At the dawn of a new millennium in the year 2000, the son of an old friend of Varèse's published an exhaustive study of the past 500 years of Western cultural life, entitled From Dawn to Decadence. . . . Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian whom I first met through Varèse, was my dean while I was a graduate student at Columbia University, my provost when I started teaching there, and my chairman when I served on the committee evaluating the role of the arts in higher education some thirty years ago. I hold him in high esteem, I value his opinion, and I share with him many of the views expressed in his book.
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Varèse taught us to be rooted in heritage, yet independent in creativity—which can only be achieved through knowledge and discipline. Bartok taught us to learn from legacies beyond our own, but only in the context of their legacies and not ours, and only if those legacies can be transformed into our own.
These quiet voices of wisdom are lost in the din of a frenetic century filled with manifestos and -isms, innovations and inventions, movements and anti-movements, all of which have been re-proclaimed with the prefix of “new.” Not a few are re-advocated by some who have since moved from the so-called non-Western world to the Westernized component of the West. To understand how this kind of frenzy, confusion, and contradiction came about, one would have to read the 800 tightly packed pages of Barzun’s book, in which he depicts the warp and woof of a magnificent tapestry that is, or was, the European Age. We learn of the ever-multiplying number of ideas and institutions sprung from the Western world or borrowed from other lands that not only interact with, but also contradict and nullify each other, eventually leading to the breakdown of order and continuity. . . . The ferment that appeared for over a generation, from the 1950s to the 1970s, is now followed by a period bordering on stagnation, with the rapid rise and fall of trends that are characterized by surface alterations rather than fundamental change. Such pronounced and prolonged upheavals may well signify the breaking down of an established order, in anticipation of the dawn of a new era. . . .
The all-pervasive commercialization of every aspect of the society, including health and the arts, the most personal needs of humanity . . . has led to the inevitable loss of distinction between creative expression and commercial enterprise, between artistic exploration and promotional exploitation.
Today, the Western and Westernized societies appear to have become ever more complex in procedures but simplistic in conception, as we are constantly reminded of on the television screen with its frenetic flipping of images. This duality of complexity of appearance and simplicity in reality results from an accelerating drive for profit-making, a fast-developing technology, and an increasing manipulation of the public. Even in the creative arts, more often than not, profit-making conditions motivation, technology homogenizes the process, and manipulation of consumer tastes assures the acceptability. Creative artists have succumbed to the same mindlessness that underlies television. Creativity has become irrelevant, realization formulaic, and the public brain-washed into acceptance. All-pervasive commercialization is the reincarnation of imperialism, an exact replica of the ruthless expansion of colonialism in the past centuries, except that the victims are now ourselves, and our cultures.
This bleak picture, perhaps worse than that painted by Barzun, is happily only the down side of the scenario. There is a glint of hope on the other side after all: Namely, interactive digital technology and cultural interaction. Almost a century after Varèse began to plead for the innovation of electronic devices for the composer, computer technology does offer possibilities to support the creative mind. A more immediately available advantage is, however, the revolutionary technological capacity for transmission of knowledge and the world-wide sharing of information through the Internet. The Internet, again not by design, can now serve as a bridge for intercultural exchange. This exchange is our real hope for the Global Era.
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[Still] even today, it is . . . taken for granted that Western music is universal, and therefore emulation of the same by other cultures is both natural and expected. This attitude still dominates Western composers, educators, performers, and critics. Worse, this faith in the universality of Western music is widely shared around the world, particularly in East Asia. As I have often observed, Asian composers as a rule are satisfied with emulating the West and reluctant to search for their own roots. On the other hand, they are quick to adopt Asian ideas that have been Westernized by a Cage, Messiaen, or Crumb.
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We have a choice. And we must choose. We can choose to retain our status quo. Of this path, there are two identical precedents in history, one in the West and one in the East, namely the Roman Empire and the Later Han Dynasty, which existed concurrently for centuries. Each continued to expand its territorial possessions and prosper materially. However, each also remained in the shadow of its own glorious past. Both periods eventually ended in chaos that lasted for centuries. Or we—artists, scholars, and educators—can choose to take fate into our own hands and initiate cultural interaction in creativity, research, and education. We can be proactive in stimulating cross-fertilization of cultural legacies. We can foster creativity drawn from diverse roots, not imposed on the conquered by the conqueror, or the consumer by the promoter, but as partners in collaboration.
As I concluded in my speech on the new millennium last year, “then, and only then, will a new era arrive. . . . A new era, not of globalization, but of global partnership.” A new “dawn” of confluence, not decadence, is ours today, if we so choose.