… and the bands play on (a bit)

6th March 2013

Listen up. Let’s talk about The Sound and the Fury, the final part of which remains on BBC iPlayer until 9 March. Let’s talk about it because it has been one of the best BBC arts and music offerings of recent times, but let’s also consider its legacy, which is interesting in part because of its limitations. A Fresh One production for the BBC, produced and directed by the excellent Ian MacMillan, the series takes its inspiration from Alex Ross’ exemplary book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. The films outline a tale of classical music over the past one hundred years and a bit, and at times ground their cultural history in the broader political events of the times. Alex Ross is a – in fact, the – key interviewee (although composer George Benjamin also has a central role) and the author takes a ‘series consultant’ credit, but somewhat oddly the series is not, or at least not explicitly, a television version of the book. Whatever. Let’s hear two cheers for its achievement.

Things we like (a lot) about The Sound and the Fury: (1) its intelligence – the ideas are strong, the approach accessible, the tone finely-judged, and it has been good to see twentieth-century avant-gardes engaged with thoughtfully and without condecension; (2) the absence of a presenter, which has been all the more refreshing after just too many lookalike, soundalike series with slightly over-enthusiastic boys telling us arts stuff; (3) a stellar cast list, including Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass, John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, Stanley Crouch, Meredith Monk and many others; and (4) lush, imaginative and often precisely apposite visuals.

Things we like rather less: (1) the compression – just three hours to range across a terrain of great complexity, with the result that the second film, for example, has work very hard to cram in Shostakovich, Aaron Copland, the Darmstadt school (Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono) and the 1960s Manchester men (Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies) – and unsurprisingly there is no room for Benjamin Britten; (2) the loss of the personal voice, the distinctive quirkiness that animates so much of Ross’ book – there is a sense that the sharp corners and inconvenient contradictions of the subject have been somewhat smoothed out and rounded down.

More of the things we are not so keen on: (3) the distressingly scrappy quality of some of the historical archive in the first two films, as in the scratchy and over-duped images of pre-war Paris and of the Soviet Revolution (although there is also some glorious archive elsewhere, including the spectacular The King of Jazz from 1930); (4) the brevity of the musical examples – the tyranny of the voice-over means that there is rarely more than a moment to actually listen to the music. Time and again, as I watched, I found myself frustrated by the words, words, words. Trust what it is that the film is about, please, and trust the audience too.

This last point is partly alleviated because the series is accompanied by three concert films. These are composed of some of the performances especially – and very finely – filmed for the series. So the 28-minute Schoenberg, Webern and Ives offers pieces by those composers played by the London Sinfonietta and pianists John Constable and Timothy Andres. Cellist Oliver Coates joins the London Sinfonietta for a 26-minute selection of extracts by Messiaen, Ligeti, Xenakis and Birtwistle. And bits and bobs by Cage, Feldman, Reich, Monk, Part and Benjamin (phew!) feature in another 39-minute compilation, with performers who include Meredith Monk herself, pianist Vicky Chow and the Sinfonietta again. Too often we get only a single movement or the equivalent from a piece, but nonetheless these superior off-cuts are very welcome.

The links in the previous paragraph are to the concerts on BBC iPlayer where, remarkably, they will be available until 1 January 2038. Which is like the BBC saying ‘in perpetuity’, and this is perhaps all the more remarkable given that the concerts were not broadcast on BBC Four but rather made available via the Red Button after the first screening of the respective episode of The Sound and the Fury.

What’s more the three concerts are part of a small but finely formed BBC Four Archive Collection, Modern Classical Music. Here are television recordings of four major concerts from the past decade, including Boulez at 80 from 2005; two editions of the 2001 Music Masters series, devoted to Stockhausen and to John Adams; and, slightly bizarrely, the 1968 Peter Ustinov-presented Omnibus film Diaghilev: The Years Abroad. These too have been cleared for viewing until 2038.

BBC Archive collections of this kind have been around for several years now (there is an invaluable one of films with Henry Moore), but to date the contents have mostly been confined to comparatively easy-to-clear BBC documentaries. The presence here of concerts, entailing all the attendant problems of music and performance rights, is a big step forward in terms of access to the BBC archive. Bravo, bravo.

The legacy of The Sound and the Fury also includes 20th century composers: making the connections, a rather neat interactive infographic from The Open University, which visualises relationships between many of the key figures in this story and the places and themes that were and are important to them. It is a very effective way of taking further any interest that the series itself might have sparked. Bravo, too, for this.

The inevitable question, however, is why does the series itself have to disappear in three days’ time, and remain inaccessible to those of us who (as licence fee payers) have funded its production until the BBC decides to re-run it or until we are expected to shell out again for a DVD, even if one is forthcoming. Wouldn’t we regard it as a bit odd if we bought Alex Ross’ book The Rest is Noise, enjoyed reading it, put it on a shelf for later, and then found that it had vapourised?

The iPlayer now makes a nonsense of all of the old ways of watching. Once the BBC has published a programme of this kind, which has only the most limited commercial prospects in other distribution channels, it should remain published and freely available to all. Listen up – this is a simple, compelling idea, and the sooner we recognise its necessity, the better.

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