What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Grumble 5: Classic FM and the promotion of Bad Music

In last week’s piece I outlined my theory of musical quality. For music (that is pieces of music of any length) to be pleasurable, the music must embody ‘effect’, musical momentum produced by harmonic, rhythmic and melodic means. This effect is distinct from emotion or mood, or beauty, which I call the ‘affect’ of the music. The affect of the music can in fact hinder the effect.

As an example of this let me relate how recently I listen to a recording of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (I wanted to do this because I knew that it had been an influence on several subsequent cello concertos I like, such as Finzi’s). Now Dvořák is a composer whose name elicits a sympathetic reaction because he was a Romantic, based his music on Bohemian folk-music, wrote the New World Symphony &c. However I found listening to the Cello Concerto quite a strange experience, it seemed to me to be bewildering and alienating with passages in different rhythms and with different material following each other in no apparent order and with no progression from the beginning of the work onwards. There was no musical ‘effect’ there.

By contrast I find works such as the symphonies of Swedish C20 century composer Allan Pettersson easy to follow and enjoyable to listen to, because they have musical movement. (I highly recommend, for example, Pettersson’s Symphony No.9, an extraordinary 67 minute single movement which sounds like a Mahler scherzo updated by 50 years).

In Australia at present we have a classical music radio channel run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called Classic FM. It is my contention that this channel ignores most good music (‘effective’ music) in favour of music which does not have this, such as Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

Now, as I said, most folk music and art music in the west has this effect, the only period which it was in abeyance was during the C19. Once serious classical music recovered in the C20, the only music that preserved this maladaption was popular classical music (plus some C20 music by composers who refused to learn from the early C20 composers who had rediscovered musical movement, such as Sibelius).

About a decade ago I was speaking to a musically-knowledgeable person who opined that ‘Classic FM concentrates largely on C19 orchestral and vocal schmalz’. At the time I agreed with him on this, but now would probably modify his view and say that Classic FM these days mainly concentrates on C19 orchestral and vocal schmalz, but also seeks out musical schmalz of all ages. So, for example, Classic FM now plays a lot of baroque operatic arias and ‘world music’ (which to me sounds like music that isn’t good enough to be folk music).

The channel also takes to easy option in that when it does play music by reputable composers it concentrates on their easier and less effective works: Bruckner’s Symphony No.4, but rarely the Symphony No.8; Mahler’s Symphony No.4, but not his Symphony No.6.

This to my mind is a tragedy: Classic FM is a government-funded broadcasting service, yet is plays mainly bad music; there is an opportunity to have a government-funded broadcasting service that plays good music, but this has been missed. If it played good music it could attract many more people to classical music and could make people’s lives happier. As it is it seems its only function is to cement in the minds of its listeners a particular type of sentimentality that goes hand-in-hand with political conservatism.

Classic FM maintains that in broadcasting the music that it does it is merely reflecting the wishes of its listeners. We can check on this because every two or three years Classic FM holds a competition where people can vote for their favourite pieces in different genres (symphonies, chamber, concertos) and for their favourite pieces in whatever genre. Looking at the results for these competitions we can see that of the pieces selected only 20-30% can be regarded as effective music, the rest being largely Romantic, or sub-Romantic, pap.

However, even this figure is higher than the average daily quota of effective music dished up by Classic FM, so I would argue that there exists a demand for such music in larger quantities than is currently provided by our friends at Classic FM. I would also maintain that Classic FM is in fact vitiating the tastes of its listeners, and acts to form, or deform them, rather than simply reflecting them. I can’t believe that any rational soul can actually like Bizet without much brainwashing first. I could discuss Nietzsche here, but I think the mention of him is enough...

What on earth is the origin of this strange fascination for bad music? I can think of two. Somewhere in Corporateland some lost soul came up with the idea for a ‘popular’ classical music channel and franchised the idea and this was bought by the ABC and deployed in Australia (the UK has a ‘Classic FM’ channel which apparently is similarly sub-par and the two may embody the same bad idea).

The other is this: in Australia after WW2 there arose the idea of the ‘cultural cringe’, that Australia deferred too much to Britain in arts and culture and didn’t have its own artistic culture. It may have been that in Australian conservatories and Departments of Music there arose a determination to react against British musical culture (Elgar, Vaughan Williams &c) and so musical education turned to other musical cultures, this being reflected, eventually, in Classic FM and its tastes. If this is the case then you would have to say that even though the intention was understandable enough the results were unfortunate: to listen to the commentary on Classic FM some days you’d think that Fauré was the last word in musical sophistication (instead of the last word in musical vulgarity).

I have conducted a campaign over some years to try to change the musical culture of Classic FM, with no success (not that I anticipated any). Naturally the management reject my suggestions, even when I have sent them useful information, such as lists of composers and compositions they should be playing and lists of composers and compositions they should not be playing. I have also written to the Minister in charge of the ABC, Stephen Conroy, who, apparently, doesn’t feel he has any power to influence the content of one of the ABC radio channels he is responsible for, despite that fact they are in breach of the ABC Charter by not providing ‘broadcasting services of a high standard’ (the same could be said for many parts of the ABC, of course). He was also unmoved by my argument that it is impossible to find out how many people actually do listen to Classic FM as the ABC does not report listener figures for individual channels, but just the aggregate listener figures for all ABC radio channels.

I am not conducting this campaign out of a sense of pique because the programmers at Classic FM do not share my musical tastes, but because the staff of Classic FM can insult great music indirectly by ignoring it, or directly, by saying in correspondence with me that the music of Robert Simpson would have ‘no appeal’ for Classic FM listeners. By way of correcting this mistaken view just go to this page and browse the uniformly complimentary Gramophone reviews of Simpson’s works by hovering the mouse over each album cover. If the various different critics from the Gramophone magazine have such positive things to say about it do you suppose that this music would have ‘no appeal’ for Classic FM listeners?

This lack of wholesome music on Classic FM is also part of a wider picture of our society shutting itself off from ‘nature’— to facts about the world, to real life and real living—in favour of the ideological, the convenient and the false. ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’.

Next Week: grumbling about lack of virtue

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