Music on Radio & TV

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The scant attention which television pays to serious music has long been a cause for concern. On the rare occasions when an arts programme does concern itself with music, it more often than not appeals to the lowest common denominator and deals with stardom and commerce rather than the stuff of music itself. Infrequent opera productions and concerts provide the only exceptions.

Once in a while, though, one is heartened by a brave gesture like Andy King's recent series for BBC2, Window on the World. In the last of the series, "Tropical Beat", composer and ethno-musicologist David Fanshawe, he of African Sanctus, roamed through equatorial countries filming and recording the local musicians. It was all very colourful and engaging but, for a composer, Fanshawe seemed peculiarly reluctant to talk about the actual substance of each area's music. Influences were mentioned which, in the circumstances, meant little; the names of local instruments were relished; and that was about it. Perhaps his brief was not to scare the punters by delving beneath the surface of things but, for whatever reason, a vital element was missing from the survey.

Far more interesting were a couple of films earlier in the series that featured Edgard Varese. A biography that enlisted aid from contemporary musical luminaries like Boulez, Xenakis and the Canadian composer, Gilles Tremblay, made an admirable stab at establishing the character and personality of this heart-warming man. More courageous than many of today's post-revolutionary composers could possibly imagine (now that the ground has been won), visionary, determined yet vulnerable, Varese had one of the 20th century's genuinely new ideas to impart, and a host of people were not willing or able to understand that noise could be used musically.

The following week, Andy King offered us a thought-provoking film by Bill Viola which was made to accompany Varese's late masterpiece, Deserts, further proof of the series' determination to do more than state a few facts. Viola's apocalyptic images - a blurred foreground would sometimes race past, as grim mountainscapes remained still and inimical in the background - might well have pleased the composer, who saw his piece as ripe for filmic treatment. Altogether, a rather fine celebration of one of the century's great musical innovators.

Meanwhile, Radio 3's Composer of the Week, consistently turning out some of the most informative and entertaining broadcasts on the network, continued its exploration of Henry Cowell, which attracted Adrian Jack's attention last week. Cowell's multivarious activities might give the impression of being unfocused, but works like Ongaku, in which Cowell's response to Japanese classical music is reflected, and that summation of all his enthusiasms, Trio in 9 Short Movements, evince a touching generosity of spirit.

Finally, the disappointment of the week: a flaccid Bach B minor Mass under Kuijken, in which indifferent singing and playing and dismissive tempos seemed bent on cutting down to size one of the world's great artworks. We expect better of a European Broadcasting Union series than this