Academics? Watch out!

Sunday night was a joyful evening. Warsaw Camerata made its all new music programme debut with new compositions inspired by Milosz and dedicated to his memory. The audience at Polskie Radio Studio One was sparse but those of us who were there recognised that this was an event. Six Polish composers and seven new pieces: some less interesting than otherwise, but others, especially those by Marek Zebrowski and Barbara Kaszuba, very good indeed.

Well done Pawel Kos-Nowicki, who not only conducted but fixed the orchestra, organised the hall and the printing and was still writing invitations an hour before the concert.

If I had any complaint it was that some of the composers did not always know how to express their ideas on paper in a way that was intelligible for the musicians. Some of the scores were unduly difficult to read. This indicates a gulf between the composer and the musician which is not a healthy state of affairs. Such are the dangers of becoming too academic.


I was less thrilled at the end of Monday morning. The Italian Cultural Institute invited me to the Warsaw leg of an EU funded series of conferences on Baroque studies. I decided to go for the second session which concerned musical influences between Rome and Poland.

When I arrived, 20 minutes late, the first session had still not finished and the last speaker had not begun. Apparently, the first speaker had been allowed to take an hour instead of the half hour or so allotted. Not surprisingly, the lax timekeeping had repercussions for the scholarship and the effectiveness of the speakers as the day went on. Most had to cut their papers and little time was allowed for discussion, not that anyone seemed to want to discuss anything when time was allowed. Strange people, these academics.


The final speaker of the first session was a Spanish professor who chose to speak in English. I found him unintelligible, an utter waste of time as far as I was concerned and I cant believe that anyone else understood anything either, though a young German was nodding and smiling in all the right places, so I may be wrong (but Germans are quite gifted in that area, I’ve noticed.)


Apart from his insecurity with English, the Spaniard had all the habits of the bad public speaker, habits certain to make listening difficult for the audience. These included clearing his voice while facing the microphone, moving in and out of range when speaking and he had no slides to help us understand what he was talking about. Why has he not been taught communication skills? They are not rocket science.


The 10 minute pause between sessions became more like 20 minutes thanks to problems with the IT and the fact that there was only one lavatory for thirty or so people.  The day grew longer.


Three Polish musicologists spoke in Polish on aspects of Roman and Polish music.  The first paper concerned illusions to Wladislaw IV and Jan Sobieski in opera and cantatas in the years 1625 to 1680. Two works were cited by the speaker, two in which I had sung at their first modern performances: Il Sant` Alessio, at Teatro Valle, Rome in 1983 and San Casimiro, re di Polonia, at the Saxon church in Rome in 1986.


Something that really surprised me was that the speaker, a musicologist from Warsaw University, completely ignored the Swedish invasion of 1660 and the ransacking of Poland between 1660 and 65.  When question time came I asked her whether the Roman Church had celebrated in music the Polish victory over the Protestant invaders, a very relevant question and one that really interests me and should have interested her too.  All she could say was, “I don’t know!”

The chairman tried to encourage her by saying that she could reply in Polish. All three musicologists shook their heads in dismay. None of them knew anything about what was probably the most important event in Polish history in the 17th century. Staggering!


Well, if you don’t know, you don’t know. I was taught that there is no shame in admitting to not knowing if there is no reason why you should know. It is certainly better than inventing an answer. However, I contest that an academic who fails to know anything about such an important event slap bang in the middle of the chosen period of a paper is no academic. To say “I don’t know in these circumstances is mind boggling. Pathetic. I mean, how could you understand the first performance of Parade in Paris in 1917 without considering the First World War or the collapse of Lehmann Brothers without some study of the wider economic picture?


With this level of academic achievement, delivery and organisation the unavoidable question has to be asked. Who really benefits from this sort of EU spending? Surely shipping a band of academics around Europe at our expense only has value if ideas are exchanged. Yet, in the two sessions I attended there was no discussion at all. Everyone could have stayed at home and read the papers in the comfort of their arm chairs. But, of course, delivering papers at prestigious conferences looks very good on a would be professor’s CV.  But this does not answer the question.

Why is the EU spending so much money and getting so little? Who is in charge?


Of course academic study is important but I sense it is going the wrong way: composers who cannot communicate with musicians, speakers who can’t express themselves, academics who can’t see the bigger picture. What all this leads to is irrelevancy. At a time when governments throughout Europe are looking for ways of reducing spending on education, especially higher education, it is obscene and absurd that academics seem to be weaving an ever tighter and impenetrable cocoon around themselves. They had better watch out. It is time they woke up or they will be swept away by the politicians` broom.


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