Meet Classical Music

Usually, when I meet new people and they find out I host classical music on the radio, they ask one to three of the following questions:
  • Do you talk really low and over-articulate every word?
  • Do you actually listen to classical music?
  • Do you think guys meet you and find out what you do and decide you must be boring in bed?
I’ve only been asked that last question once, but someone did actually say those words to me. I didn’t answer. It was rude.

But all three highlight how classical music has a rap for being a hoity-toity institution that no one, except the sexually challenged, actually likes. Back in the day (as in, the early 19th century), most classical composers could make Mick Jagger look like a nun. And some probably would have enjoyed dressing him up as one.

More importantly, I think what people are telling me when they inquire bluntly about my job is that the music doesn’t feel current to them. So to respond to the crux of that roster of questions, here are some tracks that strike me as immediate and quality and moving.

Jonny Greenwood, “Proven Lands”
Jonny Greenwood is not only the BBC’s Composer in Residence and the guy behind much of the emotional tension in There Will Be Blood. He’s also the lead guitarist of a rock band called Radiohead. And that’s how it should be—because back in the 18th century a lot of composers were syphilitic dreamboats. Ladies had to bring their smelling salts to concerts. Later, they had to bring their merkins. I doubt there are many of those in Merkin Hall today, but this track gives off just that air of unleavened rhythmic heaving that previous eras probably felt in a harpsichord.

» Listen to “Proven Lands” at Pretty Much Amazing!

Fred Frith/Stevie Wishart/Carla Kihlstedt, “Time Goes Largo”
The source of the melancholy drone in this track is the hurdy gurdy, also known as a “wheel fiddle.” It looks like a squat violin with a handle attached to a rosined wheel that rubs against the strings. Carla Kihlstedt’s a hell of a violin player, with or without a rosined wheel. Her stuff, both solo and with the group Tin Hat, convincingly melds bluegrass and standards and classical. That may be a marketer’s nightmare, but there’s precedent. George Gershwin brought jazz into the concert hall. Before him, Johann Strauss, Jr., did it with dance music. Classical has never had just one sound. What defines it, above all, is its ability to penetrate into the viscera in ways that a new ringtone just can’t. (Sorry, Fergie, but big girls don’t cry.)

» Listen to “Time Goes Largo” at WFMU’s Beware of the Blog

Arvo Pärt, “Fratres for Violin, String Orchestra, and Percussion”
Arvo Pärt (Announcer Tip No. 1: It’s pronounced PAIRT) is a living Estonian composer who, for reasons I don’t understand, is sometimes holding a bell in photographs. Like a quietly powerful patriarch who only speaks when it’s crucial he be heard, Pärt is known for using no unnecessary notes. That and the rigorously repetitive, meditative quality of his works have made him known as a “holy minimalist.” It is music that stands in for prayer and contemplation and raging.

» Listen to “Fratres for Violin, String Orchestra, and Percussion” at soulblending

Leoš Janáček, “Anxiete indicible (Sur un sentier)”
Leoš Janáček (Announcer Tip No. 2: LAY-ohsh YAN-uh-check) was a real Bohemian composer. That’s to say, he was from Bohemia. His music, like some of the other tracks here, is often both atmospheric and melodic. I can’t pretend to be a one-person focus group, but the veils of sound in Janáček’s music makes feelings sneek up on me. Maybe the composition seems light, but I become richly sad. Like colors in Rothko, red isn’t just red. A black swath shows yellow underneath. If some college student ever starts trying to impress you with comments like the ones I just made, call him pretentious. But believe him.

» Listen to “Anxiete indicible (Sur un sentier)” at motel de moka

Itzhak Perlman, Paganini’ “Caprice No. 1 in E Major”
Nicolo Paganini dedicated some of his music “to the artists,” which is a little funny in retrospect because it was so hard to play almost no one could nail it. More than two centuries later, here’s Itzhak Perlman. He rips this up. We probably know Perlman best from his performances on the soundtracks to Schindler’s List and Brokeback Mountain, but even when he plays this old stuff, it still feels urgent. At a certain level, greatness tells fads to fudge off. Only it doesn’t say fudge. And music from the 18th century—even if it uses no contemporary slang—tells the same truths that were then and will always be understandable. Not to mention, humbling.

» Listen to “Caprice No. 1 in E Major” at IMEEM

blog comments powered by Disqus