Listening to the Radio. Again.

Ethelbert Nevin

[June 2004.]

I really do more than listen to the radio. Sometimes I drive around and listen to the radio.

WHRB’s Spring Orgy season just ended here in my neck of the woods, which means that huge tracts of airtime were devoted to a single composer, performer, group or label. I took in many hours over the Internet — such technology has finally come of age. Next time you can listen in too at http://www.whrb.org/.

Why do I carry on about these radio broadcasts? How often do you hear dense blocks of non-top-40 classical music? Commercial stations air the same Tchaikovsky overture, the same Mozart concerto, and the same Handelian drivel. Sometimes they spice things up with Vivaldi or Grieg. No one said radio had to mirror Music History 101, but when there are pockets of the Charles Ives and Mingus as there were this May and June, well then, that’s something worth talking about.

Honestly, there’s very little that excites this New Englander more that turning the dial — okay, no one uses dials any more, we use buttons that simulate up and down — and stumbling across Ives’ wacky Third. A day later I landed in the midst of the reconstruction of Ives’ Piano Concerto with its warped incorporation of the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. Distractions intervened before I could resume listening, and a few minutes of the Universe Symphony materialized. Ives captivates. In retrospect, we say he was ahead of his time. Who knows what will be uncovered as scholars untangle the mess of drafts he left at the time of his death.

This season the Orgies didn’t actually extend for lengthy stretches. Audiences used to be treated to unbroken multi-day retrospectives. This time classical stuff stopped ’round midnight and recommenced at dawn. Possibly WHRB realized that listeners like to sleep or that certain audiences thrive at particular hours. Frankly, I loved that all-Haydn, ’round-the-clock stint two years ago.

I caught chunks of the “New York School Orgy.” It was fun to drive with the windows down blasting Feldman’s tiny tape piece, Intersection. Catching Feldman’s Rothko Chapel during a quiet morning drive was resplendent. That’s a mighty fine work. Later on, I passed through some longer Feldman, including Triadic Memories, Crippled Symmetry and the grand behemoth of them all, the String Quartet No. 2. The more Cage I heard, well, it all started to sound silly. Don’t get me started on the Brown and Wolff bits.

They were airing promos for other Orgies during the New York School Orgy’s first installment without back announcing. Once upon a time, back announcing, learning what it was you had just heard, was de rigueur. A listener who may have dropped in on the middle of something needs to know. Anyway, with respect to continuity, the robust opening chords of Nielsen’s Third coming after Wolff or Brown’s inchoateness are like tossing empty beer cans onto a Japanese garden.

When it finally arrived, the Nielsen Orgy was a high point even though I was surprised to discover I knew most of the larger, serious orchestral works. These Orgies provide a compelling opportunity to hear a composer’s stylistic development and also hear less familiar works alongside favorites. I welcome any excuse to hear Commotio, Nielsen’s rambunctious organ piece.

Another high point included the Leon Kirchner / Mario Davidovsky / Bernard Rands Orgy. Who? Three fellows who taught at a local learning center, the ‘H’ in WHRB. (You may have heard of it. Harvard.) Not exactly big names, unless you’re aspiring to be an academic, but these guys have substance. Davidovsky was at the forefront of electronic music. It’s true, of course, that today’s pre-teen cell phones possess more musical oomph that the bleeps and boi-ings of his earliest Synchronisms. I was surprised to hear the softening evolution of Kirchner, but made a note to locate a recent Music and Arts disc (CD-1045), a set of reissues collected for his 80th birthday.

The nauseating Respighi Orgy was like spending the entire day in an over-air-conditioned shopping mall and leaving empty-handed. I passed over the Hildegard von Bingen hours. Her adherents have created such a sickly cloying aura that it’s impossible to separate her accomplishments from well-meaning but dubious interpretations. Was she visited by visions or devastating migraines? We will never know for sure and that suits me just fine.

The AMM Orgy was a fun burst. Such improv is most satisfying in huge swaths, doubly so because it’s the sort of thing you really just want to hear once and don’t need to have around the house. Wouldn’t you know the only time I tuned into the Glinka Orgy I heard the warhorse Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture.

The IRCAM Orgy, greatly anticipated, was disappointing. So many composers, including Boulez himself, seem to have forgotten how to create interesting music while genuflecting at IRCAM’s spectacular technology. But works by Marc-André Dalbavie, Jonathan Harvey, and Kaija Saariaho did impress.

This season’s Orgies seemed longer than usual. I think it was the cumbersome breaks. I can understand chopping up the New York School and other potentially trying onslaughts, but continual density is crucial to the Orgy concept. Perhaps such dives were too arduous for the announcers.

WHRB is a college radio station and it serves no good to complain about their tortured inelegance. Some announcers sound immensely knowledgeable, as if they had perched at the composer’s elbow while the inspiration flowed hot. Others sound resentful, as if they were yanked out of bed. I can understand mispronouncing Rzewski, Ysaÿe, or Hämeenniemi, but you’d think folks would know how to pronounce Sony, as in that obscure Japanese firm that makes — What is it? Oh, yes — electronic gizmos, or, specifically, the Sony Classics label. Possibly they know that diehards like me will be back next season, regardless.