Friday 29 July 2016

Trio tale

It may be instructive to show how a new piece, in spite of being well-adapted to the practical and aesthetic norms of the central performance culture, can find barriers to its realization in concert.... which are not due to insufficient musical quality and interest, but to the usual circumstantial hazards which plague concert life behind the screens of civilized decorum.  Although classical chamber music concerts may offer a well-organized and disciplined decorum, the road for a composer, to eventually get there, may be bumpy and rather bizarre. Once, a chamber music piece of mine which I still like quite much, seemed to attract mishap and bad luck all the time, as if a curse hung over it.

In the nineties, the brilliant violinist Vesko Eschkenazy, who had shortly before landed in Amsterdam from Bulgaria to embark upon a solo and chamber music career, had set-up a string trio and called it the Solare Trio, with a hopeful reference to a sunny future and in the same time, to three notes of the scale: so, la and re. He asked me to write a piece for the trio and incorporate these three notes, for their first concert in the following season, a kind of baptism commission. I liked the idea and began to work, finding that the three notes could be developed into an interesting theme in a Haydnesque manner. After some time however, Vesko informed me that the trio had been dissolved and that he had to withdraw the commission. 

Some years later, while working at a small artist management that I had set-up with a friend, a young collegue in the office had organized a foundation and began to set-up a tour project with various chamber ensembles through the Netherlands, and his attractive idea was to create a commission for every ensemble for a new piece, which would be included in an overall programming strategy which would focus on 'expression'. The project was called: 'Sound of Romanticism' and for that reason, knowing the nature of my music, I was one of the composers he approached for this project. The ensembles ranged from piano quintet to string trio, and the composers were asked for which combination they preferred to write. Since I was apparently last to ask this question, and nobody wanted to write for a string trio (the musical resources of which are very limited), the trio combination was the only item left on the list: I had the choice of doing the trio or not being part of the project. Since I had already begun something of a trio, I accepted and wrote a piece in which I took the classical Viennese idiom of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - no less - as a point of departure, as a stylistic example, and treated it in my own way, i.e. where I felt I had to deviate from examples, I did so, which provided the freedom to explore possibilities which otherwise would have been impossible within the historical style. I still think it is one of my most effective pieces; especially the 1st movement was pleasant to work on, and the last bars I still find touching as if it were by another composer altogether. My piece was given to a famed ensemble with well-known chamber music players, which out of respect I will not name. These brilliant musicians were also member of other combinations - the string trio is not a 'fixed' combination like the string quartet, and is mostly run by musicians who have their main activities elsewhere, either in bigger ensembles or in orchestras, or in a solo career. By the time the rehearsels would have to begin where I was supposed to be present, I still had heard nothing; making some inquiries appeared to be difficult, the players not being easily contactable, but then the news was sipping through that there had not been any rehearsel with all three members together, and that while the date of the first concert of the tour was getting very near. In the end, each of the players had practiced his part individually, and one day before the premiere they got together for the first time and tried to put the piece into a  whole, coached by me in one afternoon. That was utterly frustrating, since the feel for the togetherness was not there. I left the conservatory building, where the rehearsels took place, with quite some worry, while the players were going to work on the music for the rest of the evening. The next evening the performance was a disaster: it sounded stiff, unexpressive, anxious and forced - a caricature. Later performances were a bit better, surrounded as they were by new ensemble rehearsels, but only at the end of the tour - the last concert was in the concert hall in Enschede, in the east of the country - it began to sound close to what I had intended. Also the reason for the lack of normal, regular rehearsels transpired: the cellist had suddenly decided that he was gay and got into a complicated divorce process which prevented him from doing anything apart from his job at one of the national symphony orchestras as first cellist. Because the players felt rather guilty about the maltreatment of my piece, they offered to make a recording after the last concert, and this took place also in that very hall in Enschede. Since the last concert had taken place at noon, there was plenty of time, and the technician monitoring the mikes and recording facilitities did his best to comply to all our wishes. A couple of hours of rehearsing and recording provided enough material for a satisfying recording, so that at least I would have something positive to carry with me after the whole frustrating enterprise. The players, getting increasingly inspired, did their very best and indeed, later in the afternoon there began to blossom a really good piece - the piece which the audiences should have been able to hear. At home however, it appeared that there was a strong buzz in the recording. Discussion next day with Enschede revealed that the buzz had entirely escaped the attention of the audio technician because it was not heard in his own head phones, and the cause was a microphone which had some sonic problem. So, the recording was worthless and the entire exercise of tour and recording quite pointless. Because of all these mishaps, the players never wanted to have anything to do with me, the contact would remind them of this unlucky project they wanted to forget as quickly as possible.

The reviews of the whole project were very favorable: the other composers had written pieces where elements from 'romanticism' were treated conceptually, like a chord from a Schumann piece where the performers gradually unwound the strings while playing, so that a slow chordal glissando ended in a nihilistic moaning, or similar sonic treatment which pleased the critics very much, apparently being excited that they understood so much of their own time. The reviews lauded the project and the musicians, and considered the new pieces valuable contributions to the chamber music repertoire - only my piece was rejected out of hand and not even discussed: 'too oldfashioned' and that was that. My way of interpreting 'romanticism' and 'expression' was obviously seen as missing the point. Of all those 'valuable contributions to the chamber music repertoire' nothing was ever heard again.

A couple of years later-on, I was contacted by a young trio who were going to participate in a small contemporary music festival in Den Bosch, an attractive old town with a beautiful gothic cathedral. They wanted to play my string trio there in a small hall, and although I doubted whether the type of music would fit well in such a festival, I had sent them the parts and offered coaching help if they so wished. Some months later, they indeed asked me to coach them which was very hard because the music was, in fact, too difficult for them, not so much technically but musically - they found it hard to feel the flow. I should have stopped them there, but alas, I was too optimistic. I went to the performance which was one of those experiences that you fear to dream about later-on: the program of that particular concert, wich was presented also by other ensembles, entirely consisted of modernist pieces, full of shrill but progressive dissonances, theatricals, and quasi-organized chaos, gravely presented and wholeheartedly applauded by an audience in progressive garb: T-shirts, jeans, long grey hairs (avegare age was as my own, in their fifties), serious glasses and a general air of avantgarde. My poor classical piece was the sudden shock of a culture clash and people looked to each other frowning in progressive disapproval, and the poor players sawed through their parts without much conviction, bowing afterwards exhausted, to boo's in a restless atmosphere of indignation..... it was like a Schoenberg piece amidst Mozart and Brahms at 1910 Vienna, but then the other way around. Instead of thanking on the podium, I fled the building to the railway station, to get back to Amsterdam as quickly as possible.

Reading through the piece again, I still found it quite good, and decided to simply try to interest other ensembles, but abroad, since the musical climate in the Netherlands did not seem to work-out well for a new form of classicism, neither in a classical nor in a contemporary context. In the following years I sent letters and scores to quite a number of players, but in vain. After that, I shelved it for good, I thought, and accepted the bitter reality that the piece would never be performed and could not find a place in music life, if even so marginal. I took the theme of the slow second movement as material for the middle movement of a symphony project, to at least save something from these experiences.

But lo and behold: in 2016 the piece was played again by the ensemble 'Sound Collective' at King's Place in London, the current popular chamber music venue close to Kings' Cross railway station, and it appeared to be an entirely normal and good piece, placed between Beethoven and Brahms. So, in the end, it proved to be possible at all to be performed in a normal, regular format by truly excellent players, and it left me wondering why it had been so difficult to find its suitable context. Was it the 'Zeitgeist'? A mysterious force which draws bad or good luck to performances according to inscrutenable laws? What drives bad luck anyway, if so abundantly related to a particular piece? 'About which we cannot speak, we should be silent'- Wittgenstein.

Thursday 28 July 2016

When the new becomes old: Bayreuth's predicament

In an interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur, the German stage director Hans Neuenfels, notorious for dressing-up the chorus in a Wagner production as laboratory rats, has accused Katherina Wagner - who leads the management at the Bayreuth Festival theatre - of lacking vision. There were 'no artistic visions and sensations' any more.
There were ‘no artistic visions and sensations any more.’ - See more at:

It is very easy to accuse the Bayreuth management of 'lack of vision'. In its first decades, it was a unique theatre where model performances took place, as an example for other opera houses how to do Wagner. Meanwhile, every opera house can do something with these operas, and the 'model performances position' of Bayreuth has lost most of its meaning: only the famous acoustics remain an exclusive asset. Given the crazy presentations everywhere of Wagner operas - the notorious Regieoper - it is no longer 'schocking' and 'original' when Bayreuth does the same. It is the result of the attempt to try to be as original and nonconformist as everybody else. The requirement of 'vision', in this case coming from a stage director, has thus to be treated with the greatest suspicion, to say the least, especially if such a director thinks that dressing-up the chorus as laboratory rats will contribute to the meaning of the work (these ideas are always very nice on paper, in the quiet of a study, but on the stage they mostly fall completely flat). Staging an opera is not about creating sensations, but about revealing the nature of the work, and if the result is sensational it should be because of the work is sensational, not the stage director's ideas. Staging an opera is revealing the work and not using it for your own ideas.

In the light of Bayreuth's history, and the current trends of Regieoper, the most original and explorative vision Bayreuth can come-up with is to produce the works as loyally as possible to the original intentions of the composer, which can be quite a challenge in itself, and where the pitfalls of Wagner's original stage directions can also be avoided. Regieoperproductions of Wagner are, meanwhile, thoroughly conventional, stale, and juvenile, in desperate attempts to avoid what elsewhere is done and thus arriving again and again at similar results, and what was considered 'oldfashioned' in the seventies and later, can now be seen as new and forward-looking.

'Kinder, schafft neues!' said Wagner - but what to do when the new has become old and stale and conventional? Then the old becomes new again.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

What is progress?

What is progress? Making things better. So, progress as understood as a qualitative category. But what is 'better'? This can only be established in comparison: we are dissatisfied with something, and want to improve it. Here, invention and experiment come into play and - as a spontaneous byproduct - originality, which is always a result of a way of looking at things, which again is the result of how the person who is looking at things, has developed, including all the individual streaks that this process may include.

The improvement of something implies the existence of something that was already there, and the dissatisfaction connected with it. This implies the past: we live surrounded by a world stemming from 'the past'. It is on this point, that the last century's utopian thinking went off the rails: by denying the past, in whatever context, or treating it with contempt (as postwar modernism did), the attempt to improve things is undermined, since the evidence of dissatisfaction is no longer there, or is no longer considered seriously. This denial inevitably leads to re-inventing the wheel over and over again, without any hope it will be 'improved'.

In art, such considerations have serious consequences. 'Improvement' in art can only happen on the level of material means, not in terms of artistic vision, as will be clear when considering masterpieces of ages bygone. On my website there is an article on the myth of progress which goes a bit deeper into the subject:  

In art, the urge to transcend existing boundaries and limitations in search of 'something new', whatever that may mean, will always bump into existing limitations of given possibilities. Where existing art, i.e. products of 'the past', is denied, rejected, 'made invisible' by will or ignorance, it is impossible to transcend existing boundaries because they don't seem to be there, and in the happy cloud of nothingness, any step seems 'progress' and 'invention' to the juvenile mind - because of the lack of comparison and thus, value judgement.

I found an interesting review of a new publication which seems to confirm some of the outcomes of these meditations. 


“Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.”


Saturday 23 July 2016

Scruton on the Ring

I tried, in vain, to place a text upon an essay by Sir Roger Scruton on this blog, but the link to the original publication did not work well, so I refer to my website where the text is one of the 'posts':


Saturday 16 July 2016

Culture and society: the meaning of elitism

Interesting review of a biography of Klaus Mann, one of Thomas Mann's sons: 


"Of the recent books on the family, the most original is Evelyn Juers’s House of Exile, which deals with the exile of Heinrich Mann and his second wife and, in passing, tells the story of a generation of Germans who tried to make a home in America. Instead most of them lived in exile, often penniless, on the edge of despair, destroyed by the knowledge that the very culture they, in all innocence, had helped to create had meant nothing against the unspeakable cruelty and violence which seemed to have won the support of the majority of their compatriots."

What can a high culture do in a society where a majority is not ready to understand its implications? And not interested in it, anyway?

The Europeanization of Europe

In a column in Der Spiegel, one of the German news magazines:

"Es gehört zu den Zielen des IS, dass sich Muslime in Europa ausgegrenzt und stigmatisiert fühlen, weil es so wahrscheinlicher wird, sie eines Tages zu rekrutieren. Wollen wir den Dschihadisten ein Schnippchen schlagen, müssen wir die Willkommenskultur gerade jetzt beibehalten und so viel in die Integration dieser Flüchtlinge investieren, damit diese für die Radikalen unerreichbar bleiben." One of the aims of IS is, to get Moslims in Europe feeling excluded and stigmatized, because in that way it will be easier to recrute them for terrorist actions. If we want to get ahead of the djihadists, we should especially now maintain the 'welcoming culture' and invest much in the integration of these fugitives, so that they will remain inaccessible to the radicals.

The great challenge is, to Europeanize immigrants. To a great extent, that is already happening for years successfully; it are the mishaps and the critical abberations which reach the media, not the numerous instances where immigrants have built-up a worthwhile life in a European way, in spite of head scarfs, religious opinions or non-white skin colour. The problem with this process is, what exactly means 'Europeanization'. Do we consider it a purely social and educational process, or (also) a cultural one? And do we mean by 'cultural' the broad, anthropological meaning or the more circumscribed, artistic one, in the sense we use the term in 'high / low culture'?

The anthropological meaning points towards the observation that Western/ European culture has evolved into a universal world culture, based upon universal humanistic values as developed in the West after the Enlightenment. Its universal nature means also, no longer rooted in and restricted to locality, which opens the way for immigrants to cultivate the culture of their home country, and distancing themselves from their environment, which invokes suspicion and indifference. This explains the nature of the Parisian banlieux where muslim immigrants are left to their own devices and don't participate in French society: giving them special attention and support as a group, would deny the idea that every civilian is the same in the eyes of government and the law, in a secular society. In reality, immigrants in France are often treated as second class people, or less.

Universal values of freedom thus produce paradoxical problems in the area where they had developed, for instance the freedom to dress in a way not customary in Europe, or cultivating unusual life styles which can have alienating consequences. A whole territory of cultural mass psychology is emerging with the current surge of terrorist attacks, inviting debate about what it means to be European, and that is in itself a good and necessary thing.

Academic mishap

For some people, the overwhelming presence of pop music in modern life, spoiling any situation with its auditory manure (as Solzhenitsyn would say) is not enough: it is supposed to need funding and academic attention. 

“Simon Zagorski-Thomas, professor at the University of West London, has used his 15 minutes of fame on BBC Radio 4 to argue that popular music should be given more academic attention and funding.”

This 'professorial utterance' is just another example of egalitarian thinking, product of 20C anti-bourgeois ideology which was under the delusion that classical music was an instrument of cultural class warfare.

There are many people out there who hate high art – the best art of their own culture – because they feel incapable of experiencing it, and instead of making some effort, they try to diminish it, to besmear it, to make it go away – this nagging reminder of their lazy inadequacy. For them, pop music and quasi-academics demanding serious academic treatment of it, are a gift from heaven, because it confirms their own bad, seriously underdeveloped taste. In this way, pop music is like the misuse of religious absolution: the lazy barbarian is forgiven his inadequacy about which he felt so guilty, and does not need to try to improve himself.

There is nothing against pop music, which is simple entertainment for the masses, but where it tries to get its hands at high culture, the motive is always to conquer a place which it does not deserve. It is the attempt of the loser to present his failure as an asset, and to paint any critique as snobbery.

In the Second World War, survivors of bombing scrambled along the ruins to get to the concert hall where the players, in their coats like the audience since there was no heating, performed some repertoire works, and halls were always full: because of the hunger to experience something that gave the people for a short while the confirmation back of their humanity. And in free, liberal and wealthy societies of the West, there are many people who want to get rid of exactly this type of experience.

Simon Zagorski-Thomas, professor at the University of West London, has used his 15 minutes of fame on BBC Radio 4 to argue that popular music should be given more academic attention and funding. - See more at: