I read the „Classical Revolution“ by John Borstlap and think about it (7)
The Enduring Presence of the Past
In this chapter Borstlap describes his vision of a new “Renaissance” – a resurgence of classical values (therefore “Classical Revolution”, hohum) that will hopefully bring a new relevance to art.
He describes how strategies of “destroying the past” are a tool of modernism to remove any comparison with a glorious past (which – in Borstlap’s opinion – will be highly unbecoming to the modernists because the “old ones” are simply so much better and sincerer). He actually puts it much more melodramatically:
The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and thus upon humanity. The inhuman nature of much modernist “music”(…..) is only the logical result of such an ideology
So here we go again: It seems that in practically every chapter of Borstlap’s book the whole humanity is at stake. We rise or die if we solve that pesky problem with modernism, but it’s all or nothing, the fate of the world is depending on it. Hmm.
It is obvious that Borstlap wants to make his mission seem as urgent as possible, but isn’t it a bit simple to reduce something complex like the multi-layered culture of today into only two basic principles: a) a return to old values or b) the complete destruction of the past? I guess there are also many ways in-between. Also the renaissance knew barbaric tendencies and had some ideology at work, even if I totally agree with Borstlap that its impact on European culture was tremendous and mostly positive.
A little later he writes:
The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from the past into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation.
…which actually accurately describes what is wrong with classical music of today – the “cult” of Beethoven, the “cult” of Mozart, etc. is actually what is alienating us from these composers. Putting them on a pedestal freezes them in time forever, making everything that is contemporary and in search of something somehow seem of lesser value.
Then he describes the “primitivist” tendencies of modern music and condems it thus:
The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and …music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it.
One moment – I can’t shake the feeling that I wish that contemporary music was actually MORE primitivist (and therefore also fueled by a rawer energy, like in “Sacre”), instead of always safely step-toeing on trodden and safe ground. I am not sure that “official” art tends to be primitivist, but it is certainly very often boring because of an inherent political correctness that strives for the best funding possible.
Basically it all comes down to the question: are you a cultural pessimist or not? Do you believe in the successful renaissance and resurgence of old values or do you feel everything is going downhill?
But wasn’t the renaissance most interesting where it actually misunderstood the classical examples creatively? And were some of the most successful endeavors of the renaissance not also very daring and totally new (one should only think of Leonardo da Vinci)? They had a big advantage: they couldn’t perfectly return to a past that they had practically no written record of – so because of that their attempt to recreate Greek tragedy resulted in opera, which is a completely new beast.
A full renaissance of 19th century values (which I guess Borstlap has in mind) would actually result in boring clones of Brahms, because the 19th century is already pretty well documented. There can be no imagination anymore, because everything is already there.
And also: are the “Modernist” composers that Borstlap hates so much really so much removed from tradition and the past (one of his main arguments against modernism is the notion that it is fascist by removing the past and rewriting it).
Lachenmann and Rihm for example are composers in whose music the musical tradition is not only referred to lightly but where it forms an integral part of their work – either reacting to it or developing it further. So they are actually doing exactly what Borstlap demands (think of Lachenmann’s piano concerto or Rihm’s “Fremde Szenen”), but still they are not part of his “renaissance” but apparently of another, parallel renaissance, a renaissance that is not deemed worthy by Borstlap.
And even if you look at the most fragmented and experimental works of Borstlap’s most despised composer, John Cage – isn’t musical tradition also there, in the “Europeras” for example, or in the homage to Scarlatti in the form of the “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano? Is Cage really a tradition smasher? Or instead somebody who looks at tradition in a new way?
Which brings us back to the theme: which group do you belong to? And to how you can evaluate the same principle at work in really different ways, depending on which side you are on.