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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Wednesday 25 November 2015

European renaissance?

These times will be decisive for the future of Europe... and it will be of great consequence which trajectory will be taken: the breakdown of the European Union and the nation states locking themselves up behind their borders, quarrelling about interests, money and fugitives, with war zones in their capitals; or in contrary a renewed movement to a political union: a federal Europe that - because of its unity - can be strong both inwardly and outwardly, and overcome its many problems, including the terrorist threat. If the latter road will be taken, critics of the EU will say: 'empire building', and will interpret this as a return to the worst characteristics of Europe's past. But for people, who understand that division and provincialism will eventually bring great damage to everybody, these times are a challenge and a great chance to let Europe's best values overcome the problems. One thing can be taken for granted: the terrorist threat cannot be overcome by individual nations alone, it simply requires the most thorough cooperation on all levels.

In the light of both the fugitive crisis and the terrorist threat, the state of established contemporary culture in terms of new creation, cuts a futile and pathetic figure. Culture is the embodiment of the values of a civilization. Today, European civilization is under threat from forces inside and outside its territory; in such situation, culture is not less, but more important. Thinking of the silly demonstrations of non-talent and decadence, like cut corpses in formaldehyde, crucifixes in urine, tinned excrements or unmade beds in the visual arts, and digestion noises, mating violins, orchestras murmuring, groaning and moaning beyond their normal sound production in music, it strikes me as utter waste that such activities are still given attention in public space and money from subsidizing bodies. What does all this have to offer to the real world? Nothing. It merely adds to its misery.

The future, when becoming the present, is the result of dreaming. Why not dream for a moment? Why not close the curtains for an hour, shut down the email programme, the telephone, the apps and the smart phone, and let fantasy roam freely? It may help to outline our ambitions... and individual trajectories. I dream of a united, federal Europe, something like the USA, economically strong, and governed by the rule of law and by social justice, a Europe which can absorb fugitives and help them to assimilate, to become European, populating the deserted areas where younger generations have left the picturesque villages and towns and the gentle landscapes, for the excitement and career chances of the big cities, thus breathing life into the land without which also the big cities cannot really thrive. Culture will be an important instrument in the process of integration, not merely for the immigrants but also for the locals who grew-up in times of erosion and ignorance about what made Europe great. So, a thorough educational system centralized around the humanities. It may be a good idea to cut the big nation states into smaller units where populations can more directly relate to the area, which is already finding its expression in Wales, Scotland, and Catalonia. If political representation is scaled-down to such smaller areas, people will be able to feel better and stronger integrated into their communities.... say, something like the various 'Länder' in present-day Germany. Above that level, a general system of representation will deal with the greater issues like economic and foreign policy, and the balancing-out of taxes and government spending. To avoid the danger of a hughe, impersonal bureaucratic European Soviet Union, as the Brussels administration often seems to prefer, a bureaucracy which does not inspire to emotional commitment, a bit of colour would be effective to emotionally bind populations: in the small Euroregions, kings or queens with representative functions can be installed, including ritualistic and decorative events - but without political power. Why 'king/queen' and not some more neutral, modern term like burgermaster or president? Because 'king/queen' rings with archetypal resonances: there is a symbolical dimension to it that other, newer terms do not have and actually were developed to avoid such resonances.... like 'president', 'chanceler', etc. Such local kings/queens could be given a budget for cultural projects to be organized in their residence, like salons, and chamber music events, as an expression of cultural and social importance. We have already remnants of the old European nobility making themselves relevant in charities and cultural projects, and maybe they could be mobilized into more structural jobs. We could go further and think of installing an emperor, chosen from the elite of elderly statesmen who have demonstrated an effective and impressive commitment to the idea of Europe, people like Helmut Schmidt - but without political power which would be seated in the European parliament and the parliaments of the Euroregions, and always someone who has been chosen on merit. Think of the emotionally-mobilizing effect of rituals as exercised by the British queen, and how the members of that family function pretty well within modern society in spite of the occasional internal upheavels visiting them.... the only down side being the hereditary nature of the monarchy, being born into the job, which is absurd. Kings and emperors should be chosen, as was often done in the Roman empire.

Of course, on first sight all this sounds crazy and completely unrealistic and naively nostalgic - but think of the practical advantages such a Europe would have. Take Italy: the prosperous north does not quite like to pay for the impoverished south where the maffia gets their fingers into everything. If it were two different regions, or even cut into 3 or 4 regions, and money to support the south would not come directly from the Italian neighbours but from the Union where all regions pay into and receive money according to their needs, this will produce a very different feeling both in the north of Italy and in the south. Also the great differences between southern, rather 'loose' economic cultures and the thorough north, would be balanced-out because if Europe would be cut into a great number of small regions, sorting-out imbalances would be less difficult than these continuous conflicts between economically failed nations like Greece and the irritation of a paying Germany that wants to see the accounts. There should be a capital, and that should not be Brussels but a place with deep roots in European history, to feed Europe's cultural identity and create a location that would inspire the present and the future. (Given the multi-national and multi-cultural character of such a Europe, Vienna comes to mind as a perfect place, since the Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national country. Also, a perfect place for offices would be the Neue Burg, if the second wing - which was envisaged but never built - would finally be created, forming a strong symbol of continuity and cultural identity on a European scale.) In short, the combinations of two different developments: one towards small-scale organisation, and another towards a general, overall administration. It should be possible to figure-out such an empire, and to make it work. What the Romans could do, contemporary Europeans should be able to do much better.

A central idea of Europe is: diversity and pluralism combined with unity. But what is this unity, especially in times when we see more of the diversity than the unity? I think these two notions occupy two different levels of society and culture. It is like a polyphonic work by Bach: the voices go their own independent way but keep themselves within the limits delineated by an overall framework which keeps the different lines together. Or a string quartet by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven: a civilized conversation between different characters, forming a harmonious whole within which there can be varied endlessly. But in society, unity is created by a Leitkultur, a general cultural framework based upon some fundamental values, as have been developed since the Englightment, which should offer freedom but within limits, so that disruptive 'parallel societies' can be avoided.

But seriously... apart from all the dreaming: the great mistake of the development of the EU, a mistake which also has a strong impact upon the developments of culture, was to organize the EU into a territory according to mainly economic considerations, on the assumption that other things, like a political union and, maybe a cultural one, would take care of themselves. The European project has lost the full commitment of its populations, and while in these times the problems and crises demand a strong solution, the EU seems to be rather powerless and lacking any real vision - it cannot mobilize 'Europeanness'. To win back the commitment of the people, their deep emotional resources have to be touched upon and they are by nature atavistic: not a modernist Manhatten of cool skyscrapers filled with faceless bureaucrats who organize things without being in touch with the reality of the people, but an emotional vision of greatness which can inspire the masses to cooperation and constructive effort. Look at the French: over time, they have cultivated a rather irrational vision of 'la grande nation', a vague but very strong idea of all the great achievements of the country in the past (!) which  have greatly contributed to the world's civilization and especially to Europe's civilization, and in these times of profound crisis, a wave of unified emotion binds the people together. Of course, the divisions are great in France, and that terrible woman Le Pen is whipping-up populist stupidity, but the general loyalty towards the idea of France that is bubbling-up is real. Imagine such emotional appeal towards the notion of Europe, the Grand Empire of civilization.... answering - in fact - the dreams, often exaggerated, of the refugees fleeing barbarism, destruction and death by war. They see 'Europe' as the civilization offering the fruits of humanity, which is being destroyed elsewhere by psychopaths. I have the feeling that the passionate dreams of those Syrian families, struggling with their young children on their shoulders, through endless landscapes and along pointed guns, are the potentials of a Europe that stands for its immense achievements. It is on this point, that the original dream of a civilized and cultured Europe and the dream of the numerous fugitives find a confluence, thus forming a possible basis of a fertile integration and renewal.

The best of Europe is also embodied in its culture, and that means: not in its postwar modernism and its deplorable progeny. If culture has to be the inspiring and symbolic force it has been in the past, it should courageously return to the means of that past, and use them for a renaissance. Such renaissance has already happened once, and there is no reason why it could not happen again. Also the Italian renaissance was the result of dreaming.... by many very able people and very talented artists, and we know they were not naive, nostalgic misfits but active intellectuals and artists. I would say, let us dream of a European renaissance... culturally, politically, civilizationally. If Europe could combine its best forces, all crisis could be overcome. The alternative is too horrible to even consider.


Addendum 24/6/16:

Now that the UK has decided to leave the EU, which is a forceful slap in the face of the European project, a weakened Europe can either fall apart or pull together and reform. In the UK, the vox populi has spoken, but has split the country in two since the difference of the votes is a mere couple of percentages. It is to be expected, with great probability, that Scotland, N-Ireland and Gibraltar, where the population in an overwhelming majority voted for remaining in the EU, will leave the United Kingdom, and that a majority of banks will relocate to Frankfurt, the other big European financial capital, which will benefit from it. The campaign for leaving the EU was based on lies, fear mongering and appeals to primitive nationalistic instincts of uninformed people ignorant of the consequences but full of suspicion towards foreigners and supposed uncontrolled immigration, whipping-up the ghost of nationalism which has created so much havoc in the European past and presenting an example which rightwing parties elsewhere will be happy to follow. Now already one hears voices, inspired by the Brits, in Denmark, France and the Netherlands, claiming vindication of the 'nationalistic need'. This remarkable shift in terms of nationalities and identities only shows that the need for identification with locality has to be addressed, and in the same time to be balanced by a greater vault of supranational unity, exactly as described above in my fantasies.

As a convinced European, I feel connected in a cultural sense with England (where I have studied and have friends and professional contacts), with Germany (given the nature of my music) and France (providing a fertile soil for some of my cultural roots). It is not so difficult to identify with multiple cultures that have different histories, since there is so much that overlaps. A multicultural identity is a combination of elements from different cultures which can form a whole, including its differences, and according to individual character and inclinations. The brexit is a gesture of refusal to cultivate such type of identity and seems nothing more than a reaction of fear and a clinging to an imagined, old monocultural identity. It pains me to see that so many Brits prefer to be an island instead of playing their part in a greater unity. I never felt that travelling through the UK was in some way 'abroad' from Europe.... and its musical culture is so strongly connected to the musical world of the continent. The brexit will harm the UK's musical culture, it seems to me, and stimulate a parochial mentality.

When the UK falls apart into a more provincial status, turning its back to the continent in a gesture of self-destructive protest, it betrays its historic openness and cultural credibility. But if the EU would reform and nation states would, within its context, split-up themselves in smaller culturally-defined areas, a small England - no longer a United Kingdom - could, like Scotland and Wales, apply for the EU umbrella, because it would no longer be the UK that as a whole decided to leave it. And then, England would be in a very weak position in the negotiations.

Action provokes reaction. It is only to be hoped that a reformed EU, which is much more socially-sensitive and less materialistically-bureaucratic, and which would create and stimulate both local and European cultural identity, can provide a counterbalance to the threat of rightwing politics and extremism which is on the rise. The fact that almost half of the UK electorate wanted to be part of Europe, especially the young, is a sign of a justified hope.

Monday 23 November 2015

Understanding one's time

I have often been accused of 'not understanding the music of the 20th century', that is: my own time. You can shrug your shoulders and conclude: 'Well, clearly they don't like it' and move-on, but there is an interesting implication in such critique which throws a light upon what is often called the 'new music scene'. Namely, the implication is, that a 'correct' understanding of 20C music would inevitably lead to embracing one of the postwar philosophies like atonalism, serialism, minimal music, cross-over, spectralism, chance processes, theatricals - in short: modernism and its progeny or its counter-movements. But according to which criteria could one assess which philosophy of music would be 'correct'? And then, what type of criteria: aesthetic, psychological, political, scientific, historical, anthropological criteria? It's mere conformism: group thinking, according to the idea that if many people share an opinion, it must be true - a basic trait of petty-bourgeois reasoning, exactly the type of conformism against which modernism from its early beginnings on, raised its arrows. *)

One thing we can establish, with a minimum of security, that since WW II new music is in a crisis. The debates may have fizzled-out, but it is indifference which has taken its place, and I think that is far worse than debates... after all, discussion demonstrates an interest among the participant parties (composers, performers, programmers, critics, audiences), but indifference is death. Once I received a letter from an irritated festival director, admitting he did not like 'the avantgarde' and preferred new music which did not go 'too far', but claiming that 'setting-back the clock' a hundred years - what I apparently was doing - was utterly unacceptable. So, setting it back a decennium, or a couple of decennia, was OK but you could not go back 'farther'. Note that this reasoning is reflecting the idea of a historic time line from past via present into future, surrounded by taboos. What happened just after WW II? A single one of the many different strands of prewar music, namely the musical philosophy which was born in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century in the mind of Schoenberg and followed by Webern and (with caveats) by Berg, plus some followers, was taken-up as the way into a fertile future after the catastrophe of war and psychological demoralization about the European culture of 'the past', while the concert practice was quickly restored and proliferated thanks to new recording techniques and a general boost of economic progress. Official 'new music' split-off from the central performance culture and formed a territory of its own. (This process and its implications are further explored in my book 'The Classical Revolution' and various texts on my website: www.johnborstlap.com ) If we want to understand the origin of the 'crisis of new music', we have to go back to that moment at the beginning of the last century when Schoenberg got the idea of crossing the boundaries of what was at the time considered the musical tradition. The core of the problems faced by composers today, including the gap between the central performance culture and new music in all its diverse forms, can be found in the Vienna just before the first world war.

The uproar (including fistfights) accompanying premieres by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern at the time have become standard mythology of proud resistence against narrow-minded bourgeois musical culture, the loud scream of life against a petrified, conservative establishment where audiences just wanted to keep things as they were and attacked any attempt at change and renewal. This mythology has to be treated with suspicion. To begin with: audiences don't listen historically or politically, but aesthetically: they like things, and dislike other things. They may begin to dislike music that, if exposed to it a couple of times, they may begin to like it - on the condition that it is performed by dedicated and committed musicians. Of course cultural conditioning is part of this process, which can function as a hindrance to understanding but also as its instrument. When I began to understand Schoenberg's mind and his cultural environment, it became clear to me that the protests he encountered, were not directed against novelty, but against a real threat: the breakdown of culture, a fear which appeared well-founded at the outbreak of WW I. Vienna around 1900 is often described as 'the craddle of modernity' in both a cultural and a scientific sense. You could as well say that all the horrors and misunderstandings of the last century also found their origins there, even including the problems of a multicultural society and of cultural identity, a problem Europe is struggling with today with increasing intensity.

Let's have a look at Mahler. Also he met a lot of protests, against his music and against his person, partly antisemitic in nature but also inspired by the 'message' of his music, in which mutually-exclusive elements form a mosaic which can be understood as a reflection of the cultural conflicts and confusions of his time, and - remarkably - of the entire age that followed, much more so than what Schoenberg, Berg and Webern have dreamt-up, because of never rejecting the communicative powers of tonality, reminiscence and reference. Mahler's work: an idiosyncratic treatment of tradition, belongs to the core of Viennese musical culture but it looks over the fence towards the threats it feels that are approaching, trying to find some hope and consolation in otherworldy spheres. Schoenberg jumped over this fence, also driven by personal emotional problems, and the protests he encoutered should be seen as an instinctive, and healthy reaction against erosion.

Let me immediately say here that I consider Schoenberg a great composer and a crucial influence of my own work. His early works, culminating in his First Chamber Symphony, are a clear demonstration of his talent and stature. The first three of his Five Orchestral Pieces are pieces of genius, and the second: 'Vergangenes', is the deepest moving and stylistically most impressive expression of loss in the entire repertoire. After that, things began to get off the rails, a prophetic development bearing on the entire 20th century.... because indeed something was lost, at least: in Schoenberg's mind, which had a strongly historicist bent, like most of his contemporary intellectuals. His song cycle 'Pierrot Lunaire' (1912) is a hallucinating expression of the mood after the intervention of tragedy.

Understanding Schoenberg = understanding the 20C musical crisis. Understanding the timelessness of musical quality and beauty, leads to the rejection of historical time-line projections. The conclusion is, that Bach and Mozart are still contemporary composers, and that there is no museum culture in music, and that there is no progress in music. Demonstrating the Untergang of musical culture in terms of music may be an expression of truth, of reality, but you cannot build-up something if you are stopping at catalogueing the ruins. This means that Schoenberg, Berg and Webern - the Holy Trinity of new music in the 20th century - are strongly part of a unique moment in history, and that the meaning and value of their work (and everything following in its wake) can only be judged according to artistic standards which are independent from history. Are these 'extreme conclusions'? I don't think so.... they are the logical implications born from understanding historical reality, nothing more, nothing less.

*) "If many people agree with me, I get the feeling that I must be wrong". (Oscar Wilde)

Saturday 21 November 2015

Be liberated!

Helmut Lachenmann is considered one of the important German sonic artists (Klangkünstler), who has worked all his life to explore until then unused sonic possibilities of otherwise normal instruments: blowing through disconnected mouth pieces of brass instruments, finding sound in applying all kinds of treatments of string instruments except the normal use of the bow over the strings, etc. etc. What does he want?

"Er will das Publikum von seinen vorgeprägten Hörgewohnheiten befreien und ein neues Hörverständnis schaffen. Das Geräusch selbst wird bei Lachenmann zum Träger von Schönheit" (from a review in the Wiener Zeitung). So, he wants to liberate the audience from its pre-programmed listening routine and to create a new understanding of hearing; any noise like rustling, murmuring, whispering, soughing is, for Lachenmann, a carrier of beauty. This can be considered something like the basic tenet of sonic art: creating an acoustical awareness of sound as such. Comparable ideas can be found in abstract painting, which wants the viewer to get conscious of the beauty and interest of patterns as such, as they also can be found in nature, like the roots of trees, the manifold miniature patters of a cornfield waved by the wind, of the whirling of water in movement, of the formal transitions of cloudscapes. In music it was Debussy who took these phenomenae as an overall point of departure for much of his work (Nuages, La Mer, Voiles), albeit always within the context of musical, poetical expression.

Abstract visual art and sonic art are art forms which 'stepped-out' of the mimetic tradition and created a separate territory of awareness, they ask the viewer and the listener to take a step back from what they are used to consider 'Art' (with a Capital A) and concentrate on their materials, and from there, any material from the real world. Sometimes elements from reality are re-assembled into abstract works which direct the attention back again to that real world, hopefully with a better understanding of their aesthetic nature.

So far, so good. But where I have problems with, is the notion that art/music audiences have to be liberated from their routines of viewing and hearing, as if they are some form of restriction, of underdevelopment, of domination by some authoritarian mode of behavior or reception. Are listeners of classical music not conscious of the sonic qualities of a Mozart symphony, or of the physical nature of Beethoven's scoring?
Not to mention the differentiated sonic qualities of Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky. What is often seen as 'hearing routine' by sonic artists, is in fact being initiated in an understanding of music as an art form: the aesthetic qualities of sound as a carrier of musical meaning, exploring a world of emotional differentiation which sonic art is utterly incapable of even beginning to compete with - in fact, sonic art never wanted to explore this dimension of emotional experience, because its focus on sound as such.

An embarrassing suspicion thus presents itself to the consciousness of a musically-alert listener: sonic artists have a restricted understanding of what serious music, as an art form, really is. It is quite possible, I dare say: probable, that sonic artists don't hear music at all, but merely the sound it makes. And indeed: if you hear only the sound of music (no pun intended), and then look at the central performance culture with the endless repetitions of a core repertoire, it must strike the sonic artist as a mysteriously conventional field where thousands of people want to hear the same kind of sounds over and over again, a sort of apotheosis of empty, obtuse hearing routine, inducing trance-like states of unconsciousness only interrupted by ritualistic clapping of hands on waking-up from comatose slumbers. If this notion of the musical world were true, we should embrace sonic artists indeed as liberators from a primitive and costly cultural ritual. But - as a majority of music lovers are fully aware - this is not how the music world works, and not what is really going-on at a classical music concert, where the sonic level is the carrier of emotional experience which in itself is not restricted to the purely acoustical phenomenon.

I have often been accused of 'not understanding 20C music', of 'hating modern music', and even of being the ringleader of a fanatic biedermeier sect wanting to stop contemporary music from developing (sonic artist Konrad Boehmer in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik). But you can easily see that sonicism, where it wants to 'liberate' us from music, can be accused of not understanding music as an art form, hating the central performance culture, and creating a sect-like scene claiming performance space and money in a territory where it does not belong, because of not relating to the fundamentals of the art form.

Sonic art has a legitimate right of existence within the cultural field, especially where it explores forms of awareness. But it should remain within its own sphere of activity, and not intervene in classical music concerts, where it does not belong, in the same way that photographs and cut corpses in formaldehyde do not belong among the collections in the Louvre. Sonic art and concept art are no competition to music and painting, because they want to do something fundamentally different.
But the problem begins where such alternative art forms want to liberate us from an art form with which they have nothing in common, and in comparison with which they strike a rather poor figure.

Later additions:

"Lachenmann indes hat gerade beim 75-Jahr-Jubiläum der Donaueschinger Musiktage eine Rede gehalten, in der er, Nietzsche zitierend, lakonisch proklamierte: 'Die Musik ist tot.' Sie muß, als ob es sie gar nicht gebe, immer wieder neu zum Leben erweckt, wenn nicht gar erfunden werden."

So, a hero of sonic art declares that 'music is dead', referring to Nietzsche's proclamation 'God is dead', a similar type of proclamation by someone without much understanding of what he wants to see no longer live. According to Lachenmann, music should be considered as something that has to be invented from scratch all the time, as something that never existed before and has to be brought to life continuously - in other words, only to die immediately afterwards, otherwise you cannot go on inventing it at an empty place. Obviously, Lachenmann was not talking about music, because then he had noticed that it is still very much alive, so the only conclusion possible is that he was talking about his own work, which seems to have got stuck into a eternal 'Stunde null', the 'hour zero' as was proclaimed after WW II when avantgarde composers wanted to begin with a completely clean slate. A clearer example of philosophical and cultural confusion, combined with ignorance about the art form of music, is hard to find - has he not noticed how the world has tried to recover from WW II and how, especially in his own country, a hughe transformation took place?
It seems to me that he had to deny all of that, because accepting such recovery, and noticing the resurrection of its central performance culture as one of the most impressive and multifarious in the world, would not have left him much mental space to develop his idiosyncracies and to justify his lack of understanding music.
Lachenmann has noticed the existence of music as an art form with a humanistic, expressive dimension - otherwise he would not have wanted it to be dead - but it is exactly that which he wishes to be no longer alive, it should be a mere museum culture, and with no progeny in the present. Such attitude can only be considered masochistic, nihilistic, and hateful: a death wish to something that is so much better than what musically-challenged people can produce themselves. In these days, such mentality rings a bell: envy, powerlessness, hatred of the culture of 'the other'.

In the early 1980s, Lachenmann (targeting Hans Werner Henze in particular) blasted the music of postwar 'neo-symphonists'. Said Lachenmann: 'The recent teeming abundance of powerfully emotional music exists thanks to the degenerate fruitfulness of maggots having a good time on the fat of the tonal cadaver.' One is reminded of the nazi rhetoric aimed at 'the Jews'.

Friday 20 November 2015

Getting underneath

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Marcel PRoust

“There is no better way of becoming aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself that which a master has experienced. In this profound effort that we make, it is our own way of thinking, together with the master’s, that we bring to light.” Thus the great novelist Marcel Proust described the process of tradition in the arts, which is so different from postwar modernist ideologies, which wanted a break with the past as thorough as possible, focussing on renewal - in fact, renewal of both the means and the aims of art. But that disrupts the chain of stimulation and emulation, and refers the works created in the past to a psychologically inaccessible territory, as if it were ‘another country’. It created the ‘museum culture’ as a glass box, to be admired, but without 'any direct relevance' to the art of the present. It also destroys the means by which a value framework can be maintained and developed, because value assessment (the most important critical means of an artist) is not a rational process, but encompasses the entire personality, including intuition, emotion, and the cultural heritage the artist brings with him to the work. Critical value assessment can only be learnt through comparison with what obviously and empirically has demonstrated value, a learning process in which achievements of the past play a crucial role.

Absorbing influences does not exclude the individual touch.... it is the lack of personality and talent which makes it impossible to use influences to one's own advantage. The traditionalist attitude in art is based both on modesty and ambition, modesty towards the achievements that are already there, and ambition to emulate them. Also, based upon extreme immodesty in spotting who is, or was, a master, completely independent from generally received wisdom. This combination of modesty and ambition is the reason why Brahms bowed his head before Beethoven and Schubert (which inhibited him but also inspired him to great works) and why Debussy remained fascinated by Wagner and catapulted himself boldly into opposite directions. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the German postwar composer who wrote the complex opera 'Die Soldaten' - a gruesome digestion process of war trauma - and who committed suicide due to extreme psychological pressures, came-up with the idea of a 'Kugelform der Zeit', the spherical shape of time, in which past, present and future exist together, and where the future is the only element to be invented but in the presence of what is already there, independent of historical context. The relationship with Proust's celebrated novel 'In Search of Lost Time' is clear: the voices of the past tell us something about ourselves, and will always have to say things that are universal because they belong to the essential ingredients of the human condition. Proust turned a long period of wasted time and lots of nonsense into a spiritual awareness of timelessness and profound human insights.... showing the process by which the gold is emerging from the transitory processes of life and from the conventions and folly of the world.

I have read Proust, but only remember getting into the novel and leaving it at the other end. Some people are drawn away from daily life while embarking on that sea, comparable with audience members during and after a Wagner opera. Once I met an acquaintance who stared at some invisible horizon over coffee, and when I asked whether he was allright, it appeared he had gone to Parsifal a couple of nights before and still had to recover, being in a dream-like state and ‘not really there'. Also I know of stories of french readers disappearing for months into Proust's novel, locking themselves up in their appartment - claiming to be on sick leave from their work - and reappearing as a different person. One could not suffer from such condition after listening to Beethoven or Bach (maybe a bit after the Goldberg Variations), but it is possible that the lack of contemporary art speaking to us with such soul-searching makes modern generations vulnerable to such voices from a tradition which cultivated what was formerly called 'the soul'.

Sunday 8 November 2015

"Hats off, gentlemen...."

I have now listened to this utterly remarkable piece many times:

The french composer Karol Beffa is a kind of all-round genius, a professional in different fields, and as a composer - judging from this short 'piano concerto' - a veritable master, in the line Debussy-Ravel-Dutilleux, like his collegue Nicolas Bacri, another explorer of pre-war traditions. Both composers are creating new, fascinating music, with roots in the last period when the influence of the past was something to freely accept and to rework into one's own voice. It is not clear, however, whether this is a consistent line of development in Beffa's work; he often writes in different ways in different pieces.


In this piece, the material is worked-up chromatically, with two different types of themes, towards a climax which dissolves into a very quiet 'chorale' where the major and the minor triad blend into a softly-rubbing sound (the major positioned on top of the minor, which is unusual and reminescent of the same device in Stravinsky's short, early, mystic cantata 'Le Roi des Etoiles').

The scoring is superb: colourful and edgy, in this recording brilliantly realized by the Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi, breathlessly running after pianist Andréas Haefliger.

You can hear elements from the twenties, from Stravinsky, from jazz, from the type of minimalism à la John Adams, but all synthesized into a personal voice and imbued with a tragic expression. Maybe we can say: this is, for many people, how it feels to live in these times.... and what happens when taken distance of it. The title is from one of Baudelaire's famous poems, a nostalgic meditation on a lost paradise with references to colonial bliss. It seems to me that this is the underlying meaning of the piece, a touching nostalgia to something we have 'lost': the capacity to 'speak' through music about the inner life experience of man. What has the composer himself to say about the work?

"J'ai une passion pour l'œuvre de Baudelaire, dont l'écriture est aussi raffinée qu'accessible au plus grand nombre. La Vie Antérieure fait écho non seulement au célèbre poème mais aussi à la notion de la réminiscence qui irrigue la partition. C'est-à-dire que les idées de cette pièce, en un seul mouvement - bien qu'elle s'organise en trois parties - se nourrissent elles-mêmes. L'œuvre, qui ne dure que quinze minutes, est composée pour un orchestre par deux, sans trombone et avec une harpe. Deux thèmes se heurtent, s'imbriquent, se déchirent en une série de motifs. Ils se métamorphosent dans le finale dont la carrure est assez verticale, hiératique comme une sorte de choral aux sonorités de cloches. Pas de référence à l'époque baroque ! Simplement, je ne voulais pas terminer par un finale flamboyant, mais dans une sorte de sentiment d'éternité paisible."

In my opinion, this is a masterpiece. How often can we say that about new music?

Tuesday 3 November 2015

A monument for early modernists

Vienna honors Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Mahler, with a monument close to the Staatsoper.

We can admire the design, as being presented in the news:

Wolf D.Prix mit Modell des Alban Berg-Denkmals

The object looks like one of Lulu’s outrageous shoes.

The thoughtless mentioning of the 'Second Viennese School' has become convention, but is nonsensical. There never was a ‘Second Viennese School’, as the three practitioners of early modernism have been called by 20C propagandists, and as the news reader is informed. It was a quasi-academic charade, to defend a very difficult and untenable position. The implication is that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven formed the First Viennese School, as if the second were a natural development of the first. In reality, the ‘second’ broke down what the ‘first’ built-up - with the best of intentions, but nonetheless with a result, opposite of those innocent earlier composers.

Poor Berg! to be one of the victims being honored by such object, which looks like an ironic joke..... and then, with Mahler sharing the humiliation, Mahler who never used an atonal aesthetic and died before the twelve-tone idea took form. The message of the monument seems to be: when you climb the 12 steps of the modernist revelation (the basement), you will arrive at the mental liberation as expressed in the free-floating arches of fantasy, no longer locked-up in the incarceration of repressive, backward tradition.

Mahler should not be part of the group as commemorated with this object. Even the most dissonant passages in late Mahler, like in the first movement of the impressive 10th symphony, are embedded in a tonal context where the tones relate to one another; the wild 'deviations' still find their place within the framework of tonal coherence, albeit in a very free way. The tensions between painful dissonance and soothing consonance are part of a language, embracing the entire range between these extemes. Like R. Strauss, Mahler found a way of incorporating wildly-dissonant elements within a tonal language, where they form expressive and / or colourful contrasts to the rest. Debussy did the same, in quite another way: the rustling and murmuring in many passages of his work are comparable with the indefinite spots in impressionistic painting, which is never abstract, but suggestive rather than explicitly communicative: they are atmospheric elements meant to enhance the expression of the total. These composers never thought of leaving the tonal dynamics of the musical art form behind.

Berg was still part of the tonal tradition, however dissonant and painful much of his work, and however forced his interpretation of 12-tone system into his imaginative efforts…. probably because the Master told him that Evolution required such exercise. Around 'The Three' a large body of mythology has developed…. and much of it is based upon cultural misunderstandings, like most of the following modernist ideology.

By the way, there does not really exist atonal music, recent academic research has demonstrated that ALL atonal music is, in fact, in A minor: