Tuesday, May 27, 2003


I still have my (now rather ‘period’ gauche-looking) sweatshirt from the first ever Meltdown festival on the South Bank. It was way back in 1993, and the concept was both simple and revolutionary: a truly diverse, eclectic modern music event curated by a single composer or performer/artist. The main idea – or was it simply an easy-going opportunity - was to make demanding, modern music accessible; to clothe artistic commitment in multi-media, multi-perspectival limelight; to widen perceptions, tastes and critical faculties among audience, performers and critics alike. In short, to redefine what we mean by ‘serious’ in music.

The climate was absolutely right. The austerity of early modernism was passed, but its benefits had seeped into the bloodstream. Post-minimalism was breaking out. It felt OK to like Boulez and Faust, Miles Davis and the London Musicians’ Collective. The old maps no longer worked. It wasn’t that ‘anything goes’ thing alone, but an awareness that some surprising things could be, endure even.

For the record, the previous Meltdown Directors are David Bowie (2002), Robert Wyatt (2001), Scott Walker (2000), Nick Cave (1999), John Peel (1998), Laurie Anderson (1997), Magnus Lindberg (1996), Elvis Costello (1995), Louis Andriessen (1994) and George Benjamin (1993). That tells an interesting story in itself. Three out of the first four were what would be called (badly, wrongly even) ‘classical’ composers. None of the last six (seven if you include 2003) have been. All are experimenters, sure, but latterly in fields that overlap prominently into the mainstream. Not a single jazzer, outright free-form extemporiser or techno warrior in sight – in ten years. Something starts to feel a little lopsided…

Then again, Meltdown 2003 is not without appeal. Running (as usual) at London’s South Bank Centre concert halls and platforms from 10 to 29 June 2003, the animateur this time is dub doyen Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, a musician, songwriter, reggae legend and producer of such artists as The Clash and Bob Marley and the Wailers. He has assembled a suitably quixotic array of performers and some extraordinary confrontations. Tortoise, Public Enemy, and the legendary Arkestra (minus their late demi-god, Sun Ra, of course) are all deployed in downright curious contexts and formations. The theme seems to be ‘stand offs’. Music over ten or more rounds with no clinches barred.

Well, some clinches are barred. For somehow the 2003 line-up is not quite enough for the true width of a Meltdown experience. Jazz (as I've already indicated) is hinted at only tangentally, and more as an ethos than a musical inheritance. Contemporary composition is wholly absent. Those have been developing trends of recent years, and they are to be regretted. Perry himself also uses the opportunity to ‘join in’ perhaps a little too lavishly. From a celebration of new music which is artfully purposeful without being reverentially serious, Meltdown has become a 'virtual installation' for the more creative fringes of popular music, laced with some obvious crowd-pleasers (Macy Gray comes to mind), the inevitable commercial sponsors, the promise of some gripping collaborations for a curator who is otherwise paid little, the Flash website, and a decisive dash of nu-urban uber-hip. It's more than OK for what it is, and exciting at times -- but it's not nearly as edgy, sparky or (say the blessed word!) downright challenging as what might have been.

So come on guys, share out the shades and give it to Ollie Knussen or Harry Birtwistle next year. Or Ornette Coleman, perhaps. Or Aphex Twin, for goodness sake. ‘Cos wouldn’t we all really like to know what Knussen digs on the turntablism scene? And if he doesn’t actually know yet, put him through a ‘Secret Jukebox' routine a la The Wire, or set the artistic director of the London Sinfonietta and Warp Records onto to his CD collection: the results could be mind blowing. But the way things are going it might just end up with Ali G and da RFH Massiv… Wesside, but not South Bank.

PS. Some of the Free Meltdown looks pretty groovy in its own, distinct way.

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