Arts Arts & Books

How the avant-garde ruined music

The German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting in 1974 (Getty)

Modern composers have been assaulting our ears with inept noise, says Robert R Reilly

Sir Roger Scruton calls the Dutch composer John Borstlap “one of the truly remarkable intellects of our time, a serious and inspired composer”. Such an accolade, coming from one of the rare Renaissance men of our age, immediately arrests attention, particularly since Borstlap is not widely known. On the evidence of Borstlap’s The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century (Dover Publications), it is well-deserved praise. He has written a brilliant, highly literate book that displays an astonishing breadth of culture in all its forms. It not only touches upon classical music but also on all the arts and the deeper questions of Western civilisation. It provides both a diagnosis of our ills and a remedy for them.

The word “revolution” comes from the Latin revolvō, which means to roll back, revolve or return. The classical revolution of which Borstlap writes is a return to music as the high spiritual art it had been before the catastrophic derailment caused by the 20th-century avant-garde.

Anyone who has had to suffer at classical music concerts assaults of noise, usually packaged between pieces of real music, can get their revenge by buying and reading this book. It is certainly one of the most delicious, delectable eviscerations of the musical avant-garde ever written. Borstlap now joins ranks with Roger Scruton as one of the most eloquent expungers of the modern orthodoxy of ugliness.

The book is really an autopsy, because the avant-garde is already dead, although it still displays nervous reflexes, twitching like a snake with its head cut off. Or perhaps more appropriately, it should be compared to the undead – a zombie seeking living flesh, knowing it no longer has any itself, but refusing at the same time to admit that it actually is dead.

Also, zombies, being incapable of speech, can only moan and screech hideously. However, even when not undead, the musical avant-garde could only make those same sounds, so the differences between the living and the undead can be difficult to detect aurally.

Unfortunately, the undead avant-garde can still apply for grants and teach on music faculties, while real zombies can’t. Borstlap provides the horrific details of how the Dutch musical establishment sponsors the undead instead of giving it a decent burial.

Actually, Borstlap is slightly more generous to the avant-garde than I am, though he limns the musical establishment as the “institutionalisation of incompetence”. He is willing to grant “art” status to its sonic events, so long as it doesn’t refer to them as music – for the very good reason that such agglomerations of noise are not comprehensible as music. He is able to explain why this is so since, as a composer, he speaks from inside the belly of the beast. In terms easily accessible to a layman, he eloquently describes how music works – in fact, how it must work in order to be music at all. I should add that his humour and sarcasm are hilarious. John Cage, apostle of noise, was not a composer, writes Borstlap, “he was rather a decomposer”. How I wish I had written that.

But underlying the humour is a cri de coeur. Borstlap has paid a price for not complying with modern musical orthodoxy: neglect. This is why so few have heard of his music.

So, is his book a case of sour grapes? I don’t think so. I am personally acquainted with a number of contemporary composers whose beautiful music has been neglected precisely because it is beautiful. They have been shunned by the musical establishment. Borstlap fits this type. All I can say is that if this man’s music is as good as his writing, I can’t wait to hear more of it. (You can listen to brief samples at johnborstlap.com/audio.)

Finally, we must ask: to what is the “classical revolution” returning? Borstlap answers with one of the most elegant descriptions of the artistic vocation I have encountered: “The beauty we recognise … is not of this world; it is the fingerprint of a sacred presence, a creative force ‘behind’ reality, to remind us of where we came from and to where we, eventually, will go. It is the task of the artist to illuminate, to beautify and ennoble our life experiences, including its pain, so that our inner life stays alive… Beauty keeps the inner connection with our destiny intact.”

He continues: “The experience of masterly music is very close to the experience of real human love: in both, a spiritual factor is at work, confirming the immortality of our inner being.”

As can be seen in these lines, this book itself is a work of beauty. Even if classical music is not your primary field of interest, if you are concerned about what went wrong (in all the arts) and what needs to be rectified, this is the book for you.

Robert R Reilly is the author of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music