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24 September 2014
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Roger Wright

Controller of Radio 3

The Necessity of Re-invention

London, 21 November 2001
Printable version

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 radio networks.

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 3.

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 music?

Wonderful performers 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 walkways.

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.


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