ON TWO SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC / PART 3
Tigran Mansurian was born over three decades after Carter, in 1939, in Beirut. Shortly after World War II, he settled with his parents in their native, then Soviet, Armenia, where he received his musical education in Yerevan. Mansurian was too young to personally experience the second half of the 1940s that was so detrimental to music in the Soviet Union and included the infamous Congress of Composers, the compiling of ‘black lists’ and the degrading of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. If we were to search for the roots of Mansurian’s work, they should be identified as existing not only in the oeuvres of the masters of Soviet music, namely Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, or in the legacy of his native Aram Khachaturian, who had a very bitter experience of Stalinism, but also in Armenian traditional music, as well as in film and even popular music. The identity-related significance that Mansurian’s music seems to display to Armenians, at least when it is listened to in Poland, in addition to his strong affiliation with the film industry, do not contradict his still audible links with tradition that were apparently politically enforced upon former Soviet composers. But obviously, Mansurian is not simply a conservative. His music does not lack in modern techniques, often of avant-garde origin, that are fluently merged with traditional elements, and we have become accustomed to associating such combinations with the polystylism and creative aesthetics of Schnittke, as well as the contemporary works of Sofia Gubaidulina.
If there are any remnants of the Soviet music tradition in Mansurian’s music it is not social realism or a strong attachment to the perception of music not as an autonomous structure but as a medium of interpersonal communication. This type of music is consciously involved in literary and visual contexts, in the complex structure of ethnic, national and state identities, and most of all, in a multitude of relationships with other than musical systems of symbols, i.e. literature, film and religion. When authors sometimes write that composers from the former Soviet Bloc display a certain type of new or recovered spirituality, they are making a simplification by allowing an easy to understand slogan to conceal the great effort of identifying the position of music among the other articulations of human thought – an effort that the revisiting of religion simply does not fully encompass. This is a different form of creative discipline than Carter’s: in his works, Mansurian’s focus is not on the conscious control of structural relationships, but rather, on the equally hard to achieve control over emotion and meaning. One may say that this is a contrast between perceiving music as a beautiful structure and perceiving it as a complex symbol. It is a paradox, from the perspective of ‘the Cold War in music’, that the expressive and communicative approach to music attributed to Soviet social realism, is used by Mansurian to express a view of the world that is, to a great extent, quite the opposite.
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 about musica 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’.