Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
PLATO WOULD have banned all but the most "war-like" musical scales from his Republic. The papacy has recurrently striven to purge liturgical music of all artistic indulgence. Hitler and Stalin had decided views as to what the masses should, and should not, be permitted to hear. And those caught listening to Western pop can expect short shrift under certain Fundamentalist regimes.

Whether or not music has been "the most banned of all the arts", as Ursula Owen of Index on Censorship claims, that journal's current special edition Smashed Hits: Banned Music of the World certainly piles up the evidence. Last weekend, a distinguished group of musicians, including Sir Simon Rattle, gave a concert in the Union Chapel, Islington, in aid of the Index, and this in turn became the starting point for an extended discussion in Radio 3's Night Waves on Tuesday, chaired by Richard Coles.

But, alas for good intentions. The result, if not hopeless, proved a missed opportunity all too symptomatic of Radio 3 in its recent phase. The problem began with the highlighted items from the concert itself: music by Conlon Nancarrow, Alan Bush and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Granted, Nancarrow had his US passport confiscated by the Arkansas authorities after fighting for the communists in the Spanish Civil War and spent the rest of his working life exiled in Mexico. But nobody in the US was ever banned from recording or listening to his music. Granted, Alan Bush made life more difficult for himself by staunchly sticking to Stalinism. But his music continued to be broadcast by the BBC from time to time. As for the Messiaen Quartet, this was composed in 1941 during his time in a German PoW camp, performed there and then without official obstruction and, after his repatriation to France, rapidly became a modern classic. But by the time Coles' guests Michael John White and Stephen Johnson had patiently explained that none of these instances was particularly apropos, the session was almost over.

Meanwhile, more salient lines of thought were simply left hanging in the wind: the Israeli ban on Wagner countenancing Carl Orff, for instance; or New Labour's alleged anti-elitism. And over all hung the question of whether music can ever be subversive in itself, or whether it is always a matter of allusion or association, text or context.

Someone, surely Coles himself, should have insisted on strict distinctions between censorship by ban, by a thousand cuts, by deliberate neglect, or indeed by market machination, if a serious discussion on the subject was intended rather than a mere ramble around it. But was it? The contrast with a short report in last Sunday's Music Matters was telling. Short (because this programme is regularly required to pack in far too many items per edition) but correspondingly to the point. This concerned Le Penn's National Front which, having gained financial control in four French regions, is systematically withdrawing subsidies from all artistic projects that it deems "degenerate" (yes, that openly xenophobic Hitlerism is back in play) on the pretext of preserving the purity of "classical" French culture.

This item, at least, had the urgency of something happening now and only next door. Ironically, Radio 3's commissioning editor, music (policy) has ordained that Music Matters is to disappear next April, its concerns supposedly subsumed into Night Waves.

It would be interesting to know why.