"An excellent and expansive view of where we now are in the larger world of contemporary art music." ― Academic Questions
These essays by a prominent composer offer a thought-provoking exploration of a current trend in classical music. Author John Borstlap advocates a departure from the atonal characteristics typical of modern music and a return to more traditional forms. He notes that new classical composers are increasingly successful in the central performance culture because they offer a fresh approach to the problems that persist in contemporary music, where an establishment with outdated ideas still dominates the production, reception, and funding of new music.
Borstlap's treatise introduces new composers, reveals instances of institutional biases, and examines issues of cultural identity, musical meaning, and the aesthetics of beauty. In order to offer readers the most up-to-date insights, this edition of TheClassical Revolution has been newly revised and expanded by the author.
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About the Author
Dutch composer John Borstlap is a co-founder of Composers Group Amsterdam, which strives to bridge the gap between new music and traditional performance culture. He studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory and received his master's degree from the University of Cambridge.
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The Classical Revolution
Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century
By John Borstlap
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2017 John Borstlap
All rights reserved.
The Classical Revolution: The Shock of the Old
Contemporary composers who try to regain something of the glory of the musical art of the past do not form a coherent group. They do not form a specific movement, but reflect a tendency, felt more generally over the last few years in Europe, to see "progress" and "modernity" less and less as determining factors in society and increasingly consider notions of value, meaning, tradition, and cultural identity as possible orientation points. The reason behind this tendency is an increasing awareness that "modernity" is not the only, and certainly not the most important, drive behind any development that improves human life. While an erosion of civilization is becoming more and more visible, there is a growing awareness that with the emphasis on materialistic and technological progress, and with the neglect and indifference toward the culture of the past, much precious human experience may be lost, experience which could be of importance in this period where, on a deeper level, there is (in Western civilization as a whole and certainly in Europe) no sense of direction. This awareness translates itself in Europe, on a political level, in the increasing popularity of rightwing parties (unfortunately in some countries also in primitive populist movements), and in a renewed interest in conservative world views, which should not be understood as a retreat to outdated belief systems but as a sign that much leftwing thinking, as developed since the 1960s, has come under critical scrutiny. Many "progressive" ideas from that time are now seen as having overstepped some boundaries of common sense, which resulted in the careless throwing away of concepts without which a civilized society cannot be sustained. This does not mean that the original idealism of socialism has been discredited, but that some of its later forms are now appearing more like aberrations than fulfillments. The same could, however, be said of some extreme forms of conservatism like the so-called "neoconservatism" in the United States which, together with a rampant and uninhibited globalizing capitalism, threatens culture as well as nature in every place where it gets a foothold. Postmodern thinking, with its poisonous fruits of cultural relativism, foucaultism, and deconstructivism, has infiltrated many university curricula where they, instead of merely extending some existing traditional ways of higher learning, often replace modes of thought which have proven their importance and worth, based as they are upon long experience and processes of trial and error. On another level, there is a link between the erosion of education of the masses and their inclination to leave more and more responsibilities to governments, as if the state would be the best repository of efficiency in running human life. It is therefore not surprising that the increasingly bureaucratic organization of European societies shows — helped by modern information technology — a tendency to totalitarianism, as if not much has been learned from the experiences of totalitarian regimes in the past. In this melting pot of mental confusion, the long European tradition of humanistic thought, with roots in Antiquity and subsequent flowerings in Renaissance and Enlightenment, stands out as a rock of wisdom and understanding of the human condition in a sea of triviality and materialism, thus offering orientation points for the task ahead of European/Western civilization: restoration of the best that this tradition can offer, whereby valuable insights of later experience can be integrated and further developed.
So, with the search for workable values, the concept of tradition has become important again. As long as it is understood as a flexible and living process which develops itself by continuous interpretation, it is not a "conservative" notion, an attempt to merely try to construct an imitation of something old. Seen this way, a new form of tradition in society — culture and thus in art music — is neither conservative nor progressive in the old senses. It is a sign of rebirth, of a possible renaissance of the best that Europe has to offer. It will be clear that such a concept can easily be misunderstood because notions of "progressiveness," "conservatism," and "traditionalism" have served in the last century as banners for political interests. They were related to circumstances which now have drastically changed and thus have lost much of their original meaning and appeal. Given the many problems which confront Western civilization as a whole, it is clear that a fundamental reform is needed to make its survival and further development possible. In Europe, this means a reorientation upon its values and its nature, which involves a reflection upon its past and the lessons that can be learned from it. It is to be hoped that some form of workable and valuable cultural identity of Europe can be found and formulated which can function as a mental framework in which the current problems can find a fruitful and sustainable solution.
Also, the presence of so many non-European immigrants who need to integrate into European society stimulates a stronger awareness of the nature of the society in which they are supposed to integrate. If Europeans have only a vague and incomplete awareness of their own cultural values, there is not much to culturally integrate into, apart from the most basic mundane skills. Mere "freedom" cannot compensate for the loss of a culture that was "left behind" because it was "outdated," in order to make place for a modern world in which everything was to be shaped anew. "Freedom" in itself is a meaningless word if not related to "from" and "toward." The result is an emerging debate about what European/ Western civilization is, or should be, and old themes concerning the Enlightenment, Christian religion, civil society, secularly, and the like, have become important issues again in public debate because, in the present confused globalization with all its political and economic implications and side effects, nothing less than the future of Western civilization is at stake. And Europe as it has been, can no longer be taken for granted: it has become an idea to be discussed. Art, including music, is part of this discussion.
In the visual arts, many painters returned to figurative styles as composers (somewhat later, as usual) began to reconsider their own past: tonality and communication instead of materialist constructivism. In art music, the first "thaw" came from California in the form of minimalism, or, for a better term, process music, which restored continuity, narrative, and a simple form of tonal harmony. From Eastern Europe, Arvo Part appeared with his religiously inspired process music, close in spirit to that of the Middle Ages. American process music and Eastern European spirituality was widely followed and imitated, but both trends cannot be considered "classical" in relation to the central performance culture. They established themselves at the margins of this culture but (due to their use of tonality) with a direct and living link to it and in opposition to the circuit of "established modern music" which still followed the norms of postwar modernism as formulated in the '50s and '60s (mixed with milder, "postmodern" derivations). Seeing that tonal process music provided a bridge toward the central art form, various composers began to explore its underlying energies, experimenting with reviving tonal styles and elements of tonal languages, mixing them in new combinations. This trend is a form of "classicism" in the sense that exploration of the past might lead to new forms and new developments. The emergence of process music can convincingly be called a revolution, as can the new form of classicism be called a classical revolution.
For the term "revolution" to be justified, there has to be a dominating force against which the new art form is in rebellion. Process music rebelled against the complexity, inaccessibility, and plain acoustical ugliness of atonal modernism, which — with the help of academe and state subsidies — had been widely established as "the" way "the" Western music was "developing," as if art music were a single communal project led by the avant-garde, in the way a political party or an army is led (and from where the term stems). New classical music is rebelling against the now eroding modernist establishment but also takes distance from process music because of its restricted range of expression and structure. Many listeners who have sat through a process music performance — for example of John Adams's opera, Nixon in China, to name one of its better examples — will at some moment have felt the question bubbling up as to the reason for all these endlessly repetitive patterns, effects without a cause in the subject or action. Purely absolute, nonreferential process music suffers from the same handicap. The continuously repeated fragments form a kind of "sound wall," which is not so impenetrable as it is with modernism because the sounds are often quite nice, but the expressive possibilities are very limited and its effects wear off in the long run. Its main interest is to be found in the organization of its surface, in the ingenuity of its patterns, and the effectiveness of its scoring. The return to a full-blown tonality is, of course, a decisive step in process music, often stimulated by pop and world music and therefore reconnected to more general modes of music making and perception than is offered by modernism. But to regain the expressive range as demonstrated by premodernist tonal music (i.e., the classical tradition) — classical in the widest sense and with its last great representatives in Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten — one has to rethink the notions that have led to modernism, the model of progress in music, the concept of tradition an sich, and most important, the idea of contemporaneity, since a return to the European classical tradition in the sense of a literal repetition of what has been, would not be possible and anyway superfluous. But the new classical composer does not want to imitate, and sees as his or her challenge to make a real, personal contribution of valuable works which could, in principle, in due course, take their place in the repertoire of the central performance culture without disrupting its fundamentals, as so often is experienced when occasionally a modernist work is performed in the context of an otherwise normal symphonic or chamber music concert. There are good reasons to consider such an experience as an intrusion from outside, from a fundamentally different sphere, as we shall see in chapters 2 and 3. (Many programmers are fully aware of this when they put a new piece right at the beginning of an otherwise normal program, the notorious OOMP — Obligatory Opening Modern Piece — which fulfills the obligation "to do something new" and to get over it as quickly as possible in order to arrive at the real stuff of the concert.)
Something like a "classical revolution" seems a contradictio in terminus: how can a new "classical music" be revolutionary? That is, overthrowing some old order and creating a new one, with all the heroic overtones and narratives of struggle and victory that the term implies, when the norms it advocates are already general practice in the central performance culture? Is new classical music not just a form of conservatism, a concession to a petrified and commercial practice? If this were so, one would assume that new classical music is welcomed with open arms by the regular orchestras, opera theaters, and classical chamber music ensembles, given the fact that most new music is — in that world — generally considered indigestible and ugly, and irrelevant because of the abundance of excellent and well-tried works from the past. A new music that fits seamlessly into the framework of a well-worn repertoire would offer something new without the usual problems of communication: it would seem a sure bet on success and one would expect the programmers to roll out the red carpet to new classical music, but this is not the case. In the musical museum culture, it is generally assumed that "new music" is for specialist environments like festivals and concert series by specialist ensembles for special audiences, like the "authentic music circuit" with its baroque ensembles made up of period instruments. This makes any interest in whatever new music in traditional concert practice seem superfluous. (Occasional performances of new, modernist music by regular symphony orchestras are mostly the result of an isolated feeling of obligation, mixed with a bit of heroic image making — fighting for the new is a matter of personal courage — and sufficient funding which can compensate for the prospects of losing audience attendance; it is hardly ever based upon a success with performers and audiences.) On top of this, new classical music of authentic quality does not literally sound like old, repertoire-like music; it may sound familiar and at the same time, "strange," like something unusual said in a known language. Thus, it may initially create some confusion: what is this, where could it be placed, what does it say? — which is a normal reaction to anything new. Of course, new works need repeated hearing and if the first impression is positive, (i.e., it raises interest and trust in the capacities of the composer), new hearings further strengthen the experience. New classical music is new music in all respects, but its unusual aura may upset fixed expectations even if, in comparison with the usual "modern music," it speaks in an accessible, expressive language. Also, the emergence of a new classical music is such an unexpected and, in fact, a potentially spectacular phenomenon, that many programmers simply do not believe it is possible: in direct comparison with the established repertoire it is considered inconceivable that contemporary composers, born in a much more trivial world, so different from the one where this repertoire stems from, could emulate the works of Britten, Shostakovich, Mahler, or "purer" music like Ravel's, Debussy's, or Stravinsky's; the impossibility of the appearance (in terms of talent) of a "new" Mahler, Debussy, or a "new" Mozart or Beethoven, is deeply ingrained in the museum culture (therefore, the recent emergence of a first-class composer like Nicolas Bacri is not generally recognized as a phenomenon of the first order: "it could not possibly be as good as it sounds"). Programmers have studied music in the last century when music history was mostly presented as a line from the past to the present and on which the development toward atonality and modernism was projected as the result of some historical inevitability. From this conventional point of view, a new classical music could only be either kitsch or an irrelevant pastime of reactionary eccentrics.
Kitsch is the imitation of an expressive gesture, a cheap imitation that remains on the surface. It is not meant, as authentic art is meant, it is false and for that reason it creates the unpleasant "yuck" sensation in people whose sensibilities are trained in the experiences of high art. As Roger Scruton says in his Modern Culture, from the modernist point of view,
... you can turn back to figurative painting, to tonality, to classicism — but you will only be imitating these things, never actually doing them. You can make the old gestures; but you cannot seriously mean them. And if you make them nonetheless the result will be kitsch — standard, cut-price goods, produced without effort and consumed without thought [emphasis in original, p. 92].
Since kitsch in this sense is about expression, it is a psychological category. But an artist will only not mean an expressive gesture, if he does not believe in the possibility of authentic expression, or if he is — due to a lack of talent — not capable of such a thing. But if — in terms of talent — an artist is capable of authentic expression which he could mean, in which he could believe, but rationally, because of his upbringing and education, he believes he is locked up in the narrow present moment on the line of historical narrative, he cannot allow himself to mean an expressive gesture. This is what modernist brainwashing and myth making has brought into the world of art: the idea that it is not possible that an artist could mean an expressive gesture which has come down to him through history and with which he could identify himself with integrity. It is exactly on this point where the narrow historicism of modernist ideologies has destroyed tradition.
Excerpted from The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap. Copyright © 2017 John Borstlap. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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