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

Sunday 26 November 2017

Why high culture?

Why should high culture be important to society? Why paying for it, why funding its institutions? Isn't it immoral to use tax payers' money to fund things which only seem to be to the benefit of a minority?

"We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it."

The erosion of this kind of awareness has concrete implications for the arts, it opens the doors to nonsense and fakes and clichées:

"Hence for a long time now, it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in high art which is not in some way a ‘challenge’ to public culture. Art must give offence, stepping out armed against the bourgeois taste for the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. The result of this is that offence itself becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde — this, at least, is an authentic gesture. In place of the late American art critic Harold Rosenberg’s ‘tradition of the new’, we have the ‘cliché of the transgressive’ — a repetition of the would-be unrepeatable."

If the arts, as presented by the established institutions, only consist of fakes, there is no longer any justification to support them, since they no longer serve public interest, and forfeit their position in public space:

"In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown."

Thus Sir Roger Scruton in an essay on the website of Aeon:


Friday 24 November 2017

The fragile future of music

The attacks upon the 1st edition of 'The Classical Revolution' did not surprise me, knowing - while writing - that descriptions of the totalitarian and nonsensical nature of musical modernism would not be welcome in certain established new music circles. But what did surprise me, was the myopic way in which the book was read by people, who are supposed to be used to reading books, and feel somehow committed to the musical art form in one way or another. For instance, where the book was merely condemned as a reactionary rant, drenched in bigotry, and as a failed attempt to present a very narrow, flawed taste as something objective, such interpretation seemed to come from people entirely ignorant of the realities of music life, of music history, even of general art history, so that the suspicion arose that these were people from outside music life or even, outside the cultural field altogether.

Such 'reviews' missed crucial points of the text, like: the obvious observation, with a history of ages of experience behind it, that music is more than organized sound and that an art form which wants to present sound as such without any other meaning is better considered a different art form altogether; or the crazy modernist assumption that there exists something like 'progress' in music; or the real nature of progress in music: the accumulated availability of means - on a different level from that of purposes; or the totalitarian, aggressive ideologies which have created havoc in music life where the damage is still very much present for all to see (or rather: to hear); or the invitation for juvenile nonsense to parade as 'new music'; or the fallacy of the 'lack of understanding' of 'conservative audiences'; or the link with cultural relativism and cultural identity, where awareness of 'the past' plays a crucial role. All these points could be easily verified by reality, other expertise writings, cumulative experiences of performers and listeners; they were not subjective, paranoid fantasies but rooted in the real world.

If the book were completely wrong, something like this would not have been possible - the presentation of a recent 'work' at the Darmstadt New Music Courses, well-known hub of established modernism in Germany:

In my opinion, the most important part of the book is its chapter 'The Search for Meaning' which connects music (and especially, new music) with the reality of the world and the surrounding culture. Here, a holistic vision is presented in which the many problems surrounding new music are illuminated as if from outside. With bigotry and reactionary conservatism, this has nothing to do - which should be entirely clear for everybody with a minimum of intelligence and cultural awareness. As the iconic monuments of the past are still with us and still have something meaningful to say about the human condition, one could clearly see that the preservation of their precious tradition is always part of any modernity, not for the benefit of the past but of the present - of any present. New creation illuminated by such tradition is - in a world where it is treated with contempt - related to this world in the sense of a necessary altenative, as a subversive exploration of a vision which may throw another light upon the present. Therefore the book is titled, with some irony, as a 'revolution': only revolutionary in relation with conventional ideas about modernity.

Classical, serious music ('art music', 'ernste Musik') has a repertoire that is, almost entirely, a product of the Western past, and mostly the European past. This cultural past forms Europe's cultural identity and by extension, a part of the cultural identity of the Americas. The price which has been paid for a dynamic, progressive technological and scientific society, is the loss of memory, a willful collective dementia, which means: erosion of identity and increase of alienation. The psychological misery and shallowness we see all around in the West, which are painfully reflected in current political developments like the surge of populism everywhere, betrays the lack of understanding of the past with the result that fundamental lessons have to be learned again and again. If we look at Chinese culture, which has survived thousands of years and serious upheavels and disasters, then it is a surprising discovery to see that the inner strength of this very specific culture can be explained by its commitment to 'the past' and 'the dead': the past is kept alive in memory through its art, poetry, literature, mythology. It has even survived the communist degradation and - under the surface - it is still alive, under the thumb of a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens with contempt. Western classical music is now increasingly popular in China, where it symbolizes development and modernization - with the advantage that its nonconceptual nature does not pose a threat to the political status quo. In the West, classical music shrinks, and new music has written itself out of a cultural paradigm altogether (in Europe only being kept alive through careless state support). The West should try to learn from the Chinese holistic attitude towards the cultural past and understand that its past is alive and not locked-up in a museum. All this was explored in 'The Classical Revolution', no doubt insufficiently, but necessarily, as a correction upon a paradigm that has shown itself to be entirely destructive and hostile to art.

Also I have often been criticized for writing music that is 'too traditional', mere imitation music and not original music, and that its language is entirely derivative and impersonal. But any musically-perceptive listener can easily hear that this is not the case: the language is a combination of different elements of existing music, but the mix is mine. Also, the way this music is structured, is newly found with every work: there is no repetition on that point. This type of critique can be compared with the attacks upon the book, and - apart from being superficial and unsophisticated - it is characteristic of a mindset where extremely narrow-minded ideology has replaced musical considerations and perception. The complaint that this music is 'too traditional' sometimes came from classical performers, whom you would expect the last to dislike tradition - but also here, the idea that contemporary music should 'reflect its time' is related to a certain average soundscape without realizing that there are alternatives possible. Modernism, when it entered the curriculae at universities and conservatories, seems to have damaged something in the brains of young people, who then entered professional life with their handicapped vision and in a world where such ideologies have either crumbled or have been petrified into establishment notions of a conventional, ugly past - as if there were only one type of past which is acceptable and other pasts, better ones, more inspired ones and certainly ones having produced masterpieces, are taboo. So, my book merely punctured an entirely feeble position, and the many thoughts about the modernist fallacies were necessary to point-out the full extent to which the idiocies of the modernist paradigm have damaged a fragile art form - fragile because of being dependent upon audiences, performers, and the cultural climate of societies.

No doubt the 2nd edition by Dover will also produce some attacks, and as long as the remnants of modernist ideologies are doing their destructive work in the mind of people operating in music life, this art form will be under threat, inviting further exploration of alternatives which may - at some stage in the future - restore understanding of classical music's enduring values.

'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'. This saying by the brilliant and pioneering architect Léon Krier points towards the 'holistic nature of human perception', as Steven Semes quoted Richard Cytowic (“Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), July 1995). This is not a 'conservative', anti-modern position but in contrary, the most necessary point of departure in the quest for understanding the nature of classical music and its value and meaning in the modern world. Ironically, such awareness is true progress, in comparison with postwar modernist ideologies: the point is, where the notion of progress has to be localized.

Steven Semes' admirable essay about relationships between the different arts can be found on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:

I remember that it was quite a discovery when, after writing some atonal Schönbergian pieces in my student days, my first serious exploration of the tonal tradition - not as an exercise in style imitation but as personal creation - immediately showed me that when you tap into a reservoir of relationships as exist in the tonal tradition (tonal in the widest sense), you enter a network of references which creates its own variations and appearances, and you connect with some deep layer in the collective subconcsiousness. It was the grave intellectual crime of postwar modernist ideology to insist that this connection was related to war, decadence, corruption. Restoring this connection is, I think, the challenge of art music in this century, and I hope such awareness will spread across music life and inspire a revival of a truly great art.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Adorno's destructive influence

In 1947 the German philosopher Th.Wiesengrund Adorno published his 'Philosophy of New Music', in which he tried to show that Schönberg's unpalatable ugliness (the later music) represented the truth of the 20th century, while Stravinsky stood for the barbarism of capitalist, bourgeois exploitative culture. After the holocaust, beauty could only be a lie, thus music audiences should be exposed to the negative 'truth' of Schönberg to be morally educated. The book's thesis is nonsensical, and even Schönberg himself condemned Adorno's attempt to present him as the saint of truthful ugliness. But it provided the ammunition for postwar modernism to attack musical culture, in the sense that atonal modernism in the wake of Schönberg and especially, Webern, was 'historically inevitable' and a necessary expression of the times.

Since postwar modernism did not blend at all with the usual programs of the central performance culture where the modernist intrusions, squeezed between classics before and after, mostly caused irritation and disbelief (also called 'shit sandwich'), it was in a strong need of justification. So, the book came as a gift from heaven for all those avantgardists banging on the doors of performance practice, where their progressiveness was not welcome and felt as a threat to musical culture as a whole. Also, Adorno's nonsense had the practical advantage that composers, who still believed that - even after the holocaust and world war - it should be possible to write tonal music, and even to strive after beauty, could be called 'outdated', 'irrelevant' and suffering from a 'false consciousness': this latter nice projection was meant to disqualify opponents and the competition even as a party in a rational discussion. We remember the vitriolic attacks on the competition by Boulez, claiming that composers who had not felt the necessity of dodecaphony were 'irrelevant'. Adorno's book came at a time where it could do the most damage: after a devastating war, and the revelation of the death camps. One is reminded of another book with timely nonsense: Otto Weiniger's 'Geschlecht und Charakter' (1903) which offered completely nonsensical stuff about sexuality, Jews, and Aryans, but had an immense influence upon the cultural elites of the day till far into the twenties and thirties. (Being a Jew, Weininger drew the consequences of his own idiocy and committed suicide shortly after his book's publication.)

Drenched in Hegelian historicism - which claims that in history, events are the result of inherent, inevitable autonomous forces - Adorno's book supported the idea that the most important meanings and values of 'the time' were expressed in its arts, and that only the art which did a good job at it, i.e. reflected the times most 'truthfully', was relevant. For artists who sternly believed in the concept of progress, this idea seemed a perfect justification of their own progressive work: it may look or sound awful but at least, it was the most relevant art since it expressed 'the times'. Where new music sounded meaningless and ugly, it could always be claimed that such were the times, and thus still be the most relevant music of its time. Also it was possible to pretend that meaninglessness had its relevant meaning in a meaningless time. Musical modernism, which thrived on the idea of progressiveness, wholeheartedly embraced all this nonsense and when modernism became established as the dominating aesthetics of contemporary music, doors were closed to any alternative vision. This meant that music which was still written on the basis of tonality and traditional aesthetics, went underground, and disappeared from the usual books about music history of the 20th century where the progressive line was drawn from Wagner's Tristan, over Mahler and Schönberg to Webern and hop! over the Second World War to Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis et al. This distorting reduction of music history to a progressive line can easily be compared with 'history writing' in totalitarian states where the past is rewritten according to the interests of the current régime.

To which this sorry misconception can lead, still in our own times - when modernism has already crumbled to dust, is shown by this recent example of programme information of the Opéra de Dijon, which also offers orchestral concerts. In the advance information on the website a description of Strauss' 'Four Last Songs' can be read: '.. this erstwhile lyrical and romantic civilisation, as if nothing had happened, as if such music were still possible'. Now, let it sink-in for a while: a respectable  orchestra presents one of the greatest works of the repertoire which is also very popular with audiences and one of the greatest challenges for sopranos (and for orchestras and conductors), and describes it as a lie: Strauss wrote it as if there had not been a devastating world war and no holocaust, because if he had acknowledged these catastrophes, he would never had written an echo of this outdated, lyrical and romantic civilisation. Of course Strauss was well aware of what had happened since he had suffered considerably, and had realised, too late it is true, by which diabolical régime he had let himself be compromised. The songs are full of the melancholy of departure from life, of mourning, and in the same time, full of resignation and hope on a better world. They are a proof that also after catastrophe, such music can be written and still be entirely authentic and truthful, because being based upon universal dynamics and aesthetic values (Léon Krier: 'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'). Also composers like Britten wrote truthful postwar works (the well-known War Requiem), as did Shostakovich who did not allow any doubt about his awareness of horror. What happened in Dijon? They followed Adornian prescription of progress and the supposed direct link between political reality and art, and found that they could present these songs only with the caveat that actually, such music could not, no: should not have been possible to write at that time, and could only be composed in willful ignorance of the reality of the world - as if the world consists exclusively of horror.

In the thirties, in a Parisian discussion among musicians and composers, someone claimed that art, and thus music, should express 'the times' even if they were ugly, upon which Maurice Ravel who was present, broke his usual silence with the decisive question: 'Why should an ugly time need expression?'

As long as such ideas like Adorno's are allowed to be taken seriously in music life, a liberation from postwar ideology with its erosion of musical value is not possible. Where orchestras or opera houses are under the impression that such historicist ideas are reflecting cultural reality and value, they unintentially help the erosion of their own existence.