Thursday, February 20, 2020

Beethoven beyond the concert hall


There is little doubt that the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is grossly over-exposed, and it takes an artist of quite exceptional ability to make us listen to the old warhorse with fresh ears. But Iranian film director and writer Mohsen Makhmalbaf does just that with his 1998 film 'The Silence' [Sokout], which provides the accompanying screen grabs. The acclaimed film's non-linear narrative depicts the blind village boy Khorshid who is forced to work in a luthier's workshop in a city in in Tajikistan. Khorshid can 'see' with his ears and this leads him to a hypnagogic encounter with Beethoven's symphony as his mother faces eviction from their home for rent arrears.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a creative maverick. His 2001 film Kandahar is highly critical of the Taliban, and speaking of the infamous destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan he said: "I reached the conclusion that the statues of Buddha were not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world's ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness didn't do any good". The Sufi saint Rumi is one of Persia's most famous sons, and The Silence' is celebrated for its Sufi symbolism. But I kept that aspect of this masterpiece out of the headline in deference to classical music's subliminal Islamophobia*. (I await news of the tribute concert for the nine victims of today's terrible shisha bar shootings in Germany, but I'm not holding my breath.)

There are other universal messages in 'The Silence': most notably the importance of seeing with our ears as well as eyes, a skill painfully relevant to Beethoven. Transpositions of Western classical music to other cultures can seem contrived, but the enigmatic closing scene in which Khorshid 'conducts' Beethoven's Fifth played by a folk orchestra - see header image - shows how genius can transcend cultural mindsets. It is typical of Mohsen Makhmalbaf mischievous but inspired direction that the demanding central role of the blind boy Khorshid is played brilliantly by a girl, Tahmineh Normatova. Watch the moving and magical final minutes of the film by opening this link.



All the classical social media addicts who are leaping to defend the BBC license fee should note that 'The Silence' is available to Amazon Prime subscribers, as is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's other visual masterpiece Gabbeh. I have flesh in the broadcasting game, as what few creative skills I have can be credited to my training with BBC Radio. But, as I wrote previously, in recent years technology and consumer behaviour have changed radically and continue to change at a pace that nobody could have predicted, which means media must also change. Instead of whining about the speculative demise of BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, the license fee remainers should address the real dilemmas facing the BBC. How can the BBC respond to the profound structural shifts driven by streaming and personalisation? How can a license fee structure created in 1946 to reflect high broadcasting infrastructure costs be justified when digital technologies have slashed broadcasting and webcasting infrastructure costs and eliminated barriers to entry?

Why should the UK public subsidise through a quasi-poll tax the BBC when its mission is to compete head-to-head in a race to the bottom with unsubsidised commercial networks? In a market where the supply of classical music has been increased exponentially by streaming while demand remains static or decreases, how can the BBC avoid reducing its stable of five house orchestras? There seems to be no awareness by the license fee remainers of these very real challenges. Now please can the license fee fans repeat after me one hundred times 'Tweet bombs and online petitions had absolutely no impact on Brexit'. Then can they write to the BBC demanding the airing of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 'The Silence' as a diverse contribution to the Beethoven anniversary celebrations.



* See also the approved by site moderator comment directed at me by 'DW' towards the end of the comments on this Slipped Disc post.

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1 comment:

Graeme said...

I have commented before on the New Generation Artists' scheme but the continuing orgy of self-congratulation that is currently happening is nauseating. Of course it is a creditable initiative and has helped numerous talented musicians to launch their careers but is it really in the remit of a broadcaster funded by a tax to use their substantial muscle to help musicians in this way? The kudos of guaranteed concerts at the Wigmore Hall plus masses of broadcast airtime are surely worth looking at. It is one thing for private sponsors and not for profit foundations to run such schemes but a national broadcaster? Did they consult the wider public at any point? Radio 3 is not one of the most popular channels, is it?