Music: healing the rift by Ivan Hewett

The Western world must learn to sing again
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The Independent Culture

Until recent times, says Ivan Hewett, music was everywhere, and always an authentic expression of the social situation that called it forth. The idyll was shattered, in the developed West, by the notion that music could be transportable: a mass could be taken out of church and performed in a concert hall. Then music began its long retreat from the public domain. It turned into something made en famille, then something listened to in the privacy of a room, until finally the Walkman reduced its operative space to six inches between the ears.

Hewett's book is fruitfully complex: I could have extracted several other narratives which would have summarised music's trajectory just as well. The "rift" in his title denotes nothing so banal as that between classicists and modernists. His big theme is the falling-apart of the laboriously-constructed musical realm of the early 20th century, and the perennial desire, among composers, to make it whole again. As he makes clear, that crisis reflects a falling-apart in our entire culture. Putting it together again - if such a thing is possible - would benefit us all.

His focus is on composers past and present. Deploying the expertise which made him the ideal anchorman for Radio 3's Music Matters, Hewett writes with easy authority. He has interviewed widely, read deeply, listened at length: his nine short chapters ripple with provocative insights. Sometimes the writing is too densely philosophical for the argument to be immediately grasped, but that only puts it on a level with its subject-matter.

One of Hewett's many sub-plots follows the rise of the programme note, starting with Berlioz's instructions on how to listen to the Symphonie Fantastique, and culminating in the current situation where it's unthinkable for a new work to be presented without copious verbal explication. Herein lies the misery of the modernist composer: obliged to teach the audience a new language, but inevitably doomed to fail.

Hewett writes so illuminatingly about Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage and Carter that one feels impelled to listen again. Though sympathetic, he admits that that their invented private languages don't add up to a reconstituted public realm. He is acerbic about the blind alley of "world music", pleasantly waspish about John Tavener and prophets of the New Naivety, and shows the futility of trying to "remake" tonality. The power of classical tonality in its heyday derived from a perfect reciprocity between form and social function. The genie's out of the bottle.

What now? Hewett offers a brilliant tour d'horizon of music's multifarious new directions - aided by sampling tricks, fuelled by PC notions - but concludes that if we want to "heal the rift", we can't delegate the job to composers. We must all start making music again. If we play and sing, we will once more listen actively too. And that way lies musical health.