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


Pliable said…
Email received:

My opinion is jaded, because I worked there.

However, there has been a general cowardice amongst the upper echelons of the CBC for decades. Management has always been afraid to stand up for principles. As a result, I've seen too many producers who have been chastised for doing the right thing. More commonly, great work is not even mentioned, whereas any mistake is never lived down : a very bureaucratic way of running a cultural institution. This leads to mediocrity and bootlicking to be rewarded. The results are often nepotism, an exodus of talent, and the blunting of any morale by those left. The current Radio Music regime is guilty of this and more, and have abrogated their responsibilites to upper management to the point where music almost no longer exists at the CBC (indeed, Radio and Television as departments have been merged). CBC RECORDS, another great establishment marred by recent incompetence, is also on its final legs. How on earth is Canadian music of ANY sort able to develop and disseminize under these circumstances? Well, on the Internet. It's time to forget about CBC Radio and turn to the Podcasters.


David Cavlovic
Anonymous said…
This just shows that music and audiences have left the radio and moved to the Internet. The death started with Napster, and 'classical' music, being the weakest caribou in the herd is the first to be taken down from this dying medium. There is nothing to see here at all, just the natural and inevitable.

/Rant mode on
I also suspect that, well, since the end of New Wave in the early Eighties, Western music (or at least the popular stuff) has been the worst it's been in the history of our civilization (I grew up listening to it).

Funny though, the one group of people who knew what music was about and who could have done something about it (Orchestral composers and I guess, to an extent performers) don't seem to have done anything about it except record increasingly expensive albums aimed at a shrinking target audience. They've had nearly 30 years and now things have reached the stage where the music they make and play is being removed from the radio and I have to listen to my landlord playing Vivaldi overdubbed with birdy-songs. "Relax and Recharge" he quotes to me when I comment, "Relax and recharge". So once again, nothing new here, just the inevitable. It really gets me.

/Rant mode off.

If someone can show I'm wrong, and show me decent youthful music with the energy and accessibility of The Polyphonic Spree or of Rock 'n Roll but the intellectual depth of, say, any classic composer, or at least with the emotive power of Mozart, then please do, I'd love to change my opinion of the situation (no Birtwistle, Adams, or Glass please). There must be some decent stuff out there written for consumption by the public and not for consumption by its composer, but where is it? And who isn't marketing it?

Perhaps one day someone will write some symphonies which will bring the public back, I'm hoping so. The least they could do is export The Proms.

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