Saturday, March 30, 2019

a relatively short counterpoint to John Borstlap's "Misreading and Erosion"

Borstlap has written a response to the review of his book The Classical Revolution at Mere Orthodoxy.

Reading is not always easy, and understanding entirely dependent upon the receptive framework of the reader. For instance, in the review as linked underneath, of 'The Classical Revolution', the reader thought that I was claiming that classical music 'would save Western civilisation', while it should be clear from the text that of course was meant: when classical music erodes in the West, this would be a sign that Western civilisation itself is eroding, since classical music is an expression of its civilisational values. 

Misreading such obvious observation is in itself a sign of erosion, while the countless confusions and misunderstandings in this review show what happens when there is not enough background to fall back upon. Nonetheless, it is good to notice that the book sets some minds in motion: 

If Borstlap doesn't believe that "A renaissance for classical music means a renaissance for humanity." then why did he decide to be a fellow at the Future Symphony Institute, which has a website that has that motto as of ... today? Replying that "that's not in the book" doesn't really address the public association Borstlap has with the Institute and the point of mentioning that association is to highlight that there's a positive formulation, a claim that a rebirth of classical music means a rebirth for humanity.  Borstlap seems to write as though he can't be held responsible for axioms published by an institute he would seem to have voluntarily joined. 

Borstlap's book, as he attempts to explain it, seems to have been more about the perceived erosion of classical music as emblematic of the erosion of civilization in the West. 

The trouble is simple. There's no evidence presented in his book that there has been erosion of classical music in the West, however the West may be defined, let alone however music might be defined.  Borstlap never defined what music even positively is in his book. 

Now the funding of what he calls sonic art can't be construed as an erosion of whatever music is, even if I think that the majority of serialism and spectralist music is boring at a personal level.  Borstlap's hyperbolic conclusion to his book underscores his failure to articulate a coherent case.  Merely saying that if the work of Xenakis is called music then Hitler wins isn't an argument, and it's certainly not an argument that can be based on any kind of historical work.  Xenakis participation in resistance against the Axis powers isn't that hard to look up.  The claim that if we accept the work of a composer like Xenakis as music then the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin will be completed is so idiotic an assertion it hardly merits more rebuttal than the simple observation that the absurdity of the claim speaks for itself. 

Borstlap never addresses that problem in his book's conclusion.  Rather than concede that he failed to define basic terms and used implication more than argument, he seems to have settled on the idea that reviews that take issue with a few of his assertions must have misread his work and reading is hard.  Reading is not as difficult as writing clearly.  If English is not Borstlap's first language I'll want to cut him plenty of slack but even doing that, it seems more likely Borstlap has misread the review than that he has been misread, unless he's willing to grant that he's not the most lucid or compelling writer in English, or perhaps that arguments that are more cogently constructed in Dutch don't translate into particularly clear or lucid English prose.  That's possible. 

But it's also possible he misread the review, and misread it by way of only reading (and skimming, it seems) the review of his book without reading the other review of another book by another Future Symphony Institute fellow.

Now it's possible the symphony and the salon and parlor music traditions of chamber music in western European countries have experienced some kind of decline.  Yet if it were in decline this, in itself, has no bearing on the state of what's colloquially known as art music in the West. 

Let's look at the relative decline of a musical art discipline that preceded the symphony. The polyphonic mass didn't die out as instrumental music developed between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The high polyphonic mass was simply set off to the side as no longer being emblematic of "the" pinnacle of artistic achievement within Western artistic musical contexts.  Civilization didn't erode because polyphonic masses in a the tradition of modal counterpoint fell into relative disuse. 

By extension, what we may be seeing in the last century and a half is that, just as the ars perfecta of the Renaissance became so perfect there seemed nothing much to add to it, the symphony has had a good two century run and has been shifting off center stage that it had for a time.  Assuming that there even is a decline in the symphonic tradition in the West, this really has no bearing on whether or not civilizations in the West are declining.  If the symphony has had its day in the sun and is shuffling off the center stage that doesn't mean the civilizations of the West are somehow dying. 

As Paul Hindemith put it in A Composer's World, it's dubious and unrealistic to think that even the greatest masterpieces of musical art are, were, or ever could be "timeless" or "eternal".  Even the greatest works of art have, as the phrase has it, shelf lives.  There would be, inevitably, a point at which Beethoven's Fifth was no longer part of the musical life of societies. 
It is partly man's own frailty and his unstable conditions of life that forces each new generation to modify its musical aspects and with them the evaluation of compositions; and it is partly the frailty of the musical form itself, which, because it is not built to withstand continual wear and tear, is subject to the musical equivalent of oxidation and decay. Our modern orchestral repertoire rarely includes pieces more than two hundred years old and most likely never will include much music written before 1750, so long as we maintain our manners and places of performance. The more complex the means of reproduction are, the less time-resistant are the pieces they help to represent. Solo pieces, ensemble and choral works of the sixteenth and even the fifteenth century may occasionally appear on programs, and courageous explorers are sometimes apt to dive down to the very beginnings of organized harmonious music.

All this shows that the "everlasting" value of compositions and, their potentialities of performance are by no means eternal, and the majesty of the term "everlasting" dims even further when we compare the vigorousness of a musical composition with the thousands of years an architectural creation may last, or with the periods of development in general history and geology.

The symphony is less time-resistant a musical art than smaller-scale musical writing. In other words, even the grandest of symphonies is going to have a shelf life limited to the social and cultural viability of symphonic activity. A decline in the relative prestige and quality of symphonic writing in the last century is not really proof of a decline of Western civilization any more than a decline in the prestige and quality of the writing of polyphonic masses could be taken to only be an indication of the erosion of Western civilizations and values.  The symphony may have simply reached its shelf life in the way the polyphonic mass did centuries ago; the symphony may be an art form that reached a peak of perfection from which everything and anything since such a peak would inevitably be a slow or swift decline. 

In the ten centuries of Western musical art, the symphonic age is just a couple of centuries when you step back and look at it, more or less exactly as Paul Hindemith described it.