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There’s a haunting paradox at the heart of this agenda-challenging collection of essays on the established musical traditions of the world: in an age in which digital technology has delivered pluralism and ubiquity, those very qualities may well also prove to be the harbingers of a crippling dilution – or even extinction.

If the jeremiads that salt many of the illuminating essays in this thought-provoking book prove right, some of the most venerable music traditions on the planet are in increasing danger of being extinguished by regional conflicts or subsumed altogether within the voracious global dominance of pop music. The threat of being ‘homogenised out of existence’, as editor Michael Church warns in his introduction, is real and present.

The ‘Fifteen great Traditions’ (as the book’s subtitle has it) featured here span the globe from Southeast Asia to Africa and the Arab world, from China and Turkey to Europe and, in the book’s most surprising essay, to the jazz music of North America, a tradition still in its infancy compared to its senior peers elsewhere.

With the emphasis on ‘classical’ idioms, folk music traditions are side-stepped – so there’s nothing here from South America, Australia or, closer to home, Ireland, for example – but that focus establishes many direct correspondences and indirect links with Europe’s troubled classical heritage. Ivan Hewett’s eloquent portrait of Europe offers only glancing references to the 20th century and ends with the rather gloomy peroration that ‘classical music is now what it always has been; music of, and usually for, an elite’.

Hewett is one of 15 leading figures who contribute with commensurate erudition. Each essay follows a roughly similar approach, dealing with notions of performance, the historical development of instruments and (where applicable) notation, changing patterns of consumption and contemporary context. All bear the stamp of lightly worn authority and, without straying into pulpit-thumping evangelicalism, benefit from obvious conviction and enthusiasm.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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