Saturday, June 29, 2013


The "Provocative" Future

First up is this story about envisioning the future of classical music. Here are the opening paragraphs.
Two striking visions of the future came my way last week. First was a presentation by Elizabeth Merritt, the keynote speaker at the League of American Orchestras national conference in Saint Louis, themed "Imagining 2023." The second came from Claire Chase in the form of her commencement address to students at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music.
Elizabeth is the mind-bending founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. Claire is the founding director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a group ablaze with virtuosity and creativity. While covering very different dimensions they both agree on one thing: we can see signs of the future right now, and ignoring them is a sure path to marginalization.
After that big opening, you would expect an exciting article, but it consists of just the usual genuflections to creativity, openness, breaking down hierarchies, erasing traditional limits and so on. Apparently, the future is still celebrating the 1960s! Here's my riposte: when I dropped my cellphone on some rocks recently which caused it to stop working, I went to the service center for a new one. I asked for exactly the same model basic phone because it was perfectly functional and I didn't want to waste any time learning new quirks. I told the service rep: "I hate change!" As it is, the text message function doesn't work quite the same, so I have to fool with it.

When I go to concerts I fervently hope that they are playing the music according to the best traditional standards and I hope that the audience will be sitting in the hall and the performers on the stage and that the lighting will be standard. I came for the music, not for some stage-director's fever dream. You know what I mean? I don't want new and improved chamber music: I want the good, old stuff.

I came by this attitude from using word-processing software. Look, 99.99% of the people that use Word would be perfectly happy using a mid-90s version: Word 5 or Word 6. Those programs could do absolutely everything we need. All the subsequent changes and "upgrades" have done nothing more than bloat the program, make it necessary to buy faster computers with more RAM. Which is exactly why Word and other programs were "improved". Most of the changes are just moving stuff around and making cosmetic changes. Change the grey icons to blue and vice versa. All this stuff about how the arts have to change with the times and be "progressive" is just a bunch of hooey. Music doesn't progress. No-one today is writing better, more "improved" music than Bach did. Or Beethoven. Or Stravinsky.

Keep Your Hands off my Folio!

This is not quite music-related, but it is related to the previous item. Contemporary authors are going to "rework" Shakespeare. Here is the article. Here is a quote:
Publisher Random House hopes it will bring Shakespeare "alive for a contemporary readership", and plans to kick off the programme with prose "retellings" of The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's late play of jealousy and forgiveness, from Whitbread award-winner Winterson, and The Taming of the Shrew from the Pulitzer-winning American novelistAnne Tyler.
Now I know what you are going to say, "this is just what Shakespeare did as his plays are often reworkings of Italian tales from a century before." Yep. But Shakespeare took simple folklike tales and turned them into great literature. I suspect what these authors are going to do is take great literature and turn it into modern folklike tales. Plus, exploit the name of a much more famous author. It's win-win for them and lose-lose for us. Afterwards, the publisher can make more money by releasing a new series of the plays in their original form: The Original Shakespeare. We could call it "period" Shakespeare. You see, we have been down this road many time in the music world. Right now, the trend is for "historically informed" performances. But in the past, there have been lots of examples of "updated" or "modernized" Bach or Mozart. In the music world we have come to our senses and realized that Bach's version of Bach is better than any "improved" version we might come up with. And yes, there is a special circle of hell reserved for Those Who Alter Bach's Bass Lines.

The Myth of Progess

Continuing my theme, here is an article about a new book by John Grey that seriously questions the whole idea of progress. Here is the critique:
[Progress] may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. “No single idea,” wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, “has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.” The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”
Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”
Now, what piece of music would be an appropriate end to this post? Ah, I have it. One of the most beautiful and complex pieces of music ever written. Composed in the 15th century by Guillaume Dufay, the motet "Nuper Rosarum":


Nathan Shirley said...

A lot of this comes down to creativity vs. technique. The two have to be well balanced. In popular Western culture technique is often overlooked as it isn't a very romantic notion. So we get this over emphasis on new, original, creativity, etc.

It's certainly true that everything has it's origins in something that came before, but every now and then there does seem to be an amazing leap, where something so creative and successful emerges that we really can call it "new."

Just like in genetics, mutations are happening all the time, most of which are useless or just plain bad, but every now and then something really useful emerges, and it's added to the gene pool.

So maybe only 1 in 100,000 "new" ideas are remotely worthwhile, but without them we'd been much poorer. I think Stravinsky stumbled upon a few.

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting distinction: creativity vs technique. Yes, I see what you mean. There is real and enormous progress in a lot of areas and I don't mean to deny that.

And I completely agree with you about Stravinsky. I've said before that he is the best argument for modernism in music. We could stand to lose a lot of serialism, a lot of chance music and a lot of "happenings", but we really don't want to lose the Rite of Spring, or the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, or the Symphony of Psalms and a whole lot of other stuff...

Unknown said...

In my opinion a "historical" performance of a piece of music is not necessarily more valid than another based solely on that factor. Music is not the instrument that it is played on. Music is not the sound itself. We are not people living in the Baroque or any era other than our own. We can only recreate the music of the past masters in our own time. I agree that music is not continually getting better. But it is changing and it always will.

The discussion of progress is greatly oversimplified. I agree that much of our perceived progress is an illusion. We are still the same violent, deluded, loving, beautiful people who lived on earth 100,000 years ago but with smart phones. That is not to say though that we are incapable of becoming a smarter, better, more in tune species. And I don't have faith that that will just magically happen. A revolution of our education systems is not impossible.

Conservatism can have value if what we are conserving is worthwhile and still valid and living. "Progressivism" can have value if we are progressing in the right ways. But no matter what we do we must always be right where we are.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jared and thanks for leaving another comment.

And an excellent one it is! I was pushing back against the unthinking praise of progress and you, very sensibly, point out that lack of progress is not very interesting either. Heh. Correct, a historically-informed performance is not necessarily great-it is just historically informed. I paused at the statement "Music is not the sound itself." This is actually a pretty big claim. Not one I necessarily disagree with, but it does put us in Platonic territory where the "music" is some abstract structure that is realized, for better or worse, in an actual performance. But the performance is not actually the "music" itself. Philosophically, that is pretty complicated!

You are absolutely correct, both conservatism and progressivism and every other "ism" must be judged and evaluated according to higher standards. I'm rather fond of the Good, the True and the Beautiful myself. Actually, now that I think of it, my post was just such an attempt to evaluate shoddy claims of progressivism. I am equally ready to do the same for conservatism.