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

Monday 26 February 2018

Music education: an invisible loop

How does commercial materialism destroy human capital? And how is it related to the erosion of culture? A good example is the contemporary way universities are, in general, run. The university’s relatively new status as a business means that it desperately needs students, and that it will feel the need to make it as easy as possible for everyone, anyone, to enrol. This results in lowering standards all around, the neglect of subjects which don't promise future quick financial profits (but which are crucial for the development of a mature, sophisticated, educated person), and the inevitable devaluation of degrees. Instead of the formation of educated and cultured people before they enter society - 'Bildung' - universities produce more or less functioning cogwheels in the big machine of 'the market', the 'place' where everything in life is measured according to its price and nothing to its value. In the market place there are no 'goods' that are an absolute value in themselves, but there are only prices.

Culture can only exist as a value in itself, otherwise it is not culture. Value in itself presupposes distinction, the notion that there are things that are better than other things, not based upon their price but upon their value; on this idea the whole concept of human civilizational development is based. The conservatories and music faculties in the West, offering musical education in both practical musicianship, theory and composition, are thus facing a dilemma: producing more musicians than can find a position in the central performance culture or the new music circuit, is necessary to keep the institution on the rails, and producing many more composers than can ever make a living on composing or/and find public recognition through performances, may seem to safeguard the art form's status, but on the expense of young lives getting stuck.

While a small number of young performers can, with great effort, possibly find a place in ensembles or orchestras, the rest has to find some form of teaching (or will be leaving music altogether), young composers who are supposed to contribute to the art form are left in the dark, unless they find a way into the community which makes-up, in every country, the 'new music circuit' which is kept upright by artifical means: state subsidies, special community programs, private donations by people or businesses interested in a touch of 'contemporaneity' to enhance their status or brand. Within the circuit, aesthetic and ideological myths form the filter which makes sure that aspiring newcomers conform to the indoor climate, which needs to assert itself against the 'bourgeois, commercial' classical performance culture; here, modernism and its watery progeny mixed with pop is of great help. Here we see a connection between materialist market forces and 'idealism': the low level of 'totally free' modern music mores makes it easy to teach at the educational institutions which need as many students as possible, who - after their educational trajectory - flock to the island of the circuit which is the only place where eager young composers could hope to find a safe haven, but where they will have to conform to aesthetic standards which are nowhere explicitly stated but are nonetheless functioning as they are functioning in any community which feels threatened by an 'indifferent or hostile world'. The number of fresh composers, flowing into the subsidy curcuits in Europe, are thus the result of the survival strategies of the educational institutions, which can be considered a covert form of commercialism: to survive in the field, the institutions offer the 'clients' - the students - what they want, thereby obtaining the money they need to keep the institution going (state support is based upon the number of students). When the students, after their matriculation, enter the subsidy circuit, they get into another form of 'commerce': they will have to produce what their 'clients' - the committees who channel the subsidy money - want, and the committees, made-up of 'experts' (mostly at the system's receiving end as well), have a vested interest to uphold 'criteria' which - happy coincidence! - always conform to exactly the 'ideals' they uphold for themselves. It will be clear that crucial to this system is its separateness from the central performance culture, since its being 'avantgarde' and 'of its time' provides the justification for state support, while the central performance culture is considered representing only 'the past' - a 'museum culture'.

So, the more easy musical education is made to allow great numbers of young people to enter the institutions, the more members will populate the modern music circuits, which will increasingly give the impression to the outside world (and the government) of a florishing art community, without any means to assess the real artistic value because all the forces at work are determined by market forces, overtly or covertly. The irony is, of course, that the usual contemporary music aesthetic is supposed to be an expression of pure artistic idealism as a contrast to the base, bourgeois and materialist society of which the central performance culture is a conspicuous representation; in reality it is a product of the very market forces that it claims to counter.

For instrumental performers, there should be many more places in music life, which means: there should be more ensembles, more orchestras, which again means: more state support (Europe) or more sponsoring / donations (USA). That is a problem in itself, given the current rise of populism and critique of classical music being 'elitist'.  But how could this situation be improved or solved for composition students? I think the only possible way to reduce market forces is to tackle the problem at the beginning of the trajectory: education. An artistic framework is necessary to create a mental territory where artistic, and not market forces determine a student's development. Then, there has to be a link between the educational period and the practical one, which directs the attention to the only musical place where artistic standards are still in place, albeit beleagered by the very same market forces: the traditional, central performance culture. The logical conclusion is, that education of budding composers can only be functional if related to this culture, in the same way as instrumentalists are prepared for concert life. In this way, an alternative could be created to the meaningless loop of useless, market-driven mythology that still defines so much  contemporary music in the 21st century, and the central performance culture could then be injected with new life in accordance to its own culture so that it may develop and create connections with real, contemporary life.

Invisible for audiences, and often also for the musicians, the orchestral circuit is under many threatening pressures: the financial one (market forces), the political one (state subsidies being dependent upon political programs), the ideological one (classical music 'no longer being relevant enough for contemporary society'), so that the subject of contemporary music seems to be entirely futile to the orchestra's survival. Focussing on the core reason of its existence: its value as an absolute good to the benefit of society as a whole, may open the doors to the awareness that new music which relates to its performance culture and its artistic values, can actually help the institution to survive in difficult times. The same goes for the educational institutions, but there, the idea that standards have to be independent from the number of students that enrol, will inevitably require serious sacrifices which may have unwelcome consequences for staff and institution. As is now the case, often the existence of the educational institutions is based upon the sacrifices the students are unwittingly making - not to speak of the art form itself - but the location where sacrifices have to be made, is obviously at the institution.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Stoking fear

"11 November 2017. Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. The police estimated that 60,000 people marched in the largely young crowd. Many chanted ‘Fatherland’, their banners read: ‘White Europe’, ‘Europe Will Be White’ and ‘Clean Blood’.  The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the marchers had flown in from Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, and waved flags and symbols that those countries used during their wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Polish state television called the procession a ‘great march of patriots’."

A populist neo-nationalism based upon ignorance of history is bubbling-up at many places in Europe. This shows the importance of knowledge about history, understanding the past, and learning from it. Also, the fact that so many immigrants have become Europeanized, showing that culture is independent from ethnicity, nationality, religion even, is not understood enough. It merely takes a couple of generations to completely diffuse any strongly anti-European feelings among immigrant communities, and this has nothing to do with wearing head scarves.

This is where culture and the understanding of what it is, becomes crucial, as well as the understanding of what European civilization is supposed to be. Rightwing extremist parties in Europe lay the groundwork for fascist outbursts and the destruction of the European idea: its civilizational and cultural unity, and its ability to build bridges and to accomodate differences between groups.

"The fear of immigrants threatens to destroy the very social and political fabric, culture, tradition, religion and way of life that Europeans want to protect."

Culture, in the sense of offering a humanist narrative, should counter these tendencies wherever it can.



Addendum 20/2/18:

An interesting review of 'Europe's Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right' by Liz Fekete throws further light on the issue. The author convincingly asserts that the dismantling of the welfare state has put a strain on all Europeans and, instead of questioning the policies that brought this about, they have joined rightwing politicians in blaming people they see as “scroungers.” (quote)

These strains are felt strongest among the people who did not share in the economic 'boom' before 2008 which benefitted 'the cosmopolitan elites', so: the poor 'whites' and the disenfranchised populations in the countryside who feel their 'normality' being threatened, vote for extremists as a protest and hope for reform.

What we witness here however, is the lowest of the lowest sentiments, crawling like rats from their holes where they have been lounging for decades - when being marginalized by the world above - and now, with the help of the new communication gadgets, demand power in the public arena:

When New Right leaders promise a return to the strong welfare state of the past, they do so under the condition that it be ethnically and racially bounded. With this modification, they enforce a range of patriarchal, racist, and homophobic values that draw on “noble” ideals of purity and national honor, whether they look to the Third Reich, the dream of a Greater Hungary (that would stretch into Romania and Slovakia), the male-led family “uncontaminated” by gender equality or tolerance for gay and queer people, pre-Ottoman Balkan Christianity, or pure-blooded Viking masculinity. Such visions are often, it seems, accompanied by torch wielding men and border militias with attack dogs. (quote)

The barbarians in our midst. The only remedy is a) a much stronger civilizational and cultural instruction and information effort across the board of the educational systems; and b) the strongest possible enforcement of law based upon the modern Enlightenment values of social democracy like equality and civil citizenship, which have been established in the West, with ups and downs, but with the greatest efforts, over the last two hundred years, and which have not been finished and internalized enough in the lower strata of European society.