Public Service Broadcasting

The BBC is determined to make its orchestras look like any others, which will put them in serious peril

When you emigrate, you learn as much about the country you leave as the one you join. Sometimes that’s helped by straightforward comparators. One obvious example is the BBC – founded 100 years ago this year, and for most of the time since, a model for other public service broadcasters from Stockholm to Sydney.

In The Northern Silence, I write about the crisis that faced public service broadcasting in Denmark pre-Covid-19, and what happened next – how the public broadcaster used its in-house chamber choir to lead national TV sing-alongs during the pandemic, thereby justifying its very existence. It offers a stark contrast to the course currently being taken by the BBC, even though the contextual challenges are the same.

Denmark opted to abolish the license fee in 2018. Now, Danes pay a media tax on the principle that public service broadcasting should, like healthcare, be paid for by everyone – even those who claim not to need or use it. The change immediately diffused the debate surrounding what was, undeniably, an antiquated way of funding a service provided by the state for the greater good.

The Danish license fee was also expensive – more than twice the cost, per household, of the UK’s equivalent. We now pay less for public service broadcasting in Denmark, which has forced the main recipient of those funds, the broadcaster DR, to make tough decisions regarding content and platforms.

When the cuts hit, DR opted to focus on precisely the things the ‘new’ broadcasters would never go near: culture, language, children’s programming, news, national identity, live music, live events and so on. Lamentably, it took the decision to close its television culture channel, DRK (the equivalent of BBC Four). Not so lamentably, many of that channel’s most interesting cultural programmes are now shown on DR2 (BBC Two), where they are seen by far more people.

That includes concerts from the DR Symphony Orchestra, The Classical Music Quiz (which also features the DR Symphony Orchestra), The Opera Trip and so on. I have written elsewhere about how DR has used its musical ensembles to create imaginative television content, the sort the upper echelons of the BBC seem to hold a pathological aversion to.

There is some sense, at DR, that the musical ensembles are the crown jewels (they include a symphony orchestra, two professional broadcasting choirs, a group of supporting youth choirs and a big band). The Director General is a regular face at concerts in DR’s own on-site concert hall, a vineyard auditorium designed by Jean Nouvel. Last week, DR unveiled its spring ‘music offering’ (no genre divides were stated) in which the ensembles were front and centre. We were promised 50 hours of television and radio content focusing on the composer Carl Nielsen alone. That’s just in April.

How does this contextualize what’s happening at the BBC? That’s easy. The wider BBC has never prized its ensembles, and seems increasingly frustrated that they even exist. By my reckoning, it’s many years since any of them made content bespoke for television. During the pandemic, the London Philharmonic broadcast far more on-screen than the BBC Philharmonic. Videos made by the corporation’s ensembles were confined to social media channels. Outside the Proms, they remain more-or-less invisible.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem: Britain’s paralysis when it comes to talking about classical music in the mainstream media. The gatekeepers are utterly mystified or terrified by it, while those at the BBC who actually work on it are in far too deep. It’s unthinkable that the BBC would make a programme like Denmark’s The Opera Trip – an irreverent, expletive-ridden yet celebratory look at opera that mocks the art form as much as it confesses a deep, serious love for it. It has proved hugely popular, notably among people who have otherwise found opera difficult to approach.

But the BBC’s whole handling of classical music speaks volumes about its wider strategy, which by its own admission sees no room for the direct funding of orchestras and choirs in the long term. The BBC appears determined to try to take the argument to the likes of Netflix, rather than excel in the domains Netflix can’t hope to reach. If there’s any argument at all for the public funding of TV and radio stations, it surely pivots on those TV and radio stations providing content the market can’t or won’t. DR had its budgets cut as savagely as the BBC’s. Its reaction was to cleave to public service ideals. Politically, it appears to have worked.

It helps BBC bosses that the corporation’s ensembles have such little meaningful presence on TV, and that their distinctiveness on Radio 3’s airwaves can easily be glossed over. Tim Davie’s response to the various letters concerning the closure of the BBC Singers talks endlessly about community, education and reach mostly through physical presence. There’s next-to-nothing on what should be the ensemble’s trump card when it comes to actual reach: broadcasting. That is literally the BBC’s middle name.

This is surely no accident. Diluting the ‘broadcasting’ bit from the BBC Singers and Orchestras (as per Davie’s letter) means the corporation can claim these are ensembles like any other. That will make them far easier to gradually move out of the BBC’s purview, into a barren funding environment where they cannot realistically survive (already in action, with regard to the BBC Singers). That, it seems to me, is the BBC’s real strategy when it comes to classical music.



Someone asked me recently, at a bookshop event for The Northern Silence in Copenhagen, what Danish composer I had been most effected or enlightened by. Easy: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.

I adore Pelle’s music. There’s plenty of it discussed in The Northern Silence (Plateaux pour Deux, Moving Still, Run) and there’s a whole lot more that isn’t (Moments Musicaux, Og, Three Songs with Texts from Politiken, Eksempler, Konstateringer, Symphony and Antiphony, the string quartets…the full list is a long one).

In 2014, before I lived in Denmark, The Guardian newspaper sent me to Copenhagen to interview Pelle. We met in a café overlooking Blågårds Plads. What ensued was one of the most thrilling and enjoyable interviews I have experienced, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we talked about none of the subjects I had written down in my little notebook. It remains the only such meeting I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete from my dictaphone – perhaps because Pelle died two years later, the year after I moved here, and I never got to see him again (though we did correspond by letter, and on email through a third party). I remain sincerely grateful to Cecilie Rosenmeier for setting it up and introducing me to Pelle.

Bits of the interview made their way into The Northern Silence and a few more into The Guardian article. Here is a transcript of (almost) the whole conversation, slightly tidied up. There is barely a sentence from Pelle that isn’t full of wisdom.

AM: I was at a performance of Plateaux pour Deux [1970] in London recently, your piece for cello and car horns. There were some people behind me and they couldn’t contain their laughter. Actually they were guffawing, as we would say in English.

PGH: …they are welcome to!

The thing is, it created a sort of tension with the people in the concert hall who were thinking, “this is serious music, you shouldn’t be laughing at this”…

It is one of those pieces that’s in the grey zone. If you go to the concert hall, you are supposed not to laugh unless it is Spike Jones or something. The concert hall is a ritual, where you agree to behave. You’ve got to have some manners. You are not coming in naked for instance. When I was at the Royal [Danish] Academy of Music, after a day at the Academy we would go for a beer and entertain ourselves by finding impossible interpretations. Sonata for organ and bicycle pump was one idea. But I soon thought, why is it only for fun we do this? Why couldn’t it be taken as a concept of composing? There is actually nothing wrong with the car horn. It’s OK. It’s a fine instrument. It has a very refined sound.

But it takes a while for the ear to come round to that partnership as a legitimate one.

Yes, and I knew then, of course, that people would laugh. And they have been laughing since, and they have scolded me because they think it’s a stupid idea, which it is as a matter of fact. But this is the temptation: to seek those areas that are called stupid. It has its own kind of innocence, like a child being naughty. As a child you say all those ugly words just to see how the parents react; to the child it’s a nice thing to do. It’s a primitive attitude in a way. But composers are childish under all circumstances, because to compose is very naïve. There’s so much music already made, so if you decide to be a composer you are childish. If you were very clever you wouldn’t do it, because you would see the problems and the impossibility of being together with Mozart and Bach.

Has that troubled you?

I have been in crises like that in my life, crises where I have decided to give up, because I thought, “you can’t expect people to listen to this”. So when I wrote this piece for cello and car horn, I didn’t expect people to be happy about it. I said to myself, “I’m kind of a child, so I’ll do it”. And people are still astonished and still offended. But I think it is a fine piece of music, since it develops very severely. The horn has its system and it gets out of the picture by degrees. The cello is left, and has a solo during the last minutes. So the piece has a story: the cello being born in the beginning and really not heard, but by degrees becoming more present. And when it then has a chance to be present in the last minutes, very reduced and almost silent, it’s as if the cello says, “well, it’s my turn now but I’ve got nothing to say”. That’s its narrative, in a way.

It’s there in other pieces you’ve written: you present an ostensibly illegitimate, unproven relationship, and you set out to prove, or to try to prove…

…that they can be together, yes. Out here [Blågårds Plads], in reality, the most impossible creatures are together all the time. So I wanted to bring this part of our life into music, to show that we have all these different kinds of behaviours and traditions and colours. It’s best to call them “objects” and “beings” and “creatures”. You have very tough materials, stone and metal, and you have the weak things also, the little bird, perhaps not weighing more than 5 grams. A little bird is 5 grams of creature, and you have an elephant in the zoo just 10 metres away. And then you have the children and the parents. When I was in the zoo as a child, I was mostly interested in the little sparrows. My parents would show me the lion, but I was running after the little sparrows. I found them interesting, those little birds.

Related to that, let’s talk about your very specific idea of sound – and perhaps this is as specific as a particular bird’s song. Do musicians ever find it difficult to deal with those specifics – to read your scores as naturally, as it were, as you’d imagined them?

Not any more. For most of my life, I have had troubles with conductors and musicians and audiences. But by degrees I think people are getting accustomed to new music and to my music, so they are now treating it as if it’s music to play in a fine and beautiful way. Good musicians get the solutions: the London Sinfonietta, Theatre of Voices, Kronos Quartet – they find it interesting and find the process of making decisions enjoyable.

Was the London Sinfonietta wrong-footed at all by your work?

I thought so. I didn’t ask them but I thought so.


I think in the beginning they didn’t know what to think – perhaps they were afraid of being in bad company. That’s my destiny, to be bad company.

But you’re surely in the company of people like John Cage – the ideas, in a sense, are bigger than music. To me they’re more about sound – the capabilities of an instrument, the social interaction of performance – even if music is a byproduct. The principle of ignoring display, that’s all over your work…

Yes it is. There are some new possibilities now, it’s coming back to the 1920s and Dadaism of course; then [Gérard] Deschamps taking things, completely innocent things, not connected with art at all, and putting them into a museum. So it began there in the beginning of the 1900s, and since then we have become accustomed to the possibility of using every kind of sound. But the difficulty then is to choose your sound: you can’t put every sound in one piece. So in connection with each piece you have to decide which sounds should meet each other, should circulate. These figures, these sounds, are often running in circles – not developing, not going anywhere but just being there.

Cage is long gone and Busoni even more so. These ideas about sound and music, nobody has taken them forward quite like you. Do you feel you’re on your own?

Well, each nation has its own tradition. If you’re in Germany of course you have Schoenberg and Stockhausen, who have made a strong impression on generations. Still, the German approach can be heard in the German composers and also in Boulez – even though he still has this big character, clarity and beauty in the sound, which I think is French. Not that I prefer Boulez to Stockhausen, I’m very fond of those two guys in fact. In the 60s we were completely overwhelmed by their music, but I’m still faithful to their expression. You can’t hear it my own music because I’ve found another way of doing it.

Sometimes I can hear it in your bigger works, maybe in your orchestral works.

Maybe, I don’t know. I think Ives and Varèse and Stravinsky are more there. Charles Ives was a fantastic, wild and strange composer, putting those things together. He was mad and fresh; his madness was fresh. But when I listen to Stravinsky I have this feeling that I only have when I listen to Stravinsky; it’s as if a hot electrical current has been put directly onto the nerves. This nervous rhythm, constantly moving without going anywhere. But at the same time he’s Russian and he also has this Asian quietness, calmness. Perhaps that Asian quality enables him to be nervous and calm at the same time.

Photo: Lars Skaaning / Edition Wilhelm Hansen

The piece we just heard being rehearsed, Og, I know it’s not structured as a passacaglia, but it feels like one in the sense that…

…things keep coming back…

Yes. And talking of national characteristics, do you feel there is a sense of organization in Danish music post-Nielsen, no wasted notes…

No, no, there should not be any wasted notes. I try to get rid of unnecessary notes.

Perhaps that comes from Stravinsky.

Yes it does. It’s not an improvisatory thing; a jazz musician has a lot of notes to enjoy. But I prefer to take away what is not necessary, even if there are a lot of notes. I like the feeling of chaos, of not being able to find your orientation, feeling a little lost, and then, by degrees, finding your way, if not the material. Many of my pieces are about this situation, being shocked by the multiphonics, and then by degrees, beginning to see what it is about.

As in, you have your parameters, and they’re very tight, and you can go crazy within those parameters?

I don’t like the chaos without any order, so it’s inside the chaos there is complete order.

In Danish society, there seems to be a constant sense of controlled rebellion that results in absolute order. There is never any possibility that things will descend into chaos because the chaos is nurtured and contained in one domain – the democratic public expression of dissatisfaction.

I’m not a fan of Denmark. I think we have so many bad qualities, notably being a little too relaxed when it comes to treating other people, the people coming into this country. I also think we lack a little respect for the tougher materials which make sophisticated art. Generally, I think we in Denmark are a little vulgar compared to Sweden for example. We are happy about being vulgar, as a matter of fact; we make a virtue out of it.

Haven’t Danish artists always done that – Carl Nielsen?

Yes, and Nielsen is one of my favourite composers. And I know why, because he has a freshness which is very rare, and is also odd. Much of his music is not accepted in France and Italy, because they do not understand this square and rude and fresh style…

…can you say ‘vulgar’ as well?

No, I don’t think he is vulgar. He is common – he’s not afraid of being common. But in being common he is still original. He’s an original guy I think. Sometimes I prefer him to Brahms, which I know is a ridiculous thing to say as Brahms is a fantastic composer. But everything is in the right place with Brahms. And you have this colour, sort of like this table here. It’s like a very deep brown, mahogany desk in the Ministry of Justice. Brahms is on the right side of the desk – so convincing, so right, so beautiful in his heaviness. Carl Nielsen is on the wrong side: a little out of tune, the naughty boy, not the cleverest in the class but definitely the most inventive. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone else. He has this innocence and he survives with his fantastic invention. They are very original these ideas [in Nielsen]. If you hear Nielsen you couldn’t think it was any other composer. Max Bruch you can easily think is another composer.

It’s about refinement I guess…

Refining your strangeness.

Is that a process at work in your own music?

I hope so. The older I get the more I try to refine it. Earlier in my life I wrote some pieces that I regret a little, which I think are too rude, too rough – lacking a little. Generally speaking, the pieces I’m rather happy about – you say that because you’re never completely happy – are the pieces in which the concept and the way of doing it has been clear to a high degree: knowing what to do, and doing it. The pieces I’m not so happy about have too many things in them, which means I’ve not been completely aware of what I was doing. What you want, ideally, is to know where your feet are, which ground you’re standing on, have some sort of feeling of what the piece is about. Then you do it as soberly as possible without jumping here and jumping there and without forgetting that original idea.

Often the idea has a wonderful simplicity, obviousness even – as in Three Songs With Texts from Politiken [1967]. It’s a delightfully simple concept.

At that time in my life, I’d been through several periods with different intentions. But I was very much thinking against what was generally done in musical circles, so writing songs was nearly impossible for me. Writing songs was about following words, giving them a kind of colour, a new meaning, or surroundings which would emphasize the deeper content of the text. But at that time I hated this kind of approach to a text, because I found a very fine poem had an extremely clear meaning already, together with the sound of it. So beginning to sing such a poem seemed to me, at that time, to be a bad idea. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So instead, with the Politiken songs, in which the texts are those mundane business reports, there is this ringing absurdity.

Yes because I couldn’t do anything else. The human race has a voice, and I couldn’t see the meaning of not using this voice. Why should we shut up? Samuel Beckett talks about stopping talking, because it’s impossible to talk but it’s also impossible not to talk, so he keeps going on.

“I have nothing to say and I’m going to say it”.

Yes, John Cage, that’s it. Those two guys have something in common there.

Going back to that performance of Plateaux pour Deux in London, the funny thing was that the atmosphere became very serious, because of the people who were laughing, and the people who didn’t want them to laugh, and the people who didn’t know whether or not they wanted them to laugh. Perhaps the only individuals entirely relaxed with the situation were the two musicians.

It’s a nice situation I think, it sounds wonderful, it sounds good – everyone not knowing what to do. That’s fine.

But suddenly there was something to think about.

That’s it. And that’s a good situation, and mostly good music has a little of this in it. Even if you listen to Bach, what the hell is going on? It’s so overwhelming that you find yourself astonished by this information, so this astonishment is part of the joke. It’s not just a reaction – it sounds beautiful – it’s that you can’t understand why it sounds so beautiful. It’s impossible to understand. But if you do not understand one thing, it’s a rather fruitful situation to be in. I think all composers know about not knowing exactly what they’re doing, and they feel the temptation of not knowing. If you knew completely what to do you would be bored. So the anxiety, the nervousness, is rather inspiring. I think all artists know this nervousness in relation to their material; whether they are on the right track or not, when every day a new question has to be solved and you do not know what’s going on the next day. I’m 81 now and I’m still completely unknowing of what situation I will be in tomorrow. Not completely unknowing, because I know a lot of things. But the defining things, the little defining things that make you say to yourself, well, that’s how it should be – you don’t know if they will occur.

Do you develop habits in that sense?

Yes, everyone does. I don’t want not to do anything, so I’m going to try to do something, to be aware of what’s going on.

Are habits bad for you?

No. I will have set habits; everyone has that. It’s a very great part of our lives. I think even the most eccentric person has his habits, and you get accustomed to those habits of course, you accept that they will occur and how they will look to a certain degree. But I think every sensible artist will have a close look at his habits. I have anyway; I am discussing every day if this is the best thing to do, and often I choose the unsatisfying and rude and impolite. I have a tendency to go in that direction because there’s a temptation to explore those things. It’s more inspiring to be on your own, to go into the jungle and find a way to survive; that’s more tempting than to travel first class and have a bath. To be a composer is dangerous as a matter of fact. You talk about the London Sinfonietta…with them perhaps, in that sense, it’s not easy to see what I’m looking for. People think, what is this about?

You can get into it, though, your music. It comes. It suddenly ‘clicks’ – and almost your whole oeuvre falls into place. It did for me.

There are some musicians and conductors who do not have that difficulty any more; they are willing to go further. They are accustomed to the surprises, to the bad manners of my music. The bad manners in my music will not be easy for the London Sinfonietta and I have a suspicion that they will find it too naïve, too clumsy. And who can we compare it with? A little like Carl Nielsen perhaps.

I think people have the same problem with Carl Nielsen. They expect his music to somehow remind them of Jean Sibelius’s.

There’s an enormous difference between Carl Nielsen and Sibelius, but I’m very glad personally, in my experience of those two composers, to be a complete admirer of both. In my younger days my music was inspired by Sibelius’s, but later on, you couldn’t say so.

Perhaps what makes Denmark different is its sense of humour, which is quite close to the British sense of humour – more so than the other Nordic countries.

I know. I’m very fond of British humour and American humour, the black humour of Monty Python for example. And I’m a big fan of Chaplin and Keaton. And of course Chaplin was from London, from a very poor background, but his humour is gorgeous. I don’t think that kind of humour is very German for instance, and not very French either. It’s northern, British and American, and Danish. We have had some fine humorists here and comic figures on the scene, and also in Anglo Saxon literature.

Photo: Jeppe Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Yesterday I listened to Company [2010]. Something I’ve heard in your other pieces, Moving Still is one of them, is this idea of pulse and repetition – that if you repeat something enough times, its meaning will transform. It will twist.

Yes, that’s it, very much twisting; the same chords, the same rhythm, the same material, but most of the time changing. Company develops from a more complex situation to a peaceful consolation as the sounds become accustomed to each other. Changing it to major with very little dissonance, you get an odd kind of beauty. I’m not afraid of this old kind of beauty. In my piano concerto I take a Mozart piano concerto – as you know – and it ends with Mozart, in a clear A major. The voice of the piano is nearly 100% Mozart. The orchestra is completely nuts, but nevertheless comfortable with it.

There are those Mozart references in the piece we just heard Athelas Sinfonietta play, Og. Obviously the piece is tied up with Søren Kierkegaard. I just read Diary of a Seducer and was struck that even in this ostensibly lighter, narrative work, there is a deep lingering depression. A man obsessed with sexuality but without any love.

Yes that’s it. He’s a desperate man, but Kierkegaard is very sarcastic and wicked to his surroundings; he demands so much. I don’t think it’s fair to demand that much. I laugh when I read Kierkegaard. I read it before bed and my wife asks “why are you laughing? Kierkegaard is a philosopher and you can’t laugh at a philosopher.” But I think it’s fine that a philosopher can call for a laugh. Because he has those two figures A and B [in the book Enten-Eller, (‘Either/Or’)], A’s letters and B’s letters, the older one advising the younger one, and those discussions are so beautiful. He succeeds in putting forward his ideas by letting those two people see different things. So Kierkegaard’s mind is A and B, and by combining the two he puts his finger on a lot of human weaknesses. He’s squeezing it in a sarcastic way that I think calls for a laugh. It’s rather astonishing.

What’s the connection to Og?

I hadn’t read much Kierkegaard but I began because I got that commission, a commission for the Kierkegaard anniversary in 2013. One of the things we are discussing here is his dividing his thoughts in different voices, A and B, and that’s very much my own way of making music, having different paths or voices, different opinions, things to say, and in saying those different things, there might come a third thing that’s worth discussing. So in Og [the Danish word for ‘and’] the brass are only playing the D minor chords of the overture to Don Giovanni, and since Kierkegaard was very fond of Don Giovanni and Mozart, I thought it was an idea to come into the mind of this man, to have Mozart there as beauty, and then these other voices concerned with completely different things. The bassoon is a little creature having not so many notes, but talking all the time, trying to get through and being expressive, while the strings are making sounds from the Politiken songs, they comes from there, and the bassoon is making the same kind of music as in Frères Jacques [1964]. If you don’t know that work, it’s one of my favourite early pieces. The bassoon there is very much like the bassoon you heard here in Og. So I think these different utterances find a way out during the piece. Frères Jacques is the first piece of which I think I’m a little proud.

It’s a little like Company in that respect – the feeling that instruments are hatching out like small creatures from an egg. A stilted vocal flowering into a full voice.

Yes, yes, that’s it. In the beginning of Company the sounds are just spoiling each other, there are too many of them. But they get confidence in themselves and they begin to relax because they accept themselves and it seems to be OK. And the less there are the more beautiful it gets – the end of the piece is far more beautiful than the beginning. There’s not much left so it’s possible to deal with it as music – it’s not objective; it’s not completely reality. You have to make music out of those little things.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dances to his own music (the score Triptycon, 1985)

Paradise Lost

I wrote this essay back in 2016 for the art magazine Elephant, after I’d done a few interviews for them. There was a change in Editor, and it never got published.

In the years surrounding my move to Denmark, I was quite taken with the purity and discipline of the infrastructural aesthetic. In other words, railway stations, airports and other public buildings (and some commercial brands) all appeared impeccable to the eye – designed, organized and maintained with a sort of rigorous discipline and sense of formal beauty.

On the rail network, there was a minimalism and uniformity to signage. The integrity of existing buildings was always honoured. This, together with some more contemporary elements of Nordic design, seemed to say something bigger about the aspiration of these nations, Denmark in particular. It had something to do with state ownership, the social democratic project and so on.

The essay wasn’t perfect; now, it even seems quite politically reactionary and small-minded. Maybe that’s why it never got published. Anyway, I’ve put that right and published it here.

Exterior of Skodsborg Station, on the coastal line north of Copenhagen (Andrew Mellor)

Until a few years ago, you could see two cash dispensers ranged on a brick wall towards the far northern corner of the main concourse at Copenhagen Central Station. To do so, was to behold a scene of concentrated, orderly beauty. Danske Bank’s ATMs had their own stern elegance: a glass panel ran along the top, from which the bank’s corporate imagery was picked out of the deep, glinting green-blue and aligned to the right. Below that was an imposing steel frame that contained and tamed the plastic slots, screens and buttons with a fierce, functional elegance.

Imagine, for a second, those two identical machines side-by-side, pinging out from the orange bricks, dignified by a handsome framing archway – a banality made beauteous by the chance meeting of colour, texture, light and geometry. From typeface to placement, it was a sight that spoke of Denmark’s aesthetic heritage as loudly as a Hammershøi painting or a Henningsen lampshade. But no longer. Recently the small section of wall and its twin cash machines were obliterated to make way for a convenience store. It was a little paradise, in a strange way. Now it is lost.

There are corners of railway stations and other civic structures across Scandinavia that induce similar feelings of deep satisfaction – and perhaps even something more. But nothing quite matched that spot in Copenhagen. Before I lived in the city, I would head back to the cashpoints whenever I visited. ‘Part of growing up and learning to travel well,’ writes Alain de Botton in The New Art of Travel, ‘means daring to take our own interests a little more seriously.’ We must accept, argues de Botton, that ideas of beauty aren’t always those canonized by guidebooks and galleries.

When we refer to a ‘beautiful country’, what do we really mean? We surely mean something broader and more complicated than the beauty of dramatic natural landscapes, evocatively decaying streets or spectacular architectural conceits. The beauty I sensed on my first visits to Scandinavia, while admittedly less poetic and intellectually valuable, was no less imposing, fortifying or relevant. Arguably, it was even more so: banal, to a point, but all encompassing and indiscriminate because of it. The beauty of public infrastructure – the gallery walls to the artistic endeavor that is life as a citizen – is arguably the most aspirational of all.

Outside the confines of a gallery or corporate headquarters (the two are often indistinguishable anyway), the two ATMs in Copenhagen suggested that beauty resonates at more levels than we care to admit; that beauty, as well as its natural home in exalted artistic endeavor, can be found in the soulless mechanisms of economics even if it exists there as little more than a sideshow. Somewhere in between the two falls the European social-democratic project, where the principle of public infrastructure as a point of national unity and civic aspiration has delivered a wealth of exquisite structures and institutional identities over the last century. They constitute an aesthetic treasure trove that, it could be claimed, deserves protection just as artworks do.

Is a ‘beautiful’ country simply one that has control of its own aesthetic? Every railway station in Denmark looks like the product of one eye: uniform furniture and signage in deep blue-grey (conceived as if to purposefully offset the yellow or red brick structures of the 19th-century buildings) deployed with a regard for the power of minimalism and sprinkled with a bespoke typeface that underscores its own bureaucratic clarity with a touch of flair.

Does that sound crushingly boring or proto-fascist? Both, you may think. But there comes a time when anyone involved in creative processes – from composers and painters to brand consultants – must admit that the product of one person’s eye or ear is generally far superior to that of many.

Just as Gustav Mahler or Eugene O’Neill exercise an almost physical effect on ideas of ‘living’ and ‘being alive’ as you sit and listen to their work in communion with others, so the careful deployment of furniture, colour, or even a beautifully conceived brand in a public space can have a similar effect. ‘In small things’, the poet Thomas A Clark wrote, ‘delight is intense’.

The cashpoints may be gone, but Copenhagen Central Station still impresses as much for its disciplined combination of that resilient deep grey (and its rigorous control of those typefaces) as for its more overtly ‘interesting’ wooden cantilevered roof. As De Botton reminds us, it’s okay to respect one as much as the other. Likewise, to be surrounded by the deep blue and recurring SAS typeface that saturates the principle landside space at Copenhagen Airport can be a galvanizing, thrilling and deeply satisfying experience. In my experience, the history and integrity of the corporation’s entire endeavor holds you aloft as you head for your temporary position above the clouds.

In certain parts of Europe, details like these are a twenty-first century surrogate to National Romanticism, the sort that gave birth to social welfare and state provision of funds for artistic endeavor in the first place. It might be dangerous to consider them a point of ‘civilization’, because that word enshrines the importance of discord and inconsistency as much as it does harmony and uniformity of ideas.

That doesn’t stop discipline in public design being, potentially, a source of intense pleasure. The look of urban life in Copenhagen, from signage and street furniture to less easily defined ideas of Nordic sunlight and human deportment, played a part in my decision to live in the city. There will be people reading this magazine who opened a particular bank account because of the look and colour of the debit card. You know who you are.

In that sense, capitalism maintains its curious relationship with the principle of design excellence for the greater good. Those cashpoints at Copenhagen Central Station were the product of private enterprise – before priorities moved on.

If you can find a Danske Bank cashpoint now, that deep blue glass panel which used to dignify the bank’s brand image with large amounts of space will probably be filled-out with additional white text imparting useless information (very few of the ‘pure’ machines remain). For a time, SAS’s self check-in machines metamorphosed from gorgeous, upstanding slabs of translucent deep blue with the letters SAS picked out of one corner in the airline’s iconic typeface – again, afforded the dignity and elegance of space – into gaudy turquoise blobs which appeared to blow and aesthetic raspberry at their handsome predecessors.

That’s business. The corporate merry-go-around waits for no man and the prioritizing of profit will mostly undermine long-term vision, aesthetic or otherwise. Anyone who has developed a bottom-up re-brand of an organization only to witness their carefully distilled imagery eroded and undermined over time will know about that. But shouldn’t the operations of the state be tied to more solid, long term objectives, visions and principles? The rise of neo-liberalism poses a direct threat to that idea, politically and creatively. On a more basic level, it suggests there will be no public infrastructure left to make beautiful in the first place.

There’s little chance the New York Subway or London Underground would have made such important contributions to the field of graphic design if they had been the children of private enterprise. Nor would the design traditions those institutions likely continue to survive protected if their entities were placed in private hands. Consistency of design would be replaced by a corporate free-for-all the likes of which has taken root on the UK’s privatized rail network, which now lacks any form of visual consistency and is in the process of selling every available inch of advertising space – including station destination signs – to the highest bidder. The UK rail network has lost its central aesthetic. The nation’s subsequent, panicked search for an identity surely isn’t unrelated.

Denmark, the rest of the Nordic region and whole swathes of Europe might not be far behind. It doesn’t take a diligent student of civic design to note that minimalism and neo-liberalism will never be entirely happy bedfellows. If space can be sold, it will be – eventually.

Capitalism may have produced its own strand of design-led beauty, as the Danske Bank cash machines proved. But that tale of two cashpoints reminds that when a design culture is established and nurtured by the state, it will shape the behavior of the private sector to some degree as well.

You may conclude that a neo-liberal meritocracy is perfectly capable of preserving and developing civic design traditions from Berlin to Brisbane – that it will, in fact, sharpen such traditions and invest them with even greater invention. Recent history suggests that the opposite is true: that when you let market forces off the leash in public spaces, an aesthetic horror show awaits. In the meantime I treasure the plain, restrained, bureaucratic beauty I see in Denmark and all over Scandinavia.