I am reading John Borstlap’s „The Classical Revolution“ and think about it (4)
„Chapter 2: The Fallacy of Modernism I“
Oh my, what should I make of this long and rambling chapter?
In it Borstlap goes on and on about his most beloved insights, while the sheer repetition of his mantras “modernism is bad” and “tonality is good” slowly grate on the reader’s nerves because the feeling arises that matters of personal taste are falsely sold as “objective” golden rules for good music.
To make it clear: I am not a big fan of many myths of “modern” music (and Borstlap is actually right to call them myths). We all know what they are: “12-tone music will ensure the hegemony of German music for the next 100 years”, “12-tone melodies will be whistled on the street”, “any composer who doesn’t use the serial method is USELESS” blahblahblah and on and on. But how interesting is it to go on and on about the fallacies of modernism when basically all art periods had their fallacies and errors, their “do” or “do not”’s? Is modern music bad in general because it contains some theories and concepts that simply did not work in the end, that proved to be dead ends? Did exactly this not happen a thousand times before in the history of art?
Look at the recent musical past (in Europe): Baroque music became more and more unbearable when all the ornamentation and contrapuntal skill resulted in uninspired “Kunsthandwerk”, like in bad works by Vivaldi. (On a more personal note: I once spent a weekend listening to only choir works by either Vivaldi or Arvo Pärt, and in the end I didn’t know which was the more hollow albeit well-intended experience).
In the “classical” period music then became sometimes very stiff and representational, resulting in boring and formulaic works. It was the success of composers like Beethoven to bring the individual perspective into play, which brought new energy and liveliness into music because it suddenly didn’t go “as expected”.
The romantic movement then explored the subjective to such an extent that at some point it became masturbatory and self-indulgent, resulting in more and more overblown “masterworks” that more and more felt like much ado about nothing.
Therefore Tonality has not died for the first time in the 20th century like Borstlap claims. It has already died a thousand deaths since it was created as a reference system of sorts, because its own rules were considered to be old-fashioned again and again. When composers moved on from parallel fifths and fourths (both “good intervals” in Borstlap’s opinion) and made rules to actually avoid them at all costs, wasn’t that a death of (some form) of tonality? To be replaced by yet another death, and another, and another?
The organization of notes under the 12-tone method is not such a dramatic departure as Borstlap wants to make us think: It has only been made possible by the invention of the well-tempered chromatic scale (which in itself was quite a radical departure of great abstraction), therefore – as strange as it may seem to the fervent new defenders of tonality – it is actually an extension of tonal thinking (and that is also how Schoenberg actually perceived it – as an extension of already existing tradition, not as an act of terrorism). That doesn’t mean that 12-tone music is there to stay (and it has of course already long died yet another death) – I am sure many more deaths of tonality are around the corner, and I welcome them with open arms. Because every death of tonality grants it eternal life – but if nothing dies in tonality, if its “Golden Rules” are never questioned, it becomes death embodied. The tonality that doesn’t constantly change, that doesn’t constantly explore its limits and borders (perhaps to return to one fork in the path and then go another way – that should always be allowed, there is not one direction) is an undead monster in my opinion, and Borstlap wants to be its Frankenstein. But undead it is.
That my friends is the great and wonderful and eternal paradox of art: even if it’s damn good, at some point it just has to change.
What do we have to fear in the end – the endlessly fascinating possibilities of variation and exploration? The wonder of the myriad of variations of sound waves?
My point is: all, ABSOLUTELY ALL artistic periods had their great merits and their great fallacies, all at the same time. But recognizing these fallacies doesn’t diminish the merits, that is important to see. It should therefore come as no surprise that modern music has had these fallacies as well – if it hadn’t it would be truly the “end of music”, but the great arrogance and naivety of some of modern music’s boldest statements were actually the guarantee that music can go on afterwards and explore new ways. I am actually glad about all the most radical and most shocking and most often discussed statements by Stockhausen and Boulez and others. Because they – in their totalitarian efforts – laid the seeds for an anti-totalitarian reaction. Borstlap sees them as the end of inspiration – I see them as the beginning of a new inspiration. Therefore I can never perceive modernism as the “great evil” as Borstlap wants to see it. There was good and there was bad (as always) but all in all “Modern Music” was a pretty good representation of the spirit of its times. But it is also our duty to move on, no doubt.
Borstlap is – throughout this chapter – heavily criticizing the statement that atonality was a “necessary” development (and he is even slapping his idol Barenboim’s hand for saying that). But come on – all he is seeing is the word “necessary” and having problems with it, but how about saying “it happened because at that point it could be done” and all will be perceived in a new light.
Was it really that bad that Schoenberg was trying out something that seemed interesting to him at the time (and that was hinted at already in the works of the composers directly before him in Vienna – think of Hugo Wolf’s famous 12-tone passages in some of his songs)? Isn’t that the right of every artist: trying things out because they are possible? What harm has been done?
Borstlap would counter this with:
“Blowing up (the bridge of tonality) is a deed of cultural terrorism” (Chapter 2, page 14), but that is simply a statement which is supposed to sound impressive. Trying out new things is never an act of terrorism, it is an act of curiosity.
Leave the terrorism to the people who want to teach us of “their” way of life instead of giving a individual the freedom to choose. A dictatorship of tonality is as bad as a dictatorship of atonality, in fact there would be no quality difference at all.
The fact that there has been (actually for a very short time historically, while at the same time tonality was alive and well, and actually still is!) something that resembled a dictatorship of atonality in a limited cultural environment (roughly in Central Europe and some isolated universities in the US and elsewhere) didn’t create enough suffering in me to long greatly for a new dictatorship of tonality where composers like Borstlap want to sell me the old bullshit of the “superiority” of “clean” intervals like octaves and fifths, which is as ridiculous as having to constantly avoid them because they are “old-fashioned”. Both concepts are just feeble attempts to put a rules system on something that is simply a matter of cultural choice. Human art cultures develop individually and very differently, reacting both to environment and their accumulated histories. Like language they are in a constant flux. Borstlap says for example that the new geniuses in painting will only come from the “figurists” who paint realistic portraits and such, but doesn’t that completely deny that there are visual cultures of great beauty that actually successfully explored abstract ornamentation (think of Islamic art). Or Chinese signs with their ancient tradition of highly advanced and skillful calligraphy – aren’t they a pretty successful example of artificial abstraction in action creating great beauty? I find that Borstlap takes on the typically narrow-minded European stance here that always seems to ignore the fact that other human cultures have done a lot of stuff differently than we, but equally successful.
Why does nobody have a problem with the fact that the rules of grammar, spelling and notation constantly change IN EVERY SINGLE LANGUAGE OF THE WORLD while music somehow is supposed to have “golden rules” that have to be eternally valid and should always go back to same ol’ same ol’ regularly?
What Borstlap denies is the fact that it is never possible to truly turn back, that it is never possible to truly close a door that has been opened already. And why should one limit the imagination?
Declaring most contemporary music as “sound art” and not music (as Borstlap amply tries to demonstrate in this chapter) is too simple for me, because everything that uses sound and organizes it with – any! – artistic intent is automatically music, if you like it or not. So why the distinction?
And has the 20th century really been the century of the fall of tonality? I would actually call the discussion of atonality versus tonality one of the sideshows of the 20th century – the rise of the importance of rhythm in Western art music (an aspect which was completely underdeveloped and very often quite lame compared to other cultures) has had a much huger impact on music in my opinion.
Wouldn’t it be horribly boring if there was a golden rule to everything?
(To be continued)