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

Sunday 19 September 2021

The meaning of music

Why do music lovers after attending a concert of classical music feel better than before? Why do they want to hear some of the pieces of the classical repertoire again and again, and again? Is that because they are dumb, and want to revisit what they already know, thorough conservatives as they are? Or is there something else going-on? If someone, entirely ignorant of the art form, would look at the central performance culture with the endless repetitions of a core repertoire, it must strike him as a mysteriously conventional field where thousands of people want to hear the same kind of sounds over and over again, a sort of apotheosis of empty, obtuse hearing routine, inducing trance-like states of unconsciousness only interrupted by ritualistic clapping of hands on waking-up from comatose slumbers. 

But music lovers know this is not true – what is happening, is happening inside the listener. They have the experience, the very real experience, as if something inside is touched and (often) being put in order, the music waking-up a process of emotional organisation, along a sound structure that moves in time, that changes, appears to ‘say’ something and to create a ‘narrative’ that can be ‘emotionally followed’ without ever having spelled-out the subject or the meaning. It is like a language but where the words have been deleted and only the emotional component of meaning has remained. The emotional part of the psyche resonates with what is happening ‘in’ the music, and is influenced by that resonance, as if emotions have been recognized by another consciousness, and are being ordered and given a meaning. 

This ordering does not mean that initially vague and chaotic emotions are being restrained or suppressed, but are given profile and shape which have a logic of their own. The interaction between the music heard, and the emotional territory in the psyche, is a process of resonance: the emotional field aligns itself according to the dynamics of the music. This resonance influences the character of the emotional field, changing some aspects of its nature during the experience, as in a ‘learning process’.

“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” A famous saying by possibly the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This seems to be a quite expressive indication of the meaning of music…. which is not in the notes, but hints at the background against which they obtain their meaning. And this background is not meant to be the cultural framework of music – although that also plays a role in the formation of meaning - but something on a more personal level, also including something of a psychic, transcendent nature. Wittgenstein hinted at something mystical or spiritual, at a possible reality ‘behind’ reality, across a boundary where language and the type of consciousness created by it, no longer are appropriate instruments of understanding.

In 1977, the musicologist Maynard Solomon wrote: “If we lose awareness of the transcendent realm of performance, beauty, and brotherhood afforded us by the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the ‘dream’ of the Ninth Symphony, we will have nothing left to set against Auschwitz and the Vietnam War as a paradigm of human potentialities.” Here, we come closer to the realm as hinted at by the Viennese philosopher, and the importance of the art form in relation with the actual world becomes clearer. Loosing the art form altogether would mean a drastic signal announcing the death of Western civilization – a bit like the ‘canary warning in the coal mine‘. But are human potentialities, as symbolized by the great affirmative works of our culture, not more than a tentative reaching-out into the ineffable? And how easy it appears to be to abuse the works’ resonances in the human soul, thinking of the appropriation of classical music by the nazis.

There are qualities in works of art which go beyond objective specifics – that is the whole point of art; it comments on the human condition in a way which conveys more than the eye can see and the ear can hear, hinting at the meaningfullness of life in all of its manifestations if related to a higher form of existence.

The sense of the ineffable background from which great art emerges, has been hinted at by – among others – Leonardo da Vinci: "We are all exiles, living within the frames of a strange picture.  Whoever knows this lives large. The others are insects."

“The important thing is not in the notes”, Mahler is quoted saying, and: “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Awareness of the transcendent nature of music began to erode after 1918, when Stravinsky said that music is not capable of expressing anything at all – though he modified this notorious saying a bit later-on in life, realizing that very much of his own music was, in fact, and underneath a quasi-hard surface, quite expressive and communicative. 

What is the ultimate test? There is the story of a concentration camp inmate who, while tolling during a summer night at some absurd physical task, designed to torture him, suddenly heard a recording of a Brandenburg Concerto being played, through the open window of one of the staff quarters. And suddenly he got the very distinct inner experience that life was meaningful, that creation was there with a purpose, and that his own misery was merely an evanescent horror he, unfortunately, had to endure. In his condition of despair, a transcendent reality was opening-up to him, a reality from which the record owner was excluded for life – otherwise he would not be there – but for which he inadvertently acted as an instrument, and which gave the victim the strength to endure the absurdity of his torture.

It is in this vague and inexpressible territory that, in the 19th century, the idea was born that when organized religion was losing its spiritual content and seemed to gradually petrify into empty convention, it was music that could save the essence of religion, doing away with ritual, complex theology and ordained organisation. With music, religion has in common the notion that meaning is not literally in the gestures of symbolic ritual, but in the background against which they obtain their meaning, a background insufficiently and sometimes clumsily ‘explained’ by theology and the ‘holy books’, having to rely on language and concrete imagery. This explains the mystery that the literal materials of, say, even the best works of Mozart, are quite simple and sometimes rather trivial. But they acquire their expressive meaning through their superb artistic treatment and taste, defined by the composer’s instincts about the background from which he worked, and through the context of the totality of the works which gives the fragments their eloquence.

That is why the human condition is related to art music, because, just like a musical work, it cannot be codified, fixed in its meaning, and cannot be fully understood on the basis of its material presence and appearances. The nature of music, of classical music as a serious art form, is not material at all, but uses ‘material’, physical sounds, to bring us closer to the background against which our life obtains its meaning.

(From: 'Postcorona Music; The Relevance of Classical Music in a Troubled World', to appear somewhere next year)


Thursday 16 September 2021

Eternal spring

 There are not many concepts in the modern world which are more misunderstood than ‘youth’. When, in the last century, the idea got momentum that humanity was on its way to ever more progress beyond the bloody obstacles of world wars and genocide, an aversion to the past and a focus on an open and better future became a dominant mindset of Western civilization, soon spreading all over the globe. From the Second World War onwards, ‘youth culture’ with its own music and its own dress code, and its own rebellion against an ugly world which was not of their making, became another field to be exploited by commerce, feeding the idea that remaining young forever were an ideal to strive after, youth as a stage that had to be fixed and frozen, instead of the longing for maturity which was a stage young people tried to reach as soon as possible in earlier times. This obsession with youth is a new thing, as youth itself always is. But the collective obsession with the notion of ‘new’ without context, as if it were a value in itself, is neurotic: the term is nothing more than a historic category and says nothing about meaning or quality of the thing that is new. The paradoxical nature of spring is that it is both new and eternal, it is like an ever-present phoenix rising again and again from the ashes of that which has no life in it.

Nothing is more disappointing than a literal interpretation of youth, because its literalness quickly withers with the passing of time. In a physical sense, Nature cautiously offers man a short period of physical blossoming, which quickly looses its fragrance of a beginning, while his existence still stretches-out in much longer periods than its spring could possibly last. Why is this so? Probably because on a purely physical level, the perfection and complexity of the human form is simply too difficult to maintain any longer on the same level. But the human person is not merely his material presence, but a totality within which the physical part is only a means of expression and of functioning. Strictly speaking, Nature had no reason to dress-up human physique with all of those impressive aesthetic qualities to arrive at a form with which the person were able to function and to express itself, as can be seen in the aesthetic failures of camels, crocodiles, apes, and too many insects to be mentioned, who can function perfectly well in spite of their aesthetics. 

The German philosopher Schopenhauer claimed in his main work ‘The World as Will and Representation’ (1818) that Nature simply used a trick to get the two sexes mating by making them seem attractive to each other, and as soon as offspring has been achieved – the only goal of Nature: preserving the species – all youthful attractiveness quickly disappears and ugly, dreary existence filled with suffering and boredom is all that remains. (Inevitably, the reader of that impressive tome accumulates a profound pity on the author’s personal life experience.) But there is a different way of looking at these things, namely: maybe Nature had a specific meaning with the human spring period. It is a fact that for most people, ‘youth’ is a far from ideal stage of life: dealing with grave insecurities, the turmoils of adolescence, the prison of circumstance and social pressures with their educational trajectories, and the undermining existential question bubbling-up of: ‘What am I doing here? And if so, why?’ A basic fact of human life is that the person as a whole only reaches maturity much later than what vaguely can be called ‘youth’; it is as if the energies of youth can only come to full blossoming after a long trajectory of maturing and growing. It is as if all the creative qualities of youth gradually turn ‘inward’ and settle within the invisible space of the human psyche: it is like a transformation process whereby the physical is gradually changed from something material into something psychological, or  said differently – into something spiritual (the term used as encompassing both the intellectual, emotional and intuitive faculties of the personality). As German poet, author, and cultural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: ‘Youth would be an ideal condition if it came much later in life.’

The symbol mostly used to describe the notion of ‘youth’ is the season of spring. What other is it than the explosion of Nature’s creativity? It is definitely the most striking, the most artfully spectacular season of the year, showing the life forces renewing their creation again and again, in a never-ending cycle of hope. In this sense, the spring of the human species assembles all the potential of the individual in a frenzy of energy, to be launched beyond the limitations of the physical into the infinite space of the psyche, where the energies can renew themselves time and again without the prison of matter. This explains the creative capacities of some type of artists, who appear to possess an infinite source of creative invention well into old age. Composers like Claudio Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi come to mind who wrote some of their best works after a long life of production. So, the spring of youth is much more than what it seems on the outside, it represents an eternal principle of creation, of the life force, and when it can be transformed inwards this source will continue to radiate beyond the conventional stages of life. This also explains the youthful and lively emanation of people who have been able to preserve their contact with this invisible source, as the strange phenomenon of still very young people who seem to have been snuffed-out at 25, maybe due to circumstances or personality disorder, or having succumbed to convention, or having read Schopenhauer’s book.

Considered in this way, ‘youth’ is a symbol of creation, which means that every time spring is exploding from the cracks of frozen winter, a future opens itself up where the elements of life that are eternal, appear again in their original form of potential, creating a new future of continuity. But this has only meaning if considered as a transcendental process and not as a literal, material period in human life which has to be ‘frozen’ – this is the best way of turning youth into the dead hand of winter. Although every spring is a new one, it is also a return to eternal sources, doing away with the lifeless debris of what had to die, like the wind blowing away the dead leaves of last season. Spring and youth are the same thing, and two things in the same time: renewal of eternal life and creating new possibilities, creating a new future with every resurrection of the life force of Nature.

What would such vision mean for the arts? As no other art, it is music which demonstrates the curious combination of death and resurrection every time a work is performed. The score, being the dead letter of instruction, is born again in the understanding of the performers, who infuse the practical instructions with the ‘life blood’ of their subjectivity, so that the vision which initially hovered in the composer’s psyche is realized in the reality of the present. This makes a good work new for ever, because in its performances it is celebrating spring, the same season in which it was born, and is born eternally. This means that the repertoire of classical music cannot age, simply because it is young by nature. Music is only one form of the transformation process of Nature’s energies into new life, it can be detected everywhere else, if seen from the point of view of the supremacy of the spirit. For that reason, the power of youth has to be understood as the power of Nature’s continual attempts at becoming spirit, of which music is the most profound demonstration.

Monday 6 September 2021

Wat is tradition?

Contrary to conventional belief, a cultural tradition is not a simple formula or a body of instructions to be followed, or a collection of rules which makes creating works of art easier. Also it is not a suppressing weight of the past. Tradition is the continuity of the life force through the species, reflected in symbolic acts and works, in ever evolving variations, but never violating its original spirit of humanity fertilized by the Divine. Tradition is renewing itself with every new artist who plunges himself uninhibited into its depth and comes-up with something living and new. In surrendering to its life stream, and giving-up himself, forgetting who he was and what he thought about himself, he will find himself as someone he had not known before, because the energy and dynamics of tradition will burn and wash away everything that is not authentically himself. Paradoxically, by leaving himself behind and letting himself be carried by the stream, he will find his own, original voice; the Self will be cleansed of convention and the superfluous debris of the world. And by his attempt to imitate the great works of the classics, he will learn and in his failure to be like them, he will appear as the original Self he was from the beginning but had not fully known. Tradition is a trajectory of self-discovery.

Tradition is a baptism of fire and of crystalline water. This is the secret of the great works of the past, before the misconceptions of a materialist and nihilist age destroyed the connections.

Thursday 2 September 2021

The modernity of revival

 A new article published on my website about the modernity of new music which revives musical values of premodernist times: