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.