The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hans Werner Henze

In the very fabric of art

In his rejection of practice that prioritises cooperation over competition, Hans Werner Henze conspires with a system he claims to oppose, writes Gordon Downie

Last weekend the music of the German composer Hans Werner Henze was featured in the Barbican’s Total Immersion series, which claims to examine the work of a single composer through performances, discussions and films.

Born in 1926, Henze moved to Italy in 1953, where he joined the Communist Party. His left-leaning political interests are reflected in a number of works, such as his requiem for Che Guevara, ‘The raft of Medusa’. His music is assertively eclectic and highly subjective, incorporating both atonal and tonal harmonic materials in addition to elements drawn from popular culture such as rock and jazz.

The bourgeois press has featured several interviews and articles about the composer. In the articles, Henze makes much of his disdain for the high-modernist avant-garde that arose during the 1950s in continental Europe. He claims that, during the establishment of the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, composers’ music that refused to submit to ideals promulgated by this tendency was censored. However, a brief examination of concert programmes of this period does not necessarily support this claim.[1]

In an interview with music critic Andrew Clarke he makes a now familiar assertion that high-modernist music has been rejected by audiences because it exhibits “no emotions”, and claims that his move to Italy was prompted by a desire to avoid the “strictures of the post-war avant-garde”.[2] Clearly, Henze feels that he has a score to settle with his artistic enemies and competitors, a process to which the current music establishment appears more than willing to offer its assistance. And the current focus upon the composer’s music at the Barbican, in addition to further performances scheduled later in the year, is part of this process of legitimation. But precisely what might he mean by these remarks - criticisms that have been reiterated over many years?

No emotion

What does Henze mean by “emotions”? Firstly, the answer can be found in the reified affective categories that constitute the musico-discursive fabric and focus of not only Henze’s work, but a large body of officially sanctioned and neo-conservative contemporary music production. Such music seeks to establish a high level of identity with its listeners. As I have stated elsewhere, “this is most easily achieved by occupying an aesthetic, cultural and ideological terrain that most closely matches that with which the target is already familiar”[3]. This musical terrain is occupied by the established concert repertoire of canonised, so-called masterpieces, in addition to rock, pop and jazz - all of which is more or less tonal in construction.

By incorporating such materials in their music (even if complexly mediated), composers are able to exploit an infinitely large body of affective categories and inputs that are able to stimulate and guarantee an equally wide range of affective responses and outputs. As Zajonc has observed, subjects express preferences for stimuli based on the frequency with which they encounter them.[4] This is a form of conditioning. Thus, as “tonality forms the dominant aural and acoustic soundscape of both private and social environments, whether as TV advert or Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack, Microsoft Windows earcon, hotel lobby or shopping mall accessory, cell-phone ring-tone or medical centre waiting room anaesthetic”,[5] music is not recognised as such if it does not adopt these norms. In this context, tonality has a strongly integrative function.

Secondly, the answer can be found in the representational and mimetic power of tonality itself, in addition to the archetypal forms to which it is umbilically connected in terms of periodic and symmetric structuring and goal-oriented directionality. These constitute the ideal forms with which to represent the subjective experience of human environments, in terms of arousal, excitation and closure. In many respects, tonality functions in the same way as representation in landscape painting and still life, or narrative in the novel and film.

By ‘emotion’ then, Henze is referring to classes of reified and standardised modes of expression, and the ability of composers to trigger responses in subjects using suitably fabricated materials and cues. This is clearly not a critical perspective. Rather, as Brian Ferneyhough has observed, it is one that submits itself to “immediate purchase in the slave market of emotional exchange”.[6]

Avant-garde strictures

What is it about the programme of post-war aesthetic modernisation that generates such hostility? Artists can be characterised as experts who are frequently unable to access and account for the creative decisions they make. Their practice is frequently informal, and based on heuristic knowledge (or rule of thumb) that is frequently inaccessible, and thus unavailable for rational critique or systematic reflection. This accounts for much of the mystique generated by cultural artefacts, a form of mystification that cultural producers, their publicists and agents exploit in order to benefit from the aura and charisma that it creates.

But much of this hostility has its source in the role that culture is assigned in capitalist society. Its function, forming part of the leisure, heritage and culture industries, is largely diversionary - whether as entertainment, spiritual transcendence, libidinal excitation, surrogate religion, or all four. As I have outlined elsewhere, formalised art is seen to reproduce those features of administration and bureaucratisation from which subjects seek an escape.[7] If a subject’s environment is dominated by bureaucratic, administrative forms of social control and the scientific management of the labour process, we should be unsurprised that subjects do not want to encounter the same control mechanisms in those cultural products they consume in their leisure time.

What then is formalised music? In order to restore creative control over atonal, poorly structured pitch materials, during the 1920s Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern developed serialism, which fixes the order of the 12 notes of the western chromatic scale for an entire composition. In common with developments in the visual arts, some composers and theorists after 1945 began to explore the possibility of extending the organisational and structuring potential of serialism to other parameters of music, such as rhythm and dynamics. This was called integral serialism, or total organisation, to reflect the goal of building a compositional system - and aesthetic - determined by a precisely articulated and interconnected set of organisational principles.

Integral serialism (and related algorithmic procedures) can be viewed as a manifestation of general systems thinking. As it establishes and fixes certain structural relationships at the start of the creative process, it is a form of top-down, functional decomposition, and is a means of breaking down or deconstructing a problem, process or goal into successively more detailed steps.

What advantages does such a working method offer composers? As it allows a systematic and transparent mode of production, the semantic content and signifying capacity of the music can be more precisely determined, the impulsiveness and concomitant inconsistencies associated with spontaneity and opportunism are more easily avoided, and opportunities are generated for creative accountability. By following a deliberate, formally determined process, the aesthetic artefact can be liberated from following inherited paths and routines.

Such routines are overloaded with signifiers and referents that are more or less out of the control of the composer, and some members of the 1950s continental avant-garde, such as Iannis Xenakis, Karel Goeyvaerts, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, claimed they wished to purge music of these inherited categories. And by formalising creative process in this way, an objective knowledge-base of creative method and standards of practice is established that transcends the particularities and limitations of ad hoc, personalised decision-making. In this context, opportunities are created for the collective ownership of materials and associated procedures.

This approach is in sharp contrast to creative behaviour that discards deliberate reflection in favour of more or less immediate commitment, which builds problem solutions from the bottom up. This applies to how most music is composed, and, indeed, how most cultural artefacts are produced - spontaneously, informally and ad hoc. And if formalisation does not eradicate the artist, it certainly transforms the artist. As systems theorist Edward Yourdon asserted, problem-solving processes need to be made “more explicit ... and less implicit and artful”.[8] Within this context then, art is what we call those types of human problem-solving behaviour that are more or less unstructured and display a resistance to formal explication or explanation.

Within capitalist society, the production of aesthetic artefacts is intimately connected to bourgeois notions of freedom of expression, and the licence given to artists is an assertion of this ideal. As Mike Macnair has observed, however, such a notion can be more effectively reconfigured in Marxist terms as freedom of communication.[9] This immediately removes our focus away from the disempowered singularity, or individual, to the more powerful collective, a body predicated on the free exchange of knowledge and information. And it is collective action that forms the basis of the approaches to creative problem-solving described here, a practice in direct opposition to the directive of competition driving capitalist society.

Style police

But the threat of collective action is one of the primary reasons the bourgeois music establishment continues its hostility towards this tendency, despite it having been a short-lived (albeit influential) movement, and despite the small number of works it generated (which are performed rarely). Thus, relating Henze’s encounter with this movement, Tom Service describes it as “the style police of post-war central Europe”.[10]

This is not an inappropriate description, as any dictatorship requires appropriate enforcement. However, Service did not mean to pay any compliments: western European formalism, in all media, has frequently been smeared by association with Stalinoid centralisation and authoritarianism - a wholly erroneous linkage, given that regime’s promotion of a moribund realism. Whether he is aware of it or not, however, Service and his ilk prefer the anarchy of the flexible market, and he appears blind to those ideological forces that function to ensure that all phenomena, artistic or otherwise, conform to it - surveillance takes many different forms. If they do not conform, then desperate attempts are made to remodel them so that they do.

Thus, in a review of a performance of Stockhausen’s early constructivist score, Kreuzspiel, Service claimed that the pianist brought “wit”[11] to the rendition of the music. In effect, Tom Service is claiming that, if the avant-garde refuses to repent, then their music can be reinterpreted, recuperated and repackaged in an attempt to drain it of critical content, so that those critical categories deployed for the simplicities and juvenilities of Haydn can be applied everywhere else - totalitarianism takes many different forms. However, the continued absence of this repertoire from concert programmes illustrates the failure of this process of appropriation.

In such a cultural and political context, the appeal of Henze is thus obvious. Henze displays all those traits of hyper-individualism that conform to bourgeois notions of genius. Everything about the features by Service and Clarke exude the archetypal and now reified characteristics of the bourgeois artist-as-hero music interview - and everything Henze has written functions to ensure its compatibility with the expectations embedded therein. Service notes that he is “standing outside the German composer Hans Werner Henze’s house in Marino, near Rome, looking at his olive grove, an infinity of gnarled branches and leaves that shimmer in the brilliant winter light”, whilst Henze’s living room contains “lavish paintings, a baroque effulgence of fabrics [and] two symmetrically placed Steinway grands”. The interview with Henze, Service remarks, is “punctuated by sips of his favourite cocktail, a mysterious green liqueur”.[12] And Clarke notes that Henze’s home is “an earthly paradise that has been his refuge for nearly 50 years”, that “Henze has long been a man of contradictions”, and “In his various writings Henze makes no secret of the fact that his life has been a yo-yo of hedonism and heartache.”[13]

We should question what any of this colourful prose has to do with Henze’s music. Discursive categories such as these certainly make it easier to sell the product, as they sit comfortably within the pages of weekend supplements that distract bourgeois readerships. However, in this form, such writing is largely indistinguishable from the copy found in the pages of Hello! magazine and similar celebrity fanzines. As such, it functions to reduce creative behaviour to mere autobiography, whereby the source of creative decisions is seen to be those incidents that form the creative subject’s lived experience.


Reminiscing with Tom Service, Henze notes that Adorno considered his music “not chaotic enough - music today has to be chaotic”, to which Henze retorts: “What a thing to say! There you are every day, trying to put something reasonable and clear on paper, and somebody comes and says it is not sufficiently chaotic.”[14]

It is unclear whether Henze understood Adorno’s criticism. In describing his music as insufficiently chaotic, Adorno was asserting that the music was insufficiently negatory. And it is to this that Boulez refers when he asserted that composers were useless if they did not adopt serialism - he was not making a merely colourful, rhetorical aside. Rather he was stating that any cultural producers who fail to fully critique and interrogate the medium within which they work lose control of that medium. By using material uncritically, composers risk becoming vehicles for the transmission of ideologies that are embedded and encapsulated - in a congealed form - in pre-formed, off-the-shelf materials.

Thus, to be truly negatory, opposition has to be built into the very fabric, material and generative procedures of the artwork itself. But in the eclectic nature of his work, in his submission to the cult of personality, and in his rejection of practice that prioritises cooperation over competition, Henze conspires with an economic and political system - capitalism - which he otherwise claims to oppose[15]


  1. See

  2. Financial Times January 8.

  3. G Downie, ‘Cultural production as self-surveillance: making the right impression’, in Perspectives of New Music Vol 46, No1, p201.

  4. RB Zajonc, ‘Attitudinal effects of mere exposure’, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 9, No2, supplement, June 1968, pp10-27.

  5. G Downie, ‘Cultural production as self-surveillance: making the right impression’, in Perspectives of New Music Vol 46, No1, p201.

  6. Personal correspondence, February 10 1994.

  7. G Downie, ‘Aesthetic necrophilia: reification, new music and the commodification of affectivity’, in C-S Mahnkopf (ed) Critical Composition Today Hofheim 2006.

  8. E Yourdon and LL Constantine Structured design New Jersey 1979.

  9. M Macnair, ‘Marxism and freedom of communication’, Critique conference, London School of Economics, March 2009.

  10. The Guardian December 14 2009.

  11. The Guardian September 8 2000.

  12. The Guardian December 14 2009.

  13. Financial Times January 8.

  14. The Guardian December 14 2009.

  15. It is the case, of course, that many composers of the post-1945 avant-garde also submitted to the excesses associated with the cult of personality. This is certainly the case for Stockhausen (as the Maoist, Cornelius Cardew, attempted to show) and Boulez, though it developed later in their careers after they abandoned their commitment to a more or less strict formalism. By his own, more youthful standards of analysis, Boulez is now useless.

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