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OPINION Why we must learn these music lessons

Cuts to arts education don't just impoverish culture but society as a whole, says BEN LUNN

CLASSICAL musicians, over the past five years especially, have finally begun to realise that there are inequalities in our industry.

Throughout history, there have been musicians and composers who have sought to address societal woes, even being overtly political, only for their music to be robbed of its message after their deaths, or worse, its message stolen by those who stand in complete opposition to the values they espoused.

Many musicians, across many genres, have understood society in Britain and globally to be far from perfect and have tried to do everything they can to fight against the injustices of the world. And, thanks to the pandemic and massive radical uprisings over the past year, the brains behind the funding bodies and management of arts institutions have announced: “Enough is enough, Black Lives Matter. We are all in this together and we are doing everything we can to make our society more just.”

On the face of it, this is quite a wonderful admission from the very bureaucracy which at times has been slow to change and at other times vehemently opposed to it. But now the pandemic seems to be quietening down, what is actually being done and what is the outcome?

In short, not very much. English National Opera announced their autumn season, which does feature the underappreciated Hand Maiden’s Tale by the Danish composer Poul Ruders. Yet, beyond that, it is very much back to the old — bring out the crowd-pleasers, bring out another rendition of a Wagnerian gem so we can use lots of musicians and bring in audiences.

This was of course met with a mixed response — the “woke” segments of Twitter shouting about the lack of women composers were juxtaposed with the general excitement of people who have been deprived of a beloved art form for nearly 18 months.

At the same time, austerity is swinging its ugly axe at the arts again, with the Phantom of the Opera management reorchestrating the pit musicians to effectively halve the number needed to perform it. This was met generally with condemnation, as it is ultimately abandoning the very musicians who are literally the life source of musical theatre.

To make matters even more disastrous, Westminster is currently looking to cut funding of the arts in secondary schools by 50 per cent, accompanying similarly heavy cuts to subjects in universities. This paints a bleak picture for the arts in Britain but there is also complexity and general confusion in the response to the problems we face.

Music, like many arts, is an incredibly liberal place. Most “woke” or “politically correct” shifts often appear in music earlier than the rest of society. However, as these changes are liberal and not often leftist, issues around class or a material analysis of the problem is somewhat lacking.

Music also loves anarchism — why not build a commune where we just sleep around, make jamming tunes and do what we want. So, what is the leftist response?

Attacks to the foundations of what makes the arts function are happening in education and in attacks on workers’ jobs. And while we see an eagerness to fix the world, it is almost primarily dictated from the top down.

The Morning Star is a great source of criticism of neoliberalism but one particular strength it has is its ability to paint affirming and aspirational visions. With determination, you can overcome everything and as a minority — in my case disabled — your success is an inspiration to others to follow your path.

As any astute observer of the music scene probably realises, it’s no surprise that due to neoliberalism’s mass impact on society as a whole, many well-meaning individuals take up the fight against repertoire choices while not necessarily being able to address the other problems.

The inequalities that exist in English National Opera (ENO) and other large institutions need a solution from the ground up. As novelist and critic Rex Warner wrote back in 1937: “The progress of culture is dependent on the progress of the material conditions of culture,” and today that means that our biggest priority must be fighting the attacks on education, the very foundation of culture in Britain.

If we lose more ground in education, we lose culture. There are numerous discussions about what is being taught, especially by liberals and socialists, but the fight should be united. With a great fight in defence of education, the fight against dodgy music management becomes easier and, with an ethos that an attack on culture deprives us all, we can retaliate strongly.

Fighting from the bottom up means we can make more impactful change to the ENO and their ilk but prior examples demonstrate that if we continue the fight with a vision of fixing things from the top down, we’ll merely see culture change face.

There’ll be a nice proportion of women and minority groups but culture will be dismembered, ultimately depriving us of it while laughing mercilessly in our face: “We are making sure the arts are representing the diversity of Britain,” while giving us less than half the culture we deserve.

Composer Ben Lunn is chair of the Musicians' Union Disabled Members Network and chair of North Lanarkshire Trades Council.



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