I am reading „The Classical Revolution“ by John Borstlap and think about it (5)

diesmal: im Frankfurter Flughafen kurz vor dem Flug nach Mexiko


The Fallacy of Modernism II: The Attack upon Music



This is Borstlap’s most controversial chapter so far. In German we would say “he pulls his pants down”, meaning that he is revealing his pet hatreds for certain composers (especially Boulez, who he constantly criticizes for being extremely shallow and simple while hiding it under a layer of clever wordplay). These are the most important concepts of this chapter in a nutshell:


1)      “Sonic Art” (what the rest of the world is calling “contemporary music”) is not music, and to think so is letting barbarians reign in art.

2)      “Sonic Art” is materialistic through and through and its widespread academic conquest of the world is equal to opening another McDonalds restaurant.

3)      “Innocents” (i.e. children) should be protected from efforts of selling  “sonic art” as “education projects” as these are no introductions to music at all but to something else.

4)      To be a “sonic artist” no musical talent is required, and therefore most current “New Music” is atrociously bad.

5)      Being outwardly “modern” and “avant-garde” is in fact being extremely conservative, naïve and even hostile to the world.

6)      Originality is misunderstood as a concept: there is no danger to be derivative if it is an expression of an individual and authentic emotion.

7)       Brahms is a good composer.

And now I will say something quite radical as well: I agree (except 1) and 3) and the use of the word “Sonic Art” to describe “classical” avant-garde music) with most of the above. But that is because Borstlap mostly describes the malaise he perceives in this chapter instead of droning on about his solution: traditional tonality and a return to “good old values of music”, with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

And here are some radical quotes, for your enjoyment:

“In fact, modernist “composers” of today, like Helmut Lachenmann with his death cult, Brian Ferneyhough with his horror vacui, and Elliott Carter with his “celebration” of modern life, are the real conservatives….”

“…like the German sound artist Jörg Widmann, who sells his nicely polished, harmless trade to handfuls of equally adapted sonic listeners, although it cannot find much of a sympathetic ear (….) where it is compared with music.”

“Wolfgang Rihm’s mostly hollow neo-expressionism with its quasi melodramatic gestures in which the location of the notes do not matter.”

“It is rather tragic to think of someone [referring to Boulez] who first wants to destroy something and then tries to glue the splinters together”

“[state funded] “revolutionary spirit” is bourgeois through-and-through….”

“To be a sonic artist, however, musical talents are not required, and this explains the sheer number of “modern composers” and “composition students”  everywhere in the Western world….”


I do not agree with all of the above sentiments, but I have to admit that I admire Borstlap’s guts to say so, as he is right in his assessment that most contemporary music critics would not even dare to write anything of the above out of angst to be seen as “backwards” or “conservative”. But I would actually think that many of the above-mentioned could actually profit from some critical words here and there – they would improve their already impressive music instead of constantly bathing them in uninhibited praise, which is never really good for an artist in the long run.

And speaking of a dramatic lack of musical talent in many young composers – he is not completely wrong (and I say this with some experience of entry exams and their development in the last decades). And if I read some current reviews of for example the last Donaueschingen festival, I find there is a huge gap between how it is presented in the feuilletons of the big newspaper (gushing and non-critical, to politically protect the always financially endangered Donaueschingen) and the more honest reviews of visiting young composers like Mathias Monrad Moller.

I don’t want to argue who is more right in this case, but the gap is perceptible to everybody. I assume similar strategies are at work in Borstlap’s home country, the Netherlands, whose system of music funding has come under heavy attack recently and is therefore also feverishly defended.

The strange thing: in this – his most provocative chapter so far – I agree with Borstlap the most, and mostly for the most important point he makes and which I have not yet mentioned above yet:

Why is the “traditional”  avant-garde constantly writing the most clever books, educated people again and again from a younger and younger age,  and – most importantly – constantly defending itself and its merits (this is going on for roughly 100 years) when in fact it is becoming a more and more a marginalized phenomenon of musical culture?

Please note the carefully phrased term “traditional avant-garde”, I am not speaking of New Music in general.

Food for thought.


Moritz Eggert

(to be continued)

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1 Antwort

  1. Samuel Vriezen sagt:

    Moritz, thank you for this series so far!

    Re: that last quote – one remark: yes, modernism has been in a defensive position for 100 years (and readers of Slonimsky’s Lexicon of course know that the tradition of attacking novelty is much older than that). But there are shifts. 100 years ago, it was Schönberg and Stravinsky who were being attacked. Today, I have now been able to hear more performances of Pierrot Lunaire within reasonable traveling distance over the past year only than Schönberg has had in his entire lifetime. Likewise, somebody like Cage was quite a successful composer in life, but after his death it seems like interest has only increased. What I very much hope for is that something similar will happen for the orchestral works of Iannis Xenakis, which I think belong to the high points of orchestral literature of all time.

    But if the point is that defensiveness is not a very artistically exciting stance, I agree. Here, there are differences to be made as well, of course. Schönberg certainly had defensive moments (Drei Satiren comes to mind especially) – possibly because he was (like Borstlap) trying to fit in with the larger tradition and failing to get sufficient recognition for that – but in people like Cage and Xenakis I think the positive and revolutionary force is stronger than the reactionary, defensive tendency. But of course, such individuals do not represent the entire culture of avant-garde music.