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

Friday 14 December 2018

Warming-up nonsense

In The Guardian, an interesting article appeared about the plight of symphony orchestras and a newly-created orchestra in London to explore very old ideas of half a century ago which have already shown to be dead-ends. But since so many people in music life don't have the time and the interest to explore history instead, they are doomed to reinvent the wheel again and again, ironically under the heading of 'progress'.

There's so much wrong with this article that one hesitates where to begin. But let's take a couple of points. 
Are orchestras - which ones, where, when? - merely conservative, conventional? For many people, they are. But for many other people, they are not and are instead undermining their own existence by playing things that have nothing to do with music. It is like saying: 'people are bad' - useless generalizations.

The article is an attempt at promoting the new LCMF Orchestra and obviously, orchestral music is not on their agenda: 'And so the new LCMF Orchestra – which debuts at this year’s London contemporary music festival on 15 December – aims to provide a home for those who’ve never written for the orchestra, improvisers, electronic producers....' so, people who don't know how to write for orchestra and are not interested in it, who nonetheless are presented in one breadth with someone who was an expert:  'For the Berliozes of today' - '....whose career paths...' like Berlioz' - '.... have been fidgety and contrary.' So, if you are not accepted by orchestral programmers, you must be a Berlioz. Which means there is a tsunami out there of geniusses, which is highly unlikely. Such naive misunderstandings are the result of 20C modernist propaganda: rejection = genius, in itself an outgrowth of 19C romanticism. A cow is an animal, but that does not mean that any animal is a cow.

But all of that is not surprising because 'Composing in the approved idioms is always preferred over something more raw, exploratory, problematic or new.' Such descriptions have no meaning if not placed in context: the Eroica was all of those things in 1805; 200 years later it has lost nothing of its qualities but they have now been established as classical.

'Morton Feldman had to wait until 2006 to be allowed on to a Proms programme, 19 years after his death. Pauline Oliveros, another master, didn’t even get that close. Those are just the dead greats.' The author has no idea what these lines really mean: Feldman and Oliveros were writing sound art, the first in a brilliant way (though entirely unsuited for the orchestra format due to the length of the works) and the second in an embarrassingly amateurish way, as can be checked in her silly and entirely uninteresting, primitive  sound scapes:

'How long will it take for a living great such as Jennifer Walshe to be let in? And what about those working outside the classical tradition? Who knows how much more interesting things [we] could get if they really branched out to noise artists such as Russell Haswell or improvisers and conceptual artists like Maggie Nicols and Alison Knowles.' The author here confuses music with noise, apparently he thinks that music IS noise. And mrs Walshe's engagements are numerous but music is not one of them:

Such texts are always self-defeating, assuming that if something has nothing to do with music and its traditions and its formats and cultural aesthetics, it must be 'branching-out', 'explorative', 'avantgarde' etc. etc. in short: the postwar modernist ideology which was so happy to throw the entire Western musical tradition overboard, considering it as a mere impediment, something best to get rid of, like someone throwing a Velasquez in the bin because 'you cannot do anything with it'. Barbarism pur sang disguised as artistic progress, as if destruction = improvement.

'The cartel that is the publishing industry – who feed composers who play the Auber game to lazy programmers – are also to blame. Like corporations, they revel in standardisation of notation and style; aesthetic conservatism is their aim. From this flows so many other ills. By narrowing the pool, quality is constrained, diversity becomes impossible.' Publishing is another field of complex problems: now that many composers have become self-publishing - thanks to computer technology - the publishing houses are in peril and indeed have turned into commercial businesses, which means that they are offering services and materials to the orchestras and ensembles. It is THERE where the selections are made, the publishing houses are only concerned about surviving and selling their products to clients, nothing more.

'Which is why London contemporary music festival has drafted a manifesto titled Propositions for a 21st-Century Orchestra, with a few reminders of what matters and what doesn’t. “Composers who’ve never written for the orchestra are NOT to be feared,” we state. “Commissioning them will be our priority.”' For people who apparently have not the slightest idea what music is, what sonic art is, and what the musical tradition of the West is and has been, and its complex relation to modernity, who obviously never explored the intentions of postwar modernism in spite of the many writings produced by avantgarde artists, to imagine that they are able to define 'what matters and what doesn't' demonstates a joyful optimism resulting from a deep abyss of ignorance, to put it mildly, combined with totalitarian ambitions - entirely in tune with the original impulses of postwar modernism.

But at the end of the article, finally the truth comes-out:

'Fifty years after composers such as Kagel and Cardew made the first attempts to pull it apart and examine its power relations, the potential for dissecting the orchestra conceptually – for prodding and poking it, for sticking it under a social and psychological microscope – remains untapped.' The orchestra as an object to study its social engineering, as if the music is merely a cover-up of authoritarian, suppressing hierarchies, a fossil from undemocratic times and in scandalous contradition with our enlightened, humanist times. Implied is that if we listen to the sorry buzzing of Oliveros or the infantile parading of mrs Walshe, we will be spared the sorry spectacle of unfair suppression of the poor players who suffer under the crushing domination of Beethoven and his dictatorial conductors. But in fact, another domination would have taken its place, that of the ideology of nonsense, under the cover-up of progress and renewal - comparable with totalitarian societies like the nazis and communism who excelled in creating fake realities.

So, instead of helping the orchestra as a cultural institution survive in modern times - which is a legitimate and very real concern - such initiatives merely help to undermine it by mobilizing wide-spread ignorance: it is a form of populism, nothing more. I would have liked to advice such people to read something more thorough about the subject before embarking on creating a 'new orchestra', but I fear it may be too difficult.


Sunday 2 December 2018

True and fake knowledge at universities

'I’ve enjoyed the increasing certainty that there is a real distinction between true and fake knowledge, between truth and ideology, between the affirmation of an inheritance and resentment at one’s inability to receive it' - Sir Roger Scruton on receiving the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom at Encounter Books' twentieth anniversary gala.

Although Oscar Wilde quipped: 'Everything that is true is inappropriate', truth in whatever form in whatever field is of crucial importance on every level. And not always easy to come by. At quite some Western universities, the last century has seen a trend to politicize the curriculum, i.e. to create a political value framework a priori to the process of transferring knowledge and understanding to next generations. The agenda behind such trend was, and still is, a 'leftish' desire to subject society - through the educational channels - to a strong dosis of social engineering, sure as it is of having the truth of civilizational values in its pockets. While there is, of course, nothing against political subjects in the curriculum, any political action - if wished - should follow at the end of the trajectory of truth finding, not at the beginning. It is known that the 'marxist' universities under Soviet rule could not possibly produce value-neutral curriculi, and it is shocking that such trend has been possible at all in the free West. The university should in its own structure be as free as possible of any political agenda, to protect the freedom of the human mind in its explorations.

Although I sometimes find that Scruton goes much too far in his opposition to contemporary mores, his objections to a politicized university curriculum are entirely justified. But when is a curriculum politicized? That depends upon how subjects are treated. For instance, London University runs a department of Development Studies where subjects like gender and the impact of religion on gender relations are explored which is very helpful for development projects in the third world. Consciousness of gender relations in the context of non-Western cultures are crucial for the success of development projects initiated by organisations in the West, and such consciousness has been born from gender and feminism studies at Western universities, condemned by Scruton. It all depends on how such subjects are explored and to which end.... no doubt that may get wrong but that does not mean the subject is wrong.

Why is it important how universities form their curriculi? Because important values which have stood the test of time may be lost if a curriculum is burdened by a political agenda. Without a political agenda it is already hard enough to explore the truthfulness in the many fields of human knowledge and understanding, but with a political agenda the door to truth is definitely closed in advance.

In my own time at Cambridge University, for instance, it was simply taboo to raise criticism of the theories of Arnold Schoenberg, as if he were the Holy Martyr Saint of music, instead of a composer. Why? Because Schoenberg fought a battle against tradition and for an entirely new idea of music, which had led in the 20th century to an entirely politicized field: you could not debate modern music without taking some sort of political position. A purely aesthetic position was impossible.

The publishing house Encounter Books wants to support Western cultural values. Therefore it is quite ironic that its founder, Roger Kimball, proudly read a letter of congratulations by president Trump to the event’s VIP attendees, this man being the least suited symbol of civilization, to put it mildly. Further reading of the article where I found out about Scruton's award raises the suspicion that this publishing house naively assumes that Western cultural values are the possession of a narrow-minded neo-conservative mindset, defined by Christian religion, while in reality those values don't need such framework at all.