The Necessity of Re-invention
21 November 2001
Speech given at the
Musicians' Benevolent Fund annual luncheon
I just want to share
with you for a few minutes some thoughts about the current state of
the musical world and to suggest that we should re-establish, and in
some cases re-order our priorities, so we can strengthen and re-energise
the worlds of music making and listening that are so important to us.
How fast these worlds
have changed - in just the last few years, for example, the explosion
of new technology in general and the internet in particular have made
music universally available with an immediacy that was unthinkable a
decade ago. All sorts of niche interests are now catered for and there
is a greater audience fragmentation than ever before as each individual
is able to follow his or her passions and interests in incredible detail
with the help of online sites and new digital television channels and
It is vital, in this
newly fragmented world, that new technology supports artistic creativity
and that we invent new forms of cultural activity with the new media
as well as build communities of interest among our diverse audiences.
BBC Radio 3 is no longer heard solely on the wireless but now run as
an internet multimedia radio with all the exciting possibilities of
improved audience communication and service that this offers.
And it is this fragmentation
of the media and audiences which forces us - or should force us - to
re-state some of the important principles by which our cultural world
should be governed.
They are for me - the
support of live performance, new work and quality.
I also want to suggest
that we should put celebration higher on our list of priorities too.
Indeed we have much
in the world of music to celebrate. We live in a time when there is
a more abundant wealth of compositional talent in this country than
at any other time in our history and the quality of British performing
musicians is too often taken for granted.
It is these performers
who, together with our composers, are the lifeblood of our musical existence.
It is ironic therefore
that composers struggle to survive here (with promoters and venues often
penalised for the presentation of contemporary work) and it is a miracle
that we still have so many fine musicians who continue to produce such
high quality work often with little or no rehearsal as the economy dictates.
Such schemes as the Arts Council of England's admirable stabilisation
programme for orchestras are to be applauded but I fear that, amid the
plethora of strategy papers, policy reviews and organisational psychologists
(yes the species does really exist), we might be avoiding the obvious
- namely, celebrating the achievements of our composers and performers
and putting in place the necessary support structures to sustain them.
At Radio 3 we place a
huge emphasis on new work and so I have recently doubled the amount
of commissions we normally place in a year so that we currently have
over seventy composers writing substantial works - a risk, I accept,
but better a flawed new work than a good composer unsupported.
The world of visual art,
on the other hand, has largely managed to achieve a sense of celebration
of the new and thereby give a message of confidence about the buoyancy
and success of the current scene.
We used to have the Tate
Gallery. Now? Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St.Ives
- all still the Tate - the brand of the Tate magnificently exploited
and re-invented - but all successful in their individual manifestations
- not only because of their fascinating buildings and locations but,
more importantly, because their content is of real interest and has
been given a new lease of life. Of course we can all argue about the
value of individual works within the collections and about curatorial
decisions - the layout of the galleries, the juxtaposition of works
and so on - but the debate has been stimulated, the discussions encouraged
by the confidence on display. The type of confidence which I feel imbues
the sense of topicality and world of ideas that is at the heart of Radio
This week's success story
in the world of museums is the opening tomorrow of the splendid new
British galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Yes, the design
and layout has been thought through with intelligence and flair but
this re-invention of the V&A collection is, at its core, a celebration
of its content. It has, like the Tate, been brought dramatically to
a new life. (The reconstruction of the staggeringly beautiful music
room from Norfolk House is worth the trip alone).
There is a necessity for
re-invention. Standing still is not an option.
Simply because organisations
(whether they be performing groups, music colleges, venues or funding
bodies) have existed for a number of years does not mean that they have
a right to continue as they have since they were founded, their work
unchallenged. In a climate of cultural change we need to be flexible
and ready to adapt to new environments and audience tastes. And we need
to be ready take hard decisions about the importance of their work based
on real value to the community, not just on nostalgic sympathies.
Hence too the re-invention
of Radio 3 that I'll describe in a moment. We need an urgent action
plan in the world of music to re-invent our venues and programming.
The V&A, the Tate
museums and I might add the Walsall Gallery and the Lowry centre in
Salford are all examples of the business and finance communities working
together with the marketing industry and government (both national and
local) to create something contemporary but of potentially lasting significance.
But crucially they are all projects driven by artistic vision which
must, in my re-stating of priorities, always come first - it is the
art which is the priority and it is artistic leadership which must be
supported by finance and marketing and plans for urban re-generation
- not the other way round.
In the end it is the art
to which people respond.
And what do we have in
and composers and a handful of fine concert halls and opera houses.
After a number of false starts we have finally staggered towards the
opening of the exquisite Handel House in Brook Street and there is the
exciting prospect of the Gateshead Music Centre and a renovated City
Hall in Glasgow. The Gateshead Centre as a home for the Northern Sinfonia
as well as a folk music network and the Glasgow project a home for the
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Both venues plan to include vital educational
and community activities.
In Manchester and Birmingham
there are halls which celebrate the importance of music within our lives
yet we cannot, shamefully, find the necessary political will and courage
here in London to make the South Bank Centre a success. It should be
at the heart of our cultural life and yet the talk for the last decade,
it seems, has been about what sort of roof it should have and how many
Sock Shop and Tie Rack outlets it needs to balance its books. There
has been not enough celebration of what is going on inside the halls.
It's hardly surprising therefore that the public and press have lost
faith in the possibilities of its renovation.
But here is a centre
with one of the prime locations of any arts centre in the world struggling
to rise above its image as a run-down concrete jungle.
It still houses many
fine events and reminds us that its potential is enormous - but its
lack of confidence is saddening. The South Bank Centre is too important
to be allowed to wither on the political vine.
The Barbican Centre, by
contrast, has managed to change its public perception. Not because it
has suddenly become a much-loved architectural wonder - but rather because
it has concentrated on promoting its content not the building. The audience
flocks there because of high quality events - whether they be music
(orchestral, electronica or exotica), theatre, exhibitions or cinema
- or seasons linking them all together. You now hear interesting talk
of the events there not complaints about its supposed ugliness or confusing
There is much talk of
a gloomy world in which orchestras are going bust, the international
record industry being merely a 20th century phenomenon and the promotion
of an ever smaller number of stars trying to reduce the appetite of
the audience which, in reality, wants an ever wider range of stimuli.
But there is a powerfully
optimistic picture too which is not just market driven and which I think
sets a new model for the new century. We are fortunate at the BBC that
the licence fee continues to offer the possibility of leading the way
in setting and moulding some new cultural agendas - however one still
needs to be bold and want to take risks not merely treat art in general
and music in particular as a means of selling golf clubs and Saga Holidays.
Where there is no liveness and new work there is no life.
However, for just one
example of the optimistic signs around you need look no further than
the London Jazz Festival which just ended its two week run. Radio 3
has begun a new partnership with the festival (adding to its list of
festivals with whom it has a special relationship - the Proms, of course,
Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, Bath, WOMAD, the list goes on).
The London Jazz Festival
was an enormous success - huge audiences with a wider demographic than
before and I suspect that no-one left the events staged at the South
Bank disappointed in the buildings - And that is simply because there
was an upbeat atmosphere and a confidence in the way the events were
staged and essential free events which created a real festival atmosphere.
"But I thought Radio
3 was a classical music station?" I heard someone ask. Well, it
has never been just a classical music station - it has been broadcasting
jazz for almost 40 years and it is also the only network on which you
can hear long form drama. So it's perfectly natural for the new Radio
3 to have expanded its drama, its cultural debates, jazz and world music
and given them all a higher profile. The commitment to Western classical
music still drives our programming but in recognising the wider interests
of our audience the mix of programmes is richer than ever.
In London in less than
ten years the under 35s white population will be the ethnic minority.
We must respond to this exciting enriching of our cultural mix with
new ways of attracting audiences and renewed educational commitment
to enthuse the next generation about the joy of music beyond just the
chart show hits.
There is a necessity to
re-invent our great institutions - not, as some glibly think, to reject
the past but to build on the ideals and qualities which still hold good
today and re-mould our world to a new purpose. So Radio 3 is building
on the world of ideas and high standards of its heritage but making
them fit for a 21st century existence.
Just one example of this
is my decision to create the Radio 3 World Music Awards which will take
place at Hackney's vibrant new venue Ocean in January.
And has the traditional
audience revolted and marched upon Broadcasting House? No! Rather it
has accepted this exciting new agenda for the network, and the audience
is now listening to the network for longer than ever before and flooding
to our website (an additional 40,000 people just for the London Jazz
Festival in the last fortnight).
I now receive letters
from listeners which tell me that, with their background and education,
they "never thought they would be listening to Radio 3 let alone
recommending it to their friends" - confirmation that we are making
some progress in opening the door to the world of live music and the
arts in an entirely non-threatening way. It is a way of taking the listener
further on a journey of discovery, not simply presenting the same few
pieces as a means of relaxation - as one writer said recently, "Radio
3 is a power shower not a warm bath".
That's why we have developed
our innovative young artists' scheme New Generations and a new children's
show, Making Tracks, with a unique online component supporting classroom
teaching in a fun way and why we're now broadcasting almost 60% of our
output live or from specially recorded performances.
It is access in the best
sense - not a dumbing down but a smarting up.
Radio 3 is now recognised, even within political circles, as a leader
of cultural change - perhaps the mother of re-invention!
If we should learn anything
from the cultural melting pot of the last century it is that the traditional
terms by which we have categorised music are no longer valid - whether
something is described as classical or jazz, for example is irrelevant
- whether it is excellent should be the only issue at stake. This is
not a question of either/or - it is not necessary to denigrate one musical
cause in order to support another. The public today is happy to respond
to all types of classical music (Western and non-Western) as it is to
other musics - the old hierarchies have disappeared. Quality should
be the only consideration.
But for the most part
we are nervous of addressing this issue in these qualitative terms.
It's curious that we are happy to hear reference to "Elite"
armed forces entering Afghanistan and recoil at the term "elite"
when it is used in reference to the world of culture.
We need to re-order our
priorities with the word quality unashamedly at the top of the list
together with the support for live performance and new work. We should
look for exciting new collaborations and partnerships to free our traditional
forms from their outmoded boxes.
We should then celebrate
the achievements of the artists of all types who challenge, stimulate
and entertain us.
The public will, I think,
respond and care and the long quick march to a greater artistic freedom
and real excitement in the arts will have begun.