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High Levels

Maintaining excellence



The world of music at the highest level of blossoming talent seems now to be as a plane taking off with maximum loading. On board is the cream of young composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists, proof that the latest generation of musicians enshrines all the elements of musical excellence that history shows as a necessity for a living and developing art.

In a way the jet age also reflects the lives of musical stars as they are now hurtled around the world to assuage the global fascination for - perhaps - the surrounding aura. Sometimes the shine on performers is a touch brighter than on the music they perform.

Recent, and growing by the minute, is the massive publicity campaigning led by the record companies and the high-sale musical monthlies that are akin to the glossies in seductive advertising and sumptious layout. It is all too easy to absorb this atmosphere in a haze of imposed luxury, allowing the nut to slip thoughtlessly to the ground whilst we gaze in wonder at the shell.

Our severest temptations as thinking and balanced music lovers arise from this modern scenario. From all quarters music almost pollutes the air. In writing that sentence I feel as though I have committed a sacrilege – indeed, I have. Yet I am fully aware of the dangers inherent in overkill. Music is a delicate art, even in its violent manifestations. A composer builds from single notes, not from mounds of chord clusters. And he alone knows the skill of erecting elaborate textures which may be quiet and slow in sound yet explosive in atmosphere.

I regret that we all commit the inexcusable far too often when we should be listening intently to the sounds that reach our ears instead of putting our thoughts into neutral. Much of the blame rests with the preponderance of music a click away night and day when it could be treated reverentially if we had to fight for the right to listen to it without disturbance.

Alongside my rather sober thoughts, nevertheless, I put the pleasure of discovering the brilliance of new performers and composers. And I applaud, for instance, the readiness of the musical press to promote the exceptional talents (for instance, the young British composer Thomas Ades in a recent Classic FM magazine [UK]) when their gifts can only too readily benefit from exposure to a large readership.

Could musicians a century ago have imagined an age when globestraddling was a daily occurrence, or when small discs carrying a couple of symphonies could be played back with close perfection endlessly if required, their amazement would be great. But they may have been surprised that musical notation is basically the same, even if we have speeded up ways of processing it. One assumes that present-day orchestral performances of music they knew would also appeal to them. As for compositional technique and new styles, it as well for us to remember that The Rite of Spring (1913) is still capable of bemusing a conservative audience. Such is the visionary power within a musical genius.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, November 15th 1999


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