Tag: aesthetics

Electroacoustic Music is Not About Sound

A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)

Yes, I do mean this title to be provocative, but my intention is to question some of our priorities and assumptions about composing, not to be polemical or suggest some correct way of composing. Rather, I am sharing some thinking that I have found serves my students and me well. The main thing I want to explore is my own attitude about musical time. Admittedly, this is a huge topic, with whole books and dissertations rightly devoted to it. I can only scratch the surface in a blog post so will just try to (re-)start a conversation about something which seems, strangely, to have become accepted as settled business. While I am at it, I am wondering too about our seeming complacence at having given up control of pitch.

There are basic aspects of compositional thinking that seem to have become almost extinct—particularly, but not exclusively, in the realm of electroacoustic music.   To put it plainly, the ideas of narrative structure and of pitch specificity are now rarely considered. To claim that pitch specificity is important is to risk being labeled a reactionary or, worse yet, conventional. An even more profound change has taken place in our discourse regarding time—the most salient feature of music.  There is the strong suggestion that it is quaint to think of music as a narrative form, unfolding in time. The notion seems so old fashioned that the use of time-denying alternative terminology, adapted from the non-time-based arts, has become accepted practice. (The term sound-object comes to mind.) But, there is still a lot to be gained by an awareness of and the ability to control pitch, no matter how abstract and seemingly “unpitched” musical materials may be. And the unfolding of structure moment by moment is still what music is about—that is, it is about time. I love inventing sounds as much as anyone, but without attention to time we just have sounds. Sound unfolding in time, on the other hand, produces musical thought.  I write this while fully realizing that some readers will find this statement obvious, while others will find it either shortsighted or just plain wrong.

Scrutiny of the nature of sound itself has intensified over the years, especially in the context of electroacoustic music, where the possibilities for the creation and manipulation of sound are truly endless. In fact, the very experience of composing in the studio encourages this focus.  It is an incredibly gratifying experience to work directly with sound, listening to and changing material in real time.  The immediacy of this experience is one of the things that sets work in the studio apart from instrumental writing. This change in our way of making music convinced many composers that a fundamental change was also at hand in the very way in which a piece could embody meaning. The de-emphasis of pitch as the main carrier of an idea, in favor of a more foreground function for timbre, was already well underway in the early 20th century. (The Farben movement in Schoenberg’s Opus 16 is one of the usual examples, while Scelsi demonstrates a further development.) From the 1950s on, the development of technology to capture and manipulate sound accelerated this conceptual transformation.

A mixing console, processor, speaker, video screen and other equipment in Eric Chasalow's music studio.

New materials do demand new approaches, but this does not erase the necessity of paying attention to shaping the narrative. On the contrary, distinctive sounds, each potential in its own perceived space, allow for a new narrative clarity. Just as in film, our more famous time-based cousin, music can have multiple narratives intertwining and adding complexity to the flow of ideas. With crosscutting, flashback, and the like, one can create powerful illusions of nonlinearity, but in no case are we able to escape the reality that time only moves forward.  When we acknowledge this fact, we face the necessity of structuring musical time with great care.  If we do, it is more likely that the music will require and reward an intensified engagement by the listener. This allows us to invoke memory in subtle and powerful ways.

I am very well aware of philosophies that propose to disrupt older notions about musical time, deriving from work that goes back at least to the mid 20th century.  There are tropes on the static as “the eternal” (Messiaen), “moment form” (Stockhausen), and “discontinuity” (my old friend, Jonathan Kramer). It’s just that no matter how many alternative philosophies I encounter, I am always led back to the fact that there is still power in the flow of one moment of experience to the next. It is true that our brains can hold multiple impressions at once, and reorder and reconsider them fluidly. Still, we experience a piece as a succession of elements, and the ordering of these drives the overall experience. If I can get you to care about how time increments in my piece, you will become an engaged listener. Conversely, if I cannot convince you to follow the narrative journey, you will not hear what I have to say. If I only convince you to listen some of the time—to drop in and out of awareness—I have provided, at best, an assemblage of moments rather than a cohesive argument. Another way of thinking about this is in relation to aleatoric relationships we encounter everyday. We may be surrounded by objects, and it is possible that by being awake to our surroundings we will become aware of inherent, even beautiful structures, but it is more likely that the chance experience will not rise above the mundane. (Apologies to John Cage, whom I heard express otherwise many times.) The artist is able to create and reveal meaningful connections where we may not otherwise find them, and for composers, time is the most powerful domain with which to achieve this.

All of the proceeding, however, cannot exist unless listeners allow for the time necessary to experience a piece of music. This has certainly become more and more rare in lives mediated by devices and experienced in five-second chunks. My most naïve idea may be that anyone is willing to concentrate and truly listen through a piece of music at all. If we cannot make this assumption however, we lose musical experience, so to abandon this hope is to abandon music. There is a larger topic here about where we are when we hear music—a concert hall (or alternative formal space) or online, on the subway, in a variety of other informal contexts.

Let’s turn then to the matter of pitch. Why does an increased interest in sound, or the foregrounding of one of its elements, timbre, mean that now pitch is an unimportant element? Am I the only one who finds it ironic that, as we pay such close attention to sound, so little attention is given to pitch specificity? Pitch is such an important part of the complex we call “sound.” Yes, timbre and pitch are not independent in the physical embodiment of a sound, but we can and do think of controlling them independently, and there are many computer tools for doing so. Isn’t ignoring pitch structure a kind of dumbing down? Aren’t we asking listeners to stop paying attention to important details when we fail to make choices regarding pitch? Are we perhaps giving up the precise control of pitch because new technologies make other things easier? Do the newer contexts and new technologies distract us? Perhaps some of us have emerged from the highly politicized prominence of serialism with such distaste for pitch that we feel relief in its seeming erasure.  Perhaps it is just the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the polar opposite. Whatever the reason, I find the lack of attention to pitch impoverishing.  We need every detail, every nuance at our disposal as musicians. Performers know the importance of nuance very well, while composers sometimes are too willing to let some things slide. What is especially great about electroacoustic music though is that it adds to what can make up the layers of meaning in music. Sound of any source and quality can be brought into dialog with any other, creating layers of meaning.  Spoken texts can collide with environmental sounds, familiar instruments, or synthesized sounds that seem completely nonreferential.  Even with these diverse and complex sources, pitch is still very much present and need not be ignored.

While many of my electroacoustic pieces provide good examples of what I am discussing, the beginning of one older piece, Crossing Boundaries (2000), is particularly clear.  The piece layers sounds from many sources, including recordings of spoken text from archives and answering machines, and bits extracted from historical recordings.  It starts with a quick succession of pitched sources that combine into a complex that we can hear as mostly an Eb chord, oscillating between minor and major. The sounds are more fluid and ever-changing than one would get in an instrumental piece, yet the Eb moving to D, then elsewhere (one can follow very specifically) creates a harmonic framework that provides a feeling of upbeat, focusing attention on the entrance of speaking voices.  The whole middle of the piece lingers around G, but as this starts to move, it changes the sense of time passing dramatically. For much of the piece, our attention is on the voices as they speak various short phrases, many of which refer to the concept of time. The piece is, then, an expansion of word-painting technique, and the underpinning for this “metamusical narrative” is a framework of sonorities that is always kaleidoscopic and never imitative of traditional instruments, but where the pitch choices matter a great deal. It is an example of pitch structure shaping the larger musical trajectory of an electroacoustic piece.  I must add too that, in spite of this example, I do not mean to suggest that tempered pitches are necessary. The entire universe of microtonal tunings is wide open, especially with tools that allow our precise control of frequency.

What is true of composing is also true in analysis. One may discover meaningful relationships within a piece by considering the dimension of pitch where one might not expect. My former student, John Mallia, did his dissertation on Varèse’s Poème électronique, a piece most often discussed in terms of the wide array of sound sources it employs. John discussed these too, but much of his work looked at aspects of the structure where harmonic relationships were clearly very important, particularly in shaping phrases.  The analysis even finds precedence for these structures in Varèse’s instrumental pieces. It should not be so surprising that composers carry what they know about music from working with instruments into their studio work. The trick is to use the new context to spawn new musical possibilities, but figuring these out does not require throwing out old concerns as much as we might imagine. There have been numerous examples throughout history of new forms developing through a tension between evolutionary and revolutionary thinking, and there is no reason to think we have somehow recently escaped the value of historical precedents.

Bridging Gastronomy and Art Requires Making Connections

The Basque Culinary Center's building, which is an impressive architectural structure , in front of which is an impressive piece of contemporary sculpture.

The Basque Culinary Center is as much a monument to contemporary art as it is an incubator of ideas for contemporary gastronomy.
(All photos by Ben Houge.)

Spain has been at the forefront of contemporary cuisine for many years, rising to international prominence with Ferran Adrià’s acclaimed and highly influential restaurant elBulli, which closed in 2011. Given my work combining music and food, when I was recruited to transfer to Berklee College of Music’s new campus in Valencia in 2013, this was no small consideration in deciding to accept the gig. (I was brought on to help develop curriculum for and serve as the full time faculty member in the new Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s program, and I also took charge of the video game component of our Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games master’s program.)

As a result of spending two years in Spain, I’ve learned a lot about the key figures in the fascinating gastronomy scene, a recurring theme of which is the desire to reach out and engage with ideas from other artistic disciplines. In fact, merging taste with other sensory experiences was central to the topic—La Vanguardia (the Avant-Garde)—of this year’s Diálogos de Cocina conference. Now in its sixth iteration, this biennial event, founded in 2007, is a product of the Basque Culinary Center and Euro-Toques, and from the beginning the focus has been on interdisciplinary dialog. The conference took place over two days, March 9-10, 2015, at the Basque Culinary Center’s gorgeous new building on the outskirts of San Sebastián (the city with, not coincidentally, the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world). This was the first conference I had attended that was devoted solely to gastronomy—I typically find myself at video game or digital art conferences—but after experiencing the amazing dishes served up at every coffee break, this is the only kind of conference I want to attend from now on.

This is what gets served at a "coffee break" during Diálogos de Cocina

This is what gets served at a “coffee break” during Diálogos de Cocina.

The entire event was focused on the future, investigating ideas from other art forms as well as innovations in technology. Leading crossmodal psychologist Charles Spence was one of the presenters (in fact, it was he who commended the conference to my attention, following my presentation to his Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University last February), and in his fascinating talk, I finally got to hear the sound of Heston Blumenthal’s influential multimedia dish The Sound of the Sea (which was heavier on the gulls than I had expected). Adrian Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore shared some really wacky progress on his efforts to digitize taste and smell; one lucky volunteer got to taste one of Cheok’s digitized flavors via a device he put in his mouth. Other presentations included a history of avant-garde art, an overview of recent technological trends, and a meditation on communication in the internet age, plus panel discussions on the dining experience of the future, socializing culinary innovation, and what experimental art can bring to cooking (and vice versa).

The consistent theme was how to draw on ideas from other creative practices to enhance what’s going on in the kitchen, an investigation many of the participating chefs were already pursuing in their own restaurants.

Members of the board of the Basque Culinary Center were the main hosts of the conference, and one chef whose inviting presence was most continuously felt was Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz.  His smiling demeanor extended throughout the sessions and into a group dinner at the amazing sidrería Zelaia, where he was seen cutting enormous traditional Basque steaks for conference attendees to ensure that everyone felt welcomed. Andoni has pushed Mugaritz to explore unique collaborations over the years, working with musician Felipe Ugarte on the Mugaritz BSO (Banda Sonora Original, or Original Soundtrack) in a project that involved visits to Ethiopia and Peru, developing a food ritual with the choreographers Idoia Zabaleta and Filipa Francisco, and providing the climactic meal to a production by Barcelona-based theater group La Fura dels Baus of Titus Andronicus. After I met him and told him about my food opera project, he invited me back to give a presentation to the whole R&D team at Mugaritz, who received me with warm inquisitiveness last August.

On the other side of the country, on Spain’s northeast coast, the three Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca have also stretched the interdisciplinary boundaries of gastronomy, most notably with an immersive multimedia “gastropera” called El Somni (The Dream). Twelve invited guests were treated to an extravagantly high tech, one-time event on May 6, 2013. The event, documented in a film by Franc Aleu (another presenter at Diálogos de Cocina), was in twelve eclectic movements, each with music by a different composer, ranging from robotic string instruments to traditional Catalan vocalizations to neo-romantic piano, while motion captured 3D graphics were projected onto the table and onto screens surrounding the diners. Sound also plays a role in one of the dishes on their regular menu: an edible reenactment of a goal scored by soccer star Lionel Messi, who plays for the Barcelona hometown team, which comes accompanied by a recorded sports announcer commentary.

Since elBulli closed in 2011, Ferran’s brother Albert Adrià has been working to keep the family business flourishing. Currently there are five Adrià-branded restaurants in Barcelona (all located within a few blocks near the Plaça d’Espanya, dubbed El Barri Adrià), including the acclaimed Tickets, with a new restaurant named Enigma to open soon. But their most recent opening occurred last summer fifty leagues south, in the Balearic island of Ibiza, an ambitious interdisciplinary collaboration with Cirque de Soleil called Heart Ibiza. Advertised as a fusion of gastronomy, music, art, and performance, this elaborate take on dinner theater proposed a tantalizing opportunity to observe how live performance might complement a meal.

But unfortunately the meal I experienced there last summer was less than the sum of its parts. Throughout the restaurant, dancers danced, actors acted, and bodies were painted, while live video feeds illuminated the walls, but servers clashed with dancers in the aisles (resulting in having a drink spilled on me, for which the waiter did not apologize), and the performances were completely out of sync with the dining experience. Halfway through a course, the lights would dim, leaving me to munch in a lurid blue glow, which, as Charles Spence will confirm, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on food. When I could see it, the food was fantastic, served in some imaginatively sculptural tableware, such as a porcelain frog you had to kiss in order to extract the first bite, but the chaotic surroundings, completely out of sync with the meal, prohibited the performance from enhancing the dining experience. Some issues may be a result of poor logistics and layout (despite reassurances to the contrary, I missed a lot of what was happening on a stage around a corner), but I suspect that the very presence of live performers in the restaurant inherently distracts from the meal on the table.

Ibiza is also home to Paco Roncero’s infamous Sublimotion. Representatives from InHedit, the Madrid-based company that provided some of Roncero’s technology, shared the stage with Adrian Cheok at Diálogos de Cocina to discuss the use of new interfaces in gastronomy. The cost of the technology is surely one reason Sublimotion proudly proclaims itself to be the most expensive restaurant in the world, although I have to say that this elitist stance is anathema to my goals as an artist. But fortunately I already had the Sublimotion experience when I visited Ultraviolet, Paul Pariet’s innovative multimedia restaurant in Shanghai that Sublimotion has been widely derided for having plagiarized.

As Ultraviolet demonstrates, Spain does not hold a monopoly on multimedia dining experiences. Ultraviolet seats ten people per night for a twenty-two course meal in a room that has been outfitted with video projectors, a sound system, and a mechanism to waft in different smells throughout the evening. Back in 2012, my experience at Ultraviolet was wonderful, including a few truly transcendent moments. The one that sticks with me the most was the most understated: a simple slice of bread in meunière sauce with a few truffle slices, experienced in a projected forest, while subtle ambient sound played in the background, a profound synergy of the senses that remains for me a benchmark of what can be achieved in this arena.

But I must point out another course that exemplifies the pitfalls in trying to bridge the worlds of gastronomy and art. Towards the end of the meal, there was a riff on traditional gazpacho (in the world of food, Spain is never far away) that involved two different elixirs separated by an edible shot glass. As the dish was served with a lighthearted “Olé” and flamenco music began to play, the video screens metamorphosed to display not an idyllic Iberian landscape or a boisterous cervecería, but Picasso’s devastating Guernica, commemorating the horrific slaughter of civilians in a Nationalist bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War. When I first saw the painting in 1998 at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, I was somberly transfixed for twenty minutes. Projecting it on the walls of a restaurant as a shorthand for Spanishness was an egregious miscalculation, insensitive to the language of art, but more important, to the tragedy depicted.

I think all of these examples suggest that, as we’re moving beyond the mere novelty of pairing sound or visuals with a meal, the focus needs to shift to what is being communicated by the resulting amalgamation; it’s not enough to simply put things side by side, to project a painting or dance in the aisles next to a diner. The languages of art and food are very different, and in many cases artists and chefs seem to be talking past each other. I think the key is to look beyond the end product of a meal or a performance or a composition to examine the processes and considerations and motivations that produced it. Despite the pervasive trend for chefs to develop dishes that visually evoke famous artworks, we should be thinking not about how a plate of food looks like a painting, but about how the work of a chef is like the work of an artist. This is where fruitful interdisciplinary conversations can occur.

At Ultraviolet, as well as in El Somni, which prominently features a 3D animation of Michelangelo’s iconic David (at one point depicted in flagrante delicto, and later shown shattering to pieces), a famous artwork is reproduced to serve as a cipher for art. I understand this impetus; for much of my career in the video game industry, I’ve observed a desire for games to be taken more seriously, to aspire to the artistic credibility and cultural respectability of film, and sometimes that means invoking the conventions of cinema in cut scenes, casting, and marketing. But in fact, in gastronomy as well as in games, these ciphers are unnecessary.

I lived in Shanghai for six years, from 2004 to 2010, and during this time, Paul Pairet was my favorite chef. When I first conceived my food opera project, back in 2006, I had his innovative cooking at his first Shanghai restaurant, Jade on 36, in mind. The food was spectacular, iconoclastic, playful, but with a serious rigor, and wildly inventive: candied foie gras on a stick, ice cream disguised in a lemon rind, sardine mousse served in tin cans. It dawned on me that the experience I was enjoying was exactly the reason I went to new music concerts, to have my preconceptions shaken, to fully engage my senses to interrogate and evaluate new stimuli, not relying on conventions of naming or presentation or other culturally learned tropes. That was when I made the leap, realizing that the kind of music system I was then designing for Ubisoft (as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar) could be equally applied to the unpredictable, real-time input of the dining room, highlighting and harmonizing with the music inherent in the meal, responding to its intrinsic rhythms. Ultraviolet opened much later (in May 2012, about a week after my first food opera at Harvard), but by recognizing a parallel creative process, one that, like music, unfolds over time, I already saw the tremendous potential of pairing music with food in a way that builds on the language of each.

Having completed my two-year appointment in Valencia, I returned to Berklee’s Boston campus this fall, and I now teach music programming in the Electronic Production and Design department. One of the perks of being back in the Boston area is being able to attend Harvard’s fantastic Science and Cooking Lecture Series, which has been host to a parade of luminaries from the culinary world over the past six years. A few weeks ago I got to meet up with Andoni Luis Aduriz once again, while he and one of his chefs, Ramón Perisé, were in town to present a fascinating talk on science and emotion as part of the series.

The next day, I organized a Berklee tour for the two of them, showing them some of the fun musical gadgets we have in the EPD department before visiting the new studio facilities in Berklee’s brand new building at 160 Massachusetts Avenue. As part of the tour, my boss, EPD Department Chair Michael Bierylo, demoed a Moog System 55 synthesizer. My take on the recent resurgence of interest in modular synths is that, in comparison to the vast array of sounds available as plug-ins in today’s digital audio workstations, the constraints of an analog modular rig help focus creativity. While this may have been the first time he’d seen a Moog synth, Andoni immediately recognized this concept, the notion of freedom within limitations, as being just as true of his work in the kitchen. Identifying these kinds of correspondences is what makes working at the intersection of different practices so fascinating and why I have been incorporating these ideas into my classes, to teach students about creativity and innovation by drawing parallels to other disciplines.

The last stop on our Berklee tour was the cafeteria in our new building. The previous cafeteria (a former hotel swimming pool, I’m told) had a longstanding tradition of being converted every evening into a performance venue for student ensembles, so when designing the new cafeteria, the priorities were inverted: instead of a cafeteria that also serves as concert hall, we built a concert hall that doubles as a cafeteria. Seeing Andoni and Ramón in that space, I recognized it as a perfect embodiment of the ideals of interdisciplinary collaboration. By accommodating the concerns of two different creative practices, the potential of each is expanded, and a welcoming space emerges, awaiting unforeseeable new expressions.

Andoni and Ramón at the Berklee Cafeteria

Andoni and Ramón visiting the Berklee Cafeteria.

Tasting Notes

A group of people sitting around a long table with whisky snifters in front of them in a darkly lit room.

All the folks at this table are about to taste Chivas’s Ultimate Cask Collection, but when they do so they will also be listening, on headphones, to music that was specifically created to bring out certain taste sensations in the whisky. Can what they’re listening to affect their perception of what they are tasting? Chivas thinks so. (All photos courtesy Chivas Regal.)

A few weeks ago, I wrote some music to accompany a whisky. The premiere was the unveiling of the Chivas Regal 18 Ultimate Cask Collection at an event in London, hosted by Chivas Master Blender Colin Scott and chef Jozef Youssef. The music was not there to simply provide background ambiance to a swanky event; my objective was to change the way the whisky tastes.

Jozef Youssef is the founder of Kitchen Theory, a London-based group whose experimental pop-up dinners explore the frontiers of science and gastronomy. I met him at one of their Synaesthesia dinners last April, which drew from the growing field of crossmodal psychology to examine how the senses can overlap even in those who don’t experience classic synaesthesia.

At the whisky launch event, Youssef guided participants through a series of experiments designed to provide new perspectives on the whisky. Chivas Regal 18 is a blended Scotch whisky in which each component has been aged for at least 18 years. The Ultimate Cask Collection is a reimagining of Chivas Regal 18 that has been aged in American oak, resulting in pronounced vanilla, caramel, and orange marmalade notes. Some of these experiments one might expect at a whisky tasting, observing how dilution, temperature, and aroma affect one’s impressions. Less expected might be the texture cube I first experienced at Synaesthesia, with different materials (from velvet to velcro) on each face, allowing imbibers to experience how different tactile sensations affected their experience of taste. And similarly unorthodox was the experiment that involved listening to two musical textures while sipping; one was designed to bring out the sweet notes in the whisky, while the other emphasized its bitter qualities. Composing these textures was my job.

Jozef Youssef standing and holding a carafe of whisky as participants seating at a table look on.

Jozef Youssef guides folks through a whisky tasting featuring sound.

I actually do a lot of this kind of thing. Most of my work these days involves exploring correspondences between music and food in a series of audio-gustatory events that I call “food operas.” I’ve collaborated with a couple of chefs in recent years, and I wrote a detailed article about three events I did with Boston-area chef Jason Bond that was published in NewMusicBox in 2013. Since then, I’ve also branched out into composing music for wine and, as in the aforementioned event, whisky. Over the summer I taught a class to students in Berklee College of Music’s Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s program that probed the real-time technology and aesthetics behind these events; students presented their final projects alongside an eight-course tasting menu at Quique Dacosta’s Michelin-starred restaurant El Poblet in Valencia, Spain. My next food opera is a collaboration with St. Paul-based new music ensemble Zeitgeist, which will premiere in the spring.

The original inspiration for my food opera project was the idea of using real-time music deployment techniques borrowed from my work designing audio for video games over the past twenty years to score the indeterminate events of the dining room. I sought to apply recent technical advancements in games as well as ideas from the discipline of sound installation (e.g., a big multichannel speaker array to deliver sound to diners) to achieve an unprecedented level of synchronization between the senses of taste and hearing. It’s been a fascinating challenge to think about what kinds of sounds go with what kinds of foods, in a way that heightens diners’ sensory awareness of the music as well as the meal.

Since I started working on the project, I’ve become aware of a growing body of work in the field of psychology that explores crossmodal links between the senses. At the forefront of this field is a psychologist named Charles Spence, who heads up the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. His recent book The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Cooking, co-authored with Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, is a wonderful compendium of the occasionally outlandish research being undertaken in this burgeoning field. His work has been prominently featured in the press (in The New Yorker’s current “Food Issue,” for example, and several times on NPR), and he has served as consultant to celebrity chefs including Heston Blumenthal, whose Sound of the Sea dish, introduced in 2007 at his renowned three Michelin star restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England, is probably the most famous pairing of sound with food. This seafood dish, plated to resemble foam on a slice of sandy beach, is served with an iPod in a conch shell, its protruding headphones immersing diners in ocean sounds as they eat, a byproduct of some of the sound pairing experiments the two conducted together. Spence has also collaborated with Jozef Youssef, and his research formed the backbone of Kitchen Theory’s Synaesthesia dinners.

Spence is widely cited for asserting that, by playing different sounds, “we’re able to show that we can change the experience in [the] mouth by about 5 or 10 percent,” as he told NPR. He goes so far as to assert that sound can be employed to fight obesity, removing sugar from foods and sonically making up for the lost sweetness.

I had a chance to meet Spence when I visited Oxford last February to present my work to his Crossmodal Research Lab. My friend Janice Wang, who helped out with my Bondir food operas, recently moved from Boston to Oxford to pursue her PhD in Spence’s group. Her own research was recently featured in the Financial Times, in an article entitled, “I Use Music to Change How Food Tastes.” Janice is also president of the Oxford University Blind Wine Tasting Society, which, at the time of my last visit, had recently administered a crushing defeat to rival Cambridge University. While I was in town, Janice and I collaborated on an event at the delightfully cozy 1855 Wine Bar in Oxford, working with sommelier Alistair Cooper to pair six different wines with six different musical textures. She also accompanied me on my visit to Kitchen Theory and introduced me to Jozef Youssef in person.

Janice is part of a group who identify themselves as Crossmodalists, committed to promoting experiences that engage and reinforce the links between all the senses. Perhaps due to the influence of figures like Spence and Blumenthal, there seems to be quite a scene for crossmodal dining in the UK at the moment, and music figures prominently. I attended one of this group’s rehearsals last April, which included a parade of scents, live piano, an edible painting, and choreography that responded to flavor—a fascinating mix.

Dining is a profoundly multi-sensory experience. A lot of times we might describe a good meal strictly in terms of taste, but in fact eating involves all of the senses, and psychologists are quantifying to what extent this is true. Smell is the most obvious supporting sense, but also the feel of the silverware, the color of the plate, the food’s appearance, even the mood of the diner, all of these elements combine to affect our perception of a meal. Even after food enters the mouth, temperature and texture merge with taste in our evaluation of a dish. In Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman’s book, I learned that we actually have two different senses of smell: the orthonasal is what we typically think of as “smell,” applying to external odors in our environment, whereas the retronasal is concerned with what is already in the mouth and is thought to have evolved independently and much earlier. This is one reason (alongside aeration) that sommeliers sometimes slurp wine, to aid in retronasal evaluation.

Sound plays a huge role in eating. Studies show that loud sounds dull our sense of taste, which may explain why airplane food tastes so bland, and why people order more tomato juice on planes, as umami flavors are the most resilient to volume. The sound of mastication also has been shown to affect our perception of an item’s freshness, improving the impression of carrots and potato chips. To me, all of these observations underscore the notion that developing sound to pair with food represents an exciting new arena for aesthetic expression.

Three people at a table wearing headphones and sipping whisky

Applying the role that sound has in affecting taste perception to drinking whisky.

My mandate for the Chivas event was very specific, and so these whisky textures represent my first attempt to write music that explicitly drew on the crossmodal psychology research. As Charles Spence will tell you, high frequency sounds have been shown to make things taste sweeter, while low frequency sounds (low brass, in Spence’s experiments) make them more bitter. My textures are short, simple, and very consistent throughout their short durations, attempting to hew closely to the script, although I still wanted to provide a bit more musical interest than a static sustained tone. They are similar enough that useful comparisons can be made where they diverge.

My sweet texture is built from recordings of a flute, a clarinet, and wind chimes. The two-voice main melodic part is in short diatonic phrases, slow and legato, a type of phrasing I often use to create a sense of peaceful, suspended time. The motion is largely stepwise, the harmonies consonant, predominantly thirds and sixths. There may be a slight evocation of the type of traditional melodies one might expect to hear in the Scottish highlands, albeit in fragments. In the background is a slow moving harmonic pad to provide a bit of context, and wind chimes tinkle throughout. There’s no steady pulse. The overall impression should be of stability and resolution with mellow timbres in a floating, high register.

In my bitter texture, the overall frequency range is much lower, as the cello takes the dominant role, playing much more aggressively and roughly than anything in the sweet texture. The cello part is broken into short, intermittent phrases, similar to the lead part in the sweet texture, and similarly in two voices, as it’s all double stops, but here there is a steady pulse, and phrases tend to emphasize more dissonant intervals. Wood blocks and temple bells further emphasize the pulse, while a low drone underneath provides a harmonic reference point. Rather than emphasize brass, as in Spence’s study, I chose to use sounds relating to wood, as the bitter elements were also linked to the whisky’s having been aged in American oak casks, and I wanted to bring out that quality as well.

There’s a question that could be raised about linking the sound of wood (woody resonance of string instruments, sound of struck wood) to the taste of wood (oak). On one hand, we might say that the taste and sound are not related at the level of sensation, that one does not necessarily evoke the other. On the other, we might observe that most humans have learned to associate these things through a lifetime of interaction with wood. The question of what’s learned or culturally conditioned as opposed to what’s innate comes up all the time in designing these pairings.

As I’ve learned more about the psychological approach to the dining experience, I’ve wondered a lot about the point at which the work of the researcher ends and the work of the artist begins. Whereas in a lab experiment, one might want to isolate certain parameters of a taste experience, a lot of times as a composer, I’m trying to blend and merge and complement. Rather than dealing with pure tastes like sweet or bitter, I’m typically interested in a complete dish that has balanced flavors and textures, thinking how music can join in as another set of ingredients. It’s usually not my objective to simply replicate a dish in sound, but to complement and transform it, guided by my experience writing music to accompany dance or video games. In a way, maybe the rules of psychological association are like the rules of music theory, serving as a reference point for a composer, a framework or a palette that can then be applied, twisted, or inverted to far ranging aesthetic ends.

A group of beakers filled with various types of Chivas whisky.

Ultimately a satisfying aesthetic experience—whether eating a meal, savoring a glass of whisky, listening to a piece of music, or participating in a synaesthetic immersion that involves all of the above—must be more than an experiment.

Dotting Dots

Colorful bokeh

Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr.

My early relationship to music was, for lack of a better term, pantheistic. I worshipped most jazz trumpet players—from Charlie Shavers to Miles Davis, from Woody Shaw to Barbara Donald. And I don’t use the term worship lightly. I’m not describing the typical process of transcribing solos or modeling my dress or stage presence after heroes. It went far, far beyond that point. I used the legends surrounding these players in the same way people use scriptural allegory as a basis for a moral and just life.

That’s a little tongue in cheek, but only a little. The fact of the matter is that, growing up, I had little or no contact with the greater world of music outside of magazines, books, and records. My imagination used these sources to mythologize my favorite players. And the few musicians I was meeting at jam sessions who had had contact with larger-than-life personalities like Miles et al. did nothing to dispel my romantic vision.

After finishing my undergraduate degree and still very much under my enhanced impression of jazz musicians, I began spending time with Ron Miles while doing my master’s degree at the University of Denver. Ron has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting trumpet players of his generation, a fantastic teacher, and perhaps the nicest human being in jazz music. I don’t think it would be fair for me to claim to be his student; partially because our time together wasn’t structured in that way, but mostly because he worked hard to make me feel as if we were peers, even when I argued to the contrary. Of course, the lack of student-teacher dynamic didn’t affect how much I learned from him in that short period of time.

After my first short trip to New York, I saw Ron. He was interested in my impressions and, at length, I told him various stories about which trumpet players I felt were “ripping off” material from others and which I thought were really original. His reply, after a long pause, produced such a radical swing in my thinking that I tend to visualize it, now, as a tectonic plate shift. He said:

None of that matters. In the grand scheme of things, we’re all just dots on dots on dots on dots on dots.

I recognize that, taken out of context, it sounds nihilistic. And I probably would have dismissed it as such long ago but, with Ron, pessimism is an anomaly.

The essential truth in his statement is that we should not mistake reality for the presentation of a stylized world. The importance we attach to the physical presence of a human being who plays music can far outweigh how we view the work they produce and their acts outside of that world, creating a hierarchy that ultimately limits how we are able to interact with (and ultimately learn from) each other. Why did Ron treat me as a peer instead of as a student? Because I think that’s how he viewed me. I think that’s how he views everyone. We were just two people sharing knowledge about a similar interest. His attitude had more to do with equality of effort than hierarchy of success: everyone’s just a dot.

I started from scratch after this meeting. I stopped practicing trumpet under the weight of worship and started playing trumpet to see what I could add to the conversation. I was free to follow what I heard in my head, not as a challenge to the tradition of jazz trumpet, but as an extension of the idea of innovation on which it is based. While not feeling cocky about my ability, I appreciated that there may be a certain language that I could develop that would add to the grand conversation around the tradition and capability of the instrument. It was both exciting and daunting, the kind of experience in which you see how much work has been laid out before you and you’re almost giddy with the prospect of beginning—not with a goal in mind, but simply so you can enjoy the process as much as those before you did. The wonderful joy of realizing you’re a dot.

Never the Same Twice

“As time went on a dreadful thing happened to him: one thing had become to him as good as another.”
—Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen), “The Poet” from Seven Gothic Tales (1934), p. 330.

As was probably to be expected, opinions in the punditocracy were all over the map following last week’s announcement that New York City Opera would have to cancel the remainder of its 2013-2014 season unless seven million dollars in funding could be raised by the end of September, as well as the entirety of the 2014-2015 season unless an additional thirteen million were raised by the end of this year. As someone who is always eager to experience something new, I hope that the company will see its way out of this financial impasse and devote itself even more strongly to presenting new operas by American composers—something I wish they had been able to do more of in recent years. (There are no American operas scheduled for the 2013-2014 season.)
But rather than entering this particular extremely overcrowded fray, I’d like to address an issue that was raised by Ned Canty, a pro-opera commenter who chimed in on a well-stated essay by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera featuring a fabulous title (“Giving Money to the Arts Does Not Make You Evil”):

I hope that one day some of the folks who dismiss opera so easily go to one. And if they don’t like it, I hope they go to two or three more. (Nobody goes to see one movie, doesn’t like it, then gives up on all movies. Ace Ventura 2 is not The Godfather. Yet people do this with opera all the time.)


When John Cage was asked what his favorite this was to listen to, he claimed it was an open window.

Canty, I think, hits the nail on the head here when it comes to how people’s misconceptions of experiences inform their judgment. In fact, I’ll go further and say that you could just as easily replace the word “opera” with the words “new music” and find similar, if not worse, misconceptions. Yet of course the irony is that even though no two operas are identical to one another, there definitely is common stylistic ground—especially for operas staged by a specific opera company—that an audience will immediately discern, whereas with “new music” all bets are off, by design. The whole point of “new music” is that it is a new experience. Ideally, it should never be the same twice. Admittedly many ensembles and venues program works that, like the aforementioned opera companies, also have discernible stylistic similarities. But they shouldn’t. What makes attending a premiere performance the most exciting concert event that you can experience is the fact that you don’t know what you are going to hear until the music is played. Which is why it ultimately makes no sense when people claim not to like new music. New music can theoretically be anything from this to this to this. The more it unsettles and challenges your assumptions about what it could be, the more it is “new music”, like this. And, believe it or not, it can even be this!

Indeed, contrary to the assessment made in the Isak Dinesen quote with which I began this essay, getting past one’s own judgments and being completely open and willing to listen to anything, offers the widest range of aesthetic experiences imaginable. And that is the lesson of new music.

Stockhausen and Terror

Nicholas Isherwood

Nicholas Isherwood

It has been nearly twelve years since composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made his infamous remarks on the September 11 attacks. Urging us to “adjust our brains,” he called them “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

Naturally, a lot of people were upset about these words. To be fair, Stockhausen also acknowledged that the attacks were a crime (because the victims could not consent to the performance), and the work of Lucifer (a cosmic villain in his personal mythos). This context, however, was missing from most accounts of Stockhausen’s comments.

Those remarks certainly seemed extraordinarily tone-deaf at the time, if nothing else. In a letter to The New York Times, sculptor Richard Serra condemned them for what he saw as “the aestheticization of terror.” After the fact, however, others have come to find a kernel of meaning in Stockhausen’s oddly detached musings. In New York magazine more recently, English professor Terry Castle connects Stockhausen to the 18th-century cult of the Sublime and the history of artworks about war and disaster (the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic, Picasso’s Guernica, etc.).

Castle hits upon something that Serra (and a lot of others) missed, which is that violence and terror are already thoroughly aestheticized–in music, movies, books, television, video games, and so on. In the world of new music, there were so many pieces written about 9/11 in the wake of the event that it almost became its own genre. Most of these pieces seemed to yearn for a kind of catharsis. (I remember there being a lot of talk about “healing.”) But for me at least, many of these works seemed quite mawkish, and none of them really effectively touched the true horror of the event. Stockhausen’s comments are horrifying–it is horrifying to think that an act of terror could be a work of art–but they at least offer an explanation.

These comments were on my mind recently after hearing Nicholas Isherwood perform Stockhausen’s Capricorn for bass voice and electronics in Los Angeles last Saturday. (Full disclosure: I helped organize this performance.) Isherwood was the avatar of Lucifer in Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht and worked closely with the composer for many years. After hearing Capricorn and talking to Isherwood about the piece, I felt like I understood something I had been missing about Stockhausen as a composer. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy his music before, but I think I made the same category error that many people make, in lumping him together with the other Darmstadt school composers–Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono. Certainly there is a shared sensibility there, and he certainly spoke the language, but I’m not sure that Stockhausen was quite as attached to abstraction for abstraction’s sake. The performances I’ve heard that focus on the abstractions often fall flat–they, too, seem oddly detached.

Isherwood’s performance of Capricorn, on the other hand, was incredibly visceral. At every moment, it threatens to envelop and overwhelm you, and the overall effect is transformational. (“Whenever we hear sounds, we are changed. We are no longer the same.”) Seen in this light, Stockhausen’s obsession with massive and impractical works, like the absurd Helicopter String Quartet, seems less driven by ego and more motivated by a fervent desire for change. Through music, through aesthetics, perhaps another world is possible. He wants us to adjust our brains. And maybe we should.

A Matter of Taste

After the news of Elliott Carter’s passing earlier this week, I was quite moved by the outpouring of tributes to the composer that I encountered through social media. Obviously my window to the world through social media is skewed toward new music nerds, but even so, I have to admit I was slightly surprised at the extent of the outpouring. Among many of my new music friends, Carter was a figure who was more begrudgingly admired than universally adored, though this seemed to be changing in recent years. It says something about Carter’s musical imagination that even those who professed to dislike his work had a favorite piece by him.

It also got me thinking about the limits of what we can do as composers to advocate for our own music. When our music is poorly or (worse) indifferently received, we may perceive it as a failure of presentation, contextualization, education, or marketing. The audience just didn’t have the right frame of reference. Or, maybe we think the problem is the music itself. Maybe it was too intricate, too subtle, too esoteric. Maybe it was flawed, or just plain bad.

Most of the discussion around what to do about the state of new music today seems to vacillate between these two proposals. Change the music, or change the stuff around the music. I should say that I’m an advocate of both of these plans in certain situations. But I also wonder if there is a natural limit to what these changes are capable of. Maybe it doesn’t come down to intelligence or education. Maybe it comes down to aesthetics, or to put it more bluntly, maybe it’s a matter of taste.

For example, lots of people like spicy food, including me. But I wouldn’t call someone misinformed for not liking spicy food, and just because that person dislikes a particular spicy dish, doesn’t mean that it’s not well-made. Dissonance in music is similar–some like it mild, others want a jar of hot sauce on hand at all times. Maybe this seems obvious, but the difference is that dissonance still offends people in ways that spicy food doesn’t. No one insists that chefs should stop making spicy food, or that spicy food has ruined gourmet cuisine forever.

The idea that some music is an “acquired taste” is not exactly new, but I hope we can learn to avoid those annoyingly classist mistaken assumptions that often ride along with other acquired tastes. Not everyone will like Carter’s music, or mine, or yours, and that’s okay.

If There Are To Be Lines

“It’s a beautiful thing, […] a beautiful little scientific concoction, but it doesn’t move me. It doesn’t speak to me. It’s not art. […] Science cannot be art. It’s a contradiction in terms.”
—Amanda Filipacchi, Vapor (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 71

“I would rather spend the rest of my life trying without success than succeed at anything else.”
—Ibid, p. 15.

I still believe that, as a listener, it is my duty to be open to any and all possible sonic encounters, and by extension I have tried to be as open to other sensory experiences as well (visual, olfactory, culinary, etc.). Nevertheless, I am very much aware that no matter what, there will still be barriers despite my most valiant attempt at aesthetic neutrality. Some would argue that it is neurologically impossible to tune yourself out in order to truly perceive someone else’s thoughts—I won’t go there because I’m not a scientist and I think that examining art from a scientific point of view just produces statistics and doesn’t really help with aesthetic appreciation. But I will concede that there are insurmountable limitations which have to do with our own temporal existence.

I spent most of last week recovering from an illness which left me unable to perform any of my normal activities. The first few days were so bad that I was not even able to listen to music. Even quasi-ambient listening without paying close attention was too much for me. I actually couldn’t bear it. It was like every one of my appetites was on hiatus; I couldn’t read and mostly was uninterested in eating, nor was I able to think about my own music or anything else of consequence. But halfway through the week, the ability to listen was the first thing that came back, and I made up for lost time with a vengeance, listening practically non-stop for several days.

When it seemed like I was definitely on the mend, I used the opportunity of long, uninterrupted time to again listen to La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, this time the 6 ½-hour performance from 1987 that was released on DVD. I wish I had my full energy at the time, since I could definitely perceive some important differences between this performance and the 1981 5-hour performance of WTP that was released on LP by Gramavision in the 1980s, with which I am far more familiar. Of course, if I had my full energy back I would have had tons of other things to do and would not have taken the time to probe the details of performances of such extreme duration. So it might be a very long time before I ever figure this out.

This realization definitely makes a case for musical compositions of somewhat shorter duration. It definitely bursts the bubble of my fantasy about 24-hour pieces. After being at home for six days straight, I can’t imagine wanting to do any single activity—even listening to music—for that long a stretch. But it also leads to a realization that the joy of listening is ultimately far more rewarding than any post-listening analytical frame I would want to put on it. Even if I never figure out the precise details of what made the 1987 performance of WTP different from the 1981 performance, it doesn’t really matter. The pieces of music I have recently been treasuring more than most other things on this planet—whether it’s the solo clavichord music of C.P.E. Bach, chamber music of Brahms and Debussy, the art songs of Dora Pejačević, the small group improvisations of Charles Mingus, or the Number Pieces of John Cage—are amazing whether I totally understand how they are put together or not.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because art is not science. While I will continue to fight against aesthetic lines of any kind, I’ll acknowledge the line between science and art. If there must be lines, as so many people seem to believe, that is the one line I can’t and won’t try to knock down.

Guerilla Tactics

Last week’s post about boredom provoked more than a few responses, including a comment of my own that I’d like to expand upon this week:

I’ve always thought there’s a guerilla, Trojan horse element to composing in that if it’s not entertaining or compelling enough for most people, the goods (whatever they may be) aren’t going to make it past the front gate.

This comment of my own in turn provoked a response from composer/performer (performer/composer?) Matt Marks, who pointed out the connotation of trickery in my analogy and rightly decried the unfortunately common attitude that artists must wrap their wares in appealing wrappings in order to make the “medicine” go down—which gives me an excellent opportunity to discuss just who or what is being tricked in my Trojan horse analogy, and why.

In my analogy (hence, developing metaphor) concerning aesthetic appreciation, the “goods” are not some component of the aesthetic experience—not some meaning or intellectual payload—but rather the entire experience of appreciating a work of art, in all its completeness. The defenses that must be overcome—and the reason that the goods must be smuggled—are the well-girded ramparts of our rational minds, which seek to understand by dividing, disassembling, dissecting, and ultimately killing the fullness of the aesthetic experience. While it’s true that our capacity for rational understanding can yield immense insight in partnership with the intuitive mind, it must always begin from the fullness of experience for those insights to be grounded. For the same reason that a joke that must be explained to us is never funny, aesthetic appreciation likewise seems to require a predominantly intuitive connection and a similar suspension of rational analysis (even if such analysis is subsequently engaged).

What is the Trojan horse that draws us into the intuitive world of art, and makes for an understanding greater than rational apprehension alone can provide for? It’s the raw, sensual nature of the experience itself, which remains stubbornly indivisible, unique, and present.

So if we fail to fully engage the senses of our listeners, we can’t hope to do anything beyond that because art is not primarily to be explained, it is to be experienced. No one will be able to appreciate the subtle interplay of my music’s counterpoint (and the deeper resonances that this recognition makes manifest) if my counterpoint is muddy and poorly realized; and no one will be able to connect with any of the threads in your film—emotional, intellectual, or what have you—if the shots are drab, poorly lit, and unappealing.

That’s far from suggesting that artists “smuggle in” the meaning of their work inside a sugar-coated shell of appealing surface textures and mindless bubblegum; what I’m suggesting is that artists smuggle in the entire experience of their works—meaning included—by appealing to the senses and preconscious modes of understanding that are not rational. This is a rejection of the pernicious “take your medicine” attitude which Matt took care to point out, but so too is it a rejection of an equally harmful attitude: one which imagines that art and most unlikely of all, music, might be apprehended on any deep level without engaging the senses in a powerful way.

This is why I’m always at a loss when asked to explain my music in words. Although I am more than happy to use words to set up a listening experience, or to provoke other insights, I can’t explain it, precisely because the meaning of the music is not expressible in words, and is not separable from the experience of listening. In order to get my meaning across I can’t rely on rational argument any more than I could hope to elicit guffaws by carefully explaining a joke; I have to rely on the sensations that my music creates, which can sneak around the rational mind without being caught. By providing for compelling sensations and making sure that my structural designs clearly project themselves on the audible level, I have a better chance of causing someone to feel a genuine connection with the music, which is the beginning of a deeper relationship in which rational inquiry becomes engaged as well.

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio

Photos of six participants in radio discussion

Members of the board of directors of AMPPR (pictured left to right): Beverley Ervine (Photo by Jo McCarty); Chris Kohtz; Boyce Lancaster (Photo by Jo McCarty); Robert J. Lurtsema; Deanne Poulos (Photo by David Crowle); and Lois Reitzes.

A conversation with:

Beverley Ervine, Outgoing AMPPR President (1997-2000) and Current VP Sponsorship (until 2003) and Music Director of WOSU-FM (Columbus, OH);

Chris Kohtz, AMPPR Board Member (until 2002) and Program Director of WGUC-FM (Cincinnati, OH);

Boyce Lancaster, Host on WOSU-FM;

Robert J. Lurtsema, AMPPR VP Publications (until 2003) and the Host of Morning Pro Musica, WGBH-FM (Boston MA);
Deanne Poulos, AMPPR Treasurer and Publicity Director (Until 2002) and Announcer and PSA Director for KBAQ-FM (Phoenix AZ-area);

and Lois Reitzes, Outgoing VP Programming (1997-2000) for AMPPR and Program Director and Announcer at WABE-FM (Atlanta, GA).

Recorded by Frank J. Oteri during the 2000 Conference of the American Music Personnel in Public Radio
at the Double Tree Hotel om New Orleans, LA
Wednesday, February 16, 2000, 3:00-5:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Karyn Joaquino

How is Public Radio Different from Commercial Radio?

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #1

LOIS REITZES (WABE-FM, Atlanta GA): I got into radio by way of being an insomniac. This is for real! I grew up in Chicago, and I was a very serious, young piano student, and always had a lot of difficulty sleeping. And I used to turn on my little General Electric clock radio and listen to WFMT, or what in those days was WEFM, and I would feel sufficiently soothed, and eventually relaxed, but more often stimulated by hearing the repertoire, and I don’t know how much sleep I gained, but I sure enriched my perspective and my listening.
FRANK J. OTERI: How long have you been on the air at this point?
LOIS REITZES: Two years in graduate school, and 20 years in Atlanta. Half my life…
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA (WGBH-FM, Boston MA): I was in the Navy, about 18 years old, doing a job I really didn’t like at all in French Morocco. And passed an open Quonset hut, there was some beautiful music coming out of the door and poked my head in to see what it was. And the guy inside said, “Are you applying for the announcer’s job?” and I said, “Yes.” [Everyone laughs.] And he said, “There’s some news copy in the other room. Want to read it over?” and I went in and read it over and he said, “Okay, you’re on the air in 5 minutes.” And I read the news cast, he said “What outfit are you with? I’ll get you transferred.” The next day I was in the radio station, a month later, he got word that his mother was dying back in Texas so they sent him back. And I then, having the most experience at that time, became the station manager. [Everyone laughs.] When I got out of the Navy, some 3 _ years later, with the G.I. Bill of Rights, I went to college, and decided to study journalism and communication arts, which included theater and radio. And when I couldn’t get a job as an actor or director, and I still needed money to buy paints and canvas and clay and stuff, I’d go down to the local radio station, apply, work 3 or 4 months, as an announcer, and then I’d go back to my studio or to a play. Tht’s how I got into Morning Pro Musica. I’d planned on being there about 2 or 3 months, weekends. And they asked me to take weekdays, but I didn’t want to give up the weekends, so I started doing it 7 days a week. And that was almost 29 years ago. I forgot to leave.

FRANK J. OTERI: [Laughs.] Have you always been in Boston?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Almost always in Boston, yeah. French Morocco, Rhode Island, New York and Boston, but primarily in Boston.
CHRIS KOHTZ (WGUC-FM, Cincinnati OH): I was an undergraduate music student at university and was looking for a job. I saw a 3×5 card hanging on the bulletin board at the music school. It said, “Announcer wanted weekends.” And I thought, what the heck. My mom said it would get me in trouble. So I applied and got the job, and did a variety of things there. Mostly I was interested in it because as a musician I had a lot of listening lessons, and this was an access to a great classical library. And I kept doing various positions and things while I was trying to be a professional musician and a few years ago, they were just tugging each other to be full time, so I opted for radio. So, I’ve just been climbing the ladder and trying different suits on, so to speak, over the last 13 years.
BOYCE LANCASTER (WOSU-FM, Columbus OH): Music might be one of the few things in which it’s more difficult to make a living than radio. My story’s not nearly as romantic as those. My dad was in television my entire life. I grew up climbing around the prop room, and playing with the cameras and punching buttons. All I ever wanted to do was be a broadcaster. My parents were both very active in music, they were both church musicians, they were majors in broadcasting and music in college. So I had an exposure to both fields and a love for music of many different kinds. So I just got into speech classes and doing little radio things in high school, and took broadcasting courses and said, “I’m going to be a radio announcer” and now I are one! [FJO laughs.] About as straightforward as you can get… It’s all I ever wanted to do, and I was lucky enough to be able to do it.
FRANK J. OTERI: How long have you been doing it?
BOYCE LANCASTER: About 25 years, including a couple of years in college.
BEVERLEY ERVINE (also WOSU-FM): Well, I’m in a position that I never had dreamed or aspired to, initially. I thought that I would end up teaching music at a college someday. While I was working on my doctorate in music history and literature at Ohio State University, I was a graduate teaching associate, which I thrived on, but it paid very poorly. And so, to compensate that, I was hired by a public library in one of the suburbs of Columbus as the audio-visual cataloger. And my duties increased. I was typing the 3×5 cards and all that kind of stuff. And it got to the point where I was doing all the purchasing of the recordings. And eventually it worked into a full-time gig, because once I left Ohio State, they just said “We’d like to keep you full time,” and I kept just learning more and more and moving up through the ranks. Well, I began to realize that unless I went back to school to get an MLA I was at a dead end course, and at that time I didn’t want to go back to school. So I thought, what can I do? And I found out about a job opening at WOSU, they were looking for an announcer, and I said, what the heck, I’ll go give it a try. Well, I was pitiful. [laughs] I blew every word that I could imagine. So I did not get that job. But it just so happened that Mary Hoffman, the program director was quite taken by me and my skills that I had acquired as a librarian, and my knowledge of the music, and she decided that she wanted to create a position for that, and hire someone to come in, because we were moving into the CD age, and she knew I had all the contacts. So, eventually, I got a phone call out of the blue one day: “We’re creating this position of a music librarian at WOSU. And I want you to apply for the job.” So I did, I got it, and next thing you know, she wanted me to upgrade and get us into the computer age, so with my expertise, we wrote the program. And one thing led to another through the years. I’ve evolved now to be the music director. But I have never been on the air.
BOYCE LANCASTER: One time you’ve been on the air. You did one fundraising gig with me. And that’s the best I could get her in there… it was one time.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did you meet each other there?
BEVERLEY ERVINE: Yes, we met at the station. And got married at the station!
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow! Was the wedding on the air?

BOYCE LANCASTER: We talked about it a lot on the air. Now, we didn’t honeymoon at the station, but a few people tried… They said, “Get ‘em to stay here.”
DEANNE POULOS (KBAQ-FM, Phoenix AZ): Well, I’m a neophyte in radio, compared to everybody. [Laughs.] I’m an insomniac also, but that had nothing to do with radio. I was living in Los Angeles, and a friend worked for BMG Classics/RCA Victor. They were trying to create a position of National Classical Radio Promoter, and he thought I was gregarious and just sort of brought me in to do it. In that capacity, I met the music director of a small station in a suburb of Los Angeles… He had a person doing a musical theater show just one hour a week, and I had a background in that, because I used to perform. So he enlisted me to do that, taught me how to run the board, and I made a lot of mistakes. [Laughs.] Well, I knew I wanted to return home to Phoenix, my hometown, so I went to the AMPPR Conference in 1994, and made it a point to meet the people from the local classical station. When I did move back to Phoenix, I just kept in communicado, was hired part time and then was just hired full time a year ago. So I’ve been doing this about 3 years.
LOIS REITZES: I just wanted to add that, as the fulfillment of my insomnia dreams, when I entered graduate school at Indiana University, I intended to go for a PhD in musicology and a minor in piano, and I knew they had a wonderful classical station there that also was an NPR affiliate. And I was feeling a rare surge of self confidence, knocked on the door and said, “Need any announcers?” thinking “Wouldn’t that be fun? They just get to play the music they love all day.” And the program director said he didn’t have any openings but they always take auditions. And I auditioned, and I was quite delighted that he told me that, well, actually, they probably could use one more employee. And I was hired, and in my years there, I came to realize that as privileged as I felt to be studying music there, I was a whole lot more comfortable and felt that I was making a greater impact on people’s lives in my small way at the radio station than I could have felt, I mean, at that time, than I would have felt coming up with some esoteric dissertation topic on why a mordent should be played a little bit differently during Rossini‘s time than it was in Bach‘s! [Everyone laughs.] And this is not in any way meant to be anti-intellectual. I think there’s a need and a reason for advanced academics. I’m married to one, and adore him, but in our little way, you know, we make people’s lives better, happier. How many other jobs do people have where those with whom you interact call and thank you for what you do? And so, 2 years there, and then 20 years in Atlanta where we moved because of my husband’s job. And this is it, this is the only place I’ll ever be.
BOYCE LANCASTER: Most of you have spent most of your radio life in public broadcasting. And the greatest percentage of mine has now been there. But I started out in a little town in South Carolina playing southern gospel music, and went someplace else and played jazz, and went someplace else and spun records in nightclubs and played rock and roll. And I went into radio to get into radio. But Mary Hoffman has really caused problems for us…[Everyone laughs.] She knew we were going to get married, I think, before we did. I was hired as a technician. I was hired by the operations department. I was running equipment and things of this nature, and one day… “Would you be willing to do a couple of newscasts?” “Sure.” She said, “Well, why don’t you make me a demo tape?” So I made a demo tape and she comes back and says, “Well, I think we can do this.” And just one thing led to another, “Would you sit in for this person for an hour? Would you…” And then the morning host was leaving for Oregon. “Would you like to do that for him for a while until we hire somebody?” And one thing led to another, and she, over the objection, I think, and the suggestion of the manager, decided to hire me full time anyway. As he said, I wouldn’t last 6 months. And I’ve been working on that now for about 15 years. He’s retired, so I don’t have to deal with that anymore.
DEANNE POULOS: It sounds as though nobody studied broadcasting.
BOYCE LANCASTER: I think I’m the only one.
BOYCE LANCASTER: I went to school for broadcasting, but none of us, I don’t think, were looking to do what we’re doing.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And, with regard to that, I’d say that, you know, I get a lot of people now who want to know how you get into radio. And I tell them my suggestion would be, go down to whatever radio station, get a job and start working. Four years of college preparing you for a career in broadcasting is really 4 years where you won’t get anywhere near as much experience as you get in 4 months working at a radio station.

Choosing Music

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #2

FRANK J. OTERI: Lois remarked about how great it is to be able to play the music you love all day long, which leads me to a loaded question. How do you choose the music you broadcast?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Oh, boy. [Everyone laughs.]
BOYCE LANCASTER: You have a second tape for that?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: How much time you got left on this tape?
LOIS REITZES: I should say that I naively thought… [Laughs.] I was under the ridiculous impression that that’s what people do. [Laughs.] How do we choose what we do? Well, I would say that I was fortunate to have a wonderful predecessor at WABE who was the founding program director, Jonathan Phelps, and he was not from a music background. He was an actor and an experienced radio personality who had a wonderful feel for music and mood: people’s needs at different times of day. And I think that was the governing idea. You want to make the day worth facing. So, in the morning, you try to select things that make people want to face the day. And that’s pretty much been the philosophy.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, no Isle of the Dead at 9:00 A.M. [Everyone laughs.]
LOIS REITZES: No Isle of the Dead, few Shostakovich symphonies… But over the years there have been other concerns, dictates, making way for news headlines, learning more about people’s body clocks and rhythms and needs and the fact that they like to hear the weather forecasts, and a human every 10 minutes or so, in the early morning while toothbrushing and shaving, or in their cars. At my station, we start out with shorter, brighter works… We’re dual format, so we have Morning Edition… classical music and NPR News, although I consider jazz American classical music, so we have jazz as well, albeit a very conservative variety. I also think that, perhaps the most important thing Jonathan impressed upon me was not to program according to my own taste, that that’s really what could be the downfall of the station or format. But, I do want to say that it was an important evolutionary process for me, coming out of school with the conservatory and then a graduate school intensive kind of background and people were terribly snobbish and parochial, to realizing genuine, but naïve, listeners, music lovers, what that listener might expect from a radio station. And that’s pretty much to present a more balanced and perhaps more standard menu but with enough room to enhance it and expand their scope of listening.
CHRIS KOHTZ: I can boil this personal philosophy, programming philosophy down to a nutshell. That is on one hand, understand who your audience is, and on the other hand, knowing that, look for the best of the best. That when you know who your audience is and how you want to feed that audience, then be supercritical about what you feed them. You know, if, for example, they like Beethoven’s 5th, then we go out of our way to make sure we find the best Beethoven 5ths that we can offer. You could argue that, well, you should give them every one that’s out there. Well, that’s okay, but then if you play each one, you know, if John Eliot Gardiner‘s Beethoven 5th is superb, but you play every one that’s currently available on recording, John Eliot’s not going to come around for another 2 years, even if we play it on a once a month rotation.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: But who’s the god that determines which is the best?
CHRIS KOHTZ: Somebody has to. When I say that, it tends to raise people’s hackles, but I don’t think I’m raising the standard above what anybody here would do. I mean, there are some recordings that are just plain god-awful performances. The horns are out of tune, there are missed entrances, the audio is very poor. That’s what I’m saying about the best of the best. I’m not getting into saying, “Boy, you know, that 1st movement is better because he takes the accelerando more excitingly than anybody else.” Those are those kind of superficial things that everybody at an individual station could argue. We’re not so much worried about that. We’re just talking about, look at the formatics of radio, look at the technical needs, and make sure that those recordings meet those needs.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I started Morning Pro Musica back in 1971 at the time when kids were being told by teachers to hide under their desks in case there was an atomic bomb attack. And when families literally went to bed not knowing if they were going to wake up in the morning, and kids had nightmares. And it became pretty obvious that what was needed was a sort of dependability and a reliability that could only be given by the same person doing the same thing 7 days a week, kind of like another member of the family. But what I determined right away, thanks to the audience, was that they really wanted familiar cadences, familiar music, in the early hours, and so I started off with early music, because that was easy for people to take. And save the more modern stuff for closer to noon, at the end of the program, at the end of the 5 hours. And, you know, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was play Antheil or Penderecki or Stockhausen at 7 o’clock in the morning. I’d be guilty of somebody stabbing themselves in the eye with their own toothbrush… [FJO laughs.] And the one thing that I did not want to do was to inflict my own personal taste on my audience. Once a year, I grant myself a weekend in which I play my own personal favorites. That weekend is closer to my own birthday, it’s kind of a birthday present to myself. And the rest of the year it’s dictated by enormous numbers of lists that I’ve put together over the years of anniversaries and birthdays and holidays of countries and tons and tons of things that make the selection of a piece of music relevant. So that for any 5 hours, I’ve got maybe 15, 20 hours of music from which I can select a 5-hour program. And I treat every program as a 5-hour canvas on which I paint in music and try endlessly to make a musical masterpiece each day. As far as playing the best, the performance that I think might be the best possible one might be something somebody else hates. And so for years, before our library got too big to do it, I used to just play the recording that was played longest ago, if we had 5 or 6 recordings of the same piece of music. Now we’ve got too many recordings, probably 30 or 40 recordings of the Beethoven 5th, or something like that, so it gets harder to do. But…
CHRIS KOHTZ: So you do have to make some sort of determination, though. Like you said, 40 is too many. So you have to draw a line somewhere. That’s all I’m getting at.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And, yeah, usually there will be a raison d’être for which version I choose. The one thing that I do now is I give the newest recording in the library preference over all others. If it hasn’t been aired, then that’s the one that gets played. The other thing is, over the course of the years, I have played tons of music that I can’t stand. Music I really do not like at all.
BOYCE LANCASTER: You have no choice.
FRANK J. OTERI: Are you willing to give us an example?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: There’s a lot of contemporary music that I think will fall by the wayside. And…
FRANK J. OTERI: But you feel the need to play it.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Yeah. One was Henry Brant‘s 88th birthday, or whatever it was… Obviously, I played Henry Brant. I didn’t care for it, but I played it. That’s probably doing him something of a disservice. He’s one of a great many. I could name a dozen more composers whose music I like even less. The thing is that I’m serving a very, very wide audience, and as a result, some of the things I like, I know they’re going to hate. When I did the raga series, when I went to India for 6 weeks in 1981, and brought back a whole series of recordings of interviews with all of the top Indian instrumentalists in an effort to fulfill a quest of learning about raga, and I did an 18 week series of raga on Saturday mornings.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And there were an enormous number of people who absolutely hated it at the start. But by the end of the 18 weeks, I got a letters from people saying, “How do I get such and such recording?” And I looked back, and they were the same people who wrote denouncing the whole thing to begin with.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, he said something that I thought was a really interesting jumping off point for us. “Sometimes I play music I don’t like,” and when I asked for an example he gave a contemporary composer, and normally what I get from people is, “Well, I like the contemporary music, but I can’t play this, because I feel like my audience can’t deal with it.” But what he was saying was exactly the reverse, which I thought was quite wonderful.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I am a contemporary composer, too.
BOYCE LANCASTER: Do you play your own music?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: On occasion I have… [Everyone laughs.] Very rarely, but there have been a couple of times because it was mandated by an anniversary or something like that, I’ve played something…
FRANK J. OTERI: On your birthday? [Everyone laughs.]
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: No, it was actually part of a theme program. I played my Monarch Suite in a program on butterflies.

Broadcasting Contemporary Music

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #3

FRANK J. OTERI: Has an American composer, a living American composer’s music been featured on your station this week?
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s very good to hear.
FRANK J. OTERI: How much contemporary music gets played on your station?
FRANK J. OTERI: Why isn’t there more? Why can’t there be more?
CHRIS KOHTZ: Could I ask to be more specific? Because this comes up year after year, and we say contemporary music, and contemporary music – do you mean music by living composers?
CHRIS KOHTZ: 20th Century music?
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, now we can’t really say 20th century anymore, can we?
DEANNE POULOS: 21st century music…
FRANK J. OTERI: How about this? Music written by someone living or by someone who was alive during your lifetime or the lifetime of someone you know who’s older than you… I compiled this list a couple of years ago… [someone waves “The Century List” at him] Oh my God, there it is. I divided contemporary music into live Americans, dead Americans, live foreigners, and dead foreigners. [Everyone laughs.]
BOYCE LANCASTER: Pretty well covers the whole thing.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. The idea was that all of the music was by someone whom you or someone in your life could have known.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I play a lot of it, and I mix it in as much as I possibly can. I’ve started programs off with John Cage. At 7 o’clock in the morning.
BOYCE LANCASTER: Four and a half minutes of dead air? [Everyone laughs.]
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Actually, I’ve been practicing that and I’ve got it down to 2 minutes. [Everyone laughs.] I skip the repeats.
CHRIS KOHTZ: It shows my ignorance, but we actually have a recording in our library of 4’33” and I’ve never looked into it to see who, what, when, where, why, and I know that in John Cage’s aesthetic, there’s a reason for that, but still, I just have to laugh when I look at the recording of that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, if it’s a live recording, you get the audience sound.
CHRIS KOHTZ: Even if it’s not a live recording, there’s ambience, there’s everything else.
LOIS REITZES: How do you fit John Cage into early music? I thought you played Renaissance music
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I had on a piece of music by John Cage which was very quiet and pleasant.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, was that one of the choral pieces done by the Ars Nova Vocal Ensemble? Their Cage disc is so great…
CHRIS KOHTZ: …And Stephen Drury‘s recording, the piano stuff, there’s really nice, beautiful stuff on there. The piece In a Landscape, it’s a beautiful Satie-esque little tune.
FRANK J. OTERI: And some of those Number Pieces are just heavenly…
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I try to mix as much as I can. I stick with music in the early hours that is of an early type, but not necessarily “early.”
LOIS REITZES: I see. So it doesn’t have to be confined to a particular century.
BOYCE LANCASTER: …It can have that flavor…
CHRIS KOHTZ: …very much the sound of the piece…
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Arvo Pärt is a good example.

Mixing the Repertoire

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #4

BOYCE LANCASTER: Intellectual programming works to a degree, but the problem is if you don’t program with your ear, then… I mean, that’s the only way the audience is listening, most of them, anyway. Except for the guy that calls me up and complains if I don’t play the piece from which this piece was derived immediately before I play this piece. I got that call last week, because I didn’t play the Bach that Schoenberg used for his pieces. And, but what I’m finding is, and I’ve done a lot of theme shows, and sometimes a theme show works very nicely for me, depending, anniversaries, et cetera, I’m finding because of the nature of the morning where we have, we now have NPR headlines from 01 to 04, three times in the morning, and traffic starting at 6:20 and running ’til 9 o’clock every 10 minutes, so it’s really hard to work a lot of things in there. But what I’m finding is the variety really evokes phone calls. People call up, “I’ve never heard this. I like that. I pay attention to this.” And they call in and they always ask about the things they don’t know, obviously. And we’re getting a lot of new recordings in. We’ve gotten some new women composers in of late, and the names escape me right now.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: I’m always looking for unusual and new recordings. You know, I don’t need another copy of Beethoven 5th, or whatever, unless there’s just something, you know, extraordinary about it. But, generally speaking, we do get calls from people who are excited about discovering Beethoven’s 5th for the first time, and then it’s wonderful when you hear that, because all of a sudden you kind of get re-interested and renewed yourself.
BOYCE LANCASTER: Revitalized, because you know that there’s somebody hearing Pachelbel‘s Canon for the first time ever.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: But on the other hand, you have your sophisticated audience out there who is still wanting those new challenges, and they’re wanting to experience new things, and so my goal is to find, you know, a nice variety of all styles and find a way to balance it all.
FRANK J. OTERI: But, I would dare say, that for somebody, you know, who isn’t familiar, say, with Pachelbel’s Canon or with Beethoven’s 5th, or with any pieces that we all know as masterpieces, they’ll be coming to that music with an equal footing with, say, In a Landscape by Cage, or, you know, a piece by Steve Reich or a piece by John Adams
FRANK J. OTERI: I love the music of Peteris Vasks! Discovering his music for the first time on equal footing with Beethoven is really interesting. You know, we’re dealing with a level playing field, by and large.
FRANK J. OTERI: We always bemoan the fact that there were these years when there wasn’t a lot of music education, and now, people don’t know who anybody is, but, you know, in a way we can do something good with this.
BOYCE LANCASTER: There’s so much radio out there and there are so many sources for music in this day and age, as opposed to the ’50’s, ’60’s, ’70’s, when your sources were limited. Now they get it everywhere and they get it in commercials, they get it in television, they get it all over the place. So it doesn’t frighten them anymore if they hear something that John Lennon wrote or George Harrison or Ravi Shankar or someone wrote next to something written in the 1700’s: it doesn’t scare them. Or even koto music and things of that nature… People call up if you tell them there’s a reason to be concerned about it. When I quit warning people that new music was coming, I quit getting negative phone calls about it.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Every 3 months or so, I set one Saturday aside for a program of music and stories for kids. Morning Pro Musica is for kids always, but in this series I focus on stories and music for kids. I just finished doing one for May, coming up in May, and one of the pieces I scheduled is by Gubaidulina, her piece Musical Toys, a series of some 12 or 18 short piano pieces… That’s very contemporary, and the music is very contemporary. But I know it’s the kids who listen to this, the ones I’m after, ages 3 to 9, they’re still sponges. They’re still sopping up stuff that’s brand new, and nobody has told them what they’re supposed to like, or not like, so they’ll judge for themselves. And they’ll judge that, I think on the same program I have the Rossini Boutique Fantasque, and they’ll just, you know, one is equal to the other. And that’s really the way music should be judged.
CHRIS KOHTZ: You asked how much 20th Century music we play. Just in raw numbers, I was doing some analysis a while ago, if you just add up the raw numbers of pieces and go with the basic time periods, we play more 20th Century music than we do music from the Baroque.
BOYCE LANCASTER: I love playing the Finnish music that’s coming out now. There’s so much music coming out of Radio Nederlands, and those sources. Some of these new recordings, and sometimes, maybe for 6:30 in the morning, this symphony by somebody written in 1994 is really tough, but that 3 _ minute Scherzo from it is just perfect between a couple of other selections, so maybe you give somebody the incentive to do a little exploring, and so you can sneak something in and play something that you may otherwise need to be played in the evening, or in the early mornings. Early morning programming, as you have told us, is a unique animal. It’s a very different animal from other radio…

How Radio Differs from Other Media

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #5

FRANK J. OTERI: One thing that people don’t pay a lot of attention to is the mechanics of radio. People outside of radio fail to understand the whole notion of duration and time units, and how music, depending on how long or how short it is, is perceived differently when you’re listening to a radio, than, say, when you’re in a concert hall. Or when you’re at home listening to a recording that you’ve chosen on your own or whether you’re sitting with an instrument and actually playing the music for yourself. On radio, I think you can get away with playing something that’s thornier if it’s shorter. Would that be a fair assessment to make?
BEVERLEY ERVINE: Not always. No, because…
LOIS REITZES: You can’t “turn off” a concert hall.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but you can walk out.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: The interesting thing about radio is that some people forget they have an on/off button. You know, if there’s something that they really dislike, they’d rather call and grumble about it and tell you, you know, “I hated that 5 minute piece and you’re never gonna get another dollar from me again.”
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s very important. We’re membership organizations and so, if you’re doing a good job of endearing yourself to the audience and serving them well, then they take it very personally.
Yes, they do.
And like you said, you can get away with something thornier because it’s shorter. One of the reasons you can get away with it is because through audiences coming and going, you will hit far fewer people with it. So you might raise the hackles of fewer people.
It depends on how thorny it is.
Even weather affects the listeners. Some of our music is pre-programmed. And if for some reason someone picks a piece in a minor key, and it happens to be gray and dreary outside that day… you know, we couldn’t predict that 6 weeks ago, but the program is written down and the station airs it, and then we get calls from people¥ “Oh, please don’t play that. You’re just depressing me so badly.” [FJO laughs.] It’s just really hard. There’re so many variables that come into play. And of course, people listen so intently and so individually…
Music is a very personal thing. And they take their radio very personally.
I have to submit my programming for the program guide four months ahead of time.
BOYCE LANCASTER: See, that’s the delight of my program. I have 2 pieces that I program for the guide, and the rest of it I do the day before. So I can walk into the studio, sit down and say this is just not going to work. And trash the whole thing and start over. Sometimes I’ll walk over, pull a stack out, or, you know… Leonard Bernstein died: trash the whole thing, grab Lenny stuff…
What is the significance of letting people know ahead of time what’s going to be heard?
It’s tradition.
In our case, we’ve had listeners who have been members for 30 years. When we stopped doing that, for the same reasons that Robert was citing, you know, we still have people that complain about it. But it all boils down to, everything that we’ve been talking about, listener phone calls, listener comments, it’s all anecdotal evidence, and I have yet to hear of any single instance where it wasn’t less than 1 percent of the people listening exactly at the moment.
Well, and if you cut back a little on what you list, and give yourself some latitude to be able to plug some things in and make some changes, then they still have their list. It’s not quite as comprehensive, but heaven help me if I had to do five hours of listings of air fare. It would be a page long every day. These little bitty 9-minute and 8-minute things…
Boy, has he touched on something that’s very important in this discussion! Deanne’s younger, Chris, I guess is younger. But when most of us here started out, there was no Internet, there were no CDs, no VCRs… There are so many other means of deriving your listening pleasure and accessing it that it really has forced us to, if not redefine but reexamine our role in providing the menu, the balanced diet, whatever, of music, and it is very difficult, because until you decide “Who am I playing this for? To whom am I directing this?” you can go mad.
I made that decision when I first started doing Morning Pro Musica. Almost 29 years ago. I told people, “I’m doing a 5-hour program of classical music for children every day.” And they always kind of chuckle, because I said “for children.” But that, in fact, was the audience that I was trying to reach. I knew that if families listened, kids would get the music. Ultimately they would probably reject it in favor of the music of their peers, but then later they’d come back to it. Now I have people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who come up to me and tell me, you know, “the reason I’m teaching music,” or, “the reason I play” or “the reason I love music” and so on is Morning Pro Musica. And that’s my reward.
LOIS REITZES: But, more broadly speaking, don’t you think that what you meant was that it was the naivety and openness of children that you wish all listeners, including adults, had.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I suppose. But what I really wanted… I didn’t have classical music when I grew up. And the only music I had was the Hit Parade. And I wanted to be able to provide a service where kids could hear a program where they might get “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” from Snow White on the very same program that they might get Tchaikovsky, you know, and evaluate them equally. And I’ve been doing that through the years.

What Doesn’t Belong on Public Radio?

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #6

CHRIS KOHTZ: When it comes back to specifically the thorny music, something that maybe demands listening so that you get something out of it or understand it or appreciate it a little more… (With few exceptions, and in Robert J.‘s case, tradition has, he’s crafted, to some degree, a significant audience, who sits down and listens to the program, or pays more attention…) But for the most part, we are broadcasters, and it is a passive listening medium, and that’s where we make those decisions. I used to be a composer, I dabbled, and I just didn’t feel that it was fair to throw, in some ways, to, something I crafted so much time, and, you know, you gotta sit down and listen and understand how dadadadada. Radio can’t meet those needs, and sometimes I think it’s unfair. Because somebody will hear John Cage: noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, John Cage. And they may never come back to John Cage again. I’m not saying that means don’t do it. But that’s how people use radio in a lot of the cases, and so it’s, you’re in a difficult position, that if you throw this out there, et cetera, so you make a lengthy introduction, maybe a lot of people didn’t hear it. They just heard music that they didn’t like.
BOYCE LANCASTER: It’s a very difficult position to find yourself in. There have been more than, there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve found myself in the middle of the first movement of a 3 movement piece I’ve programmed, and said, “This is not going… I can’t let this finish.” It sounded great and looked good in the office. Now that I’m actually sitting here listening to it with them…
CHRIS KOHTZ: The guilt of your listeners is upon you! [Everyone laughs.]
BOYCE LANCASTER: You know, I’m wilting under this, and off it goes after the 1st movement, because it was not the right decision.
FRANK J. OTERI: Some loaded questions, then. What won’t you play?
BEVERLEY ERVINE: Aleatoric music.
LOIS REITZES: Atonal music.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: We won’t put anything profane on. We’re very careful about that…
DEANNE POULOS: You mean lyrics?
DEANNE POULOS: Okay. Fine, because some people mean instrumentation.
FRANK J. OTERI: So no Carmina Burana? [Everyone laughs]
BOYCE LANCASTER: Well, there’s a poem. Touché!

CHRIS KOHTZ: We just don’t have any people who know all the Latin.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: Well, there’s some that you look at, and you just look at the title of the piece, and you just say, I can’t read this on the air. So, consequently, the piece might be nice, but you could never really announce it, because, you know, it’s very questionable.
FRANK J. OTERI: Any other purely musical things you wouldn’t air?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Yeah. I probably have the most eclectic programming of any so-called classical music program in the country. I’ve played Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jesus Christ Superstar, tons of jazz, and new age…but I will not play most, I’d say 99 percent, of hard rock and rap.
FRANK J. OTERI: Have you ever played any rap?
FRANK J. OTERI: What did you play?
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I don’t know. I mean, I played it at the time but I have no recollection of what it was.
BOYCE LANCASTER: The closest thing I played to rap was Classical Rap by Peter Schickele.
LOIS REITZES: Schickele is wonderful. That is so great! [Laughs.]
CHRIS KOHTZ: Now, that’s something we would never play, just ’cause I think for Schickele it’s just not his normal quality.
BOYCE LANCASTER: It’s not his normal quality, but it’s funny.
LOIS REITZES: It’s so clever.
BOYCE LANCASTER: And in the right setting, it’s kind of like, we got a Saturday morning coming up, and we’re playing Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, it’s a program called “A Picture Paints a Thousand Words.” And it’s on Lincoln’s birthday, so it’s the Copland Lincoln Portrait, the Schickele Bach Portrait, and so on from there. But, yeah, it’s timing…
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Frank, I should clarify playing the rap. I played that during fundraising, and it was an example of what we did NOT play on the air.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a sample, if you don’t give us money, this is what’s gonna happen…
DEANNE POULOS: It was a threat.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: “There are a great many things that you hear on this station. There are also some things that you do not hear. You do not hear commercials, you do not hear…” then I put this rap thing on, and I put on a couple of other things that were typical of things that we did not play. But that’s the only time I ever played rap.

Who Programs the Music?

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #7

DEANNE POULOS: I don’t know if this is a significant variable at all, but the program director at our station has said that the one music director programs all the music, so none of the announcers programs anything, or there’s no special program or anything like that, and the idea is consistency.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I did that for The Concert Network for a while. I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea to have one person programming all of the music for all of the announcers.
DEANNE POULOS: Well, and then the program director enlisted an expert in programming. Anyway, he felt that the music director should include more of the popular pieces more often. So, play Beethoven’s 5th more often, Pachelbel’s Canon more often, and he has been doing that.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: You know why I think it’s a terrible idea? Because I think that the person that is communicating with the audience is the host of the program. And the host of the program should be enthusiastic about what he’s playing.
BOYCE LANCASTER: He has to have some commitment to what he’s playing.
FRANK J. OTERI: Some personality.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And it should be something that he feels for.
BOYCE LANCASTER: When I was in commercial pop radio, I was a program director for a while there, and the program director in that venue does all the programming. And the announcer has nothing to do but pull the cart out and say: “Okay, what’s next in the rotation?” and play the rotation. And all the program director does is sit there and listen to the rotation and make sure it’s right. It forces you to hire people who have enough knowledge, and enough, and are willing to work within certain parameters and can be trusted enough to program responsibly, but on the other hand, I don’t know. It limits your voice, I think, on a station if there’s one person programming. Or, God forbid, you’re using computers to program your music, which really frightens me, unless you know how to manipulate it to make it do what you want to do. I don’t know if you use it in Cincinnati
CHRIS KOHTZ: I’ll bite my tongue, because I’m on the out of most of the comments that have been made in the last few minutes.
BOYCE LANCASTER: If you can manipulate Program Director, if you’re using it as a tool to help you do what you want to do better, that’s one thing. There’s a station, the call letters of which escape me, and I probably wouldn’t mention them anyway, but they just let it spew whatever it spews, and you look at their playlist, and it’s frightening. Because it’s so limited, and so boring, and the announcer just says, “This is making me nuts to play this.”
CHRIS KOHTZ: First, let me just reinforce, if I could be reflected that these are my personal thoughts, label me as music programmer, but you know, you don’t have to tie me to GUC. [Everyone laughs.] I mean, obviously, I’m working there, so we’re like-minded about things, but just to keep clear, that this is just me as a programmer. I was brought up in the setting where I got to choose my own music. I think it was the greatest proving ground and training ground. I got to understand it; I got to learn from my mistakes. I pulled out, I don’t know what it was, early on, and it was one of the few times the program director said, “Why don’t you stop this at the movement?” I don’t know if it was, I don’t know what it was. Stravinsky‘s The Flood, or something, at like 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I mean, I was 19, 20, and I learned baptism by fire. And it was a great proving ground, and I’m sure there’ll be, at least if trends are right now, there will be less of those opportunities for some people. I think it’s a great way for people who are really interested in the industry to cut their teeth. So I’m not going to judge one person doing it or the whole staff doing it. At our station I do it exclusively. I’ll tell you what the plus has been. The other really, really important thing, and the thing that’s been successful in our really growing our audience, and getting such great audience reaction, is our announcers tell stories. We bring the music to life by talking about the music, the artist, anything to add something, you know, added value. The announcers have all, for the most part, reflected that they now don’t really want the time to choose pieces. And if there’s something they really want to play, they can come to me and we can work it out. So they have that flexibility. It’s not iron, you know. I mean, if they come and say, “I want to play some Stockhausen on his birthday,” well, we’ll have a discussion on that and we probably won’t do it. [Everyone laughs.] Unless we can really find something that, you know, fits all the pieces of the puzzle…
BOYCE LANCASTER: You’ll be hearing from his agent…
CHRIS KOHTZ: But now they get time exclusively, on a daily basis, to look at the playlist and find those connections. And to them, they’re terribly intrigued, because now they have this playlist that’s not thematic, necessarily. Maybe it doesn’t have any obvious hooks: there are no birthdays or themes, or whatever on that given day. But they’ve got to sit down and look at it and go, “What am I going to weave through over the course of this day?” And they’re having a great time with it, and they don’t have to spend the time pulling the recordings and considering it, doing all those things. That’s what I’m there for.
DEANNE POULOS: Do you encourage that, as a manager, or it just kind of happens?
CHRIS KOHTZ: The storytelling?
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s a requirement.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow.
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s an expectation. That is a critical part.
BOYCE LANCASTER: You have to do that to give the music some substance.
CHRIS KOHTZ: Exactly. And, I’ll tell you honestly, it has worked so well. The comments were made about owning it, personalizing it, bringing it to life. And I’ll tell you, our audience is growing, and everyday we’re introducing somebody new to classical music and I think that’s public radio‘s mission. I don’t care what music you choose, if you are bringing more and more people into it every day, you are fulfilling your mission.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: The other advantage, ’cause I did the same thing, programming 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, for a couple of years at the Concert Network, is that you do get to balance the entire week, the entire month, the year, you know, one person overseeing the whole thing.
CHRIS KOHTZ: But we talk about it on a weekly basis. We have an announcers’ meeting, and again, it encourages them to plan ahead, which is a good thing. Not to plan your whole show from beginning to end, but to sit down and think about it so that, if you at least give it some thought, and you come back a week later to that show, it’s rattling around in your head, you know, you’ve done some of the groundwork already. But if they see down the road, oh, it’s so-and-so’s birthday, and, you know, I studied with him, and I’ve got this great story I’d love to tell. Well, fine, then come to me, and we’ll work that out in the playlist. And it’s the same thing with computer programming… That’s what we do. In fact, it’s over there on my laptop right now. But again, it’s just a tool, and if you have the right tools, you can do the job better.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: There is a movement, a problem that’s happening in radio right now, with all the downsizing, that a lot of people that are on the air are juggling several jobs simultaneously for the station. And so they don’t have the freedom of time to be able to do the research to find the stories, because while the music’s playing, they’re busy cataloging recordings, or answering the phone, and it really is a problem because on one hand, I’m sure they’re torn. They want to be able to do that, take the time, and make every break a magical moment and find a way to reach the audience. But a lot of times, it’s just life, the job gets in the way.
CHRIS KOHTZ: I find myself saying the way we do things is a luxury. And I’m starting to get a little upset with myself for coming back to that every time, that the way we do it is a luxury. I’m beginning to think, after more experience, that the way we do things is the way we should do it, and should continue to do it. And other stations could possibly benefit from doing it that way. But you have to take that big chance, you have to make the financial commitment, the time commitment, and at least try it. Because that’s the whole thing about public broadcasting… We don’t have that $23 million a year in commercial sales. Public radio can often be very stagnant, because if you change, that might mean the audience changes. And if they change, they don’t give you money. And if they don’t give you money, you don’t do it anyway. And that often stifles…
BOYCE LANCASTER: My only concern about having one person… In commercial radio, in terms of programming, you have a person who’s the program director, and he and the music director together decide what’s going to happen… Most of the time, though, in commercial radio, especially in pop, it’s all chart driven anyway. And it’s even more so now than it used to be; 20 years ago, 25 years ago, the PD would sit down, and they would use charts to guide them. When I was first programming in commercial radio, eventually I had 4 or 5 record labels that would send me pre-copies of recordings and say, “What order would you release these things in?” And there would be a couple of dozen of us across the country that would say: “This is what I think you should do.” And that’s how they would release the singles. And that doesn’t happen much anymore. Now it’s video and promotion driven, and the radio stations are told what to play, so it’s a tough comparison. But my concern is, who’s giving the program directors of tomorrow the training that you got by being allowed to go in there and do the digging, I mean, they’re learning to do it the way you’re doing it now, but there’s some…
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s a philosophical area… this is a transition for me. And that’s the gray area. Like I said, it was a great proving ground. Was it a necessary proving ground? I just don’t have an answer to that. It was a great one for me. Is it the only way? I don’t know. We have a lot of people that didn’t in our instance that I think would be great PD’s, by the nature of who they are. They didn’t have this, although, one in particular did, but from a rock background.

How is Public Radio Different from Commercial Radio?

AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #8

FRANK J. OTERI: Why would somebody choose a public station over a commercial station, and how is a public classical music station different from a commercial classical station? Because I’ve been going to these conferences now, I guess this is year 6 for me, and there has been a movement that we seem to have gotten away from, and I’m a little glad to see that we’re moving away from it, but there was a movement for a while to try and make public stations exactly like commercial stations…
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Boston is a prime example of that. We have two stations in Boston. When I started there was something like a dozen or more full-time classical music stations. Now there are 2 broadcasting classical music. One is WCRB, which is commercial, the other is WGBH, which is a mixed format, about half of which is classical. CRB has been decried by many because it has eliminated opera, it has eliminated any vocal music, choruses, et cetera, and plays only those pieces, they have a Mozart block every morning from 9 to 10, for example. And they have a format that allows for, maybe 4 or 5 minute pieces, sometimes, they’ll actually play a full Haydn symphony or something. They started with movements for a while, and then they dropped that when the audience got pissed off.
CHRIS KOHTZ: The movement experimentation happened in public and commercial radio, and most have gone away from it for the same reasons. That’s one of the rare times that’s happened.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: The first thing they say after a piece of music ends is “WCRB, 102.5, Boston classical music station.” The last thing they say before a piece begins is “WCRB…” It’s the same thing. Always the station ID. The last thing I say before I play piece is the name of the composer. Almost always. And it’ll be generally somewhere close to the first thing I’ll say after the name of the piece, the composer, something like that. The big difference is they stick to a specific time schedule, they have breaks on the hour. I don’t. For the full 5 hours, my breaks come when the music ends. I’m allowed the luxury of that format, fortunately. But the major difference is they have to be concerned with cume and share, and cost per thousand. Public radio doesn’t have to be. What’s destroying public radio is the need to find more and more subscribers to make more and more money, so they can fill the coffers, and that, unfortunately, is often at the expense of the music and the format.
CHRIS KOHTZ: Your point is right, that we are not beholden to audience numbers as a commercial station is. I have friends who are program directors at commercial stations, the ax that hangs over their heads is that if somebody comes along, 5000 miles away, who owns the station and just doesn’t see the income and numbers he wants, it doesn’t matter what format it is, it gets axed, it gets changed. We don’t have that issue. But as far as, like specific tight hour clocks, and all that, none of that, there are commercial radio stations in this country that sound just like public radio stations, that are just as loose. And likewise, there are public radio stations that are just as tight as some of the tightest commercial stations. I don’t think that’s as much of an issue as it used to be.
BOYCE LANCASTER: I think there are elements of commercial radio that we can incorporate that make us sound good. Elements of breaks and the way we handle ourselves and report ourselves in terms of professionalism. But on the other hand, when I was in commercial radio, the problem was when I had managers walking in to me, and saying, “I don’t want you to play that particular piece of music there.” And I said, “Why not?” “Because the client called and doesn’t want to hear that next to his commercial.” And I said, “Who’s programming the radio station here?” Which he took exception to, and I said, “I will play that piece of music there again, because if the client doesn’t like it, the client shouldn’t have bought time on this radio station. It’s part of our format.” And that, and I’ve had managers walk in and pull music out of the studio that I had put in there because clients complained. And that is not the way to run a radio station. When listeners say something to me, and listeners who are willing to back their listening with dollars, call me up and say “I didn’t like this, and this is why,” and they’re willing to talk to me, we can usually come to a common ground, or they may change my mind.
LOIS REITZES: But Boyce, this touches on something that is unique to public stations, I think, and it is that impassioned ownership.
LOIS REITZES: You know, I don’t watch much commercial television. When Seinfeld was on, I watched that. I would never dream of calling NBC and saying, “How dare you program all that dreck? There’s only one half-hour a week on your station I can endure.” And yet, they have no problem if we play a thorny four-minute classical piece… They have no problem calling us up, because they do feel that intense sense of belonging because they are contributing. And so long as we need their contributions, we have to consider that somewhat. But never to the point, thank God, that commercial stations do.
BOYCE LANCASTER: And if they’re willing to talk to you, and you can have a conversation about it with them, 90 percent of the time you can come to an understanding and they’re fine. Because then they know why.
CHRIS KOHTZ: It’s longtime dedication to the format. The few commercial stations that have stayed in the classical format for a long time are witnessing the same things we are, except that they choose not to really listen to the audience, I mean, that’s a burden to them…