Car radio

I had to drive a lot over the past two days, and started out with CDs to listen to. All for a project I’m doing with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Pictures at an Exhibition, both the piano version and the orchestral one. Piano version: Evgeny Kissin (who plays the “Promenade” as something fiercer than someone strolling through a gallery; a triumphant army, maybe). Orchestral version: Gergiev (oddly restrained, though maybe I’m wrong, because for my work purposes I didn’t have to hear much of his recording; or myabe he just seemed restrained compared to Kissin).

And then three newer pieces: Todd Levin’s Blur (a brilliant, almost savage orchestral evocation of techno, with an ironic echo of a Schoenberg tone row flying over it); Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony (which takes off from a David Bowie album); and Michael Daugherty’s Le tombeau de Liberace, for piano and orchestra, based on guess who, and worthy of him. A while ago I was e-mailing with someone who reads this, and wondered if she listened to new classical music. She said that she had to chew on Schoenberg, whose music was like eating brussels sprouts. Poor Schoenberg, dead more than 50 years, and somehow still a hassle for us! He’s history. My listening today brought home something I know very well, but hadn’t touched so tangibly in quite a while. Composers today go in directions that don’t sound at all like (ugh) “contemporary music.” (The mere fact that we have to label it shows that there’s a problem. When was the last time you went to see “contemporary film”?) The Levin, Glass, and Daugherty CDs show that one strain of new American classical music grows directly from pop culture. It’s vivid, vital, often smart and tough. Perfect for the new audience we want to find.

And then the radio. Got sick of WFAN, New York’s dominant sports station, which usually I love. Too much stupid talk about Jeremy Shockey, the football player who caused a scandal by calling Bill Parcells a “homo.” Too many callers wondered what was wrong with that. And the jocks at the station, explaining that the word was “offensive to some people,” mostly didn’t say just who those people were. It was more than I could take. Couldn’t somebody have had the decency to lay it out plainly? “Gay people get a lot of abuse, professional, verbal, and sometimes physical. It’s very bad to use an epithet for ‘gay man’ as a term of abuse. And if you, Mr. Caller, say, ‘Well, that’s just how they talk in the locker room,’ did you ever think that there are gay men there, too? I didn’t think so.” There! How hard was that?

Switched to FM, tuned to WNYC, the New York public radio outlet. They play classical music, but often it’s offbeat. But no! They’re playing blues! Delight and gratitude! Strange, though, that the blues they’re playing is so wry and just a touch urban…oh, I see. This is Prairie Home Companion. Down and dirty Delta or Chicago blues just wouldn’t be their style. But blues is rare on radio. More rare than classical music. At least in the northeast, I can usually find a classical station when I drive. But blues? Or ’50s R&B, which would keep me happy for a hundred miles? Forget it. When we wail about classical stations disappearing, let’s remember that there’s lots of good, important music that we can’t hear on the radio at all. (In fact, it’s weird. We can hear music from Vienna in 1805, but not Mississippi in 1935.)

I also listened to the CD that comes with Nick Hornby’s Songbook, some of the clearest writing about music I’ve seen for a long time. (I quoted passages from it here some time ago.) The CD has many of the pop songs he writes about; the indie ones, which the publishers could license. “You Had Time” by Ani DiFranco really knocked me out. I should just quote Hornby to tell you why, since he says it better than I could, but the quote would be too long, and besides I want to save it for some future blogging about music criticism. But “You Had Time” begins amazingly — it takes shape from DiFranco trying things at random on the piano, then slowly focusing on what becomes the song.

Finally I switched to WKTU, the big New York dance-music station. Madonna came on, doing a promo for them. Then they played “Holiday” (which among much else is an exquisitely crafted song; even the sound of the first two keyboard chords is unmistakable). I smelled a deal: “You flack us, we’ll play you.” Who cares? I was glad to hear the song, which almost sounds, well, classical, next to current hits.

The shrinking of classical radio is a danger sign for classical music. Or at least I always say that. But when I find a classical station, I usually can’t bear to listen. Too tame, too smooth, too much old music. But if I found a station that played Todd Levin, Ani diFranco, blues, and Madonna (plus some Ibrahim Ferrer)…

They could even slip in some Beethoven (maybe one of the symphonies, in a bracing Roger Norrington performance on old instruments, with whipcrack timpani). And wouldn’t that be better for classical music in the long run? I wish it wouldn’t be presented on the radio like some cult of meaningless refinement (or, in more modern style, as bright and perky). I wish instead that it showed up as intelligent fare, right next to all the other things intelligent people, out there in the real world, really listen to.

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