In defence of technique

A British composer tunes into the debate about the decline in musical literacy.

Piers Hellawell

Topics Politics

I have told this piece of Groening wisdom before, but it bears retelling: Bart says to Homer Simpson, ‘Dad! I’ve tried the electric guitar, but I just can’t make it sound like a real one’. Homer says ‘Son! put it in the wardrobe with the other things you couldn’t work. You know what television teaches us: if you can’t do a thing at once, it isn’t worth doing‘.

In the arts, we are in danger of creating a nation of Bart Simpsons – youngsters who are drawn to creative activities but with no training to effect them – overseen by a Homer Simpson governance, eager about the idea of being ‘creative’ but with no notion of encouraging training, much less of paying for it.

For example, the 2001 Green Paper Culture and Creativity, which lays out the government’s cultural strategy for the next 10 years, is rich in the mot du jour – ‘access’ – and drips with aspirations for visits to museums, galleries and theatres. It is as if the ‘education’ mantra has become ‘institution, institution, institution!’.

Yet somebody needs to ask what on Earth is the use of all this access if it is for an unlearned audience, one not given the real key to artistic appreciation that resides in the unsung business of artistic training in the perception of paintings, drama and the rest. Without such disciplines, visits to artistic centres are just sticking-plasters on a galloping crisis of cultural illiteracy, for which our political opinion-formers will rightly be castigated when the reckoning comes.

It is discipline in the artistic realities that is the true gateway to the arts, the one that leads to every other door; those who champion such training are true believers in the only access that counts.

The very terminology surrounding this crisis speaks of paranoia and denial: for all the talk today of ‘education’ and ‘literacy’, nobody can be said to be ‘uneducated’ or ‘illiterate’ now – they have ‘literacy problems’. It cannot even be said that anybody is ‘educated’ or ‘literate’ – in fact, this would be worse, for it has the whiff of an elite achievement.

In this atmosphere of vacuous pieties and aspirations, there is little chance of anybody taking artistic training seriously. This came home to me when a friend in a music-related field told me about a meeting held in November 2001 with a senior government luminary known to be strongly on-message. The reply to her question about who would provide training for those having to realise ambitious new access initiatives was: ‘That’s up to the education people.’ No sign of joined-up government there, then.

But there is no artistic activity separate from training! This is a unity that is crucial for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), for without educative aspirations the DCMS itself has no cultural meaning, no reason to exist. Like it or not, artistic activity is education in action, and is indivisible from it; art is only perceived as art because artistic literacy allows us to experience it. Very few cats and dogs go to concerts.

This truth will not go away. There is no artistic reward without some uncomfortable moments at that rendezvous with our own limitations. Clearly, reminding us of our inadequacies and struggles is no vote-catcher, so politicians fall back on hopeful ego-massaging – ‘we are all creative’ is the message of the Culture and Creativity Green Paper – and on filling our artistic temples, in the sort of turnstile fever that is now also engulfing the critical faculties of TV planners.

Curiously, everybody accepts the unity of sport and training: to practise sport is also to ‘practise’ it, to seek improvement, and we applaud such training – no doubt because we goggle at its financial rewards. In the sciences, too, this flaky training-bypass makes no sense: one hopes amateur dentistry is still some way from being encouraged in ‘workshops’. In art, however, we are now exhorted to cut out the travel and arrive at the destination, never mind that we have no wheels.

That there is a collapse in musical literacy is known to everybody in third-level music education. It is difficult to convey in lay terms that this is a catastrophe in its disabling effect on our young musicians; for to lament it is always to be caricatured as an opponent of very necessary and progressive community music activities – when in truth nothing demeans these fine initiatives more than mistaking them for a replacement for something else. They are a parallel blessing, not a new literacy.

The musical coherences that we strive to express – for which we need literacy – have not gone away, just as our semi-literate youngsters still need to express themselves in prose, despite being abandoned by the collapse of syntax teaching. Teenagers now provide striking evidence that they have been betrayed by those responsible for removing from the curriculum (and from A-level training in particular) the rigours of tonal harmony, the musical vernacular of most youngsters.

For it is an irony that the very harmonic training that has been axed addresses the one harmonic language universalised by popular media of our age – diatonic tonality. Students in my first-year class are so conditioned by popular tonal harmonies that they find it hard to strike out in any individual direction, yet at the same time they lack basic schooling in that language to which many of them cling, a schooling which does involve struggle and – most unfashionable – the reality of partial failure in reaching for the highest expertise.

Literacy is having the tools to process the information coming from our
ears – a conceptualising of sound that is not possible without some schooling.
The only possible analogies here are with visual arts: every small child wants to draw, but although we are surrounded by visual images and ‘design’, we cannot turn what we know from our perception into drawing skill if we have no literacy in the understanding of perspective.

So students write not persuasive tonal music, but a grinding travesty that
tramples on the very flowers it loves. There are no short cuts to art: the
greatest artists all trumpet the irreplaceable role of technique. ‘Creativity’ is just the ploughed field, the fertile location – the beginning of the process. It is simply horrendous that a civilised society should mistake it for the end.

The artist Frank Auerbach, who devotes years at a time to perfecting a single portrait, has nailed down the distinction between making a product and creativity: ‘To do a painting that you know how to do is not art; it’s painting. Painting has got many interesting things about it, but art is discovery: art is about adding something to the world.’

Composer Piers Hellawell is Gresham Professor of Music and Reader in Composition at The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Piers Hellawell spoke on this issue at the Institute of Ideas event ‘Pieties or Policies? The language and assumptions of cultural policy’, on 17 November at Tate Modern, London.

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Topics Politics


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