Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off.

This article was published in the British listings magazine New Notes in 1996. It was reproduced in World New Music Magazine No.6 in September of the same year.

The old headline "Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off." is as pertinent today as ever. We are now less informed about developments in European music than we have been for decades. Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio were fairly frequently performed, but composers born since 1930: Schnebel, Lachenmann and a long list of others, are almost totally neglected.

Several factors may be responsible: one is perhaps the deliberate avoidance of art which dares to question or subvert an established order in which what has value has financial value, in which the terms ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultural’ are suspect.

Looking through recent copies of New Notes, most concerts display an unbelievable unadventurousness, exceptions being from a handful of brilliant soloists and small ensembles, and one excellent festival (Huddersfield). Looking through the Radio Times is no better: with new music relegated to one ghetto spot at a time when no one is likely to be listening and occasional performances of third-rate British pieces during the day, those who might be inclined to programme challenging new music from Europe have no space to do so and a situation exists where most of the listeners who would be interested know not one note of N.A.Huber, Spahlinger, Stäbler, Radulescu and many others.

We have not advanced as far as we think from the days when Bach walked across Germany for three days to hear Buxtehude. It is remarkable how different concert programmes are in different countries: on one level it may seem logical that Donatoni, Sciarrino, Manzoni and other Italians should occupy perhaps 70% of the programme space in Italy, with the same sort of situation in most other countries; on another level it is quite extraordinary, in a world of the internet, satellite television and a potential single European currency.

Suffice it to say that we simply do not hear much of the greatest music being written now, nor do we have an opportunity to discuss and debate it. The new music that one does find in concerts is far too frequently either of the British middle-of-the-road, instantly forgettable variety or the pseudo-commercial, "I wish I were a pop-star" school of composition. Music organisers are quite misguided if they think that audiences really will respond to this and return for more.

It is also not the rôle of new art gently to massage the eyes and ears of a complacent bourgeoisie. We live in a country in which heritage means giving gamblers' money to the restoration of Victorian urinals, in which one is encouraged to stop smoking not because it is better for one's health, but because it will save the N.H.S. money. Artists, I think, have a duty to present counter-arguments to this sort of debasement of our lives and there are many great artists who are doing just that. I do believe that we should make every effort to hear them.

© James Clarke 1996