16 November 2014

Musical Irresponsibility Australian-style


“It’s very irresponsible of me, I know, but I can’t resist playing this to you.  So my apologies as, for the next 13 minutes, office productivity drops and those heading for work arrive late.”  The lady presenting the breakfast show on ABC Classic FM in Australia was very certain of the power of the music she was about to play.  “Our researches show that whenever we play this, there is a marked reduction of productivity in factories and offices and our listening figures rocket.”  Even a manic radiophile such as myself finds this difficult to believe; and, if true, it only goes to show how much more involved in listening to “classical” music the Australians are than any other race on the face of the earth.  (But there again the same lady – or a different one with a very similar voice – told us on yesterday’s programme that “staying with Baroque music, here’s an aria by Mozart”, which may imply a casualness in correctitude amongst the presenters of ABC Classic FM.) Taking the statement at face value - that there is a single piece of music which, when played over the air, brings Australia to a standstill - it might tell us even more about Australian musical sensitivities when we discover what that piece of music is.

Even as I sat, with bated breath, waiting for the rambling preamble to give way to the music, I started guessing what it could be.  Knowing the amazing parochialism of ABC Classic FM (every performance involving an Australian player – even if it’s just third flute in a foreign orchestra – is associated with words like “brilliant”, “dazzling”, “wonderful”, while aged recordings of unexceptional music by long-forgotten Aussie composers are heralded as “gorgeous”, “lovely”, “amazing”) I guessed it might be some Malcolm Williamson, Don Banks maybe even Percy Grainger.  That, though, might be stretching a point even for ABC Classic FM; so perhaps more likely contenders would be Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Pachelbel’s Canon or the slow movement of the Mozart “Elvira Madigan” Concerto (although that last one gets so much airing on Australian TV where it accompanies a nasty little advert for Lexus cars, I doubt even it has the power to stop a nation any more).  Tchaikovsky, Bach and Grieg could all be relied on for potential nation-stopping moments, and, for my part, there are chunks of Stravinsky (the “Alleluias” from Symphony of Psalms), Mendelssohn (the “Baal choruses” from Elijah) and Monteverdi (the opening of Orfeo) which never fail to stop me in my tracks. 

Perhaps, though, the most likely contender would be the “Adagio” from Schubert’s String Quintet; a movement which always seems to catch you unawares with its instant ascent into the realms of the ecstatic.  I remember when it cropped up playing in the background of an episode of that wonderful UK TV series, Inspector Morse it suddenly became everyone’s favourite piece of “classical” music, in much the same way that the “Adagio” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus was when it provided the signature tune for the TV series The Onedin Line and Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela in an earlier era captured the hearts of viewers to Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night.

Oddly, though, the piece which stops Australia – or at least measurably reduces productivity – is a Schubert Trio.  Odd, because while it is certainly pleasant enough, it certainly does not have the kind of “grab” factor which makes you stop what ever you are doing to listen.  Some music has that “grab” factor, but I don’t recognise it in the Schubert Trio.  For the record, I think it was the E flat D929 they played but, frankly, I had other things to do and was not sufficiently taken by the recorded performance played over the air to listen through to the end and hear precisely which one had been played to us so irresponsibly.

I accept totally that playing certain pieces of music over the air can verge on the irresponsible.  The connection between certain pieces of music played whilst one is involved in potentially dangerous activities (notably driving) and the ability of the listener to carry out those functions safely is well researched and documented, and programme planners should (they certainly used to in my days of broadcasting) bear such things in mind when setting out playlists.  It was certainly a clever piece of presentation for the announcer to build up the Schubert in that way, but I can’t really believe it was anything more than that.

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