Great music has no independent existence

Listening to the Amsterdam Sinfonietta's exemplary performance on CD of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony reminded me once again that I cannot hear that Adagietto without recalling the closing scene of Visconti's Death in Venice. In his autobiographical The Way of the White Clouds Lama Govinda explains how.... 

Sometimes a glance, a few casual words, fragments of a melody floating through the quiet air of a summer evening, a book that accidentally comes into our hands, a poem, or a memory laden fragrance may bring about the impulse which changes and determines our whole life. 

In Mahayana Buddhism the entry point to a transcendent hidden land is known as a beyul. When I first saw Visconti's cinematic masterpiece in 1971 it took me through a beyul to the music of Mahler - which led on to the riches of Bruckner, Wagner and more - and on to an engaging zeitgeist. For years classical music has struggled unsuccessfully with the challenge of attracting a new audience, yet remains in denial that the strategy of don't change the music and hope that the listeners will change has failed. In his memoir Words without Music Philip Glass explains how:

A work of art has no independent existence. It has a continuing identity and a conventional reality and it comes into being through an interdependence of other events with people.

This thinking echoes Benjamim Britten's assertion that "Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed" expressed in his 'holy triangle' of composer, performer, and listener. It is the failure to understand music's dependence on the interdependence of event with audience - Mahler, Mann and Visconti is just one example - that leaves classical music as an increasingly isolated self-regarding art form. It is the dogma of 'don't change the music, just wait for the audience to change' that causes this failure. Listeners have changed, so Britten's vital holy triangle is nullified. Aaron Copland once wisely pointed out that 'When the audience changes, the music changes'; but despite seismic shifts in the expectations of today's wired audiences the music itself has not changed.

Previously I have explained how, as well as Death in Venice, psychedelic rock, Maurice Jarre's soundtracks and jazz also led me through the beyul to the greatness and diversity of classical music. But that was half a century ago. Perhaps I am now too old and too out of touch to know what beyuls will tempt post-millennials to sample classical riches. But changing the music must now surely be a priority. It is inevitable that some attempts will be misguided. However this does not justify unleashing online lynch mobs as has happened with the - misguided or not - attempts to change at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. (Remember Norman Lebrecht's zealous championship of the ill-fated Sinfini website - a marketing initiative that resembled in many ways what is happening in Birmingham? And why are the Slipped Disc lynch mobs not directing their ire at the similar populist changes at BBC Radio 3, an institution with far greater cultural impact than the CBSO?)    

Changing the music in nuanced ways does not necessarily mean rappers with symphony orchestras. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta's excellent The Mahler Album also includes Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's String Quartet no. 11 and an intensely moving arrangement for string orchestra of the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth Symphony. On other discs the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under artistic director Candida Thompson has recorded arrangements of two other Beethoven quartets, Shostakovich's Second and Fourth Quartets, Wagner's Tristan Prelude, and Berg's Sonata Opus 1. 

Although not as dramatic as Stokowski's Bach transcriptions these interpretations, particularly the quartet transcriptions with their added bass lines, made even this jaded classical nerd hear these masterworks with fresh ears. And in an expression of diversity that goes beyond classical's current myopic and tired obsession with gender diversity, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta is presenting in concert Philip Glass in India pairing Glass' Violin Concerto no. 2 “The Four American Seasons” with Indian ragas. All these are worthwhile case studies in changing the music without throwing baby integrity out with the bath water. (Incidentally, no personal connection with or free CDs and concert tickets, or - heaven forbid - alone payola, from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, I just happen to be inspired by their work and buy their CDs.)


I'm belatedly commenting on some threads of ideas you've been sharing here in the last few months. That music, in the context of associative rituals and rites, has long been regarded as a window that looks into a spiritual realm, is axiomatic in the anthropology of religion and religious traditions but a view which has been sidelined in musicological and historical discussions that default to the assumption that art is a mirror (shades of M H Abrams' The Mirror and The Lamp here?). A seismic shift in literary criticism and theory posited that art was not a mirror in the Romantic era but a lamp that revealed the illumination of the Artist to share with others. In contemporary scholarship in the wake of Weber, Marx and Durkheim music tends to be a mirror and, particularly, in the wake of concerns about cultural appropriation it seems as though we're seeing a kind of collective return to mimetic theories of the arts but by way of objections to appropriation.

There's a recent book by Guy Beck on the possibilities a convergence of religious and musicological scholarship could provide. Beck is formidably up to speed on Christian theological aesthetic meditation on music and cross references those traditions (Lutheran, Anglican and to a lesser extent Dutch Reformed) with Buddhist and Hindu thought He has made a case that as guiding metaphors scholars use about music there has been a rejection of music as Window in favor of music as Mirror in music scholarship and that there could be a great benefit if the Window paradigm were brought back.

Ted Gioia has a Substack and he has made a somewhat sloppy case that "all" music history has hidden the "real" history that music has been based on sorcery. It comes across as a sloppy dualist pop binary of the sort Philip Stoltzfus would say has the weakness of neo-Orphic approaches to music since Schleiermacher, trafficking in dualisms of race, gender and sexuality that are too rigid and pat. That said, Gioia does at least kind of retrieve an idea known in religious scholarship that music was often used in ritual settings to induce mantic states (divinatory practices and so on).

Partisans of classical music such as the late Roger Scruton invoke the Wagnerian claim that Art does for Religion what Religion what Religion can no longer do because of its dogmas being opaque or impossible to believe.

But having grown up Pentecostal and gravitated toward Anglican practices, and having alluded to Ted Gioia's claim that there's a highbrow/lowbrow antagonism, I have suspected for years a key problem in the Art as Religion maxim is that, as Gordon Graham has put it, art doesn't really work as a substitute spirituality, the central question of what "kind" of religion Art is a surrogate for goes unanswered. Gioia's work could potentially be a window into that question with help from Gordon Graham's work. Spiritualities can fluctuate within and between poles of group spirit possession states (Reed Carlson has a fascinating book on that issue in the Hebrew Bible called Unfamiliar Selves with De Gruyter) and personal apotheosis. Classical music partisans, if they acknowledge a spirituality of any kind at all, seem to favor personal apotheosis while partisans of popular music seem to favor group spirit possession (or Ted GIoia's valorization of shamanistic trance). In actual religious traditions, however, these polarities don't seem to be that fixed as they are posited to be in music journalism.

I realize this may be too sprawling a comment so I'll close with the bibliographic reference to Beck's new book in case it might be of interest.
The Re-enchantment of the World: Art versus Religion
Gordon Graham
Published: 20 December 2007
210 Pages
ISBN: 9780199265961

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