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Book Review: The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap

February 12th, 2019 | 17 min read

By Guest Writer

By Jeremiah Lawson

In a time when the President has openly questioned what the United States get from being in NATO and fears that Russian and Chinese influence threaten the stability of the Atlantic American-European order, now would not seem like the most urgent time to advocate that what will renew humanity is Western European classical music. I love classical music from the masses of Tallis and Byrd up through the string quartets of Shostakovich and the guitar sonatas of contemporary composer Atanas Ourkouzounov… but I just don’t see that a revival of Western classical music will mean a revival for humanity.

That is, however, what John Borstlap and members of the Future Symphony Institute believe is possible.

First, however, the enemy within classical music has to be defeated and that enemy is … a certain kind of music that Borstlap doesn’t want to call music that has emerged in the last 120 years. It turns out that Borstlap has a score to settle with the kind of postwar sonic art of arch modernists that gained institutional power through figures like Pierre Boulez. Borstlap presents a Western Europe munificently blessed with American aid and protection that forsook the riches of its own cultural legacy by embracing an avant garde sonic world that repudiated traditional beauty.

The tricky part with this account is that Borstlap doesn’t focus much on the extent to which the C.I.A’s role in funding avant garde art at home and abroad could play a role in what he’s complaining about. Borstlap seems grateful for American protection during the Cold War and in the new era yet bridles at the kind of sonic experimentalism that was championed during the same era as emblematic of freedoms Western societies have in the arts over against Soviet totalitarianism.

Borstlap is, not entirely without cause, the sort of composer who doesn’t want to go to the past but believes we chose the wrong future. His book The Classical Revolution is a passionate but rarely cohesive plea that we un-choose that wrong future. At no point in his book, however, does he come up with a convincing reason why the fate of classical music the world over should in any way depend on the fortunes of Western European nations. If anything, the Cold War demonstrated that the balance of power in the arts of the West shifted toward the United States and the Soviet bloc over the last century, a reality that not all arts historians and artists are comfortable with.

The composer John Borstlap is a senior fellow at the Future Symphony Institute, and has published a book, The Classical Revolution, which is now in its second edition, published by Dover. In the preface to the revised and expanded second edition, Borstlap writes

The great works from the past are atemporal, universal, and contemporary forever, as long as we want Western civilization to continue to exist. They should be protected from attacks which come in these times from different directions, whether they be financial, political or culturally ideological. (page xi)

That Western European classical music is atemporal, universal and contemporary forever “as long as we want Western civilization to continue to exist” constitutes an if-then argument with a very big “if” at its start. The “we” Borstlap invokes could plausibly include anyone associated with the Future Symphony Institute, but it does not seem to be a given that “A renaissance for classical music means a renaissance for humanity.”

Why would a renaissance for European classical music mean a renaissance for the entire human race the world over? This comes across like a revivalist plea for old time religion where the old time religion is classical music. Much like an American revivalist wants to put God back in America for America’s benefit, Borstlap can come across like he wants the universal and timeless values of Western art music to be revived but the revival of true religion seems like a means rather than an end.

A Defense of Art Religion as a European Tradition

Borstlap is clear at the outset he takes Europe to be the center of attention for his book, noting that, “ … classical Western music as a high art is European in nature, so the present argument has its consequences for America as far as it is a European import, and in relation to the specific American perspective.” (page xxvii)

Borstlap is equally clear that in discussing classical music he regards the Western European classical music legacy as follows:

serious European musical culture—and by extension, serious musical culture in the entire West—is much more than the entertainment for which it is often regarded. It is a powerful expression and symbol of Europe and the West as a civilization. In its humanism it embodies the values that lay at the heart of our society, values which are formed by the Enlightenment and the interplay between its ideas and reactions to them. From this process, an idea of a pluralist, secular society was born, which can be considered a higher form of civilization than mono-cultures that only can be maintained through suppression, exclusion, and state-steered characterization. But a pluralist society can only exist if a fundamental framework is accepted by all members, a framework which creates an underlying unity but offers enough space for variety. (page xxiv)

If from the above, it might seem that Borstlap envisions for the fine arts a role not unlike that of a civic religion, later in the book he seems to push in that direction when he writes:

When science made aspects of material reality understandable, interpretation of phenomena changed, but not human nature and its existential questions. The understanding that there is no “God” like an old man with beard and crown on a cloud, does not change the religious experience as such; the bottle may get another label but the wine remains the same. Denying the existence of the wine because the bottle has undergone an elaborate examination process is to ignore the total picture of reality, which–in the way we can experience it–includes so much more than the level of causation and physical laws. (page 47)

People could easily question whether “the wine remains the same” when comments about new wine and old wineskins predate Western civilization as we know it. One of the long-running contentions from the New Musicology in American scholarship, broadly defined as working in the wake of Joseph Kerman and Susan McClary’s writings, has been that the Western European classical canon is a distinctly Eurocentric body of work dominated by males who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To distill the argument down to its foundational objection, if Western classical music were an art religion the problem is that, like many religions, its canon is established and closed, which raises questions as to how and why anyone should or could contribute to the tradition.

Segregating High and Low Art

Borstlap’s writing presents what appears to be a double bind on just how closed the Western classical musical canon may be. Early in The Classical Revolution he writes the following:

As long as it is understood as a flexible and living process which develops itself by continuous interpretation, it is not a “conservative” notion, an attempt to merely try to construct an imitation of something old. Seen in this way, a new form of tradition in society—culture and thus in art music—is neither conservative nor progressive in the old senses. It is a sign of a rebirth, of a possible renaissance of the best that Europe has to offer. It will be clear that such a concept can easily be misunderstood because notions of “progressiveness,” “conservatism,” and “traditionalism” have served in the last century as banners for political interests. … (page 2)

Yet it isn’t much farther into The Classical Revolution and we see the following:

A contemporary composer with the talents of a Beethoven, Mahler, or Debussy will not be found among the “composers” who think that tonality is a superfluous and outdated tool or that they can infuse their work with the drab confections from pop or world music, jazz or film music, without restricting the art form’s potential. Given the immense richness of past achievement, a really great talent will try to emulate, not to destroy or deny it. (page 21)

Borstlap seems to have in mind firm boundaries between music that is entertainment and music that is art; between music that is an embodiment of the best humanity can experience (which is ostensibly universal yet also quintessentially European) and the mere ephemera of anything not-classical.

Yet even within the musical legacies of J. S. Bach and Haydn we can see exemplars of Protestant and Catholic European composers who made use of hymns or Croatian folk songs as inspiration for choral and symphonic works, suggesting that even within the Western classical canon there is plenty of evidence that the boundaries between the high and low have been more permeable than Borstlap’s taxonomies may seem to allow for. What is “world music”, for instance? Is it folk music that comes from some region of the world that isn’t in Europe? Why would jazz not have anything of value to bring to classical music?

This is as much a historical question as an aesthetic question, and even a moderately serious engagement with the history of ragtime will show that the boundaries between European classical music and American popular music were remarkably permeable. Edward Berlin’s books on Scott Joplin and ragtime more generally are instructive reading, demonstrating that ragtime is the result of a dynamic process in which African American musicians built upon and transformed music they found in the European traditions to develop a new musical style that has since become part of the classical canon. If the Baroque era could be thought of as the era of figured bass, the jazz era introduced a style of music and composition that can be thought of as figured treble. It does not seem purely coincidental that contemporary classical composers who have experimented with fusions of jazz and classical, whether Nikolai Kapustin or Michelle Gorrell, have drawn upon Baroque idioms such as the prelude and fugue tradition

If anything, Borstlap’s eagerness to deny that there has been a historic interplay between high and low music runs afoul of some fairly standard music history. Charles Rosen, in his landmark work The Classical Style, pointed out that by the 1790s Haydn had developed and refined a style that was both deliberately popular and reflected the utmost learning in established academic styles (The Classical Style, page 329). Rosen went so far as to say that both Haydn and Mozart developed popular styles that sacrificed none of the disciplines or pretensions of high art (page 332). Rosen continued his point on the same page by writing:

Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the late symphonies of Haydn, and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside—or better, fused with—the virtues of the street song.

Unlike Rosen, Borstlap seems unable to grant that there are any virtues in the street song. Yet Shostakovich spent some of his early days as a professional musician playing music to accompany films in theaters. Heitor Villa-Lobos played in street bands. Bartok collected folk songs throughout Hungary.

If anything it could seem as though those composers of classical music even in the 20th century whose works have become part of the canon made a point of not losing touch with music of the street. It is possible that the trouble with both popular music and classical music since the emergence of 19th century art religion and popular art designed to appeal to a mass audience is that the synergistic relationship between high and low was ended as the result of ideological gambits for or against art as the new and better form of religious experience than whatever forms of Christendom it was expected to supplant in Western Europe.

Defending a Music Without Defining It

One of the most frustrating aspects about Borstlap’s book is that from start to finish he never even defines what music actually is. It may be difficult to define what music is, although the art of organizing sound for expressive or communicative aims is one possible definition. Augustine, in his treatise on music, defined it as the science of moving well, proper mensuration; and asserted that music was an outworking of the intellect and that those unable to use reason could do nothing in art. Whether or not a person agrees with such a set of assertions, they are at least assertions about what music is, not about what does not qualify as music, a topic Borstlap devotes his short book to so vigorously that in arguing for a revolution in classical music he forgets to define what music even is.

What he is arguing against is that what he calls sonic art is able to be music. By sonic art he means a swath of music made by composers in the wake of World War II that have drawn upon the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and twelve-tone composers from the first half of the 20th century, and composers who have embraced some form of total serialism or aleatoric music or soundscape composers.

By book’s end Borstlap has mentioned John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez as the perpetrators of the kind of sonic art that he may sometimes regard as sometimes vaguely interesting but never as music. In his concluding chapter Borstlap works up a passionate series of claims about what real musical art accomplishes:

High art is an exercise of what is best in the human being. It offers a learning process of the intellect and the emotions that can lead to an increased awareness of what we really are and should be, and, as such, a source of inner strength. It was exactly this role that the classical music repertoire played in World War II and in the period directly following this fundamental crisis; it would be unthinkable that people would scramble among the ruins of bombed city centers, desperate to hear a performance of Xenakis, Stockhausen, or Boulez (or in a later period along the glass and steel facades of modernist office blocks to hear the sonic art of Lachenmann, Widmann, or Birtwistle) hoping to be uplifted and to feel again what it means to be a human being. Their work is a product of, not an answer to, the devastation of war trauma and the emptiness of the modern world. If we allow sonic art to be music, we finish off the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin. … (The Classical Revolution, page 123)

The claim that allowing the work of Iannis Xenakis to be defined as music would “finish off the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin” seems too histrionic to take seriously. I’m perfectly willing to say that Lachenmann hasn’t written music that keeps my attention for very long. I’m even happy to say that there’s nothing the extended techniques in his guitar duet Salut for Caudwell (1977) features that weren’t mastered half a century earlier by blues musicians in the United States. If Borstlap wanted his polemic against Lachenmann to have a bit more sting he could have pointed out that Lachenmann’s guitar duet comes off like a hodgepodge of special effects that were put to more memorable musical uses by Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson and Bukka White half a century earlier … but since those were all popular blues musicians they are apparently precluded from consideration.

Blaming Adorno

Borstlap explains the rise of sonic art as something caused by the influence of Theodore Adorno, a German philosopher, music critic and polemicist whose work was a forerunner of contemporary critical theory, and whose most notorious work might be Philosophy of New Music. Whatever Adorno’s negative influence may have been on European concert music, Borstlap does not so much as quote a single sentence from any of Adorno’s work. Adorno’s work has stayed in print since his death in 1969 and while his writing can be opaque and his prose torturous if you commit to reading him he makes himself clear, eventually. Borstlap’s invocation of Adorno without citation was one of the reasons I decided to read several of Adorno’s books.

That leads me to an ironic observation about what Borstlap calls sonic art. He regards sonic art as an inhuman triumph of technocratic mathematical rule-keeping over human, expressive musical creative activity. The total serialism of a Pierre Boulez school and the indeterminacy of a John Cage whose works seem set on extinguishing the human ego both get censure from Borstlap … but they both received censure from Adorno, decades before Borstlap would write his own polemic against the musical dead end of total serialism.

In 1955 Adorno wrote a polemical piece about “The Aging of the New Music” in which he declared that after the initial explosion of activity by composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok Berg, Webern, and Hindemith that the “new music” had ossified and calcified into a triumph of technique over expression; that the newer advocates of atonality in music did not even have mastery of the tonal traditions to which their own musical works were supposed to be an alternative, and that the end result was:

Already in the first measure the listener senses with resignation that he has been turned over to an infernal machine, which will run its course mercilessly, until fate has completed its cycle and he can breathe again. (Essays on Music, page 196)

Adorno also noted that this sort of musical work had inoculated itself against criticism on the basis of technocratic insularity.

The reproach that the critics have not understood the most recent compositions of unchecked rationalization can hardly be maintained because such musical reasoning wants only to be demonstrated mathematically, not understood. If one asks after the function of some phenomenon within a work’s total context of meaning … the answer is a further exposition of the system (Essays on Music, page 195)

The composers that Adorno went on to praise in his later career were the likes of Gyorgy Ligeti and Edgar Varese, with Ligeti being one of the few contemporary composers indebted to the avant garde traditions Borstlap has some praise for. If the best Borstlap can do as a polemicist is simply repeat points made by Adorno himself in the last century against total serialism and indeterminate music while blaming Adorno as being the cause of the music John Borstlap doesn’t like, it invites a question as to how much of Adorno’s work Borstlap has actually read.

If Borstlap is set against what he regards as soulless technocratic tendencies in the fine arts I can hardly blame him for that concern. But Jacques Ellul’s The Empire of Non-Sense presents a more coherent and compelling critique of technocracy as an ideological movement within the arts.

Adorno, notoriously, saw no value in popular music and did not consider it capable of being art, so beholden it was to the monopolistic tendencies in capitalism. Adorno also declared that traditional tonality was more or less “used up” and that a path forward had to repudiate tonality. Yet even Adorno granted that up through the 18th century there was art that was popular that was also successful as high art. If Borstlap wants to really set up a counterpoint to the legacy of Adorno that counterpoint would be to affirm that a successful fusion of high and low in the art of music can be regained, not to parrot a century later the sorts of polemics that have made Adorno an embarrassment to progressive scholars of the liberal arts in American letters.

To survey the polemics of fans of the Western musical canon and contemporary pop music; and to read the polemics within popular music studies of the “rockists” and the “poptimists” it’s hard to shake the impression that the trench warfare of these various sides risks precluding scholarship that could move beyond these respective camps battling for a place at the table in academic programs. To borrow a phrase from Marxist writings partisanship for art and pop music has become “insufficiently dialectical” by dint of its partisans entrenching themselves in turf wars, often seemingly at a literally academic level.

Paradoxically, developments in formal analysis in musicology in the last twenty years have opened up the possibility of exploring ways to develop a new synthesis of 18th century forms and syntactic scripts with the vocabulary of vernacular musics. William Caplin’s Classical Form and James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s Elements of Sonata Theory have sparked new work in formal analysis of the established classical music canon. What these books provide composers is the possibility of something else, an explication of the micro-level and macro-level syntactic possibilities of 18th century sonata forms that can be used to compose new works that draw upon the vernacular and popular styles of, say, American music in a way that lets a fusion of high and low be restored in what’s colloquially known as the Western classical tradition.

A real “revolution” in classical music (the need for which has not been established in Borstlap’s book) may lay not in attempting to sustain the high art musical traditions on strictly internal terms while repudiating all the “low” music. A classical revolution could come about by working to restore a synergistic interplay between art music and popular music in a way that takes hold of one without letting go of the other.

Jeremiah Lawson studied journalism and music composition at Seattle Pacific University. He studies sonata forms and guitar literature, as well as composing contrapuntal music for solo guitar. His Guitar Sonata in F minor is published through Periferia. His 24 preludes and fugues for guitar (or guitar duet) have been recorded by Daniel Estrem and are available through Magnatune and iTunes.

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