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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Ghetto blasting

By Norman Lebrecht / October 31, 2001

THERE is no such thing as cultural revolution. Change in the arts comes slowly, advancing sideways. We employ curators to present the familiar, critics to tell us how far we have strayed from roots, how near we are getting to nirvana.

Every now and then, a signpost looms to confirm the distance we have travelled and indicate where we are going. One such milestone pops up next week when BBC Radio 3, purveyor of sonata form and English drama to the upper brows, becomes the principal media partner of the London Jazz Festival, with 20 hours of live relays.

At first blush, this spells doom for Beecham, Boulez and Beckett, but that is a misreading of road maps. Radio 3, uncommonly for a high-culture depot, has ceased to be a categoric enclave. It emits, along with the classics, rough-guide world music for the backpack crowd, live poetry at 10 in the morning, the Bhundu Boys tomorrow night and an interactive programme with yours truly (interest duly declared).

The London Jazz Festival has little to do with jazz or jollity. Jazz, as its historian Ken Burns suggested, expired around 1970. Reliant on improvisation, it died for want of creative leadership - perhaps also as a result of shifts in black American expression from instrumental riffs to verbal rap. The London Jazz Festival has got over the death of jazz. It aligns Rachid Taha's Algerian agit-prop with the Minneapolis ICE (Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble); Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban oracle, with Lea Delaria, a gay comedienne; a Swedish rhythm trio with mournful Misia, the queen of new fado, or so she claims. Fado? It's Portuguese for fate, and never has a happy ending.

So here we have a highbrow station slipping off its blue stockings and jumping into bed with a funky jazz fest that turns out to have had minor surgical alteration and gone transcultural. We wake up in the morning to find that the words we use to describe the music we love have been subverted, and nothing seems to mean what it used to.

Confusion of this order is being sowed right across the culture. The classical dancer Michael Clark has just staged a show with Sarah Lucas, the shock artist who avows "I don't know shit about dance". They call what they do together "dance", so must we.

In Berlin, the composer Gyorgy Ligeti appeared on stage last month with a group of Aka pygmies from central Africa. When the micro-tonal modernist averred that their music is more complex than his, the audience recoiled in disbelief. Yet this was neither gimmick nor cultural cringe, rather an acknowledgement that, in a bewilderingly heterogenous world, the assumptions we make about the sophistication (and superiority) of European art may no longer apply.

The redefinition of culture is being driven by the hottest of galleries, the Tate and the Saatchi, which assert that whatever goes on, or up, their walls is art. If a visitor mistakes a light-switch for an exhibit, as happens from time to time at Saatchi, that's their problem. Art is what is.

But even the vague needs to be named. The British Council is staging a Brit Art exhibition in Tel Aviv under the title No World Without You, a song by Kylie Minogue. "Why Kylie?" I asked a contemporary-art expert, Andrew Renton. "Because she can be anything you want her to be - the perfect barometer," he replied. How Kylie sings is immaterial. What matters is that this malleable icon, who says she cries herself to sleep for not knowing who she is, appears to represent where we are now: in a word, our culture.

This perceptual transition has placed high culture under intense pressure to acquire new criteria. The canonic assumptions of music curators are melting in multicultural heat and critics are struggling to encompass a globality of sound. I put on a Naxos disc of Georgian singing. It sounded off-key to my ears. That, I discovered, is how Georgians like it.

The gulf is generational more than it is geographical. This month's Masterprize final, showcasing new orchestral works by young composers, was rubbished by most music critics for its tonal, easy-listening modes. "Absolute tosh!" exclaimed an eminent festival director. Within his terms of reference, that assessment was valid. To any curator over 50, raised on the Received Canon of the three Bs - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, plus Boulez, Ligeti and Birtwistle for living relevance - the movie-score music of Masterprize represented a vacancy of ideas. But to a generation that embraces Misia and Kylie, the easily visualised soundworlds of Anthony Iannaccone, Pierre Jalbert and Qigang Chen were thrilling. Both the audience and, more tellingly, the youth orchestra that performed the music, gave vent to immense enthusiasm.

It may well be that the under-thirties belong to a different species. Some researchers are now wondering whether the dietary, social and environmental changes of the past quarter-century have not affected the ways we relate to art. Attention spans, we know, are shorter among the text-message generation. They may also respond to different cultural stimuli.

The world is moving on, faster than in any epoch in art history. Ephemerality is integral to art. Today's trash is tomorrow's culture, and vice versa. Music that was dangerous in 1980 can now be heard on Granny's favourite, Radio 2. And homely Radio 2 has itself acquired cult status. "The old categorisations are no longer valid," says Roger Wright, Radio 3's moderate reformer. "Liveness, quality, topicality and new work are the drivers."

This may sound like the self-vindication of a public broadcaster under ratings pressure, but it reflects more of the here and now than can be felt in major arts centres and music festivals. The seismic shift in cultural definition has registered at fringe London venues such as Battersea and the soon-to-be-reopened Roundhouse, but not at Covent Garden or the Albert Hall. The newly appointed curators of the Salzburg Festival and Carnegie Hall belong to an obsolete canonic school that never opens the windows to check the cultural weather.

What is needed is a new breed of curator, one that will challenge rather than conserve, and a new breed of critics whose ears have been retuned to a broader frequency. Booking Kylie or Misia for the orchestral Christmas pageant will not do the trick. With our entire culture in flux, serious music must abandon canonic safety, alter its environment and change its criteria, or die.

6 January 2001: Can classical learn from pop?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999