© Bruno Klomfar
© Bruno Klomfar

Sven Hartberger — And What Does This Mean for Us?

All our efforts towards understanding the world are doomed to failure because they always start from the wrong perspective – the inner perspective of our own interests. All our senses are focused on evaluating any phenomenon according to whether it’s perceived as advantageous or harmful. Such an evaluation, whether in theory or practice, can never be abstract; it has to be concrete, that’s to say it has to stand in relation to a particular subject. However, this subject, despite our best efforts at objectivity, is always ourselves.

So – why struggle? Why should we strive for objectivity if, by our very nature, we are condemned to be subjective? Why not ask, in concrete terms, what the impact of the current dynamic developments in contemporary music making might be – that’s to say: what it might be for us, instead of posing this question generally and in pseudo-objective terms?  This “we” refers to the virtuoso solo ensembles that emerged from the New Music at the beginning of the 20th century, starting with Arnold Schönberg’s Kammersymphonie op. 9, and that, from the second half of the last century, have in their turn given rise to the kind of music that flourishes one hundred years later, at the beginning of the 21st century.

The question of what kind of impact current developments in contemporary music may have on solo ensembles that were founded in the second half of the 20th century, is here explored in four chapters: 1. The End is Nigh – A brief, entirely subjective survey. 2. Forever 21 – A natural but problematical denial. 3. The Eschatological Errors of the Avant-gardes. 4. The Duden-Problem.

1. The End is Nigh. - A Brief, Entirely Subjective Survey.

It is a vexing business to discern the signs of the impending transformation of an important and vital epoch of European art music, to name them and to put them up for discussion. However, if the evidence can no longer be ignored, despite all efforts to remain blissfully blind, we are obliged to face reality. An attempt at a survey might take the following form:

There is, first of all, the banal question concerning the natural lifespan of a musical era. If one observes the large periods and trends in European music from the start of the 15th century, it becomes clear that each of them dominated musical life for about a hundred years – Renaissance, Baroque, pre-classical and classical era, Romantic and late Romanticism. New Music, whose hour of birth most would agree dates back to the year 1910, therefore clearly nears the end of its legitimate lifespan.

This in no way impedes the emergence of “late works”. However, at various festivals and events those in the know more and more often routinely raise the increasingly tiresome objection that this music lacks individuality, its own, distinctive idiom – at times even going so far as to accuse it of plagiarism.

At the same time, New Music finds itself increasingly relegated to the margins of the biotopes that up to this point provided the essential habitat for its unfolding. This is not only true for prominent art festivals, which – at least until the start of the 21st century – gave it their special attention but which do so to a steadily lessening degree. In particular, it concerns festivals that carry music in their name but which, by means of new subtitles, or even without altering their denomination indicating a special affinity to music, gradually transform themselves into festivals for zeitgeist, performative events with sound accompaniment and public discourses with incidental music.

All this is evidence of an imminent change. That which is currently still invested with enough power of definition to be considered as New Music, starts to converge with the emergence of a new generation of composers, whose frame of reference is no longer defined by violin and piano, but by laptop and video-beamer, and whose work as composers could perhaps best be described as a performative play with ultimately random objects that are made to emit sounds. With a certain delay that is to be expected, we witness the advance of conceptual art in current musical production.

It’s hard to say what kind of musical result this tendency will yield; especially when one tries to view it as a transitional period leading to a new chapter in European art music. But it is easy to realise that classically trained instrumental virtuosos certainly won’t be of increased relevance in relation to such forms of composition. – The established solo ensembles will have to take this on board.

2. Forever 21. – An Natural but Problematical Denial.

In the face of such a sea change that calls one’s own relevance into question, there exist various patterns of reaction which, even if they haven’t proved successful, are at any rate part of the tradition. As a general rule, the IDA-formula is being observed: ignore, denounce, assimilate.

We don’t have to discuss the first two strategies and their futility. Despite the proven pointlessness of such methods, they nonetheless still enjoy great popularity – take, for instance, the current conflict in which an economic science, in the guise of chrematistics, opposes all concepts of a new commercial law that would serve the common good of all humanity and the future of the planet instead of promoting the acquisition of unlimited riches and absolute power for individuals. (You can read more about this in the introduction to the Klangforum project “To the Common Good!”, p. 42 ff). To put it in a nutshell: To ignore the new as long as it is still too diminutive and does not yet command adequate forums, and to denounce it as soon as it has acquired such forums, but still appears to be vulnerable to suppression and obliteration, has never yielded anything but a brief respite at best.

The two strategies of assimilation deserve closer attention: the absorption of the scary new into what already exists; and one’s own adaptation to what is coming in order to secure one’s own existence by surrendering some of one’s own fundamental positions.

The first strategy of assimilation tends joyfully and appreciatively to embrace what is strange and new by asserting that it is neither strange nor new but simply a welcome fresh branch of the old tree, flesh of our own flesh, blood of our own blood. This process routinely leads to some unholy alliances. In this way, the prevailing nomenclature hopes to be able to catch hold of potentially revolutionary elements and to turn them into agents serving its own cause. The young frondeurs try to seize the bastions of the ruling class – not through taking them by storm and so incurring heavy losses, but as adoptive children, taking the path of subversion and erosion.

The second form of assimilation, i.e. the older generation’s attempt at affiliation with the young, already shows clear signs of capitulation. It is a phase in which the abdicating power of definition has abandoned the illusion of being able to just swallow what arises as new and tries to find its place as a subservient and still somewhat useful element under the aegis of the new regime. This is the moment when we are able, in the field of music, to bear witness to the most renowned virtuoso instrumentalists of their times executing scores whose realisation would not pose problems to any of their students in the first semester! This practice is somehow reminiscent of such exponents of the generation 40 plus as would like to don pink shorts, fat earphones and a skate-board tucked under their arms to go hobnobbing with truants in the park. Of course one could read this as a sign of special open-mindedness towards youth culture and progress; however it appears to be at least just as legitimate to interpret this technique of “Forever 21” as a rather problematic multiple denial.

This latter appears to be the most obvious strategy for most large solo ensembles to adopt. All these ensembles were founded as advocates of the musical avant-garde, and their self-understanding as an avant-garde is still intact. But wanting to draw direct conclusions from the avant-garde nature and basic understanding of such ensembles for New Music concerning their future position, we should take two things into account: First of all, the term “avant-garde” per se is empty of meaning; it denotes nothing more than a commitment to progress which in itself is initially empty of meaning. On the other hand, every avant-garde has its natural lifespan; it starts out, flourishes, passes away and is succeeded by the next one – or by a period of (relative) stagnation.

This necessarily leads to the conclusion which, on the face of it, may seem painful: Yesterday’s avant-gardes are today’s conservatives and the traditional clubs of tomorrow. In the year 2018, performing New Music is a conservative event. Any supporter of the strategy “Forever 21” refusing to enter the stage of life devoted to preservation and handing down, must needs see and position themselves as an implicit advocate of the reigning avant-garde of the time – or as custodian of the current standstill.

Anybody who wishes, above all, to be leading edge, who wants to be on top and have their finger on the pulse of the time, must therefore be prepared to become the mouthpiece of a fascist movement, as the case may be, glorifying violence – such as futurism once was. “These new heroes wanted to praise the double quick, the slap in the face and the blow of the fist; a revving motor seemingly running on grapeshot appeared more beautiful to them than the Winged Victory of Samothrace; war was to be glamourised – the world’s one and only hygiene – militarism… and contempt for women; the museums were to be destroyed, as well as libraries and academies of any kind.” 1 This may be rather a drastic example of a misguided and misguiding concept of progress but it shows that a mere identification with a current avant-garde is not necessarily advanced, because despite its aggressive objectives that glorified violence and war, one won’t be able to deny futurism its character as one of the incumbent avant-gardes of the early 20th century.

3. The Eschatological Errors of the Avant-gardes

Avant-gardes bear many characteristics of secularised religions. They have their creeds and their churches, their prophets, dogmas, zealots and heretics, their excommunications and even their auto-da-fés. There is plenty of evidence for these facts throughout the history of New Music that is common knowledge so I won’t have to go into detail here. 

As a result, the supporters of such secularised communities of faith very easily fall prey to the eschatological fallacy. Instead of seeing themselves as temporary answers to current questions that concern the future, they tend to regard their findings as progress in the linear course of a kind of secularised history of salvation and frequently also as its final and conclusive stage of development. Obviously, from such a position any change can only be viewed either as a form of manifestation of one’s own self or as decline, never as something that is genuinely new and valid in its own right. Those who don’t make this mistake and instead regard New Music as a rich epoch and as just another stage in the development of European art music, but not as its endpoint after which nothing new is possible, will realise that this era may well have reached its limits. What has become visible so far of this transition will call for decisions to be made by the large solo ensembles, founded from the middle of the last century onwards, regarding the nature, shape and relevance of the kind of avant-garde whose output they will want to focus on in future. Such a reflection upon the essence of their own artistic work is indispensable for anyone for whom merely presenting themselves at the forefront of current events won’t be enough.

4. The Duden-Problem

Anybody who wants to continue working into the future will therefore have to ask themselves what their own essential nature might be. Once you subtract the extreme radicalism of its orientation towards the future and all kinds of creations of myths, whether self-made or attributed, the core of any avant-garde consists of a sum of ideas, thoughts and attitudes that take the shape of movements, mostly of an artistic or political nature. Once this “hot” phase of an avant-garde has passed and its aggregate state has solidified, the core essence of its nature becomes visible.

On taking stock, 110 years after its inception, New Music can face both what has come to light and its own future with equally good cheer. What it has accomplished by its development – by the enormous expansion of tonal, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic means, by the increase in the number of instruments and the development of its forms – will nourish new tendencies in art music for a long time to come. Added to which we have the enormous oeuvre that was created over more than a hundred years and which is hardly known to the vast majority of today’s audience even now.

It may well be that the most important works of New Music have already been written or that we at least know the authors of such future works as will become a part of the inalienable canon of this era of music history. So the creative history of New Music may indeed have reached its final stage. This may sound like bad news for anybody who would like to be its advocate and, at the same time, take their place as spear head of the avant-garde. However, this could also be viewed differently: the grand history of reception of New Music is about to begin.

The high time of this history of reception, however, won’t come about automatically. It requires extraordinary performers – thus increasing demand not only on festivals, concert and opera venues, but first and foremost on the kinds of ensembles whose experience, knowledge and mastery will allow them to play their part in this provisional “last” great epoch of European art music, winning it the kind of attention, affection and enthusiasm that it merits. “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few” (Mt, 9,37; Lk, 10,2) For the established solo ensembles to focus on the great oeuvre that reflects the innermost essence of the avant-garde they represent, may thus prove to be a promising decision in relation to the future. Of course, this does not preclude an exploration of the newest trends – including those that cannot be attributed to nor incorporated into New Music by any stretch of the imagination. It warrants a careful definition of their own radius, an acknowledgement of their own limits, a conscious strategic focus and a position that becomes apparent through the choice of works that are being performed.

However, there is an alternative to this arduous and perilous task. The editorial team of the Duden has adopted it on the occasion of the 1996/98 spelling reform by confining itself merely to recording what is customary – rather than listing words, terms and spelling based on semantically founded deliberations. This indiscriminate list of what is currently in use, eschewing judgment, has cost the Duden much of its authority and reputation. We simply expect something different of an encyclopedia – more than just the conveyance of ephemeral current beliefs.

The ensembles that have specialised in the valid and exemplary portrayal of contemporary music are assigned a similar authority in their field of expertise. With good reason the audience expects an evaluative choice as the basis for their programming and not just the indiscriminate representation of what happens to be up to date. There is a difference between modernity and fashion, just as there is a difference between flourish and conviction.

Programmes of 20th century avant-garde ensembles will only by way of exception include works which are performed mainly on theorbo, zink and cornamuse. However, the decision whether the same should apply for works that depend for their interpretation largely on laptop, loudspeakers and sound objects can be left to the natural course of events, or to the laws of supply and demand. But there is a caveat. Artistic concept requires clear decisions that have their basis in the arts themselves. The time seems ripe for instrumental ensembles to cast a discerning view on current developments in contemporary music. Simply to follow the path of the Duden is a piece of advice one will probably not be able to give them with a clear conscience.
—Sven Hartberger, 2018



1—Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, „Il Manifesto del Futurismo“, Gazetta dell'Emilia Romagna, February 5, 1909
2—Heike Schmoll, „20 Jahre Rechtschreibanarchie“, in: FAZ, August 1,2018, p. 1

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