martes, 5 de junio de 2007

The Emperor's New Clothes

This is a translation of my article published in Spanish last month in a magazine in Spain.

"It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed." -- (Pierre Boulez )

"I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media." ( Milton Babbitt )

"What happened there is (...) the biggest artwork of all times. That spirits achieve in a single act what we in music cannot dream of, that people rehearse ten years long like mad, totally fanatical for a concert and then die.This is the biggest artwork that exists at all in the whole universe...I couldn't match it." (K. Stockhausen, on the 9/11 attack ) . -- All quotes are from The New York Times.

Those three composers are supposedly "great" composers of the 20th century. Their piano works (in fact, ALL their works) were written "for the future" in the 1950s and 60s, when they were (and still are) a tough nut to crack for both the pianist and the audience. Now, if they were indeed "great", as Chopin or Bach undoubtedly were, why are their works still not in the repertory of most pianists or other instrumentalists ? And why don't we members of humanity, no matter how "retarded" we are according to those "great" artists, respect them now as we respect Beethoven or even their contemporaries such as Shostakovich or Benjamin Britten ? When is the "future" they were talking about ? Is 2007 not "future" enough for those works created half a century ago ?

The answer is simple. Boulez, Babbitt and Stockhausen are (or were) "great", because they rely on, and receive huge government subsidies and were leaders of a very small but controlling establishment consisting of academics, critics and art politicians. They are "great" according to their colleagues in this group, but not according to musicians and the public. In fact, their "avantgarde" music is mostly written against musicians and the public. It even goes so far as calling the 9/11 event "the greatest artwork" (see Stockhausen's quote above) , not only creating a work against people, but even more, killing (how can one be more against people ?) them all, "artists" and audience. In other words, they write music to gain, and only to gain, government subsidy. What Walt Whitman said, that "It takes great audience to make great poets" is not valid anymore for this kind of "art". In principle, government subsidies are supposed to be given to marginal artistic activities, and the more "minority oriented" that art is, the more it deserves subsidy ; this subsidy has enabled those artists to stay in their ivory towers without making any contributions at all to the public. Which is alright if one doesn't think of the amount of taxpayers' money that is used to subsidize those "artistic" works.

Let's take one example, the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique) who was built by Pierre Boulez in Paris. It was kitted out with equipment to Boulez's own specification to compose music for the future. IRCAM also swallowed 80% of the national subsidy for contemporary music of France(1) . It was built at a cost of 90 million francs and thereafter at a cost of 15 million a year to the French taxpayer for its concerts, staff and upkeep. It happened that in 1969 Boulez got Georges Pompidou to build for him a huge high tech underground bunker , beside the site of what was to become the Pompidou Centre. Now, in 2007, shall we look back and reflect on how many masterpieces have been created out of this building ? What I mean by masterpieces are works that the general public recognize as such, like Britten's War Requiem, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms or, coming from the other continent, Copland's Third Symphony. I don't have to answer this question. When I was living in Holland in the 1990s I had several encounters with"ex"avant-garde turned real composers, such as Toru Takemitsu, John Adams or Louis Andriessen. And it was in Holland that I met for the first time my amazing Spanish composer friends Jesus Rueda or David del Puerto (both winners of Premio Nacional de Musica, in 2004 and 2005 respectively). At that time, they were in a "transitional" period after getting out from the heavy influence of their avantgarde teacher, Paco Guerrero. All of them realized then, that our older colleagues had achieved their goals to "impress" the public by presenting them with uncommunicative works, and certainly they have gained a lot by doing that, but that we the younger generations have to pay for it. There have been composers at every corner of the street ever since, given that avantgarde music was designed to give jobs to many who could not compose in the sense of writing "traditional" music. Good or bad quality is not the criteria anymore. But there are simply not enough subsidy for all of them , whose works sound more or less the same.

Fortunately we are in a state of transition to a more audience-friendly kind of music. The avantgardists had achieved in emptying the concert halls, and now we will have to work harder to gain them back and convince them that the word "contemporary" is not equal to "avantgarde" ; on the contrary, "avantgarde" was a thing very much in the past, and not con ("with")-temporary (our time) anymore. This situation reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen's story, about an Emperor who is very fond of clothes. One day came 2 tailors, saying that they can make very special clothes that only good people can see. Naturally the emperor cannot see those clothes, but afraid of being called a bad person, he praises the beauty of the clothes. And if the emperor can see it, everybody in the whole country should do as well. Until comes a very young kid, much too young to be called a bad person, during the festive celebration of those clothes , shouting innocently, "Look, the Emperor is naked!"

A very good story about how to cheat the public. If you cannot design clothes, well, make the audience think that it is THEM who do not see -- or understand it.

Did I make a point ? If so, let's see how many composers can make a counterpoint