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.




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