Saturday, February 27, 2016

Is the Culture in Decline?

Lately I have been running into a few interesting items in the press about music. Today, for example, there is a reprint of a 1953 review of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony when the BBC was bold enough to pay for enough rehearsals and musicians to present it--ten percussionists! Here is the link. And an excerpt:
when after five endless movements heard in the studio, I was told, innocently unprepared as I was, that there were another five to come, I began to realise to the full what the evening’s ordeal meant. Being well seasoned to that sort of thing, I could bear the harsh sounds that must have made many listeners in their homes turn off their sets precipitately; but the “beautiful” passages of a lushness never experienced before outside a cinema during the organ interlude, were not easily endurable.
Heh! What is really interesting is not the complaint about the harsh sounds, but about the lush ones! Boulez famously criticised Messiaen for writing beautiful passages because they were outside the ideology of what was permitted in "serious" music post-WWII. Ironically, I suspect that we will be listening to Messiaen long after we have forgotten just who Pierre Boulez was. Here, have a listen for yourself:

Yes, it is a love song in ten movements for enormous orchestra with a lot of unusual instruments, but it is hard to think of a more aesthetically interesting and challenging 20th century work for orchestra. There are more unpleasant works, certainly, and more dull ones, but none quite as bold as this.

Much of what is written these days by John Luther Adams, or Esa-Pekka Salonen or Thomas Adès is pretty weak tea compared to this piece by Messiaen.

But if you want to really compare past to present--the Turangalîla Symphony dates from 1949--you should watch any of the old William F. Buckley jr. Firing Line episodes, like this interview with Tom Wolfe from 1970 when "Radical Chic" had just been published describing a notorious party thrown by Leonard Bernstein to support the Black Panthers:

Never mind the subject matter, what is interesting is the level of discourse. Would anyone be introduced in those measured periods on television today? Believe me, if this is what was on tv now, I would never have cut my cable! Discussion these days seems more to resemble the howling of dogs and barking of hyenas.


Marc said...

Was thinking about WFB yesterday, prompted by a post at NR's Corner by the first Firing Line producer Neal Freeman (Mr Buckley, requiescat in pace, died on 27 February 2008). I happened to be able to listen (via a podcast app) to perhaps forty minutes of the GOP 'debate' Friday night (had never heard more than ten seconds of any of them, nor that Trump fellow, ever) and my mind went to Firing Line after the first outraged yelling, dignified by the moderator as a 'response'. Tsk, tsk. I don't believe it is possible to ask the question in your title without irony.

Marc said...

Am going to listen to Turangalila-Symphonie today since I didn't get around to it last Sunday: a recording from 1959 by l'Orchestre National de la RTF with Yvonne & Jeanne Loriod, reissued a couple of years ago, not that far removed in time from the BBC performance. ‘If the public today will stand Messiaen it will probably stand anything’-- little did poor Mr Cardus know what was to come!

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, you might enjoy a French radio station, France Culture. You can listen online: Thoughtful and serious discussion on political and cultural phenomena.

But back to your question about culture in decline. Culture and civilization both have already died if you base your judgement on how it's reflected in the level of political discourse in the US today. Compare the level of discourse in the Kennedy Nixon debates to current political 'debates'. In decline? ...or long deceased?

Bryan Townsend said...

@Marc: one commentator made the suggestion that politics nowadays is likely to be dominated by those who are popular culture figures and who know how to speak to people who have the 3 minute attention span--or is it now the 140 character attention span?--of today's dominant public discourse. That means Donald Trump, of course. I await the future administration of President Snoop Daddy.

Listening to the whole of the Turangalîla Symphony is a project, but a pretty worthwhile one. By the end you have gotten accustomed to his harmonies and orchestral colors and begin to hear it as the exuberant joyful thing it is.

@Christine: I will have to check that station out. I do tend to miss the manifestations of French culture that I had access to in Montreal. Mind you, my French is far from fluent, so I miss a lot.

I have long held that we are in a kind of new Dark Ages, culturally speaking, where small groups of acolytes try to preserve the culture of the glorious past until civilization can bloom again. Like the monks of 1200 years ago, we will choose what works to preserve. They chose seven plays each by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and copied them over and over. Other dramatists they didn't bother with and so all we have today is the names of some of their plays. I can imagine a distant future where there are seven symphonies preserved by Haydn, seven by Mozart and seven by Beethoven...

Yes, and if you compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, I think they are as far above the Kennedy-Nixon debates are they are above the current debates. According to Wikipedia: "The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute "rejoinder." "

Marc said...

What an awful thought! only seven of Haydn's symphonies! While I take your point, surely there's been sufficient material/technological advancement to enable much of the corpus of 'classical music' to survive the worst of catastrophes: e.g. even if there are but a score of aficionados of Biber who have CD collections of his entire oeuvre, that should be sufficient to enable future scholars to reproduce the music, at any rate when men re-establish a sufficiently prosperous society and so can stop spending all their time hunting and gathering and make some electricity. How long it takes to figure out how to make such music again, not just reproduce the sound from CDs or whatever, who can guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! But I take your point--it may be easier to recreate the scores for all the symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven than it has proven to be to do so for Aeschylus and the others. And what about poor Phyrnichus, of whom we have not a single play, just their titles?

On the other hand, it does rather depend on how apocalyptic things might become.

David said...

Bryan, I would expect that the swearing in of the president of the future administration you await would introduce the world to President Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr. (aka: Snoop Dogg, Snoop Rock, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Snoop Lion, DJ Snoopadelic, Snoopzilla, and Bigg Snoop Dogg). By the way, he would likely be the first White House resident who was(i) a follower of the Rastafari movement;(ii) a professional pimp (according to Wiki-know-it-all Snoop gave up pimiping to spend more time with his family and (iii) the owner of a cannabis products brand (Leafs by Snoop). It sounds like an interesting time on the non-music front at least.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh right!!! It's Snoop Doggy Dogg (plus all those other cognomina). I admire his recent work with Katy Perry. Ahem.