Thursday, 1 June 2017

How ideology works

I am going to say something unpleasant.... something that I know already for years, have noticed from the seventies onwards, but have always been reluctant to publish, because it could easily be misconstrued as 'sour grapes' or simply as 'misunderstanding modern times', which it is not: it is, on the contrary, based upon a thorough understanding of modern life and its craziness. And this is the following, based upon personal experience, observation and many trustworthy sources, of which I cannot disclose the names because people's existential basis could be compromised. So, the reader is asked to believe my words, or to find-out for himself.

It is this. The majority of music reviews of modernist works, be them atonal works, or sonic works, however well-made (or, in contrary, badly made), which show a well-meaning, often positive and friendly-informative tone, are fake. Their authors admit in private that they had a negative opinion about the work, and about its composer, and about modernism in music in general, - some of them would truly hate it - but they would not dare to put such opinion in print - however well-argued - because they are afraid that work may dry-up. It has happened that critics, who struggle anyway with an ever smaller space in the media and have to maneuver carefully in a shark pond of competition and of money shortages, loose their job because their editor has complained that they 'always write negatively about new music'. It has, for instance, happened that a well-known ensemble specializing in modern(-ist) repertoire presented a concert in a big city and was reviewed negatively by the local critic of a big newspaper, after which the conductor of the ensemble called the editor with the request that the critic should be fired because of not understanding his own times - which duly happened. Or that reviewing of modern concerts, a festival for instance, is given to a 'specialist' critic in the genre who will be known to be positive in advance of the offerings so that the event will seem to have been a success. It has happened, one of the many examples, that the ministery of a European country subsidized an entire weekend festival of a modern composer in another European country, in a big city, an event which was promoted and marketed with an enormous budget, and which fell flat because the hall was half-empty and listeners left the concerts during the playing. Only the few critics who reviewed the event positively, and who had built-up a name of modern expertise, were published, but the negative reviews - which also had been produced in spite of the obligatory positive consensus around new music - were held back. Players expressed their dissatisfaction about the music they were asked to play but what could they do?

Also I am reminded of a costly opera production by a well-known European opera house of a modernist 'opera' which was so static, boring and totally un-communicative and un-expressive and thus, un-operatic, that after 20 minutes the audience began to empty the hall, after which the critics pumped-up the event to a success, also because the audience 'did not understand modern times', so it must have been a work of genius, all with the result that the composer got a national prize, and the première got broadcast on national TV as if it were a major cultural achievement. (This was the second time the composer got the same prize: the worse the music, the better it must be in the eyes of modernism.) Of the work, nothing has ever been heard or seen since. Of the same composer, a national hero of subsidized modernism, an entire concert was dedicated to his works in the central big concert hall of the capital, unfortunately for an almost complete empty auditorium because on the same night, Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was given at the local theatre - it was there, where the music lovers had flocked. The reviews were unanimous jubilant. (I heard the radio broadcast of it and could not bear listening to it for more than a half hour, even for sonic art it was so boring that I could hardly keep my attention to the bare, sonic landscape, a desert lacking any interest whatsoever, not even in terms of colour or structural patterns.) Later-on I heard from one of the critics that he had been bored to death at the concert but well, it had been a major cultural event anyway. And so on and so forth.

So, when  a music critic gets to review a concert and there is a new piece sandwiched between the museum pieces, they treat it positively as if it were a normal, regular and valuable addition to the repertoire, anxious to not be seen as 'conservative' or 'not understanding modern times'. Around new music there hangs an atmosphere as if dealing with a very tender young plant which has to be treated with the utmost care, and any harsh word would be unwelcome and upsetting the entire enterprise of the New. The reality is, that it is not a tender young plant that is thus protected, but an established  bunker of hardcore conservatism and reactionary and anti-civilizational attitude that is protected against critique and free debate. The result of this is the complete absence of serious discussion about new music in whatever media. The same goes for performers: in private they unashamedly show their contempt or irritation about the type of new music that goes for 'established', but they will never say so in public and will duefully perform the most abject rubbish to conform to a general, abstract and entirely imagined consensus. There are performers who build their careers upon postwar modernism, and in the same time have no respect for it, but see it as their 'trade' and a means of creating an income and a reputation of 'heroism' and 'generosity' to give attention of 'the unknown'. Of course there will be performers who are genuine in their dedication to modernism, but I claim that most of the gifted performers reject modernism by instinct and personal experience, and will only perform such works out of obligation or because it is part of an agreement with a hall, manager or orchestra. It is an entirely corrupt situation, invisible for the audience, a 'truth that dare not speak its name'.

One of the factors is, of course, the reluctance to be seen as 'conservative', although performing age-old repertoire never creates such reluctance. But in combination with the streetwise awareness that there is some sort of consensus that such unloved, unworthy 'music' has to be presented and respected, there comes into being a poisonous attitude which hinders real development of the art form.

It goes without saying that there are enough new works, be them sonic or musical, that demonstrate real creativity and artistic sensibility. But they are very rare, and mostly go unnoticed, since they don't create as much smoke as the underlings.

A famous orchestra in Middle-Europe had, years ago, an illuminating essay published on their website explaining that their performance tradition focussed upon interiority and meaninful structure, as distinct from French and Russian traditions which concentrated more on colourful surfaces. When they began to feel the pressure to also include Boulez in their series, they removed the essay. The players of the orchestra did their job with the utmost responsibility, but privately had no qualms to express their dissatisfaction with a 'music' which did not require the best achievements of their performing culture, in which they had invested so many years of careful and extensive work and effort. Players of another orchestra which in the sixties specialized in the modernist new, had - according to a study at the time - far more medical and psychological problems than average for the orchestral field. Psychosomatic complaints, head aches, depression, insomnia, divorce, digestion problems seem to have been the price to be paid for the 'progressiveness' of the art form. Did the publication of the results of the study invoke comments in the discussions which were still raging around modernism at the time? No: the ideology should be protected from reality, as ideologies always are. Ideology is immune from argument, because it is not based upon reality but upon power, lies and intrigue; 20C history shows how such unreality can create havoc in the world.

Academics also play their role in the upholding of modernist ideology. Why? Because modernism, being unwelcome in the central performance culture and only operating in the small circles of minor events at the margins of music life, has to be explained all the time since it is not self-explanatory in the listening experience. There must be manuals for listening and understanding, as in Marxist educational institutions for adolescent delinquents. Academics enjoy the infinite horizon of explanation, which does safeguard their job. (The same situation is the case in the visual arts: modernism - concept art - has stimulated a whole culture of art theory comparable with the sophism of the Middle Ages.) I knew of a respected academic, who is also a composer, who privately expressed contempt for modernism and its advocates, including collegue academics, and demonstrating an apt understanding of its premises, who would write positively about modernism for publication. When once, in an impulse of sincerity, he wrote what he really thought of the ideology, he had it published in a local, non-expert magazine which would not be read by his peers and thus, got totally unnoticed.

So-called 'star architects' of modernist monstruosities which, like a cancer, damage old city scapes with their glass and steel intrusions, live themselves in oldfashioned, traditional villas. Their modernist buildings are for public space and their career, but personal comfort and aesthetic needs are answered by the opposite of what they claim to represent. The same with many performers of modernism: privately they cultivate what they really love, but careerwise they will pay lipservice to the imagined consensus, and when enough people in music life behave like that, the fake thing seems to become real and blocks the authentic and the true, because that would be a dangerous threat to the illusion. In short: there is a shocking contradition in music life between what the people involved in the field really think, and what is allowed to appear in public. There is the reality which is kept secret, and only aired in safe conditions, and the fake reality which is knowingly kept in place in music life because so many interests are at stake. And every party plays its role in the upholding of ideology, even when nobody seriously wants to discuss its merits any more: composers, performers, critics, academics. And the audience applauds politely every time they are confronted with the product of progress, because they are totally oblivious of the fake consensus which got this thing in the programme in the first place.

Modernism as an ideology, plus its progenies like postmodernism and all the watery subspecies following in their wake, belong to the last century. Young people studying composition, are fed with the conventional, entirely dead ideas, which combines two attractive elements for the young, still uninformed and unformed in musical and intellectual terms: 1) the opportunity to feel 'modern' and 'contemporary' and 'progressive', and 2) the ease with which works can be produced, since it circumvents all the difficult questions of aesthetics, the problems of modernity and the role of the past within this modernity, and the place and meaning of the ongoing performance culture of the musical heritage. Combined with the increasingly sophisticated computer technologies, impressionable kids quicky get the idea that 'writing music' is by far not so difficult as it may seem from the outside, and conservatories exploit the situation: the more students, the more subsidies and safeguarding of the salaries. So, it is not artistic ideas or content that keeps the nonsense in place, but existential interests across the board. Hence, the façade of respectability around the playground.

I am happy that I left this mental prison long ago and did not waste my time on a dead end street, however it is prolonged by artificial means. It is a good thing that a pluralistic culture offers space to so many different creative acts - but it is deplorable that, behind the façade, there are taboos operating which stand in such strong contrast with the idea of a free and pluralistic society. The betrayal and corruption of so much of the intermediate chain between composer and audience, consisting of performer and critic, is deeply troubling.

What can be done? I see as the only possible trajectory out of this deadlock: real and courageous discussion, and the production of truly musical works. Fortunately, that already happens, and it is to be hoped that, in the course of time, performers and critics will follow suit. Meanwhile, such nonsense as the following should be called for what it is, and no longer be accepted by what considers itself a 'new music establishment':

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