Friday, 24 November 2017

The fragile future of music

The attacks upon the 1st edition of 'The Classical Revolution' did not surprise me, knowing - while writing - that descriptions of the totalitarian and nonsensical nature of musical modernism would not be welcome in certain established new music circles. But what did surprise me, was the myopic way in which the book was read by people, who are supposed to be used to reading books, and feel somehow committed to the musical art form in one way or another. For instance, where the book was merely condemned as a reactionary rant, drenched in bigotry, and as a failed attempt to present a very narrow, flawed taste as something objective, such interpretation seemed to come from people entirely ignorant of the realities of music life, of music history, even of general art history, so that the suspicion arose that these were people from outside music life or even, outside the cultural field altogether.

Such 'reviews' missed crucial points of the text, like: the obvious observation, with a history of ages of experience behind it, that music is more than organized sound and that an art form which wants to present sound as such without any other meaning is better considered a different art form altogether; or the crazy modernist assumption that there exists something like 'progress' in music; or the real nature of progress in music: the accumulated availability of means - on a different level from that of purposes; or the totalitarian, aggressive ideologies which have created havoc in music life where the damage is still very much present for all to see (or rather: to hear); or the invitation for juvenile nonsense to parade as 'new music'; or the fallacy of the 'lack of understanding' of 'conservative audiences'; or the link with cultural relativism and cultural identity, where awareness of 'the past' plays a crucial role. All these points could be easily verified by reality, other expertise writings, cumulative experiences of performers and listeners; they were not subjective, paranoid fantasies but rooted in the real world.

If the book were completely wrong, something like this would not have been possible - the presentation of a recent 'work' at the Darmstadt New Music Courses, well-known hub of established modernism in Germany:

In my opinion, the most important part of the book is its chapter 'The Search for Meaning' which connects music (and especially, new music) with the reality of the world and the surrounding culture. Here, a holistic vision is presented in which the many problems surrounding new music are illuminated as if from outside. With bigotry and reactionary conservatism, this has nothing to do - which should be entirely clear for everybody with a minimum of intelligence and cultural awareness. As the iconic monuments of the past are still with us and still have something meaningful to say about the human condition, one could clearly see that the preservation of their precious tradition is always part of any modernity, not for the benefit of the past but of the present - of any present. New creation illuminated by such tradition is - in a world where it is treated with contempt - related to this world in the sense of a necessary altenative, as a subversive exploration of a vision which may throw another light upon the present. Therefore the book is titled, with some irony, as a 'revolution': only revolutionary in relation with conventional ideas about modernity.

Classical, serious music ('art music', 'ernste Musik') has a repertoire that is, almost entirely, a product of the Western past, and mostly the European past. This cultural past forms Europe's cultural identity and by extension, a part of the cultural identity of the Americas. The price which has been paid for a dynamic, progressive technological and scientific society, is the loss of memory, a willful collective dementia, which means: erosion of identity and increase of alienation. The psychological misery and shallowness we see all around in the West, which are painfully reflected in current political developments like the surge of populism everywhere, betrays the lack of understanding of the past with the result that fundamental lessons have to be learned again and again. If we look at Chinese culture, which has survived thousands of years and serious upheavels and disasters, then it is a surprising discovery to see that the inner strength of this very specific culture can be explained by its commitment to 'the past' and 'the dead': the past is kept alive in memory through its art, poetry, literature, mythology. It has even survived the communist degradation and - under the surface - it is still alive, under the thumb of a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens with contempt. Western classical music is now increasingly popular in China, where it symbolizes development and modernization - with the advantage that its nonconceptual nature does not pose a threat to the political status quo. In the West, classical music shrinks, and new music has written itself out of a cultural paradigm altogether (in Europe only being kept alive through careless state support). The West should try to learn from the Chinese holistic attitude towards the cultural past and understand that its past is alive and not locked-up in a museum. All this was explored in 'The Classical Revolution', no doubt insufficiently, but necessarily, as a correction upon a paradigm that has shown itself to be entirely destructive and hostile to art.

Also I have often been criticized for writing music that is 'too traditional', mere imitation music and not original music, and that its language is entirely derivative and impersonal. But any musically-perceptive listener can easily hear that this is not the case: the language is a combination of different elements of existing music, but the mix is mine. Also, the way this music is structured, is newly found with every work: there is no repetition on that point. This type of critique can be compared with the attacks upon the book, and - apart from being superficial and unsophisticated - it is characteristic of a mindset where extremely narrow-minded ideology has replaced musical considerations and perception. The complaint that this music is 'too traditional' sometimes came from classical performers, whom you would expect the last to dislike tradition - but also here, the idea that contemporary music should 'reflect its time' is related to a certain average soundscape without realizing that there are alternatives possible. Modernism, when it entered the curriculae at universities and conservatories, seems to have damaged something in the brains of young people, who then entered professional life with their handicapped vision and in a world where such ideologies have either crumbled or have been petrified into establishment notions of a conventional, ugly past - as if there were only one type of past which is acceptable and other pasts, better ones, more inspired ones and certainly ones having produced masterpieces, are taboo. So, my book merely punctured an entirely feeble position, and the many thoughts about the modernist fallacies were necessary to point-out the full extent to which the idiocies of the modernist paradigm have damaged a fragile art form - fragile because of being dependent upon audiences, performers, and the cultural climate of societies.

No doubt the 2nd edition by Dover will also produce some attacks, and as long as the remnants of modernist ideologies are doing their destructive work in the mind of people operating in music life, this art form will be under threat, inviting further exploration of alternatives which may - at some stage in the future - restore understanding of classical music's enduring values.

'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'. This saying by the brilliant and pioneering architect Léon Krier points towards the 'holistic nature of human perception', as Steven Semes quoted Richard Cytowic (“Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), July 1995). This is not a 'conservative', anti-modern position but in contrary, the most necessary point of departure in the quest for understanding the nature of classical music and its value and meaning in the modern world. Ironically, such awareness is true progress, in comparison with postwar modernist ideologies: the point is, where the notion of progress has to be localized.

Steven Semes' admirable essay about relationships between the different arts can be found on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:

I remember that it was quite a discovery when, after writing some atonal Schönbergian pieces in my student days, my first serious exploration of the tonal tradition - not as an exercise in style imitation but as personal creation - immediately showed me that when you tap into a reservoir of relationships as exist in the tonal tradition (tonal in the widest sense), you enter a network of references which creates its own variations and appearances, and you connect with some deep layer in the collective subconcsiousness. It was the grave intellectual crime of postwar modernist ideology to insist that this connection was related to war, decadence, corruption. Restoring this connection is, I think, the challenge of art music in this century, and I hope such awareness will spread across music life and inspire a revival of a truly great art.

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