Music between the Ages Imperialism and Islamophobia
After releasing their first album in 1966 the The Incredible String Band split temporarily with Robin Williamson and future band member Licorice McKechnie travelling to Morocco, and Clive Palmer taking the overland trail to Afghanistan and India. Their experiences of unfamiliar cultures with different musics had a major influence on subsequent Incredible String Band albums - particularly The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion seen above - and also on the development of art music. Although the music from this period was incontestably influential, the counter culture that produced it is all too often dismissed as ephemeral and irrelevant. But there is an alternative interpretation that is at least worth consideration.
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion and numerous albums by other bands were the product of a musically fecund period. During this period the slow decline of the old political order signposted by the Suez Crisis in 1956 and Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, and the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 was counterbalanced by the rapid emergence of the new political order heralded by the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the subsequent US/UK 'interventions' in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the important but overlooked study The Hippie Trail published by the Manchester University Press co-authors Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland provide the following perspective on those who like Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer travelled to experience different cultures in that fecund period.
Put simply, they travelled between the Ages of Imperialism and Age of Islamophobia; they were not aiming to build empires, to exploit natives, to convert non-believers or to wage war on terror. Their travels could be seen as the largest, longest pacifist demonstration in history.Probably not coincidentally, the lacuna between the Ages of Imperialism and Islamophobia was also a particularly productive one for contemporary music: William Glock's tenure as BBC Controller of Music from 1959 to 1972 was a golden age for new music, Pierre Boulez headed the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971 to 1975 and the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977, and the influential catalyst for experimental music IRCAM opened in 1977 in Paris' Pompidou Centre under Boulez's direction.
But since those auspicious times the world has changed as the Age of Islamophobia has morphed with considerable help from the media into the Age of Tribalism; with tribalism being defined by Robert Wright in his thought-provoking new book Why Buddhism is True as "the discord and even open conflict among religious, ethnic, national and ideological lines". As befits our binary age, tribalism is dualistic and divides society into opposed camps. There are no emojis for the middle ground; so the only possible position today is to be virulently pro or anti-Islam, virulently pro or anti-Trump, virulently pro or anti-Brexit, or, indeed, virulently pro or anti-Boulez and The Incredible String Band.
Only time will tell if the Age of Tribalism produces any great art. There are many precedents for great art being produced in times of conflict; but the prospect of another Boulez or Incredible String Band emerging in the next few years looks very remote. The divergence of the two Ages is epitomised by the difference between IRCAM and the proposed new London concert hall. One is a workplace for a diverse community of creatives to contribute to the future of art. The other, if ever built, will be a museum in which the celebrity tribe will exhibit the art of the past.
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