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

Thursday 10 December 2020

Conservative music?

The classical music world is often accused of being conservative. But in what sense could the field be conservative? And what is meant by 'conservative'?

In colloquial speak, conservatives want to freeze things - mostly things that are considered precious and from the past - so that they stand still and are thus preserved for the present and the future. For people with a gusto for life, this means 'death': no new creativity, no new developments, no change - the priority of life is change. But change without purpose is meaningless, since it can lead to both something good and something bad. So, there is a need for measurement and standards. But which, from where, and how to apply them? This is the big dilemma of the last century.

Classical music as a genre is not conservative, at most it is conservative in the sense that the medical profession is conservative, in a literal way: to help the human body to withstand the ravages of life, but not to make it stop living, but instead to make it living more fully and with better quality.

The accusation of conservatism (always meant as a pejorative gesture) stems from the misunderstanding of what a cultural tradition is. Because the arts wanted, at the beginning of the last century, to liberate themselves from a restricted and orthodox version of tradition, they threw-out the baby with the bath water, and did not look beyond 19C academism. Before the academisation of music took hold in the educational systems of Europe, tradition was an utterly practical availability taken for granted, and freely adapted, varied, explored, and developed - it was something living, and not 'academic' at all. Composers learned from each other and from works of the past (for instance, Mozart absorbed the style and techniques of J.S. Bach later in life, and in some works created an amalgam of baroque and the classical style, and incorporated baroque elements in his symphonies). So, a cultural tradition that is viable, is much alive, but without any orthodoxy. In comparison, the 20C orthodoxy of trying to be consciously 'progressive' has merely done damage to the minds that want to follow what others do - conservative minds, in fact.

So, a true cultural tradition is not 'conservative' at all, but open to interpretation and variation, as a language is when it is still used in the reality of life. But what about the self-proclaimed conservatives who defend the classical tradition in music? Aren't they then the orthodoxists, wanting to freeze something that was alive? When, for instance, you read Roger Scruton - a famous / notorious self-proclaimed conservative philosopher and musicologist - on music, like his Aesthetics of Music, you find that there is nothing 'conservative' in anything he has to say on the subject, 'conservative' in the freezing sense. In contrary, he demonstrates the life and the continuous development that Western classical music has undergone over the ages. 

And what about the progressive camp in culture, treating music and the visual arts as instruments for dissolving any quality standards and as a weapon for social justice, or trying to paint Western culture as merely a product of Western imperialism and appropriation, of war mongering and racism, of suppression of minorities? With all the quasi-moral taboos and misconceived accusations, born from ignorance? The typical group think that escapes from that cauldron when we lift the lid, signifies the well-known smell of conservatism, the orthodox mindset that results from clinging to a very limited perception, wanting to freeze it for eternity and for everybody else, and is prepared to sacrifice any precious achievement of the past on the altar of immature utopias.

So, the notions of 'conservatism' and 'progressiveness' appear to be so malleable that they becomes quite meaningless, and entirely inappropriate in reference to classical music as a genre and its practices in concert life. And if progressives or conservatives hit upon a truth, that does not mean that this truth suddenly becomes progressive or conservative; it means that finding this truth is to their credit, whatever their world view.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The revenge of the authentic

 In 2016, visionary architect and theorist Léon Krier held a lecture at the international seminar 'Architecture and Traditional Building Crafts', in which he explored the concept of 'fake'.

Creation is personal expression through imitation. What? This seems to be a nonsensical paradox: creation is supposed to be an original expression, while imitation reflects lack of ideas, so: no expression, let alone personal expression, but 'fake', something inauthentic because lacking the personal signature. But the process of creativity is much more complex than such simplistic assumptions suggest.

The creative mind uses available means to turn them into personal instruments of expression. It is impossible to develop a craft, without the necessary imitation of means. In the process of absorbtion, the means are transformed because the context within which they will reappear, will be determined by the creative mind. This changes the meaning of the means, and they become 'new' in the process, in the sense that they themselves are 'old' but their function within their new context turns the whole into a new creation. This is the secret of the great creators, including the great innovators: artists, composers, architects, writers, poets, philosophers.

Krier explains that the artifice of modernist buildings simply erode in the course of relatively short time because of structural flaws, while the authentic remains of ancient architecture still stand high, in spite of the ravages of time. Here is his lecture - rather sketchy at places, but it all hangs together:


 What would be the lesson for classical music, for contemporary music?

Clearly, the fear of imitation would have to go, and be replaced by a better understanding of the creative process in terms of originality, personal signature, expression, mimetic mindset. Ages of practical knowledge of how to write meaningfuol music offer a wealth of means to learn from, and to turn them into authentic instruments of personal expression, for whatever expressive purpose.

Knowing the craft of the past is necessary for any future development of the art form. This goes beyond style: under the surface, the musical dynamics (including psychodynamics) of Lassus, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, etc. etc. are the same - it is only the surface level which takes-on a different character in every period, in the hands of every composer. So it is with architects, painters, poets, writers, etc. It is a fundamental process profoundly embedded in our human nature.

Krier is a pioneer and a visionary, and in the same time a very practical, rational man. His project design for the quarter Tor Bella Monaca, in the Roman suburb of Alessandria, is of a stunning beauty, and entirely designed according to the practical needs of modern humans, and on a welcoming human scale, using the local Italian traditional style but translated into a contemporary idiom which is also timeless, universal, demonstrating the relationship between tradition and interpretation.

The design was sabotaged by the Roman administration and then boycotted by the media, no one image of the presentation has been published in Italy, and this video is the only visual information to be found on the web, published by Krier himself:


Thursday 18 June 2020

Europe is structurally bad

In Die Zeit a noteworthy article: ‘We, eternal racists‘. Claim: Europe is structurally racist. Without colonial exploitation and slavery, the development of Europe’s prominent place in the world would not have been possible:

“Europas Aufstieg wäre ohne koloniale Ausbeutung und Versklavung unmöglich gewesen.“ 


In an understandable and laudable attempt to make readers more aware of unconscious racist behavior, the whole of European history and identity is painted as racist: everything European is white privilege, a luxury bought on the destruction of ‘The Other’: the non-European. There is, by implication, no European achievement, in whatever field, which can escape the burden of crime on a vast scale. Enlightenment values, democratization movements, human rights formulations (postwar Eleonore Roosevelt) are ALL Western products which have in them a concealed contempt for everything that is not European/Western (did Indians or Chinese or Africans have any say in the formulation of human rights?). Western culture is thus also entirely and structurally racist, a product of a vile civilisation.

All of this is a flagrant lie. For instance, historical research has revealed that, although colonial exploitation has contributed to Europe’s wealth, and many economic activities could somehow be related to slave trade, these forms of exploitation consisted only in small percentages in relation to the total of economic benefits. In such accusatory generalizations, the benefits that ‘the colonies‘ experienced are, conveniently, left out of the equasion. For instance, recently the International Institute for Social History in Leiden (Netherlands) have carefully calculated what the contribution of the Dutch slave trade was in 1770 to the general wealth of the country. In that year, the atlantic slave trade was at its highest. It appeared to be 5,2% of the gross domestic product. For other European countries at the time it will have been something similar, on average. The idea that all European wealth is due to exploitation and colonial suppression, that it is somehow ‘stolen’ from non-European areas, leaves out all the other trade, like fishing, exchange of goods which were produced within Europe, etc. 


It makes one think of the bland nonsensical lies of cultural critic Edward Said, one of the founders of the academic field of ‘postcolonial studies’, who in ‘Orientalism’ claimed that all Western attempts to understand ‘the East’ and ‘Easterners’ were distorted projections of Western fantasies, all coloured by racist prejudice. The reality is, that many European scientists spent much and sometimes all of their life time locally to explore and understand Eastern cultures, the products of which fertilized European science and culture, and greatly contributed to the understanding of the ‘Orient’. Not for Said: only people like him, who were orientals by birth, could say something worthwhile about their own culture. If this is not cultural racism, I don’t  know what else it could be. His connection with Daniel Barenboim is thus tainted with quite an amount of nonsense and unscientific posturing.

The implication of such idiocy as exposed in the Zeit article is, that European culture as a whole is supposed to be tainted by crime and that any rejection of it is morally justified. So, not only painting, literature and science is burdened, but also classical music, which is the product of white privilege based upon exploitation of ‘the other’, i.e. classical music is inherently racist by its sheer existence. Structurally so.

It is understandable that people with a personal distaste for Western culture, and/or for classical music for political reasons, would wholeheartedly welcome such ideas, they seem to justify any attack upon any Western art, especially what is inherited from the past.

I think one cannot object loudly enough against such absurd ideas which have nothing to do with reality.