Monday, March 17, 2008
No classical - no radio
A familiar theme appears in Toronto's Globe and Mail - 'I am almost too depressed about the planned "overhaul" of CBC's Radio 2 to even write about it. What's the point? We've all seen the writing on the wall for some time now, and resistance is futile: The CBC no longer feels there is any point to devoting an entire radio station to the more musically and intellectually complex style of music colloquially, though entirely inappropriately, known as "classical" (more on that tendentious terminology in a moment), because, according to its mysterious studies, no one is interested in that any more.
So, come September, there will only be "classical" music (God, I hate that term!) at midday on weekdays; the rest of the air time will be taken up with light pop and jazz. Yes, that's right, explicitly light: In an interview with The Globe and Mail last week, the executive director of radio explained that the station will be playing even more Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall. The executives have also proudly expressed their interest in playing more middle-of-the-road pop such as Feist and Serena Ryder. Yes, they are proud, proud to be brave purveyors of Serena Ryder and Diana Krall, the very best culture our country has to offer.
In other words, Radio 2 will become essentially an easy-listening station. It will play, aside from four hours a day when everybody is at work, the kind of verse-chorus-verse popular music that is likely to win awards at industry-created ceremonies - the Junos, the Grammys, the Smushies, the Great Mall Music Prize.
Sometimes there will be jazz; I'm guessing it will continue to be the Holiday Inn lounge jazz they already so adore. It's also pretty safe to say there will be no underground pop music, nothing noisy or electronic - unless they keep Laurie Brown's The Signal (surely they must, they must at least keep The Signal?) - and of course that will be only late at night so it doesn't disturb the imagined audience, an audience of the mousiest, nicest, middlest of middle Canadians.
Notice how the CBC has already won half the public-relations battle through its choice of language. It is wise, if it wants to dismiss exciting and abstract music that doesn't have a 4/4 beat, to call such music "classical." That word instantly relegates it to the past. "Classical" connotes that which is established, respected, stuffy - another word for "old favourites."
"Classical" is wholly inadequate in describing an intellectual tradition that has always thrived on innovation, on radical new interpretations, on defiance of previous traditions, indeed, of iconoclasm. When Arthur Honegger sat down to write Pacific 231, when Olivier Messiaen began Quartet for the End of Time, when Edgard Varèse ordered his orchestra to play along to tape recordings from sawmills, do you think they wanted to write something "classical?"
But even this conversation is pointless; it isn't even happening. It belongs to another world. I feel, when talking about these things, like a visitor to an isolated country where everybody believes the Earth is flat and the moon is made of cheese: No one is going to listen to me because every single one of my premises, my fundamental assumptions, is different from theirs.
I assume, for example, that the point of having a government-funded radio station is not to garner the largest possible audience; if that were the goal, and that goal were attained, such a station would be commercially viable and no longer in need of government support. I also assume that art and intellectual inquiry can sometimes be challenging and demanding of intense concentration, and that they are naturally not always going to attract lucrative audiences, and that this does not make them any less valuable, which is why governments in enlightened countries support them and provide access to them.
I guess I assume, too, something even more fundamental and even more fundamentally unpopular, which is that not all art is of equal value. Art that does not tend to follow strict generic conventions (such as, for example, the verse-chorus-verse structure of 90 per cent of pop music) is deserving of extra attention. Art unbound by formula tends to indicate the area where the best, the most original talents are working.
And this is not, I assure you, about the past; it is about the future. Art unbound by formula - music that does not have to accompany words, for example - is the art that will be remembered by cultural historians and will come to define our era.
A country with no public forum for such art, with nowhere for the less privileged to gain access to it and to intelligent analysis of it, is an unsophisticated one.
And furthermore, a radio station that is indistinguishable from commercial stations - other than by its fanatical niceness - will have no reason to receive government support. Why not just shut it down already?' - byline Russell Smith
And CBC did so many great things.
Header image is CBC Radio 2 website. With thanks to Canadian reader David Cavlovic for the heads-up. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk