Letter from the Provinces, Number Two

Ethelbert Nevin

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

As the old saying doesn’t quite go, Names have been adjusted to implicate the innocent and exonerate the guilty.

My outpost here in quaint New England is within range of three radio stations that can be classified as classical. One of them is the commercial station, with its 24 hours of safe and familiar classical music embellished with 24 hours of uninterrupted advertising. Another is the radio presence of the local but nationally renowned non-commercial television operation, and the third is the underdog college radio station with close ties to one of our nation’s great learning institutions.

While this may seem as if the airwaves offer a breadth of offerings, this is in no way the truth. The commercial station is rather loathsome, playing the same darn perky tonal drivel. They have an incredibly imaginative slot on weekday mornings given over to Mozart: the same harp and flute concerto, the same Hunt quartet, the same Turkish piano sonata, the same Jupiter symphony. Someone must have stumbled across that research item about Mozart making you smarter (But does Delius make you duller?). I have given up asking them to program more Xenakis. The local non-commercial affiliate’s programming is surprisingly inventive, yet their insistence on including local talent helps warm the incestuous nature of the local music scene here, and besides, local mediocre talent must be better than internationally established talent.

I tend to listen to the radio while in motion across distances, or when I need to satisfy my Dadaist urges and don’t want to match music to my mood. While travelling, I inevitably tune in and out to snippets of adventuresome programming and have no idea what I just sampled. It is this situation which brings me to the point of this letter.

I pride myself at being a champion needle-drop player, that is, I can recognize most anything I hear that’s in the classical symphonic and instrumental genre, but there are occasions when I am wonderfully stumped. Stravinsky’s Symphony No. 1 in E-flat has been the greatest of my undoings, frustrating me for an entire car ride. And only recently I mistook Lutoslawki’s Concerto for Orchestra for Dutillieux’s Second Symphony. Well, they both have that French sound and are built on passacaglias.

If I hear something I do not recognize and I must know what it is, then I seek it out. This is where all three stations completely fail.

The commercial station used to post its schedules on its Website, perfect for the reclusive Internet-enabled listener. Nowadays they do not, claiming that their programming represents their product and that divulging what they play would deprive them of revenue. I was aghast to realize that they “can” their content and pipe it to other stations that “fill the windows” by incorporating local station announcements and commercials in between morsels of Mozart, Vivaldi and other famous and safe classical tunes. A directed email to the station would divulge what I had heard, and after an immediate form letter email response promising a later and personalized response, several days passed before I learned what it was. By that time I forgot why I had been interested in the first place. The email only let me know it was Respighi’s Church Windows (risky programming!) and did not indicate performer, ensemble, label or recording number.

A similar experience with the non-commercial affiliate was more disturbing. Its Website offers a complete programming guide designed with the latest technology so that it can only tell you what will be playing, not what was playing. I checked in several minutes after the piece aired to discover that I could only find out what was playing at that instant and later that day. A few moments of frustration seemed to determine that all past programming had disappeared (maybe I just couldn’t figure out the darn guide). So I emailed the station, got the required form letter email response indicating a later and personalized email would follow.

The personalized email told me I had heard Franck’s Psyché. Now, I had heard something orchestral, definitely twentieth century that sounded Nordic or Russian. I was thinking it was some Shostakovich (or Tishchenko, et al.). Definitely not Franck. Now, I know enough to know that this wasn’t right, and so I emailed back, reiterating the date and suggesting that it might have been Shostakovich. The next day, another email informed me that it had been Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, 1905. Now, maybe I had initially asked for the wrong date, but making a mistake like this could have terrible consequences: “I knew you liked that piece you heard on the radio, and it being your birthday, I got it for you.” Maybe I’m being idealistic to presume that the naïve listener would be able to tell the difference between Franck and Shostakovich, especially after some amount of time fades the memory, but these sort of mistakes are bad for us all. I suppose wanting Franck and getting Shostakovich would be worse….

The college radio station has the most adventurous programming of all — after all, that’s what college radio is about. It publishes a paper program guide which advertising actually makes free for the asking, and the online program is just content, and most importantly, you can use it to go into the past to see what was playing. Fancy that. But while the relaxed pressures to sustain revenue make the programming more interesting, the relaxed pressures provide no incentive to the DJs to accurately document what they do play when, for one reason or another, they diverge from the program. I thought it was an FCC law to keep logbooks, but maybe I’m old fashioned. I tend to call just after the DJ leaves the station, and the guy hosting the sports show has no clue. I tried to be persistent one spring, and imagined a tattered piece of paper taped to a wall somewhere languishing the entire summer waiting for the station to reopen after summer break. Of course, I have gotten lucky and have called during the unknown piece, and that’s why I’m very happy to have John Elliot Gardiner’s magnificent Archiv recording of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri in my collection.

The purpose of radio is to entertain and, occasionally, to educate. Classical music is such a small and waning part of the entertainment industry that the few of us who derive pleasure from it must ensure that meaningful opportunities exist for others to discover and be exposed to it. Yes, radio programming is a business and not a charity, but you would think that a goal or maybe even a byproduct of successful classical programming would be to broaden the audience and make classical music easy to learn about.