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Angelic musician

27 June 2014


I WONDER what Jeremy Paxman would have done. You've done the introduction, you're in the middle of your first question, and your guest stops and corrects you: "I am not a man; I'm an angel."

The moment when the jazz legend Sun Ra tried it on the music journalist Jez Nelson has haunted Nelson to this day; so much so, that Travelling the Spaceways: The cult of Sun Ra (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was built around the encounter.

Sun Ra - a pioneer of avant-garde jazz; an eclectic talent whose repertoire stretched from the synthesised squawks of modern jazz to covers of Disney songs - would have been 100 this year. And even 20 years after his death, his reputation casts a long shadow. Festivals and tribute bands keep his memory alive, and even those who do not count themselves religious say that wearing a Sun Ra T-shirt gives them a sense of the numinous.

Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn; his loyal band wore flowing robes on stage, and lived together in a community that eschewed drugs, alcohol, and women.

Whether all of this represented true artistic dedication is still debated. Ra's biographer claimed that the angel fetish was a hidden reference to slavery; others may not be so indulgent. But what is clear is that Ra and his band achieved a status in which disdain for one's audience became a badge of artistic integrity.

Such brilliant arrogance is granted to but a few; and in their conversation for Music Matters (Radio 3, Saturday) the composers Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies revealed interesting differences in their attitude concerning the public.

This encounter, presided over by Tom Service, marked the 80th birthdays of these grandfathers of the British avant-garde, and was the first public interview of its kind for many decades. As young music students in Manchester, the two worked together; but in the early 1970s their paths diverged. Birtwistle admitted here that losing Maxwell Davies's close friendship felt like a bereavement.

But their subsequent careers have demonstrated very different styles of engagement with music as a public art form: Maxwell Davies an educator, polemicist, and now Master of the Queen's Music; Birtwistle a fearless advocate of a musical style that some regard as overly complex, but which, he himself claims, is as clear as it can be.

As interviewees, the two are also entertainingly distinct: Maxwell Davies happy to talk about himself and the creative process until the midsummer sun finally sets on his Hebridian island home; Birtwistle also happy to talk about Maxwell Davies's creative process, so long as he did not have to talk abouthis own. Maxwell Davies railing against the inauthentic in modern music; Birtwistle admitting that he did not recognise some of his earlier pieces when they were played back to him.

The programme was full of memorable stuff, not least the story of when Birtwistle met Margaret Thatcher, who took him to one side and whispered: "We know what you're up to."

"That's more than I do," he replied.

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