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Classical Notes

Must attention be paid?

Posted at 4:13 PM on March 10, 2006 by Don Lee

What if they gave an Elliott Carter Festival and lots of people came? I understand that all but two of the concerts have been sold out in a series presented this week in the Twin Cities by the U of M School of Music and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Karl Gehrke reported on it Wednesday on All Things Considered.

I attended the opening event Tuesday, the screening of a film about Carter called A Labyrinth of Time. It's a fascinating piece of filmmaking and it helped me begin, and I emphasize the word "begin," to understand Carter.

It also made me think about how we program music on classical music radio. We don't play Carter. The simple reason is that lots of people don't like it. It's difficult to listen to, mainly because it challenges centuries-old conventions regarding melody, harmony and rhythm.

But in a broader sense I was reminded, a little sadly, of the notion that music doesn't tend to work well on radio if it DEMANDS attention. The sounds that come through the radio must co-exist with other things going on in listeners' lives. If we're broadcasting music that refuses to be pushed to the background, even a "conventional" piece such as Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge," we present listeners with a choice: pay full attention or tune out entirely. So what's a self-respecting radio programmer to do? It may not be practical to demand a listener's attention, but for those times when we do have it I'd like to think that we REWARD it.