Sunday, 23 July 2017

Climate change

There is not only a problem with the climate change in real terms, but also in cultural terms, which are 'real' in another way. As in the real world sea levels are rising, people will be forced to seek higher territory to avoid being engulfed; in culture, the rising tide of populism and cultural ignorance has a similar effect: people, aware of the dangers, seek the higher territories where the accumulation of experience of the human condition as embodied in visual art, literature, poetry and music, is still intact. In the course of time, this territory will break-down in rather isolated pockets of knowledge and understanding, like isolated libraries in medieval monasteries, and they will be considered, by the masses, as 'conservative'. The rise of populism is experienced by the emancipated masses as progress, which it certainly is in terms of justice, economics and freedom. The critique upon culture, and hatred even, where people are confronted with their ignorance, results from being unaware that the riches of culture - most of it created in past ages - can be greatly benefitting to us in our own times, so it is entirely self-destructive to consider the cultural heritage as being 'conservative' and 'undemocratic' and 'patronizing' and as 'hindrances' to the ever forward march of emancipation and liberation. Seeing 'the past' only as a suppressing force, and not seeing that so much has been achieved in spite of all those problematic aspects of past societies of which we are all too aware, is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

What can be done? It boils down to the challenge of protecting the masses against themselves, and informing and instructing them, merely provokes more critique and hatred, like children in a classroom protesting the answers to arithmetic questions for being undemocratic, patronizing, excluding the pupils' different opinions on the matter, and the attitude of the teacher as suppressive. As far as people are open to any rational discussion, showing the obvious advantages of certain knowledge seems to be the only way of protecting culture, and especially demonstrating that preserving precious knowledge about the human condition is not 'conservative' and thus, a hindrance to 'progress', but mere common sense and, in fact, the most progressive enterprise one could imagine, in an age of cultural decline.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Does music needs a 'now'?

On the website of the San Francisco Classical Voice an article appeared which revealed that the leftish ideologies of the 'social relevance' of classical, serious art music are still alive in some quarters, where obvious nonsense is presented as serious argument.

Such ideology, which claims that only music with a 'message' directly relating to the outside world of the moment, is 'relevant', is one of the causes of the erosion of classical music's meaning and position within the modern world. It is a result of the same materialism that lie at the heart of all the attacks upon the art form, from all those people ignorant of what the art form is and what it means, but without any inhibition to enter the field of debate and try to push music in their narrow box of understanding.


“Art needs to have social relevance,” Măcelaru insists. “It needs to have a now. Once an artist embraces that, then the connection to the audience is that much more relevant. To that extent I don’t think the art form (of classical music) is dying at all.”  

Having said that, Măcelaru feels that in the last 10 years there’s been a growing disconnect between the message of the composer and the way the audience understands it — “if only because the message itself is lacking. Which is why I’ve encouraged all the composers I collaborate with to find something that speaks to the 21st century, that’s socially relevant or politically charged — even if it’s emotionally upsetting — something that has to do with who we are in the 21st century.

“After all, Beethoven spoke of social relevance in his time. So did Shostakovich and so did Bernstein. And note how different they are from each other. Think of how Figaro was an incredible social statement at the time. This suggests how some composers have been able to stay relevant because they spoke of the people’s needs not just in terms of experiencing the art form, but also in understanding the life around them ... I don’t think it’s our place as composers to give an answer, but it’s our responsibility to ask the questions so that we as a society can have a discussion about it.”

Do we listen to Beethoven because of his social relevance? Or to Shostakovich because of his undercover references to Soviet life? No, these works have still relevance to us because they have transcended the temporal into something universal, which music - as a non-conceptual art form - can do pretty well. It is not the 'message' that gives musical works a chance to survive the passing of time, but its universal human characteristics which can resonate with people in different times and places. Music as an art form is not the place to discuss the realities of social issues, but the place where these issues are transcended into universal, timeless artistic experiences. That does not make the issues less urgent, but universalizes them and makes them accessible far beyond their initial inspirations - we don't listen to the Eroica because of Napoleon but because it is a great work of art symbolizing the heroic life with all its ups and downs.

If music would need a 'now' to be 'relevant', ALL music from before today would be meaningless.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Signaling the threat

A recent article in Grammophone observed a number of postwar trends (including very recent ones) in music which serve as a good example of the problems surrunding serious music in our times. Behind the text lie three entirely imaginary assumptions; 1) a historicist narrative stressing the urgency of contemporaneity over heritage; 2) a leftish egalitarian world view which considers cultural institutions like orchestras, concert halls and opera houses as 'privileged organisations' thereby suggesting immoral domination; and 3) a total lack of understanding what classical music as a genre is and what it means. Under the pressures of a misunderstood 'liberal democracy', leading to the tiranny of the majority where the notions of excellence and quality are felt as exploitative elitist means of suppression of freedom and personal expression, the precious achievements of ages of cumbersome struggle threaten to be thoughtlessly thrown into the dustbin, a totally unnecessary cultural suicide finishing-off what a whole age of disruption, including 2 world wars and social upheavel, has not been able to do. The masses have their right on their entertainment and free time spending, and their own ways of expression; that this should be combined with an attack upon superior art forms demonstrates the jealousy and hatred of excellence that are characteristic of the primitive barbarian, the same mentality which inspired the Goths and Vandals in the 5th century to not only take-in Rome but to plunder it and destroy everything that reminded them of their own primitive inadequacies. Let there be no doubt about the motivation of the attacks from egalitarian and populist quarters on culture and the musical tradition: it's the hatred of the barbarian, however disguised as 'progress' and 'accessibility' and 'democratic principles'.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Why certain things don't work

The outgoing music director of the NY Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, has expressed his relative disappointment that many of his ideas for the orchestra have not been so enthusiastically embraced as he had hoped, in spite of his having programmed sensational works like Ives' 'Fourth Symphony' with its famous / notorious last movement of everything whatsoever thrown-in, Ligeti's 'end of time' opera 'Le Grand Macabre', and lots of new music by rather unfamiliar composers like Kaija Saariaho.

Gilbert wanted to perform Messiaen's gigantic 'opera' 'Saint Franciscus' which takes many extremely boring hours, but did not get permission from the financial department due to the hughe expenses involved. The reason for the reluctance to fully embrace Gilbert's artistic ideas, by audiences and staff, must not sought in an apparent conservatism, but in the type of repertoire. It is admirable to include new music in the orchestra's series, but inclusion of types of music which do not fit the format of the performance culture of the medium, creates barriers instead of interest in renewal. Messiaen's 'St Franciscus', if measured by the standards of the central performance culture (and not according to historical categories like new or old), is a pretentious flop with a music that does not communicate anything; Ives' 4th when assessed with the same standards, is an acoustically sensational experiment and nice as such but lacks musical interest and comprehensibility, etc. etc. Audiences educated on the traditional repertoire have developed a sense of tonal and psychological coherence which is at the basis of orchestral performance culture, and such coherence can easily be found in new music (Nielsen - also programmed by Gilbert - is an older example but there are also tonal composers nowadays who write excellent and coherent and expressive music, especially in the United States).

Orchestral music is first and foremost a matter of the imagination, of interior experience, not of outward sensation and material gadgets (screens, performers dressed-up as something they are not, players on unusual locations etc. etc.). The reason that the old war horses are still so fresh is because they address the audience's interiority. This is not conservatism but a cultural deliniation, based upon universal human perception and not upon a one-sided preference for 'historic' repertoire. If Gilbert had had more perception in this matter, he would have programmed a more carefully thought-through type of new music and won-over the audience's scepticism. Maybe he lacks the instinctive musical insight to make such distinctions; but his attempts at renewal have to be admired nonetheless. The incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden, is much more of an instinctive connoisseur, so it will be interesting after a while to make comparisons as far as new repertoire is concerned.