Saturday, 22 August 2015

Modernism and musicality

I have always been struck by the obvious lack of musical capacities of both composers and performers of atonal, modernist music. If we describe 'musicality' as the capacity of both intellectually and emotionally understanding of what is going-on in a piece of music, which can be experienced in performance, we have to also describe what we mean by 'piece of music' and by 'capacities'. Also we should clearly define the notion of 'tonality' and of 'atonality'. I could now enter the labyrinth of philosophical deliberations about presentation, representation, meaning, value and so forth, but would rather refer to Roger Scruton's 'Aesthetics of Music' where, in the first half, these abstract musings have received a form which I would call definite. Let me just refer to some odd personal experiences and recollections....

During my study at the conservatory, one of the students of the composition group would accept without the slightest objection or question all the information about the then new explorations which set musical life on fire with protests, debates, and provocative concerts, also including news about explorations which were obviously nonsensical, like performances where the pianist sat still in front of the piano (Cage) or pieces made-up of white noise, or organ recitals where the clusters not only made the instrument roar like a lion being skinned alive, but caused a short-circuit and a fire as well. This student was somewhat older than me and also studying the piano. I attended his final examination concert where he played Beethoven's sonata opus 109, which was at the time still terra incognito to me - although I knew Beethoven and where he stood for, which did not have much of my interest. I still remember the strange experience of hearing someone playing notes on the piano that made not the slightest sense, they were played slow and fast, loud and soft, and all was fairly consonant, using normal triads and scales, but it sounded completely nonsensical. The next day I examined the score, because I thought that the old giant had written something really odd. But struggling through the pages revealed a beautiful, fluent piece of musical logic and expression - I recognized the notes but now I could see that they did make sense. Later-on this student became one of Holland's important and well-known modernist composers, receiving a plethora of commissions and stipends, and almost every piece he wrote was performed and received with great respect - by the incrowd, the critics (wanting to appear up-to-date) and - admittedly - rather small audiences. He sat on the selection committees of the national composers' fund, assessing applications for the fees for commissions - a centralized system whereby composers and theoretic experts exercise quality control over production of new music, like in the former Soviet Union - as well as on the board of this government institution. He easily won prizes dedicated to the 'best' progressive music, among which the Vermeulen Prize twice for works which show an aestheticized atonal modernism, somewhat like Viennese expressionism but comatized into a self-congratulating slumber, and even as sonic art, lethally slow and boring. Apparently without any understanding of what the genre could possibly mean, he wrote an opera based upon Virginia Woolf's musings which I tried to see out on TV - it was considered an event of national cultural importance - but the thing was so static that after two hours I found-out that in reality only 15 minutes had passed. The Théatre de la Monnaie, where the performance took place, began to empty from circa 20 minutes in the performance onwards and by the end, the hall was practically empty, so that the critics could praise the work as 'groundbreaking' and 'courageous' (a work of genius should be disliked at the première) and the composer received the second of his Vermeulen Prizes for this cultural deed of great consequence. But what I heard was a mere play with empty sounds, unrelated, and utterly uncommunicative. It had nothing to say because the musical language was incapable of 'saying'; surely 'saying' was never intended. In an interview in one of the national newspapers, this man said, in connection with this 'opera': "As a composer, you operate within a small world. It is a bit improper that you need an opera to exercise your prestige". So, all those efforts and all that subsidy money did not go into this work and into the performance to share some artistically-inspired vision, but to offer the composer the opportunity to exercise his prestige within a small world. A student of this man, who had during his study already obtained a reputation of supporting the cause of new music, on one day saw his stipend diminished with 5000 guilders. Complaining about this to his teacher, whom he knew was on the board and in the committees of the aforementioned foundation distributing the stipends, he received as a reaction that to the teacher's surprise his own stipend had been increased with the same amount. The reason of the cut appeared to be, later-on, due to some slight deviations of the student's music from the party line, an instinctive drive which he pursued more later-on and for which he eventually had to pay with the disappearance of his stipend altogether. (He became one of the more musical composers of the younger generation.)

Once I spoke with a member of a famous wind ensemble, with a huge bulk of contemporary music in their repertoire, of which much atonal modernist stuff. He insisted that the work of Richard Strauss and Stockhausen were exactly of the same nature, the one only using more dissonances than the other, but both were 'working with sound'. On the objection that there is something more to Strauss' work, and that Strauss always wanted to get something like 'expression' across, he vehemently denied the suggestion and explained the notion of 'expression' as a mere projection, resulting from cultural conditioning. For such people, notes that connect and notes that don't, are all the same. Another ensemble, I don't want to mention the name for discretion's sake but it was named after the Viennese Grandfather of Modernism, specialized in pure sound pieces, of which the Grandfather's Pierrot Lunaire formed a centre piece of their repertoire. Because it's one of my favorites, I know that piece quite well, and I have heard various recordings, and studied the score intensily. I attended a performance by this ensemble, led by an ex-composer who had, in the sixties, wildly campaigned for the cause of modernism and against any resistance to it which was, without exception, always condemned as 'conservative' and 'bourgeois'. I would have thought that this performance would offer at least an accurate rendering of the music, given the ensemble's mission of presenting - apart from the newest explorations - also the 'classics of modernism', but no: the notes were duefully played - with quite some mistakes, which may be forgiven, it's not an easy score - but with the entire dimension of expression and atmosphere deleted. It was a clean rendering of the notes, with the result that this utterly expressive and tragic music sounded as a dry exercise in modernist academia. The wooden conducting of the ex-composer did not help here. Also Webern was considered, in the scene where this ensemble was operating, as the non plus ultra of 'objective music', i.e. music without the decadent appendage of such outdated notions like 'expression', totally oblivious of the fact that Webern - a fanatic nazi supporter - intended his music to be the pinnacle of tragic expression, exercized on the millimeters of his imagination. You could understand that for people, ignorant of the expressive and spiritual dimensions of music, wholeheartedly embraced modern music, because finally there was something that was both new and understandable - music that reflected their own materialism and emotional emptiness and which created a field with lots of career options. Musicality is rarer than sheer dexterity and intellect.

One of the 4 concert masters of the Berlin Philharmonic, who cultivated a solo career next to his work at the orchestra,  told me once that when he performed the Schönberg Concerto, he had to totally reset his musical mind to be able to play the piece at all, and when he afterwards had to prepare for a traditional concerto - say, the Mendelssohn or the Beethoven or Brahms - he had to reset his musical thinking again. It was a crossing of some context boundary which he admitted to not understand, but experienced again and again: from 'here' to 'there' and back again, but loving and respecting both types of music. He agreed that the traditional works he regularly performed, had comparable fundamentals, it was tonal and used comparable types of dynamics, but he also insisted that apart from the obvious tonalities of the traditional field, the Schönberg piece had all the other normal features of classical music as well. It was clear that this man was an utterly musically-gifted musician, with an open mind, and therefore dedicated to support the Schönberg concerto which, in his opinion, was unjustly neglected. But he felt time and again the crossing from the territory where notes made a meaningful connection, into the field where they did not made such connection and were not meant to make the type of connection which makes the formation of an inner space possible - the aurally perceptive space of tonality. Even many performances did not make the slightest difference in this noble musician's problem, that he could not understand.

A modernist composer, whom I also will not mention because he is still alive, and who became the torch bearer of modernism in his country which was - in the sixties - still very traditional in musical outlook, had a father who was a conductor and friend of Schönberg's. As a child, he would see modernist granddaddy visiting the home and discuss musical matters with his father. Upon his expressing the wish to become a composer himself, the father objected, on the grounds that he did not see any gift into that direction and thought his son completely lacking the musical talents to pursue such career. Let it be noted that Schönberg himself was still grounded in traditional music, of which his monumental and - for composition students utterly useless - 'Harmonielehre' is a convincing proof. Performers who played Schönberg's music during his life time were equally rooted in a musical culture where the dimension of expression was accepted as a normal part of the art form, and also Schönberg himself always hoped to keep that dimension intact in all his music, including his later dodecaphonic works. If our youngster had any musical gifts that justified an attempt at composition, the father would surely have noticed it. Because modernist aesthetics often enthusiastically encourage cultural patricide, the mentioned youngster did become a composer, against the strongest opposition of his father who had exclaimed: 'If he becomes a composer, that will be something terrible!', and even made a brilliant career out of his barricade posture, attracting other youngsters of similar inclinations and flaws, founding a 'school'- in imitation of the 'Second Viennese School', another form of posturing - and finding his way into the channels of the developing modernist scene. He landed on prestigious teaching posts, where his incapacity to hear any difference between the various inversions of a chord did not hinder him to develop a reputation of a brilliant teacher of a certain kind, and where he could feed younger aspirant composers, who did not mind such incapacities, with the ethos of Schönbergian idealism. I always found this a tragic example of how the lack of musical talent made people perfectly suited to support the cause of new music.

A couple of years ago, a young, intelectually brilliant pianist and musicologist, finished-off his musicological studies with a thesis on Boulez' piano music, 'demonstrating' that PB had, in fact, pursued comparable musical and expressive ideals as composers like Chopin. Since the university which administered the degree was drenched in marxist, deconstructionist philosophies, they wholeheartedly applauded such unusual, bourgeoisie-undermining outcome, which has in itself the impressive originality we find in products based upon complete misunderstanding and ignorance. Inevitably, the young man made a career in the established 'new music' scene, where such misunderstandings form the basis of the profession.

Then there is the race of young, leftish women, keen on showing that femininity with all the associations of feeble emotionalism and bourgeois posturizing has no place in the Brave New World where new music finds its happy home. They perform in black T-shirts and black trousers, have their hair cut short, use no make-up and cultivate a playing style deleted of all references to expression, focussing on correctness, rhythmic precision and an anal reticence of a kind that would Pierre Boulez make to seem a feathered dancer at the Folies Bergère. They want to beat the modernist males at their own game, fighting in the forefront of the women's lib army, conquering terrain formerly occupied by patriarchal, authoritarian males who fought their own revolution against their dead white superiors. One asks oneself what could possibly have gone wrong in their youth that they forfeited the occasional tenderness of a violin tone, the caresses of a pianissimo on a velvet Steinway, and the sweep of a dramatic narrative which can have its harsh dissonances and tragic conflicts as well. These people have talents, but they cannot be considered musical talents. It is something different.... The breed not only fuels some corners of the performing space but also the necessary advocates on the organizational side. Once I made the humiliating mistake to have a meeting with the director of a German new music festival, which promoted pluralism, adventure, explorative and groundbreaking new music, thinking that my own work would be another kind of all these things if one understood its philosophy. She came down from her office floor into the hall of the building to greet me, a middle-aged woman answering all the described uniform requirements of modernist female hip. As there is something like love on first sight, there is also hate on first sight, and since I had made the catastrophic misjudgement of appearing in tie and jacket, my appearance sparked all the modernist bitterness in her bare soul. The conversation was, of course, stiff, distant and short, and I was informed that my work did not fit the format of the festival which celebrated - for once - the music that hardly was allowed to be heard elsewhere in music life because of its adventurous nature. In other words: she expected my work to be easily accepted elsewhere and therefore not deserving the accolade of cultural relevance that accompanied the real, progressive and groundbreaking music, the pioneering aesthetic which has been progressing, groundbreaking and pioneering since the war, and without end in sight. I was 'the enemy', that was clear, and I left the building under a cloud.

How did musical modernism mobilize all this anti-musical craziness? A recollection from my student days hints at some sort of explanation. The piano students, of which I was one at the time, were all greatly involved in mastering the Chopin études and the sonata repertoire, as wel as many other pieces of the traditional music treasures. The 'modern music course' which was obligatory for all students and which was meant to inform them of the newest developments in their chosen art form, exposed them to untill then unheard sounds, causing a general contempt tinted with hilarity. But there was one piano student, a young woman with wide-open eyes, who got very enthusiastic and explored 'new piano music' with an abandon, surpassing the Chopin-obsession of her peers. She made a very tense and neurotic impression, walking with her arms held stiff along her tiny body, the hands clasped into fists, and emanating the impression as if she were a bomb which could get-off any moment in a dissonant explosion. On one afternoon, when we students were lingering in the comfortable chairs in the hall of the conservatory, giving our blunted finger tops some rest and chat with each other, we asked her about her interest, something which filled us with a mixture of perplexity and concern. I will never forget her answer: 'This music tells me something about myself, for the first time ever I felt reassured and confirmed. That's why I love it, and why I want to study and play it.'

In the 'progressive' types of new music since WW II, it appears that musicality was replaced by all sorts of neurosis, destroying the capacities which have fuelled and inspired so much repertoire from the past. I believe that musicality as such cannot but stand in opposition to the modern world, in sofar as this world represents an environment where the achievements of humanist culture and spirituality have become rarities and are no longer felt as a normal part of civilization. What a relief it is to see that there are still great musicians around, who have the courage to blindly navigate upon their musical instincts and turn them into instruments of musical experience for thousands of others, equally hungry to feel reassured and confirmed in their identity, but hoping to overcome both personal and collective neurosis.

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