Wednesday 28 November 2018

The fate of greatness

What are the chances that a truly great work of art, let us say: a great work of serious art music, gets a chance to be understood and appreciated even, in the conditions of the world of today? And how were such chances in the past, before the onslaughts of modernity?

An interesting article about such questions in the field of literature, but equally valid for music:

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Steiner's holocaust idea

Someone read 'The Classical Revolution' (the 2nd edition as published by Dover) and took the trouble to not only read it more than once, but read George Steiner's book 'In Bluebeard's Castle' which was included in the list of books for 'further reading' at the back. In the form of a blog post, a thorough exploration resulted of Steiner's idea about how high art was, in some way, partly responsible for the holocaust, something which I find utter nonsense, but which is the result of exploring religious backgrounds of antisemitism and as such, an interesting view point.

I reacted with a couple of remarks, but which could not be published on the blog because of the total size, so here they are:

In 'The Classical Revolution', the pages under the heading of 'Further reading' are nothing more, nothing less, than that: mentioning a number of books which have some point of contact with the subject of the book and may enrich the context of the subject, because it is related to all of those writings, in one way or another. So, of course such a collection of pointers is not the context for engaging in detail with the texts of the books themselves, and the descriptions are simply general indications of the subject.

Of course 'classical music' as a genre, in the widest sense, is now all over the place which is a good thing. That does not in any way affect the nature of the classical works of the past and the obvious difference in terms of artistic quality and psychic / spiritual meaning between 'high art' and 'entertainment'. There is nothing against entertainment music, but not understanding the difference, which is not so much on the surface but in the deeper structure of meaning, logically leads to getting into knots about Steiner's Bluebeard book. Where a 'classical composer' like Ravel absorbs influences from jazz, he transforms those elements into something else, he lifts them from the level of entertainment to the level of high art, which is another context (I know this may sound as reactionary snobbery but it is merely a pointer towards the deeper structure of meaning which is, to a great extent, defined by the  context of the works and their traditions). The jazzy gestures in Ravel have turned into references, associations, but their being embedded in a high art structure (with its embedded artistic meaning and working-out) changes their character and expression: hearing the references to jazz in the 1st mvt of Ravel's piano concerto for two hands in the same way as one would hear Duke Ellington would mean missing the meaning and character of Ravel's piece. In other words: that concerto is not jazz, but at certain points reflects on it.

As for antisemitism, it is rather crazy to treat the holocaust more or less on the same level as those frustrated 19C 'philosophies' by people not understanding the enlightenment. The mass murder was not the result of those philosophies but organized mass crime by ethically underdeveloped people. Those 'philosophies' helped to make antisemitism 'salonfähig', which is bad enough, but they merely provided excuses and quasi-reasons for primitive people to carry-out what they were ready to consider without any 'philosophical' help. Therefore Steiner's idea that the holocaust was the result of a pagan-European tendency to get rid of a monotheistic moral blackmailing, can be seen as taking the genocide too seriously as a religious/philosophical phenomenon, thereby giving it some kind of gloss which it definitely does not deserve - it is like excusing the slaughter and torturing by a murderer through exploring his own suffering from circumstances and bad parenting in his youth. (The current surge of antisemitism, racism and 'identity politics' based on exclusion is the result of comparable primitive non-thinking and independent from any civilizational superstructure: it is something at the level of the anxious, primitive masses, exploited by cynical politicians.) By thus 'elevating' the holocaust, Steiner reads its motivation back into and onto regions where it has no place. This is what you get when you forget to think hierarchically about culture, society, crime, human development, which also is demonstrated in Steiner's idea that a fully-developed 'classical music' could - in theory - also be possible by absorbing elements from pop, rock, etc. - which is only possible if these elements can be lifted from their original context and transformed, which seems to me utterly impossible given the intention of those music forms. With his opposition of monotheism and paganism in European cultural and religious history, Steiner creates an abstract and implausible construction through which he can link the holocaust to cultural movements on the level of religion and high art, which I think is a self-created problem. It seems to me obvious that German 20C fascism only could get such force because of the bad peace settlement of 1918 which almost ruined Germany and made the incomprehensing masses vulnerable to such ideologies. Had such ruin taken place in France, it could have been a French rise of nazism which had created the next war and not Germany. Today we witness the strange fact that some form of fascism is always dormant in society and takes-on dangerous forms when circumstances create a breeding ground, because of the great number of people who are not interested in culture, Steiner, history, enlightenment values or even, Wagner. The fascist mentality is a problem of underdevelopment, social circumstances and accessibility of values and can be found at any place or time.

High art is not there to prevent catastrophe. It holds a mirror up to the human being, and if it is not understood, the responsibility of this lack of understanding does not lie with the work of art. Steiner's idea that the arts 'were incapable to prevent barbarism' is putting the problem entirely in the wrong way, again laying some responsibility of genocide at the feet of the arts, which is absurd.

As for the transference of religious meaning to the arts, and especially (art-)music, that is not a 'replacement' of something that 'no longer' fulfills its function in the modern world by something that could do that better, but the understanding that the outward rituals - developed in very different times and circumstances - somehow don't express completely the spiritual meaning they are supposed to convey. A better way of understanding this transferrence is to see the spiritual as working in a much wider field than organised religion, that it has its influences in any religion, and in the arts (hence the ease with which the arts in every culture blend with religious practices). The arts have their origin in religion, which means: both religion and art are human constructs where religious energies are channelled into forms that are comprehensible and accessible. So, the field is a continuum and not something happening in separate boxes. So, Arnold's idea of culture is entirely appropriate and not bound to any time or place, and Steiner's idea of it is, as I see it, too much bound to temporality and too much impressed by the shocks of barbarism and giving them too much cultural meaning. Maybe he was not cynical enough about the human condition. The holocaust was something far beyond comprehension for civilized people, but we have to conclude that a great part of humanity has not as yet evolved to a level that seriously deserves the predicat 'human' in terms of civility and humane behavior and thought. We have to live with that reality, and that means that understanding the best of human nature, as expressed in its high art, is a necessity, for instruction and for compensation. Steiner spoils that possibility by his projecting the holocaust back into a context where it does not belong.

Thursday 8 November 2018

Kurtag's nihilism

György Kurtag is considered, in modernist establishment circles, as a 'great composer'. But what he did and does, is chewing upon oldfashioned misery as explored first by Schoenberg and his followers, and then turned into something like a 'musico-political party', supported by ideology (music history as progress) and characterized by a totalitarian mindset. This mindset has dripped through the educational system and the resulting various layers of journalism and writing about music, where the difference between music and sound art has not been noticed, neither the thoroughly anti-cultural stance it represents: the art of death and the end of time.

In the New York Times, an article appeared about Kurtag's opera 'Endgame', inevitably on a text by the oldfashioned misery monger Samuel Becket, who tried to give voice to the absurdist nihilism and banality of the post-1945 world - as if this had never been noticed, and as if this was supposed to be the last word to be said about life. Of course, Becket inspired quite some modernists, apart from Kurtag: Luciano Berio, Morton Feldman, Pascal Dusapin, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and Heinz Holliger - they all embraced Becket's texts to set to 'music' which explores the same nihilistic kind of experiences, leering into that particular dark pit of artistic freedom where everything is black. Becket developed a theatre of the absurd, entirely different from traditional theatre which was considered 'too realistic', as if the plays of the past were ever meant to be 'real' - they were always stylized into the 'as if', from Antiquity onwards, and the naturalism of the 19th century was only a short trend.

The totalitarian sound of modernist ideology can clearly be heard by a biographer of Kurtag:

“Fundamentally, this is the end of a genre,” said the musicologist Andras Wilheim, who is writing a book-length study of the composer. “Kurtag’s opera could be the end of traditional thinking in opera.”

Music history as a projected line on which the works of the composers who really count, define the development of the line. But who decides which composers 'count'? And on the basis of what? Which criteria are used to forcefully push this or that type of music or sound art in the foreground? And is there a 'line of development'? All this is nonsense, and in conflict with the fundamental nature of the musical performance culture, which is - or is supposed to be - a pluralist field where, in the course of time, that which is better music wins-out and survives the ravages of time, and the meaningless works are forgotten.

Kurtag's works define nothing - because they are about nothing - and they are the products of the ravages of the last century, without offering any perspective. Kurtag is not someone who defines the course of music history because music history is not defined by totalitarian pundits, but by meaningful musical works.

Kurtag's art is sound art (sonic art) with references to music, i.e. with gestures meant as 'expressive' , which positions him closer to Schoenberg and Berg than to Webern and Boulez. It is well-made, but thoroughly miserable and nihilist, and contributes nothing at all to what we already know of the misery of the world. His works merely contribute to the infinite emptiness in the hearts of so many people who no longer believe in the better side, the aspirational talents of human nature, and for whom all the immense achievements of existing culture are worthless, or at least: meaningless. In the end, Kurtag's problem is a luxury problem, because his nihilism does produce a living, confirming the inner emptiness of quite some people who thereby feel redeemed. He thus lives in very old age.

Another quote from the article:

Mr. Kurtag’s 1994 orchestral work “Stele” is “like a gravestone on which the entire history of European music is written,” the conductor Simon Rattle once told The Boston Globe.

A stele is a slab or pillar inscribed as a memorial: a gravestone. 


What this work wants to convey, has already been done by Schoenberg and Berg, and better, in my opinion. And such things you can only say once or twice, not all the time. After a short while, it turns into a cheap clichée - 'look at me how I suffer from the misery of life'.

Why is this sort of self-destructive, entirely hopeless nihilism still cultivated as important artistic deeds? And why is such an oeuvre  supposed to bury an entire continental artistic tradition? These people - including Kurtag - are crazy, superficial, arrogant, and ignorant of their own tradition on which they, nonetheless, have built their careers. It seems that what they want, is destruction of the branch upon which they are sitting.