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This book is a polemic, a tirade against avant-garde music, modernist music, atonal music, etc. Borstlap himself is a composer of ‘new traditional classical music’ (his violin concerto has won prizes) but the sound of axe-grinding in this book might well qualify as musique concrète. A more balanced discussion of the wonderfully diverse types of music being written this century would have been more attractive. What happened to pluralism? (Borstlap’s use of this very same word in his Chapter 7 heading simply draws attention to his own narrowness.) Relentless polemic, especially when as vitriolic and extended as this one (about 130 pages), is tedious. Calm, clear, reasoned argument is more constructive and persuasive.

To quote from p61: ‘Is it possible, is it conceivable, that so many seemingly intelligent, educated people spend their entire professional lives on a nonsensical subject – sound art as music …?’On p80 Borstlap claims, ‘As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art’, but what he really means is ‘as I have asserted’. Of course, Schoenberg preferred ‘pantonal’, but we know what he meant, whereas Borstlap’s proposed term ‘sonic art’ (appearing as early as his Introduction) is vague and generalised, applicable to any music. If he wishes to be insulting, he should dispense with the word ‘art’ altogether.

Another of the author’s more extravagant contentions is that music which is not organised on the ‘gravity force of tonality’ is ‘not music at all’. On p83 he writes: ‘The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition’. The young, savagely iconoclastic Boulez urged the destruction of musical traditions, but fortunately this is impossible. Equally implausible is Borstlap’s statement: ‘Where modernism is institutionalised, civilisation disintegrates.’ Finally, as an example of the author’s gratuitously offensive manner – ‘[Magnus Lindberg] developed into something like an almost musical Boulez’. This book’s tiresome bigotry, circular arguments, faulty reasoning and question-begging disqualify it from serious attention, let alone recommendation. I suspect that the author’s hectoring attitude is based on resentment at the Dutch government for what he sees as misplaced funding.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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