Are we having it too good?
Are we having it too good?
One of the most enduring clichés of art history is the cliché of the suffering artist. Mozart – dying much too young and being buried in an unnamed mass grave, Van Gogh – cutting off his ear in absinth-fueled delirium, Beethoven – becoming increasingly alienated from society by his deafness and insufferable eccentricity. These are images which stick in the mind of a greater public and which form the nimbus which we associate with “great” art.
But it is not only the personal suffering of artists which defines our view of their art, it is also most certainly the “interesting” times in which they operated. What would for example the Second Viennese School have become if it hadn’t been declared “entartet” by the Nazi regime? If it had been one of the many comfy and nice musical trends of today, like Spectralism? Didn’t exactly that particular troubled role in history make it especially attractive and poignant to the following generations?
Looking at the interesting periods of art in 20th century it is easy to find correlations to major upheavals of society, impending wars, oppression and human suffering. And one doesn’t have to go back much further to discover that the symphonic revolutions of Beethoven are unthinkable without the battle for ideals that incited the French Revolution. Even more “private” composers like Schubert and Beethoven responded against the indifference of their times – they thought “bigger” in their works than their environment allowed them, there is a struggle, a battle against ignorance that can be felt in every bar of their music.
That the struggle for relevance or the urge to “think bigger”, to think beyond the limits of one’s own time was certainly a recurring theme in the lives of many great composers was proven to me recently by a conversation with a friend researching concert programs of the 18th and 19th century. In this time concerts were usually a jumble of wildly different pieces, mostly played as excerpts. It was rare to hear a full symphony or piano sonata, much more common was the presentation of single disjointed movements, much like the “classical” entertainment radio today. So why where the composers in this time struggling so much to develop increasingly extended symphonic forms that only make sense if you hear the symphony in order? The will to create thematic connections in music was stronger than the actual reality of concert performance, and that struggle gives the music a sense of urgency that can still be felt.
But how about today? Looking at our current times a superficial glance tells us that we never had it that good, at least in the so called “First World”. Central Europe has enjoyed its longest extended period of peace ever, the quality of living is at a never rivalled high, and people enjoy relatively democratic rights and freedom without suffering under tyrants or madmen or criminals (well, mostly – of course there are still people like Berlusconi). Of course there are always things to complain about, but I don’t think that one could say that the circumstances of living here are even remotely catastrophic compared to other regions of the world.
Even though we all of course know that this can change every day (and the current hysteria about the crisis in the Ukraine shows that this fear is very real) it is still a fact that the vast majority of people living in for example Germany today have not experienced any kind of major threat or war during their lifetime…only by hearsay, in faraway countries.
Has this changed us? Has this made us lazy perhaps? If I look at the current contemporary music scene there is most certainly the feeling that it basically mostly contemplates itself, nothing else. The discussions are mostly aesthetical or academic (or rather anemic), very rarely about political or urgent contemporary themes.
The only single common goal that infuses this scene with some kind of solidarity and energy is the fight against cuts in cultural funding. Even though I think that this is an important fight and fully support it I cannot shake off the feeling that there is a certain decadence to the fact that this is the only major battle fought in music today. Everything else is lingering in a kind of political correctness, where any kind of critique or courage will only go to a point where it doesn’t hurt one’s own career. Where are the artists, who take real risks today, I ask, if the biggest risk seems to be to fall out of favor with a certain clique and getting fewer commissions? And even those composers won’t have difficulties to post their next successes on facebook. Where is the fervor, where is the passion, where are the visions? Who has something to say of any kind relevance which goes beyond a purely intellectual or conceptual discussion?
The same is to be said about the performers – on one hand we have academically groomed virtuosos of a never before seen quality, 11 –year olds who play Rachmaninoff 3 blindfolded and without mistakes, porn-star-styled “devil” violinists who are so essentially harmless that any biography of their life would put you to sleep immediately… But where are the truly interesting performers, who have something interesting to tell us about this strange condition that we call life? Where are the artists that make decisions which are not mostly controlled by their agent or PR managers? They exist, but they have become a rare species.
I just recently reread the biography of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who in his life experienced Two World Wars and the holocaust and who spent most of his young life fleeing from one country to the next before it was engulfed in one war or another, meeting the most fascinating people (and many women) in the progress, and sometimes simply stopping to practice the piano for a few months to learn a role in a theatre play. Of course it is clear that this man had more to tell us when sitting down at a piano than the sometimes exchangeable classic stars of today whose biggest crisis would be to miss their flight to their next festival appearance – No wonder!
Jazz’ most fruitful period in Germany was the time when it was encountering the most criticism by a conservative and grumpy old audience, when it was dubbed “Negermusik”, when young people flocked to obscure and smoke filled clubs to see the great performers, against the will of their parents, when it was equal to a rebellious life style, when it felt like a breath of fresh air and freedom after decades of oppression. The Till Brönners of today can try as hard as they want (and they certainly can play very well), but they will never capture that particular spirit, this particular freedom of mind that their predecessors had. Because this freedom didn’t come easy – it had to be fought for. People took risks for it. And sometimes people even died for it. Today Jazz musicians are mostly relegated to create music for fashionable lounges or for festivals where everybody is sentimentally reminiscing about the “good ol’ times”.
Today young students flock to the music academies en masse to study composition, more than ever before. But what do they want to tell me? What is their mission? Sometimes they have to be reminded that studying composition is an artistic (and therefore risky) endeavor, not an education in past styles and methods that one can use later on in a pastiche or a film music. Not a lifestyle decision (because being an artist sounds better than being an office worker to them). Only very few are willing to embrace these risks to the full consequence, but I am glad they still exist.
The question remains: is the struggle for relevance (which I would equal with “quality”) in contemporary music unwinnable as long as we live in a society that is completely saturated in music of high quality (mostly from former times), available for free at the click of a button, anywhere, anywhen, on your mobile phone, on your google glasses, in your car, in your sleep, while you eat, while you have sex?
How can we be relevant, when we are all spoon-fed with music, music, music, in flat-rate, in the “cloud”, mostly saccharine and fattening in content, mindless, mind-numbing? There might be a difference in quality listening to the new album of Justin Bieber or a violin concerto by Mozart, but because you are listening to it in the background, on your high-class hi-fi bass-boosted surround system in the four walls of your safe home any kind of struggle is lost and the artistic result is the same – nil. It becomes “musique d’ameublement”.
We don’t even dare to confront the possibility of mistakes or any kind of risk anymore – most recordings that we listen to are white-washed, edited umpteenth times to perfection, part of a styled product, a marketing decision that is completely devoid of any kind of meaning except to ensure the creation of more of such products.
How can we as composers of music take any risks any more if the commissions we get tell us exactly how long the pieces have to be that we write, how difficult and playable they should be and when exactly they should be delivered? Who of us is taking a year off to write only songs, just for the heck of it, unpaid, uncommissioned, like Schumann? Who dares to do it in the reality of our pampered life? How can we write truly new operas if every opera we write has to adhere to an operatic creation system that has basically been perfected for a 19th century style and has not changed from there? How can we write new exciting orchestra works if the basic working structure of an orchestra is also from the 19th century (only with more complicated union laws and restrictions)?
But even we completely liberate ourselves from this and create music purely electronically, we still work in a confined system. Even the choice of computer (Mac or PC) will influence our work, the choice of music software (each with its own limitations and rules). And every piece uploaded into the all-encompassing sound cloud becomes the same piece. How can we distinguish ourselves from the myriads of sound cloud composers, of the myriads of “experimental” composers who repeat the same experiments again and again and who think that they create some kind of musical revolution when they rub balloons instead of playing the piano?
I wish so much that all of what I’m writing is wrong, that peaceful and good times can also create the greatest art, and yes, there certainly were periods in music history where consolidation and relative peace where having a positive influence on artistic trends. But honestly, we would be kidding ourselves if we judged our current times as the height of exciting new musical creation. Everything seems tired, everything comes with a sense of dejá vu. The quality and the talent is there, most certainly, but there is something lacking that is necessary for great art – the will to say something truly profound and important. The will to persevere against all odds.
But I fear we have it even worse. We don’t have it good, because of all that, and we don’t dare to confront that simple truth and bear its consequences.
Because doing that would actually create the possibility for good art.
So, for God’s sake, feel free to disagree with me. But do it in style. With fervor. With passion.
More about that next time.