Does bad taste breed bad politics?
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.
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