Good reading

Robert Everett-Green, a music and culture critic of the Toronto Globe and Mail, takes on — to quote the teaser at the top of his piece — “the increasingly strident turf wars between fans of pop and of classical music, the growing flap over this fall’s sweeping changes to CBC Radio 2, and the undeniable politics behind the battle over what constitutes culture.”

This is a three-part series — the first part (which is where the link above goes) came out July 26; the next parts will be on successive Saturdays, August 2 and August 9 — and readers of this blog will feel right at home (or really angry, depending on what they think of many things that I say). Everett-Green hits especially hard at the sense of entitlement classical music people often have:

Everyone has the right to think that their music is best, including the teenagers who hurry through Toronto’s Bathurst subway station to escape the classical music played through the PA system to deter them from hanging around. But only classical fans and organizations believe that the quality of their music gives it and them a natural entitlement to the lion’s share of public funding….

What distresses some of the CBC’s classical listeners is the feeling that the margin is invading the centre. If a DJ track can be presented on the same footing as a piano piece by Fauré, what’s to stop more pop pieces from completely displacing classical music? Ephemeral value will trump permanent value.

It’s at this point that classical listeners start complaining about how politics are creeping into the CBC’s programming, not noticing or admitting that the previous situation was also political. It just didn’t seem that way, because it was in harmony with the fans’ assumption that classical music deserves special status.

Powerful stuff, powerfully put. Bravo. (And Everett-Green loves Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet, one of my own great favorites, so he’s got me coming and going.) [Added  8/4]: Unfortunately, the Globe and Mail charges $4.95 for articles more than a week old (and that’s Canadian dollars, so it’s even more expensive for readers from the U.S.). So you won’t be able to read this free. (I find this notably backward. Hope this isn’t American chauvinism, but the tendency here is to go the other way, and make content available free. The New York Times stopped charging for older articles a while ago.)

[Added 8/5] We can read Everett-Green’s series here, without paying, on a site called “Stand on Guard for CBC.” (But — glad as I am to have these pieces available — is this a copyright violation?) Thanks to Emily Gray for the tip.

And many thanks to Molly Sheridan, for linking the first article in her terrific ArtsJournal blog, Mind the Gap. That’s how I found out about it.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    What I find interesting about the Wikipedia articles on both classical music and pop music is just how circumscribed both genres are described as being.

    Robert Everett-Green’s article would have read better without the quotes, which sometimes appear a bit less than fair. His quote of Elizabeth Bihl, for example:

    “‘The problem with The Signal’s mélange’, she said, is that ‘I don’t know what’s coming,’ i.e. whether the next thing will be a composed piece for orchestra or a recording from the last Pop Montreal festival. In other words, she wants more solitude, not less.”

    A good writer has no need of putting words in somebody else’s mouth. Especially the words of someone such as Elizabeth Bihl, who has done so much to engage audience in the confluence of different musics and venues with the Canadian Music Centre’s New Music in New Places series.

    Nevertheless, Everett-Green’s article raises questions that so-called “classical musicians” damn well better start answering if the genre, no matter what it comprises, is to survive.

  2. says

    Hi Greg:

    As a Canadian musician, I’d like to make a few comments about the CBC’s programming that may clarify matters.

    The bulk of programming on CBC Radio 2 has traditionally been “classical” in a broad sense, with an emphasis on Canadian compositions and performances. However, in recent years the programming has increasingly mixed genres – it would not be uncommon to hear mainstream classical repertoire mixed with contemporary compositions, world music, and mixed-genre projects on the popular drive-home show “Disc Drive”, for example. The CBC Radio Orchestra, recently disbanded, gave a successful concert featuring newly-composed arrangements of songs by Canadian singer-songwriters. “The Signal”, mentioned in the article, exists as an experiment in mixing contemporary classical composition with popular music.

    Some of these ideas were more successful than others, and many of them are controversial for hardcore classical fans, but the CBC was very far from being a conservative all-classical station. In Toronto, listeners can turn to 96.3 FM to listen to a privately-owned classical station, where the musical style is always conservative, contemporary classical music is rarely played and popular music is nowhere to be heard. Yet the greatest protests against the CBC cuts have been in Toronto. If the protesters wanted an uninterrupted diet of bland 18th and 19th-century music, they would have left the CBC long ago.

    What concerns me now, as a Canadian classical musician, is that there will now be literally no opportunity for most people to hear classical music on the CBC – with classical programming relegated to off-peak hours during the late morning and early afternoon, when most people are at work. Far from supporting the idea that “classical music deserves special status”, the CBC has ensured that classical music is the one genre you can’t listen to on the radio when you drive to work.

    I mention all of this simply because I feel that observers outside Canada have a flawed picture of the real situation here. I feel that much of the outgoing CBC programming is the sort of radio you would approve of – with a wide variety of music, not all of it classical, presented in an interesting way. My impression, and that of a number of other CBC listeners, is that the CBC is simply not interested in retaining its classical-music audience in any form, and wants to jettison it as quickly as possible.

    A question worth asking is how large the classical music audience is. In the US, public radio stations have found that their classical audience is relatively small, though very vociferous. They cut back on classical programming because they can’t indulge a small number of people with programming the great majority of their listeners don’t want to hear. This is bad news for people who love classical music, but understandable from the stations’ point of view. Not to mention the point of view of the non-classical listeners! So saying that a station wants to “jettison” classical music might not be the only way to look at it.

  3. richard says

    As an American, I’m not familiar with CBC 2, but I’ m inclined to think that its’ programming was like much of the programing one finds at “classical” stations in the States. Probably consisting of mostly “masterworks” by the “certified musical geniuses” from the past. The listener reaction to the Bryars piece would seem to indicate that some of the audience have conservative tastes. I might have complained about “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” but for different reasons (I’m an anti-monumentalist and thinks this work overstays its’ welcome) In all likelihood these folks would bitch and moan if the piece was by Webern. Bringing in “pop” music really woundn’t be that if it was smart ( ie Bjork or Mikkel (sp?) Rouse or a progressive jazz artist like Henry Threadgill. What would really turn me off would be a playlist of war-horses and bubblegum pop.

  4. says

    In fact, the CBC’s line is exactly what you suggest above: that their current audience is too small and that their new programming will appeal to a greater proportion of Canadians. Those who protested the recent programming changes received a form letter saying, among other things, that only 3.1% of Canadians listen to Radio Two – and that “audience research” indicated that “a majority of Canadians felt [the station] was not relevant to them personally”.

    If the audience for classical music is this small, however, then how can the same audience sustain a for-profit classical station (Classical 96.3) – particularly when, in my opinion, the announcers and music selection on CBC are far superior? I’d love to see some figures about the audience for both stations, but my gut feeling is that the CBC’s motives are ideological rather than simply practical. (The second articles in Everett-Green’s series seems to confirm this.)

    I haven’t read that second article yet, but it’s easy to answer your question about commercial classical stations.

    I know more about the U.S. than I do about Canada. Many public radio stations in the U.S. are “dual format,” as I believe the term is. They broadcast both music (usually classical) and news and talk programs, especially the big morning and evening news shows from NPR in Washington. They find their news and talk audience to be much bigger than their music audience. Since they survive in large part by raising money from their audience, obviously the news and talk listeners are going to give them more, since there are so many of them. It’s also been historically true, or so I’ve read, that the classical music listeners don’t give money in proportion to their numbers. If they constitute 10% of listeners, they’ll give less than 10% of the total donations.

    A commercial classical station works differently. It’s a smaller operation, probably serving a smaller audience. But still it’s an audience advertisers want to reach, so it’s possible to sell advertising to support the operation. Here, though, we should remember two things. First, the number of commercial classical stations in the US has been falling very sharply. There are, I believe — I had a long conversation this past weekend with someone who runs one of them — not even a dozen left in the U.S. And, second, they’re not a high-profit operation. To survive, they need some special arrangement. One station is supported by the Lutheran church. Another one is owned by the New York Times. Another syndicates its programming. Another is part of a cluster of stations, each with a different format (hiphop, country, Christian, and so forth), which all support each other.

    What this shows, first, is that the audience for classical music on the air is small, and that the amount of it broadcast, whether by commercial or public radio stations, is falling. So the pressures the CBC says it faces are also going to be felt by the commercial station you mentioned, and there’s really no contradiction in the existence of the two.

    [Added later] There also might be a political factor with the CBC. If they’re supported by government money, it’s ultimately a political choice for the government to fund it. If there’s great opposition, it won’t be politically possible. And questions can easily be raised — may already have been raised — about why the government is putting taxpayer money into programming that the vast majority of taxpayers don’t listen to. You may feel that it’s wrong to follow majority taste here (though I doubt the CBC is following majority taste in Canada with the programming it’s doing instead of classical music), but you can understand that you’ll have to convince all sorts of people (government officials, members of parliament, taxpayers) that there’s a good reason for that.

    Which sheds some light on your thought that the CBC’s decision is ideological. Everett-Green pointed out that, if someone thinks the choice to deemphasize classical music is political, the choice to emphasize it was just as political, except that it’s a political position so much loved by classical music supporters that they don’t see the politics involved. (Maybe I’m adding something of my own to his point.)

    So the same is true of an ideological choice. The choice to emphasize classical music is just as ideological as the choice not to. Or, to put it more simply, it just as strongly depends on musical and cultural values. Some people value classical music very highly, others don’t. You may think that those who value classical music highly have a better outlook on life and music, but still you have to understand that their desire to have classical music featured on the CBC is ideological. It might not seem that way because it’s your ideology, and thus — this is a tendency we all surely share — seems to you as natural (and thus unideological) as sunshine.

  5. The Rest Is Oys says

    Everett-Green’s article would be so much more readable if it didn’t cost $4.95 plus tax. (That’s the cost at the link provided.) Anyone know any links to where one can read it for, say, $0.00? Thanks.

    When I first followed the link, it was free. But now — perusing the Globe and Mail website in response to your comment here — I see they start charging a week after an article appears. Very backwards of them, I think, webwise. The NY Times, very much in contrast, has made things from its archives free, when formerly we had to pay for them.

    I’ll put up a warning on my post.

  6. Tawnie says

    A small point; I believe it is just “The Globe and Mail,” rather than the “Toronto Globe and Mail.” Its writers can be very Toronto-centric, so your gaffe is actually quite appropriate!

    CBC Radio 2 classical programming was quite different from your standard NPR easy-listening classical sludge with inane continuity. It always included a mix of contemporary works, early music and 18th and 19th century works, had excellent jazz programs and broadcast alt-rock (admittedly, only late at night, but DNTO ran on Radio 1 on Saturday afternoons). Listening to the CBC opened my parents’ ears to contemporary composed music, and when I was a teenager the CBC was where I learned about classical music and jazz. There was nowhere else I could hear that kind of music, and the continuity was really informative.

    It’s rather suspicious to me that the CBC will not reveal the source of (or important details about) its audience research. Sadly, it’s not true that it has to respond to the voters. It has (in theory) an “arm’s length” relationship to the government. So voters can protest, write letters, etc., but the CBC can (and does) blithely ignore us.

    Thanks for the correction. It’s always good to get the little details right. I’d think that the CBC ultimately has to respond to public opinion. Of course it has theoretical independence, but in practice there’s always a limit to such things.

  7. David Cavlovic says

    Having survived the politics of the CBC myself (I have been living CBC-clean now for almost ten years to the day, and aknowledging my own slanted bias aboout the Corpse, er, Corp., I still state with a clear conscience my belief that the CBC has been barking up the wrong tree for decades. There is a place for all kinds of music on the network, provided it is done the right way. Before my detractors say , “and YOU know what it is, don’t you David!!” my answer is Hell no! But, I’ve seen how the powers-that-be don’t have a clue themselves, and don’t let those who DO know how to do their job actually do it!

    One major problem is that there should be a Radio Four (Radio 3 is on the net, and by the way, provides kick-ass programming), which could have dealt with the problem of representation very well. Many pressed for it, but there were numerous obstacles (one being the CRTC).

    This still leaves the problem of Classical content, vs. everything else. The problem lies in management thinking that it must provide what the private broadcasters already provide, combined with a fear of being politically incorrect by not catering to every single musical interst group all at once. There aren’t enough seconds in an hour to do that! So, what to do? Go middle-of-the-road on everything and piss everyone off.

    Not smart.

  8. steve norton says

    “Everyone has the right to think that their music is best…

    This hits on a point i’ve been thinking about a lot recently and which, i believe, is at the crux of perhaps the point of your whole project here, Greg. It doesn’t answer the question of the future of classical music, but i think that it gets at the heart of the problem of talking about the various musics we’re all interested in.

    The quotation above, “Everyone has the right to think that their music is best…” assumes that such an assertion–“my music is best”–is a valid one. This reveals a blindness to the fact that all of our judgments are subjective. They’re just opinions. We–Americans? Westerners?–are taught from a very early age to express our opinions as facts. One constantly encounters statements that such-and-such music is “good” or “bad” or “great”. But this is really just a shell of bullshit encasing the corresponding statements “i like this” or “i don’t like this” or “i LOVE this”. We want our pronouncements to sound authoritative, so we learn to say “good” or “bad”, rather than admit that they are merely our feelings or opinions.

    This is probably behaviour developed from the deeply ingrained ideology around classical music which appeals to nearly (or allegedly) universally held opinions of the greatness of the canonical masters.

    I haven’t done a good job of connecting this point to the broader argument here. And certainly when, as in the example presented by Robert Everett-Green, government decisions regarding the spending of tax revenues on the arts are involved, this point may seem minor. Nonetheless, i think that it reveals something fundamentally broken at the core of the assumptions upon which all of our evaluations of any of the arts are based.

  9. says

    One of my students recently attended a chamber music workshop in Quebec. He was very impressed by the number and enthusiasm of audience members who attended events.

    I told him it was probably a result of Jeunesse Musicales or the BBC Radio service. Now I’m wondering.

  10. says

    I look at these issues from the perspective of someone who’s been a classical musician (violinist and conductor) for most of my life as well as a producer and announcer of radio programming. I was never a fan of the almost wall-to-wall classical music programming that used to characterize the schedules of U.S. Public Radio stations; it always struck me as rather mindless, and for that reason, quite dull. What I regret is that stations have jumped to the other extreme, in which classical music is essentially banned. The motivation is primarily financial, because it’s incontrovertible that more people listen to news and information programming than listen to classical music. This raises very interesting questions about the term “Public”. For instance, if Public Broadcasting is about meeting the cultural needs of the broadest swath of the public (as that public perceives their own cultural needs and interests), then why not have music from Madonna, 50 Cent, The Dixie Chicks, etc. dominate the schedules of Public Radio? If you take the idea further, Walmart is in many essential ways a “Public” entity, because it gives “the people” what they/we want, i.e. stuff at low prices.

    But the original idea behind public broadcasting was that there needed to be a place on the dial that would be somewhat insulated from the market forces that inevitably tend to lead to extremely dumbed-downed programming that will gain the largest audience-share. The idea that the market will “bring the best to the top” is a self-evident fallacy and a romantic myth. Look at the wasteland that is television. The most simplistic forms of art thrive; anything that exists outside of very tight parameters in terms of attention-span, cultural familiarity, subtlety, complication, nuance, etc. tend to perish.

    I’ve always thought that a good public broadcasting outlet would have a fair amount of programming I DIDN’T like; I assumed this was a logical reflection of the fact that my interests won’t always be the same as other people’s. We are now moving into an environment in which technology can give each of us what we want culturally and informationally whenever we want it. If I’m a conservative, I can get my news from places that confirm my point of view (Fox News, WorldNetDaily.com). If I only want to listen to music from girl bands of the early 1980’s, there’s a satellite radio station that will meet that need, 24/7. I don’t have to extend my cultural awareness outside my comfort zone. It’s narcissism run amok.

    Frankly, I found Everett-Green’s article to be a very superficial rehash of the standard arguments involving classical music and its place in contemporary culture. I’m all for not giving credence to knee-jerk responses of some who’ll say things such as “Classical Music is great because it, uh, it, uh……it just IS!”. Anybody with any understanding of the art ought to be able to do better than that. We do live in a world in which we have access to all sorts of art, and this has further confirmed the fact that artistic greatness is not only to be found in the work of Europeans living a century ago and before. On the other hand, a lot of the so-called “more diverse” or “accessible” programming I hear in Public Radio today strikes me as a pretentious dressing-up of popular culture so as to satisfy the intellectual vanity of listeners without asking them to explore beyond their own limits. Thus the in-depth interviews of an assistant staff-writer for Saturday Night Live from the late 1970s, discussing how Belushi’s comedy “captured the zeitgeist of a culture penned-in by Carter-esque malaise, or the metal band that’s penned a piece to be played with a full orchestra in which the Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant chords are employed for 97% of the work’s length. Too often in Public Radio these days, it seems like the philosophy when dealing with and presenting the classical arts is that any sort of connection to popular culture enlivens those boring, stuffy old remnants of the past and makes them interesting. Uh, not necessarily.

    In sum (and without wishing to sound overly-snarky), I found Everett-Green’s article to be a superficial exercise is question-begging.

  11. says

    I look at these issues from the perspective of someone who’s been a classical musician (violinist and conductor) for most of my life as well as a producer and announcer of radio programming. I was never a fan of the almost wall-to-wall classical music programming that used to characterize the schedules of U.S. Public Radio stations; it always struck me as rather mindless, and for that reason, quite dull. What I regret is that stations have jumped to the other extreme, in which classical music is essentially banned. The motivation is primarily financial, because it’s incontrovertible that more people listen to news and information programming than listen to classical music. This raises very interesting questions about the term “Public”. For instance, if Public Broadcasting is about meeting the cultural needs of the broadest swath of the public (as that public perceives their own cultural needs and interests), then why not have music from Madonna, 50 Cent, The Dixie Chicks, etc. dominate the schedules of Public Radio? If you take the idea further, Walmart is in many essential ways a “Public” entity, because it gives “the people” what they/we want, i.e. stuff at low prices.

    Probably it’s a mistake, these days, to talk about any kind of mass public at all. You’ll have to look long and hard to find anyone (just for instance) who listens to both 50 Cent and the Dixie Chicks.

    Whatever any of us might think “public” means, public radio is aimed at — and broadcast by — people of a particular demographic. My own. So the pop music it tends to favor is indie pop.

    For a very different take on what public-interest broadcasting might mean (to invent a term that could contrast with “public”), listen to WBAI in New York, a community-supported station. With community orientation. You can hear news broadcasts there that go into detail about issues facing people who live in public housing, and how the City Council in New York is or isn’t dealing with these issues, with detailed comments from local activists and City Council members. This is stuff you don’t hear about on public, or read about in the mainstream media. It shows a side of life in New York that people from my demographic almost never hear about.

  12. says

    look at these issues from the perspective of someone who’s been a classical musician (violinist and conductor) for most of my life as well as a producer and announcer of radio programming. I was never a fan of the almost wall-to-wall classical music programming that used to characterize the schedules of U.S. Public Radio stations; it always struck me as rather mindless, and for that reason, quite dull. What I regret is that stations have jumped to the other extreme, in which classical music is essentially banned. The motivation is primarily financial, because it’s incontrovertible that more people listen to news and information programming than listen to classical music. This raises very interesting questions about the term “Public”. For instance, if Public Broadcasting is about meeting the cultural needs of the broadest swath of the public (as that public perceives their own cultural needs and interests), then why not have music from Madonna, 50 Cent, The Dixie Chicks, etc. dominate the schedules of Public Radio? If you take the idea further, Walmart is in many essential ways a “Public” entity, because it gives “the people” what they/we want, i.e. stuff at low prices.

    Don’t get blinded by words. “Public” radio exists to serve a particular demographic, more upscale than the one that goes to Walmart. So when it plays and talks about pop music, it plays indie artists, not (on the whole) people with big pop hits. In any case, I can’t quite imagine a station that plays the three acts you mention, because I don’t think that the same people, by and large, who listen to 50 Cent and Madonna are listening to the Dixie Chicks.