Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Fabulous concept, fabulous consequences: you’re a radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively and you ask your listeners to vote on their absolute favourite classical pieces from the 20th century. Each listener gets 10 votes and they can nominate whichever piece of music they fancy. The top 100 pieces are then broadcast over the space of a week, concluding with a concert featuring the top 5 pieces, live-broadcast to conclude the event. And since it’s 2011, the whole broadcast event comes replete with facebook discussions and a twitter hashtag. Go.

The countdown began at number 100, naturally, and John Adam’s The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China seemed about right. But over the course of the next 10 or so entries things began to unravel. Schmaltzy and ersatz contributions were mixing it with works commonly regarded as masterworks, and straight-out film scores even got a look-in. We all knew this was a popularity contest, but even so it felt as if voters hadn’t known the rules (even though there actually weren’t any rules, apart from the oddity of ABC Classic FM declaring the 20th century to have lasted til 2010).

Social media and outrage make excellent companions, and it didn’t take more than a day for the ABC Classic FM facebook page to feature a post requesting that those contributing to the debate take a positive tone; in addition, facebook’s quirks meant that some posts were marked as spam and required moderation to be included, so there was some confusion regarding exactly what was being moderated away.

Listeners could also call a talk-back line to pre-record their responses to the broadcasts, and the choices of listeners in the countdown. This was the most amusing aspect of the week-long broadcast. Many positive comments along the lines of “I’m hearing so much wonderful music I’ve never heard before” were interspersed with “this rubbish is a disgrace”, this negative comment uttered as frequently about the schmaltzy works as it was about the inclusions that were distinctly ’20th century’ in their aesthetic. Contributing to the entertainment was the experience of hearing the accents and intonations of Classic FM’s listenership, then inferring the listening demographic from phonetics alone.

Twitter is, of course, beyond moderation, so comments posted there were both pithy and unforgiving, and tended toward a more academic conception of the 20th Century: the notion that the century should last only 100 years and not include works originating in 1899 or post-2000, for instance, was taken for granted; the inclusion of works composed outside an art music intention was poorly received, and the inclusion of works that were largely lifted from the 19th century (whether we are talking late-century plagiarism or composers in the earliest parts of the century composing in anachronistic musical languages) met with broad disdain.

Particularly fascinating was the way the ABC Classic FM broadcasting team dealt with these various kinds of feedback: pre-recorded phone messages were regularly played, representing a wide spectrum of views; facebook comments were increasingly incorporated into the broadcast as the week went on; the twitter conversation went almost entirely unreported, and only tweets free of critique made it into the broadcast hours I heard. Many broadcasters were clearly unfamiliar with the whole concept of social media, another interesting demographic reality.

Those of us conversing via #classic100 on twitter found ourselves quite dispirited by the time we came to the final 20. It was clear that important works weren’t going to make it onto the list at all, and many immensely popular composers from the past few decades were also going without representation.

In a superb stroke of programming the concert broadcast of the top 5 pieces was immediately followed by a two hour broadcast discussing some of the works that didn’t make the top 100, but were in the 101-200 tranche of nominations/votes. This was beautifully done, and many listeners commented via facebook that they enjoyed this broadcast even more than they’d enjoyed the concert prior. Of course, this review of what wasn’t included had the benefit of curation in a way that the listener/voter-determined top 100 had not; the two hour broadcast was able to highlight ideas, genres, and stylistic directions from the 100 pieces in such a way as to tell a story, and this narrative arc contributed to the sensation that the post-countdown show was (in many ways) the best part of the whole week of 20th century broadcasting.

Musicians from outside Australia following my conversations about this #classic100 countdown via twitter were able to stream the radio broadcast via the net, so I ended up having fascinating conversations about this music with listeners in the Americas. They were amazed to see the final list; the inclusion of Australian composers they’d barely heard of and the dominance of English composers from the earliest reaches of the century being the most remarked-upon features of the countdown.This turned into a social history of Australia lesson for them, and a reminder to me that ‘classical music’ in Australia skews Anglo in ways that are unsustainable and undesirable.

One of my favourite tweeps, @gigglyfriday, did a running score of the Classic 100 countdown – by country. She hashtagged this #liketheOlympics, and right from the start those of us on twitter discussed the chances of the Russians taking out more places than the Brits. We thought the Brits would punch above their weight, but many of us were genuinely astonished to see the final countdown having Russia in 2nd place. I mean, even with just Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff you’d think the Russians would have it in the bag. But no, Britannia ruled.

Someone on twitter objected to the #liketheOlympics hashtag on the basis that if this were truly like the Olympics the Chinese would be in serious contention, and of course not a Chinese composer was within cooee of this list. It reminded me of a concert I attended in 2002 – a prominent Chinese orchestra was playing the Sydney Opera House, with something from the orchestral canon, a few pieces from Chinese composers, and something commissioned especially for the tour from an Australian composer. It was a great night out, but startling to me: the Opera House Concert Hall was filled with Australians of Chinese heritage, a demographic I’d never seen in any numbers at orchestral concerts before. That event, and the omission of particular kinds of musical voices from this countdown, remind me that our society is much broader than the pop v art music debates often allow.

Did I agree with the top 100 20th century pieces as voted by ABC Classic FM’s listeners? Well, no. But I absolutely agree with making 2oth century music something that is listened to and talked about, and not just in enclaves of aficionados (most of us with some kind of tertiary training in music), and not just within the narrow confines of self-defined classical music lovers or Classic FM listeners. A list such as this top 20th Century countdown provides a starting point – a place for disagreement, debate, delight and discovery, and from this point of view I agree very heartily indeed. May the conversations long continue….

22 thoughts on “Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

  1. thank you for taking the time to share this – sharing the #classic100 with you and your knowledgeable tweeps was a highlight as we shared a somewhat purist view. Like you the 100-200 programming was a blast of fresh air, and I hope something ABC Classics considers in its future programming – their obsession with Mozart in the countdown and elsewhere is almost a syndrome needing treatment in a hospital!

  2. Great post.
    I know part the fun of a countdown is the outrage you feel at some inclusion and exclusions but Classic 20th Century seemed a little odd in places.

    However, I hadn’t had so many conversations on 20th and contemporary composition for a long, long time and I can only enthusiastically agree with you that this is a very good thing.

  3. Lovely response Elissa, and a really good point about the difference between programming by popularity and programming by informed curatorial input. I hope there’s room for both: the popularity contest says a great deal about the audience, and heated discussions about 20th century music has got to be a win.

    Meanwhile, ABC Classic FM could do worse than offering Andy Ford’s “Illegal Harmonies” as a companion piece to the inevitable “Best of” CD. It puts things in perspective.

  4. “a reminder to me that ‘classical music’ in Australia skews Anglo in ways that are unsustainable and undesirable.”

    How does something that is obviously extremely popular become both unsustainable & undesirable?

    Should I begin attending WOMAD every year out of a sense of political correctness? Or alternately, do we simply declare that listening to Elgar is now “un-Australian”?

    & i’ve always hated the term “important works” (as important to who & on what basis generally goes unexplained…)

    This survey result was, unsurprisingly, constituted from a significant cross section of C20th works that featured reasonably regularly (or maybe in some cases, used to…) on Classic FM (including the “pop” stuff, which usually turns up on Drive or over the weekend at sometime…)

    As it was voted for, primarily, by Classic FM listeners, who we assume listen because they, on the whole, like the music that is programmed, the whole thing strikes me therefore as a self-fulfilling prophecy of little ultimate significance – much like the Hottest 100 or a similar poll on any other commercial network….

    • Ah, there’s nothing wrong with being popular! The problem is that the popularity contest under discussion (by dint of listener demographics) didn’t include huge swathes of classical music-loving Australians (who can be identified primarily by ethnicity and generational demographic). And this isn’t a problem per se, it’s a problem for ‘classical music’ as an ongoing institution, as a going concern, as a viable art form (using the word viable in the quite pragmatic, material sense). If ‘classical music’ in the form of various forms of public performance and programming is only engaging with/consumed by those likely to prefer English composers of pleasant tones (as compared to the pleasantly-toned music by composers of other origins) then one can infer that those listening are unlikely to represent anything approaching the full spectrum of Australian classical-music loving society, and I think that is undesirable, as well as being unsustainable.

      WOMAD should only be attended by those who want to be there, in my opinion, just as no one should be forced to order Thai, eat a kebab, share a pizza, or munch on nachos (and I mean no disrespect to the proud traditions of the world’s cuisines by reducing my comparisons to takeaway options). No one should do anything in particular, although I suggest that it’s best to obey the law and maintain personal hygiene. But what cultural institutions should do is a different matter – they have to consider their long-term viability, how they wish to be perceived by the broad community, how to engage with and expand their audiences, and so forth.

      “Important works”. Yes. I do agree it’s a silly term. And yet some works are ‘important’ in the sense that they’ve influenced composers and musicians in unmistakable ways. 4’33” was an important work, for example, even though it’s not really a work at all.

      And I also agree with all you say about the self-fulfilling nature of asking listeners of a particular kind of radio programming to vote on their perception of what rocks in the world of 20th century classical music. I was just super-surprised that that included the music from The Lord of the Rings.

      • As always, I love you post. Thanks for putting in the time and thought.

        I know how my 20-year-old son would respond to your last sentence here. For his age he is a highly literate musician (although pursuing a career where he will make a good living). Like most of his peers, he spends a lot of time online, makes you-tube videos, and is passionate about video game and film music. He is convinced the future of “classical” music is in this area – video games and films. Say what you want about his conviction – but this is certainly what some of his
        generation are saying – and they are the future “consumers” of classical music.

      • I don’t see classical music as “an ongoing institution”, it is now simply one musical & cultural voice in a ever expanding crowd, with no inherent sense of authority whatsoever.

        The extent to which it can remain a going concern in this environment i guess remains one of the big questions for the future.

        Acknowledging the historical value, the comparative popularity, & in general the wider cultural reach of its past compared to it’s present has to therefore be a significant part of the recipe, & one would think, reason enough to stop & reflect.

        Will you be getting on your highhorse next about the popularity of the Beatles? & if not, why not?

        “… one can infer that those listening are unlikely to represent anything approaching the full spectrum of Australian classical-music loving society”

        they don’t – they simply represent “the fat end of the pyramid” – (as Beatles or Elvis fans would for rock music)

        Time for Classical Music “experts” to lose this sense of God given inevitability for both Classical Music’s “eternal & unchallengeable forward evolutionary progress” (i.e. that not liking Ferneyhough represents “reactionary conservatism”) & the inherent, unquestionable centrality of its cultural worth & position.

        Us “plebs” out there might then be more inclined to actually start treating both the music, & the surrounding discussion, more seriously

      • Well, yes, @bloodymortimer. That’s right. There will always be the “purists” who are dismayed ABC Classic FM could sully the waters with, OMG, jazz. And no doubt felt the same way about brass band music. Similarly those who spend much time discussing what “classical music” means. I just look about. Everywhere I see performers, professionals, grafting away, making a living (somehow) in a field that, more or less, fits the “classical” mould, at least in my fairly eclectic version of it. There is so much going on it is impossible to keep abreast of the whole. Change is inevitable, but the “classical” genre, whatever that means to you or me will live on in its many guises. I love the “experts” for the insights they can bring, but not for their, sometimes, blinkered views. You may like Feldman, I may like Glass. So be it. The classical world is a broad church, God love it. Revel in it, and enjoy its success.

      • Yes, I don’t think you quite get what my point was there… Why aren’t Chinese Australians who love classical music part of the conversation? What’s going on that means they don’t participate? What is getting in the way? There’s a massive ethnic emphasis on Blighty in the listenership/voters (as seen in this Classic 100 lineup) and that’s interesting. And I think it can be argued that exclusion of segments of society as defined by ethnic background is a bad thing.

        As long as the bulk of government and private sponsorship of music is delivered to organisations who produce/promote/present classical music then, yes, classical music is an “ongoing institution”. It certainly isn’t a grassroots movement. It’s supported by big business and big government. Classical music is massively institutionalised. I think that’s a problem.

        I think that the discourses of classical music have struggled to lose the sense of historical progress and destiny that was prevalent amongst classical musicians from the time of Brahms. Discussions about music education struggle to shrug off these ideas also. The concept that history is linear, progressive, inevitable is a tired notion, and yet from politicians to evangelical preachers, the idea that humanity is moving on to better and brighter things is impossibly attractive. It’s a trope I find immensely unsatisfying, even lazy and self-serving.

        Now, I have no idea what you mean by talking about the possibility of me mounting a highhorse in regard to the popularity of the Beatles. I suspect you think that my dismay at the generic looseness of the ABC Classic event is based on snobbery, a sense of superiority of classical music; it is not. My dismay is more along the lines of an obsessive compulsive disorder, a propensity to fold paper perfectly symmetrically or to stack coins in denominational piles of equal dollar value; it would be crazy to list your favourite mammals and include frogs, crazy to list the largest national capital cities in the world and include Sydney, crazy to list three dimensional shapes and include the square. Of course, based on the results of the top 100 it might seem that ABC Classic countdown voters as a cohort equate orchestral music with the term ‘classical’ rather than using the term ‘classical’ to refer to anything related to style or genre. That’s fine, but then it should be called 20th Century Orchestral 100. Meantime, pieces composed in 1899 were allowed in, so long as they were rearranged later. I was, I will admit, astonished by the administrative fuzziness.

    • > Chinese Australians

      Well, i tend to flick around the radio in the car a bit, & to be honest, i don’t really hear too many “Chinese Australians” in any discussion on any media format. Except SBS. I don’t really think of this as “the Classic 100’s” problem per se… This is a massive issue that transcends it’s ultimately inconsequential boundaries

      Re “the Beatles” – the analogy / inference i was drawing is simply “why is it a problem that Elgar is popular?” Amongst people who listen to, effectively, a “niche” public broadcaster with a long staunch history of appealing to “stuffy old Edwardians”?

      To me, this is one of the stations most endearing attributes. But it doesn’t prevent me listening to & exploring the music of Asian Composers & / or performers. & it certainly doesn’t make me, or ABC FM listeners, or the ABC itself, guilty of cultural imperialism.

      Preservation of genuine cultural heritage, & pursuit of diversity to me are far more credible & inclusive aims, rather than seeking to blend everything together into a homogeneous yellowy brown blend of PC correctness. The author of the blog “On an Overgrown Path” i think is very good at articulating exactly these kinds of issues.

      If i recall correctly, Graham Abbott featured a series on Japanese composition in his Sat am slot recently. Lack of familiarity is part of the reason i probably didn’t put it in my top 10, however to be honest, none of it (or the other occasional leaps into asian Classical music I have made, both traditional, & lest we forget, the profoundly European influenced…) really grabbed me with the sense of awe & wonder & transcendence that RVW has the capacity to do. But that is not because he is white, or English, for Shakyamuni’s sake…

      In some ways sure, it is a bit of a shame, but i think it’s a bit of a stretch to say “Elgar & Holst & RVW top a Classic FM listener poll, & hence we have a endemic case of cultural imperialism in this country.” – ITS CLASSIC FM!! what do you expect? (One of the questions central to this “debate” that you are yet to come remotely close to answering…)

      Perhaps you should be conducting a “race based survey” to check your theories? But who’s going to look like the racist then?

      I’m more inclined to think that many people, from all races & creeds, probably like the music of Elgar & RVW. & the Beatles.

      >>”I suspect you think that my dismay at the generic looseness of the ABC Classic event is based on snobbery”

      Well at least I do understand your objection a little more clearly now…

      But again, I personally feel the parameters were probably deliberately left loose, in order to allow the survey to draw in peripheral elements, & remain and provide as genuine & spontaneous a cross section of listener interests (& listeners ideas about what constitutes proper Classic FM broadcasting) as possible.

      But this simply brings me back to the point i have made many times previously about this Classic 100 business being a self fulfilling prophecy…

      I may have misinterpreted some of the significance of your remarks surrounding classical music as “an ongoing institution”, however, but to be honest, i often have to read & reread your statements 6 or 7 times to make any kind of plain English sentiment out of them at all…

      Or are we losing something in the translation from mandarin? ; )

      • Re media diversity: I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that the audience for Classic FM has a more narrow demographic [ethnically] than other radio stations. I appreciate that not everyone would take my view that this is a problem for Classic FM.

        There’s no problem at all that Elgar is popular! The problem is homogeny, as you point out; but whereas I see evidence of homogeny in the preponderance of composers from England in the Classic 100 list you see homogeny when this preponderance is reduced. On a related note, I don’t think cultural imperialism is what’s going on. I think it’s a kind of nostalgia, one that excludes other kinds of engagements.

        And I’m guessing Classic FM didn’t deliberately leave the parameters loose in order to facilitate the involvement of ‘as genuine and spontaneous a cross section of listener interests as possible’, but that’s all it is – a guess. I’m guessing the period of the 20th Century was selected as compared to other periods, without much thought given to the generic and stylistic diversities that would complicate matters. But maybe this looseness was an attempt to connect with the broadest cross-section of Anglophiles in Australia. 😉

      • “The problem is homogeny, as you point out; but whereas I see evidence of homogeny in the preponderance of composers from England in the Classic 100 list you see homogeny when this preponderance is reduced.”

        I think we are getting to the crux of the matter now. Whether Classical music (& associated broadcasters & institutions) should attempt to “embrace the world” by attempting to some how represent it all (which i would say is a bit presumptive & arrogant), or to simply accept it represents “a slice of the pie” (shepherds pie in this case…with HP sauce) & to “do what it does best” accordingly.

        A bit like Mahler vs Sibelius re the symphony… Essentially you’re the Mahler, & I’m the Sibelius…

  5. I have studiously avoided any comment on the #classic100 issues until now, not having bothered to enter any suggestions to the contest. Eschewing the three drink rule I now present my ramble into the Top 100 jungle.
    I have a funny impression that the commentary on Twitter and in the blogosphere has been rather patronising to the listening public at large. Perhaps only @frindley was honest enough to keep muttering “small sample, popularity contest”, yet most of the musically literate twitterati took it all so terribly seriously. Doctorate in Musicology preferred. Don’t you remember, guys, that the very first “top one hundred” didn’t rate even one piece by Brahms? Remember always that ABC Classic FM has its format to follow. “The Listening Room” is long since gone (because clearly you guys didn’t listen to it either). And how a discussion of Classic FM’s emphasis on Mozart got tangled up in everything just beggars belief.
    It all reminds me a bit of my late father-in-law’s complaint, when listening to a program on Classic FM about 20th Century American composers. “Why”, he said “is there no reference to Walter Piston?” Well, he didn’t make the top 200 either. Nor @prestontowers’ “Salon de Refuses”. But then my old father-in-law was a guy who bought LP records of music by people like Leonard Rattner, Roger Nixon, Andrew Imbrie, Peter Mennin, Harrison Kerr and Otto Leunig. You haven’t hear of them either? Well, you will not hear them on Classic FM, nor, I submit, should you.

    It is also worth remembering the list developed by Norman Lebrecht a year or so ago where he collected statistics of the most performed contemporary works. Do performance figures indicate popularity? Probably not, but it was clear from that exercise that if you want to have your music played often, write dance works!

    Lists belong in the Silly Season. ABC Classic FM has drawn all the commentators in like lambs to the slaughter. Skilful media manipulation.

    • what he said…

      Even i have felt guilty of being slightly po-faced in this discussion at times, but you are right John, it’s hard not to feel slightly incensed by a lot of the self important crap that gets thrown about by some of the online commentators at times, & it makes me sad, as “an outsider” who is genuinely passionate about classical music (from a variety of eras), to watch large swathes of the “keen to identify & align themselves as insiders” classical community shoot themselves in the foot armed solely with their own dogmatism & irrelevance.

      Classic 100 is a bit of fun & nothing more. It on the whole, allows the majority of listeners to say “yep, like this one”, with the occasional reminder there are others out there who have somewhat divergent tastes from our own.

      I largely used my votes as protest votes, Ligeti, Koechlin, Cascarino…”more of these please ABC” music that i feel functions well as background or foreground, & that tries to break the shackles of exclusively “brown-nosed academically informed tastemongering” when it comes to “classical music” – & what I want from intelligent, 24 hour radio programming, that accompanies me through large tracts of the solo drudgery of my daily existence.

      Classic 100 is like staying up late watching Rage – you are hooked in, always “just one more”, in the hope that it’s a good one.

      & If I ever get to program Rage, I’m sure as hell am going to program Venus from The Planets…

  6. Woohoo! OK, this is venturing into territory I didn’t think I’d traversed in my post!

    Leaving aside any implied assumptions about *me*, and leaving aside that the bulk of my post covered two issues (1. the interaction between different demographics as represented by different forms of [social] media that interacted in this process; and 2. the failure of different demographics [geographic/ethnic/generational] to interact as evidenced by the skew of the pieces selected) that had nothing to do with any sense of what was correct or incorrect, or even a sense of correctness being a useful concept in the context of a top 100 countdown….

    Taking social media outrage too seriously is probably as equally silly as taking a popularity contest too seriously; it’s like saying a stand-up routine doesn’t tell a story truthfully. But to pretend that the results of a popularity contest don’t tell us anything is disingenuous; in this case the things we learn are not about the music but about the voters.

    Election campaigns in most democracies other than Australia operate on a similar principle to this 20th Century Classic 100 countdown: anyone can vote (once) and there’s no compulsion to do so, so the result speaks not just of the preferences of the voters but about who indeed chose to vote, and possibly even why they chose to vote.

    Is discussing the voting make-up of this particular countdown interesting to everyone? I wouldn’t think so. And yet here we are, those of us here. *I* think that the Anglo-centricity of the countdown is a bad portent, but I’m not suggesting everyone will agree with this conclusion or analysis. *I* think it’s interesting that the kinds of comments in different media (phone calls, facebook, twitter) took a different tenor one from the other, but I don’t think everyone else will be so fascinated.

    As regards the music – well, I barely mentioned *that*, did I?!

  7. “radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively” – this is my main gripe with ABC Classic FM. They don’t! They polute it with jazz, world, folk, easy listening and talkback interviews.
    I’ve always said that it’s wrongly named. ABC Light Entertainment is a suitable title. The classical focus disappeared when they changed names from ABC Fine Music.

  8. This is an interesting discussion. I myself compose experimental electronic music and while I draw inspiration from early electronic composers such as Karlheintz Stockhausen who clearly have more of a foothold in what one might call classical I do not consider what I do as classical.

    What happened in the 20th century really has it’s roots in late romanticism. After that, with composers like Stravinsky, you have a detachment from major/minor tonality. Serialsm attempted to re-order the chaos in what I see as an artificial set of rules. Certainly before this time what was classical was defined by a longstanding tradition and accepted construct.

    Neo- classical was an attempt to regain ground many felt was lost.

    My point. Defining classical music now is difficult. I don’t think classical music is dying. I do think that many, perhaps even pointing a finger at myself, many have found it easy to take the low road rather than being defined by any tradition.

    I think what is important is to keep talking and not let populism drag everything down to least common denominators. Are the Beatles classical? No. Good music but not classical. If some say yes then you risk Lady Gaga being classical if it withstands the test of time. Just food for thought.

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