The architect Léon Krier with a thought experiment in the introduction of his polemic, ‘Architecture: Choice or Fate’:
If, one day, for some mysterious reason, all the buildings, settlements, suburbs and structures built after 1945 – especially those commonly called ‘modern’- vanished from the face of the earth, would we mourn their loss? Would the disappearance of prefabricated tower blocks, mass housing estates, commercial strips, business parks, motorway junctions, modular university campusses, schools, and new towns, damage the identity of our favorite cities and landscapes?
If, on the other hand, some parallel phenomenon destroyed in one fell swoop the whole of our pre – World War II architectural heritage, namely all ‘historic’ buildings, hamlets, villages, and cities, what would be the significance of such an event?
In terms of real estate volume, both heritages are approximately equal; comparing them globally as alternatives allows us to appreciate the fundamental differences in their nature: their specific symbolic, aesthetic, civilising and emotional qualities, their power of attraction, identification and repulsion. Has so-called ‘modern’ architecture, with its insatiable drive for autonomy, its cultivation of the ‘tabula rasa’ approach and celebration of change and revolution, really liberated us from our ‘historic’ past? Or has it made us more dependent?
The same we could say about music: what would be the meaning of the disappearance of all music from before 1940? Or better said: the disappearance of all music that is not modernist, i.e. that is not composed in the wake of Webern, Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen et al, including its later types like the works of Olga Neuwirth or Matthias Pintscher? Would this enhance of damage our cultural identity, or our understanding of the human condition in our own days? Or would it give us a much better understanding of ‘modern man’, offering a picture of his inner life in the post – World War II period or in the 21st century?
Art music – of all types – has always been for a restricted number of people within a given society, and not ‘for everybody’, not because it is elitist but because it requires a certain degree of cultural sophistication and emotional opennes to the art form. Nonetheless, physical and technological accessibility and exposure is providing an ‘open door’ to new experiences for people who have not got acquainted with it. The presence of art music is not comparable with the presence of modern architecture, which defines our physical world in a much more direct and inevitable way than music. Yet, art music is – like architecture – a product of a civilisation which will be remembered by it and because of it.
However, the presence of the classical music world within modern society requires a thorough rethinking of its nature because the context of the period and place where it evolved, is so fundamentally different from our modern era. Atonal modern music, especially in its postwar form – modernism, and its progeny as postmodernism – offers a mirror of our times in which not much can be seen: it appears that much, probably most, of the civilisational values which have struggled for centuries to survive the historic disasters, have no place in the modernist vision, where even the best is restricted to the aesthetics of sonic patterns. A life without any classical music written before modernism is comparable with a life in which only post-1945 modern buildings are present. Whether this would be progress or regression, is a question not too difficult to answer.