I am reading „The Classical Revolution“ by John Borstlap and think about it (7)


Is there meaning at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof? The answer is shrouded in eternal mystery....



The Search for Meaning


And here we have it – a chapter in Borstlap’s book with which I cannot disagree on the whole. Probably  because he talks only very little about music here.

Instead this is a mostly “kulturphilosophisches” essay, in fact the most “heavy” and difficult to read chapter so far, as it is about the underlying principles of European culture and the challenges it faces in the 21st century. Superficially this can be read as a traditionalist’s point of view and critique of the current state of affairs. But actually many of his opinions here are very level-headed, yes, dare I say “modern”, and I cannot help but agree with them on a very fundamental level.

And yes, I really wrote that.

The main focus of this chapter is a critique of the negative effects of “cultural relativism”, which goes back (in Borstlap’s opinion) to German philosopher Herder’s idea that there are no universal values of civilization but instead an ever-changing “Volksgeist” (a word that much later acquired a quite bitter taste). What follows is a discussion of the necessity of a sense of “value” of cultural achievements (instead of an “anything is good” attitude, where there are no differences between the trivial and the sublime), including also a sense of pride and “belonging” without falling in the trap of arrogance or totalitarian tendencies. Herder back then was (understandably) criticizing the arrogant and condescending stance of the Age of Enlightenment, which thought European culture the most superior, but his views degraded today into a kind of weary and tired  political correctness without any real values anymore, where the tolerance to pretty much everything results in a situation where everything is also worth the same, therefore removing the idea of “value” altogether.

Even though Borstlap understands the reasons for this stance historically (happening mostly out of guilt for European crimes, especially of the 20th century) he correctly laments the fact that the loss of any kind of standard has resulted in a general loss of quality. In short, he strives for a new objectivism that sets new standards that things can be measured against. This is actually not dissimilar to my personal view that more objectivity is needed in art, even though my personal argument would be that modernism itself is deeply subjective and therefore late-romantic, whereas Borstlap seems to be longing for a new romanticism – I don’t!

For Borstlap the ideal European artist would be one who is proud of his/her heritage and deeply rooted in it, but at the same time acknowledging the diversity of other traditions and respecting them, perhaps looking for some kind of “universal” values (which in itself is a deeply European idea, but that’s another story). Only then would we be culturally inviting to foreigners coming to live in Europe (the main example at the moment being muslims) – because we treat our own culture with so much disrespect it seems like a wasteland to non-Europeans, who then rather keep to their own isolated ways instead of creatively co-existing and assimilating  (like Jewish European immigrants have done admirably over the centuries, despite the injustice they often faced).

Therefore this state of affairs, the “Europe’s doubt of Europe”, is to be faulted for the current backlashes of both right-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism by immigrants, says Borstlap.

Sometimes in this chapter Borstlap comes over as a little grandfatherly and mildly old-fashioned, but the heart of his argument is solid.

He then goes on to lament the negative effects of Germany’s “bad conscience”, although I don’t think he realizes that the following statement is not true anymore:

“As long as “modern music” in Germany strains under the taboo of the “dark period”, its new music is imprisoned within the walls af a moralistic totalitarianism not much less suffocating than the communist cultural climate in the former Soviet union”.

I think this is certainly true of the 50’s to late 60’s, with ripples felt until the late Eighties, but I don’t feel this “moralistic totalitarianism” at work anymore, although there might be remnants in the form of some very isolated personalities. The German music funding system has many aspects that can be definitely discussed, but it enables quite a lot of artistic freedom and has traditionally been extremely welcoming to foreign musicians (including Borstlap by the way), and that is certainly not a bad thing for the cultural climate here in general. And since the formerly extremely influential Donaueschingen and Darmstadt festivals have ceased to be the definitive temples of taste and are just part of a bigger scene (which I think is very healthy) I don’t know any composer who currently feels any kind of “moralistic totalitarianism” at work here, honestly.

Of course the big (unspoken) question of this chapter is: how can we introduce a new sense of “value” without creating just another artistic dictatorship? I don’t think I would follow Borstlap’s personal vision for this lightly, to be honest. I am looking for more freedom than boring old discussions of tonality or “what is music” and “what is not music” which seem so important to Borstlap. As a composer I don’t want to know what music is, I want to discover what music is by writing it. Otherwise all joy is gone.

There is also nothing inherently wrong with “geräusch” or “noise” in music. There are so many fascinating musical cultures that incorporate “noise” instead of just “tones” (think of aboriginal didgeridoos or west-african drumming) that I think noise is a valid element of music. Period. Of course creating a cult of sound events is also not the answer, and can be boring really quickly, but there are a lot of interesting composers who do “sound art” very well, it seems to me.

“Sound Art” is therefore no negative term for me, I just think it is unnecessary, because music already is sound art. Why can sounds not be “spiritual”, as Borstlap demands? 

 I am also not at all with him in his constant bickering about Cage – Cage’s big contribution to music was not the idea of “conceptuality” (that is perhaps developed more interestingly by current young composers) but the idea that listening itself is something that can change instead of being just an act by which music is aurally perceived.  He opened up the discussion about the perception of music, that is for sure, and I am still very happy he did so. If we discuss music it is also perfectly feasible to discuss and challenge the stance of the listener, and that’s basically what Cage did.

Which brings me – finally – to my fundamental doubt about  Borstlap’s thesis against “Modernism”. If we should develop a new sense of tradition again, why do we have to actually NEGATE modernism? Hasn’t modernism become part of our tradition already? Why should it be excluded from that tradition like that naughty distant cousin nobody talks about anymore at family reunions? I just don’t get it – and I suppose there are personal pet peeves and frustrations at work here from Borstlap.

If we really want to overcome the old-fashioned “Avantgarde” (and yes, I agree with Borstlap that it has become a mostly old-fashioned term) the best way to do it would be to fully perceive it as part of our tradition, instead of retconning it into something evil that has to be erased from existence.

And this doubt against Borstlap’s argument remains strongly in me, even after reading all these chapters. Perhaps in the final chapter everything will come together and I’ll be suddenly convinced and only write nice little symphonies in the future?

Ok, just kidding….

 Moritz Eggert

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4 Antworten

  1. @Moritz Eggert: Der Begriff „Qualität“ wird ja auch von dem Komponisten Patrick Frank gern im Munde geführt. Ich denke, ohne begriffliches Framework ist dies aber ein leerer Begriff, bzw. ein Passepartout-Begriff. Will man bsp.weise „Qualität“ im Sinne von „handwerklicher Perfektion“, geht dies vermutlich auf Kosten der Kreativität – und umgekehrt! „Objektivismus“ ist auch problematisch bzw. kontext-abhängig. Waren bsp.weise Erik Satie oder John Cage „objektiv“ schlechte Komponisten, weil sie Sachen machten, die bisher verboten waren? Nein, dieser Ansatz führt nicht weiter, denke ich (außer, man will den Neo-Konservatismus und nichts anderes).

  2. Samuel Vriezen sagt:

    Moritz, thanks again for this post! So glad you’re reading the book so I don’t have to :-). But, doesn’t the problematic of „European culture“ go a bit deeper than just the 20th century and Herder? If anything, „European culture“ over the past five hundred years has been fundamentally enmeshed with encounters with the outside, both external (colonialism) and internal (religious and ideological struggle). One could easily argue that what is dismissed as „cultural relativism“ is in fact itself a profound branch of culture all over Europe going back to at least the 16th century, that is, it is almost synonymous with modernity as such, and that would also by definition falsify any „universal values“ that would not at the same time include a component of this kind of fundamental critique.

    The challenge is then precisely to be at the same time fully modern, fully traditional, ánd fully critical/open – and if you say „I want to discover what music is by writing it“, I think that’s an attitude that could work. More generally, I would suggest that universality and „relativism“ are not mutually exclusive opposites, but they form a dualism as two dimensions of the same thing – but that’s a whole other subject.

  3. @Samuel: I agree with you – I think Borstlap actually takes care in this chapter to not make the whole thematic complex too simple, so there might be some injustice by me in simplifying the point of the chapter in my description. One can criticize many chapters in his book, but I found this one to be the least debatable of them all. Europe really is at a turning point regarding its cultural „disposition“ (if I may call it that) at the moment, and we all feel that this is our biggest challenge for the future. I cannot argue with Borstlap here, who talks about the backlash from a too negligent and soulless liberalism (Holland might be an example, but we have that in Germany as well of course) but definitely stresses that reactionary tendencies (and racism) are much worse.
    @Stefan: „Qualität“ ist natürlich ganz schwierig, ebenso wie der Begriff „Leitkultur“. Das Problem ist nur, wenn diese Begriffe komplett wegfallen (so wie eigentlich im Moment in der Musikkritik, die nur noch darum herumnavigiert, ohne klare Positionen zu beziehen), entsteht ein „free for all“ wischi waschi, in dem irgendwie alles ok, aber nichts mehr relevant ist.
    Über Borstlaps Qualitätsbegriff (den ich definitiv nicht teile) kann man zumindest produktiv streiten, weil er klar Position bezieht. Damit kann man umgehen – mit Wischi Waschi eben nicht. Die produktivsten Zeiten in der Musikgeschichte waren eigentlich die, in denen viel und gerne gestritten wurde, findest Du nicht? Dann geht es nämlich um etwas, heute geht es oft um gar nichts mehr (außer dem nächsten kleinen Auftrag, so lange die deutsche Kulturmaschine noch einigermaßen läuft)

  4. Patrick Frank sagt:

    Ich führe jetzt nicht im Detail aus, wie ich den Begriff ‚Qualität‘ verwende. Ausgangspunkt ist die formale Logik und die kantische Anwendung in seinen 12 Kategorien. Jedenfalls ist ‚Qualität‘ dort nicht die umgangssprachliche ‚Qualität‘, sondern eine Form der Erkenntis (um es mal platt auszudrücken).