Orchestras as signposts to the future

Kalevi Aho, 25.9.2008

Opening address at the Nordic Orchestra Conference 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, Nordic Orchestra Conference delegates

The French historian Fernand Braudel once likened intercultural communication and the interplay of historical eras to a symphony orchestra. The era at any particular moment is, he said, like a performance by a large orchestra in which movements of different lengths and changing rhythms unite in an ongoing blend of cultural polyphony. All the instruments play a vital part in achieving this. Only by joining together can they create that particular unique entity, that particular unique present.

The idea of an orchestra as a metaphor for all human aspiration and cultural interaction is indeed enchanting.

We could also describe orchestral playing and good orchestral music as a process of change brought about by complementary opposites. This in turn corresponds directly to the concept of ‘dialogic’ invented by the French sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin. According to him, dialogic, dialogue, is an essential condition for humanism. The encounter of alien ideas and attitudes in the course of dialogue enables us to understand things and phenomena and opens up new lines of thought.

Dialogue between not only our own and the alien culture but also between the present and the past is thus of the utmost importance, for the prospect is then the future.

This being the case, concerts combining, say, familiar and unfamiliar repertoire may show the way forwards by affording new perspectives on the present and thereby paving the way for the future, too.

The idea that orchestral concerts, or indeed any art engaging in dialogue with the past and the present, the familiar and the alien, may serve as the primary spiritual signpost to the future is staggering, to say the least.

This is nevertheless what Severi Parko, Emeritus Professor of the University of Art and Design Helsinki believes. Professor Parko has spoken of the supremacy of art over reality in a number of connections. His central claim is that art primarily moulds our relationship to the world. Art, note: not science, or religion, politics or economics. The artist, he says, creates the symbols, the coats-of-arms and the flags with which we drape our dead heroes. Artists do not only compose stirring marches and hymns of praise; they also paint the nation a picture of its past. There is not really such a thing as the past; all that exists is an interpretation of it, and this is made by an artist. According to Parko, “Art exercises power over reality. Artists channel our emotions. They define our field of vision just as a photographer defines his subject. A thing about which art has nothing to say hardly exists.”

Professor Parko claims that in order to be able to interpret the present convincingly, the artist must be in dialogue with the past. Many artists may nevertheless think it strange to make themselves a part of some history. They may feel that only the here-and-now, what exists at the present moment is important to them. Such an attitude to life is portrayed by the hero in Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer. “My eye, but I’ve been over all that ground – years and years ago. I’ve lived out my melancholy youth. I don’t give a fuck any more what’s behind me, or what’s ahead of me. I’m healthy. Incurably healthy. No sorrows, no regrets. No past, no future. The present is enough for me. Day by day. Today! Le bel aujourd’hui!

Miller’s hero represents the modern human type who thinks history is unnecessary. A similar modern ideal on the whole prevails in the world today, especially in politics and economics, which spare no thought for the past or for history. Natural values, local history, or thought for how places will cope in the future do not often count for much in the maximisation of material benefit.

The modern attitude devoid of history and critically described by Miller is selfish and self-centred; it cares nothing for others. Me and my wellbeing are important right now; nothing else matters. No worries, no regrets, no need to care about or to learn from the past, and let others bother about the future when the time comes.

The fashionable term ‘outsourcing’ might well be used in speaking of the hero in Tropic of Cancer. He has contracted himself out of the past and the future and of everything that does not affect his personal wellbeing. He has contracted himself out of any feeling of compassion and solidarity and numbed himself into a spiritual void. All that remains is the superficial, the material, and once the ability for sensitivity and to appreciate nuances has been lost, only stronger and stronger external stimuli, in Miller’s hero of a sexual nature, can arouse him from his indifference.

In his novel Ignorance Milan Kundera describes the change which listening to music underwent in the course of the 20th century. He writes: “If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music, nowadays it roars everywhere, and all the time “regardless of whether we want to hear it”, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form): sewage-water music in which music is dying.”

Kundera’s view of the future of our narcissist way of life is pessimistic. Yet the future is not without hope, and it is precisely the arts establishments such as orchestras that sustain that hope. Culture, by which I mainly mean here art in its various manifestations, is the central force that all in all holds society together.

The Finnish musician M.A. Numminen once said that “art music and high culture are the alternative culture of modern society. They are the real antithesis to the ubiquitous hegemony of entertainment nowadays impossible to escape even in high culture’s own arenas. Though the Internet is packed with alternatives, they are not concretely able to challenge group entertainment, as concerts that are physically attended in the company of like-minded people. Virtual proximity cannot compare with a live concert.”

A good concert sensitises, teaches us to catch nuances again, opens up the senses and gives meaning to life.

Music, and concerts with well-planned repertoire also help us to appreciate our spiritual place in history and show us the way forwards. And they may help us to understand difference, and promote the peaceful coexistence of different cultures. A beautiful example of this is the orchestra founded in the name of peace in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim the conductor and the Palestinian writer Edward Said, in which young Jews and Arabs aged 13-26 play together as equals. The name they chose for it, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is an allusion to the collection of poetry Westöstliches Divan by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Islamic and European poetry form a synthesis.

Another example of how greatly and how deeply good orchestral music can influence society is the fantastic network of youth orchestras in Venezuela. In the opinion of the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, the most outstanding music may, at its best, have an impact that is nothing short of revolutionary and that is capable of overthrowing regimes and their ideological taboos.

The German philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer stressed that the world must be taken seriously, and that it is our responsibility to do so. The orchestras and other thriving arts establishments are doing their bit in shouldering this responsibility. Which is why I am not worried about the future of the orchestra as an institution, even though both here in Scandinavia and particularly elsewhere classical music to some extent seems to have been trodden underfoot by light music and the entertainment industry and many orchestras are finding themselves in financial straits.

Good orchestral music embodies one of the most magnificent achievements of Western culture. If and when orchestral music vanishes from the scene, then our entire Western culture will probably have come to the end of the line.

With these words, and on behalf of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras, I welcome you all to Tampere and the Nordic Orchestra Conference.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo