There are, broadly, two schools of thought on the way music is heading in this country. One view — enthusiastically supported by commercial broadcasters, ad sales folk and others with decided and proudly specific tastes — foresees the future in terms of proliferating boxes, or niche markets. If this view were used, it would conjugate as follows: I am a rock fan, you like jazz, he listens to classical, we ignore anything that doesn't meet the narrow membership criteria of our chosen niche, you had better turn that off, they are never going to catch me listening to that.
The other vision of the future in music is a far more chaotic affair, and if this one were a verb its tenses would be hopelessly mixed up: I used to be a dedicated rock fan, now I attend the odd prom concert, next week I am off to Ronnie Scott's club, I will play you the Portishead album when you come over next week, and l can hardly wait to see Ry Cooder performing with the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré in July.
"Eclectic" is the term normally applied to this nonconformist, categorically evasive approach, and while nobody can claim that eclectic is a new idea, or that it is as popular at the moment as little boxes, it is clearly gaining ground. Headline proof that music does not have to be a matter of strict tribal affiliation came with the massive album sales generated by Nigel Kennedy, the Three Tenors, and a double CD of Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks of Silos, which has, over the past year and a half, sold as many copies around the world as the latest release by the Rolling Stones. Pavarotti In The Park conclusively demonstrated that the classical repertoire strongly appeals to people who do not subscribe to Gramophone magazine and who are, in Pav's case anyway, considerably younger than the crowd who turn out for Eric Clapton in the Albert Hall.
But the eclectic case is being more subtly and persuasively put in other ways. When the psychedelic ambient duo The Orb had a top-10 hit in 1993 with "Little Fluffy Clouds," few of their fans probably realised that the rolling guitar figure that propels the track is a sample from a recording by Pat Metheny of the American avant-garde composer Steve Reich's piece, "Different Trains." Music, as Reich would appreciate, now travels in strange ways. While that most impenetrable of all niche markets, rap, has been thoroughly ghettoised in the media, it has been warmly supported — on stage and in the studio — by respected jazz musicians such as Donald Byrd and Courtney Pine, who see in today's outraged insistence that rap isn't "real" music echoes of the furore created in polite circles decades ago by bebop.
And so to Elvis Costello, a man who likes to stir things up a bit himself. As the artistic director of this year's Meltdown festival, a nine-day celebration of radical eclecticism at the South Bank Centre this month, Costello is offering what amounts to the clearest and most challenging glimpse yet of Future Music, option B. The list of performers and composers featured in the third annual Meltdown is such a far cry from what anybody might have expected of the man best known for writing hummable hits such as "Oliver's Army" and "Alison" that charges of pretentiousness — or just a mystified "Whassat?" — are almost inevitable.
In one concert to be given by the London Philharmonic plus guests, Costello has lined up Dowland alongside Duke Ellington, the cartoon movie scores of Carl Stalling, and Korngold's violin concerto. In another, by the Composers Ensemble, a song by Brahms crops up next to one by the great jazz pianist Billy Strayhorn, the evening to be rounded off with a version of the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset." Other unlikely bedfellows include Debbie Harry, formerly of Blondie, fronting New York jazz oddities, the Jazz Passengers, on the festival's opening night (June 23), and what a surprise it is, too, to see "Dinah And Nick's Love Song" by Harrison Birtwistle jostling for attention on a bill that kicks off with a piece by Chick Corea. Costello's own performances — with the Brodsky Quartet, the guitarist Bill Frisell, the American gospel group the Fairfield Four and his old snarling partner from The Attractions, Steve Nieve — are actually among the mom conservatively programmed concerts in the Meltdown festival.
Costello is well aware that having thrown the cat among the pigeons, some unfriendly observers might now be looking forward to kicking the cat. "I know there are some people who are going to say, 'Who does he think he is?' or imagine that I'm looking for approval, or that I'm trying to act grown-up now by doing some worthy thing. I know those thoughts are out there. But it's rather like when I started, then I had to be very aggressive because sometimes you have to clear the ground around you, to lean a certain way — too far maybe — to get your point out. You have to scare people up a bit."
Some of his original plans for Meltdown leaned so far in the direction of scaring people that they had to be abandoned: for example, an open-air recital of obscure modern music on Waterloo bridge, designed to obstruct the traffic and annoy the police while being simultaneously broadcast on Radio 3, was soon felt to be too pranksterish, or perhaps just plain silly. "Jazz and classical people are a bit shy of drawing a crowd. I'm not. But I'm happy that what we've ended up with in this year's Meltdown are music-based concerts rather than events."
Although he insists that "there is nothing evangelical about this festival; I'm note on a crusade and I have no big theory, this is just a series of possibilities", Costello is implicitly offering up his own catholic tastes as a sort of template. That, after all, is what Meltdown expects of its guest composer/directors; and if listening habits are indeed becoming less rigid as the millennium draws near, then Costello's CV marks him out more clearly as 21st-Century Man than 20th-Century Rock Star.
His musical upbringing was unusual for a late baby-boomer, and probably much closer to that of a person half his age in the respect that all the family shared a liking for broadly popular music. While other kids growing up in the 1960s decided what they liked in opposition to their parents' taste and wishes, the young Declan McManus (b 1955) loved what he heard at home — which was mostly jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. McManus Sr was a professional singer with a showband; mother worked in record shops, including Brian Epstein's NEMS store. "My parents loved The Beatles and all those beat groups because my dad had to sing a lot of those songs," Costello explains. "In those days a radio dance band, such as my dad's, was just like a jukebox. They had to play everything." One of his most treasured curios, he reveals, is an old tape of the Joe Loss orchestra performing Pink Floyd's early hit "See Emily Play."
Peer-group pressure during his teenage years held him up. "I had really sophisticated taste until I started buying my own records. Then I'd deny I'd ever listened to certain things, and sold records, only to buy them back three years later." When he started performing himself in Liverpool in the 1970s, he came up against a keenly policed frontier that separated the traditional and the contemporary folk clubs. "Of course, real talent always outlives labels, but there is something about English taste that seems very oppositional. It's like, The Beatles or the Stones, the Clash or the Sex Pistols." Mindful of the need not to trip any wires during his elevation as a new-wave godhead, Costello deliberately held back on recording some of his more intricate songs until the fans of punk had abated.
He started attending classical and contemporary "not-rock" concerts about seven years ago. "Initially it was just something different to do. There comes a point in your life when you find you don't want to sit in a club all night." If any conversion was necessary it was supplied by a performance of Schoenberg's thunderous Gurrelieder at the Festival Hall. "I knew absolutely nothing about the piece, but I found it overwhelming. Very physical. I firmly believe that music happens to you. I don't analyse it when I'm listening to it. It draws its own response.
Soon the owlishly bespectacled figure of Costello was a regular fixture on the London concert circuit. At the Wigmore Hall one night after a Schubert recital he was surprised to be recognised and invited backstage by the pianist Andras Schiff. Less surprising was a warm welcome from a young and fashionably untidy foursome called the Brodsky Quartet, whom Costello went to hear at the QEH, performing a cycle by one of his favourite composers, Shostakovich. Out of this relationship came both the 1991 song-cycle collaboration, The Juliet Letters, and a trip to Dartington summer school, where the Brodskys happened to be quartet in residence. It was there that Costello received the invitation to programme this year's Meltdown.
The album The Juliet Letters, though it received a slightly sniffy response over here at the time of its release, has sold 250,000 copies worldwide and is still much in demand; as a "catalogue item", it now sells more than Costello's most commercially successful album, 1989's Spike. In territories where his reputation as a rock 'n' roller precedes him less forcefully, the response has been encouraging. The song-cycle is still being performed in Spain, and this autumn the Gothenburg opera in Sweden is mounting a full-scale adaptation.
His connection with the Brodsky Quartet has prompted a few changes in Costello's modus operandi as well. Because of pressures of time and the need for a more precise system of instructions than the one-two-thee-four-go style of the Attractions, Costello has taught himself to write music. There are no symphonies planned just yet, but one three-minute piece, titled New Work, will be performed by the LPO. "It's just a thumbprint really. I'm still guessing. But I'm not afraid of writing things down now."
There is nothing remotely pretentious in the way he discusses his new enthusiasms. In fact, Costello has tended to appreciate a wider range of styles in many of the same random or indirect ways as the rest of us — through film soundtracks, for example. It was only after he now the Sean Connery movie The Offence and enjoyed some of the accompanying music that Costello came to terms with the work of Birtwistle. The composers he likes most, he says, tend to be either Russian or east European and often draw their inspiration, as he has done over many pop albums, from folk themes or what he terms "remembered music". The idea behind many of this year's Meltdown concerts is quite straightforward: to try to communicate the same mood — usually a melancholic one — by attacking on many fronts. The link he perceives between Dowland, whom he refers to as "the deep blues man of English music", and Birtwistle is purely subjective. "People will probably say that you're implying that one piece here is the equal of the next. Well, I'm not."
For an avowed iconoclast, Costello seems strangely anxious about all this imaginary criticism. Meltdown this year looks set to sell out for the first time ever, and, as Costello acknowledges, time and the growing maturity in general listening habits here is on his side. "There are hundreds of ways of doing things such as Meltdown. Almost every record you hear nowadays contains an element you wouldn't expect. I was watching Massive Attack the other day and they were using a tabla player. Once upon a time that would have been a consciously revolutionary thing, a sort of cultural statement. But they just put it in because they liked the sound of it. They wanted it there."