A restoration of value: new classical music


Classical music versus modernity?

In the West, classical music in general has come under different kinds of pressure: economic pressures due to the current financial crisis, diminishing audience attendance due to aging, diminishing information availability in education which hinders building-up young audiences. But the greatest challenge classical music faces, is an increasing suspicion that the art form as such is no longer compatible with the modern world, that it is a surviving museum culture from the past and that a receptive context is eroding. In other words: contemporary audiences are supposed to understand less and less of classical music because their life experiences are, at a fundamental level, different from audiences of the past for which this corpus of works was written. The increasing influence of popular culture, so the story goes, as spread through the ever more technically-sophisticated media channels, has created a hindrance to understanding and has changed the listening attitude of modern man, who finds it quite difficult to concentrate on a music form which requires attentive focus over long stretches of time, while modern life is so much faster and more fragmented and has stimulated a mind set used to take-in different short bites of information within short time frames, as well as ‘multi-tasking’ and filling-up available time-spans with useful activities untill every corner of the diary is spent.

But it can also be argued that this rather negative evaluation of Western classical music’s position within the contemporary world, is based upon a misunderstanding of modernity itself. ‘Being contemporary’ is in itself nothing more than a factual, historical assessment and not a quality assessment. If contemporary audiences would develop different mind sets which are less compatible with a positively receptive attitude towards classical music, it is possible that the influence of contemporary media culture with its ‘butterfly attention span’ have set an erosive process in motion which should be assessed as diminishing man’s mental capacities in general, which is a warning sign, a signal of regression of our civilization and not a reason to put the value of a superb art form, which has functioned as a strong cultural identity signifyer of our culture for a very long time, into question.

In other words: it is quite possible that the problem does not lie so much in the nature of ‘old-fashioned’ classical music and/or its presentation in terms of performance ritual, but in the erosive influence of certain aspects of the modern world. If this were so, such a conclusion would have implications for the promotion and presentation of classical music: not making repertoire ‘more accessible’ but stimulating audiences to adapt their attitudes better to what is offered to them, would be the answer. If in the presentation of classical music, the links with current more general debates about our society and civilization are revealed, as for instance with the formation of cultural identity in the European project, the meaning and importance of a highly-developed musical culture in the broader context of society would become visible. Classical music is not a museum culture but a living and dynamic tradition; showing the interrelatedness of the art form with other aspects of modern life would refute the arguments with which ignorance attempts to relegate classical music to the margins of society and to reduce or undermine its funding.

Contemporary music: reflecting the contemporary world?

The supposed gulf between serious art music and the contemporary world is aptly demonstrated by contemporary music, as presented through the established channels: specialized modern music festivals, specialized periodicals, new music performance series in often unusual venues, all forming a ‘scene’ with norms which are fundamentally different from art music as defined by the central performance culture, i.e. traditional concert life, where an impressive body of work – including a ‘canon’ of master pieces – form the repertoire on which performance practice and professional education is based. It is this central performance culture which – from the point of view of the established contemporary music scene – is looked down upon with some contempt for being a ‘conservative’ territory without real contact with the contemporary world, with ‘modernity’. The contemporary music scene however seems, at first sight, perfectly anchored in the modern world, with its utter freedom from any shared aesthetic quality norms, its cultural relativity, and inclusion of all forms of electronic means and information technology. An increasing number of contemporary works have done away with the concept of ‘work’ –  in the sense of ‘piece’ – altogether, in a playful and ephemeral amalgam of visual concept art, sound art, mime,  theatre and audience participation in the ‘work’ which thus is unrepeatable and in most instances, cannot be documented in a body of instructions as a musical score was in former times.

All this is the result of the initial intention of postwar modernism to begin from scratch, to consider the situation just after 1945 as a ‘point zero’, a ‘Stunde Null’, from which the art form could be developed again in a context of freedom from the debris of a culture which had destroyed itself. But instead of a real freedom, in which such important questions like artistic value, the meaning of musical expression in various contexts and the possibility of universal values, an ideology of modernity and progressiveness took hold of contemporary production, in which music history was rewritten in a linear fashion, representing a progressive autonomic force driving ‘material research’ / ‘Materialforschung’, beginning with Schönberg and, in the postwar years, developing over Boulez and Stockhausen into a broad delta of submovements and fragmentation. Concepts of ‘tradition’ were taboo, because misunderstood as conservatism (tradition is a dynamic, not a conserving process), and the first half of the 20th century – which in reality showed a wide range of different movements and artistic possibilities – was generally considered as a period in which the last gasps of a dying culture gave way to the first stirrings of a new musical culture which was supposed to open the doors to a fundamental renewal and thus, to new vigorous life of an art form which would then be fully integrated with the modern world.

Since traditional music life, based upon aesthetic norms which had developed over the ages, remained intact and refused to accept modernism as an integral part of its culture, contemporary music split itself off and formed a separate culture. Ironically, this contemporary music culture – the ‘modern scene’ – has increasingly found itself in an isolated position: as new novels, films and exhibitions of visual art are widely discussed and information about them widely disseminated, contemporary serious music hardly finds feedback in the wider culture, as if it has become irrelevant to the world at large. Thus it seems that the efforts of so many composers to ‘be of their times’ had an effect opposite to the initial intentions of being ‘contemporary’. The avantgarde ideology from the fifties and sixties, which maintained that new music was just ahead of the times and would be hailed as valuable in a future time, when audiences would have overcome most of their conservative attitudes, does no longer seem to offer an explanation – it is an escapist reasoning, as it always had been, from the real issue: is it indeed the ‘conservatism’ of audiences in the central performance culture which resulted in the rejection of contemporary music? Or could the problem be located in the music itself?

The ‘crisis’ of contemporary serious music seems, in Europe, to have a character different from the Anglo-Saxon world. In England, where the notion of tradition never was as strongly taboo’d as in the European continent, the new music scene has never been monolithic and has also allowed some space to more traditionally-orientated new music. In the USA, reflecting a more multicultural environment, younger generations of composers who have been able to mobilize interest from traditionally-educated performers, focus on concepts of cultural identity and style, and explore various musical traditions which offer vocabularies of expression and communication – without any inhibition to use ‘oldfashioned’ stilistic elements which are freely mixed. It is to the credit of the cultural scene in the USA, that the concept of ‘new classical music’ has, in American musical life, already become an accepted category of contemporary music, underlining the healthy idea of an artistic pluralism in which different artistic ideas can exist next to each other. But also here, total freedom and availability of sources sometimes seems to hinder awareness of artistic quality norms and although the results sound different, much new music in the Anglo-Saxon world suffers from a fragmentation of purpose and meaning comparable to continental Europe, and creates an overall impression of bland, superficial entertainment. Musical quality requires deeper and more substantial elements.

Reappearance of traditional concepts?

Over the last years, some composers in Europe have appeared who feel unhappy with the present situation and consider the absence of aesthetic quality norms and the isolation of contemporary music as a crisis to be overcome. From this perspective, the first half of the last century appears not as a ‘death agony’, as seen from a modernist perspective, but instead as the last period of Western music in which freedom from a conventional framework – as existed in the 19th century – combined with a wide and stimulating diversity and stilistic pluralism, created a field of new musical experience which can still be integrated within the central performance culture without violating this culture’s fundamental norms. Composers, who begin to understand the real nature of this period and of what happened after the Second World War, seek to restore the continuity with the past, not as a form of ‘conservatism’ but as an attempt to restore the art form to its true fundamentals, which include concepts of expression, narrative, logical structure, accessible communication and, in a technical sense, tonality, in whatever form. This orientation upon older traditions can be compared with the same attempts in the Anglo-Saxon world: expression, meaning and artistic quality norms need value frameworks which are offered by cultural traditions which have developed over long periods in the past through a process of trial and error, thus offering valuable and usable contexts. But on top of this, the intention to emulate artistic substance as it existed at the beginning of the 20th century gives these European composers’ work an expressive ‘edge’, thus avoiding the blandness sometimes found among their Anglo-Saxon peers.  From this new perspective, different from the usual one operating in the established contemporary music scene, achievements from the past take on a new meaning. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to hear in the work of David Matthews, Nicolas Bacri or Richard Dubugnon echos of earlier 20C music, but transformed, coloured by a different personality, and flowering in an effective and expressive new music – new but accessible, traditional but sophisticated and full of new life. It is as if classical music as it existed before the Second World War is picking-up its energy again, after a long period of mourning.

Towards a new theoretical model

The reception in the Western world, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of the work of Shostakovich shows that personal interpretations of artistic concepts from the past can be incorporated in the repertoire of the central performance culture – even when this corpus was created under the pressure of a totalitarian regime. But it can be argued that the established scene of contemporary music in Europe suffers from an equally totalitarian pressure: the conformism of a wide consensus about the necessity to be ‘contemporary’, being a form of prescriptive convention based upon a restricted sense of ‘modernity’, as if existing cultural practices from the past had no meaning for the present. How ‘conservative’, in terms of mentality, is the new music scene? How many of the concepts, circulating in that field, are in reality only repetitions of ideas from the sixties? It seems that nowadays, the theoretical model of ‘conservatism versus progressiveness’ is no longer appropriate. A new interpretative model needs to be developed which can help to evaluate the present situation of new music within contemporary culture, the relationship between new music and the central performance culture, and the position of traditional concert life in relation to the modern world, as well as to clarify the various different attempts of restoration of former artistic norms (which should not be interpreted as ‘conservatism’ – it is a dynamic restoration of a viable notion of what art music is and should be).This new model could only be viable if based upon a new understanding of 20th century music, which would mean: a re-evaluation of recent music history freed from ideological bias, so that current new interpretations of older musical concepts can be understood as a continuation, as a new interpretation,  of the various traditions which florished in the first half of the 20th century. It is in this sense that  academic research is necessary to explore this territory of interpretation and re-evaluation of recent history, to formulate a new perspective, a corrective of conventional narratives of music history.

Our musical culture consists of an impressive accumulation of musical works which are still fully operational in performance practice and thus greatly contribute to our civilization: it is a body of works which is fully alive, recreated time and again by dedicated performers of high calibre. The narrative as developed in the last century after 1945 does not do justice to what really happened, and a new vision from an ideology-free point of view will uncover a continuity which offers an immense enrichment of the repertoire, demonstrating the viability of the spirit of Western classical music.

© John Borstlap 2013

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