Sunday 29 October 2017

Hermann Hesse on classical music

“We consider classical music to be the epitome and quintessence of our culture, because it is that culture’s clearest, most significant gesture and expression. In this music we possess the heritage of classical antiquity and Christianity, a spirit of serenely cheerful and brave piety, a superbly chivalric morality. For in the final analysis every important cultural gesture comes down to a morality, a model for human behavior concentrated into a gesture.”

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (trans. R. Winton)

Sunday 22 October 2017

Culture clashes

The reason why it is wrong in Europe to publish offensive cartoons in which is suggested that muslems are, in a general way, terrorists, or that islam is an aggressive dangerous religion, is not that one should not be allowed to express anti-islam sentiments to spare the feelings of the European muslem communities - but because it is entirely anti-civilizational, and a violation of the society that Europe after ages of war mongering has created, to let such 'expressions', which are not humorous at all and rude in every aspect, circulate in public space, as there are so many other anti-civilizational expressions which are tolerated but which should not be tolerated at all. A civilized society exercizes certain behavioral norms which makes it possible for every citizen to live in peace and freedom, and have his privacy protected; this obviously means that freedom of expression is never a total freedom, as all other freedoms are never total freedoms: they are all limited by the normal restrictions of civility.

A documentary program on Belgian TV exposed some shocking evidence of ignorance, detected at both Europeans and European-born muslems, of what a Western, European society actually is supposed to be. Some Europeans simply say that islam as a religion automatically encompasses terrorism, and feel betrayed by their government which does not appear to want to protect them against 'islamization', by which is meant a future under illegal, foreign, aggressive rule. So, they fall into the trap of the extremist rightwing political parties who exploit such sentiments. The reality that millions of muslems all over the world do not particularly pick-out certain jihadist passages from the koran but live according to the other bulk, has escaped them. Then you have the well-meaning muslems, born in Europe, who want 'a discussion with the non-muslems on an even level, as between two equally legitimate view points about the world and society, as equals' to make mutual understanding possible. This latter opinion implies that on one hand, you have secular, non-muslem society and on the other, muslem society. But that is not the reality at all and should never be thought as reflecting in any way what it means to live as a muslem in Europe. Secular, European society postulates that it forms a framework based on a set of civilizational norms and values and hence, rules, to which every citizen has to conform, whatever their religion, ethnicity, gender, hair colour or amorous interests. This framework leaves culture and religion free to be practized, in sofar as they do not violate the overall framework. Where a culture or religion clashes with this framework,  they have to adopt to the framework which will have to take priority.

The crazy thought that an islamic view point of society should be, within Europe, on an equal footing with European secular view of society, results from the very different history of islam which never went through a process of separating religion from the state, as happened in Europe. Since islam is not merely a religion but also a way of life and a culture, the idea that you can make such distinctions may thus be quite difficult for serious muslems. It is a notion that will have to be accepted by anyone, living in Europe, and thus also including muslems. They are in the same position as jews, catholics, protestants, bhuddists, jehova witnesses and what you have.

Such a relationship between a secular, civilizational framework and culture / religion is not negotiable, because both the ignorant generalizations by non-muslems and claims of European muslems that their religion be treated as an alternative paradigm to the European civilizational framework, fuel conflict, and not understanding. Locals will feel threatened - and rightly so - if an islamic paradigm is presented as a possible, equally valid alternative view of society to the one they are born into, it would be a gesture of intrusion. And European muslems who, with comparable justification, don't want to be treated as 'second class citizens', will have to adapt to the overall framework to be able to function fully as Europeans claiming their rights, and such adaptation leaves ample space for religious adherence - which, in reality, is also practiced by the millions of muslems all over the world who sustain a civilized way of life. So, much - maybe all - of the irritation and rubbing which is felt all over Europe between a secular, post-christian society and muslem communities, is the result of ignorance and misunderstanding on both sides what religion is and should be, and what a secular Western society / civilization is and should be.

The mentioned framework is based upon universal civilizational values and leaves enough space for any culture and religion to florish under its vaults.... If ever, in some faraway future, there will be world peace and a harmonious living together of all the different cultures on this planet, it will be because this framework will have been created everywhere.

Friday 20 October 2017


Much of physical reality is gradually disappearing into the internet.

The only truly functional advantage of the internet is an extra means of both information and communication (electronic contacting goes quicker than the mail, but is less intruding than a telephone call). Transferring the usual means of information and communication (books, letter writing, telephone) into electronic media alters, through its channelling and presentation, the nature of that which is communicated. Hence the general increase of information together with a general decrease of understanding. When society forces its communication channels into electronic means, reality suffers, and this is also affecting people's understanding of reality, because the abstract representation of reality changes its experience.

Killing another person with a sword, requires a number of emotional and mental attitudes which are entirely in accord with the abject deed; pushing a button so that somewhere else thousands of people will die immediately, 'liberates' the perpetrator from direct contact with the results of his deed. But also in daily life (at least: in the West), the increasing abstraction through technology harms the experience of reality: banks forcing clients to surrender to internet banking, government institutions no longer sending letters and documents physically but only through the internet, shops refusing physical money and force clients to pay electronically, and the plans heard occasionally to make books, paper documents, real money to disappear entirely. Book shops are disappearing, as well as music shops, so that the opportunity of freewheeling, looking around and touching possible books or CD's for possible buying, which is an important part of exploring possible extensions of one's collections, is disappearing. All those developments have a negative influence on people's awareness of reality, of mental and emotional development, and on culture. It is part of the utopian urge of a restricted sense of modernity to do away with things of the past, whatever their merits, and turn the world into some large imitation of science fiction décor with an ever more differentiated technology, the desire of creating the new human being unhindered by heritage. Of course we know that such developments end, eventually, in fascism, totalitarianism, destruction of the human mind and spirit.

'I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.' Albert Einstein

In the arts, one sees already the intrusion of 'electronic means' replacing the capacities and craft of artists. The results are not better than before, but can more easily parade as artistic things before a public which is already digitalized and thus, alienated from reality.

Modern technology is in its sophistication too much ahead of the level of acculturation of a majority of people. The pyramid of human intelligence and sophistication shows that the greater numbers are found at the bottom, so that both democracy and wild capitalism will make sure that barriers to their inroads into the human spirit will be removed. Hence the odd combination of a rising populism with increasing electronization, the two trends are interlinked. Abstraction comes to the aid of such aggressors, because its negative effects are not noticed by the masses. It is to be hoped that the same technology which forms a threat to human civilization, will also help to create the necessary resistance, as long as it is understood as a means to an end and not an end in itself (abstraction as a symbol of progressiveness, disconnected from its function). If society becomes entirely dependent upon the internet, it will become its hostage, and will create immense damage. That is not so difficult to understand - a mere power cut completely lames its functioning, and if fuel shortages intervene, societies may even collapse, because there would not be back-up systems to sustain their viability.

Futurism and dementia

“We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.”

The devaluation of 'the past' in so many of its forms, means that important lessons are forgotten and precious knowledge, which transcends time and place because they are related to universal human experience, is lost, and that people re-invent the wheel again and again. It is one of the destructive characteristics of what we best call 'conventional modernity', an overall mood of enthusiasm for what is not yet there, for total freedom unhindered by the usual human limitations and the necessities thrown-up by reality, in short: an immature mind set, permeating the whole of Western society, and which has turned into convention and 'received wisdom'. For arriving at a 'true modernity', i.e. one which is rooted in both reality and the awareness of the human condition, a modernity focussing on improvement instead of newness, it may be helpful to remember Cicero's saying that who refuses to know the past will forever remain a child.

Ironically, the usual, collective mindset of modernity is much like dementia: gradually the past, and thus any elements of identity, are forgotten, without something taking their place. It is a created dementia, entirely self-destructive. But it has long roots in that very past, as this interesting article in The New Statesman shows:

Sunday 15 October 2017

The inhumanity of 'forgotten' people

Shocking interviews on TV with both refugee families in Germany, and local Germans who voted for AfD, the extreme-right, one could say: almost neo-nazi party, who play the card of German national identity and the 'threat' that refugees form for the 'Germanness' of 'Das Volk'. You see very young refugee children, full of life and joy (because of ignorant of the fragility of their position, with only temporary permit), speaking German already, and worrying parents because of permit issues, work issues and hostility of the locals, and seemingly civil, simple German people, who feel threatened by foreigners, fear for their childrens' future ('will this then still be Germany?'), and who calmly, friendly but pertinently explain that 'these people' don't belong here and should go home. That their home no longer exists, is not their problem, it's the foreigners' problem. Question: 'And the children being born here, going to German schools, speaking German, must they go too?' The answer is also calmly and steadfastly given: refugee children, even if they are born here, are and will remain foreign and will never be German, because being German means background, which has been built-up over generations, they have no roots and will not get roots. All without any hint of awareness of the inhumanity, cruelty, and thoroughly un-European, un-civilized nature of their opinion. When the interviewer says: 'What you say, isn't that just racist?' then they are shocked, oh no, this is not racist at all, race does not come into question, these people just have to go.

Now, strictly speaking, such opinions are not directly racist, but they are cruel, uncivilized, primitive, and come from a layer of society of simple, hardworking people, who do not have any intellectual background which would enable them to understand the time in which we live and the bigger questions of Europe and the world. You will have to accept that these people watch the news, see the endless streams of refugee families with little children on the shoulders, ploughing through barren lands in an effort to save their lives, and it does not touch them in the least, because that is not happening in their backyard. It is a grave deficit of imagination and humanity, on a very basic level. One of these Germans said - a worrying house wife: 'We never get the feeling that the government listens to us, that we have a voice'. That there are also other voices, which may have something better to say, simply does not come-up into such minds. These are the people who do not consider themselves neonazis or extremists, but they partake in massive rallies screaming: 'We are the people!' (the regular 'pegida' rallies). No awareness of history, of the wider world, of Europe. Just primitive instincts.

To my feeling, the mistake by European politicians was - and is - not that they take-in refugees, that is only normal and absolutely necessary given the wider context and Europe's identity as a civilization - that is why the resistance against accepting refugee numbers by EU member states is so embarrassing, although again understandable from a historic perspective: eastern Europe has been isolated from the world for half a century. No, the mistake was and is, that the political parties don't stress the process of Europeanization enough or just not at all. Immigrants in the USA have, mostly, two identities: that of their culture and the American identity, and that combines quite well. A Chinese family in Kentucky has the American flag in the front yard and eat Fu Yong Hai for dinner (their children may opt for a Big Mac). Since culture is different from the political and social context, Europeanization can be achieved in such a way that the original culture of immigrants are left untouched - except where it is in conflict with Western civilizational values, like sharia, genital mutilation, or burning of widows and killing the neighbour when he makes a risqué joke to your wife. Within Europe, mixing of nationalities and cultures is going on already for a very long time, but of course, the differences between north- and south-Europeans and West- and East-Europeans is not so big as - presumably - between a Danish bourgeois family and a Syrian one (although I bet these differences are not at all as big as people may think). People who fled death and destruction can adapt easily in Europe, if they are helped and educated in European ways of life, and most of these ways are entirely beneficial, especially for women and children. Of course there are, and will be for a long time, problems of assimilation and employment and education, but Europe is certainly able to handle them - it is in its own existential interest, failing is no option.

This wave of rightwing extremism and entirely outdated nationalism, which threatens to undermine all the achievements of Europe since the Second World War, is also - and maybe foremost - a reaction against a modernity which has neglected two important things necessary for a normal, balanced and civilized society: culture (in the widest sense) and the cultivation of home, of feeling safe and belonging to a place, a location. Both elements are not entirely rational but mainly emotional. It is the elites who, without financial worries, easily travel from one place to another, within or outside Europe, who enjoy holidays on the Fuji Islands or go on safari in Kenya when bored, but the majority of people focus on the everyday burdens and consider everything that does not directly affect their life, as something happening far away, as if on another planet. If they are feeling at home in their environment, and their income is not threatened, the information coming from the media about 'life out there' is consumed but not digested - why should it? But if there are not enough reassurances from the state, and appropriate measures taken, to convey the message that Europe will continue to be Europe, and Germany and any other European nation will continue their identity, because newcomers will become Europeans, there will be rebellion. It is all about insecurity and the lack of reassurance.

All this has influence upon culture: where orchestras and opera houses confront cuts in their subsidies because they are considered no longer representing a cultural 'centre' of some community, of a shared civilization, and are seen as 'no longer relevant for modern times', this would reflect the giving-up of an age-old, highly developed cultural identity, which does not need to be xenophobe to maintain its viability. It is not relevant whether every type of civilian does or does not visit concerts or operas; it is the sheer presence of cultural institutions and the art forms they represent, which is the point. From this centre of cultural identity, education and Europeanization can open the institutional doors to people from other cultures, and we see this already happening on a small scale.

Decennia of leftwing social engineering, mixed with populism and a superficial, 'progressive' idea of modernity, have eroded Europe's cultural identity, and such things trickle-down to the base of the human pyramid, there where levels of education and intelligence are lowest. And now these levels protest - without understanding that in fact, while they think they only raise their voice, on the longer term they are damaging their own interests and the interests of the whole of society. It is a protest against an eroding modernity which, in combination with an unfair globalism and sudden appearances of a head scarf in the local street, creates instinctive reactions rooted in primitive feelings of being threatened - understandable but very dangerous. Hence the inhumanity of those simple Germans, who think they are defending Blut und Boden by voting for an extremist party and feel no qualms in wishing innocent children to meet their hopeless fate amidst the ruins of a destroyed country and continuing death threats. If such thing would happen to their own children, they would take to their axes and knives and hammers and anything that would provide a weapon - but then, 'that would be something different'. In other circumstances, they would wholeheartedly vote for the nazis, as they did in the thirties, when they were really threatened by existential problems on a hughe scale, and did not mind the craziness of the nazi ideology because they lacked the imagination to understand what they meant.

One can only hope for the other Europe, the other Germany: that of the humanist tradition, of civilizational values and imagination, which has given the world one of the greatest flowerings of the human mind. Rightwing extremism has to be opposed with all the available forces, political, cultural, intellectual, educational, and its causes be tackled.

Premodernist qualities

Postwar modernist ideology infiltrated music life in Germany immediately after the Second World War (and naturally, often with the same people who had served nazism enthusiastically), in France a bit later (but not much later), and in Italy it flowered in an especially colourful way in the sixties with Berio as its spearhead. In England, which had not suffered occupation and nazi rule, modernism got some foothold in the seventies but never occupied the entire field of new music, where Benjamin Britten represented the still developing musical tradition. In smaller European countries, sooner or later, modernism as an ideology defined by political positions, was embraced, with more or less success. Where it was heavily supported by the state, to protect it from 'conservative bourgeois resistence' (as in the Netherlands), it got pecularly strong, marginalizing or completely destroying the tonal competition.

In the Netherlands, new music was in a process of development and professionalization from ca. 1900 onwards; after WW II the interrupted thread was picked-up again, to be suppressed again with the intervention of younger composers in the sixties who wanted to follow international modernist ideologies rather than further develop the musical tradition. Dozens of active composers were condemned for being oldfashioned, bourgeois, 'behind the times', or worse, representing an ideologically-burdened past, like the excellent tonal composer Henk Badings who opportunistically took his chances with the German regime to boost his career which resulted in total censorship of his music after the liberation.... this despiccable collaboration threw a shadow over all of his collegues who had preserved their human dignity and had either emigrated or stopped writing and performing.

To show the impressive level of serious composition in those premodernist times, here is a specimen of symphonic music by Marius Flothuis, who survived concentration camps and after the war was artistic leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was also an internationally-renown musicologist who presided over the Zentralinstitut für Mozartforschung in Salzburg.

This is his 'Symphonic Music' from 1957:

Flothuis is hardly played nowadays, only his chamber music occasionally finds a hearing. But if there had not been war, serious music in the Netherlands could have developed in an internationally-appreciated and performed body of music, comparable with music from England, Poland, Spain, or Italy. The 'new music establishment' in Holland, centered around the national and monopolizing Fund for the Performing Arts which 'controls artistic quality' (its openly formulated mission), now prefers hip, conventional modernism mixed with Americanism, and nonsense, to the detriment of older existing music like Flothuis', or Hans Kox, who stubbornly worked on the fundament of serious music.

Some samples of representative Dutch 'new music':

There is hardly an audience for this stuff, but that does not matter since both its writing and its performances are subsidized.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Boulez, again

Searching the internet for something, I stumbled upon this interesting discussions about Boulez again, which I had forgotten about, on the roaring music website Slipped Disc where people contribute from the most diverse corners of life, bound by only one thing: a feeling of commitment to the noble art form of classical music. Some comments and reactions demonstrate how much of postwar ideology has persisted, even after such long time, among music lovers. Also it is interesting and instructive to see that what any musically-trained ear can perceive immediately, can be veiled by theory, conformism and plain ignorance.

Experiments against reality

I stumbled into an interesting article of amost 20 years old, but with strikingly appropriate overtones for our own time.


The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once described totalitarianism as an “experiment against reality.” Among other things, she had in mind the peculiar mixture of gullibility and cynicism that totalitarian movements inspire, an amalgam that fosters an intellectual twilight in which people believe “everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”


What is 'renewal' in the arts, in art music? From Romanticism onwards, it has been the individual, subjective approach of the artist which was considered the 'essence' of art. If a work was not very different from all other works, it could not be really good. Hence the drive to transcend boundaries and limitations, in an intense search for 'originality' which was seen as the expression of a unique personality, the only existing one-off personality of genius. Hence the many 'isms' that emerged in the arts, and in music, in the course of the 19th century, when the romantic idea of the unique, anti-bourgeois artist was the ideal. This development created many new possibilities in the arts, and most of them were enrichments, in the sense that the repertoire of means available to the artist was considerably extended. Also it meant that a much greater diversity in styles was possible, much more so than in former ages.

When the drive of originality becomes more important that the awareness of artistic quality however, originality becomes meaningless: also a serial killer can be very original. In serious art, the notion of originality can have different meanings: before 19C romanticism, originality was the way in which the artists handled the means which were generally accepted, without undermining the fundaments of the art form. But which are the fundaments of the art form? This is nowhere 'fixed' in an orthodoxy and subject to continuous assessment. But that does not mean that there is no fundament and that everything determining a work of art is entirely random and merely a 'cultural construct' which can be changed at will. Art is born from deeper layers in human psychology than the nature of its means.

In the 17th century, one custom in painting was to use a brownish underpainting, which forms the basis of the work and which is then covered with the appropriate colourings, more or less transparent according to their expressive function, so that the underpainting would shine through the whole at the end of the process. This aspect gives an atmospheric effect which enhances visual depth and unifies the image; it was one of the extensions of means that Leonardo da Vinci achieved (and experimented with by the earlier Bellinis) and which was followed by most of the painters afterwards. Johannes Vermeer however (17C), used a lightish-grey underpainting, which made it possible to enhance the brilliance of the colours being added to it. It was this brilliance and clarity which struck the French painters in the 19th century who later-on became 'the impressionists', as something to be further explored, and hence the striking effects of light and atmosphere they achieved. This is an example of renewal of means which left the fundament of the art form untouched; before Leonardo, painting was - most of the time - also including underpaintings, but not as an atmospheric effect, and those paintings are clear and sharply-defined as a result (and not less good for that reason). In the course of the 19th century, using a brownish underpainting was not suddenly 'exposed' as something faulty and undesired, there came simply more different possibilities available, depending upon the vision of the artist. A tradition was broadened, not demolished or fundamentally changed.

When an art form begins to express itself in forms which are entirely personal and subjective, it stops communicating and it becomes something else (Ligeti: 'My work is not for the public, not even for myself, it is a thing in itself'). It is then no longer part of a living tradition, and as we know, 20C modernism was based upon a very narrow, limiting sense of what a cultural tradition is - in fact, it was a  very 'kleinbürgerliche', populist idea of what 'tradition' means: a singlular line of development, guarded by a small, self-appointed 'elite' of taste makers, like priests in a medieval village. A clear formulation of tradition, convention, and canon can be found in 'Classical Architecture; The Poetics of Order' by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (MIT Press 1986). It is not about music, but the same processes can be found in the history of art music:

'Classical architecture, as we have seen, is based on formal conventions that can operate perfectly without being explicitly stated. Being able to design or see classical architecture is like being able to speak or understand a language; one joins a cultural tradition, a social universe. It implies the incorporation of formal conventions and the fitting of these conventions into a larger receiving structure in the mind. In real life, people are not shown the classical canon and all its levels and schemata. They simply come into contact with buildings, with events about buildings. Only slowly is the canon and its schemata crystallized. [...] They [the schemata] are tacitly nested in the building beheld. [...] The formal system of classical architecture has been a domain with blurred boundaries; the classical canon has been constantly modified, like any social convention. The classical building is an expression of this evolving canon that it confirms. At the same time it is the product and the creator of the canon.' (Page 172-173)

This is an apt description of a living process, and not of an abstraction or an orthodoxy. Also, it should be noted that such description has nothing to do with politics or ideologies, or with progressiveness or conservatism - the existence of a cultural tradition is in itself not a political or ideological thing, however ideologies have tried to appropriate cultural traditions for their own ends. People try-out things and those which work, are repeated and varied. The elements which 'work', are experienced as such because they relate to 'the holistic nature of human perception', which is part of our biology and part of evolution. Therein lays the hope of a renaissance of art, and of art music.

Circular Zeitgeist warnings

All those numerous atonal / serialist / sonic works, written by (counting from WW II onwards) thousands of composers, have been - if taken seriously, not as music persé but as cultural deeds - warnings of the Zeitgeist of the last century. As musically expressive works the artistic palette, I think, was quickly exhausted by the expressionistic works of Schönberg, Berg and Webern. Warnings against what? Against the descendence of Western civilization into barbarism, sterility, destruction, in short: inhumanity. That serious warnings became fashionable and thus, meaningless as warnings, is part of the thing against which the genuine works warned against - an ironic circle.

But what does one do with warnings? Perpetuate them, turn them into establishments and reward them with subsidies? This latter process reminds me of the shocking play 'The Chinese Wall' (1961) by Max Frisch, in which serious warnings of total Untergang are applauded by the very agent (the emperor) who is part of the forces which form the threat in the first place. But taken seriously, one draws the consequences from the warnings and an alternative route is explored which may eventually open-up new perspectives which are constructive and serve civilization. Is such attitude merely a form of hopeless romanticism, a powerless gesture against evil? But as long as humanity wants to be more than blindly-driven animals, deaf to their own potential, such gestures are the only proof left to demonstrate man's real nature, of which culture is the reflection.

In music as an art form, one such route is the revival of the classical tradition, taken in a broad sense, which is tried nowadays by different composers in the Western world. My own development began with Schönberg, and indeed an understanding of what his work really meant, inevitably led towards the very tradition he tried to supplant with something else, a cultural construct disconnected from nature and from humanity.

Therefore I cannot stop being amazed about the willingness of performers, especially symphony orchestras who thank their existence to humanistic ideas about art and culture, to open their doors to some of the very forces who set out to destroy them.