I read John Borstlap’s „The Classical Revolution“ and think about it (3)
Chapter One: The Classical Revolution: The Shock of the Old
Now we come to the meaty part of Borstlap’s book – the first of 9 chapters in which he tells us what exactly is wrong with the music world.
And – granted – a lot of things Borstlap says at the beginning of the chapter are absolutely true. Here are the best quotes (in my opinion):
1. “As long as (tradition) is understood as a flexible and living process which develops itself by continuous interpretation, it is not a conservative notion”
This is absolutely true and equals my personal belief that tradition has never been the problem, but traditionalism. That nothing from the past can ever be mentioned or repeated, that everything has to be abstract and not related to anything, at best created completely out of the blue always seemed to me like one of the more stupid notions of the conservative avant-garde…
2. “(…) Europe as it has been can no longer be taken for granted: it has become an idea to be discussed”
And – as Borstlap correctly explains- with the ongoing loss of its own cultural identity the cultural integration of immigrants – no doubt the main theme in Europe in these times – can never be truly achieved…if we don’t even understand our own roots anymore! Borstlap also bemoans the rise of neo-fascism and reactionary tendencies in European countries – right on, bro’!
3. “This is what modernist brainwashing and myth making has brought into the world of art: the idea that it is not possible that an artist could mean an expressive gesture which has come down to him through history and with which he could himself identify with integrity”
Even though I wouldn’t call the shyness of modern music towards old expressive modes “brainwashing” (most of the most outspoken “modern” composers had seen a time where romantic ideals like individual heroism and courage had been perverted to drive millions into senseless wars) I would completely agree that this doesn’t mean that these gestures should be taboo forever from now on and that they couldn’t be used with sincere (and not necessarily neutrally post-modern) intent.
What follows then is much more debatable, though. First Borstlap discusses the idea of “kitsch” and that there is no kitsch if the artist believes in the genuineness of an expression (so Stravinsky – one of the most level-headed composers ever – is “kitschy” in his neo-classicism because he didn’t believe in musical expression??? Has old Igor actually written one kitschy bar in his life? I doubt it….). Then he argues that the success of neo-tonalists like Pärt brought on a surge of “nice-sounding” music that was mainly constructivist in nature. He heavily criticizes Ligeti for on one hand understanding the problem of modernism and turning towards tradition, but then failing to “deliver the goods” (in Borstlap’s words) because his compositional skills weren’t up to the challenge. He explains it by describing Ligeti’s lines as “without energy from one note to the next” which is of course a completely subjective statement.
Also composers like Andriessen (“60’s kitsch”), Adams (“too repetitive”) as well as Gorecki and even Mahler and Richard Strauss get some critical words. It seems that the successful tonal composers from the scenes of minimal and constructivist music only serve as beacons to guide the “really good” “classical revolution composers” (he cites French composer Nicolas Bacri as an example of an underrated genius) towards the light of “truth”, which seems to be:
– Write in a tonal and accessible style that is aware of Western musical tradition without any hint of post-modernism, cynicism, constructivism or any of that other modern bullshit.
– If you write a really nice melody in c-minor you better really believe in its beauty, because otherwise it is kitsch.
– Don’t do “sound art” of any kind, because music has a higher spiritual and symbolic meaning which is otherwise lost.
I’m simplifying of course, but that seems to be Borstlap’s basic drift. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that even if composers are doing exactly that (like him and Bacri) they will not really be recognized by a society that has been spoiled by evil selection commitees “brainwashed” by modernist thinking or listless conservative “museal” concert programmers who don’t really want “another f***** Brahms” because that would endanger the enshrined status of the old shit they are selling.
Ok, I’m not citing Borstlap here at all and use my own and much more blunt wording, but that’s basically the meaning of what he says.
Of course with his judgment of for example Ligeti – one of the few contemporary composers whose music can actually convince and positively engage a jaded audience of both conservative concert goers and New Music experts (no mean feat by the way!) – Borstlap is entering the dangerous and treacherous territory of personal taste, which can of course endlessly be debated.
Why is Ligeti no “classical revolutionary”? I wouldn’t describe Ligeti as the most expressive composer – there certainly is also a feeling of detachment in his music that can be explained by his upbringing in a totalitarian communist state where everybody had to hide their true feelings. But I find it easy to see that there is a genuine musicality and playfulness at work in his music that is actually not that very far from a Mozart or a really genuine musical expression from the past that I would describe as “joie de vivre”: Playing with notes with the intent of celebrating the beauty of creation’s endless variety. What the heck is wrong (or “non-sincere”) about that? Why couldn’t Ligeti (who during his life was often heavily criticized by the traditional Avantgarde camp but nevertheless doggedly followed his own intuitions without compromise) be a model “classical revolutionary” like Bacri or Borstlap?
Slowly I get the feeling that Borstlap’s strategy is to make the “Classical Revolution” composers as rare as possible (so he can be part of an elite) instead of recognizing the many other great composers of the current and the last century who had exactly the same criticism of modernism like he and successfully created their own musical languages of great integrity. The same strategy is often used by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf in his (neo-modernist) essays: “there are only a few good ones”.
Or – to improvise on a famous Western film title: „There are bad ones, there are ugly ones, and the good ones are few. I am one of the latter, by the way.“
(To be continued)