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.


Gert said...

Nominated for Post of the Week

Peter said...

Change stations - at once.

Surely commercial broadcasting supplies the ultimate "take it or leave it" option, and thus I don't understand your need to get so downhearted. You don't explain this in your post - not that I discerned anyway in one fairly careful reading, thanks to Gert's recommendation of the essay.

Me I listen to no commercial radio at all, as you can't get rid of the ads - unlike TV when you can at least hit Mute.