Wednesday 8 July 2009

Fuzzy FM...

A recent read of Robert Fink's book "Repeating ourselves" shows a clever link with the rise of minimalism being prepared for by the repetitious listening habits of the 50's/60's middle class (which were then developed by classical listening radio stations), especially to the second rate concerto grosso of second rate 18th century composers. This got me thinking by extension about our own much maligned fuzzy-wuzzy Classic FM.

I have to point out before I really get started that most of the usual arguments levelled at Classic FM I don't really have a problem with. I unlike many do not mind the fact that individual movements are played on their own, sometimes all I want to do is listen to the last movement of Mahler Two, or the opening of Shos 5. I would never (of course) programme a single movement if I was conducting. In fact, as much as I hate naming names I recently played a concert with Edinburgh's Open Orchestra, where we did only the last two movements of Schumann 3, something that felt really odd and slightly lacking(lets not even get into the fact that that there conductor has no idea how to treat trombonists...).

I do not also mind the arguments that say you 'should never switch off when listening, it should always be a serious process'. This is the 21st century. I don't every time I hear the first movement of a symphony think "ooh there's the development". Sometimes I switch on, sometimes I switch off (I'm writing this listening to Rzewski's Windsboro' Cotton Mill Blues and ignoring it...) Background music is a welcome addition to mundane tasks, and long may it continue to be.

No my problem with Classic FM seems to be... well Classic FM. I think the first thing that gets me is that it seems to be ALL about relaxing (Relaxing Classic FM...) As said above I don't mind the idea of using music to relax, but at Classic FM this is all they seem to use they're for, smooth classics, relaxing classics, surely their listeners want to be a bit more energetic (thats when they order '1812' on the requests show...) Relaxing is fine, but to build a whole station around it is mind numbingly irritating. The rest bite always used to be the 'Concert' at the end of the day which had some great works played, some of which were even not relaxing in any way! However even that got taken over to some extent by the fuzzy wuzzy police, and is a shadow of its former self (if it exists at all)

And what do we get to relax? Either Baroque instrumental movements, romantic symphonic middle movements or soppy 'contemporary' diatribes in C Major (more on this in a minute) endlessly repeated on a monthly cycle. Now my personal limited scope of repetoire (i.e not liking pretty much of the above rep) might be making this sections polemic a little impartial. But its not even necisarrily the music. I do begrudgingly admit that some of the stuff Classic FM play is brilliantly written, but its the fact that this is all they seem to play!Even if there is a need for relaxation (which I can get) why not play some new pieces for a change? I've always thought minimalism would work well, it has everything a perspective Classic FM listener would need, tonality, solid rhythm and so on. Or some Tipett, 'child of our time' isn't particularly offensive, and a cracking piece of music with the same check-list as minimalism. But no, we never get imagination, just Mozart.

It's got to the point where when I hear a piece I do like, say for example Dubussy's Prelude I instantly don't like it and switch off just because of the context its placed in (a fuzzy silence either side, and a gentle voiced male commentator sliding us straight into a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso...) whereas I listen to Radio 3 and I get Petroc booming out afterwards. I bloody love it.

Yes, my other hatred, this contemporary classical stuff. Now to clarify I'm a fan of tonality, I believe it still has a big role to play in music of our time. Karl Jenkins I can just about deal with, but people like Joby Talbot et al churning out long repetitive works which just about dodge traditional teleology whilst sticking to C Major and Cello solos (plus framed by the context all ready set out above) is about as suicidal as it gets. As much as I would like a bit of a experimental interlude (but then who would you put in it, Ades?) in the Classic FM Composer-in-residence scheme. However I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

Now this has been (I admit) a unusually negative jeremiad. I must point out that Classic FM has done precisely 4 things for me.

1) It helped me to get to sleep on long cold nights at my Grandad's in the Dales, where it was the only radio station I could get

2) Classic FM was the place where I heard for the first time Moeran's Symphony and fell in love with it (its still my favorite symphony)

3)It once helped me with a pub quiz question about Peter Grimes

4) I accidently switched on one night after an awful day and they had just started playing Howells' Hymnus Paridisi, a absolutely cracking piece and one I shamefully omitted from my blog post about English music earlier in the year which cheered me right up.

Apart from this I get tired instantly of it all. I haven't even gone to talking about the requests show, or the magazine (which is where I DO get annoyed that they only have single movements...). So I will stop typing, and see whats next on the iTunes shuffle I have on at the moment. Its like Classic FM, except with much better music and less Fuzzyness and C Major.

It's John Adams, good.


  1. Interesting piece.

    What annoys me about the playing of single movements, isn't playing them per se (like you, I sometimes do it when I feel like it). Rather, I dislike that often they announce say, Mahler's 5th symphony, and then just play the adagio with out making clear to the listen that there's rather more to it than that. In other words, they're often miss-educating and I have a big problem with that.

  2. Yes that is a very good point, it does has to be made clear that a movement is a single part of a bigger work. Their new CD range is called 'Complete Classics' (or something similar) which you would have thought would be good with good peices and solid orchestras playing them. However there is something about the fact that they have to advertise widely that these are complete works (rather than BBC Music Mag for example which has a reassuring "complete work" in smaller letters just in case) which really irks me. I think for them there is a differance between, as you say "Mahler 5" and "The Complete Mahler 5"

    Also apologies everyone for appauling grammar! Really should check these things...