Sunday 19 March 2017

Chaos and order as seen in early 19C

In 'Ueber dramatische Kunst und Literatur' the early 19C German poet A.W. Schlegel describes the relationship between order and the underlying non-order which he calls 'the romantic imagination'. Schlegel, who was a strong influence on the early developments of romanticism in the arts, sensed something about nature and the human psyche, seeing in both the outer form of nature and human consciousness as floating on a layer of chaos. So, within the universe which appears to be ordered, a chaos lies concealed, striving after new births of order.

19C romanticism found 18C rationalism, of which the Enlightenment is the most important fruit, a bit on the dry side, and tried to compensate for it by pointing towards the irrational, the mysterious, the far-away or deeply-hidden, to the secret forces of nature and the unfathomable workings of fate, and the often un-ordered flows of human emotions. Related to the art of music, one could say that these undercurrents represent the expressive layer of a musical work, which is given form by a superstructure of order. This explains the intensity of much of Bach's music, which is so well-ordered on the surface, and the balance of freedom and order in Beethoven's works.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Music and interiority nr 2

There were some interesting comments under the post 'Music and interiority' of 4th March.... which make you think again. There was not enough space for an adequate response, so here we go - it is recommended to first read the comments concerned.

That different people with different types of perceptive sensibilities experience different music differently, does not mean that the characteristics of the music concerned, can only be found in the listener.

The similar aspect of Bach and sonic art (say, of Boulez) is that both forms use patterns. Compared on the point of pattern making, Bach is very regular and rather straight-forward in terms of timbre, and Boulez extremely rich in variety in both patterns and timbres. Listening to Bach in terms as with Boulez, Bach is rather boring. But in music like Bach's, the pitches are tones in a musical network of relationships which together form an 'inner space' where energies flow from one note to the next and from one location to the next in a linear narrative, creating an imaginary space as if something flows like a river in a bedding, forming a structure from A to B to C etc., complete with directions, articulation points, balanced stretches and the like, creating a coherent structure in the mind during the performance. This creates a certain emotional effect in the listener, unfolding the many layers of meaning embedded in the structure. With Boulez, the pitches do not form such relations and do not create this inner space, and the patterns as such (and the gestures they make), is all there is. This is the difference between music and sonic art, and expecting mere patterns from Bach and a musical flow in a bedding within an inner space from Boulez, would be unfair to both art forms. 

Order and chaos: I just wanted to describe how music reflects the dynamics of the human psyche. And music which creates the balance in such way that both aspects are working together in a harmonious way, has the effect of harmonizing such dynamics in the listener, or at least: getting the listener in touch with the 'Self' on the level where these dynamics are operating. This is the 'therapeutic' effect of much classical music and the reason that so many people want to hear such music again and again, and again. They derive not only pleasure from it, but feel the restoring effect of the listening experience. This is not some sort of nice romantic wishful thinking, but is evidenced by many music lovers, and has been described by people capable of putting such interior experiences in words. I can't remember the author, but somewhere in a novel, the protagonist - a young woman in some difficult situation - unexpectedly hears some classical music coming from an open window, and she suddenly has the strange experience as if the music is 'speaking' to her, as an individual voice with something stringent to tell her, and telling her something about herself, touching her on a level deeper than words. That is why it is so hard to describe the experience and you have to be a novelist, a poet or a philosopher to find the right terms.

Music is 'non-conceptual' in the sense that it is abstract and can be put under different words and still function in the same way. The essence of emotion is non-verbal and non-conceptual in a similar way, this is the way music relates to emotion at all: it is a psychic art, bypasing the intellect, and capable of resonating with emotional processes in the listener. Sonic art does not do that, and does not want to do that, it wants the listener to become aware of the 'object in itself' which is the work. That can also have an emotional effect but the quality of that effect is different from the musical effect, sonic art is not addressing the deeper psychic layers of the listener in the same way. It can affect the listener as any thing in the outside world can affect him - like the repulsion one may feel by looking at the dirty, unmade bed of Tracey Emin, the British artist who put a dirty bed in a gallery as a work of art. It does not express anything as a painting of a dirty bed would, but merely presents the thing itself. (The 19C painter Delacroix painted a canvas with an unmade bed as subject, and suddenly such subject becomes art, expressing something about the mystery of reality, as filtered through an emotional and aesthetic sensibility.)

The anecdote of the African tribesman is a well-known one, I heard it told as an Arab visiting a concert in W-Europe. But the accessibility of Western classical music does not automatically mean that everybody has the perceptive framework for it. There is a difference between accessibility and perception, if music is not understood it can still be and remain accessible, as a potentiality. The problem is not located in the music, but on the side of the listener. This non-European was obviously not familiar with the music, and if he were musically sensistive he could, in the course of time, become perceptive, I'm sure. Since music - all musics - are human, it is possible to understand any music from any tradition. It works also the other way around: I remember a class at Cambridge were Arab music was treated and many recordings of the same 'maqam' were played with all the variations the performers are allowed. After a while it became clear that not every singer was on the same artistic level, you could distinguish the more primitive rendering from the more sophisticated and more sensitive one, even without completely knowing the fine analytic properties of the maqam concerned - the aesthetic effect was different: poorer or richer, less or more musically expressive. So it is with all music, and of course, people differ immensily in their perception, also within traditions - lots of Westerners don't hear the music but only the sound it makes - but that does not mean that all perception of music is entirely subjective and that for that reason, there are no artistic standards. The properties of classical music are part of the music, however differently interpreted. Cultural relativism may open perception to other cultures, but may also 'remove' the properties of works of art and treating all art as merely existing in the perception. (In the end, this is a philosophical problem, going back to Kant.)

Monday 6 March 2017

The relevance of classical music

The Danish Minister of Culture has proposed to disband of the Danish Radio Orchestras and chorusses, to sell the concert hall and turn the national broadcast company into a pure media company (source: Slipped Disc 6/3/17).

Shocking..... but not surprising. The same happened in the Netherlands some years ago when the State Secretary of Culture (there is no Ministery of Culture in Holland) wanted to close-down the entire music department of national radio, including 3 orchestras (among which the famous Radio Filharmonisch Orkest), the chorus and the extensive music library with scores, parts and an enormous data base of radio recordings. Protests throughout the country achieved that the cancellation was reduced to a subsidy cut which more or less broke the department in half, but saving the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (the other orchestras had to fold).

Such burbs of commercial populism don't come out of the blue, they have been fostering for years, possibly decennia, growing on the increasing mood of rejection of art in general by 'the masses'. Politicians see in this mood a chance to ride on the waves of enthusiasm to break down 'elitism' and of course, orchestras and opera houses are the obvious, vulnerable targets. Small, petit-bourgeois countries like Denmark and Holland are especially prone to such cultural self-destruction because they don't have a strong European tradition to preserve. The safest fundament of their national identity is 'the masses'. Anything above that level is 'the enemy'. It is strange though, that politicians, in fact, say to the world: 'We Danes / Dutch are mere garden gnomes and we are proud of it!'

The funding of orchestras by the state is a tradition coming down to us from the ancien régime, the prerevolutionary times when art and music were considered as underlining the legitimacy of the monarchy and symbolizing the high cultural level of the nation, 'the glory of civilization' which reflected positively on the character and professionalism of the king. With the current erosion of civilization and cultural awareness, partly brought about by a misunderstood 'democratization' and failing educational systems, the question of how relevant the arts are, and especially classical music which is so costly (expensive orchestras and opera houses, in Europe paid for by the state), is pressing as never before. I have attempted to formulate a justification on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:

Saturday 4 March 2017

Music and interiority

Since classical music as a genre - in the widest sense - is often seen as not compatible with modernity (whatever that may mean), classical concerts are sometimges 'sold' with the reassuring information that what audiences are going to hear, is exciting, fun, hip and the best entertainment choice within the wide range of contemporary free time spending. The idea is, that this approach will draw new, i.e. young, listeners to the art form. But classical music is not  entertainment (although entertainment is often a part of it) but an art form that adresses interior awareness. It can be exciting, yes, and engaging, and wild, as well as reflective, meditative or spiritual. But it addresses the listener's interiority, his inner emotional and reflective life which is as present, lively but also as non-conceptual as the art form itself. We can produce pictures and descriptions of our inner experiences, but the experience as such is word- and picture-less. Visualizations and descriptions are metaphorical, not 'the real thing'.

So, classical music is indeed not compatible with modernity if we understand this modernity as the typical characteristics of our time as observed in public space, and as it invervenes in our private daily lives, in the form of practical technologies, contact and information opportunities and computers, as well as the extensive media culture mushrooming in every corner of human activity. But if modernity is understood as simply our present life: the reality of our experience in the here and now, classical music can be an organic part of it, but in which way? It seems to me that classical music is part of modernity in the sense that it offers an alternative to modernity: where modern life has the tendency to draw-out the individual from his private psychological shelter into the outer world, classical music offers an alternative space where he can recover his inner awareness of Self and balance, and can take distance from the outside world with its many pressures. This is not escapism but a mental therapeutic recovery place. As a balancing act, in its profound contrast to modern life, classical music is a necessary counter weight for emotional and mental sanity.

From this it follows that the materialistic nature of sonic art ( which is all about the sound as such) is not suited to such function, because it does not address the emotional realm which can be reached and touched by music with its expressive aims, with its psychological dimension. Also music which balances at the edge of insanity like Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Erwartung or Berg's Wozzeck, is not the best means of re-confirming the Self - but at least it can function as a recognition, and as such: a confirmation, of the listener's inner turmoil, and where this turmoil is suppressed, such music can make it conscious which is in itself therapeutic. But it seems to me that such music can only be located at the margins of the predominant meaning of the art form in general.

The best classical music is driven by two contrary energies: the one that binds, and the one that diffuses; the centripetal and the centrifugal forces, which can also be seen as reflecting the two main drives in the human emotional realm, or to put it differently: the balancing of order and chaos, or: regular structure and freedom. It is the underlying intensity of instinct that wants to be liberated that gives even the most ordered music its energetic life, as so many works of J.S. Bach demonstrate.

Classical music is non-conceptual, also where it functions as emotionally-intensifying a text, and its interiority means that it takes distance from the environment in which it was born. This makes it universal and understandable for listeners in very different times and places: it is contemporary for ever. In this way, classical music is an organic part of modernity and not a 'museum culture' with fossilized works of art which we can observe but with which we can no longer engage.