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photo William Gedney / New York City / 1966
Galleryphoto William Gedney / New York City / 1966

On Two Sides of the Atlantic / part 1

It would probably be impossible to find many juxtapositions that are as unobvious as presenting together the music of Tigran Mansurian and Elliott Carter. The two composers seem to differ in all respects: their location on the cultural map of the world, their aesthetic approaches, broader outlooks and creative techniques, as well as their audiences and the reception of their works, not to mention the fact of belonging to two different generations. On the one hand, we have one of the undisputable classics of contemporary music, one of the most distinguished and intriguing composers of the past century: Elliot Carter from America. Worshiped in avant-garde music circles on both sides of the Atlantic, his oeuvre has been subjected to numerous detailed analyses and comprehensive theoretical dissertations. There is even a serious musical theory proposed by Allen Forte, built around a method of arranging harmonies developed by Carter. On the other hand, we have the Armenian composer known not only for his stand-alone works but also his film scores: Tigran Mansurian whose music can easily be identified (at least from the Western European perspective) with post- or even anti-avant-garde trends, as well as the new spiritualisation of music (readily attributed to Eastern Europe) or its new association with some not always orthodox forms of religiousness. Carter aficionados may consider Mansurian’s works uninteresting and conservative. They may even accuse them of being kitschy. Mansurian fans may accuse Carter’s music of elitist and exclusive intellectualism, and of the many other things that the avant-garde is routinely blamed for today. This much can be said based on the simplifications that pigeonhole the generally complex landscape of contemporary music. As usual, the reality is more complicated and far more interesting.

We should begin with a story in which neither Carter nor Mansurian are the main characters, but which continues to set down the patterns for such simplifications. In recent years, the story has been told quite often, and it is already well recorded by music historians. Moreover, it is associated with a catchphrase that has already managed to stick: ‘the Cold War in music’. The story begins in postwar Germany, but to understand it, we must go back to the art policies of the Third Reich and of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, or at least, to a specific turning point. To begin with, the totalitarian regimes had a brief affair with avant-garde art (as manifested in Soviet constructivism and in Josef Goebbels’ project) which led to the establishing of a milieu, grouped around the Kunst der Nation magazine, for expressing Nazi nationalism, besides providing for the creative interpretation of works by artists like Barlach or Nolde. The affair stemmed from the utopian belief shared by some artists and politicians that social revolution, be it Bolshevik or National Socialist, must find its expression in equally revolutionary art. Soon after, this was confronted with reality: both regimes needed art as a tool for their respective propagandas and for controlling the masses, and for this purpose, the complex language of the avant-garde was hardly useful. Thus, expressionism and constructivism began to give way to ‘traditional’ art, or more precisely, to simplified creations derived from the latter which had barely anything in common with the actual artistic traditions of Europe. In 1932, in the Soviet Union the place of ‘new art for the new man’ was taken by socialist realism. In the Third Reich Goebbels’ ideas lost the battle to probably the most primitive ‘art philosophy’ to ever exist which originated from the book Kunst und Rasse by Paul Schultze-Naumburg. In both countries the avant-garde became the subject of secret police scrutiny as ‘bourgeois formalism’ or ‘racially degenerate art’. The situation affected music directly. The Munich Degenerate Art Exhibition was followed, a year later, by an exhibit of degenerate music examples in Düsseldorf, whilst in the Soviet Union social realism gradually took control over music too. After 1945, the commonly accepted implication was already obvious: ‘traditional’ art was totalitarian, and only avant-garde art was ‘the art of the free world’. This discrimination was further intensified by the introduction of the Soviet doctrine in the new countries of the emerging Eastern Bloc. The actual complexity of approaches towards totalitarian systems among artists representing both trends was soon forgotten, and the democratic nature of avant-garde art was never undermined by any recollections of the pro-Nazi sympathies of artists like Salvador Dali, Maurice de Vlaminck or Anton Webern. Moreover, these were often unknown: Webern’s correspondence, for example, which shed some light on his stance, was not published until many years after World War II.

For Germany at ‘zero hour’ the matter was relatively obvious. The New Germany had to build its identity by severing ties with its own tradition which, at the time, was accused of building, over the centuries, the foundations of the contemporary disaster. Only the anti-totalitarian power of the avant-gardes could provide a new point of departure. This belief provided the basis for the Summer Courses for New Music organised in Darmstadt. This type of thinking was approved by the Allied occupation authorities, especially the Americans who began to extensively support avant-garde art as part of their project to re-educate Germany. It took about two to three decades to consolidate this approach. Apart from artistic significance, any revisiting of traditional forms, or the ‘betrayal of the avant-garde’ as it was deemed, took on political meaning, whilst the funding of avant-garde art became, in a way, a duty towards democracy imposed upon all the countries of the Western World. Apart from countries like Poland, where the situation became extremely complicated and ceased to fit this kind of framework, ‘the Cold War in music’ thrived until the early 1990s.

Reassuming, the story above is commonly known, albeit not in great detail. Its frequent recounting in the last decade has led to the emergence of a certain cliché. The traditional and autonomous telling of the history of music, being a narrative about sound structures, can be rightly accused of cutting off its way to understanding numerous phenomena by ignoring music’s social, cultural and political dimension. Nonetheless, the new story can be accused of exactly the same: that by reducing musical phenomena to their political function, it is cutting off its way to understanding all its other dimensions. The avant-garde, for instance, was never a homogeneous phenomenon, whilst various forms of avant-garde music competed with one another and fulfilled completely different ideals. To create a simplified story many things have to be ignored. The emergence of American minimalism, which was, in fact, rejected by the classical avant-gardes, can be linked to the democratisation of music which, in the USA, is directed, paradoxically, against the avant-garde. In Poland, Krzysztof Penderecki’s return to traditional forms in the late 1960s was of political significance, and this completely contradicts what the story of ‘the Cold War in music’ says about tradition. Many of the major phenomena in contemporary music cannot be included in this narrative, because they have been motivated by values that are greatly removed from politics. How does one fit in this story the works of, for instance, Olivier Messiaen? ‘The Cold War in music’ did take place, but it does not account for everything, hence it is not surprising that we need to look at the polar opposites of ‘the Cold War’, if only out of curiosity, to ask what became of the aesthetics used by contemporary artists who moved on to work in a different context. To do so, we are choosing (and why should we not?) an American composer who was usually associated with the avant-garde and who became very active after the year 2000, and an Armenian one who is strongly associated with tradition.


Works at the Department of Artistic Culture Research in the Institute of Cultural studies of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He focuses on the problems of theory and history of artistic culture, especially musical culture and methodology. Author of the book Sztuka muzyczna jako dziedzina kultury [The music as a domain of culture].