By Norman Lebrecht
LONDON, 5 November 2001 - There is no such thing as
cultural revolution. Change in the arts comes slowly, advancing
sideways. We employ curators to present the familiar, critics to tell
us how far we have strayed from roots, how near we are getting to
Every now and then, a signpost looms to confirm the
distance we have travelled and indicate where we are going. One such
milestone pops up this week when
BBC Radio 3,
purveyor of sonata form and English drama to the upper brows, becomes
the principal media partner of the London Jazz Festival, with 20 hours
of live relays.
At first blush, this spells doom for
Beecham, Boulez and Beckett, but that is a misreading of road maps.
Radio 3, uncommonly for a high-culture depot, has ceased to be a
categoric enclave. It emits, along with the classics, rough-guide
world music for the backpack crowd, live poetry at 10 in the morning,
the Bhundu Boys tomorrow night and an interactive programme with yours
truly (interest duly declared).
The London Jazz Festival has
little to do with jazz or jollity. Jazz, as its historian Ken Burns
suggested, expired around 1970. Reliant on improvisation, it died for
want of creative leadership - perhaps also as a result of shifts in
black American expression from instrumental riffs to verbal rap. The
London Jazz Festival has got over the death of jazz. It aligns Rachid
Taha's Algerian agit-prop with the Minneapolis ICE (Intergalactic
Contemporary Ensemble); Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban oracle, with Lea
Delaria, a gay comedienne; a Swedish rhythm trio with mournful Misia,
the queen of new fado, or so she claims. Fado? It's Portuguese for
fate, and never has a happy ending.
So here we have a
highbrow station slipping off its blue stockings and jumping into bed
with a funky jazz fest that turns out to have had minor surgical
alteration and gone transcultural. We wake up in the morning to find
that the words we use to describe the music we love have been
subverted, and nothing seems to mean what it used to.
of this order is being sowed right across the culture. The classical
dancer Michael Clark has just staged a show with Sarah Lucas, the
shock artist who avows "I don't know shit about dance". They
call what they do together "dance", so must we.
Berlin, the composer Gyorgy Ligeti appeared on stage last month with a
group of Aka pygmies from central Africa. When the micro-tonal
modernist averred that their music is more complex than his, the
audience recoiled in disbelief. Yet this was neither gimmick nor
cultural cringe, rather an acknowledgement that, in a bewilderingly
heterogenous world, the assumptions we make about the sophistication
(and superiority) of European art may no longer apply.
redefinition of culture is being driven by the hottest of galleries,
the Tate and the
Saatchi, which assert that whatever goes on, or up, their walls is
art. If a visitor mistakes a light-switch for an exhibit, as happens
from time to time at Saatchi, that's their problem. Art is what is.
But even the vague needs to be named. The British Council is
staging a Brit Art exhibition in Tel Aviv under the title No World
Without You, a song by Kylie Minogue. "Why Kylie?" I
asked a contemporary-art expert, Andrew Renton. "Because she can
be anything you want her to be - the perfect barometer," he
replied. How Kylie sings is immaterial. What matters is that this
malleable icon, who says she cries herself to sleep for not knowing
who she is, appears to represent where we are now: in a word, our
This perceptual transition has placed high culture
under intense pressure to acquire new criteria. The canonic
assumptions of music curators are melting in multicultural heat and
critics are struggling to encompass a globality of sound. I put on a
Naxos disc of Georgian singing. It sounded off-key to my ears. That, I
discovered, is how Georgians like it.
The gulf is
generational more than it is geographical. This month's Masterprize
final, showcasing new orchestral works by young composers, was
rubbished by most music critics for its tonal, easy-listening modes. "Absolute
tosh!" exclaimed an eminent festival director. Within his terms
of reference, that assessment was valid. To any curator over 50,
raised on the Received Canon of the three Bs - Bach, Beethoven,
Brahms, plus Boulez, Ligeti and Birtwistle
for living relevance - the movie-score music of Masterprize
represented a vacancy of ideas. But to a generation that embraces
Misia and Kylie, the easily visualised soundworlds of Anthony
Iannaccone, Pierre Jalbert and Qigang Chen were thrilling. Both the
audience and, more tellingly, the youth orchestra that performed the
music, gave vent to immense enthusiasm.
It may well be that
the under-thirties belong to a different species. Some researchers are
now wondering whether the dietary, social and environmental changes of
the past quarter-century have not affected the ways we relate to art.
Attention spans, we know, are shorter among the text-message
generation. They may also respond to different cultural stimuli.
world is moving on, faster than in any epoch in art history.
Ephemerality is integral to art. Today's trash is tomorrow's culture,
and vice versa. Music that was dangerous in 1980 can now be heard on
Granny's favourite, Radio 2. And homely Radio 2 has itself acquired
cult status. "The old categorisations are no longer valid,"
says Roger Wright, Radio 3's moderate reformer. "Liveness,
quality, topicality and new work are the drivers."
may sound like the self-vindication of a public broadcaster under
ratings pressure, but it reflects more of the here and now than can be
felt in major arts centres and music festivals. The seismic shift in
cultural definition has registered at fringe London venues such as
Battersea and the soon-to-be-reopened Roundhouse, but not at Covent
Garden or the Albert Hall. The newly appointed curators of the
Salzburg Festival and Carnegie Hall belong to an obsolete canonic
school that never opens the windows to check the cultural weather.
What is needed is a new breed of curator, one that will
challenge rather than conserve, and a new breed of critics whose ears
have been retuned to a broader frequency. Booking Kylie or Misia for
the orchestral Christmas pageant will not do the trick. With our
entire culture in flux, serious music must abandon canonic safety,
alter its environment and change its criteria, or die.
Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of
several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The
Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000,
was published by Simon & Schuster.