Saturday, April 28, 2007

TV Review - Hidden Children

BBC2, 27.4.07

Francophilia can be selective. You see the Cubist patterns formed by terracotta roofscapes of a Vivarais hill-town; I see the smuts and rain of the banlieues of Lille and Roubaix where the graffiti will never wash off. I hear Ravel; you hear Jonny Hallyday. It’s the same for the French.

They often choose not to know their own past, a tendency more widespread there than in today’s Germany. This was unevenly but sometimes movingly brought to life here, on the deportation of French Jews under first the puppet Vichy government and then the total occupation from 1942 onwards.

I was always shocked to hear that many French enjoyed the appalling Allo Allo; but it has, surely for these people, something to do with managing the unacceptable past by a snowjob of l’humeur anglais. The very fact it was made in England spared the French having to confront the ambiguities of the war themselves. The choices they had to make, and what they meant. For them and others. Conscience, or death.

This writer’s choices are difficult, but not as elemental. For a start, Hidden Children felt like a quart-pint-pot show, cramming a beret into a pocket too small for it. It never quite decided whether or not it was about the sometimes heartbreakingly pathetic Jewish infants packed off on the trains from Drancy to the showers at Auschwitz, or those French citizens who sheltered them, the turners of blind eyes, the awkward squad, the just-say-non brigade, their bravery and sacrifice. Upright schoolmarms and governesses would guard kids from the willingly-nazified gendarmerie who doubtless in their dotage laugh at René and Yvette; almost an entire village in the south-west became a haven for Jewish refugee kids, but the hows and whys of these facts we never found out, ditto those Jewish refugees rumbled by their guardians who’d been duped into thinking they were taking in good Catholics. How and why were they parcelled out to new fosterers, and not into the cattle-trucks?

Historical context was also entirely missing; the Vichy Republic’s creation was ignored. Nothing was mentioned of the virulent strains of French anti-semitism from the early 19th-century onwards which in intellectual circles sometimes dwarfed even the Jew-hating of Germany. Was it not Gobineau, a French noble, who codified an inequality of races and was the inspiration behind any number of maniacs including the Hitlerite hero Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s furiously anti-semitic books? The fact that L’affaire Dreyfus, France’s defining moment of anti-semitism, was not even mentioned, would make any intelligent French person laugh their socks off. There is no Maurras, no Brasillach, no Céline, none of les collaborateurs, the Catholic church might as well not exist.

Other choice? The film was well-made, respecting its dues to The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah (but when is Holocaust TV going to pay off these debts and move into creative credit?). There was lots and lots of testimony, naturally, and valuably. The interjection of historic content (letters written to parents prior to deportation) was handled by a sensitive person who wished to respect the dead rather than to emotionally manipulate the living. There was plenty of room for silence, ambient noise was hushed, even in Paris; the only music was that of Bach’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a rare example of coordinated soundtracking.

I have argued in these pages before that filmic coverage of the Nazis and the Holocaust has developed and now imposes an audio-visual syntax; railway tracks, barbed wire, Shostakovich slow movements, torchlight processions, weeping ghetto urchins. It is a tyranny about a tyranny. Ophuls’ Sorrow and Lanzmann’s Shoah probably stand least accused, and the directors appear to understand this. Certainly, the humanisation of the four hidden survivors testifying here is sharp and sympathetic. Peter Feigl, a Viennese émigré who leapt out of the frying pan into the French fire in the late 1930s, was extraordinarily un-Jewish-looking. Suzanne Rappoport now lives in England and returns to the house where she was hidden; her eyelashes, inky-black as a Parisian balcony railing, her once-jet hair now a piled Duraglit pad, is quiet and resigned, her pluff cheeks caked in foundation as though to obliterate memories of who she was made to be back then.

The problem here, however, is that of emotional and intellectual weight. Those directors had enormous canvases to paint upon; one left the cinema moved by the sheer vastness of the atrocity, if nothing else. Hidden Children, within the absurdly circumscribed timespan of an hour, tries valiantly, but never quite pulls it off – despite the situations in which the hunted and their protectors found themselves in, despite the survivors returning to their refuges, often with tears, there is a strange absence of tension, of drama. Our memories of this programme will be with those kids who got taken away and whose letters survive, not those whose bodies and minds survive. I am not sure if that was the priority, or should have been.

It’s wrong to forget as long as we can still remember – but selectivity, no matter how much at the behest of the editorial clock, commits sin by omission. Let the full story be told, or, to traduce Santayana, those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.

TV Review/Music - Elgar: Ten Best

BBC2, 27.4.07

Sometimes it pays to be a poor writer; you don’t throw money away on bets, even shoo-ins. And there could hardly be a shoo-in more bankable than ‘Nimrod’ out of the Enigma Variations making it to No.1 in Ten Best, ostensibly a run-down of Elgar’s greatest hits.

Likewise, the odds on this programme - opening the BBC’s tokenistic celebration of the Worcester tunesmith and Wolves fan’s 150th anniversary - being a horrible pander to Classic FMism were as short as those on Vanessa Feltz ordering an extra helping of kasha. After all, ‘as voted for by listeners’ now should send as chilly a shiver up an intelligent person’s spine as the words ‘Tonight - Bobby Davro’.

But all bets were off. Admittedly, the presence of the squawking Myleene Klass (where were the quotes around her billing as ‘musician’?) didn’t augur well, but Ten Best was middlebrow TV like it was once made, based on the assumption that if you didn’t know what the talking heads were saying you’d want to. Paul Tortelier’s cello masterclasses, André Previn’s lectures on symphonic form, Dick Hyman on playing the piano; expertise from experts, simply done on a simple medium, TV.

Sure enough, it would have been nice to have had more about Elgar’s extraordinary and very un-English rhythmic sense and odd time-signatures (towards the end of his life he became interested in dance band music), but surely the job of an intelligent TV producer is to condense a demanding subject in as literate and visually stimulating a way as possible. One of the best compliments a one-off documentary can receive is ‘worth a series’. This was, is.

One of the problems with presenting music documentaries on TV is that the words obscure and traduce the notes. Paradoxically, in a show as good as this, the problem is exacerbated; so well do Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy and conductor Vernon Handley exposite Elgar’s method and thought-processes, the more one wants the excerpts to go on and on. There was also a clip – well-known to aficionados, less so to others - of Elgar conducting his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (that’s i, pop pickers) for the BBC at the very birth of TV. Amusingly, it shows how uneasy a conductor he was, with a beat verging on the incomprehensible.

This is the way to bring serious music to the uncommitted – by emphasizing its emotional and intellectual and historical scope, not the Classic FM method of commodifying it through a series of over-familiar tunes. One does not, after all, attune someone’s palate to wine by siphoning quarts of Gallo Bros down them, in the same way you don’t learn the art of batsmanship in cricket by trying to be Kevin Pietersen. Klass innocently betrayed the coarseness of deifying popularity via size and show; ‘Land of Hope and Glory at number 6? Everyone loves that!” as if the calibration of greatness is how many people consume it.

All great composers – and listeners – are demeaned thus, by reducing their output to mere objects to be used as leisure pursuits, amenities. Elgar’s melodic gift has made him particularly a victim of this, and perhaps Ten Best’s greatest triumph was its gentle debunking of vulgar misconceptions brought about by this populist silliness. As plain-spoken Handley –William Brown become a grumpy old man, a natural for TV, despite his 78 years – points out, ‘Nimrod’’s popular status is earned largely through the skewed belief that it is naturally elegiac, eulogistic. This was never the composer’s intention. “If that gets played at my funeral,” Handley warned with a metaphorical wag of the finger, “I’m coming back.”

More than one commentator also stressed Elgar’s aversion to the setting of Benson’s appallingly imperialistic words to the central section of the Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, another fact that publicity keeps from the public mind. Kennedy rightly pointed out that Elgar’s music owes as much if not more to mainland Europe – Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, even Mahler when one hears the military band in the Cockaigne overture – than to the England he is associated with. Another cliché dumped.

The real surprise, another evasion of the populist approach, was the omission of the famous TV footage from 1967 of Jacqueline Du Pré playing the Cello Concerto (this was top of the chart, since you ask). No, instead we got the engaging cellist Paul Watkins giving a really quite good series of insights into how Elgar plotted the course and the dramatic and emotional shape of this work. This owlish, committed young fellow should be monitored, kidnapped, and then given a 13-part series.

In a week when the BBC announced that Michael Ball will be appearing at this year’s Proms, Ten Best, for all its faults, was balm to the soul, the ears – yes, and the eyes. Isn’t that what TV is for?

Friday, April 20, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Ladies vs Lads

A feminist commonplace runs that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Why, then, should women bother themselves with football commentary, far less than bothering themselves with 1000 or so words on Jacqui Oatley, Match of the Day’s first distaff commentator at Fulham vs Blackburn, as per today’s broadsheets?

But they do – and so do many others.

I can’t comment on Oatley, not having heard her – but her has raised chauvinistic hackles in the usual quarters, the barrack-room, backstairs trog-world of British football that those fancy-dan foreigners are (thankfully) consigning to history. The sports-desk’s card-index gorblimey Dave Bassett (remember him?), of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang cru of 1988, says with manly authority that everyone in football is ‘totally against it’. Oatley has this week raised laughs privately by asking why professional Scouser Mike Newell, former Luton manager and self-confessed sexist, hasn’t chucked in his closing-time-in-Croxteth opinion yet.

On Graham Kibble-White’s TV criticism website,, there is currently an informed and intelligent multipartite analysis of the history of broadcast soccer commentary. The only lacuna, in the present writer’s opinion, is a lack of an examination as to why the form has taken the form it has. Hundreds of thousands of people attend football matches weekly; many others watch them in pubs, where commentary, if audible, is superfluous.

There is acknowledgement of a rarely-uttered truism, that from ‘they think it’s all over’ onwards (and downwards – oh my Wolstenholme long ago!), football broadcasters have helped inculcate a particularly cretinizing vernacular in the sport and thus upon those who look to it for meaning in their lives. Nobody expects those at the mike to quote Lichtenberg or La Rochefoucauld, but they help refract a vision of the world seen through a tabloid prism which talks down to the sport and its audience.

The present writer is unconcerned as to Oatley’s gender, simply her attitude and/or susceptibility to the cadences and clichés of broadcast football and journalism. That she is a graduate of Five Live inspires what that station would doubtless call ‘the sinking feeling of relegation’.

As an MOTD spokesman comments: ‘most of our commentators come from Five Live’, with the unspoken subtext that they are of that commercial-radio journalistic m.o. where the shouty soundbite rules. This school of semi-calculated spontaneity dates back to David Coleman’s ‘goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share’ when Kev volleyed home in the 1974 FA Cup Final. Showy and superficially clever, but actually not that difficult once you master the demotic. The pretence is to mastery of the language; the actuality is the producer’s need for immediacy. Guess which wins?

The BBC now has, surely, a factory belt-breeder of inoffensive young men with names like Gabriel and Adrian and Mark to people its sports programmes, reducing the language of sport and its consumers to a populist shorthand and introduce us to phrases like ‘on the bounce’ and ‘the top of the programme’.

It is ironic indeed that one of Oatley’s detractors has been the veteran Mail soccer hack Steve Curry, as responsible as any for the near-illiterate vocabulary of sports media; for the appearance of non-verbs like ‘storm’ and non-nouns like ‘bouncebackability’. As long ago as 1976 The Foul Book of Football’s splendid ‘Good Writers Guide’ (which eventually and unfairly saw Foul magazine effectively sued to extinction) had the number of Curry’s ilk as cynical weathervanes of populist prejudice and bias and whose style matched and reinforced the slowness of their readership, people who have made the intensifying adverb ‘totally’ part and parcel not only of the language but of the thought-processes of Bassett and his like.

In 1972, Foul raised the question of how much nervous energy the average TV viewer of football expended on disparaging the TV commentary in relation to that devoted to the match in question. The issue is still live, as evidenced by the introduction of the means to exclude commentary from the soccer TV experience – although this, tellingly, is given little publicity.

Quite why a woman should want to involve herself in this bombastic and slow-witted milieu is hard to fathom. Feminism is, I suppose, about making choices, although seeing these choices through does not suggest, in itself, a solution to a particular issue. The lively writer Paula Cocozza, in today’s Guardian, falls into the trap of dismissing out of hand the social bio-determinism that suggests, in the words of the veteran footy hack Julie Welch, “there’s something about the pitch of a male TV commentators’ voice which makes it believable even when its owner is talking complete rubbish”. Cocozza contends that Welch’s implication is that “a woman’s pitch and cadence lacks conviction”, inherently contemptible and not merely tendentious. But we are given no evidence either way. We can leave aside the new level in irrelevance attained by a rejoinder from Clare Balding, “people talk about technicalities like the range of voice – it’s like saying women can’t sing”. More significantly, Cocozza omits any comparative scientific detail on the issue of cadence, scalar vocal measurements relative to action as to whether or not Welch and the determinists are wrong, or even if any such detail exists. The fact that Oatley is comely, blonde and blue-eyed, ie sellable, wasn’t mentioned either. No, Oatley won’t be a visual presence on Saturday – but her looks are surely being used to promote this event.

Cocozza, always readable, can be forgiven – her otherwise fine article at least gives John Motson a good hiding (“Motson never seems to know what’s going on unless his cohort Mark Lawrenson tells him”). It also importantly inculpates the backslapping, back-scratching sodality of old pros who populate TV’s pundit panels, of whom only a few (Gray, Hansen, Robbie Earle, the endearingly baleful Lawro) can parse a sentence and even they are hardly likely to bite the hand of Big Football that fed them so handsomely. Neither will they snap at their new benefactors, the TV stations who can be dropped by footy authorities at the slightest slackening in the tugging of the forelock. Vide the award of the FA Cup to ITV after the authorities took umbrage at Auntie’s perceived diss of the trophy’s status, and of the England XI.

Most lobbying for more hacks on TV football coverage comes from hacks themselves (Cocozza included, something she admits) – and they are hardly the disinterested bunch they paint themselves as (after all, exclusion from a Premiership club’s media orbit is professional suicide for a national sportswriter). But as one of the two or three finest soccer journalists in the UK is the Observer’s Amy Lawrence, erudite and with an international as opposed to a provincial outlook, surely her presence as a pundit or co-commentator would have paved the way both for women’s voices in the box and a more measured approach? Being better at commentary than Alan Shearer is more of an insult than a compliment, but it confirms there’s room for improvement. Adrian Chiles would be fine, but why not a woman? On current form one imagines Jordan would call a game more eloquently than Carlton Palmer. Mind you, so might Sègolene Royal. In Lappish.

A female presence on MOTD represents no intrinsic advance for women, sport, journalism or women in sport and sports journalism. But a woman changing the way TV reports sport would be a cultural shift of much greater significance. It would do us all a favour – doesn’t matter how your plumbing works. Oatley might be the start – but don’t bet on it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reactionary Rhapsody: Classic FM

Fourteen years ago I visited Classic FM. I clutched a tape of obscure pieces whose character I felt chimed with the station’s taste in accessible classical music. A needy student, I thought this was worth a few bob and might also do some good. The music was melodic, approachable, alternately chummy and sentimental, just the right tone, but by the likes of Peterson-Berger, Rabaud, Palmgren as opposed to Strauss (J2), Holst, Mozart. I was willing to believe that accusations of shameless populism could be deflected by using the agency of unusual repertoire while attractiing listeners not confident with the complexities of ‘difficult’ pieces. You could whistle this stuff. It was ‘nice’. It sounded OK as padding between insurance commercials.

CFM’s then-controller listened tetchily, after having been exceptionally rude about that day’s guest, Isaiah Berlin, in my company while ensuring that the philosopher was out of earshot. If I were to be so frank in expressing my opinion of Mr Michael Bukht I am sure his lawyers would be in touch promptly.

I am no fan of Berlin’s but this shocked me, and also filled me with a sense of resignation at the inevitability of what happened next. Needless to say none of my proposals were taken on board, I still haven’t got my cassette back - there was not even the courtesy of a letter ventriloquizing CFM’s instinctive reaction, which palpably was that I fuck off and mind my own business.

If there is one thing more depressingly indicative of the moronic state of British culture than CFM, it is editors like the ’s Alan Rusbridger allowing their paid toadies to parrot platitudes. Darren Henley, in today’s edition, launches an offensive tirade against Tom Service’s civilised critique of CFM in that newspaper last week.

Service’s case centred on the predictability of CFM’s otiose ‘Hall Of Fame’. Life seems too short to print Henley’s riposte, so tedious have its descants become, but here’s a taster (skip this if you want); ‘this annual chart is compiled by votes from our listeners. Instead of sitting on high, dispensing the music we think people ought to hear, we believe in the democratization of the genre… rather than an experience akin to taking an enforced shower after school sport, we believe classical music should be enjoyed by listeners on their own terms’. Pardon my French, but doesn’t this make you just want to throw up?

You couldn’t find a nastier little nutshell of the essentially Blairite fraud of appearing to hand control over people’s lives back to them while doing nothing of the sort, in a society that is as regimented as it has ever been. Adam Curtis’s BBC4 documentary series The Trap [qv] said it more eloquently than I. It’s telling that Healey’s words are couched in the language of what some people still call a ‘mission statement’; that touchy-feely usage ‘we believe’ is a dead giveaway.

British society is one where our lives are under constantly increasing surveillance, a place of league tables and asset-sweating, where the unseen hand of the market dictates our reactions and tastes with ever surer means. Fictions like those which confer a false sense of potency, that ‘you get to choose’, from who to vote off which intelligence-insulting reality show to whether or not Vaughan Williams is ‘better’ than Puccini have increased exponentially in relation to our growing powerlessness at the hands of neocons and publicists. The more you hear people bigging up the idea of choice, bet on the fact that in real terms your life features less and less choice.

CFM listeners willingly engage with populist stuff because, despite Henley’s protests and citation of the listing of Pichl, Anerio and Pabst, hearing them on the station is, in my experience, as rare a pleasure as eating a prime cut of unicorn. If you stampede the warhorses across the air eight or nine times a day, chances are people will respond to them because they haven’t the choice to hear much else. Why not, at 11 in the morning, play the glorious slow movement of Rutland Boughton’s Third Symphony instead of Pachelbel’s Canon? If 100,000 people wrote in demanding classics that did not have the adjective ‘relaxing’ attached to them – a bit of Petr Eben or Brian Ferneyhough, perhaps? – nothing would happen. The excuse would be that staple of hucksters, ‘there’s no demand for it’; democracy would be their shield, the commonplace that more people want Elgar than Enescu. That the state of affairs exists because it has been sedulously manufactured thus to make money is never mentioned.

CFM’s implacable foes are perennially dubbed elitists. It’s funny, but I tend towards elites – for example, I go to trained doctors if I feel ill, as opposed to a bloke in the pub, or if I want to enjoy a meal I ask someone who is a fine cook to prepare it as opposed to my Dad.

Therefore I judge that someone with a secure intellectual grounding in classical music is better-suited to guiding me than a marketing man. This makes me neither a pillock or a philistine. But of course this attitude is anathema to the institutionalized lie, more prevalent in Britain, with its hatred of technical ability, cleverness and ostentatious expertise, than almost anywhere else. This comprises a lip-chewingly obsessive murmured mantra – even in a land of incalculable and inexcusable wealth disparities that go publicly unchallenged - that I am as good as you are, no matter at what.

Hence it’s immaterial, in fact it’s perversely preferable to philistine values that Katherine Jenkins has never set foot on an operatic stage – she’s worked hard, she sounds nice, she deserves our praise. Seems like a nice girl. One of us. Can she sing well? Never top of the priority list.

(Just incidentally, if Jenkins was a 32A size 14, would she be as famous as she is, especially among the more egregriously idiotic species of middle-aged Welshmen?)

This is one with CFM’s clichéd scourging of the elitists and the ‘so called experts’ (my quotes). That Jenkins is heard on CFM more often than Astrid Varnay or Victoria de los Angeles or Galina Vishnevskaya, who might provide comparisons in intonation and attack and purity of tone for the genuinely curious, says it all. If CFM and everyone else in the CFM orbit of consumers rates her, the logic of the uneducated goes, she must be good. We’ll buy her records. Publicity 1, Music 0.

I grew up listening to Radio 1 and 3, and my record collection, in all genres, is richer and more stimulating than it ever would have been were I to have been born into the world of Bukht’s moneyspinner. There is a place for a popularizing classical station – but as any student of Adorno or Benjamin will know, capitalism exists to further itself and preserve its interests and this conservatism predicates that the dominant commodities of culture are inimical to change or even plurality. Hence not even fringe fantasies like Novàk’s rip-roaringly tuneful Lady Godiva overture ever get a look in at times when core audience might be listening and why, say, Mascagni’s Iris never features whereas I Pagliacci always does. Just as kitschy, just as good a set of melodies, but Iris fails to buttress stereotypes of the comfortable and familiar and so the lachrymose pierrot gets the nod every time.

CFM exists to reinforce that comfort bubble, a pre-ordained pattern of taste just as rigid as those of the didacts ad ‘experts’ and elitists it purports to despise. Its output is still the aural equivalent of Harvester Tiramisu or an Austin Allegro or Rolf on Art. Its raison d’etre is commercial. End of story. This status might seem coarse to some, which is arguable; but to dissemble about this status is surely unforgivable. CFM’s relevance to actual music is contingent, as Service pointed out. Like the present writer, he argued that given input from genuine enthusiasts as opposed to ‘radio professionals’ like, er, Simon Bates, the station enjoy real relevance, make a contribution. John Suchet’s Saturday documentaries on the financial affairs of the masters, has a slight discord of vulgarity about them – that the money means more than the music – but is nonetheless valuable and informative broadcasting, using populist repertoire in the service of something enlightening.

CFM listeners are an insecure bunch. They crave the exalted handclasp of High Art, as long as it is uncomplicated and affordable. Why else should so much of the station’s requested output be deemed ‘relaxing’, to act as background for revision or hoovering or driving? It is reassuring. It is unthreatening. It is also rendered demeaning to consumer and creator.

For the most part, CFM listeners are victims of a malevolent and dissembling motto that ‘the listener knows best’; this is a reificatory lie. It’s actually what we tell the listener to know that he or she thinks he or she knows best about.

Despite Henley chucking his toys out of the pram at the old ‘elitist’ targets, it is in fact CFM who are exploiting and talking down to listeners. This is not a plea for the dinning of Xenakis or Varèse or Boulez into drivetime audiences, much as my 1993 mission was not a highbrow’s quixotic tilt. It is rather a plea for a radio station that doesn’t patronize its constituency but nurtures it, not babying its prejudices but expanding its imagination. Many people are not as stupid as CFM’s defenders and detractors imagine, and they deserve better.

My grandfather, a blue-collar Borough Market boy, didn’t become a classical listener thanks to his exposure to a carefully-calibrated ‘playlist’. Otherwise his appreciation of music would have begun and ended with Rubinstein’s Melody in F, Ketelbey’s In A Monastery Garden and maybe a bit of Tchaikovsky. No; instead he witnessed Ogdon and Solomon play Rachmaninov and Brahms; Klemperer grinding out Mahler’s Ninth; Menuhin lording it over Elgar’s violin concerto. He listened to music he couldn’t possibly have even heard of, let alone heard. He deplored modernism; but he would give anything a go, even Messaien’s 75-minute Turangalila-Symphonie. He loved music; music reciprocated that love, baited his curiosity (not through obscurantist lollipops at 3.30am in the morning, I should add). Such opportunities simply are not adequately offered by CFM, that soi-disant station of popular choice, despite its suggestion that it brings classical to what it fondly terms ‘the people’.

Oh, and I want my bleeding tape back, thanks.

Monday, April 16, 2007

TV REVIEW: The Piano - A Love Affair

BBC4, 15.04.07

Unseasonably early summer weather has led to an unseasonably early TV news silly season. Thus a grand piano falling out of a lorry makes prime time news bulletins. It’s a sad state of affairs when this admittedly comic diversion is the only time an instrument that’s shaped western art music, and dramatic art, and therefore of all the lively arts as we know them, makes it onto the box. But we’re the British. We hate music, and Classic FM is the proof. Except for occasions like this beautiful documentary when anyone with anything better than a tin ear thinks there might be hope.

Tousled amateur ivory-tickler Alexander Waugh, blowsy and blustery but never overbearing is as untidy as an unmade bed, as someone once said of the late Northamptonshire cricketer Colin Milburn. He also plays piano very well. This documentary shone like a diamond because among other things it revealed, slowly and lovingly, that there is a duple meaning to the phrase ‘playing the piano”. There is playing the piano. And Playing The Piano. The dichotomy between the two equates roughly to the duties of a Sunday League park stopper and Johann Cruyff.

Without wishing to overdo the Romantic Genius angle here, one requires talent, the other a gift. Waugh, who took his pianistic beginnerliness on the chin with a modesty whose naturalness is alien to TV, was made to look like a pygmy. And not just once, but severally, most of all by the super-virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin. No Simon Cowell, he.

The programme’s theme was not classical’s formal technique versus the rest; just the wealth of musical depth in the piano itself. There are 88 notes on a standard concert grand; there are innumerable directions for dynamic interpretation in any given piece (Scriabin and Busoni are particularly demanding). The physical and intellectual demands thereupon can, for most people, only be guessed at. Playing the piano is a Serious Business. A child prodigy whose technical facility is so great that if it doesn’t contravene a law it bloody well should do said to Waugh that it was all about practise.

Waugh knows this. The programme knew it too. That the BBC will even consider the concept of giftedness or cleverness or hard work is unusual in itself. This is Difficult. It is not Accessible, and therefore programmes about it are to be avoided.

That this little gem of a programme conveyed these complicated and esoteric concepts so economically, with such visual appeal and such intelligence meant we saw documentary TV near the top of its form; one could even forgive the inclusion of the liberal press’s excuse for a pop intellectual, Damon Albarn. The Piano’s Bronowskian presumption of a cultural literacy among its audience was refreshing. The camera caressed the instruments Waugh encountered, from a stand-up joanna in a Sheffield street to the priciest Fazioli – but it never fetishised them.

It adopted a pleasing tone in which Waugh describing himself as ‘a bit of an arse’, and spitting out expletives while trying to master a Godowsky transcription of Chopin, sounded entirely unaffected. Yes, people do say ‘oh fuck’ if they split notes in cascades of double octaves. People do make tits of themselves playing dummy keyboards in public in the manner of Joseph Cooper c.1977 in Face The Music. In 2007, this reviewer calls making such a great programme out this material a major achievement. Even Jools Holland comes across well. How major is that?

There were unnecessary occlusions of the middle-classness of it all; Waugh is posh, openly disdains rock’n roll (although he doesn’t go so far as to punch Albarn in the face, despite what seems to have been great provocation) and is seen playing tennis on a sunbaked lawn, chopping costly celery in an agreeable kitchen, which suggests that the whole exercise of pianos and culture is that of the leisured classes which those who knew Britain’s greatest joanna man, John Ogdon, will strenuously deny.

Any producer with a decent budget would have pushed to make a series out of this fabulously lavish subject, taking a Panglossian hobbyist through the keyboard from fortepiani through the technical transformations of the era of the great virtuosi like Liszt, the idea of rubato, taking in Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes, Fats Waller, stride style, Art Tatum (‘the black Horowitz’ as he was known in the US), 20th century teaching methods, archive footage of Rachmaninov and Schnabel, the jazz digressions of Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, the art of transcription, how piano technique can so rarely be transferred to electronic keyboards, why so few classical musicians can swing…

Waugh is eloquent on the monumental richness of the piano (most of the operatic and symphonic masterpieces of the last 200 years from Beethoven onwards were conceived at the keyboard – Wagner and Liszt’s use of dynamics influenced late 19th-century drama and early cinema). The very fact that this jolly, colourful little show manages to cram even one-sixteenth of all this in is a credit to all involved in what is without question the best programme on serious music to be shown since Howard Goodall’s 2001 Channel 4 exposition of the history of the organ. Devotees of art music of any kind will have sighed with relief – “Good God, they’re still making programmes like this.” Hurrah for them.

They said of the US-born virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) that he made the ladies faint with his playing. Agents for Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, two other 19th century piano men, made similar nudge-wink claims. I didn’t need the smelling salts, but I maybe saw the best TV documentary made so far this year.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

TV REVIEW: Ruddy Hell!


BBC1, 13.4.07, 21.30

Do you remember the future? I do. The future was called Harry Enfield, and his stock-in-trade was the past.

The prodigal son was punished by the God of the Christians who invented this fable for his youthful presumptuousness, for assuminng the future was his. Prodigal’s the word for Enfield sneaking back to the Beeb from Sky and trying to take up from where he left off. Seven years ago Enfield took Sky’s shilling in a deal that produced a rubbish programme, and about which we still hear too little. Here was the liberal media’s populist hero giving suck to the Murdoch junta in the satellite channel’s biggest-ever talent coup, but why the programme was so poor and why its viewing figures so feeble neither Enfield, Sky or his former employers at the Beeb seem willing to even imagine. He effectively wrote himself off – not that he or his bank manager cared – as a relic of the early 1990s, like EMF, the Sunday Sport and Debbee Ashby.

Enfield’s pomp coincided with the heyday of Viz, and both brands succeeded because of their ability to satirise that which was considered either taboo or simply humdrum. Viz, in its 1989-92 million-seller days, had unlikely targets such as Morris Day [Sexual Pervert], Biffa Bacon, The Fat Slags, Spawny Get and Spoilt Bastard; these succeeded because they were archetypes that nobody had ever satirised them before and effectively played them straight. The only weakness of Viz was John Fardell’s The Modern Parents, which failed because other genuinely gifted cartoonists like Harpur and Simmonds had ripped the piss out of the milieu before and done it much better. Perhaps the best Viz strip ever was the 1990 one-off Balsa Boy (’58-year-old social inadequate Arthur Trubshaw had always dreamed of having a son of his own…’), a study in pathetic loneliness so heartbreaking and simultaneously side-splitting it bears comparison with the best of Robert Crumb. It is the relentless everydayness of Viz’s storyboards that makes us laugh, the truffling of humour in the most routine of matters that is at once novel and familiar.

Ditto Enfield, who took his cue from Dick Emery but hard-pedalled the nuances of what made these characters work. The likes of Smashie and Nicey, the Lovely Wobbly Randy Old Ladies, Cholmondeley & Grayson and the Scousers were funny simply because most people recognised the figures, triggering a mental resolution that underpins all humour, similar to the reaction to meeting an old friend in the street. They are part of our past, of most people’s pasts, private and public – the fact that these characters had rarely been portrayed humorously before, if at all, and were written into often very amusing sketches just piled on the laughs. Around 1992 he was the hottest property in British comedy.

Enfield’s newie has him as the old friend – and it’s a pleasure to see him, and even more to see Whitehouse, who took the Enfieldian conceit into much darker and more unsentimental realms in The Fast Show, finally achieving equal billing.

It’s tempting to suggest that he is responsible for the more inspired moments of this; Nelson Mandela flogging alcopops and cheap beer is about 187,000 times funnier than it sounds. Portraying U2 as comedy Irishmen in a pub band is high-flying stuff, the class work of writers who can knock this out in their sleep, but perhaps the best moments don’t go to either Enfield or Whitehouse but the creation of two Polish shopgirls and the innate, imagined intimidation their customers feel upon encountering them. This is fine, strong TV Light Ent at its very best – taking the quotidian and giving it the tiniest and subtlest of tweaks. Tellingly, there are no catchphrases (although give it time) but the present writer still nearly wet himself with laughter.

Some sketches go all soufflé – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (one assumes) as Porky’s-esque nerds is bleeding-obvious meaningless (the old Modern Parents syndrome again). The Gates characters smack of plagiarism, so close are they to Rory Bremner’s Dick and Don juxtaposition of Beltway politics and crap youth viewing. I imagine this sounded as good in the pub as did Brokeback Mountain as done by Laurel and Hardy.

But a sesh in the boozer was what this programme felt like – a bibulous and joyful reunion of witty chums, and for that, at least, more power to its elbow. Oh, by the way, mine’s another, if you’re going to the bar.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Max Respect: PMD at the ISM

Transcript of Peter Maxwell Davies’s speech to the ISM, 10.4.07

In De Divisione Naturae, written in the 9th century, Erigena, more popularly known as John the Scot, wrote: musica innata est quaedam communis secundam seipsam delectation. That is, "music, by its very nature, is a delight to everyone". I shall take his dictum as my central proposition, remembering that diversi diversis delectantur; "different people enjoy different things". And that, according to Vitruvius, "ars sine scientia nihil potest"; "art is powerless without knowledge".

In a recently published essay, Susan Sontag wrote: "Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitely exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov." I understand her enthusiasm for those four Russian writers, but the choice of examples for influence could be almost infinitely varied: on many lists would appear the names of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, for instance, as well as far less well-known authors.
What all these authors have in common is that they are serious, their work concerned with the most fundamental aspects of our humanity, our relationships with each other, and with our environment. All require time and patience to get to know. To return briefly to Sontag, she adds something I think is most significant: "be serious, which doesn't preclude being funny."

An educated person could construct a list of authors who have influenced his whole life and outlook, and will be able to refer to characters and situations, and even to quote directly - it is extraordinary how, in Britain, phrases and characters from Shakespeare and Dickens have made their way into the collective imagination and into everyday conversation; although there are now attempts by educators to undermine this, and dumb down a young person's contact with literature, as if this were something from which the young must be shielded.

Let us turn to music. How often do we meet people who are otherwise cultured and educated, who have no awareness whatever of even the very existence of serious music? The epitome of this ignorance is particularly cruelly exposed on the radio programme Desert Island Discs, where you listen to the musical choices of someone whose work you admire enormously, who can discourse on science, theatre, literature and most things cultural outwith his speciality, but who is happy to display absolute ignorance of our musical culture.

Of course one has sympathy with the Desert Islander's choice of a musically insignificant gobbet which happened to be playing when marriage was proposed and accepted, and Mahler and Shostakovich have demonstrated how such a musical morsel can be highlighted to make private significancies become universal in the course of an extended symphonic argument.

This is a time when one cannot only be "definitely exalted and influenced" by Dostoyevsky, etc; but we have an equal chance, theoretically, to be influenced by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, or whomsoever. However, it would appear that young people are being ever more actively dissuaded from having contact with these masters than with the literary giants.

Before I attempt to elucidate what I think of as some of the unique qualities of serious Western classical music, I would like to mention certain attitudes within the professions of music and music education which have disturbed me most.

The first and most common abuse hurled at the likes of me is that an education towards an understanding of, and working with, serious Western classical music is "elitist". Michael Billington, discussing this year's Edinburgh Festival in the Guardian, wrote: "there is a strange reversal of values, particularly in the media. A concert or opera attended by 1,000 people or more is seen as 'elitist'; a small-scale event attracting a dedicated handful is regarded as 'popular'" - ie, inverted snobbery at its most pungently destructive.

"Classical" music these days, as Colin Bradbury has pointed out, does not mean music from the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, as opposed to Baroque or Romantic music; but everything from plainchant to Palestrina to Purcell to Puccini to Prokofiev to Penderecki, as opposed to other genres from folk to pop to the latest "popular" music fashion, as elucidated in page after page, with additional specialist "music" supplements, in the most respected national newspapers; while "classical" music receives ever less coverage, relegated, often heavily edited and cut, to obscure nooks and crannies.

I have great respect for Marc Jaffrey, of the "Music Manifesto", and have had what I hope has been constructive dialogue with him: he is, however, working for an utterly philistine government, whose Prime Minister recently read a platitudinous speech about the health of the arts in Britain, when his own horizons are rock and pop. I do not wish to be unfair, but the only minister I ever saw at a "cultural" event was Roy Hattersley at an Ibsen play - apart from the last night of the Proms, and a Royal concert I arranged to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2, which they had to attend.

Perhaps one should turn Howard Goodall's complaint around - "how many hip-hop commentators, teachers and pedagogues have diverted their analytical skills to classical music?"

When I was working at the Royal College of Music a few years ago, as part of an "outreach" programme, I met music teachers who thought that even to teach standard Western musical notation was to indulge in extreme elitism, claiming that it would inhibit the children's creativity, and was alien to the "working-class values of ordinary people". Just imagine not teaching how to write the alphabet, or numbers ...

Had I - and I can speak for Birtwistle as well - as an archetypal working-class child, not been taught musical notation, as well as having a totally free education, through scholarship at Manchester University and the nearby Royal College, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and Princeton University in New Jersey, I would have been stymied. As it was, I learned all about the absence of music in the curriculum at Leigh Grammar School in Lancashire, and even then realised what a useful thing in life it would be, to do everything I could to make music available in all schools. I had to teach myself to pass the Lancashire County Music Scholarship, sitting the exams behind the headmaster's back, as he forbade me to take them, since it would "interfere with my schoolwork".

In 1959, when I took on the challenge of becoming Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School, it quickly became clear that in order to enjoy music from within and without, a knowledge of notation was necessary. The boys and girls learned Maths, Latin, Physics, etc, with no qualms, and were simply expected to be numerate and literate. Why not musical notation?

I determined to give the children the musical childhood I never had. I had them sing the sounds before they wrote them down - this is important - so that the sign on paper represented a meaningful sound-object, part of a line as an expressive means of communication. Soon, they were vocally improvising together in class - without crutches in the form of a piano accompaniment - simple chordal sequences with passing notes: it reminded me of the well-known improvising choral groups of fishermen in harbourside pubs in Genoa. There was already a decent school choir, and I established a school orchestra - Gloucestershire County Council was very generous with instruments and peripatetic teachers in those days - also a junior orchestra. By year three, I expected an ordinary class to be able to sight-read simple Palestrina; and I remember particularly, with about 500 children, performing whole chunks of the Monteverdi Vespers, in my own private edition, to an extremely enthusiastic audience new to the work. Many of the children composed, performed and conducted their own music with the various forces available, and new music by the children of all kinds featured regularly at the daily morning assembly.
These musical activities, supervised by me, encouraged the spontaneous formation of jazz and pop groups, and even the establishment of a small choir of sixth formers, called (as opposed to anything I led!) Pro Musica Optima, to explore more arcane regions in the choral repertoire. There were chamber concerts by professionals in the school. I took groups to the Cheltenham Contemporary Music Festival, to the BBC Invitation Concerts at Maida Vale, and to regular symphony concerts in London, Gloucester and Bristol. At the Bath Festival in 1962, after the school had given a morning concert, broadcast live by BBC radio (imagine that now!), Yehudi Menuhin, whom I had accompanied in a violin and harpsichord work by a very gifted school pupil, insisted we attend his concert that afternoon in Bath Abbey. It was sold out, so Pierre Monteux, who was to conduct, insisted that the schoolchildren be placed on stage next to someone who played their instrument. I don't think the children involved will ever forget that concert.

Those children had no difficulty listening to anything from Bach to Boulez, and I had, on the bus rides back to Cirencester after performances, very constructive discussions with them about the merits of the interpretations and of the new works. I learned a lot. Teaching is an education for the teacher, too, for you learn far more than you teach - as I am discovering again these days, doing some work with very gifted young composers and performers at the Royal Academy of Music.

I found out, writing new works for the Cirencester children, that if you do not let on that something is difficult, such as a high note on an instrument, or a so-called "difficult" interval for a choir, and you can hear and sing the thing yourself, they will not find it hard, so long as it is composed or arranged with their technical capacities understood constructively. You can be very demanding - young people love a challenge when it is musically meaningful, and leads towards technical virtuosity rather than just being awkward to perform. The same is true of listening capacity, given an informed and literate musical environment. This is classless.

I mentioned "outreach" programmes. Some are exemplary, but so often, with the best intentions, and with the best will in the world for the orchestras, etc, who sponsor them, they simply fail. There is little insight gained into how music works when a child with no musical experience bangs a percussion instrument, or sings a slogan-like motto while members of the professional group have the real meat of the specially-written composition. Everyone is delighted that something is happening at all with the children, but all too often they remain musically ignorant and illiterate, and there is no follow-up to this one-off encounter. There is no substitute for having a professionally trained and led music department in a school. Were there consistent, dedicated teaching and funds, classical music, big band, brass, folk, jazz, pop, etc, would all flourish. I have been very moved by performances, by British children as well as by Indians, of classical Indian music.

Here, if I may, a personal plea - the unthinking use of Western-tuned keyboards destroys the very essence of the microtonal inflection of many ragas, and the use of amplification, particularly redundant in small halls, distorts the carefully-modulated nature of Indian voices and instruments. The unthinking use of amplification in many kinds of music turns what should be an intimate and sensitive experience into a soul and ear-numbing imitation of a Hitlerian or Stalinist rally, with all sensibilities subsumed in blather and beat. I suppose the theory is that young people respond best to loud thumping music with a deep mechanical beat, so let's attempt to jump on to that bandwagon.

Here one should not forget that much "popular" music is manufactured purely for commercial gain.

Since the possibility of making megabucks out of young people by feeding them the lowest common denominator of "music" has been realised, "music" became an industry, not a profession, where, for the least possible work put in, the maximum profit is extracted for the fat cats, with "music" becoming ever more zombie-like, and the bands ruthlessly exploited. (There are, of course, honourable exceptions.) This is new. Folk music, the equivalent of pop music, etc, in the past, and in some places, of the present, is a spontaneous musical expression of a folk, of a people, with no commercial intent or purpose. Its creators were largely anonymous, and we are eternally grateful to exponents like the Wrigley sisters in Orkney, and Kathryn Tickell in Northumberland, for bringing to our ears music we otherwise would not have known. But this wonderful legacy is also being dumbed down, exploited for sheer profit. In this commercial atmosphere, it is hardly astonishing that so little of its kind is produced of Beatles or early Rolling Stones quality. Some months ago, Buckingham Palace gave a magnificent reception for "the music industry", and it took some persuasion to include in this "the music profession", so one begins to understand how far purely commercial values have penetrated. Indeed, observing the present condition of music education, and the new aims of education generally, not only in music, to bring the inquiry into knowledge for its own sake in all fields to heel, while promoting newer specialities calculated to facilitate quick money for business, perhaps one should modify Descartes' dictum cogito, ergo sum to consumo, ergo sum. That could well be the motto for our government. "Classical" music has so far proved comparatively resistant to commercial exploitation, unlike certain types of music we are pressed, now, to regard as its absolute equal.

To return for a moment to extremely loud music with a gut-churning thudding bass beat - in 1984, Orwell envisaged the future of mankind as the perpetual stamping of a jackboot on the face of humanity. In this regard our consumer culture has achieved something more subtle and more penetrating than Lenin's Agitprop or Goebbels's Reichspropagandaministerium, or anything envisaged in a Huxleyan or Orwellian nightmare future. The exploited victims do not feel themselves the exploited subjects of designs upon their minds and pockets, and while having mind, heart and intellect stamped upon and numbed, and their pockets emptied, they enjoy and welcome the experience, which becomes a drug, an all-powerful soporific, insulating the victims from all reality, and particularly from political reality. To witness "music" being used as an instrument of mind-control or mind-erasure in this manner is as repulsive, in its way, as was witnessing Mozart and Schubert played by the concentration camp band as Hitler's victims were marched to their fate. Each period of history, each phase of civilization has the art and music it deserves. If this is so, this music reflects something every bit as disturbing in our collective psyche as communism or fascism at their genocidal worst. Perhaps it will slowly become clear to us all in what this consists - and by then, it will be too late to make constructive change. Much minimalist music exhibits the same alarming features, albeit less aggressively.

Many young people can cope, and this musical experience becomes merely a part of their social experience, with no psychic damage, although their ears must deteriorate relatively early in life. Its real victims remain largely inarticulate.
Two generations have now been deprived of the state music education available to many when I was a schoolteacher in the early 1960s. The Thatcher cuts separated millions of children from what we regarded as a God-given human right - access to our own culture, in all its forms, and particularly, access to serious music, in any literate or informed way. Now, in an atmosphere of philistinism actively encouraged from on high, we - you and I - must make our case for serious Western classical music of the past and present, to those in authority not qualified to respond in any positive way, or even to be interested.

This brings me back to the largely inarticulate victims of commercial musical exploitation at its worst. From really deprived area schools, so many complete their education with a very limited spoken and written vocabulary - this in itself is absolutely shameful. It amounts to imprisoning young people in the Sun newspaper's newspeak. Poor education has deprived millions of the possibility of expressing themselves cogently in English, with a vocabulary and syntax capable of encompassing thoughts and feelings associated with any deep experience - particularly those to do with changing from child to adult. Even where communication in English is attempted, so often it is hampered and compromised by ballast getting in the way - "sort of" - "you know" - "like" - "you know what I mean" - a terrible indictment. This has nothing to do with accent or dialect - these are wonderfully rich and expressive, and a joy to us all.

Of course, keeping people in a state of ignorance is good for the government in power - it precludes the possibility of articulate criticism, induces political apathy, and its by-product is a frustration which bursts forth into seemingly mindless, unmotivated violence. Education, or its perverse inversion, becomes a tool with which to keep the underclasses in their place, incidentally ensuring bursting prisons. One begins to understand what the Prime Minister might have had in mind when he uttered his mantra "education" three times. I will not explore here the very real relationship between failed education, certain kinds of commercial music, and drugs.

Perhaps I am being too cynical. However, it would be encouraging to see the government putting real money into real music education of all kinds - its "Music Manifesto" is full of worthy aims, with much very positive outcome already - but we are far short of having, for instance, the musical conditions at Cirencester Grammar School of the early 1960s, obtaining as a general state of affairs. Remember, these were ordinary, unprivileged state schoolchildren. Remember, too, that school music-making, with its physical, emotional and intellectual disciplines, becomes a catalyst for improvement in all other school subjects, and that early exposure as a listener to music which explores the deepest of human experience, at length, abstractly, away from words, can be a life-saving matter for the adolescent.
William of Auvergne wrote, in the early 13th century, "a symphony [a rather free translation of "concentus"!] is a marvellous harmony of different sounds, from the highest to the lowest, producing in us a feeling of extraordinary joy".

This leads me into a discussion of the major qualities of Western music: I set aside my educator's hat, and I know I am not trying to convert bureaucrats. You do not need persuasion, so I shall wear no hat of any kind, and give a very personal and - given the time limit - a very incomplete account, from a very particular hearing point of an idiosyncratic composer.

I take for granted that my listeners here at the ISM could well give a brilliant discourse on the qualities of classical music, and that is the background I take as given, while offering my modest contribution.

The masterpieces of Western music are the equivalent in sound of the greatest buildings in our history. I think particularly of the great cathedrals, churches and chapels: it is often said, perhaps sometimes glibly, without understanding the exact parallels, that symphonies are cathedrals in sound, and cathedrals symphonies in stone. I shall try to be precise.

Each work on a large scale is a usually wordless narrative, and is a spiritual journey, often with three or more movements, where the whole, and within that whole, each individual movement, forms a quest, with a beginning, then a wandering away from that - an exploration or development - and maybe a return, but certainly a conclusion.

When I read or perform a great work of our musical literature, I regard the music as a living organism, with its birth, life and its apotheosis, or its death, or simply a satisfactory conclusion, all to be treated as seriously as a person's birth, life and conclusion, and every bit as alive and meaningful; and never forgetting, so return to Susan Sontag, the possibility of humour in the discourse.

(A little step aside, to say that performing Haydn particularly, it is often impossible to be straight-faced. When Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon, Harrison Birtwistle and I were students in Manchester, we were summoned all together to the Principal's office in college, the day after a Manchester Chamber Concerts Society evening had finished with a very funny Haydn finale. It had been impossible not to smile, and even laugh, discreetly. We were told our behaviour was unforgivable in a serious concert, and that we were a disgrace to the college, and should have more respect for the composer and the string quartet. I still have to suppress smiles, even giggles, when conducting the finale of some Haydn symphonies, when I try, by emphasising gently the irregular phrasings and the irrepressible wackiness and eccentricity, to put the humour across - I trust without destroying the essential line and cohesion.)

Every quartet, concerto, symphony, has its particular discourse, each of which, despite so many formal archetypes, harmonic progressions, rhythmic shapes, cadences, etc, in common, is absolutely unique. Each was a way of creating a world, or even the world, and each performance, a way - perhaps a new way? - of hearing, of experiencing that world, or even the world.

Classical music is a most excellent way of making clear and meaningful to our human understanding our instinctive perceptions about the nature of time, and possibly, it gives us intimations of eternity. To discuss time sensibly, we must borrow familiar terminology from considerations of space, in painting and in architecture.
Just as much as in the visual arts, passing time in Western music has a foreground, middleground and background. This is clearly expressed in the writings of Heinrich Schenker, who is perhaps to music what Sigmund Freud was to psychiatry and psychology. One can think, in tonal music, of the home key's tonic as the vanishing point in time and sound, as the vanishing point of visual perspective is in space, as first formulated by Brunelleschi in the early 15th century: the harmonic rhythm - crudely put, the basic-rate change of harmony - being the audible background. This is an oversimplification, but probably a good working model - the middleground can be heard as the inner parts moving against that background, and the foreground is the main part, floating above, in, or under the middleground. The play of change as to what is, at each moment, at each phrase, back, middle or foreground, is one of the special delights of our music. I always enjoy particularly listening to Sibelius symphonies - wondering whether the conductor will get it right - Sibelius was a great innovator in this field, which is tightly bound up with his melodic and harmonic transformation processes, with foreground, middleground and background melting into each other, as these transformations occur.

A related feature, presaged as early as in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria of Monteverdi, is the change of focus possible, particularly when a large orchestra is involved. Think of the zooming-in of the lens - or of the ear - in so many instances in mahler symphonies, when the texture suddenly transforms into the tightest chamber music, or of the extreme pathos of the sudden close-up of the bassoon solo in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9; and, in Sibelius again, the painful intimacy of the flute and bassoon’s resigned figure, after the passion of the strings, at the close of his Symphony No. 7.

A good composer can play with perspective, and with fore, middle and background, and with focus, in a way that involves us in completing the picture: think of the empty space between the high solo and the deep bass accompaniment at the opening of the second movement of Ligeti's Piano Concerto, which space our ears and imagination transform into a vast and desolate inner soundscape, a kind of hollow, resonating, extremely lonely moonscape, if you like. All the composer did was to give us a foreground and background, enough to suggest how we, the listeners, should imagine the infill, the middleground.

An earlier and more familiar example would be the arioso dolente in Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A flat Op 110, where the steadily pulsating three-part background accompaniment is so far below the foreground melody that we, in our minds, must fill in the space between, taking our clues from the almost expressionistic dissonances, made bearable by, and filling up, that space between.
At the risk of being repetitive, I must insist that it is supremely important to understand the unique concept of perspective in time, etc, in the way just outlined, to grasp one of the most extraordinary contributions of Western music to human culture. Without the dimensions liberated by harmony, unfolding through rhythm in time, this music would have been as impossible to create as Florentine Renaissance painting and architecture would have been, without scientific spatial perspective.
The form of classical music is one of its most distinguishing features. When Ulrich of Strasbourg discussed consonantia dispositionis ad formam (the consonance of form and content), I have no doubt that he did not foresee the application of medieval metaphysics to modern musical theory, but such speculations, controversial in their time, have helped me to clarify differences between form, structure and architecture in classical music.
In some institutions, "form" is still talked of, and taught, as a given, where it becomes an abstraction, after the event, from an overview of the musical literature of a defined period of time. I would like to think particularly about sonata form, which, as such, was only talked about after the Classical period of Haydn through to Schubert, sonata form movements from that time being held up as perfect examples of the type: that is, sonata form was only discussed when, as many have argued, it found itself in difficulties in the Romantic era, starting with Mendelssohn.
Books on "form" by Ebenezer Prout, and R.O. Morris, for instance, or the article on "form" in Percy Scholes's Oxford Companion to Music, treat form as a one-dimensional abstraction, or as a set of bottles with different shapes, into which to pour the wine of music; and as such, "form" was used, in my student days, as a stick with which to beat the likes of Birtwistle and me.
At best such studies of "form" were some kind of very general post-mortem, from which guidelines for music's present and future could be extrapolated: even rules were invented.
Let me pluck out of the air a few random examples, where such rules are seen for what they are worth.
We are told about sonata form having an exposition, then a development, which modulates, and works the material from the exposition, leading to a recapitulation in the original tonic. However, think of Schubert's posthumous Piano Sonata in A major, whose first movement has a development which hardly modulates at all, only slipping (and that's the right word - it hardly modulates!) the semitone several times between C major and minor and B major and minor, with no actual development of material, while the bridge passage of the exposition modulates madly and rampageously, exhibiting all the characteristics of a development.
Moreover, towards the end of the exposition, there is a whole bar of silence. It is certainly a dramatic pause, but becomes much more interesting when you calculate that, without that bar's rest, the "golden section" mathematical proportion would not apply. Now there's an interesting and controversial element in Schubert's conscious or unconscious form-building - did this just happen spontaneously, as it does in the mathematical Fibonacci series growth of pineapples or sunflowers, or did he perhaps calculate? And how about Debussy's La Mer, whose forms Roy Howat has demonstrated are entirely mathematically Fibonacci-based?
Thinking about second subjects, how about the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet Op 50 No 1, where the second subject is just a slight re-ordering of the first? Or that of Beethoven's Symphony No 5, where the second subject is as the first, but with the internal intervals of a third doubled to a fifth, with some minimal rhythmic modification?
Of course the pundits love to point out exceptions to their own rules, such as in the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, the "new material" in E minor after the climatic E/F dissonance over A and C chord, hammered home in the development - without having noticed that Beethoven carefully prepares us for this E minor theme, which is why it sounds so right. The first violins have a version of the "new" theme, albeit a minor third up, then the first flute and first oboe have it in very long augmentation, untransposed: it just needs X-ray ears and an open mind to hear the process, and, paradoxically, it always sounds astonishing and prepared at the same time, when we hear the theme in E minor. Clearly, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert would not pass an elementary form exam, no more than would Bach one in fugue.
I prefer to think of musical form in a more scholastic, medieval way - of structure and architecture, consonantia dispositions ad formam, whereby structure becomes a means, or act, of putting together a meaningful arrangement of parts or sections, and architecture, the means of achieving coherence of these diverse structural parts or sections in macro and micro dimensions. As a listener, the understanding of a work consists in being able to unify these macro and micro dimensions throughout its time-space, on physical, emotional and intellectual levels - an effort of very real re-creation.
In his book The Classical Style, Charles Rosen writes, "to speak of any of Haydn's structures without reference to their material is nonsense. Any discussion of second themes, bridge passages, concluding themes, range of modulation, relations between themes - all this is empty if it does not refer back to the particular piece, its character, its typical sound, its motifs."
And again - "With all of Haydn's works of the 1780s, it becomes more difficult to disentangle the central musical ideas from the total structures in which they work themselves out."

In Quasi una Fantasia, Theodor Adorno discusses the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No 6. (This is my lumpy translation, but I find his German lumpy, too!) "Integral to the Sixth is the way that no individual element is accountable merely as such, but only as that which is unveiled in the whole form. In order to understand such works, one must not assume to fix an identity on the themes, but wait and give them credit according to what happens to them."

In his masterpiece Die Entstehung der Kathedrale, unhappily not translated, Hans Sedlmayr makes much the same point, discussing the unity of motif, content and form in Gothic cathedral architecture. His analysis of übergreifende Form (overlapping form) influenced my thinking greatly, particularly in relation to Bach.
To return for a moment to the Eroica Symphony - while it is fine to understand the first movement, up to a point, as being "in sonata form", I think it is most useful to hear the sonata form dimension we have all been taught as a backdrop against which the real discourse occurs. The C sharp at the end of the first cello figure gives us a clue to the quest (just think of the organ-like D flat chord, functioning as a flattened supertonic to the surprising C major, where harmonic function crosses harmonic division) - and we can hear the whole movement as a quest for the full theme, only sketched incompletely at the outset, and only heard in fulfilled glory in the coda. In other words, the form is duplex, and it appears to me to be thus in any work of real, captivating interest: it works, on the truly fascinating level of its form, with an individual form evolving against a familiar given form, and from this superposition all structural tensions and architectural individuality derive.

Similarly, the finale of the Eroica is billed as a "theme & variations". Indeed, theme and variation form is in the background, but how can the so-called "theme" be anything but a framework upon which, eventually, to hang material, or a space to be filled in? This is indeed the case, and, like the first, this is a movement in search of a theme, heard in full glory only towards the end.

I enjoy the fact that the triumphant theme of this movement comes from the Bacchus Dance in Beethoven's 1801 ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, and that a much later jotting on a musical sketch from 1818 outlines, in words, plans for a choral symphony, but finishing up with a celebration of Bacchus, god of wine. Here we see a seed not only of Symphony No. 9, but also of the finale of Symphony No. 7, where Beethoven very carefully employs suitable metres of ancient Greek poetry, as his pupil Czerny pointed out, to make a Bacchic dance wilder that that in Prometheus, the Eroica, or anywhere else before it in musical history.

Recently at the Royal Academy of Music, we studied Beethoven's violin and cello sonatas, with piano. We found that the forms in the individual movements of Cello Sonata No 4 - in A minor? no, in C major - are incomprehensible heard conventionally, and become musically logical only when plotted across the whole work, and in Sonata No 5 in D major, we observed how the whole harmonic progression of the sonata form first movement is transformed into something transcendental, in ten bars just before its conclusion. These ten bars are a passage which opens windows on to the then as yet unrealised visions in Beethoven's last piano sonatas and quartets - and (this is very important!) this passage of ten bars could, in fact, be omitted, and there still would be grammatical and syntactical sense. But one also realises that the - in this D major context - other-worldly F minor and D flat major chords, against the conventional sonata form backdrop, are the formal climax; or better, a climax by inversion (the dynamics are hushed!) of the whole movement, and its still kernel and raison d'être. Cutting out these conventionally superfluous ten bars would be cutting the heart out of the work.

I would like to dwell briefly on an aspect of "classical" music which, even by musicians, is often taken for granted, and perhaps insufficiently understood.
In his 1944 treatise Technique et mon Langage Musical, Messaien devotes considerable space to rhythm in his own work in a way which became influential not only among his students at the Paris Conservatoire, but worldwide. Thus, rhythm consists of a single line of note-values, which can be divided into "cellules", and each of these little cells (say, of three rhythmic values) subjected independently to different kinds of diminution and augmentation by extremely simple subtraction or addition of time values. These lines of note-values can, in theory, be superimposed ad infinitum.

This has produced some fascinating results - think of some of the rhythmic writing in the Turangalîla Symphony (the composer was stimulated by misreadings of ancient Indian musical theory); and some extraordinary analytical work, as in Pierre Boulez's analysis of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Strawinsky demeure, published in 1953, where the work is examined in terms of these "cellules".

The custom among the avant-garde of that period was to dismiss the rhythmic procedures of older music, from Monteverdi through to Schoenberg, as played-out and exhausted, and also far too simple-minded, with their regular metric structure.
However, if we examine the metric structure of older western classical music, it is heard to consist of something with far deeper resonances that that which we read from the surface of a written page of score. Think of a work for solo instrument, say, a violin or cello piece by Bach. It is as if the surface of the page has infinite depths below it, with layer upon layer of rhythmic meaning below its façade.

First, there is the line of note-values which the musician plays. Beneath that is the beat pattern, say, of quavers, perhaps divided into a 6/8 pattern. This is not apparent, beyond the time-signature and the bar-lines, but is always present, subliminally determining our comprehension of the surface line throughout. Were the composer to write a 3/4 hemiola or a 12/16 syncopation against the 6/8, no time-signature change is needed - it would register implicitly as an irregularity. The 6/8 bars group themselves into strong and weak bars - again, nothing is written: the rhythmic pattern is just heard and played from the minimal information given by the composer on the one written line. The notes group themselves into phrases, determined by upbeat - accent - afterbeat patterns, with all this dynamic, expressive contour-shaping determining the resultant multi-bar periodicity.

We take for granted the four-bar phrase archetype present under the surface of the music, and in our unconscious expectation, also an eight-bar sentence, a sixteen-bar paragraph - and we register the event subliminally when the composer deviates with a three, five, six or seven-bar grouping; in our inner perception we breathe more quickly, or slowly, as this occurs. A rhythmic pattern of harmonic change is set up, sometimes a regular one, say every two bars, but often irregular. I repeat, we hear this behind the one written line of music - there is no need to write it out literally - it is all implied, and present. Often there is a pattern where one chord governs two bars - another chord governs the next two bars (usually tonic and dominant), then we hear one bar on the first chord, followed by one bar on the second, then half a bar by half a bar, a quarter by a quarter, and an eighth by an eighth. (The opening of Beethoven's very first Piano Sonata is F minor is a famous example of this, where, if one wrote out the right hand melody alone, all would be implicit - one doesn't in fact need the left hand chords to be stated at all - our imaginations would fill in the harmonic rhythm without hearing the left hand, with its regular halvings making a harmonic rhythm acceleration towards the end of the phrase.)

Obviously there are, again, infinite variations on these patterns; but to re
turn to Bach solo string works, all is audible behind the surface of the page. Rhythm is not just a line of note-values - it becomes clear that rhythm and harmony, phrase and sentence, are all a part of the same matrix. I come back to Heinrich Schenker, who traced all movement of harmony and rhythm back, and further back, right back to the architectural vanishing point of the tonic, ultimately governing all.

With early 20th century music, this became far more complex and difficult to hear: when tonality is finally abolished, these rhythmic perspectives formerly implied in one notated line disappear, along with the tonic - the aural vanishing point - and just as in abstract painting, where all perspective melts, so this occurs in music, and it became necessary to indicate very carefully what are foreground, middleground and background. Schoenberg writes Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme (main and subsidiary voice) on such abstract scores.

I examined rhythm just to point out how, in our music, harmony and architecture have given rhythm, as such, a multi-layered depth unique in all of music history. To reduce all of this subtlety by placing a rock beat behind Mozart's Symphony No 40 is like sticking orange plastic boobs on the Mona Lisa. Those people who, because it does not have a thudding, repetitive beat behind it, should perhaps rather have those spaces behind the surface of the Mozart opened up in their emotional, spiritual and purely musical imaginations.

Education, education, education. Expensive, and even dangerous, as it makes people sensitive, and liable to think. Subversive. Perhaps that thudding beat, or such a modification of Leonardo's infinitely sensitive, illusive and allusive masterpiece, helps towards deeper understanding, ultimately, in some people - if so, fine; but in all honesty I have my doubts, and I hate to hear or see great art of any kind misrepresented. When you really love and care about something, possibly to a state nearing insanity, it can't help but get to you when it is subject to what you interpret as abuse, even for the most high-sounding principles of making it "accessible" - but, more realistically, just exploiting it for quick profit. But then, I do not own, and have no rights on, Mozart or Leonardo.

I know that the tendency in all fields of our culture is to "dumb down" for the sake of accessibility. I am reluctant, and unqualified, to investigate in depth the relationships between this trend and exploitative capitalism, globalisation and the convenient alleged reduction of people's attention span down to the length of an advertising commercial.

Despite all of this, on the one hand, I try to raise the profile of classical music as much as possible through my position of Master of the Queen's Musick. Here, Buckingham Palace, and the Queen particularly, are being most helpful, supporting, for instance, my suggestion of a children's concert at the Palace, and my idea of a Queen's annual medal for music - even to the extent of the Queen presenting her medal live last year on stage at an Albert Hall Prom, when it went to Bryn Terfel - I think Her Majesty was as nervous as I was!

On the other hand, I will always continue to believe in music education as I understand it, writing music for children to perform; particularly, recently, for the children at the school on Sanday, Orkney, where I live.

For most musicians, with the instinct and sensitivity of musicians, such verbal discourse as I have indulged in is superfluous, though I hope at least in part of some interest.

And, while attempting to define what must ultimately be indefinable in words, I remember words by the Aquinas scholar Étienne Gilson - Si nous connaissons le singulier nous pourrions le voir, mais non le définir. - I think what is meant by "le singulier" might approximate to Aquinas's Latin quidditas, or the "whatness" of a thing, an idea, a proposition. "If we know a singular thing, we may be able to see it, but not define it." Let us substitute "hear" for "see", and be humbled by the infinitely indefinable in Western "classical" music, while still trying, by example in every way we can, without condescension or compromise, to put our message across.

Herder wrote, "Every concert is a symbol of cosmic harmony". I would go farther - every moment we deal with this great music, we are privileged to participate in cosmic harmony.

It is this cosmic harmony which, in whatever form, must fill the world, and we, as musicians, must do our utmost to contribute towards this, through the music we know and love best.

Dante wrote: Leva dunque, lettore, a l'alte rote / meco la vista - "So, reader, raise your sight [I would say, "your ears"] to the high wheels with me: that is, to the wheels on high of a divine cosmic order.

Blogger’s postscript: this speech was given on the day that the Lakes proposed broadening their appeal by setting Wordsworth’s daffodil doggerel to a rap beat… like to like, say I.

Told You So: Freedland on the Net

So you're at a public meeting on, say, the war in Iraq and the main speaker has just sat down. Someone in the audience rises to declare the speaker is talking crap, but that's typical of him because he knows nothing and it's a scandal that he's paid for the rubbish he turns out. A second man agrees that the speech was trash, but tells the first man he should crawl back under his stone because he never says anything worth listening to. A third man wonders why the speaker didn't mention Israel, especially given his Zionist-sounding last name.

The first man is now shouting at the second man, insulting him for insulting him first. A woman gets up to make a point about the war in Iraq, but she is rapidly drowned out by a fourth and fifth man now debating Israel and the Palestinians. A sixth man compares the speaker to Hitler and proceeds to read out a 1,500-word article he read somewhere six years ago. If that has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because you're spending a lot of time online, specifically in the new and still lawless world known as the blogosphere.

This month two titans of the web have launched an attempt at bringing "civility" to this ever-expanding realm, which now stretches to a staggering 71m weblogs. Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia, and Tim O'Reilly, the man credited with coining the phrase Web 2.0, have proposed a code of conduct for online debate, even suggesting kite-mark style badges for sites that comply. Their move followed blogger Kathy Sierra's disclosure that she had been the victim of a violent and threatening campaign of cyber-hate: one manipulated photo showed her head alongside a noose; elsewhere she was called a "slut" who deserved to have her throat cut.
Predictably, Wales and O'Reilly have now felt the wrath of the blogosphere themselves, their idea torched by net users who detected an assault on their free speech. Indeed, in a neat proof of Godwin's Law - the pearl of internet wisdom that holds that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelier someone is to make a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis - it didn't take too long for one critic to post: "First they came for the commenters, and I said nothing because I did not comment."

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Wales and O'Reilly too quickly. Their specific remedy might not be sound, but they are right to see a problem. Nor is this some techie issue, of interest only to a few hardcore web nerds.

For the blogosphere represents an enormous democratic opportunity. In the past, those 71m bloggers would have had to wait for a publisher to deem their work worthy of distribution. Now everyone has a platform. Those who want to challenge tyrannies, or even corporate misbehaviour, can do so directly. Whether it's the Baghdad Blogger or the public service workers highlighted in today's Society section, free expression is now just a click away.

But this freedom has a downside. Check out the Guardian's Comment is Free site and you'll see it for yourself. Yes, the place is humming with debate, borne out by its nomination for a prestigious Webby award yesterday. But it won't take you long to run into some serious vitriol. Even a brief, light piece can trigger a torrent of abuse, usually directed at the author and rapidly diverted by the commenters to each other. If the topic touches, even indirectly, on race or religion, then you'd better brace yourself. If it's Israel-Palestine, you might need to take the afternoon off.

That's the beauty of it, say its defenders; an environment of truly free speech. If your ideas cannot withstand the fierce gale of harsh debate, then they're probably just too flimsy. In one respect, they're right. Journalists like me have had to raise our game, knowing that a factual lapse will be pointed out within minutes.
But that advantage is surely out- weighed by the risk that the blogosphere, which could be a new, revolutionary public space, instead becomes a stale, claustrophobic environment, appealing chiefly to a certain kind of aggressive, point-scoring male - and utterly off-putting to everyone else. This is not just bad news for media outlets like the Guardian, keen to build an audience; it means that this great democratic opportunity is lost.

Ah, but this free-for-all is democratic, say the devotees. Any change would be censorship. But imagine that public meeting. Would that constitute a democratic debate, or a shouting match in which the loudest, most intimidating voice wins? Surely the more democratic encounter is the meeting properly chaired, allowing everyone their say and ensuring no descent into bar-room brawl. That's certainly how we operate in the real world, so why should the virtual realm be any different?
This is something, as regular readers will know, that the Guardian has grappled with, working hard to ensure racist or offensive remarks don't linger on the Comment is Free website. The aim is not so far from Wales and O'Reilly's: to devise a method of moderation which doesn't undermine the essential freedom of the medium. But how?

My immediate hunch is that the anonymity of the web is the problem. People do not tend to call each other Nazis in public meetings, or on radio phone-ins, because other people would know who they were. But if you're called DaffyDuck you can insult whoever you like. If democracy means anything it means accountability - and that should include accountability for our own words.

Yet suggest a ban on anonymity and watch the cybersky fall on your head. Web users regard it as an almost sacred right. They cite the Iranian students or Chinese dissidents, hungry for outside debate, only able to take part by hiding their true identities. The truth may in fact be more prosaic: plenty of commenters post their rants while at work and don't want the boss to know what they're up to. (Traffic on Comment is Free is heaviest on Friday afternoons and drops like a stone at 5pm).
Still, there are technical problems. Force users to give a real email address and they'll just create a fake one. Ask for a credit card and you'd deny free speech to the young and those deemed credit-unworthy. Instead, this democratic problem may need a democratic solution. Rather than some top-down system, it may have to be web users themselves who crack it, by coming to regard their online reputation as seriously as their offline one.

At present, you can be an irascible, misogynistic anti-semite online with little or no consequence. But what if that began to affect the rest of your online life? Note how careful people are to be well-regarded on eBay, where money is at stake. Might it not be possible to have a single online identity, one that you cared about, even if it had little connection to your identity in the real world?

Neil Levine, formerly of, wonders about a system of comment credits, earned by the ratings of other users. High credit would give you an enhanced standing online, perhaps pushing your comments to the top of any thread. If other users deemed you out of line, your status would fall.

It's a smart idea and doubtless there will be others. But this is a nut worth cracking. Right now, the internet is too often like a stuffy meeting room on a bad night. It needs to change if it's to live up to its democratic potential. There, I've said my piece. Now you can bombard me.

Blogger's PS: how do you know that the factual 'corrections' are not the work of nutcases?
Blogger's PPS: just check out the libertarian fools replying to this
Blogger's PPPS: live with it. if you editorialise for a fading paper obsessed with technology
Blogger's PPPPS: net as trigger to a new post-Nietzschean anti-democratic thought-process?

Way Down Yonder: Suzanne Goldenberg on the South

This is a Mississippi story. On January 11 1966, a gold-toned Plymouth Fury carrying a group of voting-rights activists crashed on a stretch of road near the small town of Sidon in the west of the state.

Two African-American women, Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett, were killed on that day. That much is certain. But in their deaths is buried a painful question that has gnawed at three generations of their families. Was this an ordinary car wreck, or were the two women, who had previously been threatened, shot at and burned in effigy because of their efforts to register black voters, targetted on that road?

Engineered car crashes were a known tactic by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s. Violent crimes against African-Americans were rarely investigated or punished. And even if the women were murdered by white supremacists, was it better, as some members of Keglar's own family believed, to leave such suspicions left unspoken?

Now, 41 years after that crash, Keglar's cousin, Gwen Dailey, is campaigning for the FBI to open an investigation into her death. Despite the passage of time, the lack of recorded evidence, and the death of what few witnesses there may have been to that accident long ago, it is not an entirely unreasonable hope.

On February 27, the FBI announced at a press conference in Washington that it was going to take a new look at more than 100 unsolved murder cases from 1954 to 1968, the height of the struggle over racial integration and voting rights, when thousands of black and white activists in the south took on a culture fiercely opposed to any notion of equality or change. The agency's director, Robert Mueller, said he had directed 17 field offices across the south to look into the files and determine which cases could still lead to a feasible prosecution despite the intervening years - in Mississippi, one new trial gets under way next month.

The move is an acknowledgment of a new generation in Mississippi that wants to put the past behind it, not by forgetting, but by trying to render some form of justice. Since 1989, the authorities in seven states have reopened investigations into 29 killings from the civil-rights era, leading to 28 arrests and 22 convictions. The true number of such murders could easily run into the hundreds. Shortly before the FBI announcement, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which reports on hate crimes from its base in Montgomery, Alabama, put forward its own list of more than 70 suspicious killings that were never investigated by the authorities. During those violent years, there was very little interest from state police or the FBI in investigating or even recording the suspicious deaths of African Americans, let alone those who were activists.

But the past has caught up with Mississippi. In most cases, relatives of those victims have set the pace for change by putting pressure on the authorities for an investigation. In others, investigative journalists or prosecutors have taken it upon themselves to reopen so-called cold cases. In Gwen Dailey's case, it was a question of putting to rest the doubt surrounding the true manner of her cousin's death, doubt that had been buzzing for almost all of her life. "I never stopped thinking about it. It wasn't a constant everyday thing, but I never stopped wondering: why did it happen, why does this kind of thing happen?"

Dailey is 57 now. As a child growing up in a close-knit family on a farm in the very rural Tallahatchie County in Mississippi, she was eager to spend her days tagging along after Birdia Keglar. Unusually for those days, Keglar was an active businesswoman. She ran a funeral parlour in town, belonged to several service organisations, and raised two sons practically on her own after husband's early death.

By the time Dailey knew her, Keglar was well into middle age and had earned a reputation as a persistent activist for voting rights in Tallahatchie County. The poor north-western corner of the state, flat and low-lying, was one of the most recalcitrant when it came to recognising the rights of African-Americans who, then as now, formed a majority in the county. It was here that Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, was kidnapped by a group of white men after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in 1955. When his body was dragged out of the Tallahatchie river three days later, there was a bullet in his skull and a heavy processing fan from a cotton gin attached to his body with barbed wire as a weight. A jury of 12 white men deliberated for 67 minutes before acquitting the two suspects in the crime; a few months later the pair confessed to murdering Till in a magazine interview.

In those days, Keglar was one of the few African-Americans in Tallahatchie, male or female, who dared to be active in the civil-rights movement. She travelled to the Mississippi state capital of Jackson and to Washington, DC, marched in Alabama, and spent more than 10 years battling the local authorities at home to be allowed to register to vote. Her family says she was the first black woman to cast her ballot in the county. "She was a tiny little lady. She must have been four foot nine. She wasn't afraid," says Margaret Block, a civil-rights activist who was 18 when she met Keglar in the early 60s. "She was about the only one over there organising and leading organisations. Mrs Keglar was real serious. Everybody came to her for advice."

That activity created dangerous enemies for Keglar. Dailey says Keglar was often forced to change her route home from work after receiving threats. The lights were shot out at her home, and she was once forced off the road by a speeding blue truck. On the evening of January 11 1966, Keglar was returning from a meeting of civil-rights activists in Jackson when a local taxi driver turned up at the Dailey family home to pass on word of a car crash. The story in circulation was that Keglar had been killed on the spot in a head-on collision with another vehicle with a single white occupant. What the family could not entirely grasp on that day was that Mississippi was in the throes of a new statewide campaign of cross-burnings and violence organised by the Klan to protest at the start of investigations by Congress into civil rights abuses.

But, says Dailey, even then some things did not entirely add up. The two women in the car were horribly mutilated, the family says. Keglar was decapitated, which the family saw as a signature of a Klan killing. The car, a new model that belonged to and was driven by a relative of Keglar's named Grafton Gray, was never returned to the family from the crash site by the authorities. Neither were Keglar's briefcase or her prized fur coat. There was no coroner's report.

Dailey and other family members believe the car was deliberately rammed, and that the women were hauled out and tortured by the ambushing gang in front of the men who had been with them in the car. Despite surviving the crash and living for some years afterwards, Gray never spoke of what happened on that day. Neither did the other African-American survivor, who has also since died, nor a white activist from Massachusetts whom the family cannot locate. Over the years, Keglar's surviving son, Robert, now 82, pressed his cousin Gray, who lived on the neighbouring farm, for details. But he says his relative was terrified. "He wouldn't talk. I pressed him, but he just wouldn't talk," he says. "For months and years afterwards he would just go out to the edge of the field and cry," Dailey says.

Some details did seep out, Dailey says. A few days after the crash, the local white sheriff turned up at the family home to warn her father against asking too many questions. Robert Keglar received a similar visit. A few months later, his brother's house was set on fire. His brother died. Then Robert Keglar was dismissed from his teacher's job, as was Grafton Gray. The family decided it was best to set aside their doubts - or at least not voice them publicly.

Dailey moved to Chicago to work in healthcare; other family members, shocked and frightened, retreated into silence. Over the years, on visits home, Dailey asked her family about trying to investigate Keglar's death. "My dad said the climate here was still the same and if I was not going to live here and pursue this, I shouldn't do it," she says. In 2000, Dailey did give up her job in Chicago. When she moved home, she was nearly as old as Keglar was when she died - and suddenly she understood her father's fear and reluctance.

Dailey began writing to local representatives regardless, and visited the authorities asking for records on her aunt's death. On June 1 last year, her home town held a Birdia Keglar day. There are also plans to rename a strip of highway. "I have just been kind of pushing for something. I knew there could never be justice, but to get the incident recategorised so that it wasn't just saying that it was an accident where two women were killed - then I think I can sleep at night," Dailey says.

It is an impulse that Jerry Mitchell understands. On the computer in his cubicle in the newsroom of the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mitchell keeps his own reminder of the importance of dealing with the past. It's a screensaver with the image of three young civil-rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The three, who were in the south registering blacks to vote, were in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964, investigating the torching of a black church, when they were arrested for speeding. After their release, late at night, they were ambushed on a remote road by two carloads of Klan members. They were beaten before being shot dead, their bodies buried in an earthen dam, and their car set on fire. "It's kind of them saying to me: 'Don't forget about us.' So I kept writing about it," Mitchell says. "I don't know if there is enough there to prosecute, but there is enough there to keep looking at it."

And enough to keep writing. A white southerner who is now 47, Mitchell had stumbled into what has turned out to be his life's work when he got a ticket to see the 1989 film Mississippi Burning, about the three civil-rights workers. Eight months later, he had a front-page story in the Clarion-Ledger about how a secretive state agency called the Sovereignty Commission had spied on Schwerner before his death, and circulated the registration number of his car around the state.

Over the years, Mitchell's investigations would help persuade the authorities that it was possible to bring ageing white supremacists to justice. His stories led to successful prosecutions in some of the most notorious cases of the civil-rights era, starting with the murder of the state secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Medgar Evers, who was shot dead on the doorstep of his home in 1963. In the files of the Sovereignty Commission, Mitchell unearthed documents showing how the agency surreptitiously helped in the defence of the Klansman Byron de la Beckwith, who was on trial for Evers' murder. The revelation led to a new trial for Beckwith and his conviction on murder charges in 1994.
A subsequent Mitchell story exposed the holes in the alibi of Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry, leading to his conviction in the 1963 firebombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Then Mitchell started combing the state's history archives, discovering a conversation with a Klan wizard that implicated a preacher named Edgar Ray Killen in organising the mob that killed the three civil-rights workers. Mitchell had a new target and, in 2005, he got him. Killen was convicted of the manslaughter of the three, and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Initially, the preacher, then 80, was freed on bail pending an appeal after pleading that he was confined to his wheelchair and needed oxygen to survive. However, a month after the verdict, Mitchell wrote a story on how Killen had been seen filling up his car unaided at a local petrol station. The preacher was ordered to remain in jail. But even after that victory, Mitchell says he is not done. "I continue to look at the three civil-rights workers' case," he says. "A number of these guys are walking around still."
Persuading readers and editors that there was an interest in pursuing these long-buried cases was a challenge at first. "I got a lot of calls saying, 'What are you doing writing about this dead N-word?' " he said. "I even had people I knew tell me: 'Jerry, why are you writing about this old stuff? Leave it alone.' "
Mitchell is rarely told to leave things alone now that he has won his paper a string of awards, but he says the work does not get easier. Though he continues to come across large numbers of suspected hate crimes from the past, he says he is forced to focus only on the most viable - those with an FBI paper trail, or where surviving witnesses offer a hope of eventual prosecution. But time is running out. "It just takes so much energy to do one of these cases. It's hard to crank it back up again," he says. "The window is closing. If there are going to be cases brought, then they have got to be brought fairly quickly."

In Tallahatchie County, where Birdia Keglar and Emmett Till died, the past 20 years have brought the emergence of an elected African-American political class, shifting the balance of power within the communities. Fifty years after the sham trial for Till's killers, it would be unheard of for an all-white male jury to sit on a murder trial. The most senior elected official in the county - Jerome Little, chairman of the board of supervisors - is African-American. Little is one of many people in Mississippi who has visions of turning the sites associated with Till's death into a tourist trail. He says his ambition is for the county to offer a formal apology to Till's relatives for his murder. In Philadelphia, where the three civil-rights workers were killed, black and white citizens have spent years working towards reconciliation. Now they are concerned with making sure that school textbooks have chapters on the civil-rights movement, and they have political support. These days, Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state in America.

These changes have helped lay the foundation on which it is now possible to prosecute the crimes of the past, says Douglas Jones. He was instrumental in the prosecution of one of the most horrific crimes of the civil-rights era: the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church, which killed four girls attending Sunday school in the basement. Although the authorities had identified four prime suspects within days of the bombing, only one man had ever been successfully prosecuted - until Jones took up the case. In April 2001, he secured the con- viction of Klan member Thomas Blanton for driving the men to the church in the middle of the night to lay a dozen sticks of dynamite on the window ledge. A year later he helped to secure a life sentence against another accomplice, Bobby Frank Cherry, who is believed to have set the fuse. "Today these old civil-rights cases will get a much more adept and critical review in terms of trying to open cases than they would have 15 or 20 years ago," Jones says. "I think most prosecutors would say: "I would give it a look.' "

But as Jones learned with the Birmingham bombing case, obtaining new evidence was almost impossible. Memories fade, witnesses die. In many instances there is no documentation. And despite Jones's optimistic outlook about race relations in the south, he found very little evidence of latter-day conscience in former associates of the Klan. His investigators interviewed 30 to 40 former Klan members, but found none genuinely willing to talk. Instead, Jones focused on mining the contacts Cherry and Blanton made in the years after the bombing. He discovered that Cherry had admitted to a granddaughter that he had had a hand in the girls' death. Then, through a process he describes as "the hand of God or something", one of Cherry's five former wives came forward to say he had told her he had lit the fuse on the explosives.

Jones admits, however, that his greatest asset was simply the chance to put evidence before a jury that was not blinkered by racism. PowerPoint presentations helped, as did television screens to view images of the girls' broken bodies, but the main thing was timing. "People were ready. Not only has there just been a general shift in attitudes in people who sit on juries, but there has been a seismic shift in communities, communities who have tried for so long to hide their past," he says.
So how does it feel to bring some measure of healing to one of America's great injustices? Jones is still troubled by the bombing. "As good as it feels to convict a guy and put him in prison, the tragic part of this case is that I never can really tell the story. I can't tell who built the bomb, and who took the bomb and planted it in Thomas Blanton's car. Did it go off at the right time that morning? Or was there a bad fuse, and it didn't go off when it was supposed to? All these questions are unanswered."

Gwen Dailey's questions about the way Birdia Keglar died are just beginning.