Sunday, 26 November 2017

Why high culture?

Why should high culture be important to society? Why paying for it, why funding its institutions? Isn't it immoral to use tax payers' money to fund things which only seem to be to the benefit of a minority?

"We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it."

The erosion of this kind of awareness has concrete implications for the arts, it opens the doors to nonsense and fakes and clichées:

"Hence for a long time now, it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in high art which is not in some way a ‘challenge’ to public culture. Art must give offence, stepping out armed against the bourgeois taste for the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. The result of this is that offence itself becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde — this, at least, is an authentic gesture. In place of the late American art critic Harold Rosenberg’s ‘tradition of the new’, we have the ‘cliché of the transgressive’ — a repetition of the would-be unrepeatable."

If the arts, as presented by the established institutions, only consist of fakes, there is no longer any justification to support them, since they no longer serve public interest, and forfeit their position in public space:

"In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown."

Thus Sir Roger Scruton in an essay on the website of Aeon:

https://aeon.co/essays/a-cult-of-fakery-has-taken-over-what-s-left-of-high-culture

Friday, 24 November 2017

The fragile future of music

The attacks upon the 1st edition of 'The Classical Revolution' did not surprise me, knowing - while writing - that descriptions of the totalitarian and nonsensical nature of musical modernism would not be welcome in certain established new music circles. But what did surprise me, was the myopic way in which the book was read by people, who are supposed to be used to reading books, and feel somehow committed to the musical art form in one way or another. For instance, where the book was merely condemned as a reactionary rant, drenched in bigotry, and as a failed attempt to present a very narrow, flawed taste as something objective, such interpretation seemed to come from people entirely ignorant of the realities of music life, of music history, even of general art history, so that the suspicion arose that these were people from outside music life or even, outside the cultural field altogether.

Such 'reviews' missed crucial points of the text, like: the obvious observation, with a history of ages of experience behind it, that music is more than organized sound and that an art form which wants to present sound as such without any other meaning is better considered a different art form altogether; or the crazy modernist assumption that there exists something like 'progress' in music; or the real nature of progress in music: the accumulated availability of means - on a different level of that of purposes; or the totalitarian, aggressive ideologies which have created havoc in music life where the damage is still very much present for all to see (or rather: to hear); or the invitation for juvenile nonsense to parade as 'new music'; or the fallacy of the 'lack of understanding' of 'conservative audiences'; or the link with cultural relativism and cultural identity, where awareness of 'the past' plays a crucial role. All these points could be easily verified by reality, other expertise writings, cumulative experiences of performers and listeners; they were not subjective, paranoid fantasies but rooted in the real world.

If the book were completely wrong, something like this would not have been possible - the presentation of a recent 'work' at the Darmstadt New Music Courses, well-known hub of established modernism in Germany:



In my opinion, the most important part of the book is its chapter 'The Search for Meaning' which connects music (and especially, new music) with the reality of the world and the surrounding culture. Here, a holistic vision is presented in which the many problems surrounding new music are illuminated as if from outside. With bigotry and reactionary conservatism, this has nothing to do - which should be entirely clear for everybody with a minimum of intelligence and cultural awareness. As the iconic monuments of the past are still with us and still have something meaningful to say about the human condition, one could clearly see that the preservation of their precious tradition is always part of any modernity, not for the benefit of the past but of the present - of any present. New creation illuminated by such tradition is - in a world where it is treated with contempt - related to this world in the sense of a necessary altenative, as a subversive exploration of a vision which may throw another light upon the present. Therefore the book is titled, with some irony, as a 'revolution': only revolutionary in relation with conventional ideas about modernity.

Classical, serious music ('art music', 'ernste Musik') has a repertoire that is, almost entirely, a product of the Western past, and mostly the European past. This cultural past forms Europe's cultural identity and by extension, a part of the cultural identity of the Americas. The price which has been paid for a dynamic, progressive technological and scientific society, is the loss of memory, a willful collective dementia, which means: erosion of identity and increase of alienation. The psychological misery and shallowness we see all around in the West, which are painfully reflected in current political developments like the surge of populism everywhere, betrays the lack of understanding of the past with the result that fundamental lessons have to be learned again and again. If we look at Chinese culture, which has survived thousands of years and serious upheavels and disasters, then it is a surprising discovery to see that the inner strength of this very specific culture can be explained by its commitment to 'the past' and the dead: the past is kept alive in memory through its art, poetry, literature, mythology. It has even survived the communist degradation and - under the surface - it is still alive, under the thumb of a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens with contempt. Western classical music is now increasingly popular in China, where it symbolizes development and modernization - with the advantage that its nonconceptual nature does not pose a threat to the political status quo. In the West, classical music shrinks, and new music has written itself out of a cultural paradigm altogether (in Europe only being kept alive through careless state support). The West should try to learn from the Chinese holistic attitude towards the cultural past and understand that its past is alive and not locked-up in a museum. All this was explored in 'The Classical Revolution', no doubt insufficiently, but necessarily, as a correction upon a paradigm that has shown itself to be entirely destructive and hostile to art.

Also I have often been criticized for writing music that is 'too traditional', mere imitation music and not original music, and that its language is entirely derivative and impersonal. But any musically-perceptive listener can easily hear that this is not the case: the language is a combination of different elements of existing music, but the mix is mine. Also, the way this music is structured, is newly found with every work: there is no repetition on that point. This type of critique can be compared with the attacks upon the book, and - apart from being superficial and unsophisticated - it is characteristic of a mindset where extremely narrow-minded ideology has replaced musical considerations and perception. The complaint that this music is 'too traditional' sometimes came from classical performers, whom you would expect the last to dislike tradition - but also here, the idea that contemporary music should 'reflect its time' is related to a certain average soundscape without realizing that there are alternatives possible. Modernism, when it entered the curriculae at universities and conservatories, seems to have damaged something in the brains of young people, who then entered professional life with their handicapped vision and in a world where such ideologies have either crumbled or have been petrified into establishment notions of a conventional, ugly past - as if there were only one type of past which is acceptable and other pasts, better ones, more inspired ones and certainly ones having produced masterpieces, are taboo. So, my book merely punctured an entirely feeble position, and the many thoughts about the modernist fallacies were necessary to point-out the full extent to which the idiocies of the modernist paradigm have damaged a fragile art form - fragile because of being dependent upon audiences, performers, and the cultural climate of societies.

No doubt the 2nd edition by Dover will also produce some attacks, and as long as the remnants of modernist ideologies are doing their destructive work in the mind of people operating in music life, this art form will be under threat, inviting further exploration of alternatives which may - at some stage in the future - restore understanding of classical music's enduring values.




'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'. This saying by the brilliant and pioneering architect Léon Krier points towards the 'holistic nature of human perception', as Steven Semes quoted Richard Cytowic (“Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), July 1995). This is not a 'conservative', anti-modern position but in contrary, the most necessary point of departure in the quest for understanding the nature of classical music and its value and meaning in the modern world. Ironically, such awareness is true progress, in comparison with postwar modernist ideologies: the point is, where the notion of progress has to be localized.

Steven Semes' admirable essay about relationships between the different arts can be found on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:



I remember that it was quite a discovery when, after writing some atonal Schönbergian pieces in my student days, my first serious exploration of the tonal tradition - not as an exercise in stile imitation but as personal creation - immediately showed me that when you tap into a reservoir of relationships as exist in the tonal tradition (tonal in the widest sense), you enter a network of references which creates its own variations and appearances, and you connect with some deep layer in the collective subconcsiousness. It was the grave intellectual crime of postwar modernist ideology to insist that this connection was related to war, decadence, corruption. Restoring this connection is, I think, the challenge of art music in this century, and I hope such awareness will spread across music life and inspire a revival of a truly great art.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adorno's destructive influence

In 1947 the German philosopher Th.Wiesengrund Adorno published his 'Philosophy of New Music', in which he tried to show that Schönberg's unpalatable ugliness (the later music) represented the truth of the 20th century, while Stravinsky stood for the barbarism of capitalist, bourgeois exploitative culture. After the holocaust, beauty could only be a lie, thus music audiences should be exposed to the negative 'truth' of Schönberg to be morally educated. The book's thesis is nonsensical, and even Schönberg himself condemned Adorno's attempt to present him as the saint of truthful ugliness. But it provided the ammunition for postwar modernism to attack musical culture, in the sense that atonal modernism in the wake of Schönberg and especially, Webern, was 'historically inevitable' and a necessary expression of the times.

Since postwar modernism did not blend at all with the usual programs of the central performance culture where the modernist intrusions, squeezed between classics before and after, mostly caused irritation and disbelief (also called 'shit sandwich'), it was in a strong need of justification. So, the book came as a gift from heaven for all those avantgardists banging on the doors of performance practice, where their progressiveness was not welcome and felt as a threat to musical culture as a whole. Also, Adorno's nonsense had the practical advantage that composers, who still believed that - even after the holocaust and world war - it should be possible to write tonal music, and even to strive after beauty, could be called 'outdated', 'irrelevant' and suffering from a 'false consciousness': this latter nice projection was meant to disqualify opponents and the competition even as a party in a rational discussion. We remember the vitriolic attacks on the competition by Boulez, claiming that composers who had not felt the necessity of dodecaphony were 'irrelevant'. Adorno's book came at a time where it could do the most damage: after a devastating war, and the revelation of the death camps. One is reminded of another book with timely nonsense: Otto Weiniger's 'Geschlecht und Charakter' (1903) which offered completely nonsensical stuff about sexuality, Jews, and Aryans, but had an immense influence upon the cultural elites of the day till far into the twenties and thirties. (Being a Jew, Weininger drew the consequences of his own idiocy and committed suicide shortly after his book's publication.)

Drenched in Hegelian historicism - which claims that in history, events are the result of inherent, inevitable autonomous forces - Adorno's book supported the idea that the most important meanings and values of 'the time' were expressed in its arts, and that only the art which did a good job at it, i.e. reflected the times most 'truthfully', was relevant. For artists who sternly believed in the concept of progress, this idea seemed a perfect justification of their own progressive work: it may look or sound awful but at least, it was the most relevant art since it expressed 'the times'. Where new music sounded meaningless and ugly, it could always be claimed that such were the times, and thus still be the most relevant music of its time. Also it was possible to pretend that meaninglessness had its relevant meaning in a meaningless time. Musical modernism, which thrived on the idea of progressiveness, wholeheartedly embraced all this nonsense and when modernism became established as the dominating aesthetics of contemporary music, doors were closed to any alternative vision. This meant that music which was still written on the basis of tonality and traditional aesthetics, went underground, and disappeared from the usual books about music history of the 20th century where the progressive line was drawn from Wagner's Tristan, over Mahler and Schönberg to Webern and hop! over the Second World War to Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis et al. This distorting reduction of music history to a progressive line can easily be compared with 'history writing' in totalitarian states where the past is rewritten according to the interests of the current régime.

To which this sorry misconception can lead, still in our own times - when modernism has already crumbled to dust, is shown by this recent example of programme information of the Opéra de Dijon, which also offers orchestral concerts. In the advance information on the website a description of Strauss' 'Four Last Songs' can be read: '.. this erstwhile lyrical and romantic civilisation, as if nothing had happened, as if such music were still possible'. Now, let it sink-in for a while: a respectable  orchestra presents one of the greatest works of the repertoire which is also very popular with audiences and one of the greatest challenges for sopranos (and for orchestras and conductors), and describes it as a lie: Strauss wrote it as if there had not been a devastating world war and no holocaust, because if he had acknowledged these catastrophes, he would never had written an echo of this outdated, lyrical and romantic civilisation. Of course Strauss was well aware of what had happened since he had suffered considerably, and had realised, too late it is true, by which diabolical régime he had let himself be compromised. The songs are full of the melancholy of departure from life, of mourning, and in the same time, full of resignation and hope on a better world. They are a proof that also after catastrophe, such music can be written and still be entirely authentic and truthful, because being based upon universal dynamics and aesthetic values (Léon Krier: 'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'). Also composers like Britten wrote truthful postwar works (the well-known War Requiem), as did Shostakovich who did not allow any doubt about his awareness of horror. What happened in Dijon? They followed Adornian prescription of progress and the supposed direct link between political reality and art, and found that they could present these songs only with the caveat that actually, such music could not, no: should not have been possible to write at that time, and could only be composed in willful ignorance of the reality of the world - as if the world consists exclusively of horror.

In the thirties, in a Parisian discussion among musicians and composers, someone claimed that art, and thus music, should express 'the times' even if they were ugly, upon which Maurice Ravel who was present, broke his usual silence with the decisive question: 'Why should an ugly time need expression?'

As long as such ideas like Adorno's are allowed to be taken seriously in music life, a liberation from postwar ideology with its erosion of musical value is not possible. Where orchestras or opera houses are under the impression that such historicist ideas are reflecting cultural reality and value, they unintentially help the erosion of their own existence.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Hermann Hesse on classical music

“We consider classical music to be the epitome and quintessence of our culture, because it is that culture’s clearest, most significant gesture and expression. In this music we possess the heritage of classical antiquity and Christianity, a spirit of serenely cheerful and brave piety, a superbly chivalric morality. For in the final analysis every important cultural gesture comes down to a morality, a model for human behavior concentrated into a gesture.”

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (trans. R. Winton)

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Culture clashes

The reason why it is wrong in Europe to publish offensive cartoons in which is suggested that muslems are, in a general way, terrorists, or that islam is an aggressive dangerous religion, is not that one should not be allowed to express anti-islam sentiments to spare the feelings of the European muslem communities - but because it is entirely anti-civilizational, and a violation of the society that Europe after ages of war mongering has created, to let such 'expressions', which are not humorous at all and rude in every aspect, circulate in public space, as there are so many other anti-civilizational expressions which are tolerated but which should not be tolerated at all. A civilized society exercizes certain behavioral norms which makes it possible for every citizen to live in peace and freedom, and have his privacy protected; this obviously means that freedom of expression is never a total freedom, as all other freedoms are never total freedoms: they are all limited by the normal restrictions of civility.

A documentary program on Belgian TV exposed some shocking evidence of ignorance, detected at both Europeans and European-born muslems, of what a Western, European society actually is supposed to be. Some Europeans simply say that islam as a religion automatically encompasses terrorism, and feel betrayed by their government which does not appear to want to protect them against 'islamization', by which is meant a future under illegal, foreign, aggressive rule. So, they fall into the trap of the extremist rightwing political parties who exploit such sentiments. The reality that millions of muslems all over the world do not particularly pick-out certain jihadist passages from the koran but live according to the other bulk, has escaped them. Then you have the well-meaning muslems, born in Europe, who want 'a discussion with the non-muslems on an even level, as between two equally legitimate view points about the world and society, as equals' to make mutual understanding possible. This latter opinion implies that on one hand, you have secular, non-muslem society and on the other, muslem society. But that is not the reality at all and should never be thought as reflecting in any way what it means to live as a muslem in Europe. Secular, European society postulates that it forms a framework based on a set of civilizational norms and values and hence, rules, to which every citizen has to conform, whatever their religion, ethnicity, gender, hair colour or amorous interests. This framework leaves culture and religion free to be practized, in sofar as they do not violate the overall framework. Where a culture or religion clashes with this framework,  they have to adopt to the framework which will have to take priority.

The crazy thought that an islamic view point of society should be, within Europe, on an equal footing with European secular view of society, results from the very different history of islam which never went through a process of separating religion from the state, as happened in Europe. Since islam is not merely a religion but also a way of life and a culture, the idea that you can make such distinctions may thus be quite difficult for serious muslems. It is a notion that will have to be accepted by anyone, living in Europe, and thus also including muslems. They are in the same position as jews, catholics, protestants, bhuddists, jehova witnesses and what you have.

Such a relationship between a secular, civilizational framework and culture / religion is not negotiable, because both the ignorant generalizations by non-muslems and claims of European muslems that their religion be treated as an alternative paradigm to the European civilizational framework, fuel conflict, and not understanding. Locals will feel threatened - and rightly so - if an islamic paradigm is presented as a possible, equally valid alternative view of society to the one they are born into, it would be a gesture of intrusion. And European muslems who, with comparable justification, don't want to be treated as 'second class citizens', will have to adapt to the overall framework to be able to function fully as Europeans claiming their rights, and such adaptation leaves ample space for religious adherence - which, in reality, is also practiced by the millions of muslems all over the world who sustain a civilized way of life. So, much - maybe all - of the irritation and rubbing which is felt all over Europe between a secular, post-christian society and muslem communities, is the result of ignorance and misunderstanding on both sides what religion is and should be, and what a secular Western society / civilization is and should be.

The mentioned framework is based upon universal civilizational values and leaves enough space for any culture and religion to florish under its vaults.... If ever, in some faraway future, there will be world peace and a harmonious living together of all the different cultures on this planet, it will be because this framework will have been created everywhere.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Abstraction

Much of physical reality is gradually disappearing into the internet.

The only truly functional advantage of the internet is an extra means of both information and communication (electronic contacting goes quicker than the mail, but is less intruding than a telephone call). Transferring the usual means of information and communication (books, letter writing, telephone) into electronic media alters, through its channelling and presentation, the nature of that which is communicated. Hence the general increase of information together with a general decrease of understanding. When society forces its communication channels into electronic means, reality suffers, and this is also affecting people's understanding of reality, because the abstract representation of reality changes its experience.

Killing another person with a sword, requires a number of emotional and mental attitudes which are entirely in accord with the abject deed; pushing a button so that somewhere else thousands of people will die immediately, 'liberates' the perpetrator from direct contact with the results of his deed. But also in daily life (at least: in the West), the increasing abstraction through technology harms the experience of reality: banks forcing clients to surrender to internet banking, government institutions no longer sending letters and documents physically but only through the internet, shops refusing physical money and force clients to pay electronically, and the plans heard occasionally to make books, paper documents, real money to disappear entirely. Book shops are disappearing, as well as music shops, so that the opportunity of freewheeling, looking around and touching possible books or CD's for possible buying, which is an important part of exploring possible extensions of one's collections, is disappearing. All those developments have a negative influence on people's awareness of reality, of mental and emotional development, and on culture. It is part of the utopian urge of a restricted sense of modernity to do away with things of the past, whatever their merits, and turn the world into some large imitation of science fiction décor with an ever more differentiated technology, the desire of creating the new human being unhindered by heritage. Of course we know that such developments end, eventually, in fascism, totalitarianism, destruction of the human mind and spirit.

'I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.' Albert Einstein

In the arts, one sees already the intrusion of 'electronic means' replacing the capacities and craft of artists. The results are not better than before, but can more easily parade as artistic things before a public which is already digitalized and thus, alienated from reality.

Modern technology is in its sophistication too much ahead of the level of acculturation of a majority of people. The pyramid of human intelligence and sophistication shows that the greater numbers are found at the bottom, so that both democracy and wild capitalism will make sure that barriers to their inroads into the human spirit will be removed. Hence the odd combination of a rising populism with increasing electronization, the two trends are interlinked. Abstraction comes to the aid of such aggressors, because its negative effects are not noticed by the masses. It is to be hoped that the same technology which forms a threat to human civilization, will also help to create the necessary resistance, as long as it is understood as a means to an end and not an end in itself (abstraction as a symbol of progressiveness, disconnected from its function). If society becomes entirely dependent upon the internet, it will become its hostage, and will create immense damage. That is not so difficult to understand - a mere power cut completely lames its functioning, and if fuel shortages intervene, societies may even collapse, because there would not be back-up systems to sustain their viability.

Futurism and dementia

“We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.”

The devaluation of 'the past' in so many of its forms, means that important lessons are forgotten and precious knowledge, which transcends time and place because they are related to universal human experience, is lost, and that people re-invent the wheel again and again. It is one of the destructive characteristics of what we best call 'conventional modernity', an overall mood of enthusiasm for what is not yet there, for total freedom unhindered by the usual human limitations and the necessities thrown-up by reality, in short: an immature mind set, permeating the whole of Western society, and which has turned into convention and 'received wisdom'. For arriving at a 'true modernity', i.e. one which is rooted in both reality and the awareness of the human condition, a modernity focussing on improvement instead of newness, it may be helpful to remember Cicero's saying that who refuses to know the past will forever remain a child.

Ironically, the usual, collective mindset of modernity is much like dementia: gradually the past, and thus any elements of identity, are forgotten, without something taking their place. It is a created dementia, entirely self-destructive. But it has long roots in that very past, as this interesting article in The New Statesman shows: