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Scotland's Classical Struggle

img  Tobias

Ok, so here we go again. James MacMillan, conductor at the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, has made it his mission to shake up the world of Classical Music just as much by his music as through regular provocative statements. His latest effort to wake up England as well as his dreamy native Scotland concerns the decline of the "high arts" in the latter and the favouring of Pop. Newspapers and rock bands have answered his petition in detail and with passion. What is the fuss all about?

In essence, what MacMillan laments, is the state of Scotland's educational system with regards to Classical Music. He feels that pupils are neither being properly prepared for a career as a composer, conductor or musician, nor trained to be able to listen to Beethoven, Wagner and their collegues, nor motivated into checking out some symphonies instead of stuffing their ipods with just another simple pop-tune. The decline of support for the Opera was, in his view, only the beginning of a development that would seriously endanger Edinbourgh's international standing when it came to "serious" music: "It is shameful and embarrassing to see this happening - it is damaging the pride and reputation of music in Scotland." Going even farther, MacMillan claimed that "it will be an appalling confirmation of Scotland's inexorable spiritual decline." The reason for this, according to him, was the favouring of popular over classical music by the country's politicians.

Swiftly following this statement was a debate with Alex Kapranos, singer of Scotland's number one group Franz Ferdinand (who sold a stunning three million copies of their debut album and are well on the way of repeating that feat with their excellent second CD). While MacMillan emphasised that serious sounds required a different kind of listening when compared to radio-friendly jingles and that there was a profound difference between high and low arts, which could not be dismissed, Kapranos called for more understanding from both sides: Each musical style had its own merrits and should be appreciated - instead of used as a sword against other genres. He agreed that Pop music was inherently commercial but that this was in no way a challenge to it touching people's hearts - and that its financial merrits actually supported the country's entire musical scene.

It wasn't just the Scotsman that thought this debate rather boring and besides the point. In a detailed and excellent article, Kenneth Walton asked the real questions instead: "Does that suggest, in this day and age, that good pop is neither serious nor art? And how, then, do you categorise such iconic figures as John Cage or Steve Reich (...)? The waters have become even muddier since both Americans were at the heights of their wide-held popularity among the young and intellectually trendy. No-one on Wednesday either thought it important, or seemed willing to address such a basic but crucial issue." He also regretted that the arguments used were the same weilded over and over again for the last decades and didn't serve a bit to point in which direction to go from here. Meanwhile, author Julian Baggini basically thought the whole question problematic: Pop music shouldn't even try to equal serious music's complexity - after all, who said that complexity was a sign of quality at all?

To understand what this debate is about, it is truly helpful to examin why it is being conducted at all. MacMillan is certainly not the backwards-figure he is now made out to be. His concern is for the children in Scotland, whose musical education is being watered down, with skills such as reading music only being taught at the sidelines. There seems to be a general consensus that music should be awarded a more important position in the general curriculum - but the signs are to the contrary. Walton describes the example of Scandinavia as a positive example, where musical education is an integral part of the system at every stage.

There is nothing to disagree about here. The mistake MacMillan made was to play the cheap and predictable "high vs low"-card. If arts are the expression of the inexpressible and serve to synchronize the brain's two spheres in harmony, then there is no sensible argument of favouring Classical over Popular culture. Educating pupils about what different and wonderfully plentiful sounds are out there, as well as the analytical background to this (Pop Music has its theoretical foundation as well!) should be the true content of class - and not a one-sided approach that puts "complexity" and the "intellect" first. Instead of being ashamed, Scotland can be more than proud - Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian, as well as Nicola Benedetti are the best examples of a nation, whose spirituality is in at least a decent state. MacMillan may have shaken up the scene again, but this time around he has impeded rather than helped a generally noble cause.

Homepage: Franz Ferdinand
Source: James MacMillan at Scotland on Sunday
Source: James MacMillan at the Sunday Herald
Source: James MacMillan and Alex Kapranos at the Scotsman

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