Monday, 18 February 2013

Uneasy Listening On TV

BBC TV brainiac music attack: The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Music and Howard Goodall's Story Of Music - ooh what an illicit thrill...when we could be watching Come Dine With Me, Skyfall on DVD, or even Sky Sports....

...but no, here's Howard, tinkling his keyboard in a tutorial fashion, showing us chords, diminished flats, cells and other things I've since forgotten...

...telling us all about the Story Of Music, no less - I eagerly anticipate his description of the musique concrete revolution and Stockhausen's electronic kick, assuming he'll include them. What will he say about Hip-Hop? Will he demonstrate the use of the Apache break on twin decks, or simply play a sample on that keyboard of his (does it have a 'breakbeat' setting?) - can't wait.

Meanwhile; Difficult Music. Atonality, no less. The sound the fury of Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Edgard Varèse upsetting the establishment by playing new things on old instruments - that is the shocking aspect. It's kind of Classical, but not as we know it. Had synthesizers been available in 1910 they may have written for them, and nobody would have cared because avant-garde electronic music isn't taken seriously. Not on TV, anyway - therefore, not anywhere - because to be on TV validates everything, from cooking to cats that can skateboard....

...skateboarding ducks became a symbolic joke on British TV back when everything was orange (or to be more precise, nicotine-coloured) and workers went on strike. Yes, that long ago. How could those who sniggered at animal antics being broadcast predict that three decades later the whole world would be addicted to animal antics via a thing called YouTube on computers (!) that weren't the size of a bungalow, but could be held in the palm of your hand?!

How could I have predicted, when starting my career as a DJ, that two decades later a Varese LP would always be in my record box (ask your dad) for one residency. The place was called Bartok, and therein lies a clue to the theme it promoted (but only if you know anything about the history of Classical music). Yes, Varèse would get a regular airing, although when they hired me perhaps they expected more Mozart. But it was a thrill to play Ionisation - call me crazy...

Why bother watching these programmes when there's so much Easy Viewing to tempt us? Wall-to-wall cooking, dining and cosy comedy beckons. I spoke to someone about this recently who suggested that many with demanding jobs (intellectually, presumably) wanted Easy TV. Oh the irony, since aren't those the very people this kind of programming is aimed at? And what is everyone else's excuse? They need a break from existence, to hit the mental snooze button. What else is High Definition TV for if not Lowbrow Culture? We have very Smart TVs for so many Stupid programmes.

'Why is the world full of so much shit?' LJ asked me not so long ago, meaning excrement of the cultural kind - and, staring out the window of the bus, I came up with the theory that the sheer volume of tripe on the telly acts as fertilizer for the forest of foolish nonsense today - music, film, whatever. The more there is the more they make and the outlets bloom like so many poisonous fungi, which people consume, and their brains die. - you see? Whereas when there were fewer channels the simpletons were more likely to come across something good and possibly think 'That's quite good, actually, despite the subtitles etc', and the world (UK, at least), would be a better place, filled with more creative energy dedicated to Art, Music, Film because people had been inspired by something they saw on TV. But was it better back then, in, say the 70s? Wasn't there as much crap as there is now? Percentage-wise...who has the figures,and who decides what it Crap? I don't know. The theory may be nonsense, but it passed the time. And anyway, Barry Norman's film programme (ask your granddad) was sure to feature many undisputed classics in the 70s. Today, there isn't even a good film programme on terrestrial TV - and if there was, it would be filled with formulaic garbage, mostly.

Radical music gets no time on TV. Not even on The Culture Show, which regards New Folk (?) and token black singers as the be-all and end-all of contemporary music. Yet it ventures across all terrain in the Arts. Is music not considered a valid art form in the UK today? Is Ekoplekz twiddling his knobs in vain? Demdike Stare? Café Kaput? Mordant Music? Perhaps I missed programmes featuring them... I rejoice in the current 'glut' of programmes about music on TV. Yes. They may be historical by nature, but what The Sound and the Fury does cover makes a change from the usual BBC policy of providing TV for Mojo-readers...


  1. interesting POV as always, pretty much sums up my opinion on the subject. particularly the bit about the 'mental snooze button'. my wife has a significantly higher IQ than me, and has a very serious, demanding job, but likes nothing more than unwinding with utter tripe on the telly.

    1. Which could explain why my dormant, low IQ brain is willing, but frequently incapable of understanding Intelligent TV...

  2. oh and to the best of my knowledge, i have not featured on any TV programmes. nor do i expect to in the forseeable future. will continue twiddling in vain..

    1. You certainly do not twiddle in vain, sir...although I sometimes think I blog in vain...

  3. Some of course would accuse you of making an elitist argument. But that's neither here nor there, as far as I'm concerned.

    Granted that the nature of media markets and programming is different in the U.S. than it's been in the U.K., but a few thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic...

    Some of what you're talking about can be explained by the proliferation of media and channels came the increase of "narrowcasting" and niche-pitching, as it occurred in the 1980s and thereafter. I suppose back in the '70s, with so few venues and channels, there was some attempt to cover a broader spectrum of the culture. This, even if the people doing it were utterly unqualified to present or discuss certain topics -- offering it to the audience with bemused shrug, as if to say, "The next item may seem totally silly or incomprehensible to most of you; but, believe or not, some people thing our next guest has done something important in the realm of such-and-such."

    But I believe in the U.S., this sort of thing was a little more common in the 1950s and early '60s; back when the medium was young and broadcasters thought that TV offer more a little than just entertainment -- that it should also serve some educational and informational purposes in the way of "cultural affairs." (Add to this the nature of U.S. cultural self-regard at the time -- in some respects more serious and "cosmopolitan" and "moderne," as the country bestowed upon itself the newfound status of being "Leader of the Free World.") But that that very much started to change in the mid-60s and through the 1970s; becoming more profit-minded, and therefore more entertainment-oriented.

    Re, "Wasn't there as much crap as there is now?"

    I don't doubt it, and my own memories don't suggest otherwise. The whole matter of media and cultural dissemination aside, I think that's just generally the nature of culture in general. I once had a course under a noted art critic who pitched to our class the question: "Why does about 90% of public art/sculpture suck so badly?" My argument in return was that that's the way it is with everything at any given moment in time, that 95% of most anything -- art, music, literature, etc. -- is the next era's rubbish. It's either mediocre or just plain bad, ersatz or kitsch or just generally pretty unimportant or insubstantial -- destined to be of no significance just a couple of decades (if not years) down the road.

    1. Re 'Add to this the nature of U.S. cultural self-regard at the time -- in some respects more serious and "cosmopolitan" and "moderne," as the country bestowed upon itself the newfound status of being "Leader of the Free World."', I immediately thought of John Cage's famous TV appearance. The status of American Art in the 50s and early-60s is also a factor.

      Apart from that, I don't fully buy into the idea that 'there's always good stuff around' (which would require one to be a serious culture vulture to truly find out, and I am not). Yes, it's all subjective, but I do believe in 'golden ages', such as the 60s for Pop (you don't need me to name the names) and the 70s for Hollywood (the last golden age of cinema?). If anyone thinks there are directors today matching Coppola, Kubrick, Altman and Scorsese, good luck to them.

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    2. Also, re,: "...require one to be a serious culture vulture to truly find out,"

      Well, yes. Thing is, were you to page through old American art magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, you'd see a lot of rubbish there, too -- with only a small fraction of the content dealing with things that would later be deemed significant.

      Back when I was studying art history, I had a number of profs who sniffed at the role of art critics -- one going so far as to say that critics were the "least important" factor of the artworld equation. Which I thought was absolute horseshit. Critics are the ones who do the sifting in real-time, if not in the as-it-happens moment, then in its immediate wake. Sorting the trifles and the bric-a-brac from what might be potentially significant. Art historians of the academic stripe, on the other hand, overwhelmingly suffer from being (at best) about 20 years behind the cultural curve, much like the rest of the population. The sifting and prioritizing have most often already been done for them by others (critics and the active participants in the artworld), and most everything they do follows from those efforts.

      (And admittedly, I'm generalizing. When I say critics, I'm referring to the good & cogent variety, which always tend to be in the minority. And over the years there have been a number of art historians who are more actively engaged with current art, but these too also tend to be rare.)

    3. Well, critics, as you know, are not immune to the subjectivity factor, otherwise they'd all agree all the time. I like Pauline Kael's line on that, re film critics, but it applies to all forms: 'In the arts the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.' It comes down to which professional critics you trust. Today, via Comments, everyone's a critic.

  4. Re, "golden ages": Yes, some periods in history are richer or more active than others. This happens for a variety of reasons -- usually the waning of fatigued parochialisms vs. a new generation of restless & dissatisfied artists entering the field. And certain conditions (usually material) being right for supporting or promoting the latter.

    > ...and the 70s for Hollywood...

    Right. Good example. But as I wrote about recently, it seems the 'New Hollywood' of the late '60s and early '70s was little more than a passing moment, a narrow window that allowed those sorts of filmmakers to work as freely as they did. By 1977, a backlash set in against that lot, and Hollywood reverted to its prior blockbuster-oriented model, because that's what audiences wanted.

    > I immediately thought of John Cage's TV appearance

    That was what I had in mind, too. But I've seen other examples of it, too -- old clips of Studs Terkel on Chicago TV in the late '50s, interviewing someone like Carl Sandburg or Frank Lloyd Wright. But that sort of thing was infrequent, and became moreso over the years. By the late 1960s, it was usually the territory of an isolated handful of talkshow hosts -- mainly the likes of Dick Cavett or David Frost, and usually interviewing some overrated "celebrity author" like Norman Mailer or Truman Capote.

    > The status of American Art in the 50s and early-60s is also a factor.

    True. Which partly ties into my "newfound status" remark. Because while there's no denying the importance of American art during those years, some have argued that the country's culture ascendance at the time benefited from the fact that most of Europe was too busy rebuilding from the war.

    1. That last line may be true in some ways, but the European musical avant-garde was making strides, as was Italian and French cinema which, going into the 60s, seemed to be leading as far as progressive cinema went. You're right about 70s cinema, of course.

      As for TV interviews with mailer and co, as overrated as they may have been, at least literature was being discussed. On UK TV today, it does not exist.

  5. > ...On UK TV today, it does not exist.

    Which was pretty much my original point, although I may not have made it very clearly.

    > ...but the European musical avant-garde...

    Returning to _your_ original point/topic: Yes, I'd agree. I'm even inclined to say that in many respects, Europe surpassed the U.S. in that area. I probably should've emphasized that I was mainly talking about visual art with that last remark.


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