EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in June 2011.
I am not actually a child of the Sixties, although I almost was. Born in July 1959, I had a fairly contented, provincial Scottish boyhood when all the strange social convulsions were going on elsewhere. You needed to be a fully-fledged urban teenager or twenty-something brat in that decade to be fully touched and muddled by all its shenanigans. I reached my own personal brat-hood round about 1976 and I stayed that way till my first child arrived in 1990.
It is interesting to reflect now on what was held up as appropriate thinking and behaviour for an artist during that phase; and I can see the same orthodoxies at work in the “artistic community” even now. The cherished values of generations through our shared history, the deep-rootedness of paradigmatic, civilised structures and human relationships have been under siege from some determined enemies. The traditional family, education, sexual morality, artistic aspirations, religious belief – these are all now sold to us as mere strategies of the powerful and the coercive “reactionary,” designed to enforce conformity and slavish obedience to outmoded fashions. The most eager proponents of this revolutionary radicalism from the Romantics onwards were artists, of course. For the Romantic of the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, the attraction of revolution, (and any old revolution would do) has been a constant leitmotif. Revolution, which preferably overturned manners and lifestyles as well as aesthetics and politics, has been the slogan and banner for generations of certain types of creative idealists.
But what have these fashionable revolutions to do with a love of life, or even of a love of the poor or the outsider? They seem more concerned with a love of transgression; a fetish for flouting the traditions, values and morality of established communities and peoples which the hero/rebel/artist wants to be seen rejecting. Their war against their own roots has been bloody and relentless. They seem punch-drunk with their onslaught and clobbering. It is clearly addictive and in the past has led artists as much to the extreme Right as to the far Left. It is not the upholders of tradition that have strategy as claimed. If anyone has a strategy, it is our new cultural elite, and their aim is to attack the institutions and principles of our shared common life. What began as a light-headed teenage rebellion has become a cultural regime which judges artists and their work on the basis of how they contribute to the remodelling, or indeed the overthrow of society’s core institutions and ethics.
In the light of this I can now see, in retrospect, that my first defiant counter-revolutionary activities were marrying Lynne in 1983 (according to the rites of Holy Mother Church, of course) and having three kids with her in the early 1990s. Many artists I know have abstained from the responsibility of lifelong commitment to a significant other, and bringing children into the world, as it would interfere with their vocations as cultural figures, preferring to see their own opus, in music, words or pictures as “their real children” which they set loose on an unsuspecting world. Marriage and fatherhood – it’s not exactly rock’n’roll, is it? And yet, it was the influence of two men, both married fathers, that had a seminal influence on me.
I think I inherited my love of music from my maternal grandfather, George Loy, who was a coalminer in Ayrshire all his life. He had played the euphonium in colliery bands in the 1920s and ’30s, and he was devoted to singing in the church choir for Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Cumnock. This church, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1882, was originally intended as a place where music would be specially nurtured.
When, as a teenager, I began to show an interest in the fine two-manual Hilsdon organ in Saint John’s, my grandfather was over the moon and bought me a set of new hymn books and various manuals to help me teach myself the basics. I soon began playing for the liturgies there. This, combined with my school studies in choral music from all ages, meant that my interest and love of sacred music took off in a big way, which was to have implications for the rest of my life.
Working-class Ayrshire is a hard-man’s paradise, but could be purgatory for everyone else. The way people like my grandfather survived was to put on a hard skin and hide his true self underneath. He was good at it. He had to be. His own father was an abusive drunk who could make life misery for his family. When his sons reached a certain age, they worked out that if they kicked him in a specific place, they could dislocate his leg and render him harmless on the floor for a few hours, as he raged in his drunken stupor, thus safeguarding mother and children from physical abuse.
On another occasion as a young man, my grandfather was having a drink with friends in a local bar after work. A stranger approached them and announced that my grandfather “had the map of Ireland written all over his face.” A poetic observation perhaps, but in sectarian-infested Ayrshire one did not hang around to explore metaphorical subtleties. Turning the other cheek, they headed for the door to avoid any escalation, except for one, who couldn’t quite contain all that pent-up male rage. At the door, my grandfather turned to see his friend throttling the living daylights out of the mouthy poetic figure, who had chanced his arm with them, an inch too far, apparently. He rushed back in to extricate his fury-infused pal from an increasingly sticky situation before the local “Loyal Defence League” turned up.
It may have been as part of a determined flight from these blood-boiling belligerencies that my grandfather sought solace in music. He may have been dour and authoritarian, but he loved his family and they loved him back. I felt especially nurtured by his encouragement. Just before he died he confided in me a truly remarkable revelation of the power and presence of God which involved a piece of my music. It will remain our secret, but what stunned me most were the words he used. He did not normally waste words. He had a working man’s suspicion of pretension and fancy, and yet here he was, hours from death, trawling deep into his heart and memory to show me that music brings you into the very immanence of a loving God. No learned tome on theology or musicological philosophy has explained this reality to me more clearly since.
George Loy’s eldest daughter, Ellen, my mum, married James MacMillan senior in 1958. In his way too, he can seem strangely out of place. He doesn’t drink (much), and is quiet, thoughtful and sensitive. He prefers the company of his family to that of hard-drinking men. One of my earliest memories of him is observing him on his knees before a statue of Mary, lost in a distant humble introspection. Snatched moments like these showed me more about being a man than any of the other masculine madness surrounding me at the time. My dad’s own work as a carpenter seemed another world away from my chosen path in life. And yet I was always struck, and impressed, at how much care he took in the making of things. There were strict techniques to his craft which had taken a lifetime to learn. Again there was no place for fanciful self-indulgences in the manipulation of wood and lathe. I may use different tools and materials from my dad, but he will never really know just how much of an influence he has had on me.
An influence on making music, and on being a father. It’s only beginning to dawn on me just how iconically counter-cultural people like my dad and grandfather are becoming for present and future generations. Their inevitable route through a Scottish working-class manhood, with their pivotal roles as husbands and fathers, must have struck them as fairly mundane and mainstream in their day. The upheavals and disruptions of recent decades have made many of us look again at their taken-for-granted lives, with a strong sense of wistfulness and loss.
We all know now that working-class life has been hit hard in recent decades. First of all, the traditional communities have been disrupted physically by uprooting and dislocation. More potently and toxically, they have been disrupted socially and spiritually by the breakdown in marriage, family life, and through drug and alcohol abuse.
The rest, they say, is history, except that a lot of people have not only been left behind by that history, but have been wasted and trashed by it. Rediscovering the role of the father seems an urgent task. Not as some emotionally remote, powerful patriarch, but as a patient enabler. The first of his tasks is to give space to the beloved, the mother, to build her nest of love. There has been a historical breach which has made a generation lose sight of how that may be done. It will require hard work in building the ideal vision again.
Can a musician contribute to this much-needed counter-revolution? Can artists be weaned off their toxic hedonism to provide new ways of imagining our human condition and its flourishing in a universal sense of the good life? I have no idea.
Nevertheless, something strange happened to me and my long-time collaborator, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, when we first became fathers in the 1990s. We were overwhelmed at the new experience. No one warns you that you fall head over heels in love with the new arrivals – these tiny, insignificant little bundles – who can do nothing for themselves, but turn your lives inside out. Maybe mothers know about this, but as usual, fathers, perhaps a bit slow on the uptake, are the last to find out. We noticed that there was not much in our culture which reflected on this, or celebrated parenthood, and fatherhood especially. Neither was there much which rejoiced in the family, or marriage or the fullness of human sexuality, other than the usual stuff from popular culture.
We wondered if we could address this vacuum in our own work in some way. It is not the first time that Michael and I have been accused of muscling into territory recently colonised by militant, exclusivist feminism. But you know what? We couldn’t have cared less! The result was Quickening, a large oratorio co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The first movement, Incarnadine, is basically a love song. The word means blood-red, crimson, raw-flesh colour, the colour of life. The main part of the text is the observation of the lovers, as their loving words and endearments become flesh, literally. In a little postlude to this, written in italics, we hear the words of the coming child, who is now alive and unborn.
This is love’s alchemy, mercurial,
What risk to bring another pair of hands into the world! A tongue alive with sounds
Of long-forgotten gardens, Babel
Songs which none can recognize,
Wildcat psalms in cedar trees, what risk!
Yet this new life is our elixir,
This soft dividing pearl is our great price.
Incarnadine, vermillion, crimson;
That night your words were made flesh I became
A hummingbird trapped in a scarlet room,
whose wings beat so quickly they cannot be seen.
At the first performance of this piece a young couple rushed into their seats in front of me at the Royal Albert Hall with a few seconds to spare before the conductor raised his baton. They were harassed, unsettled and out of breath. They did not know what this piece was that was beginning. As they calmed themselves, and started to read their programme notes I noticed them following the text as the singers sang it. At a certain point I saw them grasp each other in an involuntary spasm of joint recognition. They gripped fast and would not let go. Something in Michael’s text had touched their own situation. It was one of the most magical feelings I have ever experienced as an artist, attempting to communicate something of our shared humanity.
Over the years at subsequent performances I have got used to noticing people on my peripheral vision, hovering, sometimes alone, sometimes in couples, wanting to catch a quick word with me. They share intimate secrets of their love and their parenthood. Sometimes their tales are very sad, and one realises that those snatched moments of shared communion with complete strangers are vitally important, and one has to be ready with words and smiles. Sometimes they have questions for me too.
Other times the questions are not so friendly. Journalists are bright enough to realise that there might be a subterranean dimension to this work, and feel that some aggressive interrogation is called for. In the US especially, beset with its all-encompassing culture wars, some hacks figure out that all is not well with Quickening! “Do you not realise,” they fulminate, “just how offensive and divisive this piece might be?”
“Why offensive? Why divisive?” I inquire, jaw loose in amazement.
“Well, because of all this, um, eh, er…” they bluster, “all this…well, um…all this ‘life’ stuff!”
Hmm. All this “life” stuff, indeed. That would be in contradistinction to all this “death” stuff then? Not that there is anything wrong in artists exploring the mystery of death in their work. I do it all the time too. But when our world can become so anaesthetised, to the point of being a couple of notches out on the moral compass from hailing Harold Shipman-types as heroes of a new compassionate utilitarianism, we should pause for thought.
Or what about this particular elephant in the room? President Barack Obama recently signed a law decreeing that federal statutes must no longer use the term “mental retardation.” The phrase replacing it will be “intellectual disability.” How the opponents of social discrimination rejoiced. No longer would children with Down’s syndrome suffer the indignity of social stigma. The thesaurus comes to their rescue. Well, at least the 10 per cent of them that we allow to exist anyway – the other 90 per cent being discriminated out of existence because we have all been convinced that there is such a thing as “life unworthy of life,” to borrow a term from an earlier eugenical era. And our new elites bridle indignantly at the charge that they preside over a “culture of death.” What other prettified words or phrases from the thesaurus would they prefer?
This is the background context to the 21st century’s fractured landscape, where families snap apart and communities self-implode. And so, is there any place left for an artist’s need for self-definition as a father? Can an artist be inspired and even shaped by his decision to build a family rather than reject the potential? Is this a determined stance for future life?
Who knows, but there is definitely something in the air. Even David Cameron has dared to take on the 50-year orthodoxies of finger-wagging bullies, by declaring that marriage really does work best. Are some of us developing the courage to take on the ruling elites and put family, marriage, fatherhood, motherhood, the fullness of human flourishing, the good life, Christianity even, (for Christ’s sake!), the culture of life, not death, back where it belongs – at the centre of the public square?
Sir Roger Scruton’s essays for FSI are published by the gracious support of Alfred S. Regnery.
I recently acquired a CD of music for piano duo by Jeremy Menuhin, son of Yehudi, the great violinist and cultural icon. The CD, issued by Genuin classics, Leipzig, is entitled The Voice of Rebellion. But the rebellion is not the usual one, against the rules and strictures of an authoritarian past. For the last fifty years or so the posture of rebellion against tradition, authority, hierarchy and knowledge has become an orthodoxy in the media and the academic world, and the anti-establishment hero has become the cliché of a new establishment. There is only one real rebellion now, and that is the rebellion against rebellion, the rebellion on behalf of order, knowledge and tradition – to put it in essential terms, the rebellion against the Self on behalf of the Other. This is the rebellion practised by Jeremy Menuhin in the music on his engaging CD.
Menuhin’s Suite in the Baroque Manner for two pianos (meticulously played by Menuhin and his wife Mookie Lee-Menuhin) combines real knowledge with a lively melodic gift in a suite of which the great Bach himself might have been proud. Critics will decry the result as pastiche, saying, as they always do, that you cannot go back, that forward is the only permissible direction in the world of art, and that all attempts to imitate what has been done end up as replicas, in which the spark of creativity has been snuffed out. But none of that is true of Menuhin’s suite. The listener will, certainly, be surprised to learn that it is the work of a living composer. But creative inspiration is there, not only in the melodies and harmonic sequences, but in the rigorous counterpoint that spurs the music across the bar-lines. Counterpoint, as Menuhin has learned it, is not some mechanical, extraneous structure laid over his melodic ideas like an exoskeleton over soft musical flesh. It is the grammar of the musical argument, the creative source from which everything flows, and the reason for Menuhin’s musical conviction.
Of course, not every composer versed in counterpoint can write in the manner of Bach. Nor should they want to. Nevertheless we must recognize the centrality of counterpoint to our tradition, and its role in bringing order and logic to the polyphonic forms that have made classical music into the symbol of our civilisation and the art-form of which we Europeans should be most proud. This makes it all the more lamentable that so many of our departments of composition teach counterpoint only as an option, or don’t teach it at all. This is one more illustration of the flight from knowledge that has swept through our universities. In music, as in every art-form, there has arisen in recent times the illusion that knowledge is not necessary, that the old forms of discipline are merely obstacles to the true creative process, and that real originality means doing your own thing, free from traditional constraints. That this is nonsense is apparent to all truly creative people, who know that artistic freedom comes only when form has been mastered and internalised. But this truth clashes with the democratic prejudice that self-expression, not discipline, makes the artist, and that no one should be excluded by mere ignorance from the rewards of creative genius.
The accents of Bach’s Art of Fugue and Forty-Eight can be heard throughout our musical tradition. You hear them in the sensuous contours of a Skryabin sonata, in the jagged confrontations of a Bartók quartet, in the overlapping chordal melodies of a Vaughan Williams symphony. They come to the fore, dramatized and glorified, in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger; they slink into the background, to be revealed only at the turning points of the narrative, in Berg’s Violin Concerto. Counterpoint can be blatant, as in the canonical scherzo of Schubert’s First Piano Trio, or secretive, as in Britten’s Turn of the Screw. It is like the shared obedience that unites a team or a platoon, and which is present even in moments of amusement and distraction, when the call to order is for the time being suspended.
Mastery of counterpoint is unevenly distributed among the great composers. It is there in abundance in many who don’t make a show of it, like Brahms and Mahler; it is hardly there at all in some who nevertheless display it as best they can, like Pfitzner and Weil. And there are composers like Debussy who have mastered it (as is shown by the string quartet) and then moved on, into worlds where argument has given way to impressions, and all logical connectives have been dissolved.
Two considerations seem to have influenced the expulsion of counterpoint from the curriculum. One is that counterpoint belongs to an old and ‘dead’ style of composition, which went out of fashion with the Baroque and is now of only theatrical relevance, as in DieMeistersinger or the concluding fugue of Falstaff. The other is that counterpoint makes no real sense outside the grammar of tonal harmony, and can only stand in the way of composers who are trying to express themselves in a modern idiom.
Both those considerations are profoundly mistaken. Counterpoint in music is like rhyme in poetry: it holds disparate things together in a unity, and at the same time it shows that unity is not simple but composed. Only mastery of counterpoint can make a single chord, sounded in root position for three minutes, into one of the most varied events in music – but that is what Wagner does in the Prelude to Das Rheingold. The same contrapuntal genius that produced the last movement of the Jupiter symphony could turn a simple triad into the most melting melody, as in Susanna’s aria in the garden, in which the chord stretches into melody in just the way that chords become melodies in a fugue.
Nor should we think of tonality as the background condition of all effective counterpoint. The opening movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is woven from atonal phrases to create a texture that has all the objectivity and logic of a contrapunctus from the Art of Fugue. Removing the constraints of tonal harmony, far from making counterpoint easier, makes it more difficult. Simultaneous tones must now be both dissonant and in keeping with each other; the voices must come together in audible points of rest, while maintaining a precise tension throughout. Studying atonal counterpoint is one way to begin the arduous discipline of voice-led harmony. The same discipline is manifest in polyphonic counterpoint, of the kind that gives Szymanowski’s first Violin Concerto its extraordinary zing. Only a very superficial listener to such a work will fail to understand how much it owes to its contrapuntal architecture.
It should not be the aim of a musical education to produce people like Jeremy Menuhin, at ease in an old tradition and able to project it forward as though it had never suffered a moment of self-doubt. Even if the class on counterpoint never mentions Bach, even if it wanders in the parched landscape of the Stravinsky symphonies or the greenhouse shrubberies of Poulenc, it will be teaching something more than mathematical sequences, mirror motions, inverted canons and the rest. It will be teaching the essence of composition, which is the art of making one note lead by necessity to the next.
The project of European high modernism in music has not looked kindly on “insular” rummaging forays into local folk music, especially on the Celtic fringe. The very localism of this instinct is an affront to the cosmopolitan sophistication which the international avant-garde was to develop over time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in October 2011.
As a composer I have been affected by political considerations and developments over time, and in a range of different ways. Also, I seem to be a part of a huge international community of composers, past and present, that has been drawn towards folk music as a way of developing new, individual musical languages and palettes.
There has been a long history of the politics of traditional music affecting the aspirations and inspirations of composers. In the 19th century, the growing nationalism in central and eastern parts of Europe is plainly discernible in the work of many composers. Whole swathes of late 19th- and early 20th-century musical history are dominated by a roll call of their names — Glinka, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek, Grieg, Sibelius, Granados, Vaughan Williams, and Skalkottas. Subsequently, nationalism has become tainted in artistic communities, not just because of the Third Reich but because more recent “big-gun” nationalisms, like Gaullism and Thatcherism, were of the Right.
This has caused a degree of anxious squirming in the world of traditional music, because that very traditionalism — the valuing and nurturing of ancient cultural practice — can so often be associated with nationalism, especially in the case of Ireland and Scotland. Indeed the attitudes of the Irish Left towards their traditional cultures of music, language, and dance during the 20th century were ambiguous and troubled, to say the least. The Irish Republic was built by rightists, nationalists, and Catholics on a range of traditional values as a bulwark to defend the Irish State and people from Bolshevism, liberalism, and the English Protestant crown. The sound of Irish traditional music was the very sound of defensive introspection in the face of a changing outside world — a changing outside world that the forces of the Irish Left sought to import and impose on their own nation.
Many and various ideological and aesthetical hoops have been jumped through over the decades for Irish traditional music to take its present place in the affections of the bien pensants. And in my own country there is still a deep insecurity over the question of Scottish nationalism: is it a creature of the Right or the Left? Even today, with the giddy ascent of Alex Salmond, there is no clear answer. The anxiety over the importance of our past exacerbates this question. Is the celebration of traditional Scottish values and culture a reactionary impetus? Or is it all part of a progressivist thrust towards self-determination in a spirit of local ownership of past identities?
In the discussion of folk music in Scotland, either in its grassroots place in cultural life, or in the work of its many composers, there is also clearly a degree of ambiguity. I have detected this in the music and conversations of my colleagues: honorary Scot Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Alasdair Nicolson, James Dillon, Judith Weir, William Sweeney, Edward McGuire, and Lyell Cresswell — all have an abiding interest in folk music. This interest in folk cultures, when all is said and done, is purely musical. We are fascinated by what we have heard of Scotland’s ancient sounds and want to absorb it into our own souls again. This can be tricky when trying to explain ourselves to our foreign colleagues. The project of European high modernism in music has not looked kindly on “insular” rummaging forays into local folk music, especially on the Celtic fringe. The very localism of this instinct is an affront to the cosmopolitan sophistication which the international avant-garde was to develop over time. “But,” we squeal in self-defensive indignation, “what about Bartok, who was a musicologist in his own musical folk cultures as well as a major composer? Or the Italian avant-gardist Luciano Berio, for that matter?” Indeed, the fragmentation of international modernism has freed up so many potential avenues for composers in recent decades. And it is fascinating that a figure on the Left, like Berio, could have embraced folk music so wholeheartedly in his later years. Concurrently, there has been a steady fascination among English composers of the Left with music that is genuinely “of the people” — particularly the diversely opposing work of Michael Finnissy and Howard Skempton. Some of the composers mentioned in this paragraph featured together in a fascinating concert at the Bath Festival in May, involving pianist Joanna MacGregor, Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, and the Navarra String Quartet.
One of the central figures in this consideration of politics and folk music is Cornelius Cardew, whose music also appeared in the same programme. In 1968 Howard Skempton joined Cardew’s experimental music class at Morley College, where in spring 1969 they formed the Scratch Orchestra. This ensemble had open membership and was dedicated to performing experimental contemporary music.
However, apparently tensions arose during the politicising of the Scratch Orchestra in the early 1970s: Cardew and a number of other important members were pushing the ensemble in a Marxist direction. Skempton, and many others, refused to be associated with an extremist political line, and the break-up of the orchestra was accompanied by a split between its “political” and “experimental” factions.
The wider political fissures in this area of contemporary music are worth exploring here. The arcane and sometimes bloody ideological warfare on the Left between Trotskyists and Stalinists seems a thing of the past now. Not so in the world of contemporary classical music, apparently. An international conference was held at the British Academy in London last January, entitled “Red Strains: Music and Communism outside the Communist Bloc after 1945.”
With keynote speakers from Harvard, Cambridge, and many other universities here and abroad, the gathering explored the nature and extent of individual musicians’ involvement with Communist organisations and parties, the appeal and reach of different strands of Communist thought (e.g. Trotskyist, Castroist, Maoist), the significance of music for Communist parties and groups (e.g. groups’ cultural policies, use of music in rallies and meetings), the consequences of Communist involvement for composition and music-making, and how this involvement affected musicians’ careers and performance opportunities in different countries.
Topics ranged from “Communism’s cultural legacy: Soviet realism overseas” to “Marxist-Leninist ideology and British experimentalism.” The more eye-catching papers included “A Western Communist as a source for the second Soviet avant-garde: Luigi Nono’s first visit to the USSR in 1963 and its aftermath,” “Samuel Goldwyn, Aaron Copland, and the United States government: Developing a pro-Soviet aesthetic in Hollywood,” and “Left-wing and progressive musicians in the West and their relationship to Eastern bloc dissidents.” (It is well-known that many leftist artists, like left-wing Western intellectuals, had long and shameful love affairs with Soviet Communism.)
Cardew eventually rejected the ethos of the avant-garde by setting up the Scratch Orchestra, which promoted a kind of manufactured “music of the people”, concentrating on political liberation songs such as “Smash the social contract” and “There is only one lie, there is only one truth.” The inspiration for this was the Chinese cultural revolution. This political and aesthetical development was encapsulated in Cardew’s 1974 book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, in which he renounced not only his earlier association with the musical avant-garde but his friendship with Stockhausen himself.
Cardew was active in various causes in British politics, such as the struggle against the revival of neo-Nazi groups and supporting striking miners and “anti-imperialist movements in Northern Ireland” (aka the Provisional IRA).
A member of various Maoist organisations in the 1970s, Cardew was killed in a hit-and-run car incident near his home in 1981. The driver was never found. Among the ultra-Left there are various conspiracy theories that he was killed by MI5, and he has subsequently developed martyrdom status in some old-guard, avant-garde musical circles.
However, as in all things ultra-Left, there has been a bitter Pythonesque schism among the comrades about Cardew’s true political legacy. A heretical paper was delivered at the British Academy conference which caused an almighty row. “Cardew serves Stalinism: Saint Cornelius and reified constructions of the international proletariat” by Ian Pace, (a formidable pianist and lecturer at City University, London), seems to have pushed a revisionist Trotskyist agenda. One delegate described it as a “diatribe against Mao, Stalin, Hoxha and, of course, Cardew.” (Imagine having the temerity to attack Hoxha. Tut tut. Whatever next?)
One delegate to the conference commented: “I was surprised at just how many people at the conference were actually Communists, rather than people studying music that bears some relationship to Communism. Lots of Americans, and mostly over 60. One guy had a guitar and illustrated his daughter’s paper with live musical examples, including ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ and other 1960s favourites, and most of the audience joined in with all these songs.
“One woman — a professor from Harvard — even had tears in her eyes by the end of one of them. Not quite what I was expecting, and somewhat surreal, but educational more in a sociological than academic way. They all seemed like very friendly and good people, but the sentimentality of the idealism, and the borderline hippy-culture…”
I wish I had been there. I could have relived my youth. As a younger man, I was very interested in the way that Cardew thought to engage the community in music-making, even if this was politically-motivated. In that sense you could say that he has had a big impact on the development of musical education and outreach work undertaken by many ensembles and organisations in the decades since his death. I am specifically referring to those projects which aim to take music into communities which, traditionally, don’t have much contact with the world of “art” music — certain schools and prisons, for example.
You could say that pioneers of this work like Gillian Moore, Richard McNicol, and Peter Wiegold have been influenced by some of this early thinking. I was particularly struck by the story of Cardew joining the picket line at Grunwick and trying to teach the men some chants and songs he had specially written. This is real composer-in-the-community stuff and not too far removed from the work explored by Peter Maxwell Davies in Orkney and elsewhere. I also hear that the Grunwick heavies told him to f*** off, but that is neither here nor there. I have been approached by members of the Green and White Brigade (a group of noisy Celtic fans) to write new stuff for them at Celtic Park, but I hesitate as I don’t want to alienate them in the Cardew/Grunwick manner.
One of my most enjoyable projects as a student was being asked to return home and make notes of where live music was being used in my community. This was Ayrshire, and the town was full of coalminers and other manual workers; that is, the kind of people that the latte-sippers of the liberal-Left metropolitan elite wouldn’t recognise as the proletariat even if they trod on them.
Anyway, it was an illuminating experiment and led to an abiding interest in not just ethnomusicology, but the sociology of music generally. I was on the Left at that time, not the loony Trot wing of course — only the genuinely swivel-eyed get involved with them — rather, I had been in the Young Communist League and in and out of the Labour Party (until the early 1990s). I was a branch chairman during the miners’ strike and delegate to my constituency party, as part of a kind of Bennite caucus, I suppose. I encountered the ultra-Left groups at street level during that time and came quickly to the conclusion that they were jam-packed with poor little rich kids simply masquerading as the proletariat. Something of that aura can be palpable in artistic communities too, where a received and fashionable left-wing orthodoxy is de rigeur.
Nevertheless, Cardew has had an influence on me too. I love working in the kind of community outreach programmes I mentioned earlier, which have had the input of many composers now, over the last few decades. But the real challenge in these is to take the concept of music-making into working-class communities and try to get them involved. Where today can one hear working-class people making music, apart from at football games? Well, one answer is in Roman Catholic churches in places like Glasgow, Liverpool, and Birmingham. Ever since the Second Vatican Council the Church has been involved in generating wider, fuller involvement in the liturgy so that ordinary lay people would feel engaged in the divine praises of the church. That means creating new music for them to sing, sometimes on a weekly basis. In the Dominican church in Maryhill, Glasgow, every week I write a responsorial psalm which I teach to the congregation (Cardew/Grunwick style) just before Mass begins. They therefore sing new music on a regular basis, and this composer is fully involved in the life of his community. Do I have Cardew to thank for that? Very possibly.
So perhaps Ian Pace was right after all; perhaps we are correct to talk of “Saint Cornelius” right enough. Cantate Domino canticum novum, comrades.
ANDREW BALIO: Among America’s music schools, Rice University’s Shepard School of Music is one of the standouts, up there with Curtis, Yale, and Julliard. And both Julliard’s and Yale’s areas of greatest growth are in the sphere of early and sacred music, a remarkable investment in looking back in to our distant past and traditions. It’s interesting how classical music is actually growing in this sense: we’re rediscovering all this repertoire that deserves our reconsideration. Mr. Greenberg, what sort of music do you attend?
ALLAN GREENBERG: I love music. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the different interpretations that two conductors, equally eminent, could bring to the same piece of music. I would collect six or eight versions of the same symphony or concerto or opera and just sit and compare them for hours, trying to understand the nuances, and I’d follow with a pocket score. I went through the usual changes of mind as your comprehension grows, but I always had a special preference for opera. I was taken to see Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi, who came to South Africa with some Italian company. I was nine or ten and I was mesmerized by the spectacle, by the arias and their beauty, by the characters. I just loved that world.
The first time I went to Europe – when I was nineteen – I heard Otto Klemperer conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies. At the time he was my favorite conductor, and I sat through all of them. I heard a number of them by Bruno Walter and the young Italian conductor who used to conduct the Philharmonia in London and I loved the human voice. It became my instrument of focus, particularly the female voice in Mozart. When I was in London I saw a lot of opera, but I thought, of all opera, Mozart was the beginning and in many ways the end. He encompassed the whole world. He could do comedy, he could do tragedy, he could do farce, with profundity. He made opera fun. You laugh even when you don’t understand the Italian. It was said that after the premiere of Don Giovanni the little boys who were delivering milk the next morning were whistling his tunes in Prague. Off and on, my musical interest has been opera.
My tastes have become really quite broad, but it’s still opera that I love. So when I got the job to design this opera house, it was like a dream come true. And the fact that they wanted a 600-seat opera house – the same size as in Mozart’s time – was perfect. I think there is a limit to the size of an opera house, or there should be a limit. I think the Met with 3,200 seats is stupid. The stage is so gigantic, even for Wagner – a lot of parts of The Ring have three people singing on the stage, and they’re lost. I don’t know what the correct size is for an opera house, but I think it’s around 1,500 people.
AB: That’s the optimal size for a concert hall too. That seems to be the sweet spot for acoustics, if you ask an acoustician, someone like Yasuhisa Toyota.
AG: For me, great opera – the work itself – is a miracle because you are taking two elements that are totally incompatible – the libretto (the story which takes time to evolve – drama needs time to evolve), and music – and you marry them. One note, just a change of key, and you’re in a different mood, from sad to happy, happy to sad, somber to elated. So you have this sort of thing that goes on and on. The marriage is accomplished through the genius of the composer, and the medium is the human voice. I don’t think there’s anything harder to write in music than an opera.
I have always felt a kinship with architecture because in architecture you have form, which grows in your brain, and then the function – 250-square-foot kitchen, three bedrooms of 80-square-footage or whatever – and it is very clinical. Relationships between these elements are pretty straightforward, and you can write them all down, but how do you make a great building out of that porridge? It’s like making an opera out of incompatible elements. Form has imagination, functional organization – it’s fairly rational. So, I’m a really happy camper designing this building.
AB: You also did a humanities building for Rice a decade ago, a similar type of commission. They wanted more traditional architecture. Can you talk about that a bit? Usually universities have the idea of the future that they want to be part of, and they consider architecture as a big way of being perceived to be on this cutting edge, as embodying these notions of progress. Interestingly enough, Rice is embracing traditional architecture, overall.
AG: When I did my first building at Rice – I started in about 1997 or ’98, and the building was finished in 2000 – the president was deeply involved in choosing architects and the character of the campus. The president, like the trustees, was very conservative. He loved the old campus and wanted to continue it. His point of view was very straightforward: This is a university. The order projected by its campus is in fact the best reflection of the university’s character. A campus should reflect the character of the institution, and they designed their building on the notion of continuity: that this is an institution that has operated with changes but without any breaks, without any reduced focus on scholarship, on truth and justice, and on all the other verities that are part of the study of a university.
That has changed. The university since then has tried to be more, has shown broader tastes, and has a greater interest in having modern buildings on their campus. I was excused from that because the trustees decided they wanted to have a hand in choosing the architect for this opera house. So they walked around the campus and settled on the two buildings they liked the most and interviewed two architects. I was one of them, and I got the job. But there is a lot of tension on campus about what character new buildings should have. They’ve tried very hard to keep the same materials, control the heights. It’s a very, very pretty campus although there are some not-great buildings on it, but even those are not as bad as they could be, looking around at other campuses.
AB: Before designing this opera house, you’d been attending operas and concerts as a music lover. Had you been designing opera houses in your imagination?
AG: No. Wanting something and not getting it can be really disappointing, so I never allow myself to think about a particular project until I sign a contract. You have to do that, otherwise it can be disappointing.
AB: So you came into this project prima facie. Did you give a proposal for it before being chosen?
AG: They asked me how I would go about designing this building, what did I think were the key aspects of the problem. I talked about the need: the fact that the campus serves as a mirror of the university’s self-image and of the image it wants to project to the public, and I thought continuity is really important in this. I cited Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard – the old campus at Harvard – and Yale, and I think they agreed with that. I also talked about the need to listen to your client: that an architect needs to understand that most clients come to the architect with a dream – a dream of an opera house, a dream of a home, a dream of something new where wonderful things will happen, where family will be more cohesive, where the quality of family life will improve.
This opera house will hopefully be part of a major rebirth of interest in opera in this country. We try very hard to do that because all our work comes by word of mouth. Most architecture magazines won’t publish classical buildings, so word of mouth is really important. We strive to leave a trail of happy clients behind us. I talked about that and about the need to listen because the qualities – the constituent ingredients of dreams – are not easy to formulate and understand. I need my clients to think of what it is they want and whether or not what I’m doing actually does that for them. We’ve done lots of drawings and 3D renderings, and eventually there’ll be models. So hopefully this will work for the client. I try to explain to them the fact that an opera is this miracle: between your daily life and the moment you pull up and park your car and get out and walk to the opera house you are experiencing the same thing Alice in Wonderland experienced when she fell down the rabbit hole, going from one world to another world, from a world of reality to the fantasy world of the Queen of Hearts. Jack did the same thing climbing the beanstalk – from life on earth to this miraculous realm in the sky where he had to defeat the giant. So the building has to serve as an architectural overture to the opera. It has to get your mind prepared for this.
The opera house at Rice has a certain character that both relates it to and separates it from the rest of the campus. At the far end of the campus, the east side, you have an entry gate and the oldest building on the campus, and as you go straight all the way down the main access you eventually end at the opera house. It’s a great position.
As you approach the building you realize that this is not quite the same as the other buildings at Rice, and when you open the doors you’re in this large, barrel-vaulted, top-lit space with coffers and light streaming down. It’s a big space. The university is going to use it for fund-raising dinners, small concerts, different events – someone could lecture in it while people are dining. There are many uses for this foyer. Then you go up a major staircase that splits in half – and you go up different levels through different staircases. Each level changes in character and in height and in color. When you open the first doors into the opera house you’re in a realm of unusually bright and vibrant colors, colors you don’t normally see in the world around you: bright reds, yellows, blues, et cetera. All but one balcony level has a view back into this hallway, this big entry lobby. To get from the entry lobby to the opera house itself you have to go through a sound-and-light box, which prepares you. These transitional spaces are all treated differently on each side, so the outside is always different from the inside. You always know where you are, you always come out and see the pattern – it was this way on one side, now it’s that way on the other side – so you know that’s the way out. These spaces wander a little bit. That was sort of intentional, but I wanted it a little more ordered than it is. We had to cut the budget at some point so we squeezed the spaces. They’re a little higgledy-piggledy, but it’s okay. They’re quite tight, so you go through these things and feel compressed and want to get out and then you get to the end of the sound-and-light box, you open the doors, and you’re in the opera house.
This is modeled on the little opera house in the palace at Versailles, by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, France’s greatest architect. I was interested in it because it’s made of wood, and from the time it opened, everybody who heard opera in it remarked on the quality of the acoustics. It’s a beautiful space because normally the horseshoe-shaped balconies sit one on top of another, sort of a vertical wall of balconies. Here they get bigger as they go out, so the space is expansive and opens out, so the higher you get the more air you have and the better the view of the stage. So it’s really exciting, doing this.
AB: It sounds wonderful. You mentioned that a building can either relate to what’s there or it can stand out. What do you think is the right balance for a cultural institution? Orchestra halls of the last 20 years are generally erring on the side of sticking out; they impose what you might call a spaceship type of construction and plop it down in human settlements. These institutions are hoping such venues will command great attention and generate interest because of a piece of architectural sculpture.
AG: The French philosopher Charles Péguy said Homer is new and fresh every day. Read The Odyssey or The Iliad; it’s never old. What is old is the latest newspaper. The problem of these buildings that draw attention to themselves is that nothing ever happens in them to justify that amount of attention. There’s always a dialogue between the people who use the building and what goes on in the building. There are some buildings that are quite laid back. Think of Rockefeller Center in New York. That’s a commercial building, a complex of offices, yet the space in it has been designated by generations of New Yorkers as the single major civics space in the city. That’s where the big Christmas tree goes and so on. It’s a very laid-back space. So I think it’s better to err on the side of modesty and focus on producing quality activities inside the opera house, rather than creating this strange spaceship and having mediocre performances in it.
AB: They would argue that you don’t have to make a choice between either. You can have superior performances in an outlandish concert hall. As we speak, this very week, the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonie is celebrating its opening. Have you had a chance to look at that hall?
AG: No, but I’m thinking that the one example of a concert hall that stands out and that actually works is in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry’s building. I heard Dudamel, who I think is an interesting conductor, there. The acoustics are wonderful. But downtown Los Angeles is the most barren, empty, unappealing space in the entire city, devoid of any character, until you stumble on this crazy efflorescence of human imagination in the middle of the city. It’s like the largest sculpture ever built. But the inside of the concert hall is quite laid back. It uses vineyard seating, which was invented by a German, Hans Scharoun. I’ve been inside the Elbphilharmonie, heard only a small part of a concert. I can’t say I spent enough time in that hall to form an opinion of it. The outside is a little disappointing. But Gehry’s building is his masterpiece, because it has this dialogue with this dreary city: “Guys! Life has more to offer! Look at me!” But they both are lucky, they’ve got a good orchestra and a good conductor, at least when they have him. I think it all depends on context, but I think ultimately the continuity is more important, and there are very few situations – certainly Rice is not one of them – where the spaceship would be comprehensible, would have a point.
AB: Our organization, Future Symphony Institute, is more concerned with smaller communities. We know that New York and Los Angeles will be fine; they’ll figure it out, regardless. But when you look at these smaller towns that become larger cities and can now sustain an orchestra – an opera company might be a stretch – they plan on spending $150–200 million on a new concert hall. What happens if they look to Los Angeles?
AG: A mistake, yes. I mentioned this at one of my interviews, maybe with the music school. I believe the great opportunities the little opera house offers is to the school system of Houston. I think music should be a major component of high school education because of the mind’s development that listening to music requires and that happens as you listen to music. I think that the imaginative component, the fantasy component in opera, is also desperately needed in this sad world we’re building for ourselves. I think all these little communities are a place for the rebirth of opera. The past and the present in opera can have a rebirth, but I think the key is little concert halls, little opera houses which feed the community. The high school orchestra may not be the New York Philharmonic, but it doesn’t matter.
AB: One of the things we’re most concerned with is the envy or inferiority complex that makes smaller places, when they look at what’s going on in the big cities, think they have to replicate something really large. My hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, has a 2,250-seat hall. Of course, it’s rarely full. It didn’t need to be more than 1,200 seats. That would have been plenty for our town. Then we’d have full houses.
AG: Better small and full and a long queue of people waiting to get in.
AB: Initially planners think more seats, more money, but it never works out that way. The cost of running this huge building is crushing. I’ve always felt that traditional architecture offered the possibility of a more cost-efficient home for a symphony orchestra. Ultimately they’re cheaper to run, they don’t require these giant machines. What happens is that we think people will relate to us more if we build a spaceship than if we build a Boston Symphony Hall, which would be pretty easy to build.
AG: I think you can sacrifice a lot of the electronics for a good basic hall and focus on the musicians and the music teachers and the connection to the community, because you want your audience to come from around the place, not from far away. Opera in New York is too expensive to be a local experience. New York has become a ghetto with a golden key. It does have local people going there but nobody else can afford it. There are no ordinary people left living in New York, just the very wealthy. Young people live like sardines in an expensive apartment in order to pay their rent.
AB: You’re touching on a sore spot for classical music and that is these widening gaps of economic classics. What can the role of architecture, of the concert halls, be? Your hall sounds very inviting, but what can we do in terms of architecture? Generally speaking, the concert hall’s foyer is something we’re very interesting in. What can we do in terms of design that will make people feel much more welcome and comfortable in an environment that’s meant to take them into another world, generally a world of the past?
AG: It can be a much more elementary version of that, a much simpler version. I know most little towns probably want a 500-seat auditorium. I’m a big proponent of music and art as part of a learning curriculum – art, with the imagination, and music with its connections to mathematics, to emotions, and voice. I think that’s really the key.
AB: Putting it back together. We’ve broken off into specializations so early in life. Traditional knowledge was a oneness: an architectural side, a musical side, a linguistic side, a rhetorical side, all in one body of knowledge. That’s certainly fragmented now.
AG: I lived for a while in Paris and Copenhagen, and I don’t know why we impose four years of college on students in the United States. Growing up in South Africa, I graduated at sixteen, going on seventeen, and I went straight into architecture school. When I was twenty-one and a half, I was finished with education. I got a job and earned my own living ever since.
AB: I’ll tell you why: during the Clinton years they pointed out that the outcome for people who’d gone to college was better than for people who didn’t go to college, therefore everyone ought best go to college.
AG: Outcomes in the United States where everybody goes to college, but the outcomes compared to England, Canada, Australia – I don’t know. If you go into medicine, and you specialize, you’re a student until you’re in your thirties. Why should somebody who’s going to play violin in an orchestra go to college for four years, although he or she will be studying violin?
AB: It’s vocational training, and they sweeten the deal by giving you a bachelor’s degree. We musicians criticize conservatories as trade schools, as if having a vocation is a lowlier calling than attending a university. It’s entirely fair to have vocational schools. Vocational training is highly desirable, especially since most everyone seems to want to enter a vocation when they graduate.
AG: Mozart never went to school, he didn’t study composition, had no degree from any institution.
AB: He went into the family business. His father taught him. If his father been a tailor, he’d have taught him to be a tailor.
AG: The same is true of the architects who built the ancient temples in Greece and Rome. Michelangelo was a stonemason; Andrea Palladio was a plasterer. All the greatest architects in the world started life as a tradesperson, or in the nineteenth century working in an architect’s office and learning the trade there through an apprenticeship system. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The four-year B.A. is just a question of snobbery.
I had an experience with a building project in London, which in the end never happened, but I had an office here and I wanted to open a little office in London. I could send people there and do whatever we had to do and come back, but I didn’t want to be double-taxed. So I went to a big Washington law firm, surrounded by Ivy League lawyers, specialists in international taxation, and I outlined my problem. I never heard from them. Three months later I was in England complaining to an American architect there. He said, “Allan, you’re wasting your time. Go and see this law firm in England,” and wrote down the name and address. I had an appointment the next day. And when I got there, a partner and his assistant listened to me and said, “This is easy. We’ll deliver a letter to your hotel tomorrow morning and that’ll tell you what to do.” So I got this one-page letter pushed under my hotel door at seven thirty in the morning, and it said, “All you have to do is have your people in this office space you’re renting move their desks at least an inch every twenty-nine days so you’re not permanently anywhere. They can swap desks, so they’re in a state of flux.” This worked perfectly. I called the American law firm and said, “What should I do?” and they said, “We’ve been collecting case studies and we’ll send them to you.” I got this pile of paper and I said, “Frances, I’m not a lawyer. It’s your job to read through this crap and tell me what you think and what I should do. I got your bill for $15,000 and I’m not paying it.” I wrote her a letter that said, “See the attached. This is why I’m not paying you,” and I enclosed the English law firm’s letter and the bill for 500 pounds, which was outrageous for half an hour’s work, but it didn’t have the element of craziness, for nothing, just copying. That was the end of it. I never heard from them again. Two lawyers in London, big office, went from high school to law school, and they were much better lawyers than the Americans. They could even think clearer.
AB: They were going straight for a solution rather than a process that they could bill you for.
AG: I’m a big fan of the apprenticeship, going from getting into your professional realm as soon as possible.
AB: That’s the way I did it.
AG: What instrument?
AG: You’ve got lots of rivals in the jazz world.
AB: They’re welcome to it. I love playing symphonic music. I’m playing Beethoven’s Seventh tonight at Strathmore. That’s heaven for me.
AG: There are trumpet concertos.
AB: It all started with the Second Brandenburg Concerto, which is treacherously high. Bach’s Christmas oratorio and the B minor Mass have tremendous trumpet parts. Other composers shortly after Bach were writing these clarino parts, very high. All the harmonics at the top of the register were close together so you could play scales. There were hundreds of these Baroque concerti. They were always up and down the scale, so there were limits, but there were some that were quite beautiful. Haydn wrote a tremendous concerto for the very first chromatic trumpet, a very clumsy keyed bugel. Hummel wrote one right after that. Then we had a long drought through the Romantic era. Composers had us play fantastic parts in the orchestra but nothing in front of the orchestra as a soloist. We only developed because of the cornet playing in bandstands of America. That tradition is tremendously vast but it’s always a very simple theme, with increasingly more complicated variations. The cornetists were among the higher-paid musicians of the nineteenth century. They were like prize fighters. You’d go to see dueling cornetists in the park.
AG: Like black college bands where they have dueling drummers.
AB: Right, it was more of an athletic event. And there was often an athletic aspect to opera where performances were treated more like a sports competition. I like that part of music too: trying to outdo each other. That’s a big part of jazz, but jazz is nearly dead. It’s largely thanks to the efforts of Saint Wynton Marsalis that it’s not. He deserves to be canonized. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if the rest of them could have held on. It’s been utterly abandoned by the population that birthed it. The only stable job there is to be had is at Lincoln Center and state-funded European big bands such as Runfunk houses. Jazz at Lincoln Center has that beautiful Rose Auditorium. Musicians do very well there, or well enough, but I don’t know any other place, except France for example, which will pay jazz musicians just to exist. If they have a lean month, they’ll get a stipend.
AG: Honky jazz has never been much. I don’t think jazz is white man’s fodder. African rhythms you get in your mother’s milk. I think of people like Dave Brubeck. But if you listen to white rock ’n’ roll, the beat is like a metronome, whereas black music, the rhythm is never stable. That’s why it’s alive. Its demise is beyond belief.
AB: It speaks of many things. There are tremendous lessons to be mined from such a great art form that was born here and should have kept going but somehow didn’t.
AG: It’s not much different from classical architecture. In the 1930s, when a lot of German refugees came here and brought the idea of a socialist architecture with them, Harvard appointed Walter Gropius as dean of the architecture school. Harvard started propagating modern architecture. It’s odd that this architecture, which was the vehicle of the trade unions in Europe – it was the driving force to create decent housing for workers – was adopted by the millionaire class in the United States, by the Rockefellers at MOMA. The course of architecture was totally changed.
AB: I feel strongly that classical music as a performance culture, when we know that most of what we do is play old music, will be better off playing within the walls of traditional architecture.
AG: Are there any great or really interesting and good classical composers today?
AB: Yes, there are. The problem is that we’re in the midst of a cold war between performers and composers. We don’t trust composers, and audiences definitely don’t trust new music. There are very small audiences for something new. Most experienced concert goers are afraid they’re going to be tortured, on principle. We taught them they would be tortured by torturing them. It’s not that people can’t compose, and the few good composers there are write beautiful music for the sake of itself. Some of them found employment in Hollywood. Great composition lives on in films. That’s where the money is right now. Erich Korngold came from Europe and did great film scores. But many of the others who are writing nice tonal music, which is the analog to traditional architecture, are quite beaten down – beaten with the “originality” or “innovation” stick. They’re told their music is derivative, not innovative or original. It gives them nervous tics because they’re just writing from their hearts. Nobody pays them for it. We don’t have a good royalty system in place.
AG: My son-in-law is a musician. He used to teach at USC in Los Angeles; now he teaches part-time at San Francisco Conservatory. He plays just about any instrument. He makes his living writing music for video games. They don’t pay that well. He works really hard and gets small music jobs for movies. He used to do a fair amount of work for George Lucas, so I know how hard it is to find an outlet for your energy.
AB: That’s where classical music is now. It’s doing very well, but it could do better. I think getting the architecture right would go a long way to build support for our art form. Certainly during that forty-year period after the war they built too many horrible concert halls – even Avery Fisher Hall is a wreck. Los Angeles, before they got their masterpiece, had Dorothy Chandler auditorium, which was awful. The list goes on, and this is a weight that holds down the art form.
AG: I know this business of torture. I was invited by a friend to Lincoln Center to the Chamber Music Society. We went and had a really nice time, but after the intermission, they have to insert some new piece of music that they had just commissioned which was unlistenable. It was really an insult to this audience. However long it was, it was too long. I sat through it and tried to find what this piece of music was supposed to be about. I have a high tolerance for discomfort. I sit listening to public radio in the afternoon to these musicians who repeat the same tone again and again – repetitive – and all of this other music, but this I couldn’t deal with and I never went back. The fact that the musicians or the organizers of this concert felt that they had a moral duty to give new music an audience without asking whether it’s worth finding an audience for this music in the first place I took as a major insult. It’s as if they didn’t think very much of their audience. They didn’t think the audience had the capacity to choose so they chose for them. Mozart wrote a concerto for French horn. I heard a French hornist at Rice University play it. It was astounding. It’s not an easy instrument, not a lovable instrument, but it was beautiful, just extraordinary. But you’ve got to respect your audience, and the Chamber Music Society doesn’t. They think their job is not to provide musical enjoyment for the audiences but to educate them, and that’s guaranteed to lose your audience.
AB: Do you find that’s true in the architecture community?
AG: Yes. They’re always coming out with new buildings, and it’s always the stupidity of the public that is to blame for the fact that nobody loves them.
AB: That’s my point about concert halls, that it’s life or death for orchestras when we go so far out on a limb for a concert hall that’s meant to be the capstone for the career of a particular architect, really just a huge statement. The hall isn’t meant for people. It’s a conceptual work of art meant to be talked about in magazines or garner industry awards.
AG: Same in architecture. I have a question. What is the difference between a good eighteenth-century opera and a musical, like Porgy and Bess or Oklahoma!, which has a story – it’s an opera really. What’s the difference? Quality of music?
AB: It’s the line between beauty and kitsch.
AG: Is Oklahoma! kitsch?
AB: That’s a very good question. For some people it could be kitsch. It gets close to kitsch, it runs along the fence to kitsch, it reaches over the fence. I like Oklahoma! and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone liking Oklahoma! but it’s not Lehar’s Merry Widow, to compare to something light. Merry Widow is arguably superior to it. You’ll discover the difference in the craft, in the orchestra parts, in the quality of melodies, even when plots are comical. It’s the phenomenon of McMansions. They’re using the same language as traditional architecture except the proportions are all off. Crappy renderings, sort of grotesque, most definitely kitsch. It strikes your eye immediately as kitsch. I go bike riding a lot through the Maryland countryside and see beautiful old estates; some are just beautiful, simple farmhouses. These were not highfalutin people, but they built a nice home. Then there’ll be a similar home built ten years ago by a developer, and it just hurts the eyes. Even though I’m an armchair architect, it’ll be so kitschy and abhorrent to me, I have to ask myself, why? It has columns, windows, shutters, a gabled roof. Why doesn’t it work? That’s the same problem with Broadway. It mimics the real thing but it takes so many shortcuts and often pushes things too far in terms of what it’s asking of the listener. It says, you have to feel this now. They tend to overstate their cases. Also, in opera the message is, these feelings really matter. In Broadway musicals, it’s more like none of this matters. It’s sort of nihilistic. We’re laughing at drama itself, pain itself. It’s important to learn to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves and laugh at life, but these things do matter.
AG: I think you make a lot of sense, but I think there’s a place for light opera.
AB: You think of Franz Lehar, or Fledermaus, which is hysterical. The craftsmanship of Fledermaus is incredible. Or look at Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which is very funny.
AG: What about Rosenkavalier? That does verge on farce. Is that an operetta or an opera?
AB: Comic opera!
AG: Movies bridge that gap better than music. There’s a series of fabulous comedies, remarriage comedies. Marriage of Figaro is really a remarriage, because the count reconciles with the contessa. I’m thinking of movies like Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business. There’s a professor of philosophy at Harvard who’s written a book about these movies. If I can remember it I’ll send it to you. I think you’d really like it.
AB: Do you know Roger Scruton? He’s a Senior Fellow for our organization.
AG: Yes. He’s a really smart man.
AG: What do you think of this? My daughter and I are always sending each other pieces of music. (plays Susannah McCorkle singing “The Waters of March”) The lady who’s singing it died quite young. Her name is Susannah McCorkle. The guitarist is Brazilian.
AB: Notice how she’s using her voice. She’s on the edge of talking, then falls into a bit of a song.
AG: The rhythm is a samba. She somehow uses her voice to pick up that rhythm.
AB: It’s wonderful to be able to explore these things, discover all the feelings. That’s the wonderful thing about music. We discover ourselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This book review is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age where it first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2004 issue,
and in anticipation of the book’s new and expanded edition.
Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Robert R. Reilly, Washington, DC: Morley Books, 2002.
In his generous and beautifully written book, Robert Reilly leads us through the vast, largely unknown territory of twentieth-century music. The title recalls C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and the poem of the same name by William Wordsworth. The hero of the book is beauty. We are surprised by beauty – surprised because beauty in all its forms surpasses expectation and provokes wonder, and because the beautiful in music somehow managed not just to exist, but even to thrive in a century marked by brutal political ideologies and perverse intellectualism.
If the book has a hero, it also has its villain. This is serialism or the twelve-tone theory of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), who exerted a tremendous influence over the minds and works of many modern composers. Schoenberg advocated the emancipation of the dissonance. In a defining document from 1941, he wrote: “A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal center.”1 Instead of using the traditional diatonic order of whole steps and half steps (the source of the ancient Greek and medieval modes, and of the modern major scale), the serial composer takes as his governing principle a row or series comprising all twelve chromatic tones within the octave.
Schoenberg believed that the resources of tonality had been exhausted and that the times demanded a “New Music” – by which he meant “My Music.”2 He also said that he had been “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” How wrong he was about the presumed exhaustion of tonality is overwhelmingly shown in the many and varied tonal composers we meet in Reilly’s book. As for the supposed disease from which Schoenberg had recovered – the pursuit of the beautiful – these same composers show us that beauty in the twentieth century was alive and well, no thanks to the Dr. Kevorkian of music. As the book’s subtitle indicates, Western classical music is enjoying a period of genuine recovery. It is rebounding from the “imposition of a totalitarian atonality.”3
The general reader need not fear that the topics in this book are too technical for him, or that he lacks sufficient musical knowledge, or familiarity with the works under discussion, to follow the author’s lead. Reilly brings his impressive knowledge of music to bear on the most human of our human experiences with a refreshing clarity and personal directness. He speaks from the fullness of his great love of music and infects the reader with the surprise he himself felt in the discovery of modern beauties.
The book has a simple, humane design. Its various chapters can be profitably read in any order. A series of essays in the truest sense of the word, it is a book that begs for browsing. The main part is a series of short chapters devoted to twentieth-century composers, thirty-nine in all, arranged in alphabetical order. It begins with the American John Adams and ends with the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Each chapter has a memorable title that aptly sums up the composer. Samuel Barber is part of a chapter entitled “American Beauty”; Edmund Rubbra is “On the Road to Emmaus”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams is an example of “Cheerful Agnosticism.” The alphabetical ordering makes for a wild ride across Europe and the Americas. Or, to use what is perhaps a more fitting image, reading through the chapters is like walking along a beach and picking up one exotic shell after another. We are amazed to discover just how much beautiful music from so many countries washed up on the shore of the last century.
Without making music a mere product of its time, place, and circumstance, Reilly nevertheless also reminds us of the living human soil, the soil of suffering and affirmation, out of which great music grows. He relates deeply moving events in the personal lives of modern composers, events that shaped their compositions. We also get to hear their own often astonishing revelations about music as a response to life. If you have never heard a single work by any of these composers, be assured that you will want to hear them all by the time you finish reading this book.
The chapters have a twofold purpose: they are both contemplative and practical. In his contemplative mode, Reilly puts forth crisp, thought-provoking reflections on the power of music, and on the relation music has to God, nature, and the human spirit. As a practical guide, he offers knowledgeable advice about what to listen to and in what order. Every chapter contains a list of recommended works, including valuable information on recommended performances and recordings. I have followed Reilly’s guidance and have listened to many of the pieces he discusses. As a relative newcomer to modern music, I was grateful for whatever help I could get, and can report that this book, in its practical purpose, works. Readers of all musical backgrounds and tastes will profit from the accuracy of the descriptions and judgments, and the reliability of the musical advice. One does not merely read this book, or even re-read it: one lives with it and shares it with music-loving friends. One reads, then listens, then reads again, and again listens, each time listening with more acuity and pleasure, each time falling under the spell of a beauty that surprises.
In his Preface, Reilly reminds us that more than music is at stake in the debate over Schoenberg’s theories and compositions – much more. The clearest crisis of the twentieth century, we are told, is the loss of faith and spirituality. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony and the rejection of tonal hierarchies were the musical outgrowth of this deeper pathology. The connection between atheism and atonality was summed up by the American composer John Adams, who said, “I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”
The metaphysical implications of atonality are at the center of two concise essays that frame the journey through modern composers: “Is Music Sacred?” and “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In the first essay, after a pointed discussion of the Pythagorean discovery that linked music with reason and nature, and the resultant idea of a “music of the spheres,” Reilly points to Saint Clement of Alexandria’s view of Christ as the “New Song,” and of the harmonious bond between “this great world” and “the little world of man.” Reilly then describes the falling away from these inspired ideas. He shows us not only what Schoenberg’s theory asserted, or rather denied, but also the cultivation of chaos (in the music of John Cage) that inevitably followed the denial of natural order.
The second essay depicts Schoenberg as a false Moses, who “led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert.” Speaking from the perspective of his deeply held Roman Catholic faith, Reilly offers an interpretation of how Schoenberg’s lack of faith rendered him incapable of finishing his opera, Moses and Aron. We also hear a moving account of three modern composers of demanding sacred music: Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener. Their most urgent message – the antidote to modern noise and restlessness – is Be still. Here Reilly defends the works of these composers against the charge that they wrote nothing more than “feel good mysticism.” The story of Górecki, whose music was a response to what Poland suffered under the Nazi and the Communist regimes, is harrowing and sublime. It shows us that modern man, with eyes wide open to the horrors of his age, need not yield his creative spirit to the mere expression of those horrors.
As a sort of appendix, there is a concluding section called “Talking with the Composers.” Here, Reilly relates fascinating conversations he has had with the writer and conductor Robert Craft (who conducted music by both Stravinsky and Schoenberg), and with the composers David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti.
Especially revealing is the conversation with Rochberg, “the dean of the twelve-tone school of composition in the United States and the first to turn against it.” Rochberg gives an extraordinary insider’s perspective on the fatal limits of serialism. He complains of the loss of musical punctuation, by which the composer tries to capture meaning and expressivity: “What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you couldn’t come to a natural pause, that you couldn’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.” Even more striking, he notes how the series of twelve-tones, once selected, kills off the possibility for openness and freedom: “Everything is constantly looping back on itself.” This is extremely interesting because, in the classical tradition, circularity was the hallmark of the divine, the sign of perfection and even of freedom.
The very diatonic order that Schoenberg rejected is itself circular or periodic – a fact most obviously present in the major scale. But the major scale has a natural directedness, while the twelve-tone row does not. Diatonic music is only apparently restrictive in its circularity: in fact, it promotes infinite tonal adventure. That is because, as most people can hear, it has a natural sounding flow, a freedom most evident in Gregorian chant. Schoenberg’s circles are, then, the perversion of natural circles. They do not liberate but imprison. They are like the circles of Dante’s Hell – where, we recall, there is no music but only noise. In Rochberg’s exposé, we come to realize the unmitigated tyranny of twelve-tone composition. We see how the creator of musical value is ultimately the slave of his tone-row creations. Serialism thus becomes a parable for modern times, a cautionary tale about the rage for autonomy.
Schoenberg did not just reject tonality: he denied that tonality existed “in Nature.” His desire was “to demote the metaphysical status of Nature.” The rage for autonomy must always be at odds with nature. Nature sets a permanent, insuperable limit to the human will. One cannot change what is. And if, in addition, what is is hierarchical and normative, as the classical tradition asserted, then nature is not just insuperable but authoritative: it is not only the thing you cannot change but also the thing you ought not change, the good. It is Schoenberg’s metaphysical negativity, the denial not of the mere use but of the naturalness of tonality, that makes his ideological transformation of music so devastating and, to the proponents of radical autonomy, so attractive.
As we see from the opening essay, nature is the beautifully ordered whole of all things, what the ancient Greeks called a cosmos.4 Before Nietzsche’s death of God there was the death of cosmos – death in the sense that, with very few exceptions (Kepler and Leibniz), cosmos came to be what C. S. Lewis called a discarded image, an idea that had ceased to govern and inspire the European mind. Many busy hands contributed to this death, and it is important to identify the executioners if we are to appreciate the full force of the recovery of nature in its traditional sense.
The first step was the nominalism of William of Ockham. This reductionist theory effectively paved the way for modern skepticism regarding essences and universals, that is, natures. Then there was the formidable new science of Bacon and Descartes, which rejected final causes and natural placement in favor of mastery and possession: nature was something to be engineered rather than imitated. But it was Pascal who administered the coup de grace in the death of cosmos. With Blaise Pascal, man was no longer “placed” within an ordered whole. Instead, he was trapped between the infinitely little and the infinitely big. Nature was not a cosmos but an infinite universe inspiring fear, not love: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fill me with dread.”5 Pascal’s emotive imagery did what Cartesian science could not: make the denial of cosmos seem profound.
One of the biggest surprises in Reilly’s book is the sheer number of modern composers who have devoted themselves to nature in the older, classical sense. Most striking in this respect are the Scandinavian composers. When Sibelius (1865–1957), Nielsen (1865–1931), and Holmboe (1909–1996) respond to nature, they are not filled with terror. Nor do they hear eternal silences. For them the natural world is just as spacious and awesome as it was for Pascal, but it is filled with music rather than silence. The music of Sibelius is “a revelation of nature in all of its solitary majesty and portentousness.” Nielsen defies the moribund expression of angst and ennui with music that “can exactly express the concept of Life from its most elementary form of utterance to the highest spiritual ecstasy.” And Holmboe, the most overtly cosmic of them all, affirms that music enriches us only when it is “a cosmos of coordinated powers, when it speaks to both feeling and thought, when chaos does exist but [is] always overcome.”6
Nature, for Reilly, is not the highest point of our journey, either through music or through life. As we read in the book’s opening essay, “With Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible.” The transcendent is that which goes beyond nature and human reason. It is the supernatural realm of grace. This higher realm of grace, as Aquinas so beautifully puts it, “does not destroy nature but brings it to perfection.”7 The beautiful in music, far from being cancelled in the move from nature to spirit, now finds its highest vocation. Like Dante’s Beatrice, it is the grace-like shining forth of the transcendent within the natural, the eternal within the temporal. In this transition from beauteous nature to transcendent grace, the reader’s odyssey through modern music becomes a pilgrimage. We hear the most astounding claim about music and transcendence from Welsh composer William Mathias. Defying the usual view that music as the temporal art par excellence is delimited by temporality, Mathias is reported to have said, “Music is the art most completely placed to express the triumph of Christ’s victory over death – since it is concerned in essence with the destruction of time.”
Some of the greatest beauties we discover in our musical journey through the last century are works by Christian composers. Reilly is eager, however, to acknowledge the inspired products of agnostics like Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi. Indeed, the agnostic lovers of beauty are interesting precisely because they offer an example of man’s continual hunger for spiritual food. The most memorable entry in the lists of the faithful is Frank Martin. This is the Calvinist composer whose religious works offer a “Guide to the Liturgical Year.” Martin is the exact opposite of Schoenberg. One reason is that this highly sophisticated Swiss composer dared to write simple, even childlike music “that goes directly to the heart.” Another is that he pursued anonymity to an amazing degree: “While listening to his religious music, one never thinks of Martin.” This is a composer you cannot imagine talking about “My Music.”
More than anything else, Surprised by Beauty makes us glad. We rejoice that there are still those for whom music has a spiritual meaning, that a ferocious love of beauty is still alive in the great works of modern composers, and that this love, to quote from the title of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, seems to be inextinguishable.
1 “Composition with Twelve Tones,” in Style and Idea, Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Berkeley, 1975 [Reilly, 217]. Whereas tonal music is hierarchical, twelve-tone music is egalitarian: all the tones in the twelve-tone row must be given equal emphasis, “thus depriving one single tone of the privilege of supremacy.” (Reilly, 246)
2 Schoenberg’s preoccupation with himself is revealed in the titles to some of his writings: “The Young and I” (1923), “My Blind Alley” (1926), “My Public” (1930), “New Music: My Music” (c. 1930).
3 Schoenberg disapproved of the term atonal. He said that calling his music atonal was like calling flying the art of not falling, or swimming the art of not drowning. In the end, however, he resigns himself to the term, saying: “in a short while linguistic conscience will have so dulled to this expression that it will provide a pillow, soft as paradise, on which to rest” (Style and Idea ).
4 An essential feature of cosmos is the differentiation of things according to kind. The diatonic order, as opposed to the twelve-tone bag of elements, preserves the kind-character of the different intervals generated from the order. Experience informs us that the perfect fifth, for example, is different in kind from the major third. Twelve-tone music renders this difference in kind meaningless. It would have us live in a world without character.
5 The thought of Pascal and his eternal silences brings to mind the amazing poem by Baudelaire, Rêve Parisien, in which the poet fantasizes about a purely visual world : Tout pour l’oeil, rien pour les oreilles! It must be noted that for Pascal and Baudelaire, a world without sound or music, while terrifying, is also strangely attractive.
6 Jacques Maritain helps us steer clear of thinking that the composer’s love of nature is a slavish act of imitation. He writes: “Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it …. Nature is essentially of concern to the artist only because it is a derivation of the divine art in things, ratio artis divinae indita rebus. The artist, whether he knows it or not, consults God in looking at things” (Art and Scholasticism, New York, 1962 [60–61].
7 Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 8.
So, why would a research institute focused on the future of live classical music be here with you in Seaside today to talk about architecture and urbanism? The most obvious answer relates to the fact that orchestras have to have concert halls: architecture and urbanism address the questions of Where and How we build them. Those are some pretty big and important questions, and would themselves be enough to bring us together here today. But our interest in architecture and urbanism actually goes much deeper than that – and it’s what brings us specifically here and not somewhere else – like, say, New York or Atlanta.
We certainly didn’t know, when we began to study the problems of orchestras and their concert halls, that our work would lead us here. But we knew for sure that there was something wrong and that orchestras are fighting uphill because of it. And if our orchestras are struggling to keep a foothold in our communities, our communities are struggling to keep music around, too. Perhaps the fight is most visible in our schools, where music education is always either endangered or extinct. But we also see it every year in the towns across America that lose their orchestras to insolvency and neglect. Something is out of balance and all the usual answers and solutions offered to fix the problem just aren’t working.
So we began to dig deeper. We began to question not just the usual answers, but the usual questions, too. That led us to some surprising places, and we started to notice something remarkable: that the challenges facing orchestras and classical music today are not unique to them! In fact, we have a lot to learn from a lot of other fields and disciplines when we look at them in fresh new ways. Some of the lessons we find are cautionary tales, and some are important comeback stories that inspire us with hope and a real vision for the future. The stories of modern architecture and urbanism are both of these things.
If those of us in the world of classical music will look closely, we will see in the mistakes and failures of modern architecture and urban planning the reflection of our own mistakes – the ones we are still enthusiastically making every day, without any thought to the idea that they might be, in the end, mistakes. And they are significant errors because they represent our fundamental assumptions about human nature, our understanding of the ways we relate to our built and natural environments, and our attitudes towards tradition and the past. We compound our problems with every decision we base on these misunderstandings.
On the other hand, the spectacular successes of New Urbanism and the revival of classical architecture provide us with a real model of recovery. And this is perhaps the most important and deepest of lessons to be mined here: the triumph of places like Seaside teach us something very important about human nature and values, about what changes, and about what endures. And we hope that together this weekend we can all begin to hash out the place for music in our communities and how best to build them together.
But before we get to the part about Where and How we build concert halls, let’s take a moment to consider the Why. What is the “end” of the concert hall, the ultimate purpose for which it exists – the telos, if you will? As you can imagine, that’s a very important place to start. The Where and How will have to relate to the Why. And we have broken that answer into three components to present you with today.
The Telos of the Concert Hall
Firstly, the hall is a home for classical music and for the orchestra that lives there. This part is easy to understand. The concert hall is the oikos for classical music in any community. It is where the orchestra resides – where it makes its home – and the place from which it goes out to meet its neighbors. It is the physical presence of classical music that we are obliged to encounter daily, standing there, come what may, shoulder to shoulder amongst its neighbors as a member of our community. It is the place where the orchestra welcomes and entertains its guests and friends with the very best hospitality it can muster. The concert hall, in short, takes part in that cooperative effort of place-making that makes a community a “home” worth loving – that inspires in us what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia.
The concert hall also represents a physical connection to the classical tradition that calls it home. In the same way that our homes come to reflect us, our values, and our lifestyles, the concert hall should celebrate the history and the values from which the tradition and the great canon of music, constantly celebrated and performed inside it, arose. It must invite us to become familiar with, to know, to understand, to respect, and to love that tradition. And that’s more important than you might think – and certainly more important than many of today’s orchestras apparently think – because our orchestras depend not on the novelty-seekers that wander through their doors from time to time – or even in hordes if we’re lucky. Nor do they get by on the grants and funds set aside by government and civic-minded foundations to support adventurous forays in the arts. No, orchestras rely almost entirely on the donations, large and small, of the individuals in their communities who come to love them and the classical repertoire they are so highly qualified to present.
In today’s exceedingly troubled world, it can be a difficult thing to convince even those whose love of classical music is deeply rooted and unshakeable to dedicate a significant portion of their income to support their community’s orchestra. There are a myriad of other causes clamoring for their attention, many of which take direct aim at classical traditions. What happens if the concert hall itself repudiates or denounces the very thing the orchestra will then have to convince its guests to support once they’ve come inside? Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot!
So the concert hall must be a connection to the community in which it lives and a connection to the classical tradition which lives in it, but there is another important point to make about the telos of concert halls. And this one might be the most interesting of all: the concert hall is a place set apart, not unlike a church or a cathedral, for the encounter of something that transcends this world. And like it was for so many souls across so many generations who wore the paths to our cathedrals and churches and kneeled to pray inside them, the experience to be encountered inside the concert hall, if it is to be fully appreciated, must be approached in silence and with an attitude of maximum receptivity. As Sir Roger explains it,
You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.1
And in the concert hall we all sit facing, as we do the altar in church, the same point in space in which, nevertheless, the thing we ultimately encounter appears not so much as a physical presence, but as something that moves inside our very souls.
This experience – the possibility of this kind of encounter, which connects us to each other in the present by connecting us to community, to each other in the past by connecting us with tradition, and to each other in the future by connecting us to that which is beyond this world – this is what we stand to lose if we get the telos wrong. But it’s also what we stand to lose if we get the architecture and the urbanism wrong. And too often we do just that. Too many orchestras have been following modern architecture and urbanism down a dead-end street. What do we mean by that? Well, let’s look at some of the mistakes of modern architecture and urbanism. Most of these mistakes will be familiar to those of you who work, live, and play in Seaside, but it has yet to dawn on the classical music world that these even are mistakes.
The Mistakes of Modern Architecture
The first is a problem of scale. The use of machines to assemble buildings has led architects and developers to dramatically over-scale them. This is true of the office buildings, shopping malls, civic plazas, and towers full of apartments and condos that mar our cities and send our suburbs sprawling every which way. It’s also true of concert halls. And often the scaling error spills over into vast concrete plazas and parking garages that become like desert wastelands that must be traversed before the concertgoer even gets to the front door of the hall. We feel like ants crawling across the pavement to this thing looming far above us. While all this is meant to communicate that the orchestra living there is both modern and impressive, it actually leaves us with the feeling that the orchestra does not live side-by-side with us as a neighbor would, but imposes itself on us as some cold, tyrannical machine, quite probably administered by Vogons. The orchestra is left to cast desperately about for some way to convince the community that it is in fact relevant to them while all day, every day, its own home is broadcasting unmistakably and emphatically that it’s not at all.
The next mistake, in which orchestras are thoroughly caught up (and not just when it comes to their concert halls), is the mythology of “progress.” In architecture the most basic manifestation of this idea is the use of synthetic materials just because they exist – and represent “progress” – to create an architecture that we think is, therefore, “of our time.” But the use of unconventional materials (or else the unconventional use of materials) creates new problems that have to be solved – often at great cost in both resources and finances. We end up, for instance, with need for expansion joints and “permeable” pavement. And the usable life of these “progressive” buildings becomes shockingly short. According to Quinlan Terry, a
recent American report on the life of steel and glass high rise buildings put their useful life at twenty-five years. They may last a little longer, but after 40 years or so they are often demolished, the materials cannot be recycled so they are dumped in a landfill site and the laborious process of reconstruction begins again at phenomenal financial and environmental cost. So Modern construction as a means of providing a permanent home or place of work has been a failure from conception to the grave, and more seriously, it expresses a culture that has no history and no future.2
(Which of course also speaks eloquently to one of our earlier observations about the ends, or telos, of the concert hall.) The cost to maintain these “progressive halls,” to heat them and cool them, and then to tear them down and rebuild them again soars far beyond anything that should be considered responsible or acceptable – and makes the whole project incredibly and tragically wasteful. The progressive concert hall becomes another manifestation of our disposable consumer culture. And as you know, we cannot forever maintain that way of life.
If we think that technology has allowed us to circumvent the best ideas about materials and techniques handed down to us by thousands of years of craftsmen, we also think it allows us to trump localism in our building and planning. We’re no longer restricted by soil, climate, altitude, or local resources. And so what we build in the name of “progress” is not only certain to be less suited to its environment in terms of efficiency, we can also see that it begins to look the same everywhere. Faceless walls of glass, steel, and concrete wherever we go. In the vacant reflections on those enormous glass walls, we lose the particulars and the context that make a place feel like home. Architecture as a triumph of technology becomes just a display of power and reminds us only of the ever-present triumph of the global capitalist – unrooted, wasteful, and drunk on oil.
But wait, the fantastical modern concert hall is not really about any of those things. The building materials are just the medium. The architecture of the concert hall is about artistic expression! Does that sound familiar?
Misunderstanding architecture as primarily some kind of artistic/ideological expression rather than as an art of building well is another mistake. This is the affliction of many “starchitects” and the planners who employ them. And it’s the same kind of mistake that plagues modern art and modern musical composition as well: it’s not art as skill but art as concept. And it ends up being art that has to be explained in order for us to even recognize it as art. I’m going to give you an example here, which you might know because it’s quite famous – and, honestly, because it’s so absurd that once you’ve heard it, you probably won’t forget it:
An Oak Tree is a work of art created by Michael Craig-Martin in 1973, and is now exhibited with the accompanying text, originally issued as a leaflet. The text is in red print on white; the object is a French Duralex glass, which contains water to a level stipulated by the artist and which is located on a glass shelf, whose ideal height is 253 centimeters with matte grey-painted brackets screwed to the wall. The text is behind glass and is fixed to the wall with four bolts. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain a pristine appearance and in the event of deterioration, the brackets should be re-sprayed and the glass and shelf even replaced. The text contains a semiotic argument, in the form of questions and answers, which explain that it is not a glass of water, but “a full-grown oak tree,” created “without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The text defines accidents as “The colour, feel, weight, size…”. The text includes the statement “It’s not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.” and “It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”3
Really, the gimmick isn’t even clever. But, even if we grant that art as concept or gimmick might be fine for things like painting or sculptures – or whatever you’d call “An Oak Tree” – it presents us with some serious problems in the case of buildings, which must actually be used and lived in. It’s not enough for us just to call a thing a roof or a door or a lintel, it must actually be one – it must perform all the functions assigned to it as completely and perfectly as possible. Similarly, if we had to rely on this thing we’re told to call “An Oak Tree” to be an oak tree, to perform any of the functions of an oak tree – say, for shade, a windbreak, or a producer of acorns – we’d be in big trouble.
The very first function of a door, for example, is to be recognizable as one. The door is the thing we aim for on the face of any building, isn’t it? If we can’t easily find or identify the door, the rest of the building might as well be rubbish. A concert hall, too, at the very least has to be recognizable as one. We have to know where to go to find the symphony concert and then how to get into the hall once we’ve identified it. So if you build a gimmick for a concert hall and it looks for all intents and purposes like a parking deck or a giant can-opener, you’re going to have to put some effort into getting people inside – maybe you’ll have to put up one of those signs like the “Oak Tree” fellow did to explain the joke. And let’s hope that everyone appreciates the joke, because we all know the alternative is to acknowledge that one is “uncultured.” A hall like that is an ultimatum and not a good starting point for a relationship with the members of a community who actually make it a point to seek out culture.
And yet this is exactly what many orchestras are doing for the sake of architecture as “artistic expression” – and it’s compounded by the misapplication of the idea of “progress” to art. But that is a subject worthy of its own entire conference, so I’ll leave it there to be brought up another day. And I will point out only that, ultimately, this mistake is grounded in the original problem of misunderstanding the telos of the concert hall. It is not to be an artistic interpretation of a concert hall, it is to be a concert hall – which is to say it is to perform all the functions of home for the orchestra that we pointed out earlier.
The Mistakes of Modern Urbanism
How about the mistakes of modern urbanism? Again, probably something very familiar to those of you who have invested in the correction, a fine example of which we are fortunate enough to be standing in today. But let’s point these mistakes out for the sake of the classical music world who probably hasn’t even thought about them, even though the city is the orchestra’s natural habitat.
First we might point out the habit of growing by building out and up rather than by the replication of a small and entire unit – like the fractal way in which Nature grows. Quite unnaturally, our towers get higher and our cities swell in concentric circles. A new beltway encircles the old beltway and swallows up the urban sprawl between in an ever-widening blob. Then the center of the circle, the bull’s eye, growing ever more distant from its life-supply, starts to die out and becomes an empty jumble of desiccated bones leaning against the sky – those skyscrapers, or vertical cul-de-sacs as Léon Krier describes them, are abandoned for the sad strip-malls and Prozac-inducing business parks of the sprawling suburbs. I paint a depressing picture, but we all know it well.
Orchestras are making this mistake, too. Their concert halls are turning into musical mega-complexes, gobbling up multiple halls, recital spaces, and music schools into one over-scaled “machine for music,” instead of distributing smaller halls and venues and schools throughout many smaller urban centers and neighborhoods. Often they are built in the center of the city before it is abandoned, or else put there after it has emptied out in a last ditch effort to bring everyone back to the gutted downtown.
An increasingly popular idea is to put the hall in a designated Arts and Culture District. This should remind us of another great mistake of modern urban planning: the single use district or zone. Like the shopping district, the financial district, the business district, or even the wallowing housing tracts of our suburbs, the arts and culture district creates another kind of cul-de-sac. People come into them only if they’ve already made plans to consume some culture – or else entirely by accident, in which case they will probably just want to get themselves turned around and back out again. Which means that they do not encounter the concert hall as a part of the normal course of their everyday life and movements. And yet music should be a part of our normal, everyday lives. So we’re doing something wrong.
The concert hall should be there in our midst to remind us of this great thing that is always in our presence, always part of our history, our culture, and our being, and always inviting us in to partake of it. If the hall can’t do that from the corner we’ve assigned it to, then our orchestras must constantly be elbowing their way into our attentions elsewhere in our busy world. And it’s a hard task for them to remind us about the importance of music in our lives from the fringes of it. It’s a hard task to get us to focus on what’s going on in our peripheral vision and we might argue that this is a big part of the reason that music is disappearing from so many of our schools and communities. It became invisible long before it disappeared.
The Good News
Well, so far it’s been all bad news. But the real reason we’re here in Seaside with you this weekend is to talk about the good news! The good news is that architecture and urbanism are righting themselves. And both the revival of classical architecture and the tremendous successes of New Urbanism provide a model of recovery for classical music. We’re here to tell them about it.
It’s enormously encouraging, even if it’s not all that surprising, to see the impressive professional achievements and architectural accomplishments – and, indeed, the growing number – of classical architects both here and abroad. I’m thinking of men like Quinlan Terry, Allan Greenberg, Robert Adam, and John Simpson. Organizations like the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, which started out as “a small group of determined activists in New York”4 not 50 years ago, are popping up all over the country now – and thriving with actively growing and enthusiastic memberships. Architects, students, and “lay” people alike are lining up to learn how to draw the orders. Imagine that.
Three decades ago Notre Dame University began the difficult work of rebuilding an architectural education program on the principles and disciplines of classicism. That work is paying off handsomely now as their graduates are some of the most sought-after young architects to enter the field each year. And other schools are now following in the path Notre Dame bravely forged: the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC are all becoming centers for classicism and tradition, eagerly pursued by a hungry new crop of students every year. Indeed, we are seeing in classical architecture something very like the current renaissance in realist artwork that has aspiring artists flocking to ateliers to study – painstakingly and for many years – under the few painters and sculptors who kept the traditions, skills, and techniques of the masters alive while the rest of the world went cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
It’s perhaps our greatest joy at the Future Symphony Institute, however, to see the triumph of the work of David M. Schwarz and his team of architects, who are building – for the orchestras who have figured a thing or two out already – some of the most beautiful and astonishingly appropriate concert halls that we’ve seen in more than a century. From his renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Orchestra’s famed Severance Hall to the new buildings he designed for Las Vegas; Carmel, Indiana; Fort Worth; Charleston; and Nashville, Schwarz’s concert halls are masterpieces and fully worthy of the priceless tradition, represented by the canon of classical music, which will call these halls “home.” We’re honored to have Gregory Hoss, president of that team of architects, here with us this weekend; and I encourage you to check out these halls if you’re not familiar with them yet. We also have with us Cliff Gayley, of William Rawn and Associates, who did the remarkable and intimate Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood and Green Music Center in Sonoma, not to mention Strathmore Music Center, where I am lucky to perform every week.
And urbanism, too, is showing signs of recovery. But it’s clearly New Urbanism that is pointing the way. This is of course the reason why we are so excited to be here in Seaside and nowhere else this weekend. I don’t know if even the visionary founder of Seaside, Robert Davis, or his team of planners and architects really knew just how successful their experiment was going to be. I have to wonder if maybe we’re fortunate that they did not because there was no greed in their motivations – and that fact has helped to save Seaside from the sins that ravage our cities and suburbs. No, Seaside was born of an honest and modest accounting of human nature and the habits of happy human settlement. And it has become a beacon and a model for towns far and wide. Communities inspired by it and founded on New Urbanist principles are springing up everywhere from the Kentlands in Maryland – not far from where I live – to Poundbury in England and Cayalá in Guatemala. And they are all, to the extent that they understand and embody the philosophy of New Urbanism, wildly successful.
New Urbanism is making its way into the often stagnant backwaters of higher education, too, with the University of Miami and Andrews University taking the lead. And while the Congress for New Urbanism is the most visible and important of the organizations formed to promote its principles, we are seeing a vigorous blooming of grassroots efforts – by groups such as the Alliance for a Human-Scale City in New York – to save our towns, neighborhoods, and cities from the devastating effects of poor planning and bad architecture. In the professional arena, New Urbanist design firms and developers are cropping up all over the nation.
And that’s because New Urbanism has given everyone – from citizens to developers to city officials – not only a reason to believe they can build something better, but also the blueprints with which to build it. It is waking us up to the memory that our cities were not always blighted canyons and our neighborhoods were once abuzz with authentic interactions between neighbors. People are investing – more importantly than money – love in their communities. It is a sign of that oikophilia I mentioned at the outset when people insist that their community be a place that is lovable: that it be human in scale, local in context, and neighborly in manner.
Classical music must find its place in this kind of love – love of home, of community, of neighbor, and of the culture that binds all these things together. In all but the most exceptional cases, our orchestras won’t survive if they don’t get this part right. They depend on love and a connection to their communities – a recognition of their relevance and of their membership in the project of placemaking – to survive. What’s more, they depend on all the small towns across our nation – and even around the world – to provide kids with the opportunity to join the marching band and the youth orchestra, to learn to play the recorder in elementary school and the clarinet in high school, to sneak into a concert hall and be blown away by Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas (like I did as a kid) – in short, the opportunity to become our next generation of orchestral musicians who’ll go on to play some of the most astounding music ever written in some of the greatest halls ever built.
The classical music world needs to learn the lessons that Seaside has to offer – and not simply those about walkability and mixed-use, but the deeper lessons behind those, too. Because the greatest success of Seaside is what it gets right about human nature, about our relationships to each other and our built and natural environments, and about our enduring values. I believe wholeheartedly that in every community there is a place for music. And that music is a part of placemaking.
If we put the last century’s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.
The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.
Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.
Was the Italian and, in general, the European Renaissance a reactionary, backward-looking, thus conservative period, with all the associations of dullness and conventionality? As we know, the opposite is true: this incredibly rich period meant the flowering of a spirit of invention and aesthetic sensibility, which lasted until the 19th century when this broad wave of inspiration-by-antiquity found a premature death through its codification in academic institutions, in a society that was changing fast in the industrial revolution and the development of the bourgeoisie as the main territory of cultural action. The rebellion against a petrified academic culture was the cradle of modernism: the creative forces of life had left the territory of “official culture,” which had suffocated innovation, and moved towards the margins of society, where neglected artists struggled to find new and freer ways of expression. The idea of “modern art,” reflecting contemporary life instead of idealized subjects, was born from dissatisfaction with a tradition that was codified, frozen in prescriptions of outward appearances of style and form, and thus had become superficial and untrue.
Thus in the 19th century, the urge of leaving conventional ideas about art behind, got the label “modern.” Since that trend eventually ended-up in the dead-end street of establishment modernism, the word “modern” no longer fits this urge, which, incidentally, also lies behind the motivation of new classical composers: what they feel as “conventional” was called “modern” in the past century. A good example which shows that being “modern” in the period before modernism did not involve the need to destroy the fundamentals of the art form, is the work of Debussy, who created an oeuvre which was shockingly untraditional in its own time, therefore very controversial. Debussy is often described as one of the “forefathers” of modernism, who (together with Schönberg) destroyed the orthodoxies of tradition and created a new and free musical paradigm. Boulez especially tried to show that some of the roots of his own sonic art were to be found in Debussy’s explorations. But Debussy never destroyed the inner workings of tonality and the underlying dynamics of tradition with their varied ways of achieving expression. In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Boyd Pommeroy writes:
In keeping with the progressive spirit of the new century, Debussy succeeded in forging elements from the tonal practice of his predecessors into something radically new. At the same time, his tonal language, even at its least orthodox, never loses sight of the traditional principles that ultimately give it meaning. In Debussy’s music, tonal and formal processes continue to interrelate in ways not so fundamentally different from the tonal masterpieces of the preceding two centuries. To the extent that so vital an engagement with the tonal tradition went hand in hand with the creation of such strange and wonderful new sound-worlds, whose vivid modernity remains undimmed at the turn of another century, his achievement was perhaps unique.
Because Debussy never destroyed the fundamentals of music, his work proved immensely influential for composers who were looking for new paths to explore but wanted to avoid the deadlock of atonalism. As in the work of Stravinsky, it is the superb tonal sense which makes the expressive power of this music possible; it is no coincidence that the later works of Stravinsky, when he was influenced by the modernist trends of the fifties, are considerably less interesting. Like the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Debussy was inspired by a dream of another world, but in his case it was not the stimulating nostalgia for Antiquity which for him stood for academic, and thus dusty, art forms; he detested everything “classical” in music, painting, and architecture. But nonetheless, his artistic temperament was classical through and through: perfectly balanced proportions, moderation in terms of expression, precise and concise craftsmanship, aristocratic style, and avoidance of everything cheap and vulgar. And, like the Renaissance artists who did not approach the art of Antiquity academically, he never undermined the mimetic basis of the art form. In contrary, he enriched it immensely and showed that freedom from classical forms could still preserve their spirit, as is eloquently shown in pieces like Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, the symphonic La Mer, and of course the three late Sonates. In various articles and interviews, Debussy often mentioned the necessity of returning to the finesse and clarity of the French baroque which, for the French, is their Grand Siècle of classicism.
Looking backwards can easily go together with highly original creation because the process of interpretation operates on another level than the used style or materials; a really creative talent finds ways of combining elements from these two different levels in ever-changing syntheses. One could raise the question: if this is so, could then the musical modernism from the fifties and sixties from the last century not serve as material for contemporary interpretation? Could the work of Boulez and Stokhausen not play the same role as Antiquity for the Italian Renaissance artists? As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art. And indeed, there are young contemporary sound artists who, within the field of sonic art, focus upon that period, and they call their work “new complexity.” The irony is that last century’s modernism cannot turn into a thing of the past without losing its identity, because it wanted so desperately to embody the future. Like the glass and steel cubes of modernist buildings, it cannot afford to become old, to become the past, because that is totally undermining its raison d’être. When the future becomes the past, the one cancels out the other and the result is emptiness. “New complexity” is an excellent example of contemporary conservatism, since that is the only impetus that is left: the conservation of an idea.
The same landscape may reveal very different aspects, depending upon the position from which it is perceived. Also, the past can take on different meanings, changing with the perspective we choose. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the celebrated historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, was well aware of the ambiguities of historical perception. She commented in a late interview:
If we look at history closely, leaving behind the academic and ideological clichés of our time, we conclude that every period, every milieu, had its own way of interpreting life… Although the human emotions are always more or less the same, made up of a certain restricted number of basic elements, they are open to thousands of variations, thousands of possibilities. So, if you like, the immensity of musical expression can be related back to the seven notes of the scale. You see these possibilities not only taking shape from century to century, but from year to year. After all, we don’t think the same as in 1950 any longer, and it is fascinating to find at a precise date in the past, the way in which problems have presented themselves, our problems, or problems parallel to ours. In this way, history is a school of liberation. It liberates us from a number of our prejudices and teaches us to see our own problems and our own routines in a different perspective. The past does not offer us an escape route, but a series of junctions, of different exits along the same way. If it may look as a form of escapism, it is an escape in the form of a leap of faith. The study of texts from antiquity has been such a stimulating leap of faith for Renaissance man, saturated as he was with medieval scholastic thought. The study of the Middle Ages was – up to a certain point – an inspiring “escape” for the romantic generation, bringing it back to the sources of popular poetry, to the original, European phenomenon, after the clarity, but also dryness, of the 18th century.” (From: “Entretiens Radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar” by Patrick de Rosbo; Mercure de France, Paris 1980.)
In periods of change, a civilization needs to draw on the experience as embodied in its cultural and intellectual inheritance to be able to distinguish between irrelevant surface phenomena and meaningful developments: engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found. Achievements from past periods have to be preserved and to be kept alive in their function of intellectual and cultural resources so that they can be used, can be learned from, facing the challenges of the present. If the past is well understood, it will throw a light upon the world in which we live, a world which has long roots in the accumulation of life experience of numerous generations. The survival of this experience makes renewal possible, which is: the “injection” of life into inherited forms and concepts; creative innovation is only possible on the foundation of the capacity to make elementary distinctions and value judgments and this is learned by studying the achievements and problems of the past of human civilization.
How concepts of “past” and “progress” are being interpreted is dependent upon context. Artists, working at the beginning of the 21st century, may see a reflection of contemporary life experience in works of art which were made ages ago and if they find ways of artistic thinking in the last century exhausted, they may see this as a good reason for looking elsewhere for inspiration. When established forms of “contemporary art” have become a repetition of conventions and clichés – in short, a reactionary attitude – or worse, a serious decline, it is perfectly natural to inspect the achievements of artists of the past from “before the fall” and to learn from them. Nowadays many serious visual artists and composers look to a glorious past for examples to learn from, hoping to create an art which may help identify who we are, or who we want to be, and in which way we want to express and transcend ourselves. In the reality in which Western civilization finds itself today, the modernist and postmodernist chimeras of the last century are futile, unproductive, and irrelevant because they cannot contribute to solutions of problems which have surfaced quite recently and are so different in nature from the time which gave birth to modernism. As the 20th century wanted to liberate itself from a “compromised” past to create the Brave New World, the 21st century woke up to the sobering suspicion that much of that past could nonetheless be helpful in our present predicament. The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, in combination with the environmental problem and an increasing globalization of trade and information technology, have changed the world in a profound way. Europe faces the challenge of reformulating its identity in relation to the world, which is also a cultural challenge. And as far as new art is concerned, the lesson of the Renaissance could greatly help to find an effective way through the maze of conflicting notions.
Identity refers to an awareness and understanding of the past, both on the collective and individual levels. What defines the character of European civilization is its past cultural achievements and the best of the values they embody, how it deals with them, interprets them, and builds upon them, and how the inner security and conviction can be found which is the basis of all constructive action. In the 21st century, rebuilding culture – in its visual and musical forms – is a contemporary challenge with symbolic implications for the entire West. And to be able to prepare conditions for a cultural Renaissance, modernism and its puerile progeny has to be removed from their establishment position in the cultural field, and their funding channeled towards the new art which carries the creative fire which is needed to give to contemporary art the meaning and value it had before the onslaught of 20th-century barbarism.
It is obvious that the attempts of modernist ideologies in the last century to “cancel the past” is not only silly, but in the present times, dangerous. For instance, to understand and reformulate European cultural identity, knowing and understanding the past is crucial. As said, identity is the result of history. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World the authorities of a totalitarian state “cancelled” the past, knowing that an awareness of past experience would undermine the credibility and the power of the regime. Cancelling or rewriting the past, which is in fact the same thing, is the usual means of blotting out independent, and thus subversive, thinking in authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and therefore upon humanity; the inhuman nature of much modernist “music” (built upon a break with the past) is only the logical result of such an ideology.
The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition, but also gave form to what now can be called the “museum culture.” The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from past periods into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation. In this museum culture, works of art (including musical works) are seen and listened to as objects in a glass case – in this way, their direct connection with real life seems to have vanished, their makers felt as aliens from a different planet with powers no longer attainable by modern man. There is a direct link between the exaggerated veneration of the masters of the past and the deeply felt inferiority complex of the artists of modern times. And without the nonsense of concept art and sonic art, the traditional museum collections and the traditional musical repertoire would not shine so brilliantly. The break with the past seemed to make a direct inner connection with an artistic practice impossible; instead of history as a source of accessible and useful examples (as it was in pre-modern times), it became “a different country” and a cult.
Therefore, the attempts of new classical composers to recapture this country as something of our own, is a courageous change of direction with the aim to splinter the glass of the museum culture’s cases, making a direct inner connection possible, and showing that the art of the past can be seen as something also living in the present. New classicism not only brings an old tradition to life again, it also makes a more direct emotional connection with the culture of the past possible – as if it were something not far removed in “another world.” It shows the culture of the “museum” as something which also lives in the present. As there is no reason to consider the “museum culture” as something totally removed from our own time, or to see it as something negative in relation to contemporary art (it is not its own fault that a cult has been created around its products and that so much contemporary art is so bad), new classicism should be welcomed as a reassuring signal that also in the present, meaningful art can be created. The whole idea of a museum culture as isolated from real life is being challenged by the current surge of mimetic art and music.
Meanwhile, there is a very good reason to support and cherish the islands of this so-called “museum culture,” where the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of human life and civilization is expressed not in a purely scientific way but in the form of experiences which involve the entire human being and are thus accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to enter this territory and learn to understand its various artistic “languages.” Fortunately, the reality is that the past still lives in the present, and if we want to maintain Western civilization and restore it according to its best ideas, we should be warned against utopias which cancel the humanistic and spiritual/expressive qualities of art. Purely materialistic and rationalistic philosophies of art inevitably carry in them the seeds of primitivism and barbarism. In these days, a classicism which draws its understanding of civilization from the lessons of the past seems to be the best possible attitude to counter utopianism and its tendency to dehumanize society and the individual.
Is this “conservative?” The answer will be clear: no, it is progressive in the sense that the Italian Renaissance was progressive, progressive in the sense of making things better, trying to achieve a better artistic quality, by following superb examples of a glorious past. This notion of “better” is only possible in a world view where hierarchical thinking in connection with value and quality is taken for granted. However, in an egalitarian society such as our Western one, where democratization has also been understood as applicable in territories like the arts, this is often considered as “elitist,” and thus un- or anti-democratic, an attitude which cannot result otherwise than in an undermining of creative ambition and marginalization of the best of talents. It is a sign of primitivism, of erosion, not of social “progress.” There is a link between the aristocratic, “elitist” attitude towards the arts in Renaissance times (and the ages directly following this glorious period), and the formidable quality of its art production – as there is between the modern democratic world and the deplorable state of its art as exhibited in the official, established public spaces and as supported by the state. The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and contemporary music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it – how could it be otherwise?
On this point it may be enlightening to mention the anthropologist Daniel Everett’s memoirs of his thirty-year stay with a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahas (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon, 2008). This isolated community lives the way their forebears lived for thousands of years and they share a couple of remarkable characteristics: they have a simple language and speak in short sentences; they do not believe in gods, have no idea of spirituality, and do not believe in an afterlife; they are not conscious of the past or the future but live exclusively in the present; they have a strong resistance towards outsiders which they dub “crooked heads;” they don’t use numbers but words for amounts like “a little” or “much,” but nothing for ten, or five, or one hundred; their society is like a commune: an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social system which seems to be quite effective for them; they are not interested in learning agriculture and are happy with their hunter/gatherer existence; they have no interest in producing artwork. The remarkable thing is that they are, or strongly seem to be, a happy people who see nothing wrong or “restricted” in their way of living and thus want to keep things as they have always been. Not surprisingly, they resist modernization. They are traditionalists and conservatives in the reactionary, un-creative sense, clearly forced to remain as they are by the strong limitations their natural environment brings upon them. Do these characteristics not sound familiar? Are there not quite some people living in the modern West with many of these characteristics (sometimes even including the hunter/gatherer mentality)? People for whom the total absence of culture and the territory of the mind and spirit is not experienced as an absence, but as a happy state of unconsciousness? One can find these tribes everywhere in the big cities of the West, where there are no limitations like those of the Amazon jungle environment.
It must be said that, apparently, the Pirahas are perfectly adapted to their difficult life in primitive conditions where their lack of civilizational interests can be excused. But to find these typical primitive characteristics in the midst of a so-called civilized and wealthy world is – to say the least – rather disturbing. It is not the primitive tribes in the jungles who need civilization, but many areas within the civilized societies themselves, who in their educational system often seem to fail to teach the basic tenets of what it means to live in a civilized world.
The artists and composers who dedicate themselves to the task of restoration of cultural traditions, including the civilizational values they embody, feel the need to contribute to the core of what the best of European civilization has been. The need for a restoration of European and Western culture and cultural identity in the broadest sense is felt everywhere and the pioneers of this new classicism are the first artists who have rightly understood the challenge of renewal of the Western world in the 21st century, a renewal which gives the best of the past its due and sees it as a springing board for a more civilized world and more civilized contemporary art. They deserve our attention and our support because they may find the themes and subjects which will symbolize the path taken by society as a whole.
We need a renaissance in food; We must begin to think about the value of our food, not simply its price.
Our cultural heritage is at risk. The knowledge and traditions behind our food are irreplaceable; if we lose them, they won’t come back.
—Carlo Petrini, Founder of Slow Food International
A lively, visual exploration of the principles and philosophies that inform our modern Farm-to-Table and Slow Food movements, focusing on what they reveal to us about our human needs and desires, why those revelations are relevant to symphony orchestras, and ultimately what the success of these movements can teach the world of classical music.
The Need for this Film
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? What if their most basic assumptions about human nature and our most pressing needs in this modern age are fundamentally wrong?
Two long-time friends, trumpeter Andrew Balio and award-winning chef Spike Gjerde, found themselves sharing the same vision, one in music and the other in cooking. They wonder if they’ve uncovered something true about people, their communities, and how music and food have lost their way through large-scale industrialization and commercialism.
The grassroots movement of “Slow Food” has brought together people who want their lives to slow down, to re-establish a healthy relationship with food, the people who grow it, and enjoyment of eating together. Many will recall how small farmers and citizens spoke up when the EU was established and regional farming traditions were threatened by globalization and mass production. Here in America we’ve seen the rise of the Farm-to-Table movement, the rebirth of the boutique farm and the craftsman, and the growing appreciation for what is small, slow, and local. Perhaps most importantly, we’re seeing a growing conviction that value is more important than price.
If this movement has something important to teach us about human nature and our relationship to the modern age, to artistry and craftsmanship, to our communities, to tradition, and to what is inherently slow even if it’s also more costly, then we need to seriously reconsider the popular recommendations for fixing America’s orchestras.
SLOW FOOD / SLOW MUSIC TEASER
The Need for Your Help
Much of the filming has already been done. To complete it and to do the substantial task of editing and polishing a finished product, we anticipate having to raise $30,000. That’s not a whole lot by today’s standards, but it can make a lasting and compelling contribution toward the future of our symphony orchestras. Everything depends on their getting these answers correct.
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Spike Gjerde is a chef, restaurateur, food entrepreneur, and local food advocate who lives and works in Baltimore. Through his work, he is committed to creating meaningful and measurable change within his local food system — to wholly supporting thoughtful food production in the Mid-Atlantic and to help ensure a future for its farmers and watermen. Spike leads a team of nearly 300 across six locations in Baltimore including Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, Bird in Hand, Parts & Labor, Grand Cru, and his canning operation, Woodberry Pantry. In 2015, Spike became the first and only Baltimore chef to bring home the James Beard Foundation’s award for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.” His pioneering work has resulted in widespread media attention, including features in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, bon appétit, Esquire, Condé Nast Traveler, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, and The Washington Post. Spike has appeared on “CBS This Morning” and NBC’s “The TODAY Show,” and was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods America” with Andrew Zimmern. His tremendous success, his enduring love for the symphony orchestra and live classical music, and his deep, instinctual devotion to the principles of the Farm-to-Table movement make him the ideal partner in this adventure.
David Donnelly is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist. In late 2015, he released his first feature length documentary, Maestro. The crew followed several Grammy award-winning musicians across the globe. Four years in the making, many consider it to be the most comprehensive portrait of contemporary classical music ever captured on film. Donnelly made the documentary with the intention of exposing a broader audience to the classical genre. Maestro has been translated into ten languages and is airing on international networks spanning five continents. Most importantly it is utilized as a much needed resource for music educators. Donnelly is also the author of the viral Huffington Post essay Why Failing Orchestras are the Problem of Every American. While filming Maestro, Donnelly founded CultureMonster.org, a multi-media company dedicated to making the arts more competitive in a free market economy. He is currently working with an array of renowned artists and orchestras from around the globe on a variety of film projects. Obviously, he’s the perfect director for our film project, too.
Andrew Balio is an orchestral musician, serving as principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since his invitation by Yuri Temirkanov in 2001. He is former principal of the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Estado de Mexico. He also served as principal of the Oslo Philharmonic for the 14/15 season. Andrew’s interest in orchestral affairs and challenges began while he was a music student, renting a room from the Boston Symphony’s long-time chairman of the Players’ Committee and thereby gaining a unique and candid vantage point from which to consider the inner workings of a highly successful organization. A subsequent career spent with some of the world’s great – and very different – orchestras has encouraged him to ponder what it is about human nature that nevertheless stays the same through time and across space – and what it is in that nature that responds to classical music, making it so timeless and universal. Andrew’s many years of watching, studying, and seeking out the experts culminated with his founding of the Future Symphony Institute. In Baltimore, Spike became one of Andrew’s first friends, and this long-time friendship born of a shared appreciation for their two crafts led to a realization that they also share the same vision. This project is the fruit of their many shared talks, meals, and concerts.
Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor.* —VIRGIL
Perhaps our modern world is not so far gone as yet, but it is easy for us to imagine the painful longing in Petrarch’s heart as he stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday in 1341. Looking around him at the cultural desolation of a land and its people ravaged by war, famine, civil unrest, epidemic, and economic collapse, he was nevertheless so sure of his vision, so inspired by his love of something greater than his self or his time, that the words he spoke that day come down to us as the first manifesto of the glorious Renaissance:
Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task.†
There in the ruins of an ancient Roman Empire, Petrarch accepted his crown of laurels – the first offered a poet in over twelve long centuries. The tradition was all but dead. The age was indeed dark. The slopes of Parnassus were dauntingly steep and deserted. But from somewhere beyond the shroud of gloom that enveloped him, the Muses called to Petrarch and he followed, inspired by the love and the sweet longing of one going home.
It is easy for us to imagine because our modern age seems to be dimming before our eyes. We are reminded at every turn that the world is a new and alienating place, unfit for the traditions that evoke some past and irrelevant golden age or a society we no longer recognize. We discard or neglect the Canon’s great works when it is easier to do so than to dig for the treasures hidden therein; what is difficult or laborious to understand is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility to the modern mind. Like Petrarch we marvel that
This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….‡
We allow our great cultural institutions to fall into disrepair and disrepute because, as we strip them of their reverential traditions and their arduous canon, we also strip them of our reasons to cherish them. We call them before the tribunal of public opinion to justify their very existence, as if we can no longer see through the smog to the heights of Parnassus, lonelier than ever because we have forgotten that it is even there. We attempt to chain the Muses to the machinery of our modern malaise, as if we do not remember that they exist to show us the way to transcend that malaise, to find our way home again, by way of that steep and difficult climb, to the bosom of art and learning.
It is easy for us to imagine that someday our symphony halls will be ancient ruins and the source of a painful longing for those who remember the wasted Muses, or who sift through the rubble for what was lost. We can even hear the howls of those who proclaim that it should be so, and we mourn the actions of those who obviously believe it. Yet, there are many more of us who recognize Virgil’s description of a deep and ardent desire because it urges us, too, to persevere against all difficulties in the name of the symphony orchestra. This is the mission and the purpose of the Future Symphony Institute: to orchestrate a new renaissance for live classical music, to ensure that the dawn breaks on symphony halls that rise like polished temples in our midst rather than like ruins on abandoned hilltops.
To circumscribe this immense task, we created seven initiatives that describe and focus our efforts. The first two are of a philosophical nature. We must, firstly and perhaps most fundamentally, reframe the way we understand and communicate what is being overlooked because it is immeasurable and immaterial – namely, the principle value of the symphony orchestra to society. By doing so, we not only orient our institutions with respect to mighty Parnassus and the dawn of a new renaissance, but we also arm them with an answer for the cynical tribunals who mercilessly impugn their relevance and their mission. Our second initiative focuses on the critical role of the orchestra as an educator – not just musically and not just of children, but in the way that high culture has always been that which teaches us what it most profoundly means to be human. We must build the foundation for and design the structure of this meaningful role for the orchestra – so critical and inspiring in an age that is increasingly digital and impersonal.
Some of our goals will require extensive and scholarly research. This will certainly be the case for each of the following three initiatives. Most immediately, orchestras need a concrete system by which to understand and quantify their audiences – one that goes beyond the limits of their usual and failing marketing methods. They must learn to identify their patrons not as demographic statistics but as human beings driven by internal aspirations and motivations that do not necessarily correlate to physical characteristics. They must find the real reasons people come to love the symphony, why they feel the sweet longing that urges them to our concert halls. The field of psychographics presents us with a way to understand and measure these drives – a more meaningful way for orchestras to relate to and reach their audiences, both actual and potential. Secondly, with a proper psychographic system and the research that supports it, we can construct a bridge between casual attendance and eventual connoisseurship. Much energy today is wasted on efforts to bring the uninitiated into the audience – wasted because there is no effective plan to make the uninitiated into the convert. And this is far from the only case of mislaid efforts. We must take the time to thoroughly and critically evaluate the oft-repeated theories and measures that have neither adequately explained nor delivered orchestras from their troubles. Much of the dogma that assails our orchestral institutions – and informs their failing policies – has not been tested by scholarly research, and doing so is our next critical initiative.
Finally, if our first two initiatives are entirely theoretical, our last two are purely practical. To begin with, it is essential that we develop a new architecture for our symphony halls – specifically, one that emphasizes the relevance of the symphony orchestra to its community. The trend of late is to erect halls that, frankly, resemble something from another planet; and when we look upon them, we feel a predictable sense of estrangement – a hesitance to approach what we have difficulty recognizing as human. The new halls must remedy this error and present themselves as neighbors and friends, both outside and inside where the offering of hospitality must equal the expectations of today’s cultural consumer. But among the most challenging of our tasks is the initiative we list last here: the development of a blueprint for future union policies and relations. In today’s business climate it is becoming increasingly clear that unions must understand their stake and their opportunity in shaping change before it is forced upon them. Change is as enduring a feature of society as is our need for traditions that endure change – indeed, that transcend and transform it.
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. It is taken without question that the inevitability of change means and perhaps requires that we do not repeat the past, but any student of history or of its successive civilizations can prove for you otherwise. And so here we say, again, with Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance,
I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth.§
And over his shoulder we see our vision. We, too, are urged by a sweet longing that will not be deterred by the challenges or the times that face us. In our sights are the heights of Parnassus, and the dawn of a new renaissance. The fulfillment of both the youthful glory and the incandescent future of the symphony orchestra, the new renaissance is, like the one so long ago, the birth of a present more glorious than what came before it, but entirely dependent upon its rich and heroic past. And posterity will reap the bounteous and beautiful rewards.
* “But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus” (Georgics III, 291-292). Mount Parnassus, rising above Delphi in Greece, was the home of the Muses of Greek mythology, and in literary references it symbolizes the source of art, literature, and learning. It derives from the same root as the ancient Trojan word for a house.
† From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
‡ Petrarch, in a letter to Lapo da Casiglionchio, 1355, translated in Richard M Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classical reading on what it means to be an educated human being, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.
§ From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author and of First Things, where it first appeared.
My piano tuner is well over eighty years old. Each time I call him, I fear I’ll learn that he has died. So far he is still with us, though at each visit a little more white-haired and frailer than before. I worry that he will hurt himself when he lies under the instrument or takes out the keyboard, but he seems to know what he’s doing. He told me at my last tuning that fewer and fewer people have pianos in their homes, and that fewer children than ever learn to play. The instrument, he says, is going the way of the parlor organ.
I don’t think the piano will suffer quite the same fate. Great numbers of parents still routinely subject their children to lessons for at least a few years, where they learn classics like “The Happy Farmer” and “Greensleeves.” You can picture them in your mind’s eye: boys with scuffed shoes and dirt fingernails, dragging themselves to the piano teacher’s house when what they really want to do is play basketball; or earnest little girls with glittery painted nails, eager to please the teacher by playing well. It makes a person wonder: What exactly is so beneficial about studying the piano?
For many people it’s just another activity, equivalent to gymnastics or soccer or art lessons – good enrichment, something to keep the kids occupied after school. For others, though, it’s a path to distinction, a way to be excellent and different. The competitions and recitals that accompany lessons offer an alternative, non-academic mode of achievement for the determined and disciplined child. There are rewards to be had here, which include approval from adults and perhaps a bit of jealousy from peers, which never hurts.
These are the most common ways of thinking, but there is another, better alternative. Learning the piano is deeply countercultural and even conservative. It offers initiation into a tradition through an apprenticeship that takes place over many years, “conserving” a heritage that we are always more or less in danger of losing. In our impatient age, the act of disciplining oneself to play this formidable instrument demonstrates that certain things do not change, that there are concrete standards of better and worse, and that we have not invented these standards ourselves. Piano lessons train us in a tradition, a language, a mode of appreciation.
A young pianist knows, or soon discovers, that some fingerings work and others do not. Certain intervals sound pleasing, while others are dissonant. Some compositions are objectively more profound than others, whatever we may think about them from the standpoint of pure enjoyment. Almost inevitable, serious students come to see that classical music is infinitely varied. This kind of learning offers a way of differentiating moods, technical abilities, and style, among many other qualities. In short, it is training in judgment and feeling, allowing students to enter a great world that has preceded them and that will endure long after they are gone. If they persist past the first few months of lessons, they will find that they must submit and respond to this tradition. And they must also be patient, because learning to play well takes a long time.
Why not just cultivate a love for music as an audience member? Of course, it is a very good thing to appreciate Bach as a listener. But it is another thing, and dare I say even more valuable, to play his compositions with your very own fingers. The challenge of playing well chastens us, reminding us of the limits of our physical and musical powers. It demands discipline, practice, persistence, humility. And it nourishes a sensibility for beauty that goes far beyond the playing of any single piece. At times, it even points toward transcendence. As Maritain rightly observes, when one “touches a transcendental, one touches … a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life.”
As a child and young adult, I was thoroughly immersed in the “achievement” approach to playing the piano. I was ambitious about being the best in my circles and devoted to disciplined practice. I managed to get into a very good conservatory, where I was faced with the fact that confronts all small-time successes: There are lots and lots of people just like you. Some are far better. So, what now?
The alternatives are clear: Work even harder, give up altogether, or find some other motivation for playing. In my own case, the competitive approach lost its attraction, and I more or less quit. I realized that the young man in my studio who could play all the Chopin etudes from memory and simultaneously complete a second degree in physics was probably always going to have something over me.
I don’t play much now. When people at parties remark that I must just love to sit down and play for the enjoyment of it, I smile and nod. But it isn’t true. My former orientation toward high achievement makes me painfully aware of my diminished abilities. Twenty years ago I could do so much more than I can today.
This is all in my mind as I teach my eleven-year-old daughter. She’s talented and loves music. But I catch myself silently criticizing her, thinking how much better she could be if only she played scales for an hour every day, like I used to, or worked with the metronome every night after dinner. I compare her progress to where I was at her age, remembering the competitions I won and the repertoire I learned. She’s nowhere near those milestones! Yet even as I imagine what she could accomplish if only she worked harder, I think she’s probably got things right, where I had them wrong. She plays with pleasure.
The pressure to achieve can corrupt the activity itself. As music becomes a vehicle for something else – prizes, recognition, admission to a prestigious college – it loses the inherent value that drew us to it in the first place. It becomes a way to promote the self and the “development” of that self toward some imagined future state of perfection. One no longer enjoys the playing but must consider all the ways the playing could be made better. This breeds ambition, pride, and – ironically – enduring dissatisfaction. It is just the opposite of a disposition to enjoy and delight in something for its own sake.
This can happen in all achievement-oriented endeavors, not just playing the piano. If we fail to recognize the dangers, we can become enslaved to the world’s standards of value. What matters is not the richness of an individual’s experience, but the degrees earned, prizes won, schools attended, articles published, patents filed, movies made, books written. And this is true for religious people as well as secularists. We tend to become part of this culture of achievement even if we don’t mean to. And it’s increasingly true for children, who sense early on that they must make something of themselves and find an identity in some sort of accomplishment.
Is there any way to resist this incessant pressure toward achievement, which so often makes us self-focused? My next-door neighbor, channeling a dominant theme of contemporary self-help books, tells me that the solution is relaxation – a simple enjoyment of the present moment. For him, watching a football game or sitting in the backyard smoking a cigar offers the same kind of satisfaction as learning Bach’s Minuet in G. All these things are enjoyable; all potentially take us out of the future-orientation that consumes so much of our lives.
But I don’t think he’s right. Although my neighbor’s activities may be pleasant, they don’t require anything of us as human beings. In relaxing, we are passive. But in learning the piano, we are active and receptive (not passive) in submitting to a tradition. We are also energetic, responding to the invitations to do, to make, to try, to learn, to practice: to play.
As Edward Shils observed, tradition is best understood not as the “dead hand of the past,” but as “the hand of the gardener, which nourishes and elicits tendencies of judgment which would otherwise not be strong enough to emerge on their own.” Tradition requires us to “be present” to the activity we are engaged in. It asks for a loyalty and devotion not unlike that required of a mother taking care of children at home: Her activity is private and unobserved, sure of its own purpose, and undertaken without conflicting intentions. It is deeply at odds with what is usually rewarded by the world. The the world is often not the best judge of value.
My daughter and I will continue with our lessons. She is learning technique and artistry, sight-reading and theory. But I hope that I might learn once again, from her, how to approach playing with the joy I used to find in it, and with assurance that this is the kind of humble and creative activity that human beings are most meant to do.