1997... and counting

In three years, 20th-century music ceases to be contemporary,
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The Independent Culture
Those who know Radio 3 Controller Nicholas Kenyon may have noticed a glint in his eye in recent months. Is it glee, or terror? Probably both: after all, he has set himself, and the BBC, an extraordinary challenge for the next three years. Sounding the Century, a grand survey of music composed in the 20th Century, begins tomorrow night with a performance of that ultimate ground-breaker, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring conducted by Pierre Boulez, and lasts until the end of 1999 - plus a "morning after" celebration on 1 January 2000, with a mass premiere of new works by composers from 20 countries brought together under the aegis of the European Broadcasting Union.

As yet, not everything is in place. At this stage, Sounding the Century still looks like a steadily unrolling carpet, with certain elements in the pattern sketched out in advance, others still waiting to be woven in. As with the BBC's annual Proms season, overall responsibility for what goes into Sounding the Century has been handed over to one person - in this case, the composer George Benjamin. But, with just one person at the helm, can the series offer a truly balanced overview, or will the selection inevitably be partial?

"It shouldn't be partial," says Benjamin - mindful, no doubt, of the flack Simon Rattle recently attracted when he left Elgar and Vaughan Williams out of his own personal survey of 20th-century music, Leaving Home, on Channel 4. "But, equally, I haven't been asked here just to make a dog's dinner of everything. The project must have character, flavour to it. Of course, all the major currents of the century will be represented, generously. But certain things will be covered which I think are important, which perhaps wouldn't have featured if someone else had been asked. Plenty of people are simply against modern music today, and if you'd asked X or Y to do it, they might have left out modernism altogether - especially post-war modernism. But the world would be so much poorer without some of that music."

Yes, there does seem to be a growing number of people who want to pretend that the 20th century hasn't really happened - that it's possible to treat the "Death of God", Schoenbergian serialism, modern science and moral relativism as some kind of a bad dream from which we can now awake and go on as before.

"It's certainly the case in music," Benjamin agrees. "I heard a very famous conductor - a really big name - on the radio the other day saying that everything went wrong with Tristan. There's a lot of narrow-mindedness and a lot of nostalgia. I think one mustn't underestimate the effect of the end of the millennium on everyone's imagination. Think how most of us feel at the end of a year - the regrets as well as the attempts to look forward - and then translate that on to a 1,000-year scale! That must be one reason why people are more retrogressive than usual at the moment."

Retrogressive thinking - or just "Back to Basics"? (Well, we all know what happened to that.) But Benjamin's language does seem to imply a moral position. Does he feel that in music there are good and bad, "healthy" and "unhealthy" trends? "That's not the kind of terminology I'd ever use when describing music. The story of 20th-century music is that there are diverse streams. Even if you take the 19th century, you find Mussorgsky, Verdi and Wagner working at the same time - all undeniably great opera composers and yet there's no neat way you can group them together. The diversity of the 20th century is one of its unique riches - the breakdown of common conventions, the growing liberty of the individual in society which is reflected in the arts - it's all to the good. It's partly for that reason that this is the century whose music I love the most, and my enthusiasm bubbles over at the thought of being involved in a project like this, and trying to represent the century fairly, rather than imposing an overall view that must be swallowed."

One of the consequences of this century's increasing diversity is that it becomes harder to draw clear lines between High Art and Popular Art. It could at least be argued that some of the classic jazz recordings of the 1950s and 1960s reveal a higher level of sophistication than much of the music being "composed" now. Does Benjamin think the old distinction is worth retaining?

"Aaaagh! This is one of the anguished topics of the 20th century. Is serious music created in a purist's paradise of hermetic perfection, or do we prefer the postmodernist paradise of simply embracing everything? Both positions sound wonderful in theory, and both are - usually - extremely disappointing in practice. We'll be looking at the opening-up of the Western classical tradition to a whole load of influences that have shaken it up - Balinese gamelan music, Indian, Chinese, African jazz... You couldn't possibly ignore Stravinsky's jazz music - but that's still very much 'composed'. I do think there's a difference between art music and other kinds of music. That doesn't mean that one is greater than the other, but I do strongly feel that there is an evolving classical tradition, and I don't see why people need to put all the strands in one box."

So was Sounding the Century born of a crusading spirit? As so often, there were practical influences too: 1997 sees the 50th anniversary of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), an organisation that, of course, includes the BBC's own five orchestras, and it was in discussions among the ABO's recently formed Repertoire Group that the idea for this mammoth nationwide broadcast concert festival first began to take shape. It meant, for instance, that the Philharmonia Orchestra's South Bank Ligeti festival Clocks and Clouds (which begins on Wednesday) could be drawn under the larger umbrella of Sounding the Century. (Nice, by the way, to see some major projects still developing in a spirit of co-operation rather than that other, omnipresent C-word, competition.)

It was, says Nicholas Kenyon, the success of Radio 3's year-long British music festival Fairest Isle in 1995 (the Purcell tercentenary year) that encouraged him to go for something even more ambitious. "If there is one time to look back on the 20th century, that time is surely now," he says. "And, with the resources of broadcast and commercial recording, we're able to do so in a way no other century could have imagined. But if there is a kind of crusading spirit behind it, it's the desire to challenge the idea that modern music is a problem. Nobody's saying there haven't been any serious dangers this century - for instance, the way some music has lost touch with audiences. But now we can see that any claims of a 'true path' or of 'genuine' 20th-century music are just wrong. Strauss, Puccini and Rachmaninov are just as much 20th-century composers as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, and they'll be there too. We should celebrate the diversity, not shy away from it."

One of the biggest headaches, says Kenyon, is the pacing of this three- year celebration. "We've got to keep the momentum going - and what will the climax be? It's easy to pick out individual highlights: the London premiere of Boulez's

But no matter how hard one tries, it's impossible to include everything - certainly not everything being written now. Certain living composers will be left out, and inevitably there will be wounded mutterings of BBC blacklists, or personal vendettas. How does George Benjamin feel about taking responsibility for that? "It bothers me a lot. All I can say is that I take advice from colleagues on what to include. And there's also what other people want to play. It's a collaboration. If an ensemble or an orchestra or a soloist comes up with a convincing programme, I'll go with it. Still, you're right. I'm sure some people will be hurt. You can't avoid it." Benjamin sighs so deeply that I feel a momentary twinge of guilt for asking the question at all. He perks up, though, when I ask how it feels to be - albeit temporarily - an employee of the BBC. "Weird! It's strange to be on the other side. I've passed from being a teenager, wondering if this massive edifice will ever notice me, to getting pieces broadcast, and now to deciding who gets broadcast! I've even eaten in the canteen. Well, it's for a fixed time, and then I'll be gone. Still, it makes you grateful that Radio 3 and its orchestras exist - because who else could put on a project like this?"

'Sounding the Century' starts 7.30pm tomorrow with Pierre Boulez conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an all-Stravinsky concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC2 from the Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)