It is nearly ten months since the conviction of Michael and Kay Brewer on charges of sexual assault whilst Michael Brewer was Director of Music at Chetham’s School of Music, during a tragic trial in the course of which the victim, Frances Andrade, took her own life. Since this conviction, there have been a flood of allegations relating to widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse at all of the five specialist music schools in the UK (as for example with the cases of Marcel Gazelle and Robert Waddington), and all the major music colleges as well, as well as further allegations pointing to a widespread culture of collusion, complicity and cover-up of these practices within these institutions. Police investigations have proceeded, and to date there have been a number of arrests of individuals connected to Chetham’s, the Royal Northern College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, some of which may result in criminal charges. However, police have made it clear that it is not possible for them to investigate cases where the perpetrator is now dead, where the victim was over 16 and the events in question took place before the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, or in other cases (especially concerning serious psychological and emotional abuse) where there is no direct criminality involved. Furthermore, it is beyond the scope of a police investigation to look deeper into questions of institutional responsibility for this phenomenon, or the wider culture and values of musical education which may have played a part in allowing these alleged events to happen. Beyond this, in the close-knit world of classical music, where it is practically impossible for victims to remain anonymous even if not named in the press, there has grown since February an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and ostracisation from some quarters (including other musicians and some alumni communities), by individuals disdaining anything which might blacken the names of various ‘great musicians’ or taint the name of institutions, such as can act as a deterrent towards those who might have thought of coming forward. Such a deterrent also has to be set alongside knowledge of the terrible plight of Andrade, which remains in many people’s minds. Some of the institutions are clearly treating this primarily as an issue of their own reputations, with Chetham’s having been revealed to be employing a crisis management firm; some correspondence from former pupils, parents or other interested parties has been brushed off in a breezy manner. Furthermore, resistance to genuinely addressing the problem is growing as part of a wider backlash, as can be found in some comments posted under the regular updates on the subject on the blog of Norman Lebrecht (Slipped Disc), and also in recent debates conducted in the Times Educational Supplement (see my separate post here and also some comments on the ensuing debate here)
Only a full public inquiry into sexual and other abuse in musical education is likely to get to the bottom of this alleged widespread corrosive abuse and ensure both that those who have suffered are heard in safety, and proper recommendations are made to ensure this could never happen again. In February such a petition was set up and garnered over 1000 signatories over just a week, including a huge number of former students at UK specialist music schools and colleges. This was re-opened in May and further signatures added. It has been sent to head teachers, directors of music and college principals, and also to government ministers responsible for education and their shadow counterparts. Whilst to date no indication of an inquiry has yet been received, together with another person I have been having meetings at Parliament, and know that there is a planned meeting of sympathetic MPs from all parties in mid-December, with a view towards lobbying further. Various people have already written to their MPs urging them to support this, and a small caucus of such MPs is being formed. I would strongly urge all people sympathetic to this cause (whether or not they are musicians or have personal experiences) to write to their own MP as soon as possible. A copy of the petition as a PDF is given at the top of this message, and below I reproduce in edited form some text from an earlier blog post indicating how to set about this task. All support is needed now as soon as possible. Please do let others know about this as well.
If you receive a sympathetic reply from your MP, I would be most grateful if you could let me know, then I can forward their name to other interested MPs.
I would like to urge everyone who has signed the petition (and anyone else) to write to their local MP, and preferably as soon as possible. The more MPs are made aware of it by constituents, the stronger the political pressure for an inquiry will be in Parliament. If you are not aware of who is your local MP, go to http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/ and enter your postcode – you should be provided with full contact details for him/her. A basic template for the type of letter you might use which is printed below – naturally feel free to modify it or replace it with something else of your own. I would recommend including a short bit about yourself, in particular stressing any connection you might have to Chetham’s or any other musical institution. I have included a clause for those who might be prepared to meet with their local MP – several people have already made appointments for this. If anyone plans to do this and wants some further briefing, please do contact me. It is also naturally paramount to attach a copy of the petition, which is attached at the top of this post.
Thank you to everyone who has supported this campaign, and above all to those victims who have been brave enough to come forward. The following links feature some important broadcast features from earlier in the year:
The following article from today, by the pioneering Guardian journalist Helen Pidd, is especially important – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/mar/26/chethams-music-school-sexual-abuse-inquiry
The full remarks of the judge prior to sentencing can be found here – warning, these are extremely graphic and could act as a trigger to some – http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/r-brewer-sentencing-remarks.pdf
I am particularly relieved that he chose to draw attention to the ways in which so many prominent people were prepared to back Brewer, in full knowledge of his crimes, because of some misguided ideas that his artistry mitigated against this.
Dear (Member of Parliament),
I am writing as a concerned constituent to ask you to support a petition calling for an independent inquiry into sexual and other abuse in specialist music education.
This petition has been signed by over 1000 people, the majority of them musicians, and includes over 300 former pupils from Chetham’s School of Music, one of the country’s leading specialist music schools.
The petition is attached as a PDF, and it can also be viewed online, with signatories and comments, at https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/re-opened-until-may-31st-2013-petition-for-an-inquiry-into-sexual-and-other-abuse-at-specialist-music-schools/ .
The call for this petition has come in the wake of the recent conviction of Michael Brewer and his wife, Hilary Kay Brewer, on charges of sexual assault against Frances Andrade whilst she was a student at the school. Michael Brewer was Director of Music at Chetham’s when the offences took place. Frances tragically took her life during the course of the trial, and a wide range of further allegations have, as a result of the court case, surfaced since the verdict.
One of the initiators of the petition, Ian Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org ), who has hosted it on his blog, has been contacted by a great many people with many other allegations to suggest that abuse was a widespread phenomenon, at least in former times, and that such abuse spread well beyond Chetham’s to other specialist music institutions throughout the country – many former victims are now finally feeling empowered, sometimes decades after the events in question, to go forward to the police.
On this basis, the signatories are calling for an inquiry into the many aspects of musical education and the workings of these institutions. It is hoped that an inquiry would set out to comprehend why and how such abusive behaviour could apparently so easily occur, and would seek to make certain that current and future procedures are robust enough to ensure that this may be prevented in the future, whilst safeguarding the best aspects of such education and protecting teachers as well.
The safeguarding of all children in education must be a priority to all, but the specialist nature of music education demands a vigorous approach to their safeguarding. The bonds between a music student and their teacher are, by their very nature, intense; the level of study is demanding and the commitment to the subject by both parties means that the relationship between student and teacher is a unique one.
I very much hope that you will see fit to give your own support to such an inquiry, which would, I believe, serve to strengthen the musical education in our country, for both current and future generations.
If you would like further information, [I would be more than happy to meet with you, or] you can contact the petition organiser, Ian Pace, at email@example.com
I received a message last week from another survivor of abuse in UK musical education, which has since been posted on the blog of Norman Lebrecht here. With permission, I am also reproducing it here. The author has told me of his wish for others to come forward about this and other cases. Even where the perpetrator is now dead, it is still important for there to be acknowledgment of what really went on; I would add that there still needs to be much wider and difficult questions asked about the nature of institutions and the culture of musical education which appears to have facilitated widespread abuse (and not just in the UK). At a recent debate organised by the Institute of Ideas at the Barbican Centre, which I attended, the sociologist Frank Furedi (author of the much-criticised Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal) argued that recent talk of abuse in musical education stemmed from a fear of ‘intimacy’, and expressed his concern above all that musical teachers were able to ‘touch the soul’, whilst the educationalist Heather Piper made out that the issue was one of self-aggrandisement on the part of the NSPCC and other institutions on the basis of what was argued to be just a few isolated historic cases. I find these attitudes contemptuous, though in milder form they were echoed by all but one of the other panellists and quite a number of audience members. More and more information is emerging all the time, further arrests are being made (including recently of a former teacher in a London college on multiple charges – see here); certainly everyone so accused must be granted the presumption of innocence, but if even a fraction of the allegations were true, this would evidence of something epidemic. I echo my correspondent’s sentiments below, and once again would urge further all those who care about this issue to contact their MPs ( to ask them to give their support to a public inquiry (for details of how to do so, see my earlier blog posts here). There will be an important meeting of all sympathetic MPs in December; the more there are, the greater the pressure will be.
If you would like to contact the author of the below, please feel free to e-mail me (at firstname.lastname@example.org) with your details, and I will forward them to him.
The tragic story of Frances Andrade and the revelations over the past year of sexual abuse at some of our most prestigious schools of music have stirred up painful memories for me dating from forty years ago.
In the 1970s, I studied piano at the Watford School of Music and was sexually abused over a four-year period by one of the teachers there. The abuse ended when my parents received a letter in the middle of term, stating that the man was no longer able to teach at Watford School of Music and I was then taught by someone else.
However, my abuser continued to teach at the Royal College of Music until 1995 when, I have since learned, he was convicted of a sexual offence. He died in 2004 and his obituary appeared in several daily newspapers.
The experience affected me deeply and stunted my emotional and sexual development. I became withdrawn, anxious and angry. For many years I was unable to form healthy, intimate relationships and bouts of deep depression have been a regular feature of my life.
As a result of intensive psychotherapy, I have been able to appreciate for the first time the seriousness of the damage I suffered but also to realise that I was not, as I used to think, to blame for what happened to me all those years ago. I know I am not my abuser’s only victim and if one of you is reading this, or if any of what I have written resonates with your own experience or knowledge of sexual abuse at either the Watford School of Music or the Royal College of Music in the period before 1995 it would be good to hear from you.
I tell my story here so not merely as an attempt to reach some closure on this painful episode, but hopefully to encourage other victims to tell their stories too.
Addendum: Another victim has chosen to share their story of abuse at a music school, which can be read on Slipped Disc here.
The latest issue of Search, the journal for new music and culture, is now online here. There are numerous interesting articles contained within; I am particularly interested in the second part of Franklin Cox’s extended and well-researched critique of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (see my earlier post on Part 1 here). There is much of great interest in this 79-page essay, but I would especially draw attention to the sections on Chaikovsky. I have previously worked under the assumption that many of Taruskin’s claims about Chaikovsky (and other Russian composers) are likely to be basically sound, even where I might differ with respect to the valorisation, and have used some of them (alongside material on Chaikovsky from other writers) for teaching purposes. But this critique sets some of these into relief. Cox not only looks sceptically at some of the populist claims made by Taruskin about audiences for opera in general in the nineteenth century (as Dana Gooley had similarly done in his landmark study The Virtuoso Liszt, comprehensively demonstrating how Liszt’s audiences, far from entailing wide sections of the populations of the regions where he performed, tended to be dominated rather by slightly lower strata of the higher classes than those for some of his contemporaries), but also gives a strong argument for why Taruskin’s espousal of the ‘asocial’ Brahms as against the ‘social’ Chaikovsky falls apart according to Taruskin’s own neo-liberal criteria:
‘One must also draw attention to the uncomfortable fact that in terms of the sort of free-market ideology that Taruskin often appears to favor, Tchaikovsky was not particularly successful on the strength of his own efforts. The music of composers such as Rossini, Johann Strauss II, or François-Adrien Boieldieu was widely performed and enjoyed by a great variety of audiences outside of a narrow aristocratic support structure. In contrast, without state and wealthy patron support, Tchaikovsky would not have achieved the great success he did; indeed, he would not have even been able to compose most of the works for large forces that are the centerpiece of his output. The comparison to his “dialectical” opposite, the “asocial” Brahms, is instructive. Brahms spent a great portion of his career writing for and conducting amateur choral societies, which is clearly a social activity. He also succeeded in attracting a sufficient audience for his “asocial” music allowing him to amass a respectable fortune by the end of his life. In free-market terms, it was Brahms, not Tchaikovsky, who was successful as a composer-entrepreneur.’ (p. 16)
It is equally worth noting in this context how Brahms himself chided Clara Schumann for being ‘too aristocratic’, writing to her in June 1858:
‘Art is a republic.
You should make this more of a maxim than you do. You are much too aristocratic. I cannot deal with this at length now, but will do when we meet in person. This has struck me very much in the case of Henkel, and in a different way with Grimm.
Do not confer a higher status upon any artist, do not expect those lower down to look up to him as a consul. Because of his abilities, he is a beloved and respected citizen of the said republic, but not a consul or an emperor.’
(‘Die Kunst ist eine Republik.
Das solltest Du mehr zu Deinem Spruch machen. Du bist viel zu aristokratisch. Ich kann Dir das nicht lang ausführen, aber mündlich einmal. Mir ist das bei Gelegenheit Henkel und anders herum bei Grimm scharft aufgefallen.
Weise nicht einem Künstler einen höhern Rang an, und verlange nicht von Kleinern, sie sollen ihn als Höhern, als Konsul ansehen. Durch sein Können wird er ein geliebter und geachteter Bürger der besagte Republik, aber kein Konsul oder Imperator’)
Brahms’s ‘republic’ was almost certainly modelled upon the bourgeois concert-going public of the cities he frequented – eventually Vienna, though he had not yet located himself there at the time of this letter. In the summer of 1858 Brahms was in between periods working at the principality of Detmold, conducting the mostly aristocratic Singverein there, which he described as ‘larded with nobility, without a necktie’; his frustrations with this period in his career are clear from his letters to Joachim, and Brahms became much happier when returning to Hamburg to conduct the amateur bourgeois Frauenchor there, the prospect of which had been put to him by his friend Julius Otto Grimm during that very summer of 1858 when he wrote to Clara. If Brahms was ultimately a composer for the comfortable bourgeois audiences of Vienna and elsewhere, rather than producing music for some nebulous idea of ‘all people’, his own claims to being ‘social’, especially in terms of whether or not he privileged an aristocratic listenership, are at least as strong if not more so than those of Chaikovsky.
But returning to Chaikovsky, Cox delivers the following damning verdict:
‘Empirical facts were supposed to have supplied the fabric of his “true history,” but in this case, in order to satisfy his “asocial/social” thesis, Taruskin is forced to postulate not only a compositional intent on Tchaikovsky’s part against which a great deal of evidence militates, but also a robust and well-defined century long symphonic tradition for which little clear evidence exists.’ (pp. 16-17)
To substantiate this, Cox draws upon some correspondence from Chaikovsky in which he expresses very mixed feelings about public approval, criticising Berlioz for ‘wanting to please’, demonstrates how much Chaikovsky’s criticisms of Brahms (which were indeed very strong) related to some of his own self-doubts, in terms of handling of form, and considers the contradiction between Taruskin’s ‘social’ construction of Chaikovsky and the fact that the composer wished to keep the programmes behind some of his works secret, all helping to provide a much more nuanced view of Chaikovsky’s relationship to his public than that which is given by Taruskin to suit his own didactic aims. Taruskin’s adoption of Chaikovsky (and numerous other Russian composers) towards the propagation of a ‘realist’ aesthetic becomes more problematic in the context of scenarios for opera and ballet alluding heavily to the supernatural, the exotic, or that derived from fairy-tales and other mythologies. Furthermore, as Cox points out, there are innate problems inherent in the application of a realist principle to such heavily formalised and stylised media as opera and ballet. This is one reason that some of the most radical experiments in ‘realist’ opera by Dargomïzhsky (in Rusalka) and Musorgsky (in his unfinished opera The Marriage) remain primarily of purely historical interest, mostly in terms of how (in Musorgsky’s case) they could contribute to a widened operatic musical language, rather than serve as the basis for the very nature of operatic composition.
But perhaps most acute is Cox’s critique of Taruskin’s postulation of the relationship between Chaikovsky and Mozart. That Chaikovsky admired Mozart very greatly, perhaps as much as any composer, is not in doubt, but Taruskin (as earlier in the section on Chaikovsky in his book Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays) extrapolates from this that Chaikovsky therefore adhered to an eighteenth-century, in particular pre-Beethovenian, model of the legitimate role of the composer. Taruskin draws up an alternative non-Germanic canon, including Rossini, Auber, Gounod, Bizet and Délibes, which he presents as a shining counter-example to those wicked Teutons who represent the ‘other’ of most of his arguments. Chaikovsky then naturally takes his place within this tradition.
This is a powerful argument in its own way against a more conventional Austro-German canonical view of history, and one which has informed some of my own teaching of music history. But Cox aptly demonstrates how problematic is its rendition at the hands of Taruskin. To attempt to posit a clear separation between Mozart and the Austro-German tradition which followed him is already fraught with difficulties, particularly on account of the fact that it took quite some time before he was widely appreciated in France in particular. The links between Rossini, Auber and Gounod are tenuous at best; for Taruskin it seems mostly to suffice to place them together on grounds of being non-German. But, in France and Russia in particular, there were (something not really followed up so much by Cox) very strong attempts to develop operatic idioms pointedly different from the still-dominant and highly formalised (especially at the hands of Rossini) conventions of Italian traditions, and furthermore delineations between social classes in terms of which types of operas they would attend (some members of the high nobility in either country would never deem to visit any opera not in Italian). To write history as a Manichean struggle between the Germans and the rest is not only to continue to fight World War Two in the realms of music history, as seems to be Taruskin’s continual wish, but also to remain fixed within the categories bequeathed by some earlier historians, who Taruskin rightly critiques, who would place most non-Germanic music from the nineteenth century into an essentially supplementary chapter entitled ‘Nationalisms’. French, Russian, Italian operatic traditions (not to mention the smaller traditions to be found in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere) do not constitute a unified body of work, let alone a new linear canon; they do indeed deserve to be studied with respect and attention (as do non-operatic traditions from these countries) with an eye to their many differences, which could sometimes become quite antagonistic.
Cox, on the basis of detailed readings of Chaikovsky’s letters, finds Taruskin’s claims that Chaikovsky essentially bypassed a Beethovenian symphonic tradition to be hollow. He makes this argument on the basis that Chaikovsky made repeated references to Beethoven, Wagner and some others and was clearly highly conscious of this tradition and its relationship to his own work, but never constructed the sort of alternative canon that Taruskin would like. This does not exclude the possibility that Chaikovsky might have thought a little in such terms, though not written it down, but much more evidence is needed to justify Taruskin’s at the very least exaggerated claims.
This is just one part of this essay on the basis of which I will personally look differently at a historical model of Chaikovsky which I had perhaps accepted too readily from Taruskin. The political power exerted by a senior and renowned musicologist can be a dangerous thing, especially when that power makes other more junior figures reluctant to question his findings, whatever basis upon which they are founded. Cox has done a valuable service in this respect – as has Paul Harper-Scott in a scathing critique of Taruskin’s alleged xenophobia and dogged adherence to the values of American free market capitalism in his recent book The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism. There are many ways in which Taruskin’s arguments have helped to shake up lots of earlier complacencies within Anglo-American musicology; but it is important to continue to interrogate his highly particular and not always well-founded or informed conclusions, rather than allow them to assume the status of ideology in an academic world which can sometimes yearn for easy certainties which accord with a neo-liberal status quo.
The focus of my own work as a performer has been upon the nebulous category of ‘contemporary music’, or ‘new music’, terms informally understood as signifying music in some sense connected to a ‘classical’ tradition (a term itself which could fill a whole book), in distinction to rock, pop, jazz, folk and other traditions (atonal free improvisation is a borderline candidate for inclusion in the ‘contemporary/new music’ category), and usually adhering in one or other sense to an atonal idiom, in the simple sense of a music which is not obviously organised around tonal centres.
This type of work is of course very far from constituting the whole or even the majority of ‘contemporary music’ in the broadest sense of the term, indicating simply music which is produced in or around the time when the term is being used. In this sense ‘contemporary’ music could equally be Rhianna or Eminem as the above – and indeed to the majority of the listening public in any Western nation, this would be much more representative of what is considered to be the music of their time. But the specific term and concept of ‘new music’ in its German form (Neue Musik) has a long history, from the end of World War One, when it was taken up by the critic Paul Bekker, then conductor Hermann Scherchen and composer Heinz Tiessen, and developed in various directions, but always signifying a music which constituted a palpable break with the recent past (which did not always exclude music which self-consciously flaunted archaisms, such as the neo-classical Stravinsky). Some type of ‘newness’ (or at least incorporation into a new tradition perceived as new) is in this context a necessary but not sufficient condition of ‘new music’.
For a great many years, I have bemoaned the ways in which the ‘classical’ field has for the most part turned its back upon the music of today, other than to the extent that such music is seen to resemble the products of a hallowed ‘tradition’. Radical music which challenges established patterns of listening or other musical expectations needs an open mind and fair listening, to my mind, and there remains an important place for challenging work which is unlikely ever to win a wide audience. This is perhaps more generally accepted in other artistic fields than in music.
Yet in more recent times, in both the fields of performance/composition and also in academia, I have perceived a way in which the ‘contemporary’ has come to assume a fetish quality, in a way which is anything but radical. I have heard countless works of music characterised by one or other form of novelty, be it the use of cutting edge new technology or software, some off-piste approach to the use of instruments, musical structure or other parameters, some concept seen to accord with absolutely ‘contemporary’ concerns, and so on. Most cringeworthy (and this genre has developed an unhappy ‘tradition’ of its own) are those works which involve a token allusion to some voguish popular music from the time, an allusion which rarely does more than mimic the stylistic surface of the popular music in question with little thought to wider considerations of context, the traditions which the popular music inhabits, and so on.
Much of this work demonstrates very little in terms of historical self-awareness, such as might lead to work on musical dimensions other than those which can be conceived as entirely ‘contemporary’, and as such a lot of such work becomes redundant after a few hearings, or after some time has passed from its composition; when its contemporaneity dissipates, there is little left, and so little chance of a more lasting long-term impression to be made. There is most definitely a place for the musically ephemeral and disposable, and I would not wish to unnecessarily denigrate such work, but much greater expectations are often placed upon contemporary music in ways which it can be ill-equipped to follow up.
One classic argument against a particular variety (perhaps caricature) of ‘first principles’ modernism goes roughly as follows: if we tried to explain all the workings of the world – global social and economic processes, the arms trade, human relationships, and so on – purely in terms of elementary units of matter and energy, we would be unlikely to get very far. This is obviously true; an understanding of such things requires a comprehension of macroscopic processes and all that can be learned from history, systems theories, and various else. In a similar manner, I do not believe that very much radical contemporary music has not in some sense been built upon a critical relationship to musical traditions. A small amount of work in the 1950s attempted either a type of ‘particle’-based approach to musical composition or an architecturally/structurally-focused approach in which microscopic detail was of secondary importance (or in some cases a combination of the two); some quite remarkable work was produced in this way, but few of the composers were able to maintain such an idiom for long. Most soon started to re-enter into a dialogue with older traditions, by no means necessarily from a nostalgic perspective, but in order to partake of the achievements of the past in order to move on from them. Even the very fact of aiming for a type of high abstraction itself constituted a indebtedness to tradition, as negation is a dependent relationship as much as any other. For all that John Cage spoke often about his distance from the centres of tradition, without the existence of such a tradition in relation to which his work was apparently ‘other’, he would never have made such an impact.
But this is not what I see now in many musical and academic circles. Instead – fuelled in part by narrow technocratic approaches to the study of music, as well as some of those coming out of anthropology and ethnomusicology which are by virtue of their very methods often ill-able to study musical traditions which are not active in the present, and frequently show very little interest in incorporating into their study historical roots of present-day musics – I see attitudes and approaches which are simply ignorant (sometimes quite proudly) of musical and other history, entirely obsessed with a snapshot view of the present. Any consideration of earlier traditions or their bearing on the present can from this perspective be dismissed as merely conservative, the idle refuge of those who seek solace from a supposedly vibrant present in some lost and romanticised past.
I do not accept this, nor that history and ‘tradition’ are the sole property of conservatives. In trying to understand the roots of the current world economic situation, I might consider the opening up of world markets following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, the decline of the Bretton-Woods agreement in the 1970s and the rise of neo-liberalism, combined with the consequences of the oil crisis during this period, itself related to territorial struggles and military action in the Middle East, perhaps back further to the post-1945 conditions which made Bretton-Woods possible, and beyond to the histories of nationalism and imperialism that played a part in bringing about two world wars, and further beyond still. Without pretending to be an expert on these huge historical issues, I do firmly believe that without such historical conditions, the current global economic situation might be very different indeed, and in order to at least assess the possibilities for change and how to act to bring it about, some degree of historical understanding is necessary. Furthermore, historical traditions do not consist exclusively of calamities; one might look at the movement towards expanded suffrage, incorporating the working classes and women, towards a greater acceptance of sexual diversity, away from wholeheartedly racist ideologies portraying clear ethnic hierarchies on a pseudo-scientific basis, towards positive increases in medical technology which alleviate many people from living in conditions of chronic pain as they would have done in earlier eras, and so on.
The same goes for music: almost every music style, genre or idiom which can be witnessed today itself draws upon its own history and tradition; traditions in which one can find elements to be valorised in all varieties of positive or negative ways. Much music which is either radical or even mildly distinctive has neither slavishly adhered to these traditions nor simply negated them, but learned techniques, aesthetics, possibilities, which can be critiqued and transformed in line with contemporary needs. And some of the most devastatingly modern music makes its impact because of the way it situates itself with respect to traditions and its concomitant expectations for listening. None of this is possible from a position of total historical ignorance or amnesia. Be-bop required a consciousness of the Swing Era (towards which it would be simplistic to view be-bop simply as a negation, rather than a modification and shift of priorities) and indeed of earlier jazz and some other musical traditions. Cage had an intense interest in Satie, Duchamp, the Bauhaus, and various else, not to mention certain renditions of Asian philosophies. Salvatore Sciarrino’s music not only draws upon a deep knowledge and appreciation of the music of Liszt, Debussy, Ravel (and Monteverdi and Gesualdo) and others, but equally the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Michelangelo Antonioni and others, and all the possibilities they bequeathed to music. Hip-hop from outside of the Western world (or even outside of African-American communities and the music industries which variously nurture and control them) exists in a particular relationship to musical (and spoken) traditions both from the places of hip-hop’s origins and also in the places where it comes to be newly developed. None of this music simply involves an aping of its predecessors; indeed in many cases the relationship is ambivalent, but nonetheless informed and intelligent.
To create a simple dichotomy between ‘tradition’ and the ‘contemporary’ is to deny a whole range of contemporary possibilities. It is perhaps no coincidence that in certain fields (certainly in fashion and popular music) recent decades have seen ever-increasing waves of retro-mania, indicative of a need to anchor oneself in a clear past as an alternative to a groundless present. Much that is stimulating arises from such a sensibility, not least because of the impossibility of wholly re-creating past styles in different historical conditions. But there is much still to be gained from historical understanding such as makes possible an engaged and critical form of creation, which may have implications beyond the present day, and it takes a very high degree of arrogance to pretend one has nothing whatsoever to learn from the successes and failures of earlier musicians.
There is nothing necessarily ‘organic’ about traditions, which frequently feature fissures and ruptures as much as smooth continuity and development; but this is one reason why such traditions can be much more radical than they might be portrayed by conservatives. Equally, being ‘contemporary’ is by no means synonymous with bracketing out all those conditions which inform the particularity of the present day. Having some wider awareness which extends beyond the here and now is of no small importance when aiming to produce work which will indeed do that. Novelty and shock value are rarely radical any longer on their own; on the contrary, they are the lifeblood of a commodity society which needs new marketing tricks. Earlier modernism could be presented in a context when there did exist some ‘general listening public’ to classical music, and a deferential belief that any work in this tradition must have an automatic superiority of that emerging from other traditions. Today that public is fragmented and diffuse, and the consequent impact severely diminished; conservative listening communities can easily ignore an art which is reduced to simply baring its backside to those who care little. It is no longer enough simply to be new; it is also necessary to be meaningful, and that meaningfulness is inextricably intertwined with the expectations of listeners that are themselves informed by traditions.