Sunday, August 12, 2018

George Steiner's In Bluebird's Castle: Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture, a book I read because John Borstlap had bad things to say about it

https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300017106/bluebeards-castle

In Bluebird's Castle: Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture
George Steiner
Yale University Press
September 10, 1974
154 pages, 5 x 8
ISBN: 9780300017106


Sometimes I end up reading books because they get denounced in some way.  For instance, when I read John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution the first time last year he mentioned this book in a list of things to read.  Borstlap's blurb about the book has it that:

The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century
revised and expanded edition
John Borstlap
Dover Publications
Copyright (c) 2013, 2017 by John Borstlap
ISBN 9780486814483
ISBN 0486814483

page 145
... This book is an attempt at a broad analysis of the cultural erosion of the last century by an erudite philosopher--first confirming that the twentieth-century angst is justified and that much which was a precious treasure has been lost, then encouraging us to surrender to modernity and try to make the best of it. Steiner tries to make credible the idea that the Holocaust is the logical and inevitable result of structural evil at the heart of European civilization, instead of the usual incapacity of man to live up to his own ideals, implicitly blaming the spirit that created high culture for the crimes committed by people who were too primitive to understand it. The book unintentionally offers an apt explanation of the deeper motivation of postwar modernism: the abhorrence of our inherited culture.


Not that Borstlap quotes a single sentence from Steiner anywhere in his own book or even in the blurb about Steiner's book.  I've already written about the extent to which Borstlap's ideas about jazz and popular music being inimical to the Western art music tradition have him on the same side as Adorno rather than against him. I began to think it might be a good idea to read this Steiner book Borstlap wrote about, to see if Steiner was really saying the Holocaust was the logical and inevitable result of structural evil at the heart of European civilization instead of the "usual incapacity of man to live up to his own ideals".  Borstlap already seemed to be pulling a desperate and obvious no true Scotsman move with respect to the Enlightenment and its associated ideals. 

But Borstlap didn't bother to mention the context which precipitated Steiner's lectures, the T. S. Eliot
Memorial Lectures for 1970.  Steiner's riffing on ideas laid down by Eliot before him couldn't be more obvious to anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with Eliot's work (he's been one of my favorite poets, though as I get older the anti-Semitic aspect of his work bugs me but that's not what I'm here to write about at the moment).  So Steiner presents a proposal, that Eliot was right to argue that to address the subject of culture at large you at some point have to address the subject known as the psychology of religion. (page 34 of In Bluebird's Castle)

Yet in approaching the theme I find Eliot's insistence on the religious character of genuine civilization, and his "conception of culture and religion as being, when each term is taken in the right context, different aspects of the same thing," largely persuasive. It seems to me incontrovertible that the holocaust must be set in the framework of the psychology of religion, and that an understanding of this framework is vital to an argument on culture.
...


Steiner insisted that we could not blame Germany for the Holocaust as though the anti-Semitic massacre were unique to it as a nation-estate in Europe East or West.  He pointed out that anti-Semitic sentiment and action was going on in even those regions where Jews were a tiny minority by 1970.  Steiner proposed that if we try to look at the origins of the Holocaust in terms of the psychology of religion it was a battle in which Europe's polytheistic/pagan traditions chose to do battle against the monotheistic traditions. 

page 39, In Bluebird's Castle

Historically, the requirements of absolute monotheism proved all but intolerable. The Old Testament is a record of mutiny, of spasmodic but repeated reversions to the old gods, whom the hand can touch and the imagination house. Pauline Christianity found a useful solution. While retaining something of the idiom and centralized symbolic lineaments of monotheism, it allowed scope for the pluralistic, pictorial needs of the psyche. Be it in their Trinitarian aspects, in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons, or in their vividly material realization of God the Father, of Christ, of Mary, the Christian churches have, with very rare exceptions, been a hybrid of monotheistic ideals and polytheistic practices. That has been their suppleness and syncretic strength. The single, unimaginable-rigorously speaking, "unthinkable"-God of the Decalogue has nothing to do with the threefold, thoroughly visualized pantheon of the churches.

But that God, blank as the desert air, would not rest. ...

On page 41 Steiner points out an odd gambit on the part of Freud to impute monotheism to Egyptians rather than to Judaism.  This is not so odd if Judaism could be shown to no longer be the scapegoat, no longer the "true" originator of monotheistic religion in a Germanic cultural milieu that was seeking by all sorts of means to recover its "true" pagan and pre-monotheistic religious ideals. 

by pages 44-45 Steiner has wound up to a more direct presentation of this idea:

pages 44-45, In Bluebird's Castle

Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, messianic socialism : these are the three supreme moments in which Western culture is presented with what Ibsen termed "the claims of the ideal." These are the three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence. "Surmount yourself. Surpass the opaque barriers of the mind to attain pure abstraction. Lose your life in order to gain it'. Give up property, rank, worldly comfort. Love your neighbor as you do yourself-no, much more, for self-love is sin. Make any sacrifice, endure any insult, even self-denunciation, so that justice may prevail." Unceasingly, the blackmail of perfection has hammered at the confused, mundane, egotistical fabric of common, instinctual behavior. Like a shrilling note in the inner ear. Men are neither saints nor ascetics;
their imaginings are gross; ordinarily, their sense of the future is the next milestone. But the insistence of the ideal continued, with a terrible, tactless force.

...
 Europe, in Steiner's presentation, decided it would reject the monotheistic ideal in social, economic, political and religious terms that it received from the Abrahamic religious traditions.  You could say that Europe wanted to restore Europe to the glory of its pagan foundations ... but that with the legacy of monotheism and the Abrahamic religions so entrenched in European history a few things had to be done.

One of these things was to reverse-engineer a form of Christianity that looked sufficiently "European" or "Eurocentric" to be rid of the Jewish legacy that so many church fathers (their own anti-Semitic sentiments often present) could not really get rid of because the Marcionite heresy was still the Marcionite heresy.  But for anyone who has read Richard Wagner's treatise and art and religion it's not hard to find the ways in which Germans sought to de-Judaize Christianity. 

As to another thing, the Holocaust testified to that effort, to rid the Western world of Judaism at the most literal and palpable level.  These are not points made by Steiner in his book but they are pertinent to his argument that the Holocaust can be thought of as an attempt on the part of the pagan/polytheistic impulse to exterminate the influence of Abrahamic monotheism in all its forms--and this seems to make sense since Steiner was broad-ranging enough to consider that legacy to include Judasm, Christianity's doctrinal debt to and emergence from Judaism and even the debt that socialism has to Judaic literature.  All three of these traditions presented an ideal of altruism and social cohesion that, in Steiner's reading of European history, Europe chose to reject. 

That's just material from lecture 2.  The idea that Steiner claimed that the Holocaust was a logical and inevitable evil that was at the heart of European civilization seems to run aground on the question of "which heart?"  To go by Steiner's own lectures he distinguished between the Hellenic or pagan Europe and the monotheistic Christian/Judeo Europe.  He seemed to articulate clearly enough to me that the Holocaust was an outworking of this tension within the religious legacies of the West.  he talked a bit about how throughout the nineteenth century literature teemed with a sentiment that some kind of great purgative revolutionary shift had to happen before Europe could cast off the shackles of the past and embrace a newer and more truly humanistic future.  In that sense, I suppose, Borstlap could say Steiner claimed the Holocaust was supposedly the outworking of Europe's legacy, but Borstlap sets up this straw man to then shove him in the oven. 

In lecture 3 Steiner pointed out that much of Europe would have found the idea they could in any way perpetrate the Holocaust would be anathema; he also pointed out that among 19th century European philosophers he saw Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as the two able to see that a holocaust "could" happen based upon what impulses were being repressed within social conventions that were in some way "dormant" but not eliminated. (page 78). Steiner rejected the idea that civilization actually removed the capacity for barbarism in Europe.  The ground rules by which barbarity might be expressed could be shifted but the latent capacity to slaughter didn't go away just because of some Matthew Arnold style art religion. 

Paradoxically, Steiner proposed, the illusion that humanity could keep getting better was why some things could improve:

page 79
...
Had the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century understood that there could be no presumption of a carry-over from civilization to civility, from humanism to the humane, the springs of hope would have been staunched and much of the immense liberation of the mind and of society achieved over four generations been rendered impossible. ...
Borstlap's reading of Steiner seems to suggest that the illusion that humanism leads to humane behavior and that civilization leads to civility isn't an illusion at all but a religious dogma to be defended. 

Steiner summarily concluded that thanks to its implication in the permission or execution of the Holocaust, no form of Christianity could serve as a suitable basis for redefining culture in Europe moving forward (page 89). A religious basis for culture was not exactly an option.  In that sense Steiner doesn't seem to have expressed a view the least bit inimical to Borstlap's own insistence that a secular enlightened and pluralist culture based on the Enlightenment should be the ideal ... but Borstlap seems to have a vision of a European ideal in which European nations are still European and their best and brightest culture are still the touchstones.  Yet there's nothing about the abstracted forms of Enlightenment era "universal" values that seem to require anything particularly European, or is there? 

What Steiner proposes as he goes is that culture is a kind of view of the relationship between the perception of time and an individual death (page 89).

page 89
... What is central to a true culture is a certain view of the relations between time and individual death.


The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence. The writer or thinker means the words of the poem, the sinews of the argument, the personae of the drama, to outlast his own life, to take on the mystery of autonomous presence and presentness.  The sculptor commits to the stone the vitalities against and across time which will soon drain from his own living hand. Art and mind address those who are not yet, even at the risk, deliberately incurred, of being unnoticed by the living.

There is nothing natural, nothing self-evident in this wager against mortality, against the common, unharried.promises of life. ...

Steiner proposed that Western civilization going back to antiquity conceived of the arts as a kind of bid for immortality in lieu of a more literal conception of immortality.  This may be quite a stretch to some but it makes a kind of sense in light of Steiner's thesis that the Holocaust was an apotheosis of a pagan Europe seeking to obliterate a monotheistic Europe.  Richard Wagner went so far as to insist that after the demise of the Greek cultural legacy Rome was a lesser light and the Dark Ages meant that Christianity was incapable and unmanly enough to have any art worth talking about until the virility of the German peoples made art more feasible.  All that said, Wagner did go so far as to say that the one art Christians and Christianity excelled at was music because despite taking up prohibitions against depicting the divine from Judaism music could depict the passions and thoughts of the soul and so, if impoverished by the lights of all other art forms, Christian Europe managed to give us Palestrina, for instance.  If you've read "Art and Religion" you will probably remember where he said things like that.  I admit to going entirely by memory there.  I could be wrong.

So on the whole if Borstlap objects to the idea that Steiner proposed, the open skepticism that creating art as a bid for a kind of immortality can be defended as a legitimate basis for being in the arts in light of the ecological and economic precarity of the contemporary West and the world at large in a Cold War context in which nuclear annihilation was feared any given Republican president, Borstlap could have said so more directly.  But then Borstlap wasn't really name-dropping the book in a way that suggested he was trying to engage Steiner's proposals. 

But it's in Steiner's fourth and final lecture that he makes some proposals that I would think someone like John Borstlap should take more to heart.  After talking at some length about the decline of traditional Western conceptions of literacy (poetry ancient and modern, multilingual literary immersion), Steiner proposes that the capacity for literacy is not going away but if it's gone away from literature where has it gone to?

Steiner proposed where he believed the capacity for complex levels of literacy had shifted to.  Ethan Hein, if you read this blog every now and then this one's for you. :) 

pages 115-116
But are there no other literacies conceivable, "literacies" not of the letter?

This is being written in a study in a college of one of the great American universities. The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music corning from one near and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours per day, sometimes twenty-four. The beat is literally unending. It matters little whether it is that of pop, folk, or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre. A large segment of mankind, between the ages of thirteen and, say, twenty-five, now lives immersed in this constant throb. The hammering of rock or of pop creates an enveloping space. Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato. This means that the essentially linguistic nature of these pursuits is adulterated; they are vestigial modes of the old "logic."

page 117
...

Yet we are unquestionably dealing with a literacy, with codes of recognition so widespread and dynamic that they constitute a "metaculture." Popular music(s) have their semantics, their theory of genres, their intricate play-offs of esoteric against canonic types. Folk and pop, "trad music" and rock, count their several histories and corpus of legend. They show their relics. They number their old masters and rebels, their betrayers and high priests. Precisely as in classical literacy, so there are in the world of jazz or of rock 'n' roll degrees of initiation ranging from the vague empathies of the tyro (Latin on sundials) to the acid erudition of the scholiast. At the same time there is an age factor which makes the culture of pop more like modern mathematics and physics than the humanities. ...

Now Adorno, of course, thought all of this popular music was the machinery through which capitalism subjugated the ignorant masses.  Adorno was not able to entirely reconcile himself to the possibility that Steiner seems to have been open to, that a musical literacy could bring with it a more complex and literary approach to music and musical interpretation.  Certainly popular music can be bland and repetitive and used to sell things and as ambient atmosphere in stores and restaurants but if the old art religion of the past did not prevent the Holocaust would the newer lesser level of art as being now something besides divine be a bad thing?  Might it not be good if the arts were substantially cut down to size, a kind of meta-linguistics of sound rather than the more traditional Matthew Arnold style art religion? 

On page 121 of In Bluebird's Castle Steiner proposed that classical music could be the narcotic of "the good citizen"--in other words, if popular music was the opium of the masses classical music could still be the opium of the high classes.  But Steiner could still invoke Matthew Arnold's proposal that the "facts" of religions would be replaced by their "poetry".  He then proposed that the


page 121
... The lapse from ceremony and ritual in much of public and private behavior has left a vacuwn. At the same time, there is a thirst for magical and "transrational" forms. The capacity of organized religion to satisfy this thirst diminishes. Matthew Arnold foretold that the "facts" of religion would be replaced by its poetry. Today, one feels that in many educated, but imperfectly coherent lives, that "poetry of religious emotion" is being provided by music.


You might think this would merit mention by an author who called his book The Classical Revolution.   After all, Borstlap himself wrote the following in his own book:

The Classical Revolution, page 47
... When science made aspects of material reality understandable, interpretation of phenomena changed, but not human nature and its existential questions. The understanding that there is no "God" like an old man with beard and crown on a cloud, does not change the religious experience as such; the bottle may get another label but the wine remains the same. Denying the existence of the wine because the bottle has undergone an elaborate examination process is to ignore the total picture of reality, which--in the way we can experience it--includes so much more than the level of causation and physical laws. [emphasis added]

So perhaps in Borstlap's understanding of things what was once held by "God" has been taken up by the beauties of art in general and perhaps music in particular.

page 43
This process of capturing emotional essence is the secret of the popularity of great composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, and so forth, and as long as people seek transcendence of their conceptual, temporal world, they will need this musical experience to feel their own humanity and the atemporal quality of their soul confirmed. Together with the experience of human love, there hardly is a stronger source of psychic energy. Indeed, the experience of masterly music is very close to the experience of real human love: in both, a spiritual factor is at work, confirming the immortality of our inner being.

So for a George Steiner to point blank declare that art as a bid for immortality, either as an expression of an immortal soul or as an intra-cultural bid for "immortality" in which the art object survives its creator no longer seems legitimate in light of the reality that this Western ideological lineage was shown powerless to prevent the Holocaust, it makes sense that someone like John Borstlap would invoke a no true Scotsman defense of that ideal.

Yet Borstlap's counter-proposal about the vitality of classical music forces any reader of his book to consider something about what kinds of music can be admitted into this category of divine wine in a bottle that is ... apparently ... classical music: 

Page 2
… 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 in 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 a 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. …

invites a simple question.  If classical music can be thought of as a flexible and living process then why on earth should there not be all sorts of opportunities for and possibilities within that process to synthesize and assimilate jazz, pop, rock, country, bluegrass, ragtime, Native American song, or just about any and every other type of not-explicitly-European vernacular music into "classical music"? 

Let me reformulate the question, if the thought processes of thematic and gestural development that are stereotypically associated with the Western art music tradition can just as readily (though perhaps not without decades of immersive study) be employed within a genre like blues or ragtime (both proto-jazz idioms), then Borstlap's history of excluding these kinds of idioms from being in classical music brush up against his own admiration for, say, Ravel, who had a "blues" movement in one of his works for violin and piano.

Borstlap's claims seem to accumulate into a kind of double bind.  The classical music tradition and practice is a flexible and living process, it just ... can't partake of any contemporary vernacular musical styles or idioms that could be construed as jazz or pop or world music or film music.  Never mind that Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a lot of beautiful, charming music in the purest "Hollywood" style that people enjoy here half a century after his death. 

But if music can be thought of as somehow divine what makes it divine?  Why can't pop music have that role if music is the wine in the wine bottle?  If the wine bottle is a metaphor for a "god" that has been examined and shown to be something else, is the divinity that resides behind the containing "dogma" of the bottle the wine of music or human love?  Borstlap is not himself a Wagnerian but he can seem sympathetic to a Wagnerian idea that it is left to art to redeem the kernel of truth that is ossified in the dogmas of religion. 

But if he does take that view then it's hard to see how he and George Steiner are on different pages about that specific point.  If anything it would seem that Steiner's proposal that literacy of a traditionally literary sort has been supplanted by musical literacy and numeracy (i.e. a literary of mathematics or science) fits in with Borstlap's idea about music as a kind of shared cultural currency.  Or it would if Steinberg were as narrow in his definition of what music counts as music.  Borstlap seems to have cordoned off popular styles as not music as "art" but as merely 'entertainment". 

In light of what Borstlap seems to think about art, and what it is, I can understand why he would altogether reject Steiner's thesis that the Western art tradition that has made a bid at immortality is probably best abandoned; that literacy in the collegiate Western poetic/novelistic sense has been supplanted by a sea of popular and vernacular song.  If Borstlap is committed to a strictly "classical" conception of what the future of Western music ought to be then if it turns out the last century has shifted away from abstract or autonomous instrumental music of the 19th century variety then that form of classical music or literate music may be on a decline, at least in its symphonic form.

Yet, speaking as a guitarist, it's not at all clear to me that the guitar has been suffering this kind of decline.  If anything the classical guitar literature has exploded in the last century.  Chamber music, as Jay Nordlinger noted years ago, is also vibrant.  The future of the literate musical tradition as it has emerged in the legacy of Western Europe is not confined to Western Europe.  Eastern Europe and the United States and South America and Asia are all participating in the tradition now.  There have been so many changes in that thousand year story that I hesitate to say that "classical music" is actually in any danger.  Richard Taruskin may have thought he was writing the obituary for the Western literate musical tradition but by the time he finished his Oxford history he could recognize that it wasn't ending, it was changing.

Not everyone is going to be happy with the changes that happen.  Some of the changes that may happen now are changes that have happened in the past, in which stuff that people don't want to regard as even being music or competently made music somehow find their way into some kind of canonic status.

It happens every generation.

It's at this point that I respectfully disagree with Ethan Hein's wish that there be a post-canon musical world.  That's just never going to happen. Stevie Wonder is greater to me than Justin Bieber can be and I make no apology for that conviction.  But in light of reading John Borstlap's writing I do think that there's something that a moderately conservative Presbyterian and a progressive musician of Jewish descent can agree on, after a century or two of European art religion we might actually be better off here in the United States respecting a kind of separation of church and state.  A Christian does not regard Beethoven's Ninth as being as important as the Bible.  A practicing Jew has no reason to regard Schubert lieder as more bindingly canonical than the Torah.  The problem here that I'm trying to articulate is that it makes all the sense in the world why explicitly religious canons are closed.  But there's no reason why any canon in the arts has to be closed, especially if it's a flexible and living process the way John Borstlap says that it is.

The problem that I think progressives have been trying to articulate about the liberal arts in general and about what's known as classical music in particular is that it sure seems as though the Western art music canon is closed in pedagogical terms.  If classical music is a flexible and living process then what are the business and social and political reasons the canon seems to have so few additions?  Now I think Xenakis tried to change too many conventions at a time for his work to have more than an esoteric cult following and I say that as someone who enjoys a number of his works, and as someone who has come to admire and respect the string quartets of Alois Haba and Ben Johnston.  I think the microtonalists, whether you enjoy their work or not, showed up the dead end that equal-tempered dodecaphony was turning out to be (not that I don't like me some Alban Berg, just to be clear). 

It's just seeming as though what Borstlap's right hand gives with an insistence on the flexibility of the tradition the left hand takes away with a series of largely inexplicable checklists of what musical styles cannot possibly be considered as supplements or synergistic partners with a classical mainstream.  I'm just not seeing why I can't or shouldn't write a guitar sonata inspired by Stevie Wonder songs, for instance.  I've said this before but I think Adorno was wildly wrong to assume there could be no restoration of a synergistic or dialectical relationship between high and low culture of the sort even he could grant was characteristic of music up through the eighteenth century.

If my sense has been progressives have tried to change musical idioms faster than audiences catch on I don't mind that.  I may be a traditionalist in a lot of ways about a lot of things but I appreciate that there's a lag between an advance guard and what becomes "normal".  But I'm similarly, no, more frustrated with what I regard as reactionary defenses of the great tradition stuff--I am not always sure that conservatives are being honest with themselves about what it is they really want to conserve and why, which gives progressives plenty of time to imagine what that might be for them and often that devolves into white supremacist allegations I'm not sure help things. 

I do believe that it is thoroughly possible to love vernacular and popular music by people of all colors and to also love the ways of musical thinking and gestural development conventionally thought of as "classical music".  I've read Borstlap's book a couple of times and while I can appreciate his desire that the way of thinking about developing musical gestures known as classical music should continue, classical music as a kind of intellectual process and discipline of the mind and soul, I just haven't been sold on his excessively confined sensibility about what kinds of gestures can "legitimately" be regarded as being able to add to that tradition.   I know for certain that it's possible to compose a fugue with triple counterpoint for a guitar that uses bottleneck technique throughout.  I know that because I've written such a fugue.  I know that you can develop a fusion of ragtime and sonata form.  Thanks to immersing myself in William Caplin's Classical Forms and Hepokoski & Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory I've been able to write a number of ragtime/sonata fusion pieces for the guitar.  Borstlap has a right to dislike jazz/classical fusions but this has been a field of experimentation on both sides of the Iron Curtain since, well, the death of Stalin!  The idea that jazz/classical fusions aren't legitimate might be appealing to those advocates of jazz and classical who wish to preclude the other style but I've never been one of those people. 

And that such an inter-stylistic form of musical literacy has been going on for so long seems to suggest George Steiner was on to something when he gave the lectures that became In Bluebird's Castle. Steiner was not just looking at what "we" had lost in the Western European or Anglo-American world in the wake of the Holocaust, he was also making some proposals about what we may have gained and what we could work from.  The level of musical literacy he saw around him impressed him, even if it was so often a musical literacy immersed in styles of popular music highbrow people would not even wish to regard as music.

And yet for someone who could mount a defense of Richard Wagner, couldn't John Borstlap recall Wagner's axiom that it was from the wellspring of the people that real art could emerge?  What if that real art from the people and not the decadent aristocracies turned out to be ... some kind of popular music?  The path from plainchant through organum to votive masses to Palestrina and William Byrd took centuries. 

I've written this plenty of times in the past but the collapse of an ars perfecta and centuries of incremental evolution within short-form styles is something we've seen in the West already.  If anything that gives me reason to wonder whether Borstlap's conception of the musical history of the West is too stunted.  Surely he knows all these things I've just alluded to, and if he does then perhaps he can appreciate that just as the demise of ars perfecta did not lead straightaway to J. S. Bach there's no reason to think that the peak and decline of a comparable ars perfecta in the Germanic symphonic idiom really means that "classical music" as a discipline is actually dying. 

But that's worth pondering because the ars perfecta known by that name was a vocal art--the symphony may have become an ars perfecta that is not fiscally sustainable or socially sustainable for reasons that may not be so different from the reasons choral music became less dominant in the West.  It's not that it vanished choral music might make a return--it's that musical literacy and idiomatic practices and theorizing migrated from one performance practice to another.  If for a keyboardist the fugue is old fashioned for a guitarist the fugue is arguably at the outer limits of avant garde experimentation, and perhaps even to this day still a way of writing for the instrument that is considered physically impossible or at the outermost limits of what a person can be expected to do with the guitar. 

So, on the whole, I'm grateful Borstlap took aim at Steiner's book because, now that I've read it, I thought it was a thought-provoking read.  I think Borstlap may have completely missed Steiner's point about how the Holocaust can be seen as a culmination of the tensions between the monotheistic and pagan traditions within the West.  That's a pretty severe failure to get what Steiner was actually arguing and if Borstlap isn't educated in or interested in discussions and debates about religious thought then all of Steiner's talk about how the millenarian utopianism in 19th century European thought was going to lead to the creation of Heaven or, if that were impossible, refining Hell, would be lost on Borstlap. 

3 comments:

Ethan Hein said...

Putting this in Instapaper with great anticipation.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

jumping back to John Cage, I was just reading a review at Second Inversion of a Sun Ra/John Cage collaboration that was a fairly glowing review. I hadn't heard of such a project before.

https://www.secondinversion.org/category/staff-picks/

But if it was as "near mythic" an encounter as described how did I only just read anything about it ... today (8-13-2018)? :) Maybe it's mythic in the Puget Sound area for new music musicians and journalists, I'm trying to not be completely snarky.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

just finished Edward Berlin's book on the history of ragtime. I heartily endorse it! It's looking like many of the polemics made against rap in this century mirror the polemics made against ragtime a century ago. The coon songs have understandably not survived a century later and ragtime as popular song as barely a footnote in musicology but the piano rag literature has survived, which might be an interesting point of comparison for your work on hiphop in relationship to classical music. I'm probably going to have to carve out some time to blog about it down the road.