Further editorial comments by HG on the experience of making BIG BANGS

  • Posted on 1 October 2000 at 5:10pm
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Most educated adults will expect to know who Einstein, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo are and roughly what they were responsible for in our culture. When it comes to music though, the same educated adults draw huge blanks. the recent BBC series called ‘Renaissance’ carried with it the clear implication that the Renaissance art discussed was visual and architectural, not musical- this is fairly typical of general attitudes to music. The layperson clearly knows that Mozart and Bach wrote nice music in the way that Dickens or Tolstoy wrote nice books, but even musically-switched-on people don’t know who invented musical notation, or when or why or how or where.

Musical notation was the first major step that separated Western music from ALL the other musical systems on earth. Later harmony and ‘equal temperament’ (the western tuning system) were to make the uniqueness of the western musical language complete and irreversible. Given the enormous contribution music makes in all our lives, it is almost embarrassing how little we know about its birth and construction.

The Western musical system is now becoming the shared, basic language of all the musical cultures in the world (for better or worse), faster even than English is becoming an ‘international’ communications tool. Isn’t it timely, then, to look at its key components and understand why they are what they are? Why isn’t European music like Indian music?

Big Bangs is not really about famous composers and performers, i.e. the subjects of practically all musical documentaries on TV ever made. Nor is it a series of concerts on telly with dinner-suited musos glaring intently at music stands, the other type of music programmes of the last 40 years. It is about musical concepts. The kind of things that affect ALL music of all types. It is about ideas and inventions, about the moments when music might have veered off into other directions. Whatever its overall strengths and weaknesses (which other people will have to decide) it is in this respect almost unprecedented outside the Open University.

Classical music has been around for roughly 1000 years and popular music has grown out of it. Modern Western pop music is as indebted to classical music (uncool though it may be) as it is to African and Afro-American music of the 20th century. In spite of this, classical musicians feel without doubt that they are on the defensive, they are being pushed to the sidelines of a prevailing youth & popular culture. I personally feel music should be without frontiers because that is my background, but it is hard to see the average classical symphony concert fitting into anyone’s idea of an enjoyable modern experience, devoid as it is of visual interest or relaxed, accessible communication with its audience. the gulf between the modern classical concert experience and the popular gig is absolutely enormous.

People feel classical music is some kind of private club – you either have the knowledge and know all the passwords or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re somehow inadequate. My series/book attempts- passionately- to end this musical apartheid. Anyone can watch/read this and grasp the concepts without specialist knowledge. But neither am I going to patronise and start explaining what a violin is or what the French Revolution was about.

I am completely unapologetic about the importance and value of classical music. There is no reason why everyone should not feel proud of its tradition and the amazing repertoire it represents, but I am also bored with the old-fashioned image it has cultivated for itself and keen to present it as freshly as possible, and understand why people may feel intimidated by it. For me, the gap between the two positions is perfectly bridgeable!