Classical music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
It's another world on Mixing It (R3), and not just because it mixes in the whole range of contemporary music. Every item on Monday was in itself hybrid: a creative meeting of genres or styles in pursuit of richer expression. Whether it's Meredith Monk summoning up vocal techniques from several continents to make her own single-minded voice, or Glenn Branca inventing symphonic forms with amplified guitars, the message is the same. Impurity equals vigour; inbreeding means decay.

Here's Louis Sclavis reworking Rameau with idioms from jazz and the atonal classics. Move on to Robert Godman, who took the sounds of an industrial pump into a studio to make his Fly Wheel Fantasy. Voices of Kwahn defy all categories with their "folk songs of inner space", starting like a club remix of Adiemus and turning more and more experimental. Sometimes even the Mixing It presenters are lost for words. One of them said that Monk's Three Heavens and Hells reminded him of "a slightly naff version of Gregorian chant" before rescuing a point about how rarely she uses words.

This is more than a talking head falling back on a cheap (and inaccurate) crack. We don't have an agreed critical vocabulary to discuss music like this. Not quite knowing how to talk partly accounts for why you read so little about it despite its large public, and why it occupies so little airtime compared with the "pure" (ie inbred) forms of contemporary classical music. The usual habit with critics is to rush into judgement. What is needed, however, is first to say what is going on, and to describe it accurately. Reporting is the journalist's and broadcaster's basic function. The burgeoning world of contemporary music is simply being misreported.

There is nothing new about hybrids. Spirit of the Age (Sun / Tues, R3) followed the relationship between dancers and musicians from the 16th century to the 19th. For much of the time the dancers were musicians, or at least the dancing masters were, teaching steps and inventing tunes on their kit fiddle. Jeremy Barlow, in discussion with Michelene Wandor, seemed happy about that, but there was a telling moment later. The same sort of string group played for social dance right through the period. But the players never appeared to use written scores. Wandor leapt with enthusiasm at the thought that they would be improvising. Barlow, the early music specialist, was immediately circumspect. Maybe they would "embellish", but would it put the dancers off if they were too free?

So here was the period expert making a mid-20th-century assumption about clashing interests. It continued when they came to talk about rhythm and pace. Dancers want to keep time, musicians like some freedom. He offered no evidence for this supposed independence on the players' behalf. Wandor asked for an example, and Barlow played a Scots tune that you can either sing slowly or dance vigorously. But it wasn't a clash, because the singing and dancing would be separate events.

Finally they talked about which "side" started a dance and found a real hybrid of an answer. In a gavotte, dancers would step out the short-short- long, short-short-long patterns in counterpoint with the music. They played some Bach as an example, so I tried dancing it. You get more of a lift going against the beat than with it, even if it leaves you in mid-air at the end.

Suddenly it felt all of a piece with social dance today. Clubbing and music have been evolving hand-in-hand, and some of the strongest contemporary musical experimentation goes on around clubs. But you'd never know that from the "serious" musical media. I rest my case. Robert Maycock