The year of the spat

Ben Coren looks back at the various rows and spats that characterised the UK arts and culture scene

As 2008 looms, the arts media has been busying itself reviewing the cultural highs and lows of the past year.

Despite gloomy news of drastic cuts in arts funding and continued predictions of the death of the book, the general consensus is that 2007 has seen a lot of interesting work produced (although some of it, as our film critic Ryan Gilbey observes, has been hard to find).

But aside from praising or damning individual work, and without meaning to be unduly reductive, what were the trends that summed up 2007?

In the UK, celebrity meltdowns and popular environmentalism were both high on the agenda and we’ve also seen an above average number of spats tangentially linked to issues surrounding freedom of speech and the limits of acceptability.

The year kicked off with a ratings grabbing race row in Celebrity Big Brother (more of the same was to follow in the summer series) and since then new cultural brouhahas have been arriving very regularly. This week the BBC was criticised for editing the word ‘faggot’ out of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and in recent months we’ve had both Mozgate and the Amis/Eagleton controversy to keep us suitably outraged, whichever side we’re on.

Of course, the arts have always been an area where debates over what is permissible are played out and a good cultural/political ruckus certainly makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But an argument could be made that the prevalence of these kinds of stories in 2007 paint a picture of a country with a worryingly uncertain set of attitudes towards what can reasonably be said and what can’t.

Perhaps the spats at least brought such issues to wider attention, but did they generate more heat than light? In the case of several of the controversies most of the debate was conducted not by specialists, or by members of the respective minority communities under discussion, but by white, predominantly male celebrities, which is surely somewhat amiss…

Our comprehensive review of the year in arts and politics.

Critiquing the Critics

One response to all this would be to criticise the media for covering these sensationalised quarrels at the expense of more reflective content. Cultural journalism has itself been at the centre of a diverse range of rows this year, with the critics especially under attack. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, took a swipe at the “dead white men” of theatre criticism and Philip Roth allowed one of his characters a ferocious diatribe against the “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” of all literary journalism in his latest novel, Exit Ghost.

Meanwhile, the Booker Prize Chair Howard Davies infamously railed against the failings of book reviewers and the Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire has recently come over all self-flagellating and lamented that most critics’ tips for bands to watch in 2008 represent an “effort to funnel listeners into pens of the industry's making.”

It is debatable if these events constitute a telling trend of some kind or are just a series of essentially self-contained, unrelated incidents. Comments on this, and on whether interventions like those of Hytner and Davies really do serve to make journalists more self aware, are welcome below.

In any case, despite the criticism, no one’s denying that there is still a lot of very good arts writing around: at the risk of seeming immodest, our own Arts & Books pages currently include interesting pieces by David Hare and Toby Litt and we will endeavour to go on providing the best in arts coverage in 2008.

A recent blog on literary reviews.

News Round Up

This week reality TV, the Golden Globes shortlist, an art heist in Brazil and Amy Winehouse’slatest misdemeanours all generated a lot of coverage, but the most remarkable story must be the news that the planned loan of Russian owned paintings to the Royal Academy may not go ahead, possibly for politically motivated reasons.

Meanwhile, Tory about town & one time NS Theatre Critic Michael Portillo was revealed as the Chair of next year’s Booker panel, and, as the TV networks tried to whip up excitement over their Christmas schedules, The Guardian was keeping things resolutely high-brow, offering blogs on academic obfuscation, neglected Central Asian writers and the death of the cultural elite.

For those of a more spiritual bent, a debate was going on over whether Christmas in the West has become overly secular, while the web hosted an amusing dispatch from the “Mind, Body and Soul Expo” and Franco Zeffirelli announced that he is keen to give the Pope a makeover. Happy holidays.

Show Hide image

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State