Ron Horner – 1st Interview. Questions and Answers – 2017

An exploration of your interpretation of “neo-tonality.” You describe a differentiation from the “Pop” influences of Ethnic/New-Age/Minimalism. How do you see the latter as fitting into this discussion, as well as how (and to what degree) the latter influences your approach to composition?

The “pop influences of ethnic/new-age/minimalism” in my music are marginal. Years ago, I used repetitive patterns and rhythms to fill in the harmonies similarly to the Alberti Bass and its variations from the 18th century onwards. One achieves a different sound when rhythms of quintuplets are superimposed on triplets and other rhythms, with rests in between. However, I have never employed avant-garde complex rhythms. Everything is performable and nothing is abstruse. I now hardly use these techniques, but years ago it seemed necessary to me to introduce something ‘new’ in what was considered a more ‘traditional’ style. It was only due to youthful insecurity and lack of confidence. Now I compose absorbing and retransforming whatever I feel is necessary for my musical ideas. In fact, I don’t like Ethnic/New-Age/Minimalist music, though it can ‘sound’ appealing. I find minimalistic works boring and even tiresome, since it often goes on and on and musically nowhere. I consider it background music for musically ignorant people as there is no profound content in it. This is because Minimalism is considered a language as well as a technique. Since it is not refined and does not provide the means to compose a work with a deeper significance, even the individual styles of the composers who call themselves Minimalists are hampered by it. I don’t understand why a composer would want to use minimalism as a language, unless he or she really has nothing to say.

In your mind, how would you differentiate between what you describe as “neo-tonality” and what some composers describe as “expanded tonality?” If there is a difference, how so? Examples of each?

’Expanded tonality’ is an old concept represented by composers such as Wagner, Skryabin and Zemlinsky. The notes of the chords are expanded chromatically, thus the music tends to be uprooted from tonality until the composer decides to return to it. For example, a composer who tends to expand too much and mislead the listener as to where the music is going is Reger. It almost seems he composes as though it were a game.

’Neo-tonality’ is a term used nowadays by many composers who keep their roots in tonality but are influenced by many other musical styles. The question is just how these styles are manifested in the music or, better, are absorbed subconsciously by the composer who has made them his or her own in independent creative compositions. Again, these components of music must not be artificially introduced into a composition. It is the undefinable quality of the musical ideas that define a work of Art.

To me, what you describe as neo-tonality is something with which the listener forges an innate connection. There is a familiarity about the sounds that promotes a comfort level and an understanding that does not require explanation. Your thoughts?

Yes, exactly. Good music must seem definable and indefinable at the same time. Minimalistic music is always just definable and strangely enough, so is Avant-garde music. One can understand perfectly well how a piece is constructed and the sound it produces and…that’s it! There is nothing else on a deeper spiritual level. If a gifted composer’s music is based on tonality, it stands a better chance of a deeper meaning. I believe that Tonality has become part of our DNA since it is well known that even babies in the womb react happily to it and unhappily to dissonant sound.

My music is still rooted to the tradition of form and content. The old diatribe regarding which is the most important has long been forgotten, when one realises that in good music one cannot exist without the other. The same goes for orchestration and musical content. They should be composed together, and the musical idea should be one and not divisible. Musical analysis as taught nowadays is absurd and damaging for students, above all in composition, since it cancels their imagination and instincts. If a student is obliged to analyse too much in detail he/she loses the capacity of understanding the meaning of the work as a whole. For decades some teachers have obliged students to analyse too thoroughly the details of works. Instead, these details are just subconscious and obvious for sensitive musicians who would bypass and take them for granted and then would focus on a different sort of analysis, i.e. quite the opposite, actually more like synthesis. Focusing on the details of the foreground of music doesn’t make you understand the background, the real meaning of the music. Understanding the background, synthesising, is hardly possible to describe in words. It is a subconscious mutual, and furthermore often mute, understanding and it implies that one must know Music inside out to be able to understand it in such a way. When I took lessons with my former teacher and mentor Hans Keller or when I listen to music with my husband, we don’t need words to understand the same thing. 

Again, it is the indefinable quality of the musical ideas that define a work of Art. Hence what was absorbed subconsciously and retransformed by this kind of composer is more easily understood and appreciated by the listener, especially a cultured listener.

You have used the term “new humanism.” In your own words, how would you define this? Is there anything with which it can be compared (i.e., “old” humanism, or simply “humanism”). Are there others who write, paint, sculpt, design, or compose from this mindset? From your perspective, why is this approach desirable?

First of all, for me, a work of Art, whether it be a painting, sculpture, poem, novel or symphony must express the Artist’s inner spiritual emotions and thoughts. All kinds of artistic expressions, i.e. the different Arts, are types of languages. Through their techniques, which must be means and not ends in themselves, one may understand what the Artist (hopefully with a capital A) is saying. I believe that each one of us is actually born with the capacity of minimally understanding these languages but needs tuition to understand better.  If my parents had not taken me through museums while still in their arms, and later if my father and I hadn’t exchanged ideas about works of Art, if I hadn’t had an excellent Australian teacher of Literature, if I hadn’t had two technically outstanding Italian teachers of harmony, counterpoint, forms and orchestration and, above all, an extraordinary Anglo/Austrian teacher of Composition, Prof.  Hans Keller, I would not be able to distinguish and appreciate the Arts both singularly and as an entire world. However, I believe that Artists of the past who later emerged as great Artists lived in conditions that allowed them to absorb all the great Arts in this same way since they worked for Popes, princes, dukes. Nowadays, fortunately, everyone has access to the various Arts, also through the internet, but very few persons actually feel the necessity of making them part of their lives. My hope is that there may be an era one day that will get rid of the massification there is nowadays. I hope there will be Artists with the courage and the artistic and spiritual capacities to create real, profound Art and thus an era of ‘New Humanism’. For me, neither the 70-year-old period of avant-garde music nor its co-existing period of ethnic/new-age/minimalism music, have created any work of Art that I know of. Tonal music, or music with one or more tonal centres, has always been present for centuries in the western world, and now even the eastern world is inserting tonality in its ethnic music, but personally, I don’t think this works because tonality is never the main language. I believe that tonality is part of our natural instinctive understanding and that those born in the western world are born with a particular instinctive tendency to understand it without having studied its language. Many people in all the Arts are returning to a humanistic approach. There is also a tendency to return to figurative painting over abstract.  I personally know an Italian excellent painter, Giovanni Gasparro, in his mid-thirties, who paints portraits, both religious and not. We have a world in common and, though we live 900 km. apart, we write continuously about our experiences. It is a wonderful epistolary.

I feel the spiritual necessity of being near to real Art in whatever form because Art always has a humanistic and humane content, i.e. a profound spiritual expression that transpires from it.

You mention that your great-grandfather contributed to your interest in music. Do you believe that you were genetically inclined to pursue a musical vocation? Were there artistic “family influences” similar to the Mendelssohn family? (Of course, family influences there prevented Fanny from giving free rein to her talents!) Like Richard Wagner and stepfather Ludwig Geyer? (In that instance, an artistic home certainly contributed to Wagner’s creativity and innovation!)

Yes, I believe that I am genetically inclined to compose tonally. Even before having taken a single music lesson, I started composing at the age of 4 years and 8 months on my grandmother’s piano. My mother played a little and I imitated her and the Classical music I heard at home till I started with piano lessons at 5 and imitated my teacher. My grandmother was a pianist with a diploma and lived in England, but above all my great-grandfather was an exceptional violin virtuoso, leader of the Opera House in Genova and curator of Paganini’s violin which he played every year. There were a few other musically minded persons in my family, including my mother. My father loved Classical music very much, but he started out as a writer of short stories and novels, then a businessman, and eventually an intellectual and historian, an extremely cultured person. He had an enormous influence on my understanding of the aesthetics of the Arts and we listened to all sorts of Classical music together from the time I was born (he used me as a hot water bottle at first). An aunt was a painter, and an uncle is a sculptor with whom I continue having very inspiring talks. I have also had the enormous luck of marrying an exceptional Musician, thinker, and, last but not least, Conductor. Contrary to Fanny Mendelssohn, I was stimulated and helped by everyone to do what I loved. Despite the rage provoked in me by various cases of injustice from my Avant-garde colleagues at the Milan Conservatory, this situation has urged me to go on fighting for what I believe in and continue composing as I feel.

It seems that you were encouraged to be an individualist – to follow your unique path and remain true to yourself. In that regard, I do see a similarity to (and possible parallels with) Wagner. Comments?

Yes, though I don’t know much about Wagner’s early life and I could hardly compare myself to him and all the others mentioned in this article. Both my mother and my father were individualists in different ways.

My mother was a very independent woman at heart, used to living and traveling alone (and she taught me to be so, too). In her early twenties during WWII, she passed four most interesting and influential years at Bletchley Park, the secret codebreaking centre North of London where, amongst others, worked the famous Alan Turing. She worked as a linguist and analyst there and at the end of the war in Europe studied Japanese and Japanese signals until the War ended with Japan. She then went to the British Embassy in Rome for a year in the visa section and to the Consulate in Milan till she married my father in 1949. From then on, she became an exemplary wife and mother, helping my father with his books and giving me as much freedom as possible from housework.

After initially writing Literature, my father became a worldwide expert in Horology much respected by museum curators and directors around the world.

I was extremely lucky to have been born and lived under the influence of such parents and now with my husband who has great esteem for my music and, like my parents, gives me all the independence I need.

I appreciate the connections you mention to the visual arts. In the visual arts (and I sense in your music), there is most often an immediate connection without a need for explanation or “translation” to promote understanding. To me, that is the way you compose. Perhaps the influences of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk?

No, I do not have a global and cyclical view of my compositions like Wagner. My works have all been created when I was particularly inspired by a literary character, story, or classically abstract form such as a sonata or symphony. I have never wanted to write an opera and never will. I am more symphonically minded, both with free forms (symphonic poems) and closed forms (symphonies). My Second Symphony will soon be recorded by Naxos in Vol. 4 of my works for orchestra. When composing works with free forms inspired by literary characters or stories, I try to immerse myself deeply in the subject and let my imagination flow freely. In the beginning, it is difficult, but once started I just carry on relatively easily, and sometimes, I can imagine the ending when I am maybe only one-third through the composition. By this, I don’t mean the actual notes, even though there obviously may be repetitions or varied repetitions of themes, but I can understand and feel what actual kind of ‘vision’ I will need to finish the work and what kind of ‘ending’ it shall have.

You mention that you are more interested in the “soul” and “human emotions” rather than “situations” and “places.” If I am understanding you correctly (and I am rather confident that I do), your interest lies in humanity, and it is this interest that is at the core of your “new humanism” referenced above.

Yes, I call it spirit or soul. As I said, human emotions are the quintessential essence of the Arts. Without them, there is no Artistic expression. One of my former Italian teachers, though very good in orchestration, once told me that music in those times was supposed to be composed without human emotions. It was in the late Seventies at the height of the Avant-garde domination. I remained silent and thought how terrible everything was. I have remained silent for decades but have carried on composing the way I wished. I now feel I can speak more freely because many more people are beginning to have the courage to speak and compose with a tonal basis trying to express their emotions. At very high levels, the spirit or soul expresses itself through human emotions. However, to put human emotions in a work of Art is very difficult and though there may be lots of very well-written, pleasant, or sentimental works, there are very few composers who have reached the highest levels in the 20th century and none that I know of in the last 40 years. Most likely there are currently unknown composers who deserve to be discovered in this dreadfully fierce jungle of composers who relentlessly struggle for recognition (if not fame, power, and money) and therefore follow fashions and do what they are told to do by their teachers and publishers. The inflation of composers and pseudo-Artists of all sorts after the War has been a tremendous hindrance to the recognition of true Artists. It is very difficult to find a needle in a haystack. Furthermore, publishers great and small have accepted enormous quantities of Avant-garde composers’ works throughout the postwar period. Now, stuck with them, they are obliged to impose them on orchestras, operas, and institutions of all sorts. This is a profitable relationship for all those involved however it is the public, private sponsors, and above all the government that pays for it. In the end, we all pay for it whether we like it or not. Moreover, I think that the big problem is that at the head of important publishers there are business managers instead of musicians, or at least persons who know music well.

If an Artist does not express and transform human emotions in a work, he or she has not created a work of Art ‘with a capital A’ in the true sense of the word. This was always done till the 20th century when, with the breaking up of all the components of works through exaggerated Analysis, the inexplicable quintessence of real Art was lost, except for the works of a handful of composers like Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Walton, Barber, Poulenc, Respighi, Britten, Copland…

It seems that, to you, your music is quintessentially Romantic in that it is genuine personal expression. You mention “my character,” “particular moments in my life…” The extra-musical content and connections you share with your listeners provide opportunities to relate to your music. Even if audiences do not bring the correct meanings to the experience, you provide them with a chance to project a meaning onto the musical experience.

My music is definitely Romantic. However, I believe that all music is Romantic, even Baroque, even Classical, and all music with artistic value is Classical. Yes, I like writing about myself, (much more than talking about myself!). Somehow, I have always written down my ideas and a diary. Thus, it comes naturally to me to tell the reader or the listener what I mean by, and what inspired, my compositions. I also believe that every one of us perceives music in a different way but as regards my compositions, this does not bother me because underneath the literary idea lies the musical idea and I never give any explanation about that. A musician can understand perfectly well what I’m saying musically and where I derive my inspiration. Non-musicians will just listen and understand the music, each one according to his or her own possibilities and culture. I do not write for any kind of public. I write from a personal necessity, knowing that there are particular people who understand me and a wider public who could understand me if I had a good publisher to promote my work.

You state your resistance to “analytical” responses to your music. You suggest that an involved (perhaps an emotional) response is preferable. In this age of hyper-sensitivity, I applaud your intellectual and artistic integrity, in that you are not composing politically correct “diplomatic” music that, in its attempt to please everyone, has not a shred of honesty about it!

I have to admit that I feel exactly as you have described me and am very grateful for your sincerity and your words of recognition for my efforts to be true to myself. For decades people, whether or not musicians, have backed and applauded music more or less from Schoenberg onwards because they thought it was a natural historical consequence and the right thing to do. I see this historical period as the medieval ‘dark ages’ of music. Even today this goes on, but less. You say that this “diplomatic” attempt tried to please everyone? I know many people who had professed their belief in the Avant-garde but have now confessed that they actually hate the music of these decades. However, only a few people know the real historical reasons as described by Frances Stonor Saunders in “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.”  Avant-garde music was invented in the States as a contraposition to the ‘very tonal’ music in Russia after WWII. Politically correct “diplomatic” music has menaced the whole western world and isolated people who did not back it. I have been and am still totally isolated in Italy. Furthermore, in the Milan Conservatory, my pupils have been and still are treated unjustly by my colleagues who are mostly Avant-garde and detain the power to do as they please, brainwashing and overpowering the pupils and their weaker colleagues. These composers are mainly published and promoted by Ricordi which holds the power in Italy and the world for Italian contemporary music. They publish composers of this kind and Minimalistic music, excluding that of lone wolves like myself. I was told in the early nineties by the publishing manager who was, like many others, ideologically conditioned by the political times, that they weren’t interested in my music and, when I asked whether I could return in the future, the reply was a blunt, “no”.

I see you as creating music as expression, not as merely a technical exercise. A comparison to the Romantic philosophical mindset, as opposed to the rational content that dominated the Enlightenment, would seem to be appropriate. Would you care to share any thoughts along those lines with the readers?

Yes, I totally agree. However, I have been very lucky to have had a state job that has allowed me to be financially free from having to accept commissions at all costs, as happened not only in the Age of Enlightenment but also in other ages. In my life, I have been able to accept only commissions that interested me. I have only composed what I felt like composing and put it into the drawer. My father taught me to write for the drawer. In 1988, I was 34 and had just finished composing Nittemero Symphony for chamber orchestra. By then I had understood that I was cut off from the musical world and decided from then onwards to compose exclusively for orchestra, my favourite medium, that allowed me to express my thoughts fully. In those times, composers were writing extensive pieces for a solo instrument (mainly flute) which were very boring if not nerve-racking. Even now, to pass to the second year of a composition Master course, one has to write for a solo instrument just to demonstrate one’s technical abilities with contemporary techniques. It is the most absurd and anti-musical exam at a superior level in musical history, actually the most absurd exam at whatever course of composition if thought of only as a work of technical prowess! As I said before, the act of composing is a unique artistic effort in which technique is only a means and not an end.

You have a sentence at the end of your “Musical Afterthoughts” page in which you ask: “Where has the true spiritual involvement of the genuine Artist gone?” Where indeed! Although you might have posed this as a rhetorical question, I would be interested to know your personal thoughts about the answer. I would suggest that it is the hyper-sensitized society in which we live. Societal pressures cause all of us to self-censure our expressions to eliminate the possibility that anyone might be offended by what we say – or even worse – that they might not like our work. It takes a courageous individual to actually say what is on their mind.

No, it was not a rhetorical question! It was a cry of despair! In moments of despondency, I think of the possibility of a future without true Art; of the existence of a future world society in which the Arts have gradually disappeared and have been replaced by trash computer music, ‘virtual’ paintings and sculptures just for decoration, comic books with a minimum of fundamental words catering to illiteracy, and who knows what other terribly degrading ways of enjoyment. “Panem et circenses”! This is also because of the continuous immigration of different cultures, furthermore against our classical Western culture. Will there be people who will feel the necessity for true Art though not being artists themselves? Will there be a public for elite Art? Our political classes are completely ignorant and uninterested and do not care about this kind of elite public. What will the future be like? And these are not rhetorical questions either. The future is rapidly changing, and I have a feeling that in a not-too-distant future this will not be a good thing at all. The sensibilities and feelings of real Artists will gradually disappear if there is no fertile ground to nurture them; no financial sustainment for culture and for elite schooling, for yes, all the Arts could possibly be thought of as unnecessary (since considered elite subjects). Massification at its maximum! Orwell’s 1984 come true!

How does one “classify” today’s music? Can it be classified? Does it need to be? You suggest an interesting question. What constitutes a “masterwork,” given the limited perspective from which we experience the composition? Should it be compared to the great masterworks that have preceded it? Is that fair? Is that not like (as we say here in the States) comparing apples to oranges? If we accept the premise that music (as all art) is communication, must we not consider not only what the creator (composer) is attempting to say, but also the context (given societal concerns, etc.) in which the statement is made? It appears that your position is that the period in which we live will shape our perception of the art to which we are exposed. Should it? Is that fair to the expression of the artist? Like all other fashions, art (in all its component forms) changes over time.

But not everyone is a real ‘Artist’ with a capital A‼ Lots of people just dabble in art and think of themselves as artists. As I said before, we live in a very confusing, heterogenous era (above I used the word jungle) and I personally consider it a period of the darkest Middle Ages. I have called the two main languages “Avant-garde” and “Tonal”. I actually don’t know how it would be possible to give generic names to the enormous quantity of derivations, superimpositions, and variations of styles that have appeared during the last decades from these two basic languages. One cannot even call contemporary music derived from “Avant-garde” by this name because it has evolved so much, nor music that has a tonal basis “Tonal”, because there is an infinite number of ways of using tonality, apart from those composers who actually scholastically copy styles from the past and say that this is their way of composing. Unbelievably, there are pseudo-composers who write beautiful pieces in a particular style of the past, without putting anything personal, or historically new, in their work. I feel I cannot predict the short-term future as I have done with the far, though this has been an extreme projection of my desolate thoughts. The present state of all contemporary music is in such chaos that it is not sufficient to say there is also ethnic, new-age, and minimalistic music, as it does not comprise everything. In the past, stylistic periods of the tonal centuries were labeled with such words as Baroque, Classical or Romantic, etc., and great composers, apart from having that quintessence of greatness explained above, also had a very personal and musical character that distinguished them from their own contemporaries.  I really do not know how to label the period we are living in and at the moment I feel very negative about it. Usually, historians have given labels to all the periods of history and this is not a bad thing as it makes history clearer and easier to understand and study. If I had to give a label to this recent past and present historical period, I would call it the “Second Middle Ages”. I can’t guess when it will end. It seems to be protracting all the time. It very much depends on international political and financial forces which guide publishers and agencies to whatever they are supposed to do.  From an international perspective, the times are bad enough to lead me to think that the Arts will not be given much thought in the future.

Once, during a lesson with Hans Keller in London he told me that, in a composition, even a short passage or modulation had to have the same quality as the rest of the composition. Furthermore, he told me I should listen and look at masterworks and not at minor works from which I would feel and learn nothing. Even in this chaotic world, a new masterwork should only be recognized by someone who has a certain sensibility, understanding, and also knowledge of what are the “recognized” works of Art in history. In the beginning, when one hears a new work, it is usually difficult to understand whether it is a masterwork and time has to pass so as to put it in the right historical perspective to be able to judge it well. Yes, it should be compared to the great masterworks that have preceded it. But if, in a particular historical period there aren’t any (for example during the last 40 years) this becomes very arduous. Masterworks in the past I have all had in common that projection of the soul, those human emotions, that we instinctively recognize. Where does one allocate all those works which lack those qualities? Only music that preceded and then arrived at a tonal content and its extreme use can do this. It is the language of a tone centre or, better still, tonality, that has allowed composers to write happy or sad works, the two main emotions of Man. The language develops, the styles change, but the deeper content remains universal. This is what distinguishes a work from a masterwork, and it applies to all the Arts. When one talks about comparing apples to oranges, we talk about the superficial aspects of works, what Hans Keller would have described as the foregrounds of works. Those are immediately understandable and describable, but it is only the background that distinguishes if the work is a masterwork or not, and it’s pretty well indescribable.  It is the background that creates a real masterwork and the artistic content that is similar in all periods and styles of music; that background, those human emotions which one feels are coming straight from the composer’s soul in whatever era. Even a contemporary composer can absorb Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn’s, Skryabin’s or Prokofiev’s profound emotions into his or her own music without copying their styles because he or she is absorbing only the background according to personal preference and sensibility. If you compare works of no artistic value, only then are you comparing apples to oranges, because there is no background to the works.

Yes, the period in which we live will shape our perception of the art to which we are exposed. We are living in an era of confusion and this creates yet more confusion. Hans Keller once told me in 1985, not long before he died, that in this confused world it would be all the more difficult for major artists to emerge. I have to admit I was pretty shocked. Apart from a small minority, most people follow the fashions and the political changes of their times, either because they don’t have a real artistic personality or because they don’t have the courage to remain independent and maintain their integrity.

If in this confused world a visual artist with a “lower case a” puts feces in a can and calls it art, well I think that a person with a bit of common sense should understand that those who consider it art have no artistic and historical perspective at all. In contemporary music, a composer can put down notes with a coldly calculated content of some sort, or even random notes, and there’s not much difference intellectually between that and the can. Why should we consider this art, just because someone is communicating something new which actually is quite disgusting to all the senses of Mankind? If a work of music hurts the ears and mind, why should it be called Art? It is scientifically well-known that certain combinations of frequencies can hurt the all-receiving brain, but no one does anything about it! No one has yet put a stop to this painful music.