Ivan Hewett finds the London Philharmonic subverting the fashion for musical inclusionby Ivan Hewett / May 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
For an orchestral manager to say “the core repertoire is at the heart of what we do” is a courageous statement these days. One who does so is Serge Dorny, artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He has appointed Kurt Masur, a master of the “core repertoire,” as principal conductor and this spring the LPO is mounting a Beethoven symphony cycle-an emphatic affirmation of the great tradition.
But Dorny is a shrewd man, and he has also deferred to the musical trend that best embodies the culture department’s preferences: fusion. Fusion does the things that art is now supposed to do; it flits through stylistic walls and establishes an easy-going musical democracy where none of the elements are in charge. That at least is the illusion. Listen harder and it is clear that, with some exceptions, no real fusion takes place. If it did, the original sources could no longer be discerned. But in CDs like L Subramaniam’s Global fusion or Nitin Sawhney’s Beyond Skin the sources-generally a vaguely Islamic-sounding chant, mixed with Japanese koto and Irish pipes-are clearly discernible. As they must be, because how else could we thrill to their promise of contact with the Other?
What we have is not so much fusion as a casual co-existence where any possibility of falling-out between strangers is held at bay by the surrounding aural ambience. This ambience normally consists of a synthesised drone and harmonic wash, which seems to offer a neutral backing, equally amenable to the exoticisms laid against it. But the apparent neutrality of the backing is what makes it coercive. The things that might make these musics different from each other-the microtonal tunings or the cultural context that gives the music meaning-are obliterated by this aural wash, which imposes a western ethos while pretending to be invisible.
So my heart sank when I glanced at the programme of the LPO’s “Roots-Fusion” day last March. There were members of the Dogon tribe in Mali, re-enacting a ritual to mark the appearance every 60 years of two stars, Sirius A and B. There was the New London Consort, a group of recorders, lutes, stringed instruments and voices, performing medieval dance-songs. There were 40 musicians and singers from an academy of Indian music in west London, performing devotional songs, including one in praise of the moon. Lastly, there was the LPO, who were to wind up the…