Classical: Music on Radio 3; Old whines and new battles

Last Saturday's first instalment from the 1997 Manchester Composers' Platform offered the ingeniously sinuous Two pieces for two clarinets by 26-year-old Richard Cawston, and a grandly languorous, polymodal piano piece by Guy Newbury entitled Strand Looping. The extracts from Gary Carpenter's Satie: Orchestral Variations played naughty conceptual fun and games with snippets of the Maitre, while Passing Through, a 10-minute string quartet by Nick Giles, revealed a promising ear for the medium and a rather personal vein of not quite tonal harmony.

In between these well-contrasted items, composers, performers and inquiring members of their audiences duly got stuck into detailed questions and criticisms: whether the expressive intentions of this piece really came over, whether the notation of that one could be simplified, and so on. In fact, this first of three edited instalments from the 1997 Manchester Composers' Platform - sponsored by the BBC, the Society for the Promotion of New Music, and various Manchester music departments - radiated that positive involvement in practical music-making that disperses the fogs of metaphysical gloom that tend to gather round more general discussions of the plight of modern music.

Not that many of the musicians involved in the next day's "Sunday Feature" sounded gloomy. This second of 20 monthly documentaries for the Sounding the Century project, under the title of Settling the Score, set out to determine whether the role of the composer has developed or deteriorated amid the social and technological changes of the past 50 years.

Some 10 working composers, from 65-year-old Alexander Goehr to 30-year- old Julian Anderson, had been interviewed, and were supplemented by archival clips from Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Elliott Carter and Robert Simpson, quotes from Elgar and Britten, and comments from the academic David Osmond- Smith, the administrator Anthony Everett and the anthropologist Georgina Born. The programme, produced by Andrew Kurowski and linked by Samuel West, duly passed from the problems of audiences with contemporary music (more a matter of context than language, argued Birtwistle), by way of the ageing of such 19th-century institutions as the formal concert and the symphony orchestra (with Christopher Fox so emphatic that he could no longer even imagine composing for the latter, that you immediately felt he should have a go at it), to a hopeful recapturing of a communal function through working with amateurs and in education (Everett fancied "musical resource centres").

Given the variousness and intelligence of the views on offer - never more so than in Nicola LeFanu's mordant rebuttal of the slur of "elitism" - it may seem mean to complain of a certain sense of deja vu. But, as Peter Paul Nash suggested, composers seem to have changed far less than the world around them. Many of the issues raised were already contentious 100 years ago: issues of art versus commercialism, of radicalism versus accessibility, of private versus public patronage. Indeed, when Georgina Born described the audience as many publics, stratified by degrees of status, influence etc, she might just as well have been talking about the 18th century.

On the other hand, only Judith Weir even so much as mentioned CDs. Yet the burgeoning of recording in recent decades really does confront composers with an unprecedented challenge - not only how to assimilate the entire history of music, but also how to devise pieces that may get only a chance or two in live performance, yet will stand up to infinite replayings on disc. And as for the growing power of a few multinational media corporations to condition the mass musical public - enough here, surely, for at least a couple more urgent discussions in Settling the Score.

Bayan Northcott

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