I’m reading John Borstlap’s „The Classical Revolution“ and think about it (2)

I’m reading John Borstlap’s „The Classical Revolution“ and think about it (2)


I was astonished how much international resonance my last blog entry – the beginning of a commented reading of Borstlap’s much maligned book chapter by chapter – has created. Even though most comments I read condemned Borstlap’s critique of the “New Music Establishment” as laughable there seemed to be a hint at a bigger and perhaps even necessary discussion of the way arts and especially music are funded. Because I am interested in a more international opinion and perhaps even consensus on this I have decided to continue this series in English (perhaps as a little step towards an international edition of the Bad Blog Of Musick, which is something I always want to do but never get around doing sadly).

What this is: I am reading “The Classical Revolution” by Dutch composer and writer John Borstlap and try to take the text without any preconceptions. I will not judge Borstlap’s music or have my view tainted by any notions of that he is simply a “frustrated” composer (which might also be an easy way to just ignore him). This doesn’t mean I won’t be critical of what he writes.

Last blog entry I was discussing the “Acknowledgments” and had to agree with (and laugh about) his description of Alexander Goehr a lot. Now we head to his



Synopsis: Even though Borstlap notes that the shutting-down of orchestras and opera houses is not a new phenomenon and has always existed historically, the whole point of this chapter seems to be that he wants to express a general perception of decline in the importance of European Art Music, and that he very much regrets that this is happening. He goes to great lengths describing the spiritual (not in a religious sense, but in a sense of cultural “belonging” and relevance as a symbolic art) quality of music, and that it doesn’t develop in a linear form like science. He also criticizes the general mood of despair that is prevalent in Europe and that we fail to recognize the destructive nature of our own nihilism.

Interestingly enough he starts the article with a description of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and that Europe as a whole has not yet understood or appreciated the true liberating meaning of that event. Reading something like this always reminds me of the fact that Non-Germans always have a very romantic view of the end of East Germany, whereas Germans tend to moan when talking about East/West-German affairs (although this constant bickering about the problems that the unification created is now slowly changing into a “it is how it is” feeling with people generally forgetting that there actually were two Germanys once. I think that any nostalgia in this matter is inappropriate, especially when old East-German composers complain about how good they had it in East Germany’s state funded music scene…but that’s another theme).

What I think:

In general I have to actually agree with a lot of what Borstlap says here regarding the European stance towards its own culture. I also perceive the prevalent nihilism and negativity as problematic, even decadent when one looks at the rest of the world. I also both despise the self-contained “New Music Scene” audience when it looks down on the rest of the world as not being up to its own standards (that nobody except themselves really gives a damn about), but also the so-called “normal” audience that throws any kind of contemporary classical music into a big drawer labeled “not really that good as it used to be”. When Borstlap writes…

“Art is not an isolated little garden for highbrow entertainment; it reflects what is going on in a much wider context”

…I could actually not agree more. Bravo.

What I find a little problematic is that Borstlap wears two hats throughout the text. On one hand he actually stresses the need for cultural diversity, in which even that which he calls “sound-art” (which is Borstlap’s term for any kind of serial, post-serial or avant-garde music, also Boulez for him is not a musician, he is a “sound-artist”) would have a rightful place. On the other hand he conjures images like composers ending in “ruin” after taking the “wrong train”, where there is “one right way to go” which is the opposite of what he says when he asserts the non-linearity of art. It should be everybody’s right to take any train they want to take – and it is much more interesting when you don’t know where it will take you.

What it all boils down to is simply this: “sound art” gets all the funding, “new classical music” not, and that’s bad (in Borstlap’s view). Perhaps this is a too simple way to look at it?

What is spot on is his description of the public image of New Music – he describes a TV feature about Boulez where music of Debussy is juxtaposed with images of beautiful trees and autumn leaves whereas Boulez’ music is visualized with desolate industrial areas.

Borstlap’s love for the arts life in the US is very strange, though. Throughout the text he praises the USA as “generous” regarding the cultural stabilization of Europe after WWII, failing to mention that even though the effect especially in Germany was most certainly positive it also happened for very non-altruistic and strategic military reasons. He also notes that the “Classical New Music” that he likes has more room in the concert halls of America, and that the evil “sound artists” are mostly condemned to live as slaves of the academic system. Which completely overlooks the fact that arts in general have it much more difficult in the US than in Europe because of a complete lack of state support . If Borstlap lived there himself he might be greeted with even more ignorance and personal poverty if he fails to make a good impression at a fund-raising event!

I also have a problem with some side remarks, like when he writes that tonality is “hard-wired” in our brain – does he mean only for Europeans? He cannot mean the rest of the world, which apparently is quite happy with musical languages that are not at all “tonal” in the European sense. This reminds me of the description of some Wagner scholars at a convention that a friend recently gave me: when they talk about their perceived superiority of “tonality” it is like talking about being a “good Aryan”, and that is completely despicable and just wrong.

So when Borstlap – at the end of the chapter – hopefully addresses the audience (= music programmers, musicians etc.) with his vision of a “Classical Revolution” – why the heck does it have to be tonal?

Of course we also have to be aware of the fact that there is no reason for any revolution to be “atonal”. One or the other are – and I don’t think I am alone with that – any kind of valid restrictions on what you want to write. There is a history of both tonal and atonal music in Europe now, and ignoring one or the other doesn’t really work. Atonal music is also not necessarily “sound-art”. I am not even interested in these categories any more – they bore me to death.

Everything is bad if it becomes an ideology, even with the best intentions.