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

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The paradox of learning

An interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education confirms my belief, that the concept of tradition offers freedom of invention and mastery of thought:


It is a paradox that the discipline and restrictions of learning rules eventually offers the utmost freedom of invention, but such is the empirical evidence. In art, rules are not prescriptions but results from innate laws which are discovered in the creative process, and these laws are flexible, adaptable to the individual point of view. The contempt of 20C post-WWII modernism for tradition is the result of the misunderstanding about learning, the juvenile impatience with subjecting yourself to the authority of the achievements of past generations. Also, it is the result of lovelessness, the incapacity to discern meaning and beauty, which presupposes modesty and openness to things that are greater and more important than yourself.

So often in my life I have been treated with contempt, and been laughed at, for cultivating tradition and trying to learn from its achievements; even more crazy: having been accused of elitism, reactionary conservatism, and 'wanting to turn the clock back a hundred years'. Collegues, joining the chorus of haughty condemnation of the best achievements of the past, embarked upon the sea of infinite possibilities without the skills to navigate, and where are they now? They shipwrecked upon the shores of ignorance.... pathetic remnants of an immature revolutionary spirit. The infinite possibilities are not in the material, but in the creative mind.

One of the most revolutionary musical creators, Debussy, had a thorough training in traditional craft, and he knew his classics as no other. That is why he could return to classicist ideals at the end of his life in his wonderful three sonatas, like a delicate flower at the end of a branche.

Monday 26 September 2016

An anti-historicist symphony

On YouTube a remarkable performance can be heard (and seen) of Brahms II by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber:

This is, to me, the definitive way of performing this admirable work: never ponderous or slick, but flowing and floating, and the tutti's substantial, forceful, but not heavy. Kleiber conducts the music as if he had written it himself..... knowing every corner of the score and especially, its meaning.

This symphony demonstrates something peculiar and important: the music sounds entirely fresh, youthful, expressive, but the language is close to Beethoven and Schubert. They lived and worked half a century earlier: this work is from 1877, being written a year after Wagner's Ring received its world première in 1876 in Bayreuth, and some twenty years after Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the work which uses the most 'advanced' musical language of its time, and fourty years after Belioz' Symphonie Phantastique (1830), this outburst of wild genius, with an utmost daring structural complexity and freedom in the first movement, predating the late romanticism of Strauss and Mahler with some 70 years. Although the musical language of the Brahms symphony is handled in a personal way, and is - for us - easily recognizable as Brahms', the grammar is exactly the same as the two Viennese composers in the 18twenties, from which Brahms learned a lot. He did not add a single new idea to the language as such, but the way in which he uses the influences, is entirely personal: he does not imitate Beethoven's heroism and symphonic counterpoint, or Schubert's floating lyricism, but shows that he can do his own version of these things, filtering them through his own perceptive framework, and they can stand next to the examples without blushing. Which shows that extensions of the possibilities of the musical language have nothing to do with musical quality, and that a historicist interpretation of music history has no artistic value.

Also quite remarkable: the scoring of this symphony is complex and refined, but does not use the colourful palette of instrumental effects as they were enthusiastically explored and cultivated by most composers of the time. The purity, warmth and clarity of the textures are entirely arrived at through voice leading and careful distribution of lines, spaces and masses. Brahms did not need the richness of the romantic instrumentation, and strove after purity, and simplicity, which can also be heard in the character of the themes and motives, which are much more simple - almost bare - when compared to Beethoven's.

Brahms wrote his 'pastoral' symphony within one year, with the greatest ease, after the experience that his first symphony - which had a gestation period of some 15 years - had turned out, after all, as a success, which gave him the confidence to trust his instincts. But surely he could not have written his 2nd, 3rd and 4th if he had not wrestled with his 1st so long and especially, with Beethoven's symphonic shadow.

Thursday 15 September 2016

What can culture do?

The idea of a 'united Europe', in whatever form, is an idea of the cosmopolitic elite, the people who travel without financial difficulties to other countries than their own, read material in other languages, and feel at home in all European areas where they find environments and services, comparable to home. Mostly they populate the cityscapes and are used to mixed crowds and differences in human appearances and dress codes. But the people who have to delve deep into their budget when they go on holiday, and take toilet paper and peanut butter with them when exploring other countries, or prefer expat holiday settlements as on the Spanish mediterranean coast where everything is the same as at home but weather and seeside superior - they feel much more closely connected to the place where they grew-up, and are mostly found in the countryside. In the current division between populist masses in Europe who vote for extreme right-wing xenophobic parties and the elites, or - in the UK - between the brexiters and the remainers, the results become apparant of decennia of a mood wherein life and society has been seen mainly from an economic point of view, accompanied by consumerism, unregulated capitalism, and erosion of social welfare systems, to the advantages of 'the rich' and to the detriment of 'the poor' - to say it schematically. Since the disadvantaged masses, who are increasingly anxious about their livelihoods and future, are greatly outnumbering the elites, an axe has been laid at the core of democracy and the constitutional state, since the democratic weight of this electorate steers politics into the direction of a narrow-minded nationalism and cancellation of some civil rights. Ironically, since the fall of the 'ideal social state' in the east, Europe has moved towards a situation which has some likeness to the early 20th century - and we know what happened next.

The behavior of some nations towards the European Union, which was a creation by these nations anyway, is worrying and despiccable, as is the lack of vision at the EU leading elites. Too long has Europe  calmly leaned backwards and trusted its bureaucracies to do the work, with the result that constructive and creative ideas have become rare where and when they are most needed. Where is the Grand Narrative of a united Europe which is really advantageous for all its civilians, and not only for the elites and the big industries? The EU hymn from Beethoven's 9th symphony has therefore become a laughable irony.

The increasing nationalism which is currently emerging everywhere in Europe is a reason for great worry. The EU is first and foremost a peace project: if the EU unravels and nations fall back upon their national status only, reassuring the masses but helpless to solve their problems, not only will half a century of constructive effort be undone, but a situation will arise where common interests will disappear from sight and primitive emotionalism will take their place. There is a good reason to see a new great war in Europe as a concrete possibility, since the conditions for such a catastrophe are now slowly lining-up. 

But history never repeats itself literally, it has an infinite repertory of variation upon the universal themes of human folly and (self-)destruction. What has all this to do with culture? It seems to me, that in such times, in spite of all the setbacks and increasing erosion, culture has to reinforce its voice, on the side of its artists through creation of high quality works which stimulate awareness of civilizational values, but also on the side of the promotors, by claiming more attention in the media, and by a greater awareness of the choices to be made: which art should be exhibited? Which music should be presented in the concert halls and opera houses? Led by the question: what are the works which we hope to have a civilizing influence upon audiences? History shows that culture cannot avert human disasters and cannot turn primitive people into civilized human beings, but at least it can keep the flame of aspiration and harmony alive, also in the dark.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

The postwar ideological narrative

On Slipped Disc an interesting comment was posted referring to a newly set-up Boulez Festival in the USA. I quote this comment entirely, because it is quite revealing in its sympathetic idealism and in the same time, paternalistic attitude towards performers and audiences, showing the core of a very general problem of presentation of contemporary music:

I’m working full time in contemporary performance. There’s an enormous output of very strong, interesting, even fun pieces which are simply overlooked.

There are many, many reasons for that. The two biggest factors are money and general interest. One doesn’t really find the former without the latter, but gaining interest without money is nearly impossible. It’s our Catch-22. 

Performers and audiences alike generally have the same issue with new music: a complete lack of exposure. People enjoy what they already know. Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire.

For performers, this is even more difficult. Not only should they understand the point, but they have to be technically prepared to play this music. Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training.

Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally. 


That may all be true..... but what about the perspective?

"Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire." This assumes as taken for granted that music 'develops' from a state of 'less advanced' through 'advanced development' to 'speed', all terms which suggest that a preference for pre-WWII music betrays an outdated taste and ignorance and lack of understanding of post-WWII music. Also assumed is, that understanding of and information about post-WWII developments, i.e. developments which demonstrate 'advance', inevitably will result in acceptance. But what if these developments in being more advanced would be, in fact, erosion and decline? How could we know? Imagine: in a time where musical trends are judged in terms of advance, there is no way to make a value judgement if we don't know the goal towards music is advancing. And there is no understanding whatsoever what this goal might be, neither at the composing nor at the listeners' of performers' side.

"Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training." This suggests that post-WWII music advanced specifically in terms of notational complexity, i.e. advance = more complexity. But art history shows that this is not always the case, sometimes the arts focus on simplicity after a period of complexity - would this be 'advance' or 'decline'? Represented Mozart a decline after Bach? Also suggested is that a 'classical ' training, being 'traditionalist', is less concerned about 'complexity', i.e. notational complexity, and that it lacks flexibility. It can be assumed that this especially, probably entirely, refers to technique / notation. But what if a classical training is, in contrary, concentrating on musical complexity and flexibility? There are 'classical' pieces, which are quite simple in terms of notation and thus, pure technicalities, but very difficult to bring-off musically, i.e. in terms of expression, because of the psychological complexities. (Just two different examples out of thousands: Beethoven opus 109, and Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie opus 61, both pieces which require both lots of musical complexity and flexibility which are very hard to master for students.)

"Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally." This passes-by entirely the question of understanding the music and merely refers to marketing, and given the aural complexities of his work, people buying a ticket only on basis of a 'familiar' name and not much else, would be in for quite a surprise, and not a pleasant one.

The perspective from which the comment is presented, and for which it is interesting and revealing, is historicist: music history as a line of development from relatively simple old music towards complex new music, a line on which the transgressing works in terms of complexity articulate the advance of the art form. It is the progressive narrative of established contemporary music as developed by Schoenberg and since then, entering into academia and the hordes of new music advocates who deplore the lack of understanding of 'the audience'. But what if this perspective would be all wrong? With which framework could we better understand the numerous problems still surrounding new music today? I think the said narrative is entirely wrong and biassed, and a better one would be to see the different forms of music in terms of traditions, not in the sense of fixed, codified rules, but in terms of value frameworks. Then, it could become clear that post-WWII 'advanced' music operates within a value framework, quite different from 'oldfashioned' pre-WWII music, of all pre-WWII music, as modernist glass-and-steel buildings differ fundamentally from any pre-modernist building practice. Audiences don't listen historically, but aesthetically, and when they reject post-WWII 'complex, advanced music', this is most probably due to conflicting value frameworks rather than audiences being conservative, ignorant, and resistant to absorbing something new. There is in such 'advanced music' narratives a paternalistic, arrogant undertone which I find thoroughly unsympathetic, however well-meant the attempts to create more place for new music in concert life.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Mysterious consciousness

In the New York Times of 29th of August, a heartbreaking story was published in the Opinion Pages which described existential anxiety, and the inability of a parent to console his little son suffering from the same emotion:

The author is obviously a convinced atheist, and it is truly tragic that he instills in his offspring the same mental poison from which he suffered himself when young. I could not refrain from sending a letter to the editor:


Dear Sir,

I was quite saddened by Gabriel Rockhill's article 'Why We Never Die' (Opinion Pages 29th August), his atheist and materialist reflections about existential angst, and found the description of his inability to console his little son truly heartbreaking. Rockhill's opinion about the end of human life excludes all possibility of an afterlife and the survival of consciousness, which seems rather a reflection of our empty, confused times than in any sense capturing reality. Consciousness is still an entirely mysterious phenomenon, and cannot even be described by science, in spite of the great recent advances of neurobiology. We don't know how consciousness is connected to the physical tissue of the brain and via the brain to the body. The 'I' as we experience it, is both consciousness (including emotion) and body, as a synthesis, but how that works, has not become any closer to understanding since Plato.  

The reality is, that we don't know what we still cannot know. It would be very hard to explain to a person in the 17th century what radio waves are, or what the internet is, or how a telephone works, because his world view would not have an appropriate receptive framework to take-in any such information and he would consider such stories entirely metaphysical. There exist a wide range of human experiences which are generally considered 'paranormal' and scientifically impossible, in spite of recent theories about space-time which unscrew the idea that these properties are fixed, immovable entities. It is possible to look, in the early morning, on the alarm clock, seeing it's five minutes past 8, sleep-in again, and experience a clear dream sequence with a narrative that - in terms of subjective experience - stretches over a time span of half an hour, and would take at least 20 minutes to verbalize all its occurrances, and then wake-up again and notice that it is only 10 minutes past 8. As long as human consciousness is so unexplained, the possibility of its existence independent from the body is simply a viable option, with the consequence that some articles of religious faith may be true, including the existence of other worlds which we may suspect or wish but cannot know. It seems therefore much better to take the risk that we survive death, than the opposite, since in the latter case if we are still there to find-out our mistake, we will profoundly and bitterly regret the missed opportunities to improve our lives and to console and reassure our children when they agonize in the dark.

Yours sincerely, 

John Borstlap M. Phil. (Cantab.)