Gunther Schuller: AMPPR Keynote Address 2000


Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Photo courtesy GM Recordings

© 2000 by Gunther Schuller

I appreciate very much being asked to present the keynote address at this Year’s annual Music Personnel Conference. Many of you know me only by name; some of you may know me as a composer, a few as a conductor; others of you know me as a jazz historian — I wear many musical hats. And if I tell you that I have juggled six different musical careers simultaneously for the last forty to fifty years I do so not to brag about my “great career” in music, but rather to tell you in all humility what an incredible, privileged, richly rewarding life I have had in music. But the real important credentials I bring you are not the things I have just mentioned, but rather the fact that I am a subscriber to not one but several public radio and/or television stations, and that I regarded public radio, when it came in the 1960s, as one of the most important and greatest events in our entire cultural and educational history. And I still regard it so to this day, even as many NPR stations around the country have, in the recent decade, abandoned their former high-level quality programming, gone commercial or become easy-listening stations, or–on the other hand–are courageously hanging on for dear life against many difficult odds.

I’d like to assume that in this place today, I am more like the preacher talking to the converted, and that all or most of you are fighting the good fight –hard as it may be –to keep intelligent, broadly engaging programming on the airwaves.

All of us in “serious”, non-commercial music whether it is classical or real jazz, or the fantastic ethnic, folk or vernacular musics that populate this globe on which we live — musics that are all now by the way at last totally available on recordings, zillions of CDs — all of us involved with such quality music — whether I as a composer and conductor or you as radio broadcasters and commentators — we are an oasis surrounded by a vast desert of commercial, profit-motivated networks and conglomerates, who would just as soon see most of use give up and quietly go away. To put a statistical point on it, on a national scale commercial, pop, easy-listening music occupies about 95% of the total musical landscape; the rest of us occupying about 5%–and that’s on a good day.

The odds of us surviving, let alone flourishing, in such a cultural climate are not very encouraging. But we can and must survive, and one way to do that is not to try to compete with the commercial broadcasters, and certainly not at their low levels of merely providing easy entertainment. We can’t beat them at their own game, we don’t have the resources for that. And why should we duplicate the mediocrity they are already purveying in such abundance?

Stand your own ground. Stand FAST.

When I say such things, I am often accused of being an elitist. Sorry, but the label doesn’t fit! Anyone who can encompass in his or her life (as I have) many different kinds of music of all sorts and styles, including our great American heritage of jazz and world-conquering popular music — such a person is not an egg-head elitist. He or she is just someone who is more roundly interested, more curious about the world around us, and has a broader, higher set of life values, that go beyond mere creature comfort and acquiring still more fame and wealth.

I believe that most of you also cherish and believe in those same values, and that you work every day to retain those values in our society. Why do we do that? Because we know — deep in our hearts and minds — that a nation, a country, a people are ultimately remembered and defined by the art, by the culture, by the intellectual, esthetic, and emotional creativity they leave behind.

I’m going to be 75 in this year 2000, and I am thus old enough to remember well the glory days of television and radio, in the 50s and early 60s before public radio, when our remarkable American cultural and artistic creativity was well and consistently presented and documented on the airwaves; when the media were, believe it or not, still considered in part “educational”. Those days, alas, are gone. The networks and huge broadcasting corporations have gone off in the singular direction of profit-making, abandoning anything that smacks of culture or art, what they perceive as being too high-brow for their presumed audience. One great big irony in all this that once public radio and television came in the ‘60s, the networks could — and did — cynically abandon any semblance of cultural, educational, informative programming, because they could now simply say “Look, we don’t have to bother with all that educational crap anymore; let those folks over in public land deal with all that. We have to make money; we are corporations; we have stockholders; we have to pay dividends; we have to give our CEOs big annual bonuses, etc., etc.” Thus the dramatic changes in policy, in philosophy, in attitude that turned the media into a cultural wasteland.

As a result there has not been any Beethoven or Mozart or Tchaikovsky — unquestionably the most popular classical composers in the whole World — on commercial or network radio in the last 35 years; similarly there has not been any Duke Ellington (jazz’s greatest composer) or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis; there hasn’t been any Gagaku, or African drum ensemble music, or Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music, or Native American ritual music — the list could go on for a long, long time. All of that has been left to public radio.

By the way, I do know, of course, that there are still a number of “commercial” radio stations around the country, and some of them are doing yeoman work. But they are mostly located in large major cities, and not in the hinterlands where — thank God — so many of our public radio stations are still carrying on the good fight. But I also know that the majority of commercial stations, previously purveying a broad range of musics, have changed over to easier, safer, non-risk-taking programming.

We are surrounded and invaded nowadays by the financial money crunchers, the “bottom-line” consultants and advisors, bringing with them their paltry, vision-less recipes for survival or success in the market place. Oh yes, the market place! I can see the dollar signs jingling. From their limited, anti-artistic, anti-cultural, anti-intellectual point of view, they are, of course, “right” in their advice. But the question is: what market place do we want to be in?

The easy one of simply catering to the lowest common denominator of tastes, or the riskier, harder and ultimately more rewarding one of appealing to higher, broader, richer cultural tastes?

It was about a dozen years ago that I was brought into a state of shock that has not entirely worn off to this day. I happened to be guest conducting the Minnesota Orchestra that week in the Hyatt Hotel the annual meetings of National Public Radio were being held. At one morning session — I had just wandered in out of curiosity as to what might be going on at such meetings and how my beloved and favorite public radio was faring — I was amazed to hear a list of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) being read off to the assembled broadcasters. The content of that list was to my ears absolutely unbelievable. The new dicta that were being pronounced and promoted started with: “don’t play anymore complete symphonies”; “play only movements, and only the easiest and the most popular and most accessible movements.” “Don’t play vocal music things like Lieder and operatic arias”; “in fact, don’t play operas or opera excerpts”; “Don’t play organ music”; “and for God’s sake, don’t play any contemporary music or”– the implication was if you have to play that stuff once in a while, play only the easiest, the safest tonal music; “for double God’s sake, don’t ever play any of that atonal or 12-tone stuff, and for double-double God’s sake, don’t especially play any Schoenberg.”

The absurdity and callousness of these suggestions is breathtaking. Unfortunately, in the wake of this meeting these pronouncements were followed and enacted by a large number of stations, and the offspring of that initiative is the boringly safe ‘modal’ programming that now infests NPR.

Modal programming is a clever scheme — a sleight-of-hand maneuver – which eliminates the challenging burden of having a real stimulating programming policy, at the same time appearing to give listeners what they are alleged to want. It’s an easy way to have a ‘policy’ without really having one — yet another “quick-fix” tactic to avoid facing the real challenges of creating interesting, intelligent, broad-ranging programming.

But the real problem with modal programming is that, by piling a whole lot of designated music into specific slots and labeled categories, you prevent a listener from ever hearing anything outside that specified slot, therefore eliminating the possibility of surprises and challenges; the listener stays comfortably in a safe, pre-determined and circumscribed territory. You eliminate a priori: the possibility of any broadening of knowledge, of tastes, and of any intellectual/emotional challenges.

It is truly impossible to predict where we are all going, but despite many discouraging signs and prognoses, I remain optimistic about our society’s and our culture’s future. I do so mainly because I know that, in this remarkable land of ours, there are in every nook and cranny talented, artistically creative, and culturally curious folks who are the heart and soul of our audience. And you know what? There are many more of these folks out there than we tend to think, and that demographers and statisticians and pollsters would like us to believe. Why is that? Why do I know that? Because those are the folks that generally don’t write letters to us. The folks we hear from are the inveterate complainers: “Don’t you ever play any of that Bartók stuff again, or I’ll cancel my subscription!” This applies to symphony orchestra, radio and television stations, and the media in general. Public radio’s subscription lists are already an indication of how many good people are out there supporting what we offer. And in many places those lists are growing, as commercial radio’s offerings sink more and more into the mediocre and the ordinary. One practical way of thinking about our situation is to think, indeed to believe, in the fact that for every loudly-braying complainer who thinks the stuff you’re playing is too difficult, there are one or two silent others who would join and support you if you did play more adventurous fare–not overdoing it, of course, just doing it selectively, judiciously, intelligently, in a balanced way.

I feel deeply that I/you/we must remain a bulwark against mediocrity, ordinariness, against the quick-fix pabulum that surrounds us everywhere, and of which I really think we don’t need any more.

Keep the faith. NPR should be leading, should represent leadership, not just following the masses, and mass tastes. Our country needs something better than that and really needs you.

[Gunther Schuller's work as a composer, arranger, educator, author, conductor, and producer has been rewarded with honors such the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Award, Grammy Awards, and induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. His independent record label, GM Recordings, has produced over 100 uncompromising classical and jazz releases since 1981.]

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