Tuesday 22 November 2016

The defeat of meaning

People need meaning to be able to live life meaningful, and thus being able to endure hardship, disappointment, even great suffering.

A fascinating review on the site of 'Dissent Magazine' explains why today so many Russians are nostalgic for the utterly despicable social experiment that was the Soviet Union.


Alexievich frequently speaks about how utopias have a tendency to end in bloodshed. Yet the testimonies of her interlocutors consistently show that little people need big ideas. This may help explain why the unspeakable hardships of the Soviet period were more bearable than the relatively more tolerable difficulties of post-Communist life. It is not death or suffering that her interviewees invariably fear most, but the absence of meaning. “Let us die as long as we know what we’re dying for,” a man tells her.

In Russia, some universal human processes were put into sharp focus through the tragedies of history and the insanity of utopianists. The article implicitly does also explain why so many people in the 'free, affluent' West are unhappy, depressed, prone to addictions - be it drugs, medicine, alcohol or compulsive shopping - while, in comparison to, for instance, life in the Soviet Union was so much more dramatic. The 20C 'death of the grand narratives': communism, socialism, capitalism etc., and the nihilism of what has been described as the 'postmodern condition' - anything goes and nothing is more than surface - left a void that cannot be filled with freedoms and affluence that have no meaning which can transcend the material level and appeal to man's spirit. But the Grand Narratives were empty as well, that is why they eventually failed to endure and be constructive and enduring, they were materialistic narratives, leaving-out the very element that can give meaning to life: culture, spirituality, an aspirational and ennobling vision of humanity, in spite of humanity's flaws. It was not painting, music and literature that created the gulags, the concentration camps and the blood-sucked battle fields, but materialistic 'ideals'.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Finding a framework

What does the surge of rightwing populism and extremism in the West mean for culture, and thus: for music? The arts are forced to develop a narrative which will protect them from the accusations of being elitist, meaningless, a waste of money, pretentious etc. Something is only ‘elitist’ and ‘meaningless’ if the wrapping paper is fraudulent: pretending to be something which it is not. So, both the visual arts and art music need to shed nonsense and get to the core of their purpose, which does not mean: shunning pluralism and diversity, but formulating their own ‘meaning’ within the context of the modern world.  

The Future Symphony Institute in the USA and the Nexus Institute in the Netherlands, are examples of initiatives by people who understand the challenge but also see directions in which solutions can be found.

Since the arts are transnational, they are not served by a militant nationalism, which is on most of the banners of populist protesters 'against the world' and 'against the system'. The very problems the lower middle-classes are suffering from, are transnational, and most of them are the result of globalization without enough care for the overall fabric of society - read: unregulated, free-trade capitalism and consumerism. Ironically, the rightwing nationalists, expressing the need to 'reclaim the nation', are splitting it apart, since their opponents (which are as numerous) have everything to loose by a narrow-minded, rightwing nationalism. The British brexit tragedy demonstrates this with utter clarity. So, for both the people who feel that they lost their security, and the arts, nationalism is not the answer. On a European level, only close collaboration of all nations and parties concerned, can solve the problems that weigh on the different communities.

For classical music, the critique from the left joins hands with the sounds from the right with the usual accusations of classical music being elitist and exclusive and not egalitarian enough: the conventional populist objection to something that is important for society as a whole, but, due to taste and (lack of) education, plus expensive tickets, not accessible to everyone. To prevent it from being cornered into a niche of chique entertainment for the happy few, the doors of the concert hall should be made more accessible but the tresholds not lowered: there cannot be compromises on the integrity of the art form. The only instruments, it seems to me, are education on the regular schools from an early age onwards, and information through as many channels as possible, and especially: attention by the mass media - many people think something only exists if seen on TV.  It is stunning that even the least sport event is reported, surrounded by a whole culture of information and discussion, and new opera productions take place as if in the dark. Some countries give already some attention to classical music, as in Belgium, where a new opera production is an item on prime time TV news, and the Queen Elisabeth Competition is televised extensively. Such media attention should be followed everywhere.

In Europe, where state support of the arts has a long history, based upon the awareness that they form an important symbol of the nation's identity as part of an impressive civilization, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend such support, given the critique from the populist left and the populist right. One important reason for this critique is nonsensical new visual art and incomprehensible new music apparently meant for a small elite of 'insiders'. The critique of concept art and modern music is then - by the uninformed masses - projected on all art, including the collections in the great museums and the classical music performance culture. If governments really want to sustain a space where the arts can unfold in a context of reasonable existential security, withdrawing financial support that goes to nonsensical visual art forms like concept art, and contemporary music which is, in fact, merely sonic art, seems to be an obvious measure to be taken. This would mean that museums of modern art would be presented with the choice of either offering serious contemporary art that involves aesthetic craft and artistic meaning, or loosing government support. The same would go for contemporary music festivals, mainly dominated by nonsensical amateurism: keep sonic art as a private hobby but do not claim tax money for presentations.

Of course the question would then arise, of how such distinctions can be made, and who is going to decide which art/music is OK to be supported by the community through the taxation/subsidy system, and which not. For such choices, a value framework is needed, and the only one available is the concept of 'developing tradition', which is a framework that has developed over the ages and which has resulted in an amazing culture that reflects all the existential experiences of humanity. Applying this framework would mean: visual arts and art music have to be understood through using a 'language' based upon the 'holistic nature of human perception' (Steven Semes). In other words: new art has to be mimetic, which offers many ways in which this can be realized.  Only in this way can the serious arts be saved from the threats of the most negative effects of modernity and increasing barbarism as appear in Western society.

I think there is an objective basis to make choices in the arts that are informed not by subjective taste, fashion and appeals to absolute artistic freedom, but by the understanding of human nature.

These days, I am reading Steven Semes' fascinating 'The Future of the Past, a Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation' (W.W. Norton & Co. New York / London, 2009). There are, in this very rich panorama of how to deal with the monuments that came to us through history and the nature of tradition, many lessons to be learned for the arts in general and for serious music in particular. About the concept of 'beauty', so much scorned, slandered and condemned in the last century for being untrue to life and merely kitsch if applied within contemporary visual art and music, he says, among other things, the following:

After decades in which the attribution of beauty to specific objects or places was thought to be an entirely subjective matter, developments in contemporary science are revealing underlying universals that form the basis for many of our judgements, rooted perhaps in the workings of our brains. [Referring to Steven Pinker's 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature', New York, Viking 2002.] As part of nature, our gravitation towards such patterns as the logarithmic spiral or the Golden Section is simply a consequence of our minds being embedded in, rather than standing in opposition to, the natural world. Our arts are not unrelated to our evolutionary development, but a fulfillment of it. 

Then he quotes from Frederick Turner's essay 'Beauty and Imitative Form' in the American Arts Quarterly, summer 2006, pp. 9-13:

Thus the traditional disciplines of the arts - drawing, harmony and counterpoint, rhyme and meter, dramatic mimesis, proportion in architectural design, storytelling and so on - are not a bunch of dead rules but a live evolutionary process. And that process is not merely a technique for making beauty but the continuation of the creative unfolding of the world whose experience defines what we call beauty itself.

The beauty we find in the world, that we are able to perceive in the world - and obviously meant is: the natural world - tells us that this experience of beauty confirms that we are part of the world, and through this recognition we are vindicated in the organic relationship we have with the total evolutionary unfolding of life on this planet. In other words: we are part of nature on a profound level, and our perception of beauty is its proof. One could say: in the human being, consciousness of nature has evolved to such level of sophistication that it can perceive the beauty in the world, reflect on it, and reproduce it in works of art (including architecture) which carry aesthetic, emotional and psychological meaning. So, indeed the human being is the climax of life on earth, whatever behaviorists have to say about our animalistic reflexes. It seems possible that also animals perceive some measure of beauty, although it is difficult to find-out, given the lack of clear communication. But it would not surprise me that the communal greating of the light at sunrise by birds, which can be so touching, is a simple expression of instinctive enthusiasm about the beauty of the return of a powerful symbol of the life force itself, comparable with the divine qualities the ancient Egyptians and Azteks conferred to the sun.

I find Semes' exposition entirely plausible and convincing, and fully confirming personal experience. Beauty is an organic part of the arts, whatever is 'said' in artistic terms, and also an entirely natural element in our emotional and psychological make-up. A walk in a medieval cathedral, or a careful examination of a canvas by Vermeer, puts all modernist theories to shame, however understandable they were in their time.

Semes continues:

... our recognition of beauty is a form of remembrance and a sense that we can indeed be at home in the world. Amid the change that inevitably characterizes all life and time, something endures; we can "elicit the permanent from the transient" (Hans-Georg Gadamer: 'The Relevance of the Beautiful', 1977). Our recognition of beauty reveals the persistence of pattern, relationship, and consonance within the transient.

Does this mean that new art has to be nice, and new music must be written with as many consonances as possible? No, because deviations from some ideal beauty are as real a part of life experience as the perception of beauty in itself. But where the overall nature of an art form includes the striving after beauty, it is related to a deep layer in the human subconscious, which is in itself defined by millions of years of evolution. 

But then I have to think of the millions of years when dinosaurs populated the planet, monsters eating each other in a continuous struggle for a bloody existence, and I cannot find that very 'beautiful', neither are those animals characterized by what we would perceive as beautiful. So, it is possible that beauty as such, as part of evolution, is also something that had (and still has) to evolve. (The camel and the chimp seem to be remnants of some aesthetic failure, then; also I have to think of certain people who are often in the news nowadays and seem to have deep roots in prehistorical times.) If beauty evolves, could then Xenakis and Boulez not be a further stage of developed beauty? There are sounds in Boulez' works which are, in themselves, beautiful. But they are beautiful as sounds, on a purely acoustical level, and not on a musical level. The difference can be attested clearly in the first (and only) melodic phrase in 'Pli selon Pli', a beginning which has musical beauty, because the intervals in the vocal line make musical sense and are related to each other, binding the sonic colours around it within a musical context, while the follow-up avoids the particular patterns that could have made the piece a truly musical work, and looses itself in random effects:

So, no 'evolution' there in terms of musical beauty but the birth of quite another art form which does not 'need' musical beauty, and in which beauty forms only a small part - there is much in it that is straightforwardly ugly and also as sonic art, meaningless. Sonic art relates only to a very restricted part of our perception of beauty, and in a purely materialistic way: the sounds 'mean' themselves and do not carry musical meanings. Therefore all sonic art, evolved from its inventors, can never fulfill the requirement of contributing to the development of the musical tradition which forms the heart of the central performance culture, and could never support its survival in modern times. In contrary, it provides ample ammunition to the populists who would like to cancel all art music from the list.

Is this a conservative point of view? But if so, what is it then conserving? I can only see it as common sense, based upon empirical evidence, supported by science. If it means conserving an idea of what art music is, on a fundamental level, I think we should not see this as conservative but as a much-needed truly modern, contemporary vision, dedicated to help survive a sublime art form.

The implications for state funding of new art and new music are clear: it is new art and new music which relate to the 'holistic nature of human perception' (Semes) which should be granted enough support so that they can unfold on their own accord.

Friday 11 November 2016

New classical music is not impossible

Five successful performances of 'Solemn Night Music' (Feierliche Abendmusik) in this year by the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic demonstrate, that a new classical music, which completely ignores postwar 'avantgarde' attainments in terms of material and language, and harks back to the early 20th century and - in some respects - to even older times, can make a valuable contribution to the repertoire of the orchestral performance culture. I have to thank above all the conductor, formidable Jaap van Zweden, who initiated the piece's commission on the basis of his acquaintance with my earlier music, and who has no interest in ideology, theory and strategic music policies still playing such influential role around new music today: he tries to find the musical qualities of a score, not its positioning in a politicized field.

The credibility of the idea of a 'new classical music' is, of course, entirely dependent upon the sounding results, which can only be convincing if it is performed with the same care as is usually spent on the classical repertoire works. But that means that enough rehearsel time has to be planned, which with a new work may be more than with music that every single player in the orchestra knows by heart and of which numerous recordings hammer its narratives in the mind of every music lover. With these performances, I am grateful for both orchestras' time resources. Also, conductors have to entirely delete the ideas of historicism and new music propaganda which they will have accumulated in their student days, and they need to have an utterly independent mind. In short: they need to be musicians first, and trust their musical instincts, and not be afraid of being accused of 'conservatism' if they present something new and original in a more or less known musical language; only people who think that the wrapping paper is more important than the content, level such critique to new works which reject the superficial 'requirements' of postwar modernity.... I think we should be happy that an injection of new life into the orchestral performance culture is possible at all, an injection which refutes the idea that this culture is a mere 'museum culture' - although there is nothing wrong with a museum, as long as its exhibits still have something of value to tell us.

Also, the quite positive audience and press reactions upon 'Solemn Night Music' showed that something new which encompasses also musical complexity, can be taken-in if the language does not throw-up barriers of musical understanding, an insight that still escapes quite some orchestral programmers, reluctant to accept a new music that leaves modernism and trendy hip behind. Much of new music produced today, shows compromises to an idea of modernity which mostly fails to engage audiences, educated on the existing repertoire and its musical value framework; accepting this framework, however, does not necessarily mean accepting restrictions on invention, fantasy and expression. What for many programmers - and quite some conductors - seems impossible, can be done, and it is to be hoped that this new opportunity to stimulate orchestral performance culture will also be taken-up by other orchestras, especially in Europe where outdated ideas about new music still hinder acceptance of new classical music.

Press reactions to 'Solemns Night Music' can be found on my website: