I am reading „The Classical Revolution“ by John Borstlap and think about it (9th and final part)
We have reached the end, my friends. The final chapter of Borstlap’s book, which is called
Conclusion: The Debate of Beauty
(there is a further chapter, but that is simply a collection of composers that Borstlap likes and who he thinks represent “true new classicists”, ending with the one he probably likes the most – and that is ok – himself).
I had expected some mind-shattering revelation in this chapter, as Borstlap repeatedly has told us that the truth will only emerge after reading all of his arguments. This revelation never came, sorry. This chapter is simply a reflection on the necessity of beauty in ugly times and a not very surprising critique of Adorno’s statements about what is possible and not possible after the holocaust, a theme that has been written to death literally and is only kept alive at all because people still write about it.
My personal answer to the famous question about poems after Auschwitz has always been: if we stop writing poems altogether after a catastrophe like that, Auschwitz has won over us, and that victory is something I would not want the asshole Nazis to have, to put it bluntly.
On the other hand it is also perfectly understandable that after Auschwitz one couldn’t go on as if nothing had happened. It is also not true that people walking around in ruins (as Borstlap describes it) wouldn’t want to listen to music by Birtwistle and Widmann (sic!) but only to “nice” and “Beautiful” music.
A good counter example: Thatcherism pretty much left Great Britain in ruins back then, and the musical reaction of the people most affected by it – the underdogs of British society – was not to create sweet little lullabies – they created punk music! Very often crises of society are accompanied by an art that foreshadows or reflects it instead of offering a nice counter world in which one can escape into. 60’s cinema for example was full of extremely dystopian Science Fiction movies, very often with an apocalyptic character (for example “Planet of the Apes”), which pretty much reflected the angst and paranoia of the times. People flocked to the cinema to be confronted with their fears (which can also be a form of solace).
Our own age has a crisis about heritage and outdated and violent belief-systems, and this creates a cultural fascination with undead themes (something returning from the grave, where it actually would belong), also not necessarily a “nice” and beautiful topic but a perfect reflection of our time.
In a way Borstlap is actually part of that phenomenon, because sometimes he comes over as a gravedigger looking for a very exquisite corpse.
I agree with Borstlap that a desire to create beauty in music is a valid one that a composer should not be embarrassed about. Beauty is very important. But when he writes (Page 123)…
“High art is an exercise of what is best in the human being”
…he ignores the fact that most of what we consider extremely touching and beautiful works of “high” art are not like that at all. “Don Quixote” – arguably one of the most important novels ever written – is a wonderful depiction of error and human failure as well as misguided (but still sympathetic) virtue, as is “Moby Dick” (to name some really obvious examples). “Don Giovanni” tells us more about the human nature than most other operas, and the main character is definitely an exercise in what is worst in a human being (while remaining strangely endearing because Mozart identified with him). Still, a world without these works would be lacking in beauty, even though beauty in Borstlap’s definition was not the purpose of these works at all. I actually could not think of one single great work of art that is content just being “beautiful”. There is always more at stake.
To understand life, to make relevant art we have to approach the light as well as the dark sides of our existence. There is extreme ugliness in beauty (the music of a certain Mr. Einaudi or a certain Mr. Whitaker comes to my mind immediately) and there is certainly beauty in ugliness. Sometimes one is more relevant for a time than the other.
But perhaps Borstlap is partly right – in so-called “New Music” there most certainly is a dearth of emotional and beautiful music, and very often the expression is not authentic and very laborious. I can understand Borstlap’s desire for beauty, I can understand that he misses elements like ornamentation and warmth as well as sincere expression in a lot of contemporary art and music.
But the history of music after Auschwitz is actually pretty understandable. Modern music was not a negation of beauty (as Borstlap might want us to think), it was an attempt to create a new concept of beauty after the old concept of beauty had been abused and raped.
Just yesterday I talked with the fantastic German guitarist Jürgen Ruck about Helmut Lachenmann’s life-changing experience when he was a small boy: to hear first a beautiful Beethoven symphony on the radio, and then a rousing speech by Goebbels, inciting him to want to defend the “Fatherland”. I think it is perfectly understandable that then one wants to create a different form of beauty, because Beethoven has been tainted forever (which is of course not Beethoven’s fault).
Lachenmann has definitely searched for beauty in music all his life, his music is not about negating everything but finding beauty in different places than before, that much is clear. That he is also a child of his times and that he was involved – like everybody else of his generation – in a dogmatic discussion that sometimes incited him to dogmatic statements as well is just part of the general discourse of a musical society I think.
But was beauty really destroyed by modern music? I don’t think so. Searching for new forms of expression is also a search for beauty in unexpected places. Sometimes this search is not successful, of course.
So here it is, my personal conclusion of my pretty intense study of Borstlap’s book:
Contemporary (European) classical music/culture is in a crisis of relevance and its role in society as well as in a crisis of communicating its own values (or sometimes communicating at all). I mostly agree with Borstlap in his argumentation here.
But where I completely disagree is the healing pill that he proposes: the negation and complete abandonment of modern music or “sonic art” and the return to good old and tested values in the vague hope that they might bring on a new renaissance. This is where he gets the whole concept of art wrong – art is neither about treading exclusively on new ground (what modernism tried to do) nor about treading exclusively on tested ground (what new classicism proposes). The answer very often lies in between, and actually the most artistically successful composers are good in both being daring and new and also being grounded in the tradition. It is definitely possible, and the names of these composers are rightfully better known than most of the composers he lists in the appendix. Do I personally want the rest of the 21st century to be solely grounded on the nice violin concertos by Nicolas Bacri instead? Eh, no….I want a bit more diversity please (nothing against Bacri, by the way).
And that is the big question: Why is diversity bad? Why would we want to exchange one relatively exclusive belief system (modernism) for one that is equally exclusive and negating (Borstlap)?
Our present demands an artistic answer, that much is sure. But it is an answer that cannot be repeated – ever be repeated – because each epoch, each period asks a new question. Being “spiritual” or “authentic” (both legitimate demands for art) is therefore not enough, there always has to be an element of endeavor, of risk-taking, of trying something new. Returning to a used idiom can be a personal and absolutely valid and convincing decision of personal style, but doing so is not the answer itself as Borstlap hopes. The concept of “Style” in itself is completely meaningless and exchangeable.
And most importantly of all: one cannot negate anything in history. What has happened has happened.
Modern music has been in the room. We cannot pretend it has never been there with us. Everything that follows from now on will be influenced by that presence. This is neither good nor bad, it is simply a fact. Modern Music was here, it has sat on a chair at our table.
And that chair is still pretty warm.