How do we decide what not to play?
Over the years, many listeners have asked how I decide what classical music to play on WFCR. The answer, in very short, is that if I think some music merits our listeners' attention, I'll play it. But that question comes with an implied corollary: What makes me decide that I'm not going to play something? And are there ever extra-musical reasons to turn something down?
Basically, the reasons for saying "no" are the opposite for the reasons for saying "yes." If I think the music will fail to make a positive impression with our listeners, or will fail to uphold WFCR's reputation for delivering consistent quality, I turn it down. In case you wonder what right I have to judge, it's the right, indeed the responsibility, conferred upon me by NEPR's management. It's a tough and dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and until the end of the year, that someone is me.
But about those extra-musical considerations. Do they ever play a part in keeping something off the air? You heard it first from me: Yes they do, sometimes. If a musician is in the news for real or alleged criminal or offensive acts, that musician comes off our playlist until the situation is cleared up. But how about when music and politics mix? We can all name composers and performers with ugly political beliefs and unsavory associations, Richard Wagner being the most obvious example. In such cases, I take my cues from the broader world of classical music. If a composer's music remains active in the repertoire, or if a musician's recordings continue to thrive in the discography, I'll continue to play them, though I'll deal openly with the negative aspects of the musician's biography on-air.
Musicians are of course as free as anyone else to express their views on politics or any other matter. Why anyone would care what a musician thinks about politics just because he or she is good at music is beyond me, but for the most part, I don't hold it against them. The only exception, and the only thing that will make me refuse to play a musician, is when he or she expresses contempt for the audience. That is the one thing up with which I will not put.
Example? Gladly. When in 2009, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman serenaded his Los Angeles audience with his negative opinion on U.S. foreign policy, he received applause from certain members of the press, though one should not be suprised that The Guardian would opine thusly. Fine. Everyone's got opinions, and though he might preferably have chosen a better way to express them, Zimerman's entitled to his. But when he vowed never to play in the U.S. again, he crossed my red line. If he doesn't want his music to be sullied by having it reach American ears, I will honor his principled position by refusing to put his recordings on WFCR. In other words, his boycott works both ways.
Have I then engaged in censorship? This whole topic came up this morning in a Facebook discussion that followed my posting of this entry on Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog. To catch you up, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein of Düsseldorf recently cancelled Burkhard C. Kosminski's Nazi-filled production of Wagner's Tannhäuser in mid-run, after some audience members were (to quote an earlier Slipped Disc entry) "so severely affected by the production that they had to seek medical treatment." This, Mr. Kosminski says, constitutes censorship.
And I say, no it doesn't. If another company wants to mount Mr. Kosminski's production, he and they are free to do so, and should not be stopped. But the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has free speech rights too. And they extend to deciding what productions they will not mount, even if they said they would. Now, Mr. Kosminski may object to how and why it happened. And the Deutsche Oper am Rhein are certainly open to criticism for their actions. But his cries of "censorship," to my ears, are an insult to artists and journalists who face real suppression and much worse to do their work. We presenters get to decide — have to decide — what we present and what not to present. Question our choices, question our methodologies, question our sanity. But don't question our right to choose, and for whatever reason, to say "no."