Oily waters

July 10th, 2010

Waking at six this morning, still muzzy in the head after an uncomfortably hot and sticky night, I got up just before six and turned on the radio to hear the news. There was a report on yesterday’s quaint exchange of US and Russian spies which evoked nostalgic memories of the Cold War; but the item which brought me awake with a jerk of delight was a comment from John Le Carré, who had expressed surprise at the exchange of spies, given that both Russia and the West were now “drowning in the oily waters of capitalism”. Leaving aside the implied reference to the catastrophic pollution of the Gulf of Mexico by BP’s Deepwater oil-rig, what struck me about Le Carré’s use of the C-word was the shock effect of its scarcity-value: it is rare that anyone alludes to the blindingly obvious fact that free-market capitalism now has the entire globe in its seductive embrace. Profitability and so-called efficiency bestride the earth like Colossi, and the checks and balances are so feeble as to be worthless. They will not do so for long, because the inevitable result of aggressive capitalism (coupled with rampant corruption in the emerging industrial giants, India and China) is an uncontrolled overconsumption of natural resources and the rapid demise of our pretty little planet. I for one, who have two very nice grandchildren, would like them to live a bit longer than I shall. Today, as we sleepwalk past our ecology’s tipping-point (wrangling inanely about scientific details) and approach the end-game of our planet and our species, we could do worse than examine what capitalism does to ecologies, economies and societies; yet who is doing this? Thank you, John Le Carré, for bringing it up. And thanks also to you, Karl Marx – a prophet whose ideas on society (though twisted by bureaucratchiks and hijacked by despots) still have more to teach us than is generally realised. Brotherhood of man or mindless self-interest – which of these do we see in the ascendant? Although the question is rhetorical, the true answer is horribly obvious. The solution to the problem is not in the least obvious, of course; but we urgently need the debate, and a new direction for human productive endeavour.

More murderously oily water in the news today: the unkind cuts now being applied to the fabric of British society (as a result of the short-sighted greed and stupidity of the banking sector) are now being spelled out for the arts. This new government would like Britain to follow the American model, and fund the arts not by state funding but through corporate sponsorship and private donations.

Is there – and has there ever been – anyone in government who understands the importance of contemporary music to society, and has thought seriously about how it can be funded? Yes; in fact there has. Between 1946, when as first Chairman of the Arts Council John Maynard Keynes won a big increase in arts funding (despite the parlous condition of the nation’s finances) and the end of Harold Wilson’s first term of office in 1970, the arts in general and music in particular were well respected and properly funded. Between 1964 and 1970 the powerful double-act of Arnold Goodman (as Chairman of the Arts Council) and Jennie Lee (Arts Minister) ensured that new British music was encouraged and fostered, and as a result Britain became a major musical centre for a glorious decade, and many outstanding composers sprang from this fertile soil – from Tippett, Britten, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies to Mark Antony Turnage, Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen. So much wonderful new music was created, so many exciting performances put on, so much scope opened up for fresh thinking and discovery – it was a great period in our musical history. The effects of this remarkable period of enlightenment lingered on – though arts funding was salami-sliced downwards after 1970 – until the end of the 1970s, when I was writing my first big piece CRY (premiered in London in October 1980, and featured in the 1983 and 1994 Proms, and on the South Bank in 1988).

Since 1979, when Mrs. Thatcher’s neanderthal attitudes towards the arts (and other things) were unleashed on British society, British composers have been systematically starved of funding. The same goes for music in general in Britain: our orchestral musicians are disgracefully underpaid, and work far longer hours than is good for them or their performance. This, and the lack of job security or trade union support create an atmosphere of anxiety and stress in the musical profession which has become desperate. Idiotic competitions for wannabe virtuosi suck ambitious, unsuspecting youngsters into a profession which is not supported or respected by government or public; and which therefore cannot support those who work so hard to enter it.

If the music profession in general (which includes such sacred cows as the Royal Opera and the London orchestras, which scarcely concern themselves with new work) is not valued or adequately supported in Britain, we living composers have an even rawer deal. It has come to the point now that, for both performers and composers, Britain is no longer a country where we can practise our profession and earn a living. In fact, the music profession officially no longer exists: it is called the Music Industry, and audiences are called consumers. This so-called Music Industry is all about marketing, celebrity, and what is patronisingly called “bums on seats”. Nothing can be put on which reduces the number of these bums. There are of course brave exceptions; thank goodness, there are almost always a few wonderful enlightened people who carry on regardless of the difficulties. But the exceptions prove the rule, and this is no way to nourish music in a civilised country. Music in Britain is horribly underfunded, and the British composer is now an endangered species. Now we are to be starved and marginalised still further, on the pretext that the country is short of money. Yet the Arts Council, the South Bank concert halls, and many other organisations which stimulated and patronised musical creativity for decades, were founded shortly after the end of World War II, when Britain was practically bankrupt. That was the right thing to do, and it is a nice piece of irony that the first chairman of the Arts Council was Maynard Keynes. When you’re broke, spend and invest. If Britain cuts its spending on music any further, there will be nothing worthwhile left. The idea that music can be funded by private sponsorship alone is fatuous; if Britain goes the way of the USA in arts funding (as the new arts minister has said it should) new music in this country will be as bland and shallow as it is in the USA. Maecenas, that archetypal patron of the arts, may have been a wealthy private citizen, but he would not have been able to fund Horace, Virgil and many other writers and artists if he had not had the ear of his friend the emperor Augustus, who controlled the public purse of the Roman empire.