Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How Keep Classical Music Boring - the Glass wall

A while ago I commented on how many public radio stations reinforce the perception that classical music is a dead genre that's bland, boring and irrelevant to most people's lives. Recently, one of the public radio listserves I subscribe to asked an interesting question:

How often does your station program Philip Glass?

A few stations played a fair amount, some played perhaps one movement of one piece once in a while, and many said they never programmed Glass at all.

Now let's put this into perspective. Philip Glass is one of the most successful -- and popular -- classical composers in the world. In addition to writing for the concert stage and the opera house, he also has a distinguished career as a film composer, creating scores for "Candyman," "The Hours," "The Illusionist" and many others.

And unlike many contemporary composers, his recordings don't have to be underwritten by grants (or the composer) -- they do just fine as commercial releases and pay for themselves, thank you very much.

Glass' music is tonal, melodic, and has a strong rhythmic pulse. You don't need a music degree to listen to Glass. It's all very accessible music (you can listen to Glass' music on his website if you're not familiar with it). And his music's popular.

So why won't some public radio stations play it at all? Because Glass' music has an energy and excitement to it (remember the driving rhythm I mentioned?) that demands you listen to it.

Classical music programming on the radio has boxed itself into a corner, serving as little more than highbrow Muzak for an increasingly graying listenership. The goal is to remain in the background, not to force the audience to engage in active listening.

In a sense, it's ironic, because Glass himself is no spring chicken -- he's of the same generation as the majority of the classical music radio audience. The same age as the listeners who (some programmers fear) might have a heart attack if they heard a little 30 year-old minimalism served up with their 300 year-old baroque concertos and 150 year-old orchestral tone poems.

There's no doubt that Philip Glass appeals to a younger crowd -- his concerts tend to be packed with 20- and 30- somethings rather than bluehairs. And for many in the audience, it's the only classical concert they'll attend.

But that's my point. Classical music is a living, breathing art form. Philip Glass is but one of many composers writing well-crafted music that speaks to the people of today in the same way that Handel's connected with 18th century audiences, or Brahms with 19th century concertgoers.

Should Philip Glass be played on the radio? Well, his concerts sell out, his recordings have respectable sales figures, his movies enjoy good circulation, and he's a well-known public figure. If this were any other genre but classical, there wouldn't be any question.

- Ralph

Special shout-out to KPAC, Texas Public Radio, who responded that they program a fair amount of Philip Glass. Yeehaw!

Day 45 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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