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….