Context, dynamics, and intrusion

Why exactly does a modernist, or postmodernist, or contemporary ‘hip’ work that rubs shoulders with pop music, not fit in a classical orchestral programme that also holds, say, a Tchaikovsky symphony and a Ravel concerto? Why do audiences, used to a very varied ‘classical repertoire’ that covers a stylistic palette from Haydn to Hindemith, up till and including the Stravinsky of the ‘neo-classical’ period, react negatively, or at best: politely, but almost never enthusiastically, to such works? Can that only be explained as conservatism?

Often these things can be better explained by example rather than philosophical and theoretical exercises. In his ‘The Future of the Past’, the architect and aesthetic philosopher Steven W. Semes discusses, among many other fascinating things, formal principles which lay at the heart of an architectural tradition, while on the surface level the appearance of individual buildings may differ considerably. A perfect example is the great central square in Brussels, La Grand’ Place, where many buildings from different times and in different styles still form a harmonious whole, offering variety and in the same time, aesthetic harmony. He explains:

Continuity of character is not dependent on style or age. The character of the Grand’ Place is clear and memorable despite varied building types, uses, styles, and construction dates because these differences are harmonized by the congruence of the formal principles shared by all the buildings.

The façades are all different, but together they form a continuum of comparable formal dynamics. Imagine that one of those buildings would be replaced by a modernist glass and steel façade – it would be an intrusion from outside, from a fundamentally different world of sensibilities. This square could be seen as a visual metaphor for the ‘classical tradition’ in music, where different works from different times and places create a comparable continuum, with variations in terms of style and expression and structure, but not incompatible – in spite of the dissonances which are also visible in the Brussels square. The inclusion of a piece by Boulez, or Widmann, or any other (post-)modernist composer, or even people like Louis Andriessen, would be a disruptive attack upon the existing harmony.

The aesthetic mistake of including a modernist work in a traditional continuum has been made in Vienna, in a quite drastic way, on the central square where the medieval cathedral forms the central point of the harmonious continuum that is Vienna’s old center:

The monster’s glass façades reflect distored images of the surrounding architecture, as in a carnival mirror, as if expressing contempt for its environment. It is like a cancer, destroying the fabric of an aesthetic sensibility where architects of different times have been carefully cultivating an urban landscape that would offer both variety and harmonious relationships. A comparable effect would be to have a programme in the Musikverein, beginning with Mozart symphony nr 39, then entering the bare landscape of Xenakis’ sonic work ‘Metastasis’….

…… and, after the interval when the audience can recover with some refreshments, rounding-off with Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony by way of damage control.

As long as these underlying dynamics are not understood, and audiences’ resistance to such intrusions merely explained as conservatism, there will be works programmed with the best of intentions, but which simply don’t belong in a musical context and are not meant for its audiences. Therefore, it is a good thing that there are specialized festivals and specialized ensembles, cultivating the territory where another paradigm reigns, and where audiences know beforehand what they could expect. Forcing classical music audiences to accept what is fundamentally unacceptable in a musical context, and accusing them of conservatism when they don’t like it, is both self-destructive for the orchestra and merely hardening orchestral performance culture as a museum.

The only way in which the classical musical tradition can be kept alive, and the odor of a museum be avoided, is following the example of the builders of the Parisian Louvre palace, which was built over three centuries (16th-17th C, 19th C) by different architects, who both invented variations of and kept to the overall undelying aesthetics of what had already been built before, to arrive at a harmonious complex…..

…. and avoid the grave mistake of the pyramid:

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