Welcome to the 'new music' -- a smorgasbord of sound
New York — "Let a zillion flowers bloom!" With that clarion call, Tim Page -- music critic and classical disc jockey -- is bringing radio into the '80s.
Host of an afternoon show on WNYC, New York's public FM station, he has launched a fresh kind of programming designed to make "new music" a daily item in his listeners' diet.
I's a risky venture. On the first day, last February, Page featured a "minimal" piece by Steve Reich called "Six Pianos" -- and received more than 30 calls from listeners convinced the record was stuck. But the experiment has caught on, with mail running almost unanimously in favor of Page's bold approach.
And soon, audiences across the United States may be able to tune in. Beginning the first week in October, WNYC plans to offer a weekly new-music show for national syndication, presenting contemporary compositions and performers on a steady basis. This reflects not only the growing interest in recent music, but the coming-of-age of satellite radio systems, which allow any station to originate and disseminate its own brand of entertainment.
I visited WNYC, which has the largest FM listenership in the US, to discuss its new programs and plans. In Page's view, "New music is about to go the way of new art -- the massive Picasso exhibition, the sold-out galleries in SoHo -- and new film, which everyone lines up to see. You can come to new music from many different directions, which is very exciting. For the first time in years, the cutting edge of classical music is developing into a truly popularm music."
Yet except for some college outlets, most FM stations are locked into traditional programming, with occasional nods to such decades-old radicals as Schonberg and Varese. Why hasn't new music caught on before now?
"It's partly the fault of the composers," Page says. "There's been a lot of mumbo jumbo that you need to have a PhD and deeply analyze the score to enjoy it. But music is worthless if that's true. What matters is the visceral appeal."
This fits right in with Page's programming practices. How does he decide what to include on his show? "I don't mean to sound primitive," he says, "but the most important prerequisite is -- how it sounds! If I like it, if I think it's good music, I'll play it."
So the variety is wide. "I'll go back to Palestrina," he says. "This isn't exactly a new-music show. It's a qualitym music show, but I like to stretch the listener's ears. I'll play old Caruso recordings if I find them exciting -- even an occasional warhorse, if it fits philosophically with what I'm doing. I try to think of continuity, of one piece leading into another."
Behind the Page philosophy is the idea that "new music comes out of so many paths." He points out that rock musician David Bowie is "a Steve Reich fanatic" who calls Reich "a tone-track into the future." (If there's any doubt of their kinship, listen to the Reichian sounds on Side 2 of Bowie's album "Low," with Brian Eno.) Yet classical critic Andrew Porter "will write a long column analyzing Reich in great musical detail." In sum, says Page, new music can be enjoyed from many perspectives. "After all, it's just a step beyond old music."
Page gets prompt agreement from John H. Beck, director of the New York Communications Service -- the city agency of which WNCY is a part. "There are people who feel that if they like rock, they can't like classical," he says. "One of our barrier: If it stayed as rigid as it was a few years ago, you'd have no more classical listeners by around the turn of the next century! But rock has evolved, and created an art audience that's looking for things beyond what most rock performers can give them. They aren't going to turn to Beethoven. They might go to new music, though. It has things in common with rock, and it's not part of an establishment."
So new music could be the spirit of radio's future, for rockers as well as classical fans. In the meantime, Beck is thoroughly enjoying the experiment and taking in stride the controversies over pieces programmed by Page. "Here at the station," Beck says, "people were concerned about the new programming. But I'm used to listener complaints. If three months go by without some big ones, I'm not sure we're alive!"
Since new music is indeed new, the first question of many potential listeners is, what does it sound like. The answer is: almost anything. As if to prove that point, Page recently produced a concert at Carnegie Hall called "New Music from New York." Presented by the weekly Soho News as a benefit for WNYC-FM, it gave a heady overview of new-music activity in all its shapes and guises.
After a brief reading by poet John Ashbury, the program openes with the 1980 organ solo "Fourth Series, Part 1," by Philip Glass, a gentle piece combining repetitive rhythms with faint echoes of "Over the Rainbow." Exploratory, yes, but still played on Carnegie Hall's grand old organ.
For real radicals, the next performer was Kirk Nurock with his Natural Sound group, who launched into a cheerful piece based largely on barking and howling -- joined by three real dogs, who promptly upstaged every human in sight.
The evening became no more predictable as it proceeded. Ad Hoc Rock played delicately pulsing sounds that hovered between pop, electronic music, and the planet Ork. Jonathan Haas and Thomas Hamilton played a duet for tympani and technology, with variably pitched kettle drums counterpointing a tableful of tapes and synthesizer hardware.
Stefani Starlin played a bitter- sweet flute solo called "Post Rigabop Mix." Meredith Monk and two cronies performed the trio "Tablet," which passes through folk song to something more like birdsong. The Harmonic Choir, led by David Dykes, performed a piece based on simple chords and over- tones -- the Living Theater used to do something a little like this called a "communal chord" -- which filled the hall with a sense of peace. Paul Jacobs played sprightly Virgil Thomson portraits, making that venerable contemporary seem like the patriarch of the concert.
There were disappointments, as when jazzman Sun Ra -- who has been a star longer than many of these musicians have been alive -- didn't have enough time to develop his splendidly anarchic act. But there were favorites, too, such as organist Paul Alexander playing a sonata with both fists combing the keyboard in long sonic sweeps.
The whole shebang ended with the Lar/Dance troupe, directed by Lar Lubovitch, premiering an ecstatic dance accompaniment to Steve Reich's sprightly "Octet."
It was as various and as invigorating as an evening can get, clearly demonstrating the energy and imagination of today's most adventurous musicians.
Often their work is equally effective as music and as theater -- when a straight performance simply looks interesting, as in Reich's "Drumming," or when a work is composed with dramatic applications in mind, as in Glass's "chamber opera," which can be set to any appropriate scenario (including the strange and stately "Panther" now onstage in New York -- see the arts-entertainment pages of Thursday, May 28, for full review).
Naturally, this theatrical quality will be missing from recordings and broadcasts. Yet the new openness toward new music on the airwaves is an important step in developing a stronger American foothold for contemporary art. It currently flourishes more healthily in Europe, where it receives vigorous public and private support. But recent music is on the upswing in the United States, and with increased exposure and growing popularity, the best seems yet to come.