Archive for August 1st, 2010


A Sad Day for Music

What a sad figure I’ve become in my late middle age! Here I am on my own in Bangkok, and on a Saturday night I can think of nothing better to do than settle down in my apartment and watch the television. I’m a self-confessed news junkie and could normally sit in front of BBC World News all night long, watching it chase its tail as the same old stories go round and round with little or no embellishment. But after a hard day’s examining piano candidates, I don’t feel quite in the mood for any more reality. My heart still bleeds for those 300 or so desperate souls lost in the Pakistan floods, not to mention the thousands of ruined lives by the horrendous China oil spill, but I hope they will accept that, just for one evening, I’d like my mind to be transported elsewhere. So it’s time to flick through the non-news channels. Movies (five channels) present an uninterrupted and indigestible diet of gun-toting Yanks making up for their lack of brains by shooting out those of others in graphic detail. Not for me, I want escapism, but not of the totally brain-dead variety. Entertainment channels? One is yet another programme about sharks biting people (what’s this obsession with blood and gore?) while on anther channel two hirsute American yobs abuse each other while doing something unmentionable with motorbikes. Nothing there to entertain me. Back home my two-year-old daughter monopolises the television with CeeBeeBees, JimJam and Playhouse Disney, so I can live without that for a while. So it has to be sport. Acquaintances of mine who know about such things tell me the World Cup has, at long last, come to an end, so there’s a hope I may find a sports’ channel not showing football. And on my fourth touch of the remote control I strike lucky. ESPN (what does that stand for?) are showing what appears to be a feed from a CCTV camera where some kind of athletics meet is about to take place. There’s a grainy image from a fixed camera set as far back from the field as possible showing all sorts of people milling around and a soundtrack (presumably also taken from the CCTV feed) in which weak strains of a sort-of brass band seems to be rehearsing something. I’m not a particular enthusiast of athletics, but suddenly I realise this is a field in Malaysia (you can always tell it’s Malaysia because of the saturation adverts for American fast food companies – the only other countries where everything is covered with MacDonald’s, Burger King and KFC posters are in west Africa, and I can tell this is not one of those) and I’m keen to see what it’s all about.

It becomes almost hypnotic. This same fixed camera and distant sound track stays for five, maybe ten minutes. No commentary, no banner to suggest what it is ESPN are about to show us. It is intensely boring, but curiosity gets the better of me (and anyway, it’s far more entertaining than football) and I stick to it. Eventually – and I’m absolutely sure this is what happens – someone holds up a card in front of the camera which is then, slowly, re-focussed, and I see a close up of Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken, which gradually slides to the side to make room for the immortal legend “KFC Malaysia World Band Championships”. Horror of horrors! This isn’t coverage of a sporting event but of a musical one! I’ve railed against parents and especially school principals who treat music as a competitive sport rather than an intellectual pursuit for years, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it would ever come to this. Here is a respected sports’ broadcaster actually dedicating prime time on a Saturday to a band contest. It should, for the sake of my blood pressure, immediately get me switching over to those Pakistani corpses floating by or those Chinese fishermen suffocating in the sludge, but it doesn’t. Like Frodo to Shelob, I am inexorably drawn into the clutches of something which I know instinctively will be evil beyond endurance. And so it turns out to be.

The CCTV quality of the telecast remains, but it is enhanced (if that’s not too strong a word) by a roving camera down on the field, which shows plenty of close ups of sweaty young people moving aimlessly about, some holding brass instruments at impossible angles, some throwing batons high in the air and then – clever camera work this – seeing them drop on the ground some distance away, and a number of officious track-suited bods rushing hither and thither continually talking into the microphones attached to their earpieces (these, I learn later are the “judges”, but what they can possible be judging when they are so busy talking to someone on the phone, escapes me). There’s a commentator who comes to life only after each commercial break and is clearly totally out of his depth both with the nature of the event and the country in which it’s being held (his reference to a “low sitar” having nothing, I eventually surmise, to do with Ravi Shankar, but everything to do with the town of Alor Setar). The game is given away at the very end when the awards are handed out and the public MC thanks ESPN for their live telecast “to 300 million people around the world”. (I don’t know who’s to blame here, ESPN for such an outrageous lie or the MC for actually believing it.) I imagine KFC have paid a handsome packet to ESPN for this very long promotional show (after all, the KFC logo and name appeared on every single shot and in every single speech), while ESPN have trousered their whack and put minimal resources into the actual show, giving the telecast such an appallingly amateurish flavour that anyone chancing on it will think that all this music nonsense is just so much rubbish and they will give it a miss in the future.

But all that’s by the by, as they say; if ESPN and KFC want to pally up to each other, let them. What disturbs me profoundly is the whole concept of what we saw. For a start, the World Band bit seemed extreme, to put it mildly. The bands I saw all came from either Indonesia and Malaysia; true, a South African gent did wave his arms around in response to a naïve question from the commentator, but he was obviously a Cape Malay, and was only an audience member anyway. I know a lot of people in Malaysia and Indonesia don’t acknowledge the existence of any other country, but even they would surely baulk at the “World” tag when it involved just two neighbouring states. Then, it seemed this was an event dominated by Muslim youths, which made it doubly odd that most bands seemed to have an American Christian hymn in their repertoire (all those I saw played the “Shaker Hymn” as well as various other excerpts from Copland’s Appalachian Spring). The music, however, wasn’t really audible via ESPN’s feed, and if the bands were any good or not, I have no way of telling.

But this was in no way anything to do with music, no matter what the authorities would have us believe. The musical instruments were there merely to fulfil the same function as a python in a striptease routine; an exotic prop, ultimately discarded. Dressed in the most curious of uniforms – lurid colours, flouncy trousers, enormous shiny epaulettes, young boys wearing vast feather headdresses, one band wearing bowler hats like so many misguided Orangemen (is there any other kind of Orangeman?) – these bands strutted and pranced around the field, running backwards with their instruments held in the air, jumping up and down with their instruments between their legs and, in short, doing just about anything but play them. What distant strains of music did reach the single microphone seemed to indicate that intonation was not part of the scheme of things, and tuning largely an irrelevance. I’ve seen marching bands in the US, Ireland and Norway – not to mention the great champions of them all, the British army – and very impressive they have been with their tightly choreographed movements and outstanding musical synchronicity. This had nothing to do with marching bands: Prancing bands seems a better description, it being more in the manner of a cross between a down-market Rio Carnival and a Gay Pride rally through the slums of a provincial Indian town.

What it was all about defies me, and I hope this comment will have caused enough offence amongst those whose children follow this curiously unhealthy pursuit, to get them to write in so I have some way of knowing what it is all supposed to be about. Obviously there’s big money in it – US$10,000 going to the winning team from a school in Balikpapan (funnily enough I was there recently trying to persuade them to do Trinity music exams and coming away with the impression that this was a very musical town) – but from where I stand, there is a very grave danger that some people may well see this as a musical event, in which case it will have done irreparable harm. On television it came across as ludicrously amateurish, and it seems designed to expunge any brainwork from music as a cultural pursuit – after all with music you have to listen and think, but when you’ve got lots of outrageous costumes and plenty of pointless movement, you don’t have to bother with the thinking bit any more. There was even an inane slogan, “Re-invigorating the Colour of Music”, or some such piffle. But the real worry is that this is the kind of thing schools promote because it gives them some musical legitimacy; It would be a very sad day for music indeed if this was so.

August 2010