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Classic FM radio and the truncating of classical music

Kevin VolansComposer Kevin Volans gave a talk at Ireland’s Contemporary Music Center the other month. During the speech Volans ID’d the United Kingdom’s Classic FM radio service as a key moment in Good Culture’s never ending declension narrative.

First came The Three Tenors (gah), and if that wasn’t enough:

“Then came Classic FM in 1992, set up by an entrepreneurial group to provide a stream of popular classics. Its success was rapidly followed by many others, like South Africa’s Classic FM, which now has slots devoted to wine and lifestyle thus endorsing ‘classical’ music as an adjunct to an upmarket lifestyle, like a sauna, a massage and pedicure, maybe. And because of their computerised playlist, all the short movements of symphonies for example, are given preference – so you may hear endless repeats of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica, but never the great first or last movements! What a nightmare.”

Like lots of other people who blog about classical radio, I agree with Volans’ basic lament: that services like Classic FM have converted the whole Common Practice period of classical music into a vast easy listening stream. I am not sure, however, that the target was ever the “upmarket” consumer so much as the stressed out white collar cubicle dweller. I also find less nightmarish the endless repeats of the Eroica Scherzo. My scary dream would be endless repeats of some of the contemporary composers that Volans quotes or extols, such as Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen (his teacher).

But Volans makes an important point about one impact that the lineup of media forces have had on new classical compositions. They’re much shorter:

“The norm nowadays is to produce little pieces of under 10 minutes, very often under 5 minutes. This is another byproduct of the so-called music industry. The most obvious difference between ‘serious’ music and ‘popular’ music has always been duration. ‘Serious’ music composers always wrote works on average of over 20 minutes. This requires a more complex and taxing technical ability than writing 5 minutes. Writing a 5 minute piece is frankly, a piece of cake. The difference between writing that or a work of 90 minutes is like the difference between designing a 2 bedroom cottage or a 60 storey skyscraper.”

Furthermore:

” . . . now we find even the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) calling for orchestral scores of less than 15 minutes! Do they realise that almost no major piece of the 20th Century would qualify? This is like an international art fair asking for work no larger than 1 metre by 1 metre. Where did this idea come from? Three guesses.”

I’ll say this for Classic FM; the presenters throw in a vocal piece every now and then, which most classical deejays in the USA never do. In any event, whether I agree with everything Volans says, he’s a wonderful composer. Here’s a piece of his. Enjoy.



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One Response to Classic FM radio and the truncating of classical music

  1. satkinsn July 10, 2016 at 5:20 pm #

    About the length thing; maybe so, but I’m not seeing it.

    Just checking some recent listening: Per Norgard’s string quartets 7, 8, 9 and 10 run 15 minutes, 15 minutes, 18 minutes and 13 minutes respectively. John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” is 42 minutes. Andrew Norman’s “Play” is 45 minutes, give or take. 

    More generally, if you’re Morton Feldman, 90 minutes is short, barely gets you started. But not everyone is, or should be, Feldman. Writing music at length is, I suspect, difficult. So is writing short. Length is a very poor indicator of quality, and not much better at defining ambition – the Eroica is wonderful, of course, but so are the Diabelli Variations.

    s.

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