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WHO SAYS I'M USELESS?

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 07:33 UK time, Saturday, 30 May 2009

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Nicholas Maw died last week. The Radio 3 Music Matters obituary mentioned how Britten had told him that music needs to be 'useful', an idea that stuck with him. Casals said the same thing. Beethoven battled between serving his posh paymasters and being useful to the real people. But what does this mean in practice? Who is it that gets to say this or that is useful, or this or that is useless? How do they judge it, and does it matter? Well, we don't seem to have made much use of Maw's music - do you know any of his pieces? Sibelius was last week's Composer of the Week, with a focus on his last years. He was certainly one of the world's most useful composers. The bard of his people. Their warrior and hunter, sitting by the fire narrating their story to them. But, strange to say, many leading musical figures said he was a waste of space.

Have you clocked the Beeb's big poetry binge - I've never seen so much 'high culture' (why do we use that phrase?) being made so accessible and entertaining - how useful is that? Amongst the plethora of programmes, 'Why Poetry Matters' by Griff Rhyss Jones had me howling with laughter.....even shedding a discrete tear. Griff is useful, poetry is useful. But they're all useless, meaningless, null and void, unless someone actually uses the poetry (that'll be you and me?). Dead poets, deceased parrots......what will bring them to life? Here's Griff's answer: "It must happen for us now, it must call up emotions we've always had". Could that be the definition of 'useful' that I seek?

I can't tell you how many compositions of dubious use I've played in my career. Nobody wanting to play it....nobody wanting to hear it.....even conductor and producer not wanting to do it......failing to arouse even a tentative twitch of emotion...... except irritation. The Beeb, slewing between the slalom sticks of commercialism and public accountability, carries a sacred duty to achieve a balance, and give us lots of useful stuff. Radio 3's job is to support minority interests, to satisfy our several proclivities - but who judges usefulness - does the assessment and feedback stage ever go awry - how is usefulness going to be assessed? Radio 3 has just won Sony's Radio Station of the Year award - that's useful. Here's another question for you to chew at: Is it right that classical music should be ghettoised to a minority station, shunted off to a siding? Could classical music ever be mainline?

Simon Rattle has championed Maw, and, being interviewed on Music Matters, he said that Maw's time is coming, because "music has taken a different turn". Music to my ears. What is that different turn? Music managements are reassessing what we play and how we present it - though this might merely be for commercial reasons - but that's enough to change direction. We've got to engage with you, the audience. We've got to win you over, to tumble you. Are you willing? (Yeah, I know, if you're reading this, you'll have signed up to classical music anyway.) And what about us players, the musical navvies: is it possible that we have abrogated responsibility? Ours but to do and die. We just sit there and play what we are told to play. Today's menu is already forgotten as we prepare tomorrow's. We just about get enough time to learn the notes, we rarely get a chance to live ourselves into the music, to discover its inner richness - assuming that there's richness to want to discover. Worse, if there's a risk of having to reveal our true feelings, we tend to dissemble. As a tribe, we tend to shun showy presentation. This inscrutability might easily be confused with sophisticated artistry - or is it just a useful get out? Doing it every day, we might easily lose sight of why we're doing it in the first place. Come to think of it, why are we?

Anne Akiko Meyers was playing the Barber violin concerto with us last week. What a piece! I've worn out records of it. What a player! Listening to her was a highlight (not to mention watching her.....and being paid for it......!) What a range of emotion it contains - do you roll over for those emotions, like I do. She plays with consummate artistry, and all the requisite exquisite show biz wotsits. And for an encore, she drew a gasp by playing another contemporary piece - Somewhere over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and E Y "Yip" Harburg. This has been lauded as the 'the best song ever'. And that's how she played it. Was this useful? The book 'Wizard of Oz' has been lauded as the greatest American fairy tale. Slow down! Do I sniff a whiff of condescension wafting in the air between us? Is this stuff 'real' literature or 'real' music? Is this fairy tale as useful as the old ones, which are 'real'? Well, is it any more or less manufactured and artificial than fairy tales by the Grimms or Anderson, the Kallevala, or MacPherson's Ossian (beloved by no lesser folk than Mendelssohn and Goethe)? Stephen Johnson, glowing golden from his own personal Sony award, was 'Discovering' Stravinsky's Firebird with us on Monday. No doubt about the greatness of that fairy tale. It got me comparing: Who's the biggest baddie - the wizard of Oz, or Katshchei of the Firebird? Katshchei, the shadowy metaphor living in our own mental underworld, who turns our emotions to stone. Or the wizard of Oz, who's like the vapid autocrats we're so quick to trust (the bankers?), or the fashion leaders who we allow to tell us what we think, or like our elected political leaders who screech their "manufactured animosities" (while we follow them to disaster). At least the wizard of Oz owned up, and showed us that we can walk freely out of our illusions. "Manufactured animosities" is a quote from Jeremy Paxman, from his harrowing programme about Wilfred Owen's poetry. Here's an interesting co-incidence: It was Britten's War Requiem that helped spring Owen's poetry out of obscurity, re-embodied it out of the void of unfashion. And now Owen is second most useful to Shakespeare for being studied in schools. That's very useful.

Another coincidence: 'Music Matters' was already interviewing Penderecki when the need arose to include an obituary for Maw. Penderecki dropped out of the avant garde in 1984 because he wanted his music to be useful - particularly for the Gdansk workers who were campaigning, and even dying, for basic political freedom. If he was to say anything, it had to communicate and be meaningful - both Maw and Penderecki rejected the avant garde. Years ago, the inimitable cellist Rohan de Saram played a studio performance of Maw's cello concerto with us - this grabbed me - this was a piece that should be taken to the Proms. I've never heard it since. It's expansive, accessible, and meaningful - what Griff would call an "authentic emotional experience". Was Maw the only composer to get shoved off the pavement in the rush for posh intellectualism and cerebral self abuse? Who else got wobbled off the path?

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