October 12th, 2005


Wooden horse

Yesterday I directed people to a wonderful programme on Resonance FM, a show where Alvin Lucier came into a studio and made a live version of "I Am Sitting In A Room".

Now, there are two basic attitudes you can take to this event, a microworld attitude and a macroworld attitude. In the microworld you could say that the show wasn't particularly difficult or daring. An elderly American music celebrity came into a British radio studio to play a live version of a piece he made in 1969, and plug his music by airing some CD tracks. To those who follow UK music chatter, Lucier is hardly an obscure figure: he appeared on the cover of The Wire magazine last year, and Paul Morley's Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (2003) made a big deal out of finding the missing link between Lucier and Kylie Minogue. The book was widely reviewed, and the Lucier bits at the beginning much quoted. In the process, Lucier became cultural capital not just for Morley, but for a whole section of Britain's intelligentsia. In the Bricklayers Arms and the Foundry people could conceivably already be talking about "Lucier overkill" and rolling their eyes when his name comes up.

But in the macroworld Lucier's name means nothing. My first thought on hearing the Resonance show was "Wow, the controller of BBC Radio 3 must be gnashing his teeth and wailing that his network has been pipped to the post by this pipsqueak station operating out of two rooms on Denmark Street! Why isn't an important figure like Lucier doing this session for the BBC? Heads will roll!" But the sad truth is that the geography of BBC networks has shifted. BBC Radio 3, which I remember as a station which played (and commissioned) astringent, difficult or interesting new music (as well as fabulously intellectually demanding spoken word programmes produced by Piers Plowright, with BBC Radiophonic Workshop scores), has now become a deeply conservative place pumping aural valium alongside the likes of Classic FM, or a retirement home for ex-Radio 1 DJs like the unbearable Andy Kershaw. Even a relatively adventurous Radio 3 show like Mixing It probably wouldn't devote an hour to Alvin Lucier these days. But Resonance can, and does. For someone like me—I've only just become aware of Lucier's work, thanks to endorsements by Anne Laplantine—the timing is perfect. In fact, hearing his "Still Lives" pieces yesterday rekindled my love of adventurous, uncompromising, beautiful music. It's a feeling pop music hasn't given me for a long time.

So thanks to London's first radio art station for invoking the better part of me, for being demanding-yet-rewarding. But if Resonance seems like a strong station in terms of its content and convictions, it's also a weak station. It's weak materially (it depends on subsidy from the Arts Council, the London Musicians Collective, Moose Foundation for the Arts, and others) and it's weak contextually, because it's operating in Britain, and Britain is still an anti-intellectual place, a place where anything aesthetically adventurous and above all difficult will sooner or later get branded "pretentious, elitist, purist, up its own arse"... well, you know the drill. Funds will sooner or later be cut, and the press will, when they deign even to notice, serve bouquets of barbed wire. Management consultants will be brought in to converge the errant format towards more commercial, more mainstream models. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but every time I hit the Resonance page I expect to read that it's closing down. Every time I load the signal into RealPlayer I expect it to have abandoned experimental programming and to feature dull pop shows with personality DJs just like all the other stations.

If convergence doesn't come from the outside, it comes from the inside. Ambitious media types infiltrate the organisation, using it as a stepping stone, a vaulting pole, a wooden horse. After all, it has microphones, it has turntables, it has transmitters and a frequency, all the basic equipment of a radio station. Let's say I'm an ambitious young Turk, someone who might perhaps be happier with the value system and audience of a Capital or a Virgin FM or one of the BBC networks. Well, a little station like Resonance is always going to be a tempting resource. Because Resonance isn't that hard to infiltrate, even if I don't subscribe to its values. It may even be tempted to expand its audience thanks to my populist show, and tolerate me. I can pass off my mainstream values as comedy, or as irony.

Is rhodri a Resonance listener? It's hard to believe. He really doesn't fit the profile. Not a beard-stroker, if you know what I mean. But, weirdly, Rhodri is a Resonance broadcaster. Listen to this trailer for Rhodri Marsden's new Sunday show on Resonance. "Timewasting" starts November 13th and runs for seven 90-minute episodes, ending with a Christmas Day broadcast. The trailer features Starship's "We Built This City on Rock'n'Roll". Like Rhodri's love of Toto and Hall and Oates, it's "ironic" and yet sincere at the same time. Readers of Rhodri's blog (some of whom had to ask for Resonance's frequency; they don't fit the profile either) were stunned by the trailer: "It's a brand... You sound like a real DJ... You sound like a proper radio DJ... Blimey, the authority... Blimey you sound dead professional..." My own comment provided the only note of disharmony (and some hilarity): "DON'T TURN MY BELOVED RESONANCE FM INTO SOMETHING THAT SOUNDS LIKE EVERY OTHER RADIO STATION IN LONDON, PLEASE!" Which, of course, is exactly the same comment as "It's a brand... you sound like a real DJ... blimey, the authority!" But instead of "blimey, you sound dead professional" I prefer the phrasing "blimey, you sound professional, dead."

Because I'm "indie" I've seen the process a million times: Personal ambition => criticism of marginal 'elitist' forms => irony as expression of ambivalence (but mostly attraction) towards mainstream => indie media as wooden horse => insurgents converge indie media towards mainstream models => insurgents eventually gain place for themselves in mainstream media, but leave the vehicle of their entryism weakened and in identity crisis => indie media eventually acquired, predated, closed.

Resonance too is a brand, one which "ironic-sincere embrace of mainstream values" can only weaken. The Resonance brand contains ideas like "arty, difficult, unconventional, different, experimental, daring, avant garde." That's what it's been given its frequency for, and that's what it's funded by the Arts Council for. These are not values we see endorsed day in, day out on Rhodri's blog (although I know he harbours a love of Sudden Sway, whose "Let's Evolve!" session was one of the most adventurous John Peel ever broadcast). Call me an indie purist if you like, but, unless the Sudden Sway Rhodri is going to prevail over the Toto Rhodri, I can't see any good coming from a "Rhodrization" of Resonance. The Rhodri brand will profit from his new "Sunday roast" show, but the Resonance brand won't. If an army of Rhodris arrives in a whole carpark full of wooden horses, what'll eventually happen is that Resonance will become a two-tier station, with "populists" rather than the Arts Council subsidizing the risk-takers (and yes, I know, I know, in the microworld of Resonance Rhodri could well portray himself as the "risk-taker" and "mold-breaker" who's not "preaching to the choir", but in the macroworld outside it's a completely different story, and those "transgressions" are capitulations). And after that, if the process continues, Resonance will lose, well, all resonance, and a new station will come along eventually—after decades, and only if Britain is very lucky—to do the work Resonance is now doing, a station pretentious, elitist, purist, completely up its own arse... and wonderful.