Running the Gamut 3 – A Thousand and One Lessons

Since July 11, 1991, I’ve been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia. The three-hour program had a simple programming tenant — never repeat a work.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013, from 6-9 am we’ll mark the 1000th program with a live webcast, mini-fundrive, and air messages from our listeners (call 434.207.2120 to leave your message).

To some, broadcasting 3,000 hours of unique works may seem like a silly stunt — or at the very least bad programming. One of my colleagues who’s a program director at a major public radio station told me it was the worst idea ever.

I disagree.

If it was a policy for all of WTJU’s classical department to obsessively march through the repertoire and never look back, then I would agree — that’s bad programming. Great classical music (like great rock, great folk, or great jazz recordings) just seems to get better with repeated listening. And there’s always someone who’s hearing that piece for the first time.

But my three-hour show represents a small part of the broadcast day, so I don’t think there’s any harm done. I’ve learned quite a lot about classical music over the past 1,000 programs, and I hope my listeners have, too.

I’ve come to appreciate the depth and breadth of classical music

Medieval chant sounds nothing like Steve Reich. So which is better? Depends on what you’re listening for. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to each style period on its own terms. Mozart used the orchestra in a different way than Richard Strauss. Both wrote great music — and best of all, I don’t have to choose between them, either.

I’ve come to appreciate the cultural heritage of many nations

Everybody knows that classical music is European. Well, it was for a while — but not as long as you might think. By the late 1600’s there were composers writing sacred music in the New World (mostly in the Spanish colonies). American composers were writing works of substance in the mid-1700s, and Canadian composers soon after. Composers in Australia, South Africa, China, Japan, and other non-European countries have all contributed to the genre. And everyone brings something different to classical music.

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos blended Bach with native folk music. Carlos Chavez injected a subtle Mexican flavor into his works. Tan Dun uses oriental aesthetics to shape his classical compositions. And so on. Every culture adds something to the mix — and it’s a mixture I savor.

I’ve come to appreciate the music of our time

In school, I was never a big fan of what I considered academic atonality. It all sounded like noise. And if that was contemporary music, then I was going to stick with the great works of the past, thank you. Doesn’t anyone know how to write a melody anymore?

Well, it turns out they do — and they’ve been quietly doing so continually throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. Seeking out those tonal composers has become something of a project with me. My Consonant Classical Challenge has profiled over seventy living composers who still use tonality in some fashion.

But I’ve also come to better appreciate those works I didn’t like before. A good definition of noise is unorganized sound. Music is organized sound. But if you can’t hear the organization, music can sound like noise. As my familiarity with classical music has grown over the past 1,000 programs, I can better hear the organization that was always there in those atonal works.

Some I quite like now. Others, I hear as music rather than noise, but its uninspired music. So I still don’t care for those works. Only I now have a more valid reason not to (I think).

I’ve learned that sometimes the best composers aren’t the most famous

Let me qualify that. What I mean is that some of the composers whose works speak most directly to me aren’t the most famous. Franz Joseph Haydn; Alan Hovhaness; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Charles Villiers Stanford; Michael Praetorius, and many more. I’m not going to say they’re the greatest composers of all time, just that their music consistently moves me deeply.

So there you are. If you’ve been a long-time listener (or listened to classical music for any significant length of time), what have you learned?

Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays
Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions
Part 5: A Thousand and One Thanks

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