Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Misreading and erosion

Reading is not always easy, and understanding entirely dependent upon the receptive framework of the reader. For instance, in the review as linked underneath, of 'The Classical Revolution', the reader thought that I was claiming that classical music 'would save Western civilisation', while it should be clear from the text that of course was meant: when classical music erodes in the West, this would be a sign that Western civilisation itself is eroding, since classical music is an expression of its civilisational values. 

Misreading such obvious observation is in itself a sign of erosion, while the countless confusions and misunderstandings in this review show what happens when there is not enough background to fall back upon. Nonetheless, it is good to notice that the book sets some minds in motion: 


  1. It's possible you misread the review of your book, by not reading it and the other review the author wrote of Scruton's book, since both reviews engage with your work and Scruton's in the context of the mission and aims of the Future Symphony Institute.

    The review of the Scruton book is over here:

    The book could be read as making an observation that an erosion of classical music in the West could somehow indicate an erosion of Western civilization. But there's no evidence this has been the case, is the case, or will be and none was presented in the book. Criticism of sonic art is not really a defense of music or a case that music, as contrasted with sonic art, has been in any kind of decline. Robert Reilly and Herbert Pauls have both written books that suggest the opposite, that traditional tonal music has been doing pretty well in the last century, certain cults of serialism withstanding, but even these cults have been subjected to substantial criticism by American microtonalists along with more traditional defenses of tonal music. Kyle Gann wrote that twelve-tone can now safely be regarded as a largely antiquated cul de sac in Western music that students don't need to feel any great need to study if they don't want to.

    There's no real case made in the book that when classical music erodes in the West that civilization is eroding. The case wasn't made in the book so much as assumed, which is understandable in a first edition but not by the second.

    If there were any evidence given that classical music eroded in the West that would be one thing, but there's no evidence at all that this is the case. Moreover, the Herbert Pauls work Two Centuries in One suggests that classical music did pretty well in the last century rather than experiencing any kind of erosion. Robert Reilly's work, similarly, suggests that there's been no erosion at all. So it's not a given that classical music is eroding at any level and there's no reason given to surmise that even "if" it were eroding this would be indicative of an erosion of Western civilization. There's nothing in the book that successfully presents such a case. That's not a problem of reviewers misreading so much as a shortcoming in making a compelling historical case. The passionate defense of the value of musical art can certainly be appreciated, but the proposal that there's some kind of cultural erosion seems dubious. It may seem that way in Europe to some but here in the United States, which you noted is more of a genuinely multicultural nation state, things don't quite seem the same. Perhaps there's cultural erosion in Western Europe but it remains to be proven that a decline in musical art is necessarily in any way symptomatic of that erosion. We could be in a transitional century or two in which a formerly prestigious art form is displaced by the rise of another. The polyphonic mass didn't die off, but it was in a sense set off to one side as the symphony evolved. The symphony may itself be having a similar gentle shuffling off the stage but this doesn't mean chamber music and choral music may not regain or retain some significance.

    1. Pauls' and Reilly's books clearly show, that while tonal music has continued to be written during the last century, its performance and critical treatment has been such that it seemed to have disappeared from public sight. The meaning of these books is to demonstrate that it nonetheless existed; if those traditions had not been sidelined in concert life and in academia, Pauls' and Reilly's efforts would not have been necessary. While concert life (of classical music) continues as before, its status is increasingly contested, which in Europe is felt in political debates about subsidy cuts, and in the USA by an increasing insecurity about donations and sponsoring. Add to this a general trend of new works which are performed which are diluted, so to speak, with elements from the pop music sphere, and the increasing lack of time and expertise concerning new music on the side of orchestral programming, one could only conclude that indeed there is some kind of erosion taking place. The fact that the reappearance of so much excellent tonal music of the 20th century, as shown by Reilly's book, happens mainly through recording and not in the practice of concert life, is another such sign of erosion. It is clear that Western civilisation in general is under threat from different sides, of which one is the upsurge of populism, which is an obvious threat to a high art form like classical music. It is better to be warned and to understand the signs of the time than to stare at details and missing the point in general. Therefore an initiative like the Future Symphony Institute is a much needed one in a situation where the 'raison d'ĂȘtre' of classical music, or its 'real nature' and function within society, has become a subject of debate and is no longer a 'given'.

  2. it's not really established why a decline in the orchestral system heralds an erosion of Western civilization since for most of the last thousand years of Western literate musical art it was vocal music and choral music that sustained a high level of quality in music-making. Perhaps the orchestral idiom had its day in the sun and has been experiencing a natural decline. Two centuries past the kind of royal and church and state funding systems that birthed it it may just be that the symphonic tradition will stick around but not at the level it once had. Paul Hindemith wrote that every work of music has a shelf life and that entire cultural modes of music-making come and go. The symphony may just be experiencing this moment and it's not necessarily indicative of an erosion of musical art or of Western civilization.

    The entire recorded music industry has faced rocky times with the evolution of the internet era arts economy. John PHilip Sousa was deliberately alarmist about what he regarded as the dangerously conformist and stultifying aspects of recorded music in principle, which he claimed would standardize musical cultures and eliminate the amateur musician cultures he regarded as the real lifeblood of musical cultures. Paul Hindemith's criticism of music education in the United States was that it was ultimately nothing more than music teachers training music teachers rather than training people to love making music as amateurs who would never become professional. What some may interpret as a cultural erosion could, with an eye toward Sousa and Hindemith's criticisms of market and pedagogy, be construed as potentially being a bubble caused by a saturation of the market. More people are aspiring to be vocational artists than literally have any business doing so. That might still be a sign of cultural erosion, of course, but you haven't established why an erosion of the orchestral tradition is really indicative of erosion in literate musical art in the West or why it would be indicative of cultural erosion of the West or "civilization". For those of us whose musical education and participation has been in choral music and vocal music there are far more choral societies and ensembles in the U.S. than there are orchestras. The balance of activity in literate art music may have shifted in the last century from the orchestra back to vocal and choral music which, in the thousand year span of Western musical art, is where so much of the best of Western art music has been from the beginning. The relative demise in prestige of sonata forms is not because there's anything wrong with sonata forms, of course, but is more likely a sign that people have misread and misunderstood what the 18th century masters were doing to begin with.

  3. That may all be true - and the 'demise of sonata form' is, in itself, a mere detail of change and not of erosion - but the theme has to be seen against a wider background. If it were only classical music which appears to be under threat, this may be a mere hickup in the cultural sphere, but Western society suffers various forms of erosion across the board, as we can witness in the upsurge of populism and the forces of illiteracy, increasing polarisations, violence, anxieties in public space, even fascism appearing again after 70 years of quasi-sleep, the identity quarrels.... the list is endless and surely depicts a situation different from, say, the situation of 40 years ago - in spite of the latter half of the last century not being a very quiet period as well. But now the fundaments of Western civilisation are being questioned. In such periods of erosion and reformist demands, looking at classical music as a whole, as a genre, takes-on a character different from before. Therefore, it is important to understand the symbolic nature of the genre as a signifyer of the state of civilisation as a whole.

    Comparing the current situation with vocal music 1000 ago, when art music had a different position within society, and when there did not as yet exist a public concert circuit, is not very helpful.

  4. The fundaments of Western civilization being questions would mean something if you defined which Western civilization. Medieval Christendom? Medici era mercantilism? Divine right of kings monarchies? Republics that emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment? That last group is a subset of a larger Western cultural and political history. Important shifts in the history of the West involved questioning what were, at the time, the given fundaments of civilization.

    Eschatological dread at the soon to be end of Western society has been part of Western society more or less since it developed. There may no longer be an explicitly Christian millenialist flavor to the eschatological dread, for instance, but it permeated the Cold War thanks to the real possibility of nuclear conflict.

    You haven't addressed the points I raised from Paul Hindemith's writing about the shelf life of specific works and entire genres of musical culture. You just keep asserting that Western culture is in decline and if you're going to be a Spengler about it then fleshing out why you think Western civilization is eroding or under attack is more important than spending time on a perceived decline in a specific form of classical music.

    My comparison was not to vocal music 1000 years ago but to the fact that choral music is robust in the United States and that, in the overall history of Western literate musical art, choral music has continued for a thousand years. You seem determined to treat a narrow subset of Western literate musical art as if it were a stand-in for the entire art. If every orchestra in Europe went out of business tomorrow that would be bad but it would not be the end of the artistic tradition of literate music in the West.

    Invoking fascism is not particularly compelling, it's a canard. It is not difficult to find classical music works that written during and for regimes we would regard as authoritarian or even totalitarian. If you wish to discuss the continuity of musical art as musical art then political regime questions stop being immediately relevant. Durufle's requiem was initially to be bankrolled by the Vichy government. Shostakovich wrote his music during the era of Stalinism. Totalitarian cultures do not only come in the form of explicitly government-driven tyranny, for one, and for another, the history of socialist realism in the USSR shows that totalitarian regimes can, as some writers have insisted, do a better job of preserving classical music than the Western patronage systems of the Cold War era have. You can't have it both ways--you can't invoke politics as a reason to worry about the state of the art and then declare that you're not writing primarily about politics because of the non-conceptual nature of music if you're then going to turn around and treat the erosion of an art form (or the perceived erosion) as symbolic of cultural decline.

    I bring things back to the entire thousand year history of Western literate musical art because it is in the nature of the contemporary art. We have access to all of the last thousand years worth of musical art simultaneously now, which is not something that can be ignored in assessing the state of the art. Concert life is, in the larger history of Western cultures, a relatively recent invention. If you are really trying to make a point about the art as a monetized culture rather than as a continuity of creative disciplines and cultures you have not been clear about that.

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  6. let me rephrase an earlier point more concisely. Classical music as a symbol of the health of a society doesn't hold up as a plausible symbol. If we were to go by the quality of its classical music the British Empire would seem to have produced a sea of mediocrity during the centuries when its global power and influence was greatest. The quality of British art music took a pretty severe nosedive somewhere past the death of Henry Purcell and didn't rebound until somewhere in the period of Charles Stanford and his students moving along up to Britten (whose work is generally pretty good quality).

  7. All this seems to me rather confused.... let me say this: under the surface forms of the musical tradition, which are changing over time, the same musical dynamics are operating. Means are being extended, are changing in the flow of history, disappear and are picked-up again, all in a flux, the focus and interest changes, and have different meanings at different times and places. But under all of this, the way tonal systems and styles are used, remain basically the same. Why? Because they are based upon universal modes of perception which are innate in the mind. The 20th century shows the first moment when these modes of perception have been rejected by what has been called 'avantgarde', which formed some sort of establishment. This is related to the political upheavels of the time, and to the misunderstanding that the musical tradition till then was merely a human construct and could as well be replaced by another human construct, without roots in this universal mode of perception and in nature (the overtone series). Both the historical upheavels and the rejection of tradition and nature are signals of erosion. It is a matter of context and perspective. If totally unclear and questionable, I could only refer to my book 'The Classical Revolution', and Roger Scruton's 'Aesthetics of Music'.

    1. Leonard B. Meyer made a more compelling and coherent form of that argument fifty years ago in Music, the Arts, and Ideas. He pointed out the various ways in which serialists were creating music that misconstrued natural phenomena and ignored the cognitive constraints being observed by Gestalt theorists.

      In terms of the failures of serialism and aleatory to work with memory and human cognition that was a point that George Rochberg also made in The Aesthetics of Survival. With both of these excellent books in print I don't see anything in The Classical Revolution or Scruton's work that comes close to what Meyer and Rochberg managed to express about the shortfalls of serialist music in their work half a century ago. Rochberg made a point of distinguishing between a Feldman or a Varese who made sonic art that worked within the constraints of the ear and mind and other sonic artists and serialists who were letting their theorizing lead to music that consigned itself to historical oblivion.

      On a third front, the microtonalist schools of thought have pointed out that another mistake serialists have made is assuming, wrongly, that the twelve-tone chromatic scale derived from equal tempered tuning is actually a reflection of the intervals of the overtone series. Ben Johnston has written that what was "used up" was not really the possibilities of traditional tonal music but the range of schemas used in the continental European instrumental traditions that relied on equal tempered tuning. Johnston, too, was making his set of arguments half a century ago. Twelve-tone and serialism have been spent forces for generations in the United States.

      Johnston proposed that what made the 20th century avant garde crisis what it was was probably partly the result of a bit more than a century of a standardized tuning system. Back when different nations had different customs and traditions for tuning and deriving their pitch systems from the overtone series and mass production of instruments had not yet been standardized there wasn't a perceived "crisis" of the tonal options being "used up". Johnston's suggestion was that composers don't have to reject tonality at all and to regard the standardization of equal temperament as an option. He further suggested that while Schoenberg's initial innovations were creative ways of dealing with a sense of crisis that German romanticism had spent itself this was, ultimately, a stopgap effort and that very soon the atonal and post-tonal composers revealed they had even less imagination than the tonal composers whose traditions they felt they had to shake free from. Johnston outlined this argument in a series of essays that got collected into a single volume that isn't too hard to find.

      Since Meyer, Rochberg and Johnston all made more compelling arguments against what were trends in European avant garde composition fifty years ago I'm afraid The Classical Revolution is too little too late on the topic.

    2. This is a comment revealing that the author has not read 'The Classical Revolution', or merely parts of it, and has anyway not understood the context of the book, which was not about the failures of modernism but about the revival of the tonal tradition and why this was, and is, happening, and from which background it now is slowly emerging. Therefore, the fallacies of modernism have to be revisited. Meyer's excellent book, written in a very different cultural context and period (the sixties), could not have been aware of this.

      Meyer, by the way, rightly predicted the static situation where we are in today: everything existing next to each other, in a postmodern situation. However, much of the modernist ideology is still around and exercises influence in the institutionalised new music establishments, especially in Europe.

    3. I've repeatedly referenced reading The Classical Revolution multiple times, as well as referencing reading a variety of books recommended in the supplemental readings at the back of the book. Why you would think any of my comments indicate that I haven't read the book multiple times when I've repeatedly referenced how many times I've read the book and supplemental reading suggested in it is a bit of a puzzle. You first referenced my blog that I can recall by reacting to my difference of opinion with you about the work of George Steiner You even recognized that I mentioned reading your book more than once. Why suddenly have the impression that I haven't read the book or merely read parts of it? I was detailed enough to highlight how Paul Hindemith's A COmposer's World cosntituted a rebuttal to the material you published on pages 41-43 in The Classical Revolution, for instance. In the comment below from April 15, 2019 at 19:29. Or had you not read that far yet when you wrote this comment from 4-24-2019 at 6:00?

    4. It could seem in a mere few months you forgot that you wrote this.


      "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. "

      That we do not have the same ideas about a variety of topics does not mean I haven't read your book more than once. You wrote yourself that I had gone to the effort of reading your book more than once, after all. That I differ with you on Steiner was how we began to interact to begin with. That you suddenly have the impression that I somehow must have never read your book seems confused.

    5. Yes, that is true. I had forgotten about that. But your comments give increasingly the impression you missed the point of the book. Which is OK, I found that it inspires up till 7 or 8 very different versions of what actually has been written down, which may indicate both the richness of the subject and the provocation of prejudice it ignites. Again, better than getting more and more mired in labyrinthian knots about something which for quite a lot of people was a very clear and rather atraightforward book, is to write a book yourself about the subject.

    6. I got the basic ideas of the book, it's just that I'm an American guitarist who composes, on the Pacific Northwest coast, and a lot of what you describe has high modernist ideology has , fortunately, been fading since the Berlin Wall fell. Back when I was formally studying composition my instructor suggested I avoid grad school composition programs (the early 1990s) because they were still too beholden to a Schoenberg/Carter paradigm and that if I wanted to keep composing tonal music it would be best to do that on my own, so I did.

      Kyle Gann and John Halle have written about the 12-tone school dominated American academic composition programs and then began to fade into obscurity over the last twenty years. The end of the Cold War seems to have marked an end of the "necessity" for the style as a symbol of music that was rejected by totalitarian regimes. Gann stopped short of saying there was a mafia that enforced 12-tone in American composition programs in schools but he stopped JUST short of saying that.

      My more recent writing has been about contrapuntal cycles and sonata cycles for classical guitar, which is my instrument. If I were to write a book I would likely consider a discussion of fugue for guitar or a long-form discussion of the evolution of sonata forms in the early 19th century guitar literature. Serious exploration of the genuinely polyphonic possibilities for the guitar have only started to get explored since roughly the late phase of the Cold War.

  8. another criticism of total serialist music as being technocratic and inhuman came from, of all people, Theodore Adorno. Your book would have been more compelling if you had demonstrated that the composers in the vein of Stockhausen and Boulez who presented themselves as the next step of progression in music wrote music that even Adorno, who had declared tonality "used up" (though only mainly in the West, he made a concession that Bartok could still do interesting things with tonal systems in Philosophy of New Music, buried in a sea of footnotes), nevertheless had nothing good to say about the compositions of composers like Boulez and Stockhausen. He also rejected John Cage's alternative as no alternative. Adorno's complaint about each of these composers was they endorsed technocratic methods that absolved the composer of making any decisions, even Cage, by handing off decisions to performers (which was basically the critique that Xenakis had of aleatoric music, too, in his book Formalized Music). There could be a case that the reason sonic artists can't lay claim to being the "future" of music was that even Adorno was remarking that the "new music" was a spent force by the 1950s. He had nothing particularly positive to say about Boulez or Stockhausen, for instance, although he had good things to say about Ligeti's music, which he regarded as being a reflection of a composer who wasn't sticking to a fixed system and was making personal decisions. Should there be a third edition of the book I would recommend adding material from Adorno's writings to demonstrate the ways that even Adorno couldn't stand the more high profile integral serialist works that were being promoted at Darmstadt and this is fairly easily dug up in his writings from the 1950s and 1960s.

    The Classical Revolution was unfortunately muddled in argument and history. Some of the claims in the book are simply assertions. The passages in pages 41-43 about emotional communication in music for instance, suggests that music can replicate or convey emotional experience in an abstract way.
    The trouble is that this isn't really what happens in music listening as a cognitive process. The problems in this sort of approach you advocated in The Classical Revolution were addressed by Paul Hindemith in his lectures that became the book A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations back in the 1950s.

    With so many accessible and compelling cases to be made against the legacy of serialism even from Adorno's own later writings the confusing part is that you didn't avail yourself of this material to make your case in The Classical Revolution. It's all stuff that has been in print for decades.

    1. A book is what the author tries to say, and not what the reader wants it to say. The material you mention, I know, or know about, and has been used where deemed appropriate. For another type of treatment of a similar subject, you are kindly advised to write your own book.

    2. "tries to say" is, perhaps, a concession on the part of the author that it is possible for an author to fail to communicate?

    3. For a subtle argument about a complex subject, the perceptive framework of the reader needs to be informed sufficiently for the material to find an appropriate place therein. That is the case with every non-fiction book.

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