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David McGuinness's blog

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Sunday 25 October 2015

I’ve not been blogging for a while. Partly, I’ve been very busy, but also, I’ve found my own opinions less and less interesting. When twitter can bombard you with instant opinions of varying degrees of thoughtfulness on pretty much anything, why add to the shitstorm?

Last weekend I came back from NAFCo in Cape Breton, which was a really positive experience: placing an academic conference in the middle of a big music festival (Celtic Colours) meant that we were surrounded by musicmaking and not just talking into a vacuum. And to end the conference by playing tunes (including Coilsfield House) was wonderful, even if I got kicked off the piano for not sounding traditionally Cape Breton enough - this was wryly amusing. I was struck by many things in the course of the week, one of which was the enormous difference between Celtic Colours and Glasgow’s similar-sounding Celtic Connections festival. Celtic Colours seems from the outside to be very definitely a festival of Celtitude, expressing one aspect of the island’s heritage – there are other cultures there too – and it has a concomitant focus on the past, whereas Celtic Connections is a broader church, looking outwards from a nation that is generally considered to be Celtic in the first place, to embrace broader cultures.

What’s this got to do with blogging? Well, a couple of months ago I wrote a blog post responding to the flurry of opinions on Liz Lochhead’s public comments about the lack of Scottish work being performed in Scottish theatre. By the time I’d got it ready to post, I’d lost interest in my opinion, but a twitter conversation about cultural quotas such as CBC’s ‘Canadian Content’ sent me back to it. Here it is:

I don't think in all the recent furore over Liz Lochhead's comments about Scots in theatre (whatever you take the term 'Scots' to mean) that anyone has mentioned the world of classical music, which eats up a very substantial part of public arts subsidy. To be honest, I don't think anything would be gained by an audit of how many 'Scots' work in that sector, but I do know that when I was playing in orchestras in the early 1990s it was unusual to come across someone else at work who'd grown up in Scotland. This cultural exchange is not in itself a bad thing - of course it doesn't matter how Scottish you are or aren't to work in the arts in Scotland - but if the predominant cultural leanings of the people involved lead the work produced to be less relevant to its potential audience, then that can become a problem.

As someone who's spent a fair part of his working life for the last 20 years trying to convince people that Scotland has actually made a contribution to what we now call 'classical music', the relative absence of Scottish people at all levels in classical music organisations hasn't helped to establish a truthful sense of what Scottish culture has been, or might yet be. Things have undoubtedly improved hugely since the 90s, but there is still a residual (and historically false) sense that classical music is something that comes from somewhere else, and is not something that Scotland has traditionally engaged in or contributed to.

It’s only in the last couple of months that the Traditional Music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has finally stopped calling itself ‘Scottish Music’, as though it’s the only kind of music there is here. And it’s only 10 years ago that someone scheduling one of Scotland's orchestras said to me: 'If we programme Scottish music, no-one will come'. It didn't occur to him that perhaps he just wasn't interested in making the effort to reach a Scottish audience. What does that say about how the organisation promoted its work?

The 'Canadian content' model is certainly not the way to go: any judgment of work based on perceived indigeneity is enormously dangerous. A competition to find out who or whose work appears to be the more Scottish (whatever that means) is not going to lead to great artistic revelation, and it also opens the door to some seriously scary political thinking. But when a ‘national’ art-form is perceived to have very little home-grown content, and, as with opera and classical music, its direct government subsidy is of a higher level of magnitude to that of most other genres, is that a problem? Not to mention that in the case of opera, the subsidy is being delivered to a single ‘national company’ …

On another tack, did you know that Scotland has a rich tradition of music textbooks and educational materials dating back to 1662? Have you ever been taught from them? I certainly haven’t. I feel another ‘Scotland’s Invisible Culture’ project coming on.

Same old opinions.