THE new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan, is taken to task by Kenny Farquharson for his attitude to popular music
Fergus Linehan spends much of his working life in the world’s finest opera houses and concert halls, the lucky man. But given what he’s been saying this week, I think he needs to get out more.
The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival needs to live a little. He needs to listen a bit harder to his surroundings. And he needs to embrace the age he happens to be living in.
Earlier this week, Mr Linehan was unveiling the classical music programme for this summer’s festival. Here was his chance to stamp his personality on the world’s largest celebration of the arts.
In his previous job at Sydney Opera House, he programmed jazz, pop and world music alongside the symphony orchestras. Was this the moment the EIF would look beyond its classical cul de sac? Would there be a fightback against the upstart Manchester International Festival, which in recent years has commissioned ambitious new work from Damon Albarn, Ennio Morricone, Rufus Wainwright, Björk and Massive Attack?
The answer was no. The programme was an impressive selection of the world’s greatest orchestras playing old favourites including Sibelius, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Impressive, in its own way, but the same old same old.
There were no surprises. No attempt was made to reach out to a new audience. And as he explained why he would not try to compete with Manchester, Mr Linehan betrayed an attitude to popular music and popular culture in general that – to me at least – came across as patronising and elitist.
“You have to be true to your DNA,” said Mr Linehan. “Our DNA is around a strong classical repertoire. Then you try to have interesting conversations within that.
“Sometimes you want music as a background for drinking and chasing boys or girls, and sometimes you want to really engage with music.
“We have a sliding scale in relations to the degree of intensity with which we want to encounter a piece of work. Sometimes you want to read a silly thriller by the pool, sometimes you want to read something that changes your life. You can do both.”
This was when I started to feel a bit sorry for Mr Linehan. He seems to think all contemporary popular music is the equivalent of a Jeffrey Archer potboiler. It seems he has never ever allowed himself to be immersed in the world of Nick Cave, as the Bad Seed explores our fears and desires, testing the limits of imagination and morality. Nor has he listened to PJ Harvey as she invites us to examine our consciences in an age of war and cruelty. Fergus, it would appear, has never cried to a lovesong.
He disparages music that acts as “a background for drinking and chasing boys or girls”. Is this really art of a lower order? Do songs that can perfectly express the universal experiences of love, loss and lust fail to qualify as good art?
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The popular music of the past 100 years offers thousands of three-minute epiphanies that are perfectly-formed expressions of fundamental human emotions. They are cherished by millions and will be loved for centuries. And yet Mr Linehan seems to think they lack “intensity”. He seems immune to the idea that guitars and poetry can together create art that is just as moving and redemptive as the Berlin Philharmonic belting out Ode to Joy. What we have here, it would appear, is a case of four-strings good, six-strings bad.
My worry is that Mr Linehan’s attitude to contemporary music means he fails to engage with the moment. The music of the here and now is an expression of the age we live in. It is part of the zeitgeist which, if ignored, leaves any meaningful appreciation of modern life incomplete.
To fully live in the present, you have to engage fully with the art being created in that moment. You don’t have to like all of it. That would be stupid. The pleasure lies in sifting through the dross for the songs that will mark you for life.
Here’s an example. My favourite album of 2014 was King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love, an extraordinary suite of songs commissioned as the soundtrack to a collection of old Scottish newsreel and home movies. As Scotland faced its existential moment in the referendum, this was the perfect accompaniment to a nation pondering its sense of itself. In my mind, it will always be the soundtrack to 2014. It enhanced my understanding of where my country found itself.
Of course, I like a bit of classical. Mahler’s my thing. Symphonies 3, 5, 2 and 1, in that order. I like the way Mahler can lull you one moment and then unexpectedly grip your heart. All life is distilled, its triumphs and disappointments. He’s particularly good at conjuring up those moments when your life tumbles out of control. But my life would be immeasurably less rich if classical music was all that was available to me.
Last week, I watched an Otis Redding documentary, and was reminded of a 1980s TV play called Road that featured one of his songs. I found it on YouTube. It was a grimy slice of northern miserablism, unrelenting until a scene where two couples are drinking cheap wine in an abandoned house, and one of them puts on a cassette and plays Try A Little Tenderness.
As the first chords echo through the house, and the two men close their eyes to listen, the two women at first look puzzled and confused. What is going on? But as the song takes hold, all their cynicism, all their anger, all their nihilism begins to fall away. And then, as the horn section of Otis Redding’s backing band – aka Booker T & the MGs – builds to its extraordinary climax, the music becomes a life force, a redemption, a celebration – despite everything – of being alive.
Stick that on your turntable, Mr Linehan.