Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Birth from trouble

The Italian Renaissance was born from pestilence and war, carried by a number of creative minds who wanted to explore the treasures of the past to be put to use in the presence, to offer hope and confidence in an atmosphere of decline and trouble. It is no coincidence that this new paradigm, which has since been understood as the birth of the modern world, emerged in Italy and not in the rich north of Europe: Flanders, the Low Countries, Ile de France, the German lands. Trade and culture were florishing there, and there was no need felt to change ways of thinking about the world. But because of the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in 1453, a great number of scholars fled to Italy, carrying with them the surviving literature and scientific and philosophic writings of Greek and Roman Antiquity, which quickly spread among the Italian intelligentia. This wealth of cultural material brought forth the movement of 'humanism' which was at the heart of the Renaissance and its culture.

But the longing for something better than the declining and troubling present had been shimmering already long before Byzantium fell. Already in 1341 the poet Petrarca wrote:

Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task. 1)


This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world…. 1)

Such language may us, in 2020, strike as a bit naive, and as a rather quaint, nostalgic conservatism. But it was not, as history shows: such thinking set in motion one of the greatest and most fruitful cultural developments the West has ever seen, only to gradually erode from the 19th century onwards.

In the early 14th century, Florence suffered a number of devastating disasters: trade collapsed, the banking system imploded, government sank under the weight of corruption scandals and internal quarrelling, crops were failing, and all of this was topped in 1348 by the plague which killed almost half of the population. It is not difficult to imagine the anxiety, the nihilism and pessimism that reigned at the time. But after this dark period, the longing of the surviving population for a more positive way of looking at the world created a need for a rebirth of the things that make life worth living again: civilised values, education, science, the arts - something which would stimulate the faculties which had been numbed for so long. And exactly in the city which suffered so much, the spirit of a rebirth was born and was to become the inspiration of the whole continent.

There is a lesson here, and not merely for Europe or the West, and especially for today.

Taken from Andrew Balio's article on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:


Sunday, 5 April 2020

Damage and chance

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a veil has come down over the arts, as over all of public life, a veil different from the one which, for instance, descended with WW II. Classical music, as a genre and as a practice, survived the onslaught of the war, and as a practice the following destruction by modernism which reduced the genre as a living art form to a marginal and underground phenomenon. After the current attack of the Chinese virus, and after a considerable time, the performing practice will be picked-up but surely with big holes in the field. And what about the up till now established new music scene?

With a restoration of the practice of concert life, the question of relevance and meaning will have an unprecedented urgency. But which relevance and meaning? And who is going to decide? The management layer everywhere? The audience - who have a CD collection at home and can extend their experiences through the internet - have long ceased to have any influence upon the creation of new music, since it has been supported by state and institutions, not by audience welcome. It seems that it is the performers who, in the first place, will have the responsibility to lead a recovery of meaning and relevance in performance practice, and will have to follow their instincts of love and responsibility instead of vanity and financial reward. Only in this way, some of the damage can be turned into a challenge and a chance on reform.

Concept art in state opera

The Bavarian State Opera had prepared a production of concept art. But it had to be postponed, due to the corona epidemic. The production consisted of an ´opera project´ by Marina Abramovic: ´Seven Deaths of Maria Callas´.

For people, who are not much informed about the world of established concept art, it might be interesting and surprising to discover that Mrs Abramovic is not a composer. She is a concept performance artist.

The music going with this concept performance production consists of fragments of various classical composers, plus the work of Marko Nikodijevic:

Who is Mr Nikodijevic? He is a sonic artists with works specially created for people whose cultural horizon is only limited by blackness:

I think the sounds are beautiful and atmospheric, they include snippets of music, like recollections of folk music overheard in the real world of lonely villages in the Balkans where none of the concept art ideas find a warm welcome. It is a sonic impression, and in an opera production at best suited to a background atmosphere, nothing more.

It should be stressed that Maria Callas is definitely NOT taking part in this production since, unfortunately, she has died already many years ago.

The only truly musical parts will be played by composers who are as dead as Mrs Callas. Anybody still alive, deals with concept art.

The director of the Bavarian State Opera, Mr Bachler, insists:

´…… a project – albeit under the strictest of precautions for the safety of all involved – that links one of the greatest living artists, Marina Abramović, and the greatest singer of the post-war period, Maria Callas, and fathoms it as an encounter in death. This would have been of urgent necessity and relevance in times when death is repressed. In the moment when for many people it is really a matter of life and death, other questions arise – this has become particularly clear to me in the last few days.´

One can be forgiven for thinking that this production wants audiences to really understand that people are dying from corona virus infections, a bit of information that apparently has been repressed by the mainstream media today. It was a fate that Mrs Callas did not have to confront, as far as we know.

Mr Bachler concludes:

´Many positive images of the past weeks have come from creative people and artists. Therefore, we need art more than ever.´

For people with enough understanding of culture and, especially, serious music, this can only be fully agreed with. Therefore it is puzzling that the Bavarian State Opera, of all institutions in a country which considers itself a ‘Kulturnation’, has put so much efforts into a production which obviously has nothing to do with music and even less with opera, and we could say: which has nothing to do with art at all. And: what could be positive in a production that wants audiences to be reminded of death? In the midst of an epidemic?

I am quite puzzled by the question where the thinking has gone, in this entire story. The pressures of the current epidemic seem to remove layers of disguise from management activity.

I always found the antics of Mrs Abramovic – like walking along the Chinese wall as a work of performance art – entirely nonsensical and deserving to be put in the same category of charlatanerie as the urinal of Marcel Duchamp, who had a good laugh about the naivety and inability of the modern art establishments to make meaningful assessments in their field. The ‘work’ of this lady - which can only consist of videos of her exercises - therefore belongs in the museums which waste both their (tax) money and spaces on cultivating the nonsense that appears to meet a great demand in the modern world.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020


In the arts, the concept of 'beauty' has become suspicious, since many artists in the last century reacted to conventional, empty forms of 'beauty' which were mere commercial exploitations of the underdeveloped masses. The birth of modernism cannot be properly understood if not only the influence of scientific and social notions of progress are considered, but also the official art of the 19C salon with its imitations of traditional painting and sculpture, and the routine of the concert hall with its repetition of performing the classics, to which new but superficial and bland imitations were added with the aim of an easy success with the average, 'bourgeois' audiences. Truth, authenticity and originality should take the place that the notion of beauty had occupied for ages. Hence the emancipation of ugliness, disruption, fragmentation and the like as authentic expressions of modern times.

Another cause of the rejection of beauty in the last century was the idea of 'functionality', which was supposed to represent progress and improvement, and especially: an agent for cleansing the mind from cluttered convention. Hence the awful modernist extensions and interventions in the historic cityscapes of Europe. Also we see this 'functionality' in fashion, although women's fashion mostly kept something of the stylishness of old. But men's fashion became a riot of functionality as if beauty were something effeminate, and thus taboo for the proud male in a modern, functionalist world of science and enterprise.

The idea that form follows function - one of the tenets of modernism -  reveals a purely materialist mindset: namely, beauty is also a function, not a materialist one, but a function of the soul. Our environment influences our inner life, either consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, the human soul needs beauty to feel connected to the world, which in its pristine state is full of beauty. Almost all things in nature have beauty, in a stunning variety, and the human being as an aesthetic 'design' reflects one of the most accomplished natural creations. Since we have developed as a part of nature over the millennia, our faculties of recognition of the beautiful is a perfectly natural given, and its perversions or erosions do not diminish their importance. Hence it is perfectly natural that artistic expression if it is related to this core of our evolutionary heritage, will have beauty as one of its elements.

The misunderstanding of what beauty actually means, seems in these years gradually dissolving.

As philosopher Andreas Dorschel writes: 

"In contemporary discussions about aesthetics, the theme of beauty has become a concern of the best minds, like Alexander Nehamas: ‘Only a Promise of Happiness; the Place of Beauty in a World of Art’; Sir Roger Scruton: Beauty’; Paolo Euron: ‘Art, Beauty and Imitation’; Denis Dutton: ‘The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution’. "

The late British philospher Sir Roger Scruton produced a very notable BBC documentary about the concept of beauty, wholeheartedly recommended:


Thursday, 9 January 2020

Programming new symphonic music

Much new music which makes it to be performed by a symphony orchestra, is not really functioning according to the fundamentals of the performance culture of the medium. Or said differently: the new works chosen to be performed, are more often than not chosen with the idea that they should, somehow, represent modernity. And this notion of modernity is more often than not, a misunderstood modernity, as if ‘modern times’ force us to restrict our minds to a small number of choices. These choices often tend to conform to the idea that the music should offer associations with contemporary entertainment music, or with inaccessible complexity (because the modern world is complex), with sound effects 'never heard before' (to signify newness and progress) and recognizable as coming from modern industrial complexes or the world of computer technology, with bland repetitative processes reminiscent of certain pop music - in short: a connection with contemporary concerns or points of recognition. But all of these associations stem from outside the cultural tradition which is the symphonic performance culture, and tend to neutralize or to diminish the expressive means of the medium which have accumulated over a long period of time - from the late 18th century onwards.

Since orchestras are considered a remnant of bygone ages and of a culture that no longer exists – in terms of writing for them – the idea behind programming new music is that it should somehow ‘anchor’ the orchestra within the context of our own time, to somehow ensure its viability and survival in times with an increasing distance to the periods in which the classical repertoire was written. Ironically, since the choices are so often based upon a narrow and misunderstood notion of modernity (a straightjacket, with taboos), the choices effect the opposite: what is experienced as ‘modern’ by audiences, somehow does not fit in the symphonic culture, and does not appeal to classical music audiences. And this in turn confirms the museum character of the genre.

In short: the fear of being seen as ‘conservative’ by not programming pieces which reflect ‘modernity’, is undermining the orchestra's aim to preserve its place within contemporary culture. Trying to find new music which is both new, and in the same time respects and builds on the symphonic culture, is not conservative, because the existing repertoire is still functioning as a presence, and not as a collection of archeological relics. If progress is understood as improvement, choices of programming will look differently from a one-sided and simplistic idea of 'modernity', and that which is truly modern may happen to be improvement on the basis of artistic quality and in harmony with an existing and symphonic performance culture which is still very much alive.