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Mediocrity at its best: Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Alan Keith

In Uncategorized on December 21, 2011 at 12:56 am

The time not to interrupt my father was late Sunday evening. He stood at his chest of drawers with his transistor, often holding it at an angle. Sometimes he brushed his thick wavy black hair with two brushes, in rather elegant sweeping motions. I suspected this was his most precious hour of the week. He didn’t watch television. He read the paper or dozed when I had the ‘goggle box’ on. His generation loved the wireless, learnt from it, were entertained by it, went to war with it. This hour though was reserved for Alan Keith and Your Hundred Best Tunes. It appeared to be renewal before the week ahead.

Intimidating: The voice and persona of Dame Joan Sutherland rattled my youth for some time as she glared at me from the album cover. But I hear her now. Credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/oct/11/dame-joan-sutherland-obituar

Schwarzkopf beat Sutherland. Joan could shatter glass in the next county. Mum loved her strident tone and I fancy she was ‘her’ on Sundays in church. I didn’t appreciate the volume at the time. So like dad Elisabeth wins on music terms (if not on dinner-date terms!) There was nothing snobby about Alan Keith’s choice of music. He played what people wanted to hear. It was ‘easy listening’. It was moderate even mediocre entertainment. But not mediocre in a bad way. It was mediocrity at its best.

Ivan Turgenev in Fathers and Sons noticed this shift in intensity in relationships: “The appearance of mediocrity is often useful… it weakens tautly strung springs [and reminds] them how close they are to mediocrity as well.” I suspect a lot of what’s good now culturally and spiritually is condemned also for its apparent mediocrity but also because of its lack of explicitness. It doesn’t scream its own values. Michael Darlow in The Man and His Work said of the playwright Terence Rattigan: “The power of Rattigan’s best plays comes from the implicit rather than the explicit, from unspoken feelings, buried emotions and hidden truths.” 

Mediocrity and implicitness are mistaken for poor and ‘too-subtle to be understood’, respectively. People are quite clever at drawing conclusions. Michael Hofmann in the introduction to Franz Kafka’s America suggests: “The cult of American speed, scale, novelty, machinery and brutality had entered European consciousness.” Popular culture is an oxymoron. No-one enjoys television. Everyone knows ‘they’re amusing themselves’ until something better appears. TV isn’t art it’s an executive summary of the real thing. What people don’t realise is by spending time with the implicit you see the world differently later; there is the residual effect of text and long-interpretive-structures of classical music. “For the reading of these books [Lear or Emma] seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own.

"Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Joan Sutherland. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10"

In an era of false excellence and faux brilliance there is little market for ‘the good’ or ‘the meaningful’. Public spaces are temples to gauche and people are retreating from them. Mary Portas won’t overcome the distaste for Western retailing as people have no love of non-places without cultural significance. The town centre is now as culturally profound as the tarmacadam sliproad at J15 on the M40. The marketed and packaged are non-entities Bauman might say; they have no histories.  My father’s era oiled social interaction with the poetics of lyrical music that had a different form of history. Their historic value emerged at a different pace where there was time to attach cultural significance. The rotation of music products now allows no historic attachments that are truly lyrical, only nostalgic sentiment that is fleeting and disconcerting. We can’t quite locate that emotion or experience. The genius of music downloads is simultaneously allowing access to art but also killing it in equal measure. The texture of the tangible located in time and space attaches meaning artfully. The intangible separates our ability to locate meaning within life. This is why post-modernists refer to the end of history. We are detached from chronology.

The challenge to create histories outside of consumerism is possible. The avante garde has to be embraced; the contemporary artist and polemicist become the new ligaments between self and time and space. New Mediocrity then becomes the resistance to commodification of experience where we have time to allow lyrical stumbling when sharing between individuals. The tolerance of poor encounters is restored where we have faith in the core ability for human relations to flourish if given time, grace and maybe some mediocrity to loosen people’s taught lives. The coffee shop and bookshop are probably the last ‘places’ for the stranger to become an acquaintance. And the radio remains artful and welcome.

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