Thursday, August 28, 2014

New music on the Beeb: a reversal of fortune

In The Guardian, Susanna Eastburn, head of Sound and Music (the organisation that advocates for contemporary composers in the UK), has written a fine, to-the-point post asking why the BBC assumes that its audience won't like new music. This results from the exclusion from TV broadcasts - even on the niche BBC4 - of a clutch of premieres including works by some of Britain's leading composers, and equally those from abroad.

Roxanna Panufnik, John McLeod, Jonathan Dove (right), Harrison Birtwistle and the two composers commissioned by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - one Israeli, one Syrian - have all been excised from their Proms and sequestered away on a designated website, where nobody who is not already deeply involved in the notion of new music can ever become aware of their existence.

It took some of us a long time to get into Birtwistle. It took me 30 years, and I had a musical training. But not all new music is as terrifying to the uninitiated these days as he might be. Panufnik, McLeod and Dove, for example, are all eminently listenable and could more than prove that music written today is inventive, inspired, varied, "relevant" (that awful word) and more besides. Yet the subliminal message from this move is that the powers-that-be are somehow afraid of it, simply terrified that the poor dears at home will switch off their TVs if they hear a sound that's unfamiliar because it happens to be brand new. The Birtwistle piece chopped from the Prom on TV tonight - the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - is all of three minutes long. And Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace was the only thing in the World Orchestra for Peace's Prom, with Gergiev conducting, that really had anything to do with peace.

The funny thing is that if people are afraid of new music in Britain, they may very well be that way because of years of conditioning by...ah. The BBC.

Now, look. I LOVE the BBC. You only have to spend a week in the US dealing with American TV to realise how great the BBC is. We'd be lost without them. We'd be stuck with Fox News. Still, it does seem to have a way of getting things awfully wrong where contemporary music policy is concerned.

When I first worked on Classical Music Magazine as assistant editor, back in 1990, I would often find myself speaking to composers, either for interviews, or on the telephone when they rang up begging for a little attention. I don't know how many were convinced that they had been blacklisted according to some alleged new music policy at Radio 3 in its days under the control of William Glock and Hans Keller. Every neglected composer of tonal works was adamant that their music was not played on the radio because it went against received ideology: new music had to be atonal or, preferably, serialist. Microtonality was OK. Tunes were not. This same ideology had permeated the university I had left a few years earlier, where in the music faculty one scarcely dared utter the words 'Steve Reich'.

This alleged policy at Radio 3 has never been categorically proven, to the best of my knowledge - but if it was indeed there, it certainly dovetailed with the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council as was. New music had to be done; metaphorically speaking, a box had to be ticked, in the way it now must be for education, outreach and diversity. But it tended to have to be the right kind of new music, and most people outside the tiny new-music elite didn't like it. Guess what? Many still don't. And it is very, very difficult to persuade newcomers to contemporary music that some of this stuff is really fabulous. I regard Boulez is the kind of musical phenomenon that comes along once a century if you're lucky, but it took some very great performances - by Barenboim - to produce an epiphany for me at the Proms, as recently as 2012. I find it interesting that composers like Birtwistle and Boulez (left) are both being said, here and there, to have "mellowed" with age.

But in some ways it is not surprising if this former policy, if policy it was, eventually put listeners off new music. Music can hurt you, physically, in a way that visual art tends not to: those sound-waves go straight into your body and bypass the intellect, like it or loathe it. Thus people learned to avoid putting themselves through the pain. It's a case of Pavlov's Dog at the concert hall (or deliberately staying away from it).

The stupid thing is that all that is over: instead, a huge variety of new music is being written, engaging, fascinating, intriguing, communicative music, some of which even dares to be beautiful. But now it's being kept away from the TV as if it is certain to poison us if allowed into our homes? This is ridiculous.

And if the BBC is unhappy about us being unhappy about this, as many of us are, in the end it probably has nobody to blame but its old self.