music on radio
Friday 25 July 1997
Looming large under three headings over the past week has been the composer John Adams. In its way, this choice is as provocative as the station's sharpened-up packaging. All right, he won the John Drummond seal of approval in earlier seasons, unlike some of his American colleagues. But he is still the man who, interviewed in the newly published Gramophone Explorations magazine, energetically rubbishes the Anglo-American critical tradition ("these guys will sooner or later die off") that has played a large part in creating Radio 3's cultural climate.
It's ironic to see him popping up so often when the surroundings prove his point. Here's the Friday new-music strand Hear and Now back on its old stamping ground of Xenakis one week, Berio the next. There on Mondays, shamefully kicking out the liberal Mixing It for the summer, is a new series of Iconoclassics about "avant-garde works that have stood the test of time". Do they never give up?
Summer is also the time for that annual silly-season sport, bashing Radio 3 from the cultural right. So far, this year's bout has gone according to pattern. First there is a rumour that the knives are out, under instruction from the top; then comes the reflex outrage in the quality press, and the reassuring sermon from the management. Still to appear, as of now, are the ritual lament that the world will never be the same again, and a final unveiling of plans that mean business much as usual, only with new timings and fresh microphone voices.
While they get on with it, the rest of the world must wonder why the fight always lacks one element: a robust assertion of change as a positive cultural force. Both sides take a defensive stance, so that their eventual truce looks like agreement on giving ground. Now that we have the political climate for radical measures, here's the start of a manifesto from another cultural direction.
1. If you wish to promote "core values", stop harking back to 1947 and start looking around in 1997.
2. Enough of this schoolboyish enthusiasm and evangelism: there's no turn-off like being told eagerly how much to enjoy something. Let's have some awareness of what people are enthusiastic about without having to be prompted. Get a grip, too, on spoken effusions like the whimsical interval feature on doodling, Wednesday last week - did anybody get through that without feeling restless?
3. Give this music some substantial and full-length airtime, instead of cramming it into bite-sized extracts on Mixing It (if the programme ever returns). That way, a minority audience will grow into something more powerful, a coalition of minorities.
4. We have had the ratings-versus-culture debate up to our ears, but the one about culture versus cultures has barely begun. This week has seen a Radio 3 presence even more ironic than Adams's, a rerun of Patricia Williams's Reith Lectures on questions of race, while the Proms blandly proclaim a theme of traditional cultures meeting art music, which is so skewed in the art music's direction that appropriation would be a better word. Tuesday's lecture explored "what is distorted by the lens of colour blindness". Si monumentum requieris, circumspice.
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