I’ve got a number of radio stations programmed in my car, and pending my mood I usually try and underscore it with the appropriate music while I drive. I don’t always succeed though. There’s a number of good stations in Berlin, which is a lot less rigidly formatted than the U.S. radio market. But often I can’t get the right groove, or I just don’t find the available music to be intellectually stimulating.
So I end up listening to a lot of talking radio. I purposely don’t use the phrase Talk Radio, a uniquely American media product in which angry people talk about issues without consideration of facts, in an effort to get other people just as angry. No, I listen to Info Radio, a 24-hour German news station, or to NPR World-Wide, which broadcasts here in Berlin. I try BBC periodically, but I just don’t need that much information about African politics. The question of whether I listen to English or German programming is really only driven by whom I’m having a meeting with next – I speak both languages throughout the day, and sometimes it helps me get my linguistics oriented before entering the room.
Occasionally, I will also listen to one of the two local classic music radio stations. Much like Los Angeles, we have two stations in this market – the rather high-brow Kulturradio, and the more plebian Klassik Radio. Both these stations are well programmed. Kulturradio doesn’t just do classical, they’re actually quite close to the U.S. NPR-style mix of programming. They have some good talking radio, but like a lot of mid-market Public Radio stations it features a solid block of classical music as part of its repetoire.
The other station is the aforementioned Klassik Radio, a guilty pleasure for me. I know it is considered low-brow, and I have to admit their breathy slogan spoken in that quasi-sexy spa commercial voice “Bleiben Sie entspannt” is a real turn-off. Sometimes they make it seem like classical music was the original New Age hot tub music.
There’s a lot that a true classical music fan disdains about the station. Forget for a moment that they pick-and-choose their pieces. They won’t play entire symphonies, but instead only the Greatest Hits movements – those minuets or allegros that are well known and loved. And then there are pieces like Ravel’s Bolero, which gets a work-out more often than is comfortable. Worse, they’ll only play accessible composers, none of that difficult stuff or over-complicated arrangements.
But their worst transgression in the mind of an aficionado – and the ultimate reason I like them – is because they play film soundtacks. I hear my dear readers gasping as they reel at the implication of what was just written. John Williams mixed in with Josef Haydn? Danny Elfman intermingled with Franz Schubert? Michael Kamen on the same playlist as god ol’ Freddy Chopin? What is the world coming to?
It’s actually not that far fetched. Allow me to take a personal detour here: It begins with a curmodgeonly record store guy with hairy ears, back in the late 1970s. As an adolescent boy I had recently begun buying music, and was at the Europa Center in downtown Berlin, trying to buy a certain record at Bote & Bock. Let’s forget for a moment that I was trying to find the rather embarrassing “Hooked on Classics”, a remix of everyone’s favorite orchestral pieces as nightmared by Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, resulting in a treble-intense mash with hints of David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain”… So, with a wave toward the wooden racks at the center of the store, the hairy-eared musicologist manning the manual cash register explained to me that calling “all of that” Classical Music was a mistake – you can’t just bunch several centuries of non-Pop and non-Jazz onto one long shelf, and declare it a genre.
He had a point. There are infinite variations, and Renaissance music (for instance) has little to do with the large complex music being created by Russian composers at the beginning of the 20th Century. And his classification stuck with me over the years. What frustrated me about classical music was how seemingly stagnant it appeared. In some way, a certain segment of the listening audience obsesses over playful nuances the way two Grateful Dead tapers might discuss a Garcia solo – these are differences virtually inaudible to a casual participant. Dealing with a grey crowd of grown-ups was somewhat daunting, too. My father helped a lot when he decided to kick-start that particular part of my education by buying me a copy of Who’s Afraid of Classical Music.
On the flip side of the usual crowd, you have music being composed by contemporary musicians that is really hard to listen to. I had dinner with Sean Sheppard a few months ago. He had just conducted a series of pieces here in Berlin that he had written, and in one of the program notes he poked fun at himself – he wrote that he “might commit the ultimate taboo, making the music pretty.” Well, God knows he managed to avoid that particular trespass successfully, but he never told me exactly what would be so terrible about writing pretty music.
So on one side you have stagnant repetition being listened to by the geriatric set, and on the other you have music for the intellectual in-crowd that eludes the rest of us.
Well, a few years ago, when I was still living in Los Angeles, a friend made a rather bold late-night wine-fueled argument that LA is the most important city in the world for classical music. Oh really? His argument was simple – most classical music nowadays is the large orchestral kind, and nowhere in the world are there so many working orchestras as in Hollywood. Why? Well, they’re scoring all the feature films and big TV series. And further, he argued, that Hollywood is the only place where a composer can stretch his creative wings and really write some interesting music.
So I began listening to soundtracks differently, and with newfound respect. I’m not sure whether the need to underscore a story provides the greatest creative opportunity, but the chance to conjure up an original work within certain confines is always a challenge. I have to admit I’ve come to love certain pieces, and would gladly go to see some of them performed live. A family favorite has always been Michael Kamen’s Don Juan De Marco score, and now that the boys are so deeply into the Star Wars lore, I have found new affection for John William’s score. “The March of the Emperor” is now the ring tone reserved for calls from my wife.
Go dig out Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score, and see what I mean. It’s pretty cool.