Between Ivory Tower and Shopping Mall (1)

Bengt Hambræus

Why does my Don Juan mix the

fine-grained poison in his brush's

and in his daughter's beauty?

Don Juan answered me:

So I'm painting, Donna Bianca,

'cause (it) so pleases me to paint.

These lines with many meanings from Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's play "Ramido Marinesco" (1834), which might work as a symbolic motto in several contexts, might also apply to questions regarding contemporary aesthetic problems and the artist's role in society. In the ongoing musical debate [in Sweden], expressions such as "contact urgency", "need for responsibility", and "the concept of truth and beauty", have been circulating like ghosts in different Swedish books and newspaper/journal articles. By using these expressions, different authors have tried to cover a territory that, simplified, is guarded by an ivory tower and a shopping mall where academic aestheticism is confronted with commercial advertising. Not surprisingly, a discussion was ignited regarding the concept of Postmodernism - a term occurring, during the past couple of years, in many international contexts. Postmodernism is as hard to define (on a deeper level) as it is popular as a label of whatever is not classified as "radical avantgardism" on the contemporary art market.

Music aesthetics have been discussed sporadically in Sweden. A historically important debate took place at the end of the '50s, most of the contributions to which were published in the book Erkänn Musiken [Accept the Music]. (2) Another fight started in Svenska Dagbladet [a major Swedish daily newspaper] during the fall of 1994. In both cases, a few Swedish works seem to have functioned as triggers. In 1956-57, it was Karl-Birger Blomdahl's (a very influential and modernistic Swedish composer 1916-1968) grand choral work Anabase. In 1994, it was a couple of Sven-David Sandström's (1942 - ] works that had just appeared at a well staged festival of his music in Stockholm. A trivial fact is that there are 37 years in between these events, more than a third of a century. This time-span alone could indicate that our musical life lacks an active, current, ongoing, constructive and particularly national discussion which is especially important in today's decentralized society.

The debate on Blomdahl's Anabase focused at the beginning, interestingly enough, not solely on the music. One critic opposed the composer's use of an exclusively French text (by Saint-John Perse) in the original language. Since the work was commissioned and premièred by Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, the critique also concerned that institution: Swedish taxpayers should require an understandable Swedish text. Of course, the continuing debate encompassed a much vaster number of acidities in the new music than resulted from Blomdahl's work alone. Occasionally, the discussion focused on trivial issues regarding twelve-tone technique, elitism, tonality and social adaptation in a very strange mix. Typically, it was a literary critic - Bengt Holmqvist - who, at an early stage, brought the discussion to a fundamental and constructive level.

In 1994 it was, as already mentioned, Sven-David Sandström's (and a couple of other composers') artistic development and stylistic change that started the new debate. This time, a new generation challenged each other on issues concerning musical aesthetics, musical sociology and, last but not least, the issues cultivated since the 40s, the "need for truth" and/or "need for contact" (e.g. should a composer take into account the audience or not in his/her work). Not unexpectedly, a weighty attack was launched from Jan W. Morthenson [1940 - ] (a composer with academic merits in philosophy and musical aesthetics, influenced by Theodor Adorno), which was answered in interesting ways by young writers such as Björn Billing and Per F. Broman.

In this context, one could ask what role Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) played as a leading ideologist, internationally and among Swedish intellectuals. For many, Adorno's Die Philosophie der Neuen Music (1949) became a type of bible through its paradigm-like exposure of Arnold Schoenberg versus Igor Stravinsky. The partly tragi-comic part is that this, his most famous book, with a great deal of dialectical focus, could be described as the conflict between a couple of neighbors in the literary sense. Together with a couple of other artists and authors from Central Europe, Adorno lived as a political refugee in Los Angeles during Word War II - his close allies were, among others, Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg (although the latter relationship was not unproblematic). Years before the book was published, Adorno had already prepared the sections on Schoenberg. But, at that time, Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles and he represented a different musical style, which, according to Adorno's view, was lacking the values and moral courage that should characterize a composer of the post war era. Consequently, it was easy to use Schoenberg and Stravinsky as the main examples in a dialectic declaration that had started in Europe and had been moved temporarily to California. Of course, Adorno's influence should not only be understood through the dated (or 'finite', meaning the opposite of timeless) and partly regional book on the philosophy of new music, seen even with the eyes of the late 40s. But since Die Philosophie der Neuen Musik is still discussed almost as a normative fact and not as a phenomenon typical of its time (and narrow cultural society), it could be interesting to remind the reader about a couple of other books published in the same year, 1949. Some of them may have vanished from the sight of younger readers. But they should be studied again, from the perspectives of 1995, partly because each of them is typical of what was seen as important and constrictive during the chaotic years after World War II, partly because they could serve as tools to redirect our thoughts, pointing to aspects that could easily be foreseen in today's discussions. Their levels and goals respectively are very different and often lack the classical exactness and superior use of language that Adorno developed in his dialectical authorship (which has been characterized as a synthesis of "Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural conservatism, his anticipation of deconstruction, and a self conscious Judaism"). (3) But together, they give an interesting contrast to the Swedish debates in 1957 and 1994-95.

Perhaps most well-know and discussed during the beginning of the 1950s was René Leibowitz's Introduction à la musique de douze sons, an analytic description of Schoenberg's twelve-tone theory using his important Variations for Orchestra as the main feature of the book. The same year (1949), the English edition appeared of Leibowitz's Schoenberg et son École (1947), a book that for many became THE introduction to the music of the so called Second Viennese School. Both books played a certain role, for example, in the discussion that took part in Fylkingen [a chamber music society for new music] in Stockholm at the beginning of the '50s; also Allan Pettersson was one of those who was strongly influenced by Leibowitz's teaching on the subject (even if Pettersson himself did not transmit this tradition). (4)

After this, Hans Mersmann's Neue Musik in den Strömungen unserer Zeit, (5) gives a fairly good synopsis of contemporary musical problems in Central Europe in the aftermath of the war; this book is a kind of concentrated appendix to a more extensive work, Moderne Musik, which Mersmann published in 1931 as part of Ernst Bücken's vast Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft. Strangely enough, the exposition of 1949 lacks the group of composers that a couple of years later was regarded as a natural triumvirate in the contemporary music history, Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Instead, Mersmann devoted an extensive amount of space to whom he considered to be the central Gestalt, Paul Hindemith. He was also a warm spokesman for Béla Bartók. His view corresponded fairly well to the prevalent opinion among young Swedish composers before the writings of Leibowitz and Adorno or before the rediscovery of the Schoenberg School changed the focus of the evaluations.

Maybe the most interesting publication in this context is Rena Moisenko's Realist Music. (6) It is, in its way, the most problematic and unproblematic of the books mentioned here. Problematic, if one reads between the lines what is not explicitly expressed. Unproblematic, if one only reads what is written expressing, with an eternal optimism, the social realist culture with its roots in the Soviet people's own traditions. As in the case with Adorno's Die Philosophie der Neuen Musik, Moisenko's Realist Music should be read as a document from that particular time and place. But it could also be read as a source of reference to what happened during the later decades: it was written in 1948, shortly after the allies had defeated Hitler and Mussolini; it was written before the cold war - mostly due to McCarthy - became an international struggle for power; it was written in England for British readers, based on careful studies in Soviet Russian music literature and repertoire that was only slightly known in the West; it was written, like Mersmann's book, from the background of a country suffering from war. It is thus understandable if priorities other than those that were discussed in Los Angeles's ivory tower had to be taken into account when a whole people should become engaged in a large and multitudinous cultural nationalism which included music. In separate chapters, (a number of composers from different European and Asian republics as well as a couple of traditional cultures in Kazakstan are presented; the first chapter of the book gives an overview of Soviet music's social political function and its relation to different republics' individual inhabitants and tradition, focusing on the issue of the composer's artistic responsibility in society. A couple of the composers were already known in the West when the book was published: Glière, Kachaturian, Prokofiev, and Shostakovitch. But the majority of the others, representatives of Kirgizish, Jakutish, Armenian or Azerbadjzjanish traditions, are probably still completely unknown here and probably were so in 1949 as well.

The interesting part of Moisenko's book is how it formulates the problem and how this is presented. Of course, after what has been revealed about the Stalin Era, one could mistrust the spontaneous enthusiasm for Stalin's cultural program; in the West, this was considered with the same kind of worried feelings that were revealed after Hitler's program of "uni-direction". The book could easily be considered as a naive propaganda pamphlet. Even so, one reads this book as if one had opened a time capsule with contents that had been concealed for several decades. Many of the views receive a peculiar ideological light from, for example, the 1994-95 Swedish musical debate, or in relation to a matter recently presented by the Canadian composer Bruce Mather in a couple of lectures and a polemic journal article posing the question: "Composer - arranger: is there a difference?" (using examples, among others, from Penderecki's stylistic change as well as Postmodernism).

The oppression of opinions and violation of human rights in the non-democracies was discussed not only in artistic contexts. Even so it could be valid to ask if it really matters where the censorship comes from. If one wanted to be mean, one could ask if it is worse to be censured by a culturally pessimistic ivory tower, by the members of the jury in a peoples' tribunal or by that kind of manipulative dictatorship that is governed by smart advertising. The often heavily commercialized Postmodernism has powerful as well as intolerant supporters with the potential to use censorship. Depth, broadness and a pragmatic perspective are seldom present. It has at one occasion been said that the perception of History started to decline from the moment when the digital clock marking "now" replaced the analog clock's hour, minute and second pointer.

The discussion of the function and purpose of music will probably never cease to exist. Science or entertainment? According to a famous media review, in the allegoric picture of the seven free arts of philosophy, music is situated between dialectics and arithmetic, thus between a logical formulated rhetoric (content) and a mathematical predictability (formal structure and time); expressed differently, between humanities and natural science. At that time, no one could, of course, predict the immense development that now, some thousand years later, would assail mankind on his sophisticated super highways with a commercialized music market and with a disabling mass hysteria and an equally well calculated outcome (not just for Michael Jackson!).

Undoubtedly, this mega-market is a result of free enterprise on a free market (which, even in music, could be as corrupt as in other businesses!). But, at the same time, we must not forget the important counter argument: if there are no windows, doors and emergency exits from the academically correct ivory tower, there is a risk that the philosopher forgets that he is a human being among other human beings.

translation by Per F. Broman.

1. first published in Svenska Dagbladet 13/5-95.

2. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1957.

3. Paul Robinson, back cover of Martin Jay, Adorno Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

4. Gustaf Allan Pettersson (1911-1980), 20th-century Swedish violist and composer of 18 symphonies, attended classes of Milhaud and Honegger and studied privately with René Leibowitz. (ed.)

5. Bayreuth: J. Steeger, 1949. ed.

6. London: Meridian Books, 1949.