RADIO / Reality Czech: Robert Hanks on the world-view behind Radio 3's weekend in Prague

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The Independent Culture
Every so often, Radio 3 seems to get hit by a sort of collective wanderlust, and it packs up its bags and heads for foreign parts - a season in Japan or Scandinavia, a weekend in Minneapolis or, last weekend, Prague. Why they do this is worth thinking about - apart, that is, from the obvious reasons, like the chance of a few days on expenses in an exotic location. (Not unduly cynical, I hope, because I rather enjoyed the Prague weekend and if Radio 3 producers weren't at least a bit excited about a free trip to one of Europe's great cultural centres, they probably shouldn't be working for Radio 3 in the first place.)

But lurking behind those reasons is a deeper rationale. Classical music is an international tradition - Czech, Scandinavian, Japanese, Minnesotan, British, we're all legatees of Bach and Mozart - so that a channel devoted to the music is implicitly wedded to a kind of internationalism. It comes naturally to Radio 3 to wander abroad because, however different the culture being visited, it will share a number of assumptions about what is important.

There were small anomalies in the Prague weekend - like a frustratingly short, question-begging feature on Sunday evening about the microtonal music of Alois Haba - but for the most part, the good thing about it was that it fitted comparatively seamlessly into Radio 3's output. This is particularly welcome at a time when you can suffer the almost daily shock of switching on in mid-afternoon to find what sounds like a particularly unsettling minimalist composition with a typically inchoate Robert Wilson text, and turns out to be a music and movement programme for schools.

Pop culture, by contrast, finds it comparatively easy to be xenophobic, not least because English-speaking pop is so dominant. You regularly come across mild examples of this in programmes like Let It Be . . . Please] (Radio 2, Saturday), in which that nice Martin Kelner was humorous at the expense of crap cover versions of Beatles songs - the comedy here relying on the assumption that pop music is automatically funny in the hands of foreigners. To be fair, Maurice Chevalier's version of 'Yellow Submarine' (which turned out to be 'Soumarin vert - vert comme la mer'), showed there is a grain of truth in the idea.

You also ran across this kind of pop nationalism in the Prague weekend, in a jolly feature on Saturday about the 15,000 young Americans who now live in the city. Huckleberry Dirt, an American member of a Prague-based rock band called Dirty Pictures, explained that 'Czech music is, I think, for the most part derivative, is, you know, copying all their heroes from the West and also, I think, the language barrier, you know, you just can't do rock'n'roll, you can't do it in Czech. Or any other language, for that matter, except English.' It's a coherent position, which Mr Dirt then blew apart by proposing Plastic Bertrand as a possible exception.

This isolated chat about rock was a reminder that Radio 3's world-view may be broad, but it's also distorting - there's something implausible about a perspective that grants more prominence to the history of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra than to the whole of rock'n'roll. In the end, perhaps that's what is appealing about Radio 3 - it blocks out reality so well. Cheaper than drugs, too: what more do you need?

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