I am reading „The Classical Revolution“ by John Borstlap and think about it (7)
The Search for Meaning
And here we have it – a chapter in Borstlap’s book with which I cannot disagree on the whole. Probably because he talks only very little about music here.
Instead this is a mostly “kulturphilosophisches” essay, in fact the most “heavy” and difficult to read chapter so far, as it is about the underlying principles of European culture and the challenges it faces in the 21st century. Superficially this can be read as a traditionalist’s point of view and critique of the current state of affairs. But actually many of his opinions here are very level-headed, yes, dare I say “modern”, and I cannot help but agree with them on a very fundamental level.
And yes, I really wrote that.
The main focus of this chapter is a critique of the negative effects of “cultural relativism”, which goes back (in Borstlap’s opinion) to German philosopher Herder’s idea that there are no universal values of civilization but instead an ever-changing “Volksgeist” (a word that much later acquired a quite bitter taste). What follows is a discussion of the necessity of a sense of “value” of cultural achievements (instead of an “anything is good” attitude, where there are no differences between the trivial and the sublime), including also a sense of pride and “belonging” without falling in the trap of arrogance or totalitarian tendencies. Herder back then was (understandably) criticizing the arrogant and condescending stance of the Age of Enlightenment, which thought European culture the most superior, but his views degraded today into a kind of weary and tired political correctness without any real values anymore, where the tolerance to pretty much everything results in a situation where everything is also worth the same, therefore removing the idea of “value” altogether.
Even though Borstlap understands the reasons for this stance historically (happening mostly out of guilt for European crimes, especially of the 20th century) he correctly laments the fact that the loss of any kind of standard has resulted in a general loss of quality. In short, he strives for a new objectivism that sets new standards that things can be measured against. This is actually not dissimilar to my personal view that more objectivity is needed in art, even though my personal argument would be that modernism itself is deeply subjective and therefore late-romantic, whereas Borstlap seems to be longing for a new romanticism – I don’t!
For Borstlap the ideal European artist would be one who is proud of his/her heritage and deeply rooted in it, but at the same time acknowledging the diversity of other traditions and respecting them, perhaps looking for some kind of “universal” values (which in itself is a deeply European idea, but that’s another story). Only then would we be culturally inviting to foreigners coming to live in Europe (the main example at the moment being muslims) – because we treat our own culture with so much disrespect it seems like a wasteland to non-Europeans, who then rather keep to their own isolated ways instead of creatively co-existing and assimilating (like Jewish European immigrants have done admirably over the centuries, despite the injustice they often faced).
Therefore this state of affairs, the “Europe’s doubt of Europe”, is to be faulted for the current backlashes of both right-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism by immigrants, says Borstlap.
Sometimes in this chapter Borstlap comes over as a little grandfatherly and mildly old-fashioned, but the heart of his argument is solid.
He then goes on to lament the negative effects of Germany’s “bad conscience”, although I don’t think he realizes that the following statement is not true anymore:
“As long as “modern music” in Germany strains under the taboo of the “dark period”, its new music is imprisoned within the walls af a moralistic totalitarianism not much less suffocating than the communist cultural climate in the former Soviet union”.
I think this is certainly true of the 50’s to late 60’s, with ripples felt until the late Eighties, but I don’t feel this “moralistic totalitarianism” at work anymore, although there might be remnants in the form of some very isolated personalities. The German music funding system has many aspects that can be definitely discussed, but it enables quite a lot of artistic freedom and has traditionally been extremely welcoming to foreign musicians (including Borstlap by the way), and that is certainly not a bad thing for the cultural climate here in general. And since the formerly extremely influential Donaueschingen and Darmstadt festivals have ceased to be the definitive temples of taste and are just part of a bigger scene (which I think is very healthy) I don’t know any composer who currently feels any kind of “moralistic totalitarianism” at work here, honestly.
Of course the big (unspoken) question of this chapter is: how can we introduce a new sense of “value” without creating just another artistic dictatorship? I don’t think I would follow Borstlap’s personal vision for this lightly, to be honest. I am looking for more freedom than boring old discussions of tonality or “what is music” and “what is not music” which seem so important to Borstlap. As a composer I don’t want to know what music is, I want to discover what music is by writing it. Otherwise all joy is gone.
There is also nothing inherently wrong with “geräusch” or “noise” in music. There are so many fascinating musical cultures that incorporate “noise” instead of just “tones” (think of aboriginal didgeridoos or west-african drumming) that I think noise is a valid element of music. Period. Of course creating a cult of sound events is also not the answer, and can be boring really quickly, but there are a lot of interesting composers who do “sound art” very well, it seems to me.
“Sound Art” is therefore no negative term for me, I just think it is unnecessary, because music already is sound art. Why can sounds not be “spiritual”, as Borstlap demands?
I am also not at all with him in his constant bickering about Cage – Cage’s big contribution to music was not the idea of “conceptuality” (that is perhaps developed more interestingly by current young composers) but the idea that listening itself is something that can change instead of being just an act by which music is aurally perceived. He opened up the discussion about the perception of music, that is for sure, and I am still very happy he did so. If we discuss music it is also perfectly feasible to discuss and challenge the stance of the listener, and that’s basically what Cage did.
Which brings me – finally – to my fundamental doubt about Borstlap’s thesis against “Modernism”. If we should develop a new sense of tradition again, why do we have to actually NEGATE modernism? Hasn’t modernism become part of our tradition already? Why should it be excluded from that tradition like that naughty distant cousin nobody talks about anymore at family reunions? I just don’t get it – and I suppose there are personal pet peeves and frustrations at work here from Borstlap.
If we really want to overcome the old-fashioned “Avantgarde” (and yes, I agree with Borstlap that it has become a mostly old-fashioned term) the best way to do it would be to fully perceive it as part of our tradition, instead of retconning it into something evil that has to be erased from existence.
And this doubt against Borstlap’s argument remains strongly in me, even after reading all these chapters. Perhaps in the final chapter everything will come together and I’ll be suddenly convinced and only write nice little symphonies in the future?
Ok, just kidding….