Thursday 18 February 2016

Classical modernity

Sometimes one hears the critique, that classical music is no longer compatible with modernity. What 'modernity' is supposed to mean, always remains in darkness, as if the very word 'modernity' were so obvious in its meaning that any further explanation would be superfluous. If 'modern' means; of this time, of today, this category is quite ephemeral because tomorrow there will be another today. But it is something else: modern culture, with its contemporary human condition, is felt as a fundamentally different way of life with values and experiences, strongly deviating from the past. All this is, of course, a generalization, but it paints a mood, and the suggestion that culture of the past has become 'another country', inaccessible to modern people. And it is quite remarkable that the core repertoire of classical music stems from that 'other country': modern music life has one foot firmly in the past, and since the other foot inevitably stands on the brittle ground of contemporary times, the position becomes increasingly uncomfortable if the culture of the past is seen as fundamentally different from modern life experience.

Is there any fundamental contradiction found in putting a CD with a Mozart symphony in the player while driving a modern car on a motorway along the suburbal spread of a big modern city? Or performing a piece by J.S. Bach on a piano, or his Brandenburg Concerti on modern instruments? Or in watching a Vermeer painting dressed in modern clothes, the canvas being lightened by carefully adjusted spotlights which were unthinkable in the 17th century? The HIP movement in music (Historically Informed Performance) which presents music from the past on authentic old instruments or exact copies of them, is a very modern phenomenon, and nobody would demand that such performances are presented with the musicians dressed in 18C garb and with candles on their stands. In contrary, successful ensembles like the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique of John Eliot Gardiner, a period instruments orchestra, use all the modern means and recording facilities to spread their vision, which does not in the least diminish other possible interpretations of the same music. It all forms a rich palette of varied artistic experience which is the hallmark of true modernity.

I think that human nature, in its essential elements, does not differ very much from our ancestors, and changes in society, life style, opinions, happen quite slowly, while the basic human needs remain the same throughout. Since the 19th century, the West got fascinated by the big steps of progress made in science and technique, which fed the myth that 'progress' would be the answer to all the troubles of mankind. Looking back to the upheavels of the 20th century, we know now that this is not the case. In science and medicine, progress is definitely of great value, but in other spheres of human activity, 'progress' is a dangerous notion because it may cover-up decline and erosion, as can be noticed in the visual arts where obvious decline in abilities and aesthetic sensibility is so often sold as 'renewal'.

The distorting view upon the relationship between modernity and culture has much to do with the idea that history develops like a time line: first this, then that, development from A via B to C and so on, with the implication and the hope that it is, in general, an upward line. If this were so in culture, we would end-up with quite some absurdities, like the notion that Picasso was an improvement on Velasquez, and that Xenakis was an improvement on Bach. In fact, the art of the past is with us in our present, it has survived the erosion of time and proven to be able to transcend the boundaries of time and place. The best works from the past are thus contemporary forever and any new art can only aspire to contribute to the ongoing accumulation of works, representing the creative mind of humanity. History in art thus looks like a quantitative accumulation process, and not like a time line.

During my studies in Rotterdam in the seventies, the musical world was shocked by the appearance of a new music which wanted to create a break with music from the past, which was still very much alive in the performing practice. There were heated debates, and music - old as well as new - became gravely politicized; if audiences rejected Boulez or Stockhausen they were bourgeois and did not understand their times, and people embracing the Brave New World of sound, demonstrated their keen commitment to modernity. Since the political climate of those days was predominantly leftwing, modernity was left, and bourgeois rejection of modernity in music was right. So simple was the world in that time.... In my parental home, classical music was a natural presence through radio and recordings, forming an organic backdrop to a rather bohemien life style: both my parents were painters. I never considered music being related to some political point of view, and I was quite surprised when, in my first years at the conservatory, Beethoven, Mahler and Ravel were labelled 'outdated' and 'bourgeois' by my teacher, who tried to get our small group of composition students interested in the 'real stuff': Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and everything following from their heroic explorations. Interestingly, the music of Schoenberg had never been aired on the classical stations at home, let alone Berg and Webern, and our record collection went not 'farther' than Ravel's piano concertos and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Third Piano Concerto. Also, I was surprised to find-out that all the music which I had got accustomed to, was 'old'. I never experienced Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms et al as something 'old' or as something far removed in time. In contrary, it was all very 'of now' and bursting with life: something that was so directly expressive and fresh could not possibly be 'another country'. Of course I knew that the music had been written long ago, but given the character of the music, that seemed to be entirely irrelevant, and loving and understanding that music did not make me feel 'oldfashioned' or 'bourgeois' - which would have been quite strange, given the rather chaotic and un-bourgeois milieu in which I was growing-up. But in the composition class, all that was put into a very different context.

Of course the students were fed with all the 'subversive' music which was, in general, rejected by 'bourgeois' concert life. I remember these group listening sessions as fascinating nightmares where we were led into the dark world of atonal despair, and the postwar experiments with pure but chaotic sound and electronics. On one particularly sunny and clear april morning, the Three Orchestral Pieces of Alban Berg seemed to suddenly turn the weather into a dark hole of rain and angst: a thunder storm had landed on the quarter. Exercises in dodecaphony and serialism posed quite some challenges, and I found it interesting to wrestle with complex constructions, like trying to get a puzzle right and hoping that the image that would appear in the end, would be something artistically meaningful. (It almost never was, since a puzzle is not an artistic undertaking.) A falling fifth in one of my early pieces provoked some contemptuous sniffing by the teacher because it reminded him of the beginning of Beethoven's ninth symphony, an embarrassing faux pas which I should avoid in the future if I ever wanted to be a composer. All this made very clear that music was not just music, but an embodiment of political value related to interests: so much new music was being written but not accepted in concert practice, where people were supposed to merely repeat the same 'old' works like zombies in a perpetual state of comatose cultural confusion, ignorant of the demands of modern times which were knocking on the closed doors of the concert hall.

Modern visual art did not suffer from those 'bourgeois' rejections, and quickly developed a specialized market with big money changing ever more eager hands, accompanied by a quickly emerging army of theoretical 'experts', happy with the infinite horizon of necessary and salaried explanation. Interestingly, the museums with the 'old' collections everywhere in the Western world continued to attract visitors, as it is still the case today, now those works have become another half century older since the new wave of modernism appeared after 1945. Modernist music and modernist visual art created a territory of their own, separate from the culture of the past, underlining the 'newness' of the phenomenon and its disconnection from existing art and music. To explain this distinction, theory and ideology were wielded as weaponry against the scepticism of 'the bourgeois'..... Understanding that musical meaning were not to be found in modernist ideologies, I began to study art history, hoping to find examples of debates which could throw a light upon those of the present. And indeed, I found some, and one of the most interesting debates took place in 17C France, where a debate flared-up among artists and architects about the question, whether modern artists were superior to those of Antiquity or not, the art of the ancient world then being considered so great that one should always try to take it as an example (Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes). It appeared that a rejection of a past culture was a relatively recent phenomenon, and that in former ages the accumulated presence of achievements from the past was merely a hughe repertory of means, to be used and varied in the present. Sometimes harking-back to an older past than before was, for that reason, considered more 'modern', like classicist architecture at the end of the 18th century and deep into the 19th, and the entire Italian Renaissance was inspired by the art of Antiquity, which was adapted to the different needs of modern times. The opera was an invention, a fantasy, about the way the great plays of old Greece could have been performed, since the sources spoke of reciting and singing accompanied by instruments; because concrete information was completely lacking, composers had to invent such presentation themselves: a beautiful example demonstrating the modern as a result of looking-back.

After my studies in Rotterdam I spent a year in Paris, keeping myself alive with private music teaching and a shabby little job at the Chamber of Commerce, sorting-out cards and files alphabetically and providing coffee for the real employees. Exploring the poetical cityscape, and visiting the Louvre and the big monuments, was a revelation: beauty and aesthetic meaning everywhere, not as some alien object in a glass box, but as a natural part of life. To take just one from numerous examples: the Panthéon - this impressive monument to 'the great men of the fatherland' - had been designed as a church in a very spare classical style, with a hughe dome topping a really excentric structure: the outside looks like a very square tomb, but the inside is light and elegant with vaults airy as a gothic cathedral. And indeed: the architect, I discovered, wanted to create the same high-rising effect of the medieval churches but with the vocabulary of classicism. The result is breathtakingly beautiful and also: very original, now forming an important signifyer of identity to the nation.

A very instructive lesson in classicism: although the separate elements are borrowings from examples (the entirely traditional, 'over-used' but always impressive temple front; the dome following the design of the dome of St Pauls in London; the tall interior with customary pillars, and vaults using 18C decoration in a structure resembling gothic vaults) but the resulting mix has a distinctively original effect, demonstrating Roger Scruton's description of originality as the personal touch which becomes visible against a background of tradition. Also, it's not 'just' a temple front: details and proportions are extremely well-designed, adding to the effect of tallness and forceful expression of grandeur.

Of all the treasures of the Louvre I only want to mention the Italian paintings from the Renaissance, showing that the particular imaginings of ages ago are capable of transmitting their beauty and meaning to crowds of people living in entirely different circumstances.

Leonardo da Vinci

The mystery of new life, in the loving, golden light of a spiritual presence, and in the same time entirely human and emotionally accessible.

Tizian: complex and in the same time, quasi-improvised structure, both in terms of the flat surface and threedimensional depth. It looks like a slow middle movement of a Mozart symphony. (I always wondered why the guys, obviously discussing the music, don't pay the slightest attention to the ladies, who do so much their best to distract them.)

It became very clear to me that in an artistic sense, 'the past' did not exist: the works existed. The implication is, of course, that today artists can take these works as examples to learn their craft, so that they acquire the means to express their own inner drive to contribute to the better aspects of the world. After my return to the Netherlands, it became my goal to get to the heart of the classical tradition - classical in the widest sense, like we speak of 'Indian classical art' as distinct from 'modernity' - and to learn to adopt the techniques which were best suited to what I wanted to 'say' in the 'language' of music. As with all cultural endeavors, we learn through imitation, and through internalizing creative processes we become what we have learned, and the craft turns into personal means of expression.

Of course such ideas fell completely outside the world view of modernism and of modernity as a narrowly defined moment on the time line of history, and outside the established circles of 'contemporary music' with their specialized festivals and performances by specialized ensembles. But maybe that was a good thing, because exploration and development that is endorsed by establishments, may hinder the inner freedom that is a precondition of authentic creation - that is, if such establishments cultivate ideologies and party lines and taboos for their adherents. Restoring something of the classical tradition in music is, of course, a welcome target for taboos in a cultural climate where a narrow-minded notion of modernity is de rigeur..... even if in today's contemporary music scene those hard-line taboos have eroded considerably. But in the end, it may offer possibilities of development exceeding those of modernism and its watered-down progeny, the ideas of which seem by now completely exhausted and so feeble in comparison with the best of tradition.

If we acknowledge that we live now in post-postmodern times, I believe that the available / accessible works of art should be judged on their ability to enrich our lives, as we have to judge ourselves to be accessible to ideas and aesthetic expressions which may have something of value to tell us. This is basically a timeless, a-historical position, and then it appears that very much art and music from the past is still very much present all around us, and still 'speaks' to us. This is a reassuring sign that the human condition may be strong enough to endure even the most disruptive influences of modernity, and it shows us that one of the blessings of this same modernity is, that so much art from the past is available and accessible. More and more painters, architects and composers no longer feel inhibited to explore these examples of humanism for their own artistic endeavors.... and it seems to me that this is contributing to the available territory of meaningful art. May this be a renaissance of authentic culture, taking its place within the broad context of available, contemporary artistic experience.

Monday 15 February 2016

'Art instead of borders'

What is currently happening in the Middle East is nothing less than one of these profoundly tragic historical moments, when the abyssmal darkness of human nature opens-up again, in an orgy of violence where any notion of humanity has disappeared. Whatever reasons or labels are applied to the fighting parties, they all have discarded the foundation of being human, and sink into the pit of insanity, whereby governments restrict their reasoning and operations to the purely 'functional' considerations of interest which, like in any hell, are completely separated from any sense of civilization.

Meanwhile, the EU is crumbling, demonstrating the shocking reality that former appearances of solidarity between the European nations were merely a façade for self interest: where the EU offered advantage, it was welcomed; where it demanded a minimum of sharing a common burden, as now with the distribution of war refugees, friendship immediately dissolves in open hostility. Germany, as the leader of a Europe that would be developing into a civilized and wealthy whole, suddenly saw itself completely abandoned in its truly European gesture towards the refugees. Everywhere, walls are built and quarrels prevent the emerging of a solution to the refugee crisis which obvioulsy can only be handled constructively if all European countries arrive at a common policy. How these times will develop in the near future, will also have serious implications for culture, because if Europe breaks-down into the nationalist situation of old, economies will gravely suffer, and culture will be the first item on the list to be dropped.

The proliferation of extreme rightwing parties all over Europe, with their anti-immigration agitation, wholeheartedly helps IS and Russia with their intention to bring Europe as a whole on its knees (the rightwing parties receive money from Russia, as a recent German documentary revealed): political leaders appear powerless to agree upon some common strategy and are quarrelling over secondary matters, with their reelection in mind, thereby forfeiting their credibility with the populations. The rightwing parties merely recite completely outdated and worn-out nationalist rants, appealing to the uninformed, uneducated and primitive layers of society. We know from history to which disasters such movements can lead, but people voting for those parties are, inevitably, entirely ignorant of these implications. It is the fears of the lemmings being exploited by the cynics. How could it possibly have gotten this far with Europe? The answer is not difficult to find: because of the failure of the EU to provide anything other than a bureaucratic and economic narrative to the union's populations, and its own corruption: recently, a journalist team caught an EU MP in his immediate willingness to sell his support for some proposal to lobbyists, and the EU's own 'anti-corruption' unit refused to take it seriously. At the height of the financial crisis, some years ago, the European Commission decided to considerably increase its own salaries, really not something to inspire trust in the entire European enterprise. Everybody who has taken the trouble to study the process of decline and fall of the Roman empire will recognize the same fateful combinations of mounting interrelated problems and lack of responsibility of leaders, who fight for their own short-term interests on the expense of the whole.

Earlier this month the Austrian chanceler Werner Faymann visited the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who put his finger on a sensitive wound: Europe needs a new narrative that unites the nations and overcomes the differences, and this narrative should be created by culture. Authors, composers, film directors, painters, represent a 'we' which transcends borders and boundaries. In the context of the actual problems raging, this may sound crazy, but the idea is, of course, perfectly legitimate. Chief editor of the Wiener Zeitung, Reinhard Göweil, dedicated an interesting comment on Renzi's proposition, 'Art instead of borders':

An interior market may be practical, but it does not warm the soul, says Göweil. What is needed, is an emotional anchor. All too true.

Renzi did not mean the available and accessible art of the past, to be found in the museums and concert halls, but art being produced today. It will be clear that where contemporary artists are still chewing on entirely empty and / or destructive / nihilist ideas of half a century ago, such new cultural narrative will not be forthcoming: it will not be possible to find such thing in the established, subsidized new art territory, with its absurd conceptualism and sonic art festivals. The only possible new narrative is a renaissance, as it happened already earlier in Renzi's own country some 500 years ago. Indeed, artists - if talented enough - can create an inspiring narrative of European humanist culture, but that would also mean looking for artistic ideas fundamentally different from established (post-)modernism, which is still celebrated in public space everywhere in Europe as something supposed to have some cultural value.

Why has the established new art world - i.e. museums of modern art, institutions dedicated to contemporary music - not evolved, away from outdated and primitive ideas, and why are they still cultivating nonsense as if the sixties have been frozen? The unfortunate reason is, that the field has been populated by people and especially, 'artists', which are by definition imune to artistic ideas, people whose talents only reach as far as the very limitations as created by postwar modernism. That is the reason why the museums of modern art don't show new figurative art, the modern music festivals don't present new traditional works, and why the world's cities are still being filled with the modernist buildings demonstrating the time capsule of a naive, utopian ideology. A renaissance of European culture cannot be expected from these quarters but has to be found elsewhere, in the 'alternative' margins of the cultural world.

Only a Europe strengthened by unity and a common, inspiring idea, by a cultural narrative rooted in its humanism, can deal with the crises threatening its very existence; the 'official' cultural institutions however, are incapable to offer such narrative.

Friday 12 February 2016

Psychopathology rewarded

A scientifically-inclined organization, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge, has awarded a self-taught Greek sonic artist, Georges Aperghis, with a nice compensation for his efforts of  € 400.000,--. This ‘Award in the Contemporary Music Category’ was justified by Mr Aperghis’ ‘reinventing musical theatre and taking it in entirely new directions’.

Further explications state: ‘He has opened up a unique path in the territory of musical theatre employing new scenic devices whereby everything becomes music, starting from the performer’s gestures and including sounds made by scenic elements or objects used as percussion instruments.’

As we know, science and art are two very different things, but scientifically-inclined organizations are the last to notice. No wonder, then, that a club like this BBVA (Baptistery for the Benefit of the Vandalism of Art) are under the impression that products informed by mental illness, named after an artist (aperghis syndrome), deserve an award, especially if the syndrome is recognized and supported by the Institute for the Research of Crazy Anomalies in Males (IRCAM).