Tuesday, July 06, 2010

New music's reality check

'More important still was his conviction that individual conscience must be supreme: not for him the Marxist argument that a single person's wisdom can never match the collected, collective wisdom of a party. He was to that degree not 'incorporable' in any system of cabinet government, where at times one has, because of one's position, to go along with decisions one disagrees with - which could have been why Glock found him such a difficult colleague' - Leo Black writing about Hans Keller
Hans Keller (1919-1985) was an influential figure in contemporary music and championed composers such as Britten and Schoenberg, with Britten dedicating his String Quartet No. 3 op. 94 to him. Between 1959 and 1979 Keller held senior posts in the BBC and worked closely with Third Programme (now Radio 3) controller William Glock and others on broadcasts and concerts that fundamentally reshaped Britain's contemporary music landscape. Glock saw his mission as "dragging the radio listener screaming into the twentieth century' and to this end supported both obviously worthwhile new music and the as-yet-unproven. Keller disagreed with such an undiscriminating approach and this gave rise to the notorious Piotr Zak hoax.

In June 1961 Hans Keller and pianist Susan Bradshaw recorded a random sequence of percussion sounds in a BBC studio. These were broadcast on 5 June 1961 as part of a concert of otherwise genuine new music. The spoof work was identified as Mobile for Tape and Percussion by the fictitious Piotr Zak and a biography of the composer was created for the broadcast. Only Keller, Bradshaw and a BBC scheduling executive were aware of the hoax. In 1961 continuity announcers simply read scripts written by the producers and in the recording below the legendary Alvar Lidell, who was unaware of the deception, is heard introducing the performance of Mobile for Tape and Percussion. There was surprisingly little reaction to the hoax outside the BBC. But, predictably, it resulted in a long-term rift between Hans Keller and William Glock.



Leo Black's reference to Marxism and collected wisdom is remarkably relevant to broadcasting today. It was Marx who wrote that "History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as comedy". Today's commedia dell'arte BBC is a one party system with a despotic Radio 3 controller under a self-regarding director general who in turn is controlled (or not) by a toothless BBC Trust. Which means there is no one left at Radio 3 with enough spine to deliver a Hans Keller style reality check. So my dream of an Edward Lear nonsense poem being substitued for a Petroc Trelawny concert introduction is unlikely to become reality.

The header cartoon was inspired by another notorious Hans Keller event, his Pink Floyd TV interview. Again quite unmissable, so here it is:



How times have changed. André Rieu's shlagermusik has replaced the avant-garde as the vehicle to drag Radio 3 listeners screaming (and how!) into the second decade of the twenty-first century. My FM tuner lies neglected while my CD drive plays the Belcea recordings of Britten's quartets and I reflect on the lost art of the animateur.

Header quote and spark for this path came from Leo Black's BBC Music in the Glock Era and after. This book is likely to become a fixture on this blog, need I say more as recommendation? Hans Keller cartoon credit agaraerock.blogspot. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

2 comments:

Pliable said...

My thanks go to Alex Ross for quickly and diplomatically pointing out the error, now corrected, in my reference to the Britten Quartet dedication in the first version of this post.

It was a mistake I should not have made. But, as the Russian proverb says, better lose to a great intellect than win against a fool.

k.hobday said...

Love it! Strange how you and The Rest Is Noise have both posted spoof new music items on consecutive days. And its not even April....