So, you want us to play your new piece...
Over at ArtsJournal.com, the always interesting Greg Sandow has been blogging lately about how contemporary music will help the American classical music scene face the challenge of building new audiences. As recently as the end of the last century, one might have read similar articles, and reasonably asked the writer "are you out of your mind? " No longer. There's plenty of new classical music coming out now that's compelling, exciting, timely and immediately accessible enough to make one hope for a not-too-distant future where the new works and the old works can co-exist on equal footing. I agree with Greg's "modernize or die" prescription, and while I may not live long enough to see it, I'm hopeful for a brilliant living music-based future for classical music.
But what can one little public radio station do for the immediate present? Well, we contribute to the cause on WFCR by playing at least one living composer every day, often more than one. But selecting contemporary music for the radio is tricky. Classical radio programming may not be mutually exclusive from classical concert programming, but neither is it totally congruent. Listeners must make a special commitment to attend a concert, where they willingly wall themselves off from other concerns for a few hours to concentrate on the music. Radio listening is more habitual and casual, and usually accompanies some other activity, such as driving, reading or working. Music that makes demands that can be met in the concert hall may be a literal turn-off on the radio. And radio programmers, if they respect both the music and their listeners, have to make choices about what will work and what won't. I'm not just talking the quality of the music here. If only it were as simple as "good piece in, bad piece out," my job would be a breeze. Alas, there's tons of music that knocks me out off-the-air, but I won't use on-the-air. No offense to the composer; that's show biz, radio division. But if you want to know what I listen for, here's my handy primer on How to Get Your New Work on WFCR:
Keep it brief. We radio folk are much more likely to take a chance on something new if it doesn't threaten to overstay the listeners' patience. How long is too long? That depends. But with rare exceptions, major-length works are going to be a tough sell. Briefer is better; excerptable is also good.
Speak up. Since radio listening is usually a secondary activity, and often has to compete with other noises (cars, talking, etc.), extremely quiet and subtle textures are going to get lost. You don't have to shout, just keep the sound going at an audible level.
Get to the point. If in the first minute of a new piece I don't hear the basic idea — the mood, the rhythm, the texture, whatever — you may have lost your chance for radio stardom. Sorry to be so impatient, but radio is an impatient medium, and even angelically tolerant public radio listeners can't sit around forever waiting for the good stuff. So give it to 'em right away.
Feel the pulse. A good melody never hurts. Bright colors attract attention. And a rich texture feels real good. But if you really want to grab the listener right from the start, and carry him through to the end, give your music a pulse. Rhythmically diffuse music has its beauties in the right hands, but it's hard for the radio listener to follow. You don't have to rush; in fact, the tempo can be downright leisurely. But keep it moving!
Sound good. Obvious, no? But oh, how many otherwise worthy projects have been ruined by inferior sound quality! So please, take as much care with the engineering and production of your music as you took composing and playing it.
Reach out to the audience. To which the corollary is "if you compose music with little audience appeal, I feel no responsibility to provide you with an audience." I don't mean for you to pander or condescend. But if you factor the audience into your artistry, you're more likely to find an audience, including on WFCR. And nothing pleases me more than when listeners are turned on by new things. We're all in this together, so let's work together.
Yet after all that, you might tune in to our classical show and hear new works that exhibit little of the above, yet still make thrilling radio listening. Could it be, then, that our judgments about what to play and what not to play are sometimes subjective, arbitrary and capricious? But of course! It wouldn't be the arts if they weren't.