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Classical segregator or savior? The case for Q2, WQXR’s online “living composers” channel


Hallowed New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “Q2” channel is now well over three years old. I am a big fan of the service. It is one of the few places in the classical music radiosphere in the United States where you can consistently listen to a high quality stream of contemporary classical music on a 24/7 basis. Let me dispense with my mixed feelings about classical radio in general before getting to the unqualified praise section of this post.

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

WQXR’s main FM signal in NYC more or less adheres to the cubicle approach, albeit better than most. Consider some of the Tuesday, December 3 schedule. You’ve got your Gluck, your Berlioz, your Chopin, and your Haydn. Looking for some 20th century sounds? There’s Richard Rogers and, to the station’s credit, the neglected composer William Grant Still. But beyond that the adventurous will find little of cheer.

But let us be fair—many classical radio stations barely make ends meet these days. They’ve been dropping like flies recently; see KDB in Santa Barbara, Wilmington Bach in North Carolina, and KXTR-FM in Missouri (now an Internet station). So it is understandable that the survivors have adopted risk averse, narrow format strategies, even if those strategies don’t always save them.

In that context, WQXR’s Q2 is a welcome adaptation and compromise. It is separate from WQXR proper, but still very accessible. You can listen to it via the HD2 channel of WQXR 105.9 FM, or via a 128k audio stream from your desktop, or via iTunes or Tunein.

Q2 has a variety of program hosts, all of whom are passionate and expert about 20th and 21st century classical music. My favorite show is The Brothers Balliett, identical twin composers and performers who say that they “work tirelessly to one-up each other. This drive creates a self-fueling passion to write the best work, listen to the best music, and learn as much as possible.” I strongly recommend reading their “ten point manifesto,” which begins with “We are the Brothers Balliett” and ends with “We believe in the groove.” Then there is “Sample Rate,” which explores “adventurous sonic manipulations,” and “Hammered,” a show dedicated to keyboard music.

As these program descriptions suggest, Q2 plays avant-garde content, but not too much. Lots of wonderful tonal music pervades the stream. Right now the station is broadcasting its “new music countdown.” Q2 listeners were asked to send in their favorite compositions of the last 100 years. They were broadcast through the weekend and into this week. Here are the last ten compositions played (last time I checked):

78. Kaija Saariaho – L’amour de loin
77. Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 7
76. Igor Stravinsky – L’histoire du Soldat
75. Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique
74. John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine
73. Edgard Varese – Ionisation
72. Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Solo Voices
71. Alban Berg – Lyric Suite
70. John Adams – The Chairman Dances
69. György Ligeti – Atmospheres
68. Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 6

In an ideal broadcasting world, these great pieces would stream alongside Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin. But that’s not going to happen any time soon, so I am grateful for Q2 and its innovative bid to keep contemporary classical music alive. You can contribute to WQXR’s Q2 here.

Further reading: a scholar’s assessment of WQXR and its website. We cover social music sharing communities every Monday in our Internet DJ feature.



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