22 February 2012

Old Art - Old Hat

Feng Yin, Director of the China National Ballet, made this astonishing comment the other day; “Western audiences have been watching Swan Lake for more than a century, so must be bored and craving for something new”.  What are we to make of that?  Do we automatically discard Shakespeare in favour of Alan Ayckbourn, Dickens in favour of Jeffrey Archer, Mozart in favour of Lloyd Webber simply because the first named are dead and the second named alive?

When I heard that I thought what a peculiarly Chinese perspective on great art it was.  A nation which recognises musical talent only when it appears on the front cover of glossy fashion mags can surely not appreciate the value of those who had the misfortune to live and work in the years before colour photography, scented hair gel and cosmetic surgery.  I well recall the Chinese piano technician who came to tune my 1929 German-built grand piano shortly after it had arrived in Malaysia.  After the lengthy sea voyage from Southampton, three months in a container on the dockside at Port Klang, not to mention being dropped by the team of Indian movers who brought it into the house, it was still pretty much in tune, and I just needed a technician to give it a bit of TLC.  He took one look at it and declared; “Waste of time!  Old piano only fit for scrap heap.  I get you a new Chinese or Korean grand at very reasonable price”.  When I suggested its very antiquity might make it valuable he was aghast; “Nobody want old piano like that”.  Somehow, the very idea that something is old instantly renders it worthless in the eyes of a people whose concept of legacy seems from the outside to amount to burning bits of paper at a grave once a year.

But then I realised this was by no means a uniquely Chinese view point.  Ploughing relentlessly through a tedious novel by Patrick Gale (Rough Music) which I picked up in a pile of remainders at a bookshop last week (on the strength that it was about a part of the UK in which I had once lived and included mention of people and places I knew well, so thinly disguised under a gossamer veil of altered names and details that were anyone to consider libel, no lawyer could possibly argue that the characters in the book were genuinely fictitious), I came across this exchange between a dope-smoking, long-haired, motor-cycle riding American author and a highly respectable middle-aged middle-class English wife with a penchant for embroidering hassocks and playing Skryabin on the piano as they fought over a transistor radio;

“What’s is it?”, she asked. 
“Aretha Franklin. Listen”. 
“I hate this sort of music…That’s not music.  That’s just noise. I’d find you real music only the powers that be have made the signal too weak to reach us down here”.
“You mean spineless stuff.  Polite string quartets”. 

All terribly clichéd (as is just about the entire book) but, as with all clichés, reflecting genuine everyday attitudes.  There are too many lovers of classical music who instantly dismiss anything they don’t like as “not proper music”, assuming a bland statement to sound more assertive and requiring less mental effort than voicing a considered opinion.  Similarly so many of those who dislike classical music feel intimidated into taking the clichéd stance that it is old and irrelevant while their preferred music is real and genuinely relevant to modern lives.  That’s not a Chinese attitude; it’s a human one.

It is frightening, however, when someone who is in a position where their utterances are looked on to have the weight of thought, understanding and consideration, comes up with something as idiotic as Ms Feng’s reported comment.  If audiences find Swan Lake boring, the fault lies with them or the performance, not the ballet or its music.  I, for my part, could never for a moment get tired of hearing Tchaikovsky’s glorious score and while I have certainly attended performances where the choreography did little to endear itself to me, classical music in concerted, balletic or operatic form, is too multi-textured ever to be boring.  The trouble is, listening to it and appreciating it takes effort, and an awful lot of people, Europeans even more than Chinese, have neither the will nor the ability to make any sort of mental effort in the pursuance of great art.

Even more worrying is when directors, who themselves may be devoid of artistic depth, feel that the original needs to be spiced up to make it more readably accessible to those who like to have their art spoon fed to them.  I’m of a generation which suffered the “innovative experimentation” of 1960s theatre directors.  I well remember as an A level English literature student attending a performance of Othello in which all the characters were black with the exception of Othello himself who was, perplexingly, a Chinese Mandarin, and the Tempest in which Ferdinand and Miranda began in full evening regalia and gradually discarded clothes until, with the final scene, they were stark naked.  I haven’t the foggiest idea what the directors were trying to do other than create headlines through their shock tactics, and I have long since grown to love both plays through “boring” traditional performances.
The great thing about western art is that it is timeless.  If you are bored of Shakespeare, Dickens or Tchaikovsky, surely you are bored of life, and there’s not much you can do about that other than swallow a cyanide capsule.


  1. Hey Dr Rochester, when will u come back to YST to teach. We Miss U.