To start with, I should like to offer appropriately emphatic thanks for the honour that has been accorded me here today. It is clear that the 40th anniversary of the Praemium Erasmianum that is being celebrated this year gives cause for joy and contentment at what it has achieved. It surely cannot be easy to make decisions every year which end in the selection of an elect. In every discipline there are – and always have been – plenty of candidates worthy of such a distinction. This in itself is enough to turn the actual choice, too, into a manifold test of the jurors for the Cultural and Science Prizes.
By what just and objective criteria should one be guided? Can one really have a view of things that is so objective as to always, completely rule out any kind of arbitrary element? Both these questions are extraordinarily hard to answer, since they ultimately depend on Lady Justitia to lend a hand. This young-looking woman, with her perfectly calibrated scales in front of her, is pestered daily to ensure that at every moment, every step in a procedure is honorable and untainted – and this at every instant throughout the world. In many pictorial representations, the lady even has an additional black or white blindfold over her eyes, in order to prevent the weight of Justitia’s gaze from imperceptibly influencing the slant of her nowadays rather old-fashioned scales.
And anyway, this picture reminds me of those adventure stories in which the kidnapped central character, being carried off by bandits to some secret hiding place, manages to recognise the colour of the ground despite being blindfolded, because he can open his eyes just a tiny bit..
Why should I make any secret of what it is that particularly delights me in being awarded the Erasmus Prize? The important 2nd paragraph of the statutes reads: “… the honour should be given to persons or institutions who have managed to make an exceptional contribution to European culture”. Now, I’ve only been living in Europe for forty years, and like today’s second happy prize-winner, I was not born on this continent but, in my case, in distant South America.
It is strange and remarkable that the three aspects which perhaps shape personal identity the most – place of birth, family, and religious community – are ones which the person involved is scarcely in a position to influence. He is born by chance in some part of the Earth, within a family, and provided with a religious adherence that he has no means of choosing. It could be that the endemically repeated and epidemically widespread unease that creates problems of identity is closely tied to this unacknowledged, unresearched side-issue in the structure of personality. At any rate, it seems as though this question of identity, which torments whole peoples, and makes an infinite number of people unhappy, more so today than ever, is a historical inheritance of geopolitical origin. Happy people and happy peoples are obviously ones with no problems of identity.
I have often demanded that composers should write forthright music, without regard for passing fashions, current trends, clichés or market pressures, however great or small these may be. It may seem almost extravagant for me to use the word ‘forthright’ in relation to music. But I mean this in the truest sense of the word and … forthrightly.
When there is talk about ‘the conscience of the nation’, the reference is normally to authors, not to composers. Even when a literary man transforms reality into fiction, or fiction into reality, one expects him to show forthrightness, as a basic orientation towards a society that not only tolerates substitutes for truth, but constantly gives them political legitimacy. But what one expects of composers is not ‘truth’, but merely music which one can perhaps listen to twice, or, under especially favourable circumstances, for a third and final time.
So why am I speaking here, in the context of a “contribution to European culture”, about forthright music? Probably because this has been one of the essential aspects of my work as a composer ever since the beginning, and especially since my voluntary exile in Europe. Though it is almost impossible to measure the ‘truth content’ of a composition, surmises about its forthrightness are quite conceivable. Every piece of great music from the past is an event – both an exemplar and a point of reference – because music that moves us is instilled with a quantum of emotion that can only be forthright and true. It only because of this that we as listeners can constantly harvest the same emotion.
Would Erasmus of Rotterdam, were he alive today, have given an award to my music? Assuredly not. Too many of my pieces would have been rejected by him as ‘musica mundana’. Would he have had something to say about the curious genre designated by the malleable, vague concept of ‘New Music’? Oh, yes indeed! In extenso.
The surviving opinions of Erasmus concerning music are firm, fundamental, rationalised, and all-embracing. Even though his understanding of music is placed exclusively at the service of theological study, the wealth of definitions and the scope of discussion are astonishing. And, as with every theory that arises from immediate experience, there is enough stuff of timeless significance to ensure further reflection.
For example, Erasmus’s notion that “that the first mistake made on an instrument may be ascribed to chance, but its repetitions only to ignorance” is one that has been part of my professional practice all my life. Erasmus goes on to say that such mistakes might be based on “lack of talent, or lack of practice”. Here he has left the Garden of Eden where forgiveness reigns, to take an astute look at the more down-to-earth musical praxis on this side of the divide. For my part, I have decided never to question the talent of a musician, but I have probably given him the stimulus to practise practice more frequently.
The composer’s most wonderful, perfect performances, free from every flaw, pressure and time shortage, are the ones he hears first of all in his head. In this most inimate of spaces (albeit a hard one to define), that is recreated every time in response to desire and imagination, pieces of music effortlessly achieve their ideal realisation on instruments which are untouched by human hands. These are unnecessary here, since the bodywork of the instrument is dematerialised: it has changed into a carcass. The only shaping force here is the spirit of the music, its very essence. In this inner world, where the parts sound silently and yet can be heard, all the executants are so faithful to the text that the idea of interpretation ceases to have any significance whatsoever. Here too, perhaps, lies the core of all virtuality. And where no explanation is required, the need to have ideas on interpretation and details, or to wonder about them, simply disappears. What a utopia!
From the beginning of calculated time, whose origins are still obscure, it seems that most things have turned out to be contradictory, unclear, and ambiguous, and thus were in urgent need of explanation and the gaze of investigation. The state of the world we live in provides daily evidence of this. It is precisely the unaesthetic reality of this incomplete world, a work-in-progress par excellence – in ‘progress’?! – that runs contrary to our longing for a more intensely experienced, more pleasant aesthetic. Every war, every catastrophic famine, every epidemic illness, every natural disaster that humans have to endure can count on the sympathy of cosmopolitan fellow citizens. Can music help as well? Allow me to quote a Chinese Erasmus, the poet Mo-dsi:
“The fact that the people practise music has four disadvantages:
the hungry are not fed,
the frozen are not warmed,
the homeless have no lodging,
and the desperate find consolation.”
As a whole, composers are believers, because primarily they produce something whose main foundation is a belief in the absolute necessity of their contribution. One might rightly object here that ‘belief’ is normally taken to mean something quite different. But relationships are always more complicated than we believe. For example, it was not the human voice that Erasmus took to symbolise Christan faith, but instruments. I suspect that this may go back to his painful experiences as a choirboy in Utrecht Cathedral. My own experiernces as an occasional choirboy were not dissimilar, though they happened in a different place.
Every aesthetic can help to bring about perfection, but none of them can prevent the postulates of a contrary aesthetic from taking shape. This is historically just, and permits constant further development. One of the exquisite things about the composer’s profession is that, in contrast to the scientist, nothing – absolutely nothing – has to be proved. One writes pieces which are only meant to guarantee the intensity of the experience of listening, and when they do this, they may offer fresh evidence of the mysterious capacity of music to communicate in a way which is both direct and ambiguous. Musical expression is fundamentally unfathomable. Music is not a language, but it possesses many attributes which also typify the written word and lucid spoken language. And when Simon Upton remarked recently that since the 12th century “the only powerful common currency that Europe has produced is music”, it made me proud to belong to a fraternity that has achieved such a collective contribution, crossing all natural and unnatural. provincial and national boundaries, without having to manufacture the ballast of a common aesthetic platform. A generally valid theory of music, constantly enriched by new knowledge, and not subject to parties or factions, remains the only valid basis for composers and interpreters to reach an understanding. It’s strange: the main difference between composers is their degree of conservatism. This is one of the remarkable characteristics of that battallion-sized group of composers of new music which was known until a few years ago as the ‘avant-garde’, and which I too was ranked among. They all bore the seeds of an organically operative conservatism, which didn’t even need to assert itself in virulent form because it gradually became part of an age-old basic consensus in European culture. One might call it the Zeitgeist of the eternal return, or compare it with the steps in a labyrinthine, distorted-perspective drawing by Maurits Escher. Sometimes the steps lead forward, but they often end in a cul-de-sac. So one switches one’s eyes into reverse, and sets off optimistically in another direction.
Musical composition today has a gratifying diversity. There is a considerable number of tributary streams, and the water that flows along them doesn’t have to end up in an overly forceful main river. That is why the question of “where to go next” is irrelevant to me. Likewise the question of whether one is going forwards with one’s back turned, or marking time for a while, albeit with aplomb, on the same spot.
Good music can be compared to good wine: if it is worth keeping, it will eventually become part of the “reserve”. Composition rests primarily – as it always did – on voluntary compulsion. One writes music because one has to, from inner necessity, and if this actually happens under difficult circumstances, if one is composing ‘despite everything’, I am certain that listeners and musicians can detect this express necessity. Even though, today, there are many new ways of feeling and forming, and though the invention of music rests any number of recent procedures, thought processes and materials, the connection between the composer and interpreter, and the listener too, has changed relatively little: it is still always the composers who need the audience, and not the other way around.
A century of unparalleled experiences is coming to an end. Musically, a block of time that will preoccupy future generations just as much as the 19th century still does. Nevertheless, I am metaphysically predisposed to this side; I do not want to venture any surmises or predictions about the future of music, an uncertain future that reminds me of speculation about the existence or non-existence of the Beyond. For me, the music of tomorrow that I shall not hear is already music of the Beyond.
November 1998 (translated from German by Richard Toop)