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The illusion of fusion

Ivan Hewett finds the London Philharmonic subverting the fashion for musical inclusion

By Ivan Hewett   May 2002

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 evening with Holst’s The Planets.

A genuine fusion of all these would have been a miracle. In fact, the different musics were kept strictly apart. Unlike most fusion concerts, which tend to have a pop ambience, with swirling lights and heartwarming images of the oneness of mankind, this one was decorous and understated. As the Malian dancers filed off (bending low so their vast headdresses would fit under the stage door of the Festival Hall) we clapped politely. Their show had a charmingly old-fashioned air, reminding me of those folklore events that Unesco used to promote in the 1960s. Then came a 20-minute interval, during which one could read the programme notes for the next item. The separateness of the experiences was emphasised by this interval between each performance.

So in several ways, Dorny stood the trend for fusions on its head, whilst appearing to defer to it. What this event said was: these things cannot be promiscuously mingled. They must be heard and savoured in their particularity. But this does not mean that they can’t shed light on each other, and this was Dorny’s aim. By placing orchestral music in the context of other musics, and bringing them under an overarching theme-man’s relationship to the heavens-he hoped to restore a freshness and innocence to the act of listening.

There was, indeed, a striking sense of kinship between the vastly different Malian, medieval and Indian performances. All were pervaded by antiphonies or “call-and-response.” This is the most potent way of expressing a shared belief, because the tossing back and forth of a tune or a rhythm between two groups, or between a leader and a group, creates a magical, closed circle.

But then it was the turn of the LPO. And how odd the western way appeared, with the musician no longer impersonating a heavenly body, or bearing a text full of meaning. It was a demonstration of western technical might. It was also rather melancholy, because those vast expressive resources were devoted to a theme whose heart had now fled. By 1916, when The Planets was composed, no one believed in the power of the heavens to alter their lives. It was a poignant expression of the disenchantment that comes when belief has ebbed away.

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