We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings,
we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on the website. Learn more about out privacy policy



What lesson can we learn tonight from listening to the juxtaposed works of Tigran Mansurian and Elliott Carter? It is not my intention to suggest what the audience should think, but I can tell you about the lesson I have learnt. The conflict between thinking about music as a pure structure and as a means of communication predates the Cold War. Nonetheless, it is not ageless, and such a juxtaposition would not have been made by Bach or even Beethoven. It did, indeed, emerge in the sixteenth century, in polemics aboutmusica antica and musica moderna, but was not fully expressed until the nineteenth century. Since then, it has made an impact on everything we say and write about music. Not really adequate in relation to nineteenth-century music (is anyone capable of drawing a division line between expression and form in, for instance, the works of Brahms?), it has served to articulate artistic stances in the twentieth century. This was when it was appropriated by Cold War politics. One can say that the Cold War radicalised and stiffened the positions that developed initially in the real dispute about art, and that it transformed them into political items. The Cold War, at least in art, seems to be a thing of the past, but the opposing aesthetics continue. What is more, they are dragging behind them a political baggage and meanings from several decades ago, as well as long-standing conflict, from which they are slowly beginning to recover. Despite what the juxtaposing of the Armenian and American composers might suggest, the division line between them has long ago ceased to be tantamount to the Iron Curtain, and obviously, a different choice of composers could have been made to exemplify how the structural approach to music still thrives in the former Eastern Bloc (where it never really disappeared), and how the symbolic approach is doing in the West (where it has always been guarded by composers like Messiaen). It may be that we will finally retrieve the aesthetical and artistic sense of the conflict which, in the meantime, has been obscured by political involvement, and which continues to appear to us as a real problem. Contemporary musicology is still involved in this dispute and has split into two conflicting positions: an autonomist one and one which emphasises the issues of meaning in music. Contemporary art theory, branded with the new, at some point, issue of art and authority, cannot escape this vicious circle and far too often continues to reduce the dispute about art into a dispute about politics. We may only hope that the incapacity displayed by art theory does not signify the incapacity of art itself.

To Elliott Carter fans listening tonight to Tigran Mansurian and to Mansurian fans listening to Carter I can only dedicate a well-known phrase from popular music: ‘listen without prejudice’.