This week I have been at the POPID Conference: Popular Music Heritage, Cultural Memory & Cultural Identity held in Rotterdam at Podium O950.  I was at the bit called Re/Soundings: Documenting Music and Memory, and the whole event was timed to coincide with the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The Documenting Music thread aimed to bring together work in two European projects: Popular Music Heritage, Cultural Memory and Cultural Identity (POPID) and Jazz Cultures and European Identities (Rhythm Changes). We’ve been involved in the Rhythm Changes project, especially through Andrew Dubber’s role in developing the online profile of the project, and you may have seen some discussion of other aspects of the project’s work.

At this event I was asked to go and present something of the work I’ve been doing with Dr Paul Long on television popular music histories.  Our work on the BBC series Jazz Britannia was particularly relevant to the work of the Rhythm Changes project. I invited Tony Higgins, who had been the researcher on the Jazz Britannia programme, to join me in a discussion about the making and final form of the documentary.  We roamed over much of the ground that Paul and I covered in our published analysis of the programme.

Tony Higgins is a really knowledgeable and thoughtful commentator on British jazz, its history and the way we can represent it on television. He was involved in producing the Impressed With Gilles Peterson compilation CD of 1960s British jazz which sparked-off some renewed interest in earlier British jazz, and which in some way led to the commissioning of the television series.

The general consensus at our session on Jazz Britannia seemed to be that the television series offered an important insight into a neglected aspect of European jazz, and included forms of jazz that are often neglected as they don’t have the same ‘cool’ as others. There were some very interesting discussions about the necessary compromises in programme making and Tony’s insights into the gestation of JB was illuminating.

The day before we had watched a screening of Julian Benedict’s 2007 documentary Play Your Own Thing: The Story of Jazz in Europe, and discussed the way it represented jazz in Europe and European jazz. George McKay, one of the other participants offeres a good summary of our discussion, and of the rest of the conference. Much of the discussion focused on different aspects of how one could represent such a diverse topic, and some of the conventions of presenting jazz and of making documentaries.

The rest of the two days was equally interesting, and covered a whole range of other documentaries. Walter van de Leur and Tony Whyton led a session which included watching extracts of a documentary on ECM records, Manfred Eicher: Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher (2009) and one on the Dutch drummer, Han Bennink: Hazentijd (2010). Sadly there wasn’t time to watch Afijn a documentary on Misha Mengelberg: (2006).  Everyone seemed to love the Han Bennink documentary, mainly because the guy is so engaging and his music is particularly effective when seen as well as heard. Equally, though, the documentary was noticeably ‘open’ in the way it presented its subject, and eager to give the music some personal and cultural context. Even though this analysis included a lot about Bennink’s Nederlands rural background it avoided any obvious essentialism about the drummer’s music being somehow ‘Dutch’. The ECM film was less well-received, although I found myself in the unusual situation of being less negative about a music documentary than my colleagues. I wondered aloud if too many stereotypes about ECM were being bandied around and if the reception of the documentary was being determined by perceptions of the company and its owner and creative leader.

Other conference attenders went to watch Jeremy Xido’s 2012 Death Metal Angola, but I went to the hotel for some sleep. I tend not to think of death metal as a must-see/listen. The following day we watched a very long extract from the even longer Julien Temple 2006 study of Glastonbury and then discussed our responses in a session led by George McKay. A major focus here was the issue of selectivity and the highlighting of the unusual and striking against the commonplace. We noted how little music there was in music documentaries and mused on ideas of Englishness that pervaded the film. I raised the issue of the absence in any sense that music has an economic dimension, as I had several times that week. Not even George’s dismissal of my preoccupation is likely to stop me asking the question.

Overall, a worthwhile event.  Small in scale, interesting in terms of the screenings, and high in quality of debate.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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