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When orchestras rack their brains to discover the ways that they are relevant to their communities, they invariably come up with a wide range of replies that almost never includes their concert hall. Yet there is little else that could appear on that list that is as permanent and concrete as the daily encounter of a community with its concert hall.

Chef Spike Gjerde. Image courtesy of Woodberry Kitchen.

The prescriptions most loudly recommended for America’s challenged orchestras today stress complicity with the modern realities of speed, technology, and globalization. Shorter, quicker concerts geared towards shorter, quicker attention spans; the sensual and intellectual stimulation of novelty and fashion; harnessing technological innovation to prove that we can keep up; focusing our attention on bigger halls, bigger stars, and wider distribution, emphasizing the global and universal rather than the local and the particular – these are answers we hear over and over. But what if they’re wrong?

Giorgio Vasari: Six Tuscan Poets

It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young.

Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights.

I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning.

Many are surprised by the beauty of New York City’s City Hall subway station, hidden underground.

Reading the gripping chapters of Robert R. Reilly’s book, with YouTube on the screen, was both an education in itself, and a source of shame to me, who have defended tonality all these years without realising that it is a live tradition, constantly renewing itself in defiance of an academic orthodoxy that denies its right to exist.

Theodore Robinson: At The Piano, 1887.

The present-day abundance of classical music – of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans – is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. And it is a cause for celebration that so many people still feel drawn into its web of lethal beauty, in a world so far from the one that gave it birth.

Detail of line engraving by D. Cunego: Pythagoras, after R.Meng, 1782.

Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. John Adams said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.

Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant in Fort Worth, Texas, 1942.

With the exception of Ruskin and Morris most thinkers of the industrial era turned out to be “industrial” thinkers. Refusing to consider industrialism as a mere ideology, they posited it as an irreversible fact of history and progress, as unquestionable as the laws of nature, as irrevocably useful as the discovery of the wheel.

Gustav Klimt: Music, 1895.

The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music: if, after Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself,” one might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”

Pierre Boulez in 1964, Image credit: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

In a man who was famed for his “modernism”, Boulez’s faith in man’s eternal journey ever closer to perfection seems a quaint 19th century mindset. It is a way of looking at the world that was, for most of us, discredited by the nightmare of the 20th century’s totalitarian conceptions.

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