Not all is well at Elsinore

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 30, 2009

You may recall that on January 19 of this year, in my first piece for this column, I invited readers not to hide their head in the sand. “Anybody with even the most rudimentary of political antennas,” I wrote, “has intercepted signals that indicate that we are approaching a zone of severe turbulence.” I also remarked that the Prime Minister’s inability to look relaxed and self-confident fuelled widespread suspicion that all is not well at Elsinore.

It’s April 27 and it’s not getting any better. Now if you consider that the Nationalist Party has a great record of keeping up appearances even when the ship is sinking, then we should consider the possibility that the PN is not all there. Certainly it is a far cry from the “one for all and all for one” movement that brought down Labour in the 1980s. If anything, it reminds me of Labour itself in its worst moments. The run up to the 1987 election is a case in point.

I disagree with those that reduce the whole situation to a matter of parliamentary arithmetic. What take place in the House of Representatives and environs are mere surface phenomena. They are the reflection of seismic processes deep below the political crust. Whatever is wrong in the PN is happening away from the lazzi and the burle of Malta’s political commedia dell’arte with its Arlecchinos and Truffaldinos, its Brighellas and Pantalones, its Pedrolinos and Capitani, its Scaramuccias and Tartaglias, its Signoras and Colombinas.

It is unfolding at the level of civil society, in its innards and entrails. That is where we have to look if we are to understand what is happening to the party that has ruled this country for 20 out of the past 22 years. It is in the viscera of our society that we have to conduct our enquiries. If you do, you will find that the PN can no longer rely on the automatic support of social groups and networks that have traditionally backed it as a matter of course. The Stamperija – as many of its former militants still fondly and nostalgically refer to the Pietà Dar Ċentrali (headquarters) – has taken them for granted for far too long.

The less articulate among them, when approached, shut themselves in an embarrassed and embarrassing silence. They are hurt by the attitude of their party’s bureaucrats who add insult to injury when they explain away the apathy of former activists with tired old clichés. The stock Pietà explanation is that it is only a bunch of ungrateful grumblers who get what they want (jinqdew) nine times out of 10 but threaten to tear up their vote because you can’t satisfy their tenth request for a pjaċir (favour).

The more articulate among them, on the other hand, kick the insult back to sender and turn the diagnosis on its head. “When we complain to Pietà about this or that issue – not personal issues, not requests for favours but about problems that are causing a haemorrhage of votes – nine times out of 10 we are ignored and in the one out of 10 cases when we get to voice our concerns, we are told that the government knows what it’s doing.”

It is not only many of the older rank and file that are profoundly disillusioned with “their” party and with the insensitive attitude of its apparatchiks – “arroganti u injoranti”, as one angry senior citizen put it – but, increasingly, its younger members, students in the first place. It is as if a spell has been broken. Blind quasi-tribal political faith driven by clientelism has not, however, quite disappeared. Whether we like it or not it still constitutes the flesh and sinews of politics in Malta.

It will not “… melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” of its own accord. It will take a lot of guts and hard work to transform the fidili (the tongue-in-cheek ambiguity of the vernacular is fascinating) into politically-discerning citizens who will not be taken for granted. But the first tremors are being felt. If you put your ear to the ground you will hear muffled but unmistakable subterranean rumblings.

Let’s be as clear as we can. This concerns all parties. The change that a growing number of Maltese and Gozitans want will impact all current and wannabe political practitioners at all levels: local, national and European. If the saints refuse to go marching out, the former faithful will march out on them… and if, when this happens, the saints don’t get out of the way, they may well be trampled upon. Metaphorically, of course.

This article appeared in Mario Vella regular column on The Times of Malta. You can read the original and reactions to it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090427/opinion/all-is-not-well-at-elsinore



Does bad taste breed bad politics?

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 16, 2009

He may strike you as soft-spoken but his views are far from soft. His judgements strike and strike hard. He cultivates, in an old-fashioned way, an aura of Lisztian romanticism – and confesses candidly that he relishes it – but is clinically unsentimental when it comes to saying what he thinks about Malta’s cultural backwardness.

Paradoxically, these apparent incongruities enhance his ability to communicate effectively and, ultimately, to convince you that, although you may not agree with his views, they are sound views, arrived at in good faith and expressed candidly. Inasmuch as he is a composer – possibly already our best, almost certainly the most promising – his views appear to be mainly about sound.

I say “appear to be mainly about sound” because the implications of his opinions on, say, our musical tastes go beyond the musical sphere, spill over into considerations on our culture and society, on our relationship with the outside world and our images of ourselves in relation to other peoples. He belongs to a limited set of Maltese artists for his willingness to engage with the social and cultural conditions of their work. He belongs to an even smaller set within this se, of Maltese artists who are not only willing but also intellectually capable of confronting this theme.

I had vaguely heard of Karl Fiorini and his work but had not met him before. He is 29, works and lives in France. Before that he was in London. He studied and has degrees in music at the University of Malta and London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he specialised in composition. He is currently working on a doctorate in composition at the Royal College of Music. His work has been performed in Austria, Britain, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the US.

Karl Fiorini is currently in Malta in his capacity as the artistic director of the International String Orchestra Festival. The third edition of this ambitious five-day event, starting today at the Manoel Theatre, features master classes, chamber music, recitals, orchestral concerts with the participation of Roberto Beltran, Hélène Dautry, Joanna Frankel, Yuko Inoue, Carmine Lauri, Emanuel Salvador and Brian Schembri. The Rotterdam Ensemble will perform Fiorini’s own work as well as Haydn, Jolivet, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

It’s purposely a varied menu and is intended to please various musical palates. As a matter of fact, as Karl Fiorini explained to me in the course of a conversation we recorded for my weekly Tango (you can watch it tomorrow evening at 10.30 on One TV), variety is absolutely necessary, especially in Malta.

The exposure of Maltese audiences to contemporary music is, he argues, minimal. This is especially true, of course, in the case of live concerts. Mozart will almost certainly excite any Maltese listener. Shostakovic will almost certainly excite fewer Maltese listeners. And, yet, Shostakovic has been dead 34 years and his music is well known the world over. The same would be true for, say, Mahler, who has been dead 98 years.

It is not a question of national tastes. It is more of a question of taste developed by exposure. The more the exposure the more the listener is able to discern quality. If you have never tasted chocolate, you are hardly able to distinguish between varieties of chocolate. If you have tasted a variety of chocolates you will be able to tell what’s what. The ability to distinguish will enable to make informed choices. It will permit you to appreciate nuances and appreciate both tradition and innovation. You will also be able to recognise quality and to detect mediocrity. You can dump any old crap on an audience not exposed to variety.

Karl Fiorini did not beat about the bush on this subject. It is not only a question of us being small and, therefore, unattractive to the producers of good contemporary music. The smallness argument is often used to deviate the argument from other mechanisms that ensure the conservation of mediocrity. He was very blunt – indeed shockingly blunt – about musical educators. To put it mildly, he alleged, they do not encourage their students to expose themselves to what’s new and good “out there”.

As I listened to Karl Fiorini, I could not help thinking of other aspects of Maltese culture. I could not, for example, help thinking of our political culture. Think about this. Meanwhile, go to the festival he is producing, and take your kids along. Don’t worry about the censors. Let’s be grateful. The festival’s fare is classified as fit for six-year-olds and over.


Mario Vella


This article appeared in Mario Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on April 13th, 2008, under the title Mechanisms of Mediocrity.

Access the original at: http://archive.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090413/opinion/mechanisms-of-mediocrity


Watched it? Tell us what you think.

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 9, 2009

Exposure for decency.

A conversation with Karl Fiorini,

composer, on Tuesday April 14,

on Tango, One TV.

Fear of exposure to new music

breeds poor quality and

mediocre provincial tastes.

Decent quality and decent tastes

require exposure.

Video: Fiorini’s Piano Trio performed by the Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Wien at the Time of Music Festival in Viitasaari (Finland), July 2007. Courtesy of Karl Fiorini and Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble.