Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Classical music as symbolism

With his Divan orchestra, Daniel Barenboim shows how equality before a common goal creates cooperation and reconciliation between cultural and political enemy camps. He says, that Israel will only be safe after justice has been done to the Palestinians. Thinking this symbolism through, one arrives at the conclusion that the only solution of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the creation of a new country in which both groups have equal rights and equal shares in the benefits of Israel's Westernized society. This would mean a secular society run on the rule of law, human rights, individual freedom of both culture and religion, in combination with a strict protection of a safe public space. A new name for this new state would be an appropriate symbol of renewal - Judea?

But an orchestra can only function within a strict discipline of a professional, time-tested tradition, and led by a leader. Only through the application of a functional framework, such reconciliation between enemy groups can develop. Democratic orchestras without conductors inevitably descend into discord and incapacity to reach professional standers - some rare examples excepted.

The brutal reactions in these days by the Israeli army: shooting unarmed protesters against the occupation, further undermines any justification of claims of legitimacy of the Israeli people. The waiting is for new generations who are prepared to get rid of ever-bleeding wounds from the past and turn historical experience into something constructively new and just.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Identity politics and hyperliberalism

"The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion. Parallels with the new humanity envisioned by the Bolsheviks are obvious."

Thus an interesting article in the Times Literary Review by John Gray. If freedom from traditions go hand in hand by selective deconstruction of identity (exclusively exercised on traditional values, not on minorities), the result is the tyranny of bland conformity, because every individual is different and in the same time, somehow similar. How the human mind creates the very result it set out to overcome:

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The lessons of history

"Our preoccupation with the last war, as revealed in films such as 'Dunkirk', is to him striking: 'It seems to express a mood, and yet a lot of things that have happened recently have done so because the generation that is running the world has no memories of it. The world we grew up in was created by people who were terrified the war could happen again, and they tried to make sure it wouldn’t. Less nationalism, more cooperation. Now real fascist rhetoric is creeping back into the mainstream. The old taboos are fading because of lost memory.'"

Ian Buruma - current editor of the New York Review of Books - in a recent interview in The Guardian.

With the last century gradually eroding in the memory of so many ignorant, uneducated people, oblivious of history and suffering from a failed education, old ghosts come back to haunt us. This is not a normal process, but a dangerous accelleration of the usual generational forgetfulness: in a society obsessed with utopia and progress (progress as getting forward on the time line of history, not progress in terms of improvement), the lessons of history get lost, and history may be repeating itself.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Fluctuating stasis

"If there is such a thing as the march of history in music, it is certainly not a uniform movement; on the contrary, the more closely it is examined the more it is seen to be varied, tumultuous, and contradictory. There are always individuals and groups who are out of step: some drag back, some press forward ahead of the crowd, some move in other than what seems to be the prevailing direction. Moreover, each individual, if his work is of any significance at all, has something to say that is unique and that cannot be adequately subsumed under any general description of the period."

Donald  Jay Grout in 'A History of Western Music', WW Norton & Co, New York / London 1980, page 401.

In the light of this common-sense observation, any prescriptive idea about how contemporary music should sound, can be considered uninformed and totalitarian.

But Grout still looks upon history as if on a time line, with a 'forward', and thus also a 'backward', so that the composer who is presenting something original and unusual, is seen as producing something 'new' on the time line, instead of something original in the context of his historic environment. So, Debussy is 'avantgarde' in the context of his time, while it would be better to see his work as something very original. The confusion of historical placing and artistic value and meaning has created the absurdity that works are judged artistically according to their being 'new' on the historic time line, instead of their intrinsic value.

For instance, Stravinsky's Octet is often hailed as a groundbreaking work leading into his neoclassical period, giving it an importance which is partly the result of its historic placing. But is it a good work on its own accord? Stravinsky has expressed himself very positively about Satie, because he gave him a couple of hints for his neoclassical aesthetic (although he could not bear Satie's regularity), and compared Ravel negatively to Satie by labelling him (Ravel) as conventional. What a blunder.... Ravel is an infinitely more gifted artist than Satie, whose limitations shaped his originality. The artistic qualities and personal character of Ravel's work should, by now, not be subject to doubt: almost all of his works are original master pieces. But Satie seemed to explore an aesthetic which became trendy in the Parisian twenties, so his position on the time line gave him a reputation not altogether balanced by the musical substance of his works.

The same problem with Wagner: 'Tristan' is considered the non plus ultra of premodernism, leading towards atonality, while 'Meistersinger' and 'Parsifal' are often suggested as being 'less important' in comparison because their idiom does not match Tristan's extraordinary chromaticism. But 'Meistersinger' could also be considered the result of a restorative impulse, with its neobaroque elements, and 'pointing towards' the postmodern situation as predicted by Leonard B. Meyer in his 'Music, the Arts, and Ideas' where he describes the future of 20C music as probably resulting in a situation of a 'fluctuating stasis', a bold idea when the book was written: 1967, when modernism raged through music life. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London). In a fluctuating stasis, aesthetic ideas bubble-up and take-on some prominence for a while, only to withdraw into the background of public awareness again to make place for other ideas, and all of them circulate within a cultural field which can be best described, metaphorically, as a space in which historical possibilities freely float to be reworked and/or developed free from historical determination.

The German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) came-up with the idea of a 'Kugelform der Zeit', a metaphor where all different times exist together in one mental space, without a 'time line'. He tried to realize this in his controversial opera 'Die Soldaten', which is a twelve-tone 'Totaltheater' where indeed things happen simultaneously - a rather literal interpretation of his idea. But the timelessness of his Kugelform idea touches on an a-historical vision which may only become better understood in the 21st century: nowadays, with so many sources of information being accessible, many different approaches of 'contemporary music' are being written and presented, in which what happened in history is repeated, developed, interpreted, reworked, restored, - including postwar modernism (sonic art), surprisingly. But it is a truly good prospect if pluralism is more widely accepted and works judged according to their artistic merits instead of their style or historic references.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Belgian integration experiment

The current political tensions in Europe are no longer the usual little tremors structurally part of democratic processes, but signify the important question about the future of the continent. The difficult relationship with Russia, the apparent withdrawel of the USA, Great Britain's exit from the EU, are all part of this pandora's box, but the most troubling is how to deal with the many immigrants - both the millions of second and third generation of (mostly muslem) immigrants and the many newlings, fugitives from war and devastation. As we know, the regular islamist attacks within Europe keep it awake to this ongoing, disruptive problem, fuelling the destructive influence of rightwing extremist parties (supported by Russia). The integration of non-European immigrants, people coming from countries with a very different cultural and political history, is thus one of the most important challenges for a Europe if it wants to preserve its character in the future.

Belgium has, so far, produced the greatest number of young muslem men who went to Syria to fight for IS, an embarrassing proof of an enormous failure of integration: where immigrant groups feel completely excluded from society and locked-up in an existence of poverty, destitution and isolation, without hope on a normal life, the morally underdeveloped of this group are vulnerable to a narrative which seems to answer all the longings which have been so drastically frustrated by experience. No doubt, one has to be very primitive to begin with and carry around a burning, vengeful need to destroy, to believe the archaic nonsense of those diabolical 'warriors for Islam'. But integration in a society where people will feel accepted as anybody else and with similar chances, will raise the treshold to destructive violence considerably.

An interesting experiment in the Belgian town of Mechelen appears to demonstrate the obvious solution. The town has a large immigrant community, mainly consisting of muslem families, and a ruling party: Open vld - Groen, which has provided the mayor, Bart Somers, who has developed a strategy to counter the incredible problem of many towns and cities in Belgium where hundreds (!) of young men have gone to Syria to help IS. This strategy is an example for every community in Europe. There are two lines of action: a) an intense educational program at all schools about civilized behavior, the development of social awareness and skills, and wide-spread sports programs where children learn to deal with each other and handle difference and freedom; and b) a zero tolerance strategy towards disruptive behavior both in public space and at schools across the board, with lots of police officers monitoring streets and markets, and with two police officers related to every school who immediately come-in where pupils misbehave and, when necessary, arrests are made. This policy has been in operation for many years, and while other towns have produced many disaffected youngsters going to Syria, Mechelen had none, and most people appear to be very happy about the improvements in public space. Of course, chances on employment have to fulfil the promises of the program, but it appears that this is working as well. The process does not touch the cultural customs of immigrant families, which - of course - are unrelated to the radicalisation of disaffected youngsters, and prepare young people for living as Europeans, being part of a society type which is universal, based upon enlightenment values, human rights, tolerance and hence: a protected individual freedom. Only in such way can European society be preserved for the future.

If culture as such can freely live under the umbrella of a secular, enlightenment society, would not the typical European culture as it has developed over the ages: its visual arts, architecture and music, disappear? As we know, this character has already disappeared in every cultural field in terms of new creation, and only its museum culture (the museums, the architectural monuments, the musical institutions like orchestras and opera houses) are kept alive through subsidies (mainly) and sponsoring (sporadically). If this heritage is to survive the 21C troubles, and - maybe - provide an impulse for a Renaissance, understanding the richness and meaning of this heritage should be a natural part of such educational programs as being practised in Mechelen, and it should be an important part of the policies of the European Union. The Mechelen way of treating the integration problem is a hopeful sign that it is indeed possible to find a fruitful solution to the problem.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Value and success

"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives." Albert Einstein

What would be, in our days and in music life, the relationship between value and success?

In a world where value is eroding, chances on success are slim. Chasing success then inevitably means: neglecting value, because worldly success requires that one gives the world what it wants, instead of what it needs - that would be value. But there are quite some musicians who square the circle and are successful by dedicating themselves to value. How can that be? In those cases, it becomes clear that it is not the conventional trajectory that has been followed, but an independent one expressing the artist's innate individuality and identity. Inevitably, they arouse both enthusiasm and controversy. But they have been able to convince enough people that they offer something that they need, and that is an instinctive, not a rational or worldy process. But how can that be, in a world where value is eroding? In music life, the existing repertoire trains the listener and the performer in value, because that was the reason this music survived the ever changing, superficial historical circumstances and ephemeral fashions. And this training is entirely instinctive. Thus it forms an emotional and aesthetic learning trajectory, relatively independent from worldly concerns.

Obviously, I am talking about performers here, not composers.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Music education: an invisible loop

How does commercial materialism destroy human capital? And how is it related to the erosion of culture? A good example is the contemporary way universities are, in general, run. The university’s relatively new status as a business means that it desperately needs students, and that it will feel the need to make it as easy as possible for everyone, anyone, to enrol. This results in lowering standards all around, the neglect of subjects which don't promise future quick financial profits (but which are crucial for the development of a mature, sophisticated, educated person), and the inevitable devaluation of degrees. Instead of the formation of educated and cultured people before they enter society - 'Bildung' - universities produce more or less functioning cogwheels in the big machine of 'the market', the 'place' where everything in life is measured according to its price and nothing to its value. In the market place there are no 'goods' that are an absolute value in themselves, but there are only prices.

Culture can only exist as a value in itself, otherwise it is not culture. Value in itself presupposes distinction, the notion that there are things that are better than other things, not based upon their price but upon their value; on this idea the whole concept of human civilizational development is based. The conservatories and music faculties in the West, offering musical education in both practical musicianship, theory and composition, are thus facing a dilemma: producing more musicians than can find a position in the central performance culture or the new music circuit, is necessary to keep the institution on the rails, and producing many more composers than can ever make a living on composing or/and find public recognition through performances, may seem to safeguard the art form's status, but on the expense of young lives getting stuck.

While young performers can, with great effort, possibly find a place in ensembles or orchestras, young composers who are supposed to contribute to the art form are left in the dark, unless they find a way into the community which makes-up, in every country, the 'new music circuit' which is kept upright by artifical means: state subsidies, special community programs, private donations by people or businesses interested in a touch of 'contemporaneity' to enhance their status or brand. Within the circuit, aesthetic and ideological myths form the filter which makes sure that aspiring newcomers conform to the indoor climate, which needs to assert itself against the 'bourgeois, commercial' classical performance culture; here, modernism and its watery progeny mixed with pop is of great help. Here we see a connection between materialist market forces and fake idealism: the low level of 'totally free' modern music mores makes it easy to teach at the educational institutions which need as many students as possible, who - after their educational trajectory - flock to the island of the circuit which is the only place where eager young composers could hope to find a safe haven, but where they will have to conform to aesthetic standards which are nowhere explicitly stated but are nonetheless functioning as they are functioning in any community which feels threatened by an 'indifferent or hostile world'. So, the more easy musical education is made to allow great numbers of young people to enter the institutions, the more members will populate the modern music circuits, which will increasingly give the impression to the outside world of a florishing art community, without any means to assess the real artistic value because all the forces at work are determined by market forces, overtly or covertly. The irony is, of course, that the usual contemporary music aesthetic is supposed to be an expression of pure artistic idealism as a contrast to the base, bourgeois and materialist society; in reality it is a product of the very market forces that it claims to counter.

How could this situation be improved or solved? I think the only possible way to reduce market forces is to tackle the problem at the beginning of the trajectory: education. An artistic framework is necessary to create a mental territory where artistic, and not market forces determine a student's development. Then, there has to be a link between the educational period and the practical one, which directs the attention to the only musical place where artistic standards are still in place, albeit beleagered by the very same market forces: the traditional, central performance culture. The logical conclusion is, that education of budding composers can only be functional if related to this culture, in the same way as instrumentalists are prepared for concert life. In this way, an alternative could be created to the meaningless loop of useless, market-driven mythology that still defines so much  contemporary music in the 21st century, and the central performance culture could then be injected with new life in accordance to its own culture so that it may develop and create connections with real, contemporary life.

Invisible for audiences, and often also for the musicians, the orchestral circuit is under many threatening pressures: the financial one (market forces), the political one (state subsidies being dependent upon political programs), the ideological one (classical music 'no longer being relevant enough for contemporary society'), so that the subject of contemporary music seems to be entirely futile to the orchestra's survival. Focussing on the core reason of its existence: its value as an absolute good to the benefit of society as a whole, may open the doors to the awareness that new music which relates to its performance culture and its artistic values, can actually help the institution to survive in difficult times. The same goes for the educational institutions, but there, the idea that standards have to be independent from the number of students that enrol, will inevitably require serious sacrifices which may have unwelcome consequences for staff and institution. As is now the case, often the existence of the educational institutions is based upon the sacrifices the students are unwittingly making - not to speak of the art form itself - but the location where sacrifices have to be made, is obviously at the institution.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Stoking fear

"11 November 2017. Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. The police estimated that 60,000 people marched in the largely young crowd. Many chanted ‘Fatherland’, their banners read: ‘White Europe’, ‘Europe Will Be White’ and ‘Clean Blood’.  The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the marchers had flown in from Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, and waved flags and symbols that those countries used during their wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Polish state television called the procession a ‘great march of patriots’."

A populist neo-nationalism based upon ignorance of history is bubbling-up at many places in Europe. This shows the importance of knowledge about history, understanding the past, and learning from it. Also, the fact that so many immigrants have become Europeanized, showing that culture is independent from ethnicity, nationality, religion even, is not understood enough. It merely takes a couple of generations to completely diffuse any strongly anti-European feelings among immigrant communities, and this has nothing to do with wearing head scarves.

This is where culture and the understanding of what it is, becomes crucial, as well as the understanding of what European civilization is supposed to be. Rightwing extremist parties in Europe lay the groundwork for fascist outbursts and the destruction of the European idea: its civilizational and cultural unity, and its ability to build bridges and to accomodate differences between groups.

"The fear of immigrants threatens to destroy the very social and political fabric, culture, tradition, religion and way of life that Europeans want to protect."

Culture, in the sense of offering a humanist narrative, should counter these tendencies wherever it can.  


Addendum 20/2/18:

An interesting review of 'Europe's Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right' by Liz Fekete throws further light on the issue. The author convincingly asserts that the dismantling of the welfare state has put a strain on all Europeans and, instead of questioning the policies that brought this about, they have joined rightwing politicians in blaming people they see as “scroungers.” (quote)

These strains are felt strongest among the people who did not share in the economic 'boom' before 2008 which benefitted 'the cosmopolitan elites', so: the poor 'whites' and the disenfranchised populations in the countryside who feel their 'normality' being threatened, vote for extremists as a protest and hope for reform.

What we witness here however, is the lowest of the lowest sentiments, crawling like rats from their holes where they have been lounging for decades - when being marginalized by the world above - and now, with the help of the new communication gadgets, demand power in the public arena:

When New Right leaders promise a return to the strong welfare state of the past, they do so under the condition that it be ethnically and racially bounded. With this modification, they enforce a range of patriarchal, racist, and homophobic values that draw on “noble” ideals of purity and national honor, whether they look to the Third Reich, the dream of a Greater Hungary (that would stretch into Romania and Slovakia), the male-led family “uncontaminated” by gender equality or tolerance for gay and queer people, pre-Ottoman Balkan Christianity, or pure-blooded Viking masculinity. Such visions are often, it seems, accompanied by torch wielding men and border militias with attack dogs. (quote)

The barbarians in our midst. The only remedy is a) a much stronger civilizational and cultural instruction and information effort across the board of the educational systems; and b) the strongest possible enforcement of law based upon the modern Enlightenment values of social democracy like equality and civil citizenship, which have been established in the West, with ups and downs, but with the greatest efforts, over the last two hundred years, and which have not been finished and internalized enough in the lower strata of European society.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Academic speaking out

"Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences. What is formed in colleges and universities over decades shows up for better or worse in the character and quality of our public servants, political campaigns, public-policy debates, citizen participation, social capital, media programming, lower school education, consumer preferences, business ethics, entertainments, and much more. And the long-term corrosive effects on politics and culture can also be repaired only over the long term, if ever. There are no quick fixes here. So I do not speak in hyperbole by saying that our accumulated academic BS puts at risk decent civilization itself."

Thus Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame (USA), at the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It will be clear that art music, being part of what has been called 'the humanities', is part of the same context, not only in the USA but also in Europe.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018