In the autumn of 2014, I was contacted by one of the Dutch national newspapers for an interview in their cultural supplement, as a result of the publication of my book ‘The Classical Revolution’ in the USA, of which some information seems to have reached a Dutch journalist (the book had been published in 2013). Initially, the text of this interview was deemed much too long and was considerably shortened, after which the editorial staff, after some hesitation, decided to not publish it. The reasons given were: too outspoken, too critical about the musical establishment, too subjective and not sufficiently relating to current trends in culture. This last complaint seemed to refer mainly to Holland.
Since I thought that the text still offered some interesting wrestling with ‘current trends’ and ‘received wisdom’, throwing a light upon a couple of conventions that have settled in postwar music life, it is presented here in its original, unabridged form. Permission was given by the newspaper to mention its origins, on the condition that the name of the newspaper were not given, and the interviewer implored me to keep a silence about himself as well as not to undermine his promotion perspectives, as he put it. Later additions by me, intended for clarification, are put [in square brackets]. English translation is my own.
A SILENT REVOLUTION?
A paradoxical book explores old traditions
In 2013, composer John Borstlap’s short book: ‘The Classical Revolution’, was published by the ‘Scarecrow Press’ in New York. It enjoyed a mixed reception, with quite some positive reactions here and there, some harshly negative ones, a devastating article in the German ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik’, and an extensive, rather positive discussion, chapter by chapter, on the site of the ‘Neue Musik Zeitung’, another respectable German publication. In Holland, the book went entirely unnoticed until now, which may be due to its choice of language. After some phone calls, we visit the composer in the leafy quarter of Amsterdam where he lives, in a very quiet street with acacia trees. A quite tall man with a ring of white hair and professorial glasses opens the door and leads us up a flight stairs to a light apartment, stuffed with books, papers, files, old furniture and a small upright piano, looking-out on a balcony with a view on lots of greenery. The friendly, soft-spoken composer, in oldfashioned tie and jacket, gives the impression of not really being part of the house but coming from somewhere else for the occasion. But no, he really lives here, in fact in one single room where everything has to be done: living, working, conducting the contacts with the musical world.
Journalist: Mr Borstlap, your book was received positively by some conservative magazines, and quite negatively by the Neue Zeitschrift. Is it a conservative book?
JB: By no means. The demarcation of conservative versus progressive, or rather: the way it is nowadays interpreted, stems from the last century and does no longer, I think, apply to today. In my opinion, what I do as a composer, and what meanwhile also some other composers are doing nowadays, is progressive in the sense that it is a step forwards from a deplorable situation in the field of new music towards a better situation. I don’t believe in the abstract concept of progress for its own sake. I believe that something is progressive if it is better than something else, and not the other way around, that something is better because of being progressive. That is the misunderstanding of the last century, a simple but catastrophic one, and that is what I tried to explain in the book.
So, you are not a conservative composer? But you compose in a style that is no longer contemporary.
I am not conservative, because I do not conserve anything, but I am a traditionalist. By that I mean that I find the concept of tradition not something that is enclosed in a box, or in a cupboard, to be venerated, like in a museum, but a living process. Art does not progress but it changes, and that is the only development there is in the arts, and in music. Vermeer has not been superseded by Picasso and Bach not by Boulez…. seems very obvious to me.
In the book, you take a lot of space to debunk modernism. Was modernism not a fully understandable and legitimate development? After all, it has become established as the typical, unique expression of the 20th century.
I think it was an understandable development in the light of the Second World War, it was a reaction to trauma. I tried to explain what the difference is between music and sound art, as there is a difference between the visual arts like painting, which is figurative, and concept art, which is something fundamentally different.
But obviously you don’t like modernism, atonal music, and so on, and a lot of other things as well…
That’s true… but that has not stopped me to try to understand the reasons why modernism came into being. These reasons are much more interesting than the results, which I really find far inferior to the European tradition of music as it still flourished at the beginning of the last century. It is perfectly legitimate to have good reasons for not liking modernism, one is not forced to like it or to approve of it. All this talk about progress, the infinite range of possibilities which became available to composers, and so on, are really nothing but propaganda and ideology. It’s true that many more possibilities became available, in a technical sense, but that is all on the material level…. The results were most of the time aesthetically and psychologically flawed and that was covered-up with ideology, in my opinion, hardly ever by honest theory which is a different thing. That it was ideology can be seen from the way critique was sidelined: if people protested against unpalatable new music and came forth with arguments against its theories and philosophies, and against all these intrusions into a normal concert context, they were simply called conservative and not ready for the new music of the 20th century. If people came-up with serious, well-argued objections, they were sidelined or ignored. So, honest discussion was not possible and was never intended by the modernist camp, which was characterized by revolutionary fervour, not by reasonable exploration. So, bad new music could not exist, because: how could you know?
You think that most of it was bad indeed.
No, I don’t think that, I’m convinced of that… and not only me: professionals in the central performance culture have already established that sad fact long ago – and not because they were conservative. They were practical. The book explains why the cutting-off from traditional concepts, practices, and structural ideas, opened the doors to people who never should call themselves composers. A really new art came into existence: sound art, or sonic art, it had nothing to do with music, that is: as the art form has been understood from its earliest beginnings.
And that was on the basis of tonality, as you say in the book.
Yes, that should be obvious. Tonality is not a manmade system but a natural resonance of relationships between tones, upon which man has constructed a system, or various systems, if you also count the medieval modes and non-European musical traditions….
…. which makes music understandable for the listener.
… indeed, it forms the bridge of understanding. In fact, I say nothing new or spectacular in the book, but I put the obvious things that any intelligent person can see, or rather hear, together, and it forms a critique upon the way new music has developed in the last century and how it was, and still is, looked upon. All those people growing-up with modernist ideologies in their head have acquired positions in the modern music scenes almost everywhere in the West, where they exercise their influence based upon their claims that they know something about music.
How is this not just a subjective opinion… it’s just not your taste and thus, you think it is bad.
But you have to look at the arguments. That’s where my book is about. There is sonic art which I think is really good, like Morton Feldman’s, and if you listen to Boulez with sonic, not musical ears, it’s often really nice, I would say: aesthetically pleasing. A bit boring after a while. And extremely boring after a long while. All the effort, the creativity if you want, is in the surface, on the level of pure sound, the material level.
Composers like Strauss and Debussy also wrote music with complex, very colourful sound surfaces.
Yes, but it was all subjected to musical dynamics. There are pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky which are very dissonant and include passages of almost pure sonic quality, but always in a musical context, and that context is always tonal. It is the tonal context which gives musical meaning to the sound it uses as a vehicle and that can include atonal elements, that is: sounds without tonal focus points.
This discussion about tonal versus atonal…. has it not fizzled-out already long ago? I think in the seventies that opposition had itself played-out and composers began to include tonal quotes.
Whatever tonal quotes were used at the time, for instance by Berio in his Sinfonia, was always treated conceptually, the context was never tonal but atonal, like a collage by Rauschenberg with bits of newspaper or photos stuck onto it, as fragments from another, non-abstract world. This conflict between two fundamentally different types of context really lies at the heart of the problem of 20C music, I think, and it has nothing to do with conservative versus progressive.
And them came minimal music….
…. which was a breath of fresh air! And it has developed in complex forms like the later music of John Adams.
So, is minimal music, then, traditional?
To me it seems that it is traditional in the sense that it is tonal, but it has some characteristics of atonal modernism in the sense that it is often mechanical, with a bland surface, it does not use the great variety of expressive means that, for instance, Shostakovich used. I must say I love Arvo Pärt, which is partly minimal music and partly a personal evocation of medieval music. I think it is great stuff and a very courageous creation, his music, some pieces are profoundly moving, with absolutely minimal means, but very very effective. It could only be effective because he makes use of tonality, the interrelatedness of the tones which make-up the piece. A piece like Fratres gives the lie to thousands of pretentious modernist atonal scores.
About your own music. It has not been performed often, as far as I can say. Does that bother you?
After the second world war, many young composers developed a sphere, entirely separated from the central performance culture, because they wanted to begin from scratch. It became modern music as fundamentally different from music already in existence. Although sometimes new pieces were played in the central performance culture, they never took root there if they were not complying with the fundamentals of music. So we got contemporary music as an independent genre. But I never tried to make a career there, I write for the central performance culture, for the normal, regular concert practice, where a deep scepticism and resistence to contemporary music has to be overcome, and of course I meet that a priori resistence as well, before I can explain that my music is very different. In the past, there has been a great confidence and trust towards contemporary works, but modernism’s claims have destroyed that. So, my work is intitally treated with the same suspicion. I am doing things that not many people are interested in, as yet. And you can only do that if you have some kind of musical vision. You can also write what is being asked by the modern scene, but I don’t find that very interesting. You write for that scene to make a career, and if you do something else, you are in the streets, so to speak. On the upside it has given me the freedom to develop ideas, both musically and philosophically, unhindered by considerations that are not musical in themselves. But recently, I got some interesting feedback abroad, so I don’t complain. Music does not age, like modernism…. like sonic art. All my earlier pieces are still there, alive and kicking. And there is some satisfaction in seeing that my ideas were not some sort of excentric paranoia, but that they were much ahead of their time, since nowadays more and more composers, and musicians and listeners as well, come to comparable conclusions. But I have to add – not so much in the Netherlands.
What is, or was, the relation to the Dutch new music scene? In the book, you tear it to pieces… it can be read as a revenge action for not being accepted in Holland.
It is not revenge, but merely observation. That scene merely existed, as everywhere else, separated from the central performance culture, because the new music at the time that violated all kinds of musical fundamentals was not accepted in that culture. And even nowadays, when much new music has lost most of its inaccessibility and harshness, it does not get much hearing, because it often falls very short of the artistic standards still more or less in place in music life. I mean: the regular concert life. I don’t want to go into that much, for I don’t want to get angry people on the phone again, but I never found that scene in Holland very interesting. It was a group cult, led by people I would not respect, in professional terms – people like Reinbert de Leeuw who specializes, as a conductor, in unmusical works, and in earlier days thought of himself of being a composer…. All this historicist thinking… a new era has come upon us… conventions were broken…. talents freed from authoritarian suppression by bourgeois elites… all that leftish paranoia and when you hear the results, most of it was really very bad. Nothing remains of that kind of thing. The problem I have with that scene is that it got control over the funding of commissions and that should never have happened, a small group of untalented people parading as the local avantgarde laying-down norms for other composers, that is absurd, it is Soviet-style totalitarianism. The really gifted composers, in Holland, are not part of the so-called establishment that is considered representative of Dutch new music, which it is not. And then I think of people like Joost Kleppe, Robert Zuidam, Joep Franssens, Jeff Hamburg, Roel van Oosten, Bart Visman, Theo Verbey, or the older Hans Kox, they are the composers who are the real representatives of Dutch contemporary music, and they are all composers who use one or other form of tonality and they all write really good music with a traditional perspective… all in very different ways, but still.
Do these composers form a group, or a movement?
No, they are all individualistic composers. Once I had set-up a small group together with Jeff Hamburg and Joep Franssens, and we campaigned for a better and more fair funding system, which was merely partly successful because of the resistence of the new music establishment who wanted to preserve their control and privileges.
This campaigning… that was with the Composers Group Amsterdam?
Yes, but in the end it did not work-out as we had hoped. All the people running the financing foundation, and the interest groups, are imune to arguments, nobody there is interested in fairness or intelligence even. For instance, we had argued time and again that artistic quality cannot be assessed by committees made-up of interest groups, but should be left to the public space, that is: the actual concert when new music has entered the confrontation with the audience and where the party that has commissioned the work – the performers – has to take responsibility for their artistic choice, the performers have to stick-out their neck for their own artistic insight and opinion so that everybody can then make-up their own mind about the result and the quality of the judgement which had led to the commission. In other words: programmers or performers who want to commission a new piece, have to put their neck on the line for their individual, subjective artistic choices and defend them in a public concert context, and should have a budget for these commissions and not have to ask for a second assessment by a committee which have, of course, other ideas and other interests. That is what artistic freedom means. For a short while, the fund wavered and took out some of the requirements directed at quality assessment, but after that glimmer of common sense they recently returned to the notion of quality control by the fund, like in the former Soviet Union. The very notion: quality control! You would not believe it… It’s not about reality or fairness or freedom, it’s exclusively about power, control and money. This subsidy system has been kidnapped by incompetent money grabbing controlfreaks without any feeling of reponsibility towards the art form. It is cultivated incompetence for very real reasons: money and power. But I must say that I am no longer interested in what is going-on in the Netherlands… it seems to me a hopelessly anti-cultural and populist country, and increasingly so, in spite of the talent that can be found here. I have given-up any polemic in Holland and work on my contacts abroad. What I do is apparently not acceptable in this country.
So, your own work stood apart from what was going-on. Wasn’t that the reason that your music could not be paid for?
In the instructions from the ministry, laid-out as the basis of how commissions should be funded, it is clearly stated that not style or idiom but quality should be the determining factor for the selection process. I always had the right to be paid for my work as any other composer in Holland who delivered professionally well-made music. But the ministry did not understand that inviting experts from the interest groups would never be able to be objective. Because these civil servants at the ministry have no clue. In Holland reality is made-up by consensus, not by intelligence or observation or understanding. I cannot deal with that kind of mental darkness and open ill-will.
That would mean that you did not fit into the local, let’s say, folklore. But this seems to have inspired you to write the book.Would you also have written this book if this sort of conflict with the modern establishment had not happened?
I think it would have been a slightly different book….. but the theme would have been the same because it is a much bigger subject than the Dutch situation. Only, in Holland modernism and its craziness could grow to absurd proportions because of all the subsidies which were pumped into it. You can compare the Dutch situation with a bacteria culture in petri dishes at a laboratory: an artificial growth boost which makes characteristics more clearly visible than in the wild. I should mention that, in terms of style, I have never ever been a Dutch composer. Formally I may be Dutch, but I never could identify with what was, and still is, considered Dutch new music. I think it is utterly uninteresting and not serious, except some remarkable individuals, as mentioned, and they are not representative of what is called the established Dutch new music scene, and that is to their credit.
You had or have no contact with composers who made a career in contemporary music, like Louis Andriessen?
Oh please… in Holland people think that Andriessen is a great composer. He writes music for people who think we still live in the sixties, as if that were the pinnacle of creativity and freedom. It is puerile anti-bourgeois stuff, as if there still were a bourgeois elite which has to be conquered on the proletarian barricades…. all those primitive protest screams against musical culture. In reality, this crazy mentality has become dominant and establishment convention, Andriessen lives on one of the Amsterdam canals, the Keizersgracht, receives much subsidy from the national music fund and that is bourgeois tax money, so I don’t see where his music has to protest against. Andriessen’s music is born from the quasi-leftish climate the young elites of the sixties in Holland thought would change the world. It’s thoroughly sentimental and it’s fake through and through, like adolescents playing revolution in the backyard. It’s one of the best examples of kitsch in contemporary music. The only established composer in Holland, if you can call that, I have contact with – is a friend actually – is Hans Kox. He is an older composer from postwar times who is a really great talent and of international stature. And of course he has been treated badly by the modernist establishment…. but that is another story. He always wrote and writes complex, often quite dissonant music – very different from my own – but always as a means of expression and that traditional attitude was anathema to the fashionable nitwits. Kox and I disagree on quite some points but we fully agree about the importance and meaning of the European musical tradition and what it means for our culture. I feel being a European composer, not a Dutch one. The current acceptance abroad of my music underlines the point.
What are these acceptances? Where, by whom?
The German orchestra Kammersymphonie Berlin has commissioned me for a classical symphony, which will probably be premiered somewhere in 2016 in Berlin. This was paid for by the Dutch subsidy system who have a special programme for commissions from abroad, but they paid under protests, and under the pressure of my lawyer. The same piece has been accepted by a well-known orchestra in Vienna, which I shall not mention, since it is still under negotiation, but of which I can at least say that it’s a great, a very great honor and in blatant contradiction with how my work is treated in Holland. Then there are the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra who gave me a shared commission for a work for the 2015/16 season, to be conducted by Jaap van Zweden, who has got a serious interest in my music. Also this is a great honor to me because Jaap is a very great man, something not fully understood in the Netherlands, he is world class. He is, after Haitink and Vonk, the greatest conducting talent Holland has produced – and in some aspects I think he is better than Haitink whom I often found rather bland….. Van Zweden’s got great and profound intensity. And some other orchestras in Germany have also expressed their interest, as has the English Chamber Orchestra. As soon as the English Chamber Orchestra has found the necessary money, they will bring an English première.
They have no money?
The orchestra is not subsidized and has to find the money for every project they do. Usually they succeed, they are a very prestigious orchestra in England with a long and impressive history. But England is an odd country… music is funded in a way, different from the continent.
What is the reason that Dutch orchestras don’t play it? I mean, your music has been performed by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra?
Yes, that was in 1990 if I remember correctly, under Hartmut Haenchen. There were four performances in the big cities and it was a success with players and audiences, but the reviews were devastating, apart from one…. The piece was Sinfonia, a reaction to Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony, but without the problems that that piece has in terms of balance – it’s for 15 instruments and includes only 5 solo strings [Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony]. I revised some of the scoring [of Sinfonia] afterwards, as is normal with a première, but could not find any interest for another performance at the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, they dropped the piece after the bad reviews like a hot potato and did not want to have anything to do with me since. Other Dutch orchestras simply were not interested, they preferred the establishment fund music which does not invoke any reaction from whatever direction. But, as we know, all that does not mean very much… I think the piece did not fit at all in the climate of the time, you had the so-called conservative regular concert practice and the so-called progressive new music scene, and this piece obviously belonged to the central performance culture but was also contemporary, not the idiom so much – fortunately – but in real terms… One critic expressed his amazement about the influence of Richard Strauss… another damned the scoring, the oldfashioned idiom, and so forth, and that it was a terribly bad piece that nobody should ever hear or play again, or something of that tone. The only positive review stressed the commercial value of the music, offending both the composer and the orchestra, since both were not thinking commercially by writing and programming it. Tragically, that critic died soon afterwards in a French marsh. I mean that literally! Since that series of performances and the reactions, I knew that in Holland I should not have high hopes.
You still believe in that piece?
Instead of going into that, I would like to stress the clash it provoked between settled categories. The piece shows that with a couple of so-called oldfashioned languages, you can still write new music of value and expression, and create something personal and in that sense, new. And by the way, this piece has been scored really well. Traditional music is referring all the time to what already exists, it has a sort of exchange with existing repertoire and adds to it, a process that is beautifully described in T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. The complaints I often get is that my music is not original, but that is not true. People listen to the material and not what is said with the material. They are brainwashed by modernist ideologies which defined such subtle and psychological categories as originality in crude, materialist terms, thereby missing the point entirely, and….. But music is not something material, it is psychological.
One cannot circumvent the materials used. Artists, composers, use materials.
True. But an artist makes choices, and that implies rejection of certain things, and acceptance of other things. These are psychological and aesthetic choices, it seems to me, not materialistic choices. The materials that are eventually used are the result of a psychological process.
To return to your Sinfonia…. How was it influenced by Schönberg? After all, he was the arch father of modernism.
Yes, but his music from before his twelve-tone system is still real music, even the wild expressionist music after the [first] Chamber Symphony. It still refers to the dynamics of tradition, that’s why it is still very expressive, also – maybe especially – in its ugliness. In my student days I greatly admired and loved the middle, expressionist Schönberg, that dark and desparate mood, it seemed to perfectly reflect adolescent Weltschmerz. But you cannot remain in that mood and thus, I later-on began to understand that there is much more life in the [first] Chamber Symphony. Schönberg himself expressed, in an interview in the thirties, that he regretted not having explored the style of this piece further because he sensed that there still were many possibilities to be found in that direction. That set me on my own trajectory of exploration and I must say, I think I found what Schönberg vaguely sensed – but he took another turn. I think Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony – it is the first, later-on he wrote a second, much less good – is his masterpiece, in a style where old and new, that is: existing traditional elements and Schönberg’s idiosyncratic treatment of these elements, and his deviations from tradition which are in fact mere extensions, find a synthesis. [In Sinfonia] I interpreted Schönberg’s interpretation differently, giving the sound more body – the scoring has a bigger string section – and the music more space. In the Schönberg the thematic material is, to my taste, too dense. I mean: it is perfect for Schönberg, I would not say this as a critique but I liked it for myself better in another way. There, the example of Strauss was very helpful.
You made the choice of being a traditional composer. What has a traditional composer to add to the existing repertoire? The repertoire is quite extensive and traditional, tradition IS the existing repertoire…
Well… I would say, an injection of new life into what otherwise would remain a museum culture. Not that there is something wrong with a museum. A museum is something living, not dead. The great museums of the Western world like the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Ufizzi, are crowded with visitors all the time, that art has become iconic… maybe a bit too much so… but it is because that art speaks to us, over immense abysses of time. We should draw conclusions from that phenomenon. But new art as a part of the museum, that is: new art related to history, tradition, be it for the visual arts or the regular concert practice, would definitely improve the meaning of the museum context, it would show that traditions are not something locked-up in history but something, like life itself, that evolves, changes, is interpreted anew time and again and thus, adds to the existing body of works. That is what I am trying to do and what I am trying to explain in my book. And now that modernism and postmodernism have eroded considerably, and there are no new ideas in sight, artists can fall back upon the thing that was always there and will be there as long as our civilization exists and that is tradition. Not as some authoritarian system but as a living practice.
That’s all very ambitious and idealistic, but it does not seem very much reflecting modern times.
I disagree…. it is very much reflecting contemporary times. Everywhere there is a longing to find things of meaning, things that contribute positively to human life, also in culture. And this is a reaction to the emptiness that modernity brings in its wake. There are more and more painters who paint figuratively, or realistically, in England and America there are architects who build classically, or at least: traditionally, also in the Netherlands nowadays – on a modest scale but still… It is all those so-called concept artists and concept composers who are thoroughly and hopelessly conventional, outdated and reactionary, chewing upon things from the sixties, and often even from the twenties, that is: what were the first modernist avantgarde trends in the twenties and at that time something periferal but its faded imitations have now acquired the crazy status of establishment, of state-supported official art and ditto music. With outdated I mean that something does not have qualities that survive the passing of time, the repeated probing of value assessment and the comparison with great artistic achievements. And as for ambition, that is very un-Dutch indeed and that explains the indifference for my work here… I think it is to be expected that after some time people get tired of the lack of substance in so much new establishment music. This reaction often takes the form of what looks like conservatism but I doubt whether that is conservatism in the real sense of the word. It is a natural reaction to emptiness. The increasing popularity in Holland of writers like Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple and Thierry Baudet – who edited two books on the subject – to mention two old men and one young man, it is all the result of the need to find value. [See addendum nr 3, 16/3/17 underneath.]
Doesn’t art need to reflect its own time? Can, then, the lack of value in contemporary life not be the very contemporary subject for art? At least, that would be authentic and honest…. Going-back to styles of the past, how can that be authentic? The critique upon much new tonal music and new realist painting is, that it is imitation, not the real thing, because styles are borrowed from the past.
Very much of the new music we hear today and has been composed very recently, is using styles borrowed from the past, from the sixties. I don’t see why that sort of looking-back is acceptable and looking-back a bit further, to a better time, is not. The difference is not something in terms of time scale but [in terms of] culture. The sort of critique I sometimes get, always comes from the quarters who still believe in the linear development of art, an inevitable drive defined by internal workings of the art forms themselves to which the artists have to submit. That comes from Hegel, and it has always seemed nonsense to me…. it has mostly functioned as an excuse for conformism and lack of invention. And it is also strongly influenced by science, which made immense progress since 1800. That has given the idea to artists, to composers, that music was something that was developing as science develops, continuously improving itself. Which is nonsense of course, Bach and Beethoven have not been improved upon. This linear thinking has also resulted in a kind of paternalistic looking-down upon past achievements by modernist composers and their advocates, as if they were standing on a high mountain top, looking into the valley where the villagers don’t know better, and their efforts not being more than nice and charming, like the attempts of children trying to overcome their limitations. Of course you must be very untalented and unmusical to have that sort of opinions, and modernist music proves the point. And the idea that internal dynamics of the musical language would demand certain developments from composers, is nonsensical. Throughout the ages artists had to take all kinds of limitations into account but never something like internal dynamics of the art form, a historicist concept alien to artists before modern times…. In the past, whatever limitations of the art form itself existed were considered a mere given. This idea of internal dynamics is a materialistic and philosophical idea, not an artistic one. The zeitgeist is the result of what artists do, not some kind of prescriptive recipe to be followed. And then, to come back to music, if you look around and see – or rather, hear – what is nowadays composed as so-called truly contemporary music, of whatever type, and compare that with achievements of the past, then I think it will be clear that the average artistic level has gone down considerably. Even the most boring and uninteresting pieces by 19C mediocrities like Raff and Rubinstein are far better, and better made than the average contemporary mediocrities. At least they had a professional aesthetic. But if the average level goes down, why would a composer feel restricted to the limitations of his own time? If the present cannot offer things that are interesting enough to inspire your own creativity, and there is so much music available of a much higher level, then using things from the past is something like a liberation, a liberation from restrictions.
That sounds like the world upside-down, inside-out, and thoroughly conservative, the will to preserve something, in this case a practice, a method. So, you accept conservatism as a viable choice?
I have difficulty with the term, since, as said before, I do not conserve things. What I am doing is merely common sense and a practical approach: I want to be able to write good music with the best possible means that are available, that is: the means that I particularly need, to say what I have to say, musically. What strikes me as odd is that common sense and practical intelligence is something that people consider conservative – a thing of the past – what does that say of our own time? What a pity if our own time cannot produce something that can be as good as what has been created in the past.
We cannot know what is written in our own time that later-on will appear to be really good… as we do know now what was good in the past, after all the rubbish has been forgotten.
That is true. But to be able to get your own perspective, you have to make choices on the basis of what can be known, and that was also the way composers made their own decisions in the past. I think artists in the past had a better understanding of meaning, and of something like beauty, which was always a normal part of the creative process. We live in a later and so much poorer age, a much uglier age. To paraphrase the Viennese critic Karl Kraus: the best choice in today’s culture, is a beauty-smitten world that defends its wreckage.
You mentioned Scruton and Baudet, conservative writers who present themselves as such. Baudet is considered a young right-wing intellectual. Would you endorse such characterization, and how does your work relate to such trends?
Baudet is, like Roger Scruton, a well-known and self-acknowledged conservative, and although I disagree with quite a couple of ideas these people send into the world, I think it is very good that there is intelligent critique on the vaguely leftish politically-correct consensus in our egalitarian and populist society which suffocates development, ideas, and a view upon reality. For instance, I endorse the creation of an European federal state, while both Baudet and Scruton are mordicus against it. But their critique upon the current EU is just and fair, and shows how Brussels – consciously or unconsciously – tries to develop the union into a sort of corporate Soviet Union, which is despicable. It should be done in quite another way. In the long run, critique from people like Scruton may influence the electorate and this may, in due course, force politicians in the EU to reconsider their ideas and that is a good thing. Now already you see something of a positive influence as a result from the persistent ‘no’ as expressed by great majorities of the European populations.
So you are interested in politics? Where do you stand, politically?
I see good things left and right, and feel politically committed only insofar as it affects culture. It is a disgrace that the notion of culture has no place in politics in the Netherlands. Whatever is done to stimulate culture, is puerile, incompetent, and populist, and merely a façade to hide a thoroughly philistine attitude. This is the reason that top talents are driven out of the country. Because of the unholy marriage of culture and politics in the past, I mean the Second World War and the developments that led to that catastrophe, nowadays there is no serious concern in the political field about culture. Also the pluralism in the field makes it very hard to make any sensible decisions, of course, but the reluctance to cultivate tradition, a reluctance which can be found everywhere, undermines the very notion of culture. It is a general problem in the West, but in many of the European countries there still is a strong residu of traditional culture which is upheld, in spite of the egalitarian and populist forces which try to undermine it. That is why I believe that a European federal state where Europe’s cultural past forms its cultural identity, and which is used as a means to create commitment and support from the people, is the only way forward to build-up a Europe again that will believe in itself and which will inspire constructive thinking instead of the current malaise and self-doubt.
I can’t help it if such things do exist. It’s not my fault!
I just get a bit suspicious when artists talk about politics, and have grandiose ideas…
… a workable and just European Federal State is not grandiose, I think it is a necessity in the context of a globalizing and increasingly connected world. And culture should be part of that kind of idea. A Europe without its own culture is not viable, people will not have anything to emotionally, psychologically identify with. A mere bureaucratic union is sterile and unproductive, uncreative. It will suffocate people with its dead hand and that’s why there is so much resistence. Brussels is bossy but does give only things in economic terms back for its authority, and nothing that is capable of mobilizing people’s more profound commitments. In Holland there is far not enough awareness of what is going-on in these times, and what is at stake. That is why I will always support people like Baudet and Scruton, whatever their ideas, they form a necessary critique to shake-up things, especially the lazy thinking that goes for intelligence in this country. 1)
What has all this to do with music? And with new music?
Everything… A new music should be part of a much wider culture and wider interest in things that are important for our society. And here, you have your much-wished link between contemporary art and contemporary concerns. There is the economical problem and the differences between northern and southern European cultures, which have to be addressed, and the problem of cultural identity which is behind all those protests against the EU. I am for immigration, but also for assimilation of immigrants into a Leitkultur…
…. a German professor from Syrian descent, Bassam Tibi, he has lectured at Göttingen university, has coined the phrase. He, as a born muslem, tells European intellectuals and politicians that they have to support a European main culture, or Leitkultur, that is acceptable for everyone so that they can form a unifying framework within which different communities can peacefully thrive, a framework which has enough freedom and space for variety to practice your own culture. The values of a Leitkultur can be formulated and should be accepted by both the Europeans and immigrants, in a way which helps immigrants to become European. If not, Europe will fall apart in warring communities. This is symbolically reflected in the idea of a new classical music, as described in my book – to return to the subject – which also seeks a sort of Leitkultur: a framework within which all kinds of personal varieties can find a place, which is again a metaphor, or a symbol, for society as a whole with the relationships between individual and community. Extreme individuality and extreme community-commitment are both wrong, as history shows. There should be some sort of balance. This explains my own musical ideals: I write within the Leitkultur of the European classical tradition – in the widest sense – but contribute my own variation of it. I handle the musical language freely, following my own appetite and ideas. The idea of a cultural tradition is, I think, in these times a very urgent theme, and I don’t see why music should keep distant from these wider cultural questions, because they will define the Europe in which we live in the near and far future.
How does modernism fit into this idea… isn’t modernism also an individual variety of something wider and broader? Isn’t it also a sort of tradition? And has it not cast a wider net of cultures, with its absorption of non-European musical cultures, its freedom to explore other notions of music?
I see modernism – and especially postwar modernism – as the creation of new art forms, from which the psychological dimensions have been deleted. It was not a further development of the art of the past, but the creation of an entirely new idea about art, and it seems clear to me that what has been created is a new art based upon materialistic ideas. And yes, it has created its own tradition, and not a very interesting one, because it is not really something cultural. Well – you could call it cultural in the sense that we call Italian food and head scarfs cultural. But the classical tradition in Europe [in music] has strongly psychological and spiritual elements, and that is what keeps the so-called museum culture alive.
Schönberg… Kandinsky… they were full of spiritual and psychological ideas for their work.
Yes, but it remained theory, it’s not in the work itself. Therefore those first serial pieces by Schönberg and the abstract messy paintings by Kandinsky in themselves don’t communicate anything spiritual. But it is true, there was with them still an ambition to incorporate these dimensions in their work, but I don’t think they succeeded. That is, in Schönberg in his last, 12-tone period. And then, full-blown modernism only came into being after the Second World War. Read Boulez, read Xenakis… all quasi scientific myth making, and ideological, propagandistic, and defensive. As music, it’s bad, and as science it is pointless because nothing about the physical world is proven by a piece by Boulez, Xenakis or Ferneyhough or Milton Babbitt or Elliott Carter. In spite of the elaborate systems, there is no science in serial music….. there is nothing to be proven or to be predicted by analysis of serial pieces. As sonic art, it’s nice, if you like that sort of thing.
Given its early phase at the beginning of the 20th century, there is a tradition of modernism.
That is what I don’t deny, but it is not a musical tradition. The great misunderstanding is the so-called generous, tolerant, openness of so many contemporary writers on new music, which embraces everything, and I think it is out of a deeply-felt fear to be seen as conservative if they would be more critical and show more aesthetic understanding and sensitivity. Also I think many critics in the last century got anxious that they might appear in the next edition of Nicolas Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’, a collection of cricital condemnations of music that meanwhile has become the core of the classical repertoire. Modernism is the terrible reflection of a terrible age, a nightmare, a deviation from normality. New art and new music in the 21st century should try to recapture that normality and that begins with a new understanding of what a cultural tradition is, and what music as a serious art form was and should be again.
So, modernism has really, really nothing to contribute to contemporary culture?
Not in terms of music, obviously. It’s sonic art and as such it should remain at the margins of culture where it belongs and where, in fact, most of it takes place anyway. But where modernism is introduced into the central performance culture, say in an orchestral concert, that is an intrusion, chasing away audiences, frustrating players. And the crazy thing is that this type of new music, and its many weak deviations, with added ingredients from other fields, has become standard and dominating, has turned into convention, and is officially endorsed by the authorities – as far as they are willing to pay for it. Something that began as an extreme reaction, has become a bland, uninteresting establishment type of art. Younger generations are play-acting the role of the musical revolutionaries from the beginning of the last century while the context of that time has completely disappeared, and that makes it fake and kitsch.
You yourself have been called not only conservative, but also extreme sometimes, and your view points are certainly extreme and radical in comparison to what nowadays is considered contemporary music.
That’s the irony…. If you want to return to some form of normality, in the context of established new music that is often seen as radical. But in the context of the central performance culture, it is not radical at all but simply normal, the acceptance of a normal, neutral basis upon which the composer can build his music. Interestingly, this has already been predicted by Leonard Meyer [author of ‘Emotion and Meaning in Music’, 1956] who predicted somewhere in the sixties – so, in a time when the experiments went riot – that after some time, all the new and groundbreaking and radical explorations would become standardized, conventionalized, and turn into establishment, thus reaching a static condition, and that in that context the most radical idea would be a return to the oldfashioned, tonal Western tradition [in ‘Music, the Arts, and Ideas’, 1967]. All this is, of course, described as if musical developments happen on a time line reaching from the past into the future. I don’t think that is the reality of art, which is a territory within which the presence of the past is ever growing, thanks to information technology and the study of art from the past, which enriches our life in the present. It is a territory that grows and grows. So, I am neither extreme nor radical… what I do I consider merely as common sense.
For some people, and not the least, it is not common sense at all. This article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik by Konrad Boehmer for instance is a devastating critique, quoting many sources which support his conclusion that what you have to say in the book is advocating a ‘Biedermeier Heilslehre’, a narrow-minded, biassed, sentimental and naïve ideology like the ideology of a sect.
With all due respect…. but Boehmer is a pathetic victim of idiotic ideologies, and, of course, a thorough modernist, who probably feels threatened by the content of the book. He came to Holland in the sixties because he could not live in a country [Western Germany] occupied and conquered, after the war, by capitalism, as he saw it, just visit his website, there you find everything that demonstrates where the sect-like thinking resides… But any critique from someone who enjoys visiting North Korea is the best possible promotion. This is a typical guy whose total unmusicality prevented him from finding anything interesting in the existing repertoire, just imagine that! Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and so on, Mahler, Debussy… all totally uninteresting crap for him. So, I say: that is not a musician. And of course, pretense combined with modernism provides the preparation for the epiphany such people experience when they are overwhelmed by the first electronic products, as Boehmer found-out at the Brussels world exposition of 1958. We should feel sorry for such people, because their life work has been completely in vain, even as sonic art it lacks a minimum of aesthetic quality and will disappear into the big mouth of oblivion. Actually, I’m quite grateful to Boehmer because with his freaking-out he fully exposed the mental and cultural problems of postwar modernism, without any inhibition. Any intelligent reader will have got interested in my book after reading his fanatical condemnations….. One has to carefully choose both one’s friends and one’s enemies and this enemy just fell into my lap. The magazine kindly offered me the space for an appropriate repartee and for an article about my classical symphony, an offer which I have accepted with pleasure. 2)
Somewhere on your website is explained that your music is rooted in the German traditions. What is meant by that?And why German?
That is a temperamental matter. When I began, it was Debussy, Ravel, early Stravinsky that served as stylistic examples, because of the subtle and complex harmonic languages. But I could not do very much with that repertoire, maybe because it is too perfect in itself, things work best within that very personal style. And my way of creating, of fantasizing, was different. Then I discovered Schönberg, the expressionist period of his work, which I tried to imitate. But then, you find yourself within a claustrophobic musical language from which there is no exit. The acquaintance with Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which was performed in the early seventies in Rotterdam, was a great discovery: there, almost atonal fields combine with archaic harmony and with Debussian or Ravellian soundscapes, and an emotional intensity that stems from the Germans – especially Wagner, in its long lines and pathos, a pathos you would not find in Debussy or Ravel. After that came my discovery of the real meaning of Schönberg’s [first] Chamber Symphony. My first orchestra piece ever: Invocazione, reflects all those influences and the struggles with them. Scriabine had also been interesting for me during a period, but with writing Sinfonia I began to tap into German traditions which appeared to be closer to my temperament and interests in structure… the way themes and motives are varied and developed, and expressive effects are achieved over longer stretches. In the eighties and nineties I absorbed much of Wagner and Strauss, and learned a great deal from that repertoire. I had the strong feeling that those idioms still could be used… and interpreted anew. Fortunately I had been inocculated early by French music, so that I could make selective choices of material and not feel absorbed by a repertoire that is in many ways overwhelming.
If there is one composer who has been, and still is, something of the ogre of new music, it is Wagner.
If we go into that subject, this interview will never come to an end! I merely would like to say that Wagner is an uneven composer, like Liszt, Mahler and Strauss, and you have to pick your way carefully through that body of work. It took me circa ten years to absorb most of it, that is: all the operas from Rheingold onwards, the later, mature Wagner, culminating in that utterly strange and sublime and erratic masterpiece, Parsifal. In Wagner, there is much to criticize, but also very much to love, to admire, and to learn from. What I find fascinating is Wagner’s treatment of music as a continuum within which material is freely varied all the time and thus, offers infinite possibilities of new forms, of new appearances of the same. That seemed to me an appropriate metaphor of tradition and here, Wagner and Brahms are in agreement, not enemies.
You wrote a classical symphony, that must be something very different from Wagner or Schönberg. Is this something like the neoclassical music of Stravinsky or Prokofiev?
No, not at all. I wanted to return to the dynamics and the rhetoric of original Viennese classicism: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven….
…. the first Viennese school instead of the second….
I object to that formulation! Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were artistically related, sure, but never formed something like a school. It is a ridiculous notion. Schönberg, Berg and Webern tried to form a school, because they had an academic streak, they needed to defend their aesthetic position. But that also was not a real school. It’s academic posturizing.
But to return to that classical symphony.
As I said, I wanted to pick-up something from what the Viennese classics did – and I am sure they did it without any academic intention. I used traditional forms, but freely, and treated themes and motives in a way that shows consciousness of much later musical idioms. The result is – as I think – both familiar and unusual, because I did things with the material which were impossible around 1800 but somehow are compatible with this first flowering of absolute music. Well, we’ll see… at the premiere in Berlin, somewhere in 2016 I presume.
So, you don’t think it is a bit naïve to do away with all the possibilities that have been developed since the 18th and 19th century, and ignore all that, and stick to a language of innocence? How could we be innocent after such a long stretch of history? Is it not just escapism, and resorting to the easy solutions?
I do not think the music of Mozart or Beethoven is naïve, and that it would be naïve to appreciate such music in our time. To think that using an older language is naïve, is again showing a historicist perspective, where things get better because of getting newer, and that is simply not true. The classical language is subtle, complex, but also accessible and expressive, if you can handle it…. It is definitely not an easy language, it is quite a challenge, so I would not see it as an escape from difficulties, in contrary. Naivité is a quality that can be found anywhere… and you could argue that very much of new music that is written today, is naïve, very naïve, in the sense of ignorant. It is not bound to certain types of musical language. For instance, I think it is quite naïve to think that what was new in the sixties will be new forever, or to think that a bit of pop music thrown through a computer can produce a contemporary piece that is interesting.
Your reputation in Holland is a bit of one of a polemical academic who also composes, and who is rather pretentious and elitist… with all this talk about tradition, classicism, and critique upon modernism, contemporary music in general, and the like. Are you bothered by this?
To begin with, the reason that there are less people knowing about my music than about my writings is because most of my works, and then I am talking about the music for orchestra which is, I think, the most prominent of my output, are not taken seriously by orchestras in Holland. They simply couldn’t understand that in Holland, of all places, it would be possible that composers would really sit down and try to use a classical musical language of premodern times. Holland is a small country and a place where small-mindedness is part of its cultural identity, it’s something that is wholeheartedly cultivated, consciously or unconsciously. Serious cultural endeavors are looked upon with suspicion and scorn. The very word ‘classical’ has, for many Dutch people, a pompous ring about it, and the attempt to write new classical music is often seen as a pretentious act of self-grandizement. But in reality, it is a very modest attitude because built upon a profound love of and dedication to the existing classical repertoire…. You try to forget your own egocentric wishes, your own life, your country and your circumstances, and try to get under the skin of a superb and subtle art form. And if something of worth comes-out at the end of the process, you are very lucky, and if it is a contribution to the existing tradition, all the efforts are worthwhile. What I do is proof that it is possible to rejuvenate a neutral, classical language and turn it into something personal and expressive. I don’t think many composers would go as far as I have gone, because the more classical you go, the more difficult it gets. But you can do such things in many different ways…. Bartok did it, in his later works – 3rd piano concerto, the concerto for orchestra, and Shostakovich and Britten in their own way…
Some people may find a neutral classical musical language a bit boring…
For them, Mozart is probably also boring. They can get their shot with sonic art….
…. but I want to go a bit deeper into this, the reason to choose a neutral language… How is that classical? Mozart is not neutral, neither is Beethoven.
But these were highly professional artists. Their starting point was a neutral, average language which was fashionable in their day, and they turned it into something like a personal expression. Their music is not entirely representative of the period, it is us who think it is typically 18th century because we don’t hear other works of the period, the music of their contemporaries…. these people were the exceptions. They did not consciously want to be a classical composer, they did not know what that was, the term only came into being much later. Our predicament is that we live in a totally different time and, in relation to these composers, a late one.
Do you see yourself as a late composer? As someone nostalgically rewriting older music, or meditating upon older times, a golden age? How do you see yourself, as a composer?
No, I do not see myself as a nostalgic composer. When I was young and much involved in harmonic experiments, trying to learn from Szymanowski, Skriabin, middle Stravinsky, and when I heard a Brahms concerto or symphony, yes, then I got the nostalgic feeling of: how fantastic would it be to compose in such a direct and relatively simple language, and say things in that language that are so expressive, and beautiful, and quasi-natural – and so immediately accessible, communicative. Only much later I found-out that that language was not simple at all but in fact very complex, and still accessible because of the balance between consonance and dissonance. It is an accessible idiom related to earlier music but also different from it. When delving more in classical music, I began to understand that what I wanted to do was more comparable to what Italian architects [in the Renaissance] wanted to do, the recreation of a lost idiom. They studied the monuments of the Romans and created their own version of it, thereby re-establishing a continuity which had been disrupted by the Middle Ages. So, although looking-back may imply some sort of nostalgia, it is not incompatible with an active and explorative mentality. Every new piece I attempt, is new for me, and I try out new ways of saying something that I have not said in earlier pieces.
Do you think that your work will be played more in the future?
Who will say? In case classical music culture will continue to exist, which is no longer very secure, my music may find a niche somewhere…. Classical music culture needs an injection of new life so that it won’t become too much of a museum culture. And I have enough confidence in my work to expect that eventually it will find a place there…. as all sincere achievements of tradition that have something to say, eventually find a place within the tradition for which they are meant. It is a hopeful sign that nowadays there are more composers attempting a renaissance of tonal composition, trying to restore something of a great tradition.
1) Comment December 2015: I can no longer defend Thierry Baudet since his anti-islam polemics, which are too generalizing and betray a one-sided view upon the complex problem of integration of muslems, have become very antipathetic to me. Also I found-out he votes PVV, the right-wing party of Geert Wilders, like Marine le Pen one of the politicians in Europe who unintentionally help ISIS with recruting psychopaths. According to a TV documentary on German TV (ZDF 15/12/15), Russia generously pays such parties to undermine the European Union. In my opinion, people siding with such rightwing parties are the enemies of the original European idea and the European spirit.
2) In October 2014 Konrad Boehmer died at the age of 73, something I was not aware of at the time of the interview, as it was also unknown to the interviewer. A foundation has been set-up to support musical renewal and to preserve the memory of his anti-civilizational activities for posterity: the Konrad Boehmer Foundation, www.kboehmer.nl A typical work by Boehmer can be enjoyed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbBOoZYHN4M We can expect in which direction the foundation’s interpretation of the concept of ‘renewal’ can be found. Boehmer’s website does no longer seem to be in the air; probably the foundation’s website has taken its place.
3) On 15th March 2017 there were general elections in the Netherlands, in which took part a small political party, set-up by Thierry Baudet, with a fully-populist programme. I knew him in his earlier days as someone genuinely concerned about the preservation of the arts and tradition. Meanwhile, he has degenerated from a young conservative into a proto-fascist, claiming in a TV programme that the majority of a population would be better at taking decisions for the whole of society than minorities or judges. He was for referenda: ‘direct democracy’, and claimed that ‘the majority’ represented ‘the people’. Of course this is utter nonsense and not democratic at all, it is giving the primitive instinct reactions of the masses an opportunity to affect other people they don’t like, as we have seen in the thirties of the last century. This is an attack on the constitutional state and human rights, and opens the way to undermining the rights of minorities. I cannot think of a more abject way of thinking. Baudet represents the worst kind of populism disguised in a quasi-intellectual jacket, and I’m glad I have no contact with him any longer.