Modernist Indignation


In one of the more respectable German music magazines, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), set-up by Robert Schumann in 1834 and still in full swing, a devastating article has appeared in the 06/2013 issue about my book ‘The Classical Revolution’, tearing it to pieces with a vehemence, mostly reserved for religious quarrels among fundamentalists. The author: Konrad Boehmer, is a Dutch/German sonic artist, born in Germany in 1941 from a father working for the regime but nonetheless killed in the war, grown-up in the DDR, later-on fleeing to West-German Cologne which was in the fifties the centre of electronic celebration. Later-on mr Boehmer landed in Holland where he quickly became a member of the modernist establishment, the small circle of self-made revolutionaries who planned the Brave New World in music. I do not know him personally, nor have I ever done harm to him, I have not even mentioned him in any of my writings, since his works never gave me a reason to give them much attention. But I owe him my sincere gratitude for the efforts he put into the mentioned article, because it fully and wholeheartedly confirms and demonstrates what the problems of the modernist mentality were.

In the mentioned article, the moralistic combination of contempt, misunderstanding, misrepresentation and lack of cultural awareness, together with the marxist interpretative framework, fully exposes the harm done by historic catastrophes upon young people. Modernism was, in the fifties and sixties, something like a reality-free zone where the damaged mind could dwell in pristine, open space, unhindered by a world in gloom and despair, a space where everything had to be created anew, like on the first day of Creation. Who would not fall into that trap, as a young person growing-up in a world where all parameters of civilization had broken down, in a suffocating milieu of bourgeois defense against the unusual, hostile and violent which was raging outside? For an intelligent and sensitive music student who heard nothing, but then really nothing, in the ‘old repertoire’ written by people who were already dead for ages, the modernist ideologies seemed something like paradise: creating a career as a ‘modern composer’ offered the benefit of being immediately, without effort, ethically and morally ‘on the right side’ of history, as well as many opportunities – with Adorno’s marxist bible in the hand (the ‘Philosophie der Neuen Musik’) – to criticize a decadent world where consumerism, bourgeois music life and wide-spread ignorance of the liberating power of Utopia, kept the masses in place where they could be exploited by the hand-rubbing capitalists.

In a radio interview of 1985 mr Boehmer seemed more concerned about the capitalist consumer society which – by way of invasion – had ‘occupied’ Western Germany (and forced it into imitation), than about the 416,800 of American men who gave their lives so that he could study in Cologne in freedom. Of course Western-style modernism had to demonstrate to the Evil East that it was a free, progressive society, where new art was a symbol of freedom rather than a signal of cultural erosion. In communist Russia however, traditional art was forced upon artists and composers alike, to ‘instruct’ the masses about the blessings of another version of Utopia. In the West, new music was not instructed by governments; the composers who felt committed to modernism, in their urge to escape a traumatic past, could create a mental totalitarianism perfectly well without such help. On both sides, new music was heavily state-funded: in the East this went together with ‘clear’ instructions from above, in the West the composers helped themselves to the ‘necessary’ directives – that is: they were totally free to create their own limitations and restrictions which they could use in the competition with collegues. In this way, West and East formed a mirror image of utopian thinking, in which new music in the West could tell itself that any deviation from offered liberation would be nothing less than a betrayal of the Free World. Ironically, in both societies there existed something of a consensus that art was somehow ‘dangerous’ if left to its own devises….. new art was subjected to pressures from outside which would never have had such impact if there never had been world wars and totalitarian societies. Interestingly, mr Boehmer uses accusations of bourgeois, ignorant culture to ‘expose’ the serious flaws of my book (‘Biedermeiers Heilslehre’); the ‘bourgeois’ being the Enemy of Utopia – just like in Soviet Russia. It is no surprise, then, that if modernist composers are confronted by observations which demonstrate something like differences in cultural value, they immediately hear all the alarm bells going-off: Totalitarianism! Bourgeois! Past! and are under the impression that an old enemy is climbing their own barricades, which they had so carefully transformed, over the years, into comfortable state-funded consumer furniture.

Mr Boehmer has visited North Korea in the past. From whence this interest? It seems unlikely that someone who has suffered so much from mental suffocation would want to sniff that air again. Or would it be a feeling of identification with the people, still under the yoke of totalitarian craziness? Or would it be the thrill of real oppression, as a healthy contrast to the imagined one by bourgeois culture in peaceful, kleinbürgerlich Holland? Would such trips rekindle the revolutionary spirit as it was in those spirited days of the fifties and sixties? Or were they fed by a romantic nostalgia for the idea of a society, where people who did not quite agree with the benign care of the state could be safely locked-up, so that they could do no harm to achieved social perfection? The sonic mind is full of mystery.

The mentioned article pulls all the stops to convince the reader how BAD the book is and why he should NOT – really, really NOT – read it. According to mr Boehmer, I am a petty-bourgeois, right-wing extremist who has understood nothing of the 20th century (also nothing of Italian Renaissance), a moron who does not know what tonality is (he makes some grave mistakes in his arguments there), who preaches authoritarian narrow-mindedness, who sides with right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, who attacks muslems and modern buildings and draws upon that other moron: Prince Charles, etc. etc. The article ends with: ‘If you have children, take them from the streets where they are threatened by sonic art, and when they have been naughty: punish them by locking them up for a couple of hours to listen to some of Borstlap’s totally weak and stink-boring tonal pieces; only after they have promised better behavior can they then listen to their beloved Boulez and Xenakis’. Who would have wished for more confirmation? Here we see the modernist’s soul naked before us, with all its frustration, anger, and tragic past: the last fulminations of a mentality which is doomed to oblivion.

I find it still puzzling that a decent German professional magazine felt no inhibition to publish a text which did not meet even the most basic requirements of civil discourse. But I was offered a small space for a repartee, which was published in the first issue of 2014, in which I thanked mr Boehmer for his passionate confirmation of everything I had written in my book about the backgrounds of modernism, and explained to the readers that with his tragic background, it is fully understandable that he fell under the spell of sonic art:



Zu Konrad Boehmers Beitrag / Heft # 6 – 2013

Von John Borstlap

Ich danke Herr Boehmer herzlich für seine leidenschaftliche Bestätigung dessen, was ich in meinem Buch The Classical Revolution über die Hintergründe des Modernismus geschrieben habe. Es geschieht nicht oft, dass so unverkennbar aus den dunklen Spelunken einer vergangenen Epoche die klarsten Beispiele präsentiert werden. Ein bisschen googlen vervollständigt das Bild. Als Kind der Kriegszeit (geboren 1941), aufgewachsen in der DDR, nach dem Westen geflüchtet, wo er im bedrückenden katholischen Schatten des Kölner Doms im Musikunterricht vergebens versuchte, im vorhandenen Repertoire etwas Interessantes zu finden, erlebte er 1958 seine Offenbarung auf der Weltausstellung in Brüssel, wo er in dem von Le Corbusier und Xenakis entworfen Pavillon Varèses Poème Electronique und Xenakis’ Concret PH erfährt, Werke, die ihm eine realitätsfreie Zone eröffnen, unbelastet von dem ihn umringenden erstickenden Nachkriegsklima. Man mischt einen ‘idealistischen’ Marxismus dazu und die Welt ist in klare Abschnitte geteilt: auf der einen Seite eine ‘Kommerzmusik’, die sich an die Bourgeoisie verkauft (inklusive des alten Repertoires), und auf der anderen die ‘wirkliche’ Musik, die von der dekadenten Vergangenheit befreite, die sich in reinen Zukunftvisionen eine neue, über alle Bourgeoisschönheiten hinausgewachsene Musikkultur verspricht:

Es ist völlig verständlich dass ein junger, intelligenter Mensch mit einem derartigen tragischen Hintergrund ein ganz anderes Buch gelesen hat, als ich es geschrieben habe … aber gerade das ermöglicht uns eine tiefere Einsicht in die Grundlagen der musikalischen Nachkriegszeit, worauf vieles der ‘modernen Szene’ noch immer beruht, zu erwerben.

(Unter ‘Texts’ kann man eine längere Fassung – auf Deutsch – dieser Replik finden: ‘Abgründe der Nachkriegtszeit’.)


Meanwhile, my ‘classical symphony’ – commisioned by the Kammersymphonie Berlin – can look forward to premières in Germany, so the Neue Zeitschrift invited me to write something about this work, since the magazine had embarked upon a wide discussion upon contemporary music and the current shifting sands of opinion and paradigm. This text appeared in the February/March issue of the Zeitschrift under the title Zurück ins Blickfeld der gesellschaftlichen Aufmerksamkeit (untranslatable title which could be best described as: an attempt to bring something back into the public eye). In this article, next to describing some technical problems related to the re-interpretation of classicism, I argue that the postmodern situation, which occurred after awareness set in that modernism was a restricted historical period instead of a universal directive for progressive exploration, liberated composers from ideologies and were free (again!) to roam the treasure troves of the past, any past, nearby or far-away. The first half of the last century can be considered a fruitful and inspiring example, a period which shows a wide range of different idioms and ideals, but most of them still aesthetically rooted in traditional procedures and musical values, and – most important – still an organic part of the broader performance culture (which at the time did not need to be called the ‘central’ performance culture). Since modernism had created a separate culture for contemporary music, new music has formed a sphere isolated from the culture at large. New classical music is the attempt to find solutions for this ongoing problem not within this isolated mental prison, but in the ‘arena’ of the central performance culture; therefore, it could be a stimulating injection into existing repertoire and invoke debate about classical music in general which would support the place of the art form within contemporary society.

Ironically, the issue of the Zeitschrift in which the article was published, was entirely dedicated to electronic music, its history, its philosophies, its ideologies, its (vain) attempts at creating music.

John Borstlap / 2014

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