'non-conceptual' in the sense that it is abstract and can be put under different words and still function in the same way. The essence of emotion is non-verbal and non-conceptual in a similar way, this is the way music relates to emotion at all: it is a psychic art, bypasing the intellect, and capable of resonating with emotional processes in the listener. Sonic art does not do that, and does not want to do that, it wants the listener to become aware of the 'object in itself' which is the work. That can also have an emotional effect but the quality of that effect is different from the musical effect, sonic art is not addressing the deeper psychic layers of the listener in the same way. It can affect the listener as any thing in the outside world can affect him - like the repulsion one may feel by looking at the dirty, unmade bed of Tracey Emin, the British artist who put a dirty bed in a gallery as a work of art. It does not express anything as a painting of a dirty bed would, but merely presents the thing itself. (The 19C painter Delacroix painted a canvas with an unmade bed as subject, and suddenly such subject becomes art, expressing something about the mystery of reality, as filtered through an emotional and aesthetic sensibility.)

The anecdote of the African tribesman is a well-known one, I heard it told as an Arab visiting a concert in W-Europe. But the accessibility of Western classical music does not automatically mean that everybody has the perceptive framework for it. There is a difference between accessibility and perception, if music is not understood it can still be and remain accessible, as a potentiality. The problem is not located in the music, but on the side of the listener. This non-European was obviously not familiar with the music, and if he were musically sensistive he could, in the course of time, become perceptive, I'm sure. Since music - all musics - are human, it is possible to understand any music from any tradition. It works also the other way around: I remember a class at Cambridge were Arab music was treated and many recordings of the same 'maqam' were played with all the variations the performers are allowed. After a while it became clear that not every singer was on the same artistic level, you could distinguish the more primitive rendering from the more sophisticated and more sensitive one, even without completely knowing the fine analytic properties of the maqam concerned - the aesthetic effect was different: poorer or richer, less or more musically expressive. So it is with all music, and of course, people differ immensily in their perception, also within traditions - lots of Westerners don't hear the music but only the sound it makes - but that does not mean that all perception of music is entirely subjective and that for that reason, there are no artistic standards. The properties of classical music are part of the music, however differently interpreted. Cultural relativism may open perception to other cultures, but may also 'remove' the properties of works of art and treating all art as merely existing in the perception. (In the end, this is a philosophical problem, going back to Kant.)

Monday, 6 March 2017

The relevance of classical music

The Danish Minister of Culture has proposed to disband of the Danish Radio Orchestras and chorusses, to sell the concert hall and turn the national broadcast company into a pure media company (source: Slipped Disc 6/3/17).

Shocking..... but not surprising. The same happened in the Netherlands some years ago when the State Secretary of Culture (there is no Ministery of Culture in Holland) wanted to close-down the entire music department of national radio, including 3 orchestras (among which the famous Radio Filharmonisch Orkest), the chorus and the extensive music library with scores, parts and an enormous data base of radio recordings. Protests throughout the country achieved that the cancellation was reduced to a subsidy cut which more or less broke the department in half, but saving the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (the other orchestras had to fold).

Such burbs of commercial populism don't come out of the blue, they have been fostering for years, possibly decennia, growing on the increasing mood of rejection of art in general by 'the masses'. Politicians see in this mood a chance to ride on the waves of enthusiasm to break down 'elitism' and of course, orchestras and opera houses are the obvious, vulnerable targets. Small, petit-bourgeois countries like Denmark and Holland are especially prone to such cultural self-destruction because they don't have a strong European tradition to preserve. The safest fundament of their national identity is 'the masses'. Anything above that level is 'the enemy'. It is strange though, that politicians, in fact, say to the world: 'We Danes / Dutch are mere garden gnomes and we are proud of it!'

The funding of orchestras by the state is a tradition coming down to us from the ancien régime, the prerevolutionary times when art and music were considered as underlining the legitimacy of the monarchy and symbolizing the high cultural level of the nation, 'the glory of civilization' which reflected positively on the character and professionalism of the king. With the current erosion of civilization and cultural awareness, partly brought about by a misunderstood 'democratization' and failing educational systems, the question of how relevant the arts are, and especially classical music which is so costly (expensive orchestras and opera houses, in Europe paid for by the state), is pressing as never before. I have attempted to formulate a justification on the website of the Future Symphony Institute: