The Sonos Playbar: my salvation from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”
As probably many of you know, I am married to a professor who works in the CUNY system and like all those on the tenure-track is obligated to publish articles or—as they put it—perish. This means that when she is at work on an article in the living room, I cannot play CD’s or listen to the FM on my beloved high-end stereo.
A year or so ago we bought a 40 inch flat-screen Samsung TV for the bedroom that came at a very reasonable price from Best Buy since it was probably toward the end of its market life-cycle. Not long afterwards, I decided to get a Sonos Playbar that replaces the TV speakers with amplified speakers of a much better quality. It costs $700 and is worth every penny since not only is it great-sounding, it is also an Internet streaming device that allows you to listen to Spotify et al but also Radio by Tunein that gives you access to FM stations all around the world as well as “cloud” based streaming services that are sometimes funded by advertising. Although the Sonos is no competition for my Dahlquist DQ-20 speakers in the living room, they are quite listenable and more importantly don’t interfere with my wife’s research. Needless to say, they will sound a lot better than any speaker that comes with your computer or even those that are sold as a substitute from companies like Logitech.
Before identifying my “bookmarked” Radio by Tunein sources, a few words about the question of classical music programming are in order. One of the reasons I looked forward to having access to Internet-based streaming was the utterly bankrupt nature of WQXR, NYC’s only station devoted to 24/7 classical music programming. I hated it when it was a commercial station laden with Volvo and Heineken ads, but I hated it just as much when it went “non-profit” after being sold to NPR. It has the same annoying commercials every 15 minutes but now they are called “underwriting” spots.
In a perceptive article for the NY Times (the station’s owner before it was bought by NPR) dated September 30, 2009, Daniel Wakin reported on the new WQXR. Right at the top of the article he warned listeners “Don’t expect to hear much vocal music.” Such music obviously is not geared to the sensibilities of what station management views as its ideal audience. Wakin continued:
Tradition, though, appears to top boat-rocking. A mission statement prepared by WQXR’s new programmers said, “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty and contemplation.”
“Greatness matters,” it added. “Bach trumps Telemann.”
Yeah, well, Bach might be greater than Telemann but if that means the 37th time in a given year there’s a Brandenburg concerto, I’d much rather hear some obscure and “minor” work by Telemann. When you repeat even the greatest composition ad infinitum, the effect is almost as grating as a Trivago commercial.
The mission statement proclaims a philosophy of “the right music at the right time.”
“Monday morning, when you’re trying to get your kids to school, you won’t hear the large choral works,” said Limor Tomer, the executive producer for music.
The programmers also provided a sample list of “core composers” and the works that would most likely play on the radio versus the Internet. They stressed that the list was but a guideline.
Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were there. So were Copland, Janacek, Gershwin, Satie, Sibelius and the ever-popular Vivaldi. Mahler was missing.
Schubert symphonies were deemed radio-worthy but not the piano trios or songs, which were reserved for Q2. Radio received Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems; Janacek chamber works but not operas; Brahms symphonies but not choral works; Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos but not the late piano sonatas, songs or chamber works.
Vivaldi had sweeping approval. Except for “shorter sacred works.”
Right, the “ever-popular” Vivaldi who had “sweeping approval”. Except for me who upon hearing “Four Seasons” feels like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib having Billy Joel blasted into his cell 24 hours a day.
Probably the best take on this kind of shitty programming can be found on Radio Survivor, the website of Matthew Lasar and two other editors who are committed to the idea of radio as a source of stimulating cultural material, both classical and popular:
I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.
The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.
I should add that WQXR does have a redeeming feature. It created an Internet-only auxiliary that is sort of its ghetto for interesting music. It is first rate and earns a spot on my recommended Internet sources. In fact, Lasar salutes it in the very article where he blasts WQXR for programming music for the work cubicle:
Hallowed New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “Q2” channel is now well over three years old. I am a big fan of the service. It is one of the few places in the classical music radiosphere in the United States where you can consistently listen to a high quality stream of contemporary classical music on a 24/7 basis. Let me dispense with my mixed feelings about classical radio in general before getting to the unqualified praise section of this post.
Q2 has a variety of program hosts, all of whom are passionate and expert about 20th and 21st century classical music. My favorite show is The Brothers Balliett, identical twin composers and performers who say that they “work tirelessly to one-up each other. This drive creates a self-fueling passion to write the best work, listen to the best music, and learn as much as possible.” I strongly recommend reading their “ten point manifesto,” which begins with “We are the Brothers Balliett” and ends with “We believe in the groove.” Then there is “Sample Rate,” which explores “adventurous sonic manipulations,” and “Hammered,” a show dedicated to keyboard music.
As these program descriptions suggest, Q2 plays avant-garde content, but not too much. Lots of wonderful tonal music pervades the stream. Right now the station is broadcasting its “new music countdown.” Q2 listeners were asked to send in their favorite compositions of the last 100 years. They were broadcast through the weekend and into this week. Here are the last ten compositions played (last time I checked):
Kaija Saariaho – L’amour de loin
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 7
Igor Stravinsky – L’histoire du Soldat
Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique
John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Edgard Varese – Ionisation
Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Solo Voices
Alban Berg – Lyric Suite
John Adams – The Chairman Dances
György Ligeti – Atmospheres
Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 6
Any radio station that plays a Bartok string quartet deserves our unwavering support.
My recommendations come in two parts. The first are FM stations that before Radio by Tunein could only be heard on a conventional radio. This means that if you wanted to hear BBC Radio 3, you had to go over to London. I should add that I am not including it because in my view, it is not that much different from WQXR. While including much more vocal music, it has a tendency to keep selections to within 15 minutes or so. This means you will only hear an excerpt from a Handel opera rather than the whole thing. Finally, there are some conventional stations like WQXR that offer a streaming service as mentioned in the article above. This means that they can be heard on the Internet but not on a radio. As a bonus, these auxiliary services tend to use HD audio, which sound really good over something like the Sonos. They will be indicated below in italics.
The second part are “cloud” stations, which means that they are fairly automated without any on-air hosts. So you don’t get anybody putting the work into context but at the same time benefit from the absence of the sort of banal chatter that plagues WQXR and—to be honest—BBC Radio 3 as well.
- WHRB: Harvard University’s station. It has jazz programming but the classical programming is dominant. Very original and often very challenging music as you might expect from a prestigious Ivy League school.
- WWFM: This is owned and operated by Mercer County Community College in New Jersey and features a lot of syndicated programming but of a very high quality, including for example Bill McGlaughlin, whose shows originate on Chicago’s WFMT. WFMT is much more famous than WWFM but I prefer this rather obscure but essential station near Princeton, NJ.
- KQAC: This is a nonprofit station in Portland that thankfully is not affiliated with NPR, which tends to the overly familiar despite its nominally nonprofit status. To give you an idea of the sort of thing you might hear, they are playing a Mozart symphony this afternoon but it is number 4 rather than the overexposed number 40.
- Toscana Classical Network FM 93.1: From Italy, of course. Can’t tell you much about the station except that the music is outstanding.
- WQXR-Q2: Described above.
- WTSU-HD2: This is the streaming service of Troy University in Georgia. This is a bare-bones operation that does not even offer a playlist on the website but the music is damned good.
- WGBH Early Music: WGBH is Boston’s classical music station and overrated like Chicago’s WFMT. Its main value is providing this streaming service that consists of an archive of live performances of early music originally heard on the station. Most of it is baroque and earlier but they do feature the occasional rarity from Schubert as I am listening to now.
- Ancient FM: Commercial-free programming of music from the renaissance and earlier. Just fabulous if your tastes like mine run toward Jannequin and Hildegarde of Bingen.
- Audiophile Baroque: Superb programming from Greece of all places, without any commercials. Considering the nation’s economic situation, this is a miracle.
- Twentysound: Devoted to 20th century music but with qualifications as the website puts it: “twentysound is an internet radio channel dedicated to classical music from the 20th and 21st century, focussing on those composers who have carefully developed the great traditions of the 18th and 19th century instead of following radical musical ideologies like twelve tone theory and serialism.” That’s okay with me since I prefer my Webern in very small doses.
- Venice Classical Music: From Italy, of course. Music spanning the ages with an emphasis on the unfamiliar, in particular Italian composers. Right now it is playing a Locatelli flute sonata. Yummy!