Words and Music: A New Year's Appreciation - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
December 26, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — It's now thirty years since I started doing this peculiar job, hosting classical music on the radio. It was Christmas Eve night, 1981, on an AM station in Pullman, Washington. The engineer who was supposed to train me pointed to a chair in front of an audio board with big black rotary controls and said, "Okay, do it."

And with that I proceeded "doing it" part-time, managing to improve from very bad to merely incompetent over the next five years.

That I refer to it as a peculiar job is almost a reflex, and requires explanation. Classical music announcers as a guild, no matter how long we've been at it, aren't completely sure of how most effectively to do what we do. There's always some soul-searching going on, driven in part by insecurities, in part by a grand sense of mission to frame this music for general enjoyment and edification.

We may have our faults and shortcomings, but believe me, over-confidence is not one of them.

If you listen to concert broadcasts from the 1940's and '50's, you'll hear a voice that is practically Olympian in its round tones and fastidiously enunciated "t's". It represents what the concert hall was then, a sanctuary of awfully high culture.

That ideal, and that sound, were still lurking on the scene when I wandered into the cathedral like a provincial lad with dirt on my boots. The classical music church was to me a mighty forbidding place. From the letters and phone calls we received I imagined that our typical listener was a university philosophy professor who read Proust in the original and played viola in the regional orchestra. And if this was a misconception I could be forgiven for it. There actually was one such listener and he wrote most of the letters and made most of the phone calls. Whenever you opened the microphone, you could practically feel the seismic effects of all that head-shaking.

George Eliot describes a character in one of her novels as "defenseless under prospective obloquy; he needed soft looks and caresses too much ever to be impudent." This is so close to my own flinching posture towards the Prof. Prousts of the world, that it almost surprises me now what came next. I met Bob Christiansen, who in casual conversation displayed something that, if I wasn't mistaken, very much resembled wit. And he only used his power for good, never to wound. I mustered impudence enough to think I might learn some thing from him and that the two of us might talk on the radio together about classical music, and in a tone that owed more to the ballpark than the church.

We received not a single friendly word for three months. One woman memorably likened us to "two pre-adolescents out behind the barn smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes."

This was, I should point out, hyperbole. Bob had quit smoking in the early seventies and we never worked blue. Though looking back from the perspective of late middle-age, the pre-adolescent part resonates.

But this brickbat was a great boon to my anemic resolve. It became clear to me that we were trying, perhaps clumsily but in good faith, to make words a slightly more equivalent component with the music in our radio broadcasts. We wanted to intrude, make a contribution to the entertainment, justify our existence. Our critic, apparently, didn't want us even to try. She helped me commit to my impudence. Thank you, dear heckler from Palouse, Washington.

Today, though quantity is a matter of healthy debate, there's no real battle. Words matter. Good stories are golden, especially as new media offer ready access to vast classical music playlists on demand. Well-considered words — humorous, descriptive, evocative of times and Titans — represent an added value that may help keep us (an earthbound radio service retooling its brand) in the game.

And words are why I keep doing this. The great joy of the job is the effort to create hybrids of meaning between the narrative and the music — documents that neither the words nor the music alone can deliver.

There isn't a week that goes by that I'm not keenly aware that my job could go the way of the blacksmith (pace, all working blacksmiths). Which would have nothing at all to do with the life or death of classical music. The music will live in countless venues and media and human hearts regardless of who makes a living in the industries related to it.

And so, I'm grateful to you for caring about this music and listening to this radio station's programming. For another year, it appears, you've made it possible for me and my colleagues to continue practicing this peculiar craft, and trying to get better at joining words and music.

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