• Radio 3 – Hear and Now Fifty

Well, you can see from the preceding post Toothless, Lame and Lazy that I get hot under the collar about all this celebrity endorsement.  It’s as if programme makers (or more likely their executive seniors) don’t believe that music can stand up for itself.  You can imagine my horror when I heard a few days ago about the celebrity component planned for a Radio 3 bastion of musical self-sufficiency, Hear and Now.

This strand, under different titles, has long stood up for contemporary musical creativity.  It’s always been forward-looking, innovative, challenging.  I reported on a characteristically intriguing edition last month (Sit, Stand, Walk).  But even Hear and Now has not been able to resist the pressure to make an ‘essential collection’, the Hear and Now Fifty.  It’s going to be 50 works from 50 years (1950-99) chosen by 50 ‘figures from the worlds of new music and the arts’.  I wonder what the strand’s successor collection will be called next September, because once you’ve started down this path there’s no going back.

As usual, the promotional material has its own brand of tosh: ‘This rich legacy can now be viewed without the prejudices and barriers that dogged its perception at the time’.  Excuse me?  ‘Viewed’?  ‘Dogged’?  ‘Its (the legacy’s?) perception’?

Are we to understand that we are equally distant in time, prejudices and barriers from a work composed in 1999 as we are from one written in 1950?  Have the 50 pieces therefore been chosen for their revisionist potential?  And what about being dogged by today’s prejudices and barriers?

At least it looks as if the ‘50’ will not take over the whole programme each week, which leaves Hear and Now free to continue to pursue its traditional targets.  My initial horror is somewhat lessened by the range, calibre and potential of the creative input from the ’50 figures’.  The first batch looks like this:

17 Sept.    Steve Reich: Different Trains (1988), with electronic music producer Matthew Herbert
24 Sept.    György Ligeti: Atmospherès (1961), with film maker Sophie Fiennes
1 Oct.        Elliott Carter: String Quartet no.3 (1971), with novelist Mark Haddon
8 Oct.        Pierre Boulez: Le marteau sans maître (1955), with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Thereafter we are promised:

Louis Andriessen: De Staat (1976), with composer Michael van der Aa
Iannis Xenakis: Nomos Alpha (1966), with Marcus du Sautoy (again)
Cornelius Cardew: The Great Learning (1970/72), with pianist John Tilbury
John Cage: 4’33” (1952), with artist Tacita Dean
Edgard Varèse: Poème electronique (1958), with composer Tyondai Braxton
Morton Feldman: Extensions 3 (1952), with composer Howard Skempton.

Further, incomplete details indicate that the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson will introduce something by Milton Babbitt, Kronos’s leader David Harrington will introduce George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970), and that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1957) and Toru Takemitsu’s score for the film Kwaidan (1964) will also feature.

It will be interesting to see what the remaining pieces will be.  If Hear and Now is intent on creating a specific canon, how much editorial control has been applied to the repertoire to shape this canonicity?    And how many of the composers and pieces will be as unestablished or ‘non-core’ as in the programme’s habitual focus?  The answer to this last question is particularly key.  If the majority of the ’50’ are of the ‘classic’ status of most of the first ’10’ above, then they will sit awkwardly within the current experimental ethos of this strand, although I can see that they might well have been in the strand had it been running that long ago (there’s a musical-historiographical agenda here).  On the other hand, each ‘1’ may provide an interesting context for the ‘now’ pieces that happen to be in its particular edition of ‘Hear and Now Fifty’.  So there is potential in these juxtapositions; they won’t necessarily be safe.  I’m coming round to the idea.

Hang on a minute.  If each week’s Hear and Now is losing a good proportion of its airtime to these ‘50’, doesn’t that mean that its core mission has been irrevocably diminished?  That is hugely to be regretted.  Why didn’t Radio 3 instead extend its new titling fixation and create a third, contemporary, ‘Classics’ programme that would complement Hear and Now rather than steal from it?

It is, however, a sad sign of our times that most of these ‘50’ works are unlikely to be heard ever again on Radio 3.  So catch them while you can.  You can subscribe to the podcast introduction here –Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics (oh, so there is a ‘Modern Classics’ strand – I thought we’d lost it).

Essential Classics anyone?
Saturday Classics – anyone there?
• ‘Modern Classics’ 1-50, and counting?

(Later.)

The first edition of Hear and Now Fifty has just finished.  The 1/50 came at the end.  First were three pieces from the 41st Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Under its originator and artistic director, John Metcalf, it has moulded a niche for itself by focusing exclusively over the past 20 years on music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on minimalism and on Australian and Eastern European music especially.  Although it is a small event – five concerts in five days – it punches above its weight, thanks largely to links and reciprocal arrangements built up over many years.

Three pieces were broadcast last night, all from the concert given on 8 September by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jean-Michaël Lavoie: Metcalf’s Three Mobiles (with Gerard McChrystal, soprano sax), Mark Bowden’s Lyra (Cello Concerto, with Oliver Coates), and Qichang Chen’s Wu Xing (Qichang Chen was the Music Director of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – his ‘eclectic music will feature strongly in future Vale of Glamorgan Festivals’).

Three Mobiles seemed to have sprung from harmless, mainly American musical idioms current 80 years ago: eloquent, sweet-toned but anachronistic.  The third mobile began with some minimalist patter, but soon reverted to type, with a Coplandesque Hoe-Down threatening to burst out.  Mobility didn’t seem to come into it, certainly not from the perspective of Stockhausen’s Piano Piece XI (1956) or Serocki’s A piacere (1963).

Lyra is a more persuasive work.  With inspiration drawn first from the character ‘Lyra’ in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, plus subsequent links with other meanings of the word (a constellation of stars, a small bass viol, a class of Soviet nuclear submarines), Bowden has fashioned a 20’, one-movement cello concerto by intermingling material from his initial three-movement plan, ‘Vega’, ‘Ayre’ (‘Air’?) and ‘Crushed Depth’.  The soloist spends much of the time in its high register against a busy and sustained orchestral backdrop.  The lyrical element is therefore very much to the fore, with little concertante interplay in the sense of actively working with or against the orchestra.  There are passages of frenetic movement, but no substantial interest in any real dialogue between cello and orchestra.  For most of the time, Bowden seems to hear the soloist as a textural and voluble primus inter pares.  Fifteen minutes in, the strings declaim a modern twist on the idea of a chorale theme and a more motivated and obviously co-ordinated section develops, driving both soloist and orchestra to a powerful climax before they separate again onto parallel tracks in the dying moments.

Wu Xing concerns the Chinese concept of the elements – they have five, not four: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.  Qichang Chen, who studied with Messiaen and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years, was apparently interested in the ways in which these elements could transform into each other.  The score is deliciously fluid, sometimes bearing the hallmark of his teacher, sometimes proving timbrally elusive and more ethnically Chinese.  Its five movements seem to live on the edge, taking unexpected detours, but always convincing in their journey.  He really understands the sonority of the orchestra and the value of material contrasts as well as continuities and the flexibility and balance of tempi.  Alluring, and the clear highpoint in this first of two Hear and Now broadcasts from this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival (next week: Steve Reich’s City Life from the same BBC NOW concert).

And so to the first of the ‘Modern Classics’: Reich’s Different Trains.  It occupied 35 of the programme’s 90 minutes, so over 1/3rd.  That’s 1/3rd lost to the core function of Hear and Now.  I don’t need to add my penny’s worth to the existing discourse on this piece, so what did Matthew Herbert and one of the series’s resident pundits Gillian Moore have to add that was new to the discourse?  Not much, in truth, though they did it in an engaging and intelligent manner.   They spoke over excerpts from the piece, separately and alternately, describing what they each heard as key features.  Reich himself made a brief and telling appearance at the very end.  It was a nicely edited nine and a half minutes.  Ideal podcast material.

But not a whisper about prejudices or barriers having dogged people’s perception in 1988 or since.

I return to my main concern.  Is this the best place to do this, at the expense of the coverage of music being written today?  I hope that Radio 3 will think that this format – a podcast introduction followed by a recording – is worth its own programme slot in a year’s time, called, if it must, Modern Classics.  That would allow Hear and Now to devote its full 90’ to contemporary music of today.

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