A party with your taboos?

If it seems to the regular Vftp reader that I have lavished unprecedented coverage on last week’s CMEW concert, I apologize for any perception of favouritism that may cause. For instance, lost in the all of this was any mention of the fact that I had already begun rehearsals for the next week’s SMP performance in the final concert of the Guildford Spring Music Festival. Our programme includes one genuine rarity (Schumann’s Genoveva Overture as part of our Schumann Cycle) and two very well known favourites- the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Beethoven 5.

One could detect a certain delicious irony in the fact that I was rehearsing the piece most often listed as an over-played warhorse alongside a program of rather esoteric and obscure avant garde works from the 60’s, 90’s and 00’s. However, one man’s delicious irony might be read as another’s betrayal of principles- “playing Beethoven at the same time simply shows Woods to be a phoney who isn’t truly committed to the ideals of the revolution,” I can hear (and have heard) some saying, while others learn of this and say “you see, I knew there was something wrong with his Beethoven. Too much of that modern music kills your sensitivity, deadens your sense of phrasing, and probably turns you into a communist, and Beethoven was no communist!”

To these readers, and to some of my very, very esteemed colleagues, and whose opinions I respect, if not always agree with) who seemed to find nothing of merit whatsoever in my lengthy interview with Gordon, I offer this quote from Paul Mefano’s program note to his piece “Lignes” (1968)

“It is sometimes advisable to extend a warm welcome to one’s taboos and have a party with them.”

After all, to consider, ponder and think about an idea is not to accept it. Even to accept the merit of an idea does not preclude also accepting other ideas, even those which appear to be in direct contradiction with it. This is especially true in the arts, where contradiction and paradox are among our richest sources of ideas and discussion. The presence of contradiction and paradox within a work of art is not a sign of the failure of that piece of art, but more likely, of the success.

In my rather overblown post Xenakis to X-factor, I tried, perhaps with mixed success to point out that modern discourse has begun to label certain ideas off-limits for discussion or experimentation. One such area is the idea of orthodoxy- an extremely strong and inflexible adherence to a rigid set of aesthetic or creative ideals.

Orthodoxy would seem to stand in direct opposition to Mefano’s party, or to my embrace of contradiction, but of course it is not.

For me, the most interesting bit of my interview with Gordon was this-

“Internal failure has its source in the abandonment, deviation from, or selective adoption of, those principles that define the modernist programme at its most authentic and astringent, and thus at its most effective and, for me, most interesting. Deviationism and eclecticism, having their routes in reformist and coalition politics, are essentially opportunistic, and weaken the aims of the programme as a whole. And as aesthetic modernism is merely the cultural expression of a wider socio-political process, having its origins in projects of enlightenment and associated historical programmes of cultural maturation and advancement [emphasis added], its appropriation for individual acts of opportunism has implications that go beyond mere art making and cultural production. Such action becomes an aesthetic-behavioural correlation of that hyper-individualism that characterises market society as a whole. A large body of critical scaffolding has now been erected around these two forms of opportunism that legitimate such actions by giving them a purely aesthetic, and thus non-political, interpretation. “

It is fun to apply this critique to the musical example that several commentators have already cited as a beautiful example of  what serialism is capable of, the quote of the Bach chorale in the Berg Violin Concerto. It will come as no surprise that Gordon has not, in our past discussions, held this up as an example of serial music at its finest, but as a step back from “a wider socio-political process, having its origins in projects of enlightenment.”

For a lover of the Berg Violin Concerto, there is actually much to be learned, or at least remembered from this critique, because Berg could certainly have foreseen it. Having foreseen it, his music can be seen not only as a piece of music, but as part of a larger discussion. Berg is in the position to say “yes, I see your point but…” If you don’t understand Downie’s critique of the deviation from modernism at its most astringent, you are probably missing something in the understand of the music of someone like Boulez who has generally moved away from rigid orthodoxy or even someone like Adams, who abandons the tenets of modernism (having learned them first) completely. If you accept the right of Berg or Boulez or Adams to say “yes, but…” to Downie, it would follow that he can say the same to them, but I find that many are so resistant to what he has to say that they’re unwilling to let the conversation take place on an equal footing.

Faced with an orthodoxy, which may well state that only one approach is valid, many may recoil and reject it completely. I would caution against that, but the danger here is that we fall into a kind of musical relativism, where everyone’s ideas and approaches are equally valid. I feel like too much musical discourse has fallen into one of these catagories for a long time- either we take sides and pit styles and musics against each other, or we fall into a politically correct, conflict avoidant morass of brain numbing mediocrity in which everyone’s ideas are equally beautiful, valid and relevant.

This needn’t be the case- surely we can find room to accept orthodoxies as creative frameworks of great value to those that use them without feeling the need to abide by them ourselves? Likewise, we stand to learn more when we rigorously challenge and examine art, rather than simply standing back and applauding everything politely. No damage need be done to the music of Berg or Boulez by asking hard questions about it, and it is entirely possible that such a process might enhance our appreciation of it.

Faced with the possible perceptions of those who may think my work on Beethoven might corrupt my approach to Downie or the other way around, I can only reply that were it not for their happy coexistence on my desk, my work on both would be worse. My Beethoven doesn’t just get better because all the hours spent working with metronomes this weeks is a useful spring clean for my sense of time, it gets better because learning new music helps me develop my analytical skills, helps me to look at musical relationships in different ways. Studying something like the Mefano even forces me to learn and digest new notational techniques, including rethinking how time is represented on the page, and I find it incredibly valuable to go back to Beethoven and look at every dot and squiggle on the page as if it were new to me, and to go through that process of asking myself- what does that mean? I am reading that right?

Much as some of my composer friends don’t see the relevance of Beethoven in today’s world, or, worse yet, see Beethoven as standing between them and the opportunity to have their music performed instead, I disagree. The chance to work towards one’s own understanding of a piece like Beethoven 5, which has around it such a huge body of accumulated responses means one can learn to “join” your own research and analysis with that of others. When you come to new music, where there is little or nothing to work with beyond what is on the page, you can look to what you’ve learned about other pieces to find the tools you need to understand the unfamiliar.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

2 comments on “A party with your taboos?”

  1. robert berger

    There are other wonderful symphonies you could do,and I am sure audiences would
    love these unjustly neglected works: how about other Bs such as Sweden,s Franz Berwald,Russia”s Mily Balakirev,the Paul Dukas symphony in C,the first six Dvorak
    symphonies, the other Saint-Saens symphonies,Albert Roussel, Arnold Bax,Nikolai
    Miaskovsky(27 symphonies!), Wilhelm Stenhammar,Franz Schmidt,just for starters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *