The spirit of radio

In praise of All Classical: keepers of the invisible fire, broadcasters of new commissioned works by Damien Geter and S. Renee Mitchell

This weekend I’m grateful for one of our most beloved Oregon musical institutions, All Classical. You know all about them, of course, and probably you have your own stories about their long custom of cultivating, curating, and communicating the healing power of music. Here’s mine.

It was a million years ago, at the tail end of the Dubya Ages (sometime before the infamous shoe throwing incident), and I was celebrating my 30th birthday at a flatbed trucking terminal and training facility in Jacksonville, Florida. Nothing against Florida (or flatbed trucking), but I was more than a little homesick and starved for culture. Enter my first smartphone: a phone that could internet! Wow!

The first thing I did was look up allclassical.org and download their player. The soothing sounds of the Oregon Symphony and the reassuring voices of John Pitman, Robert McBride and Christa Wessel were a lifeline during that time, a 24-hour buffet of invisible soul food tumbling out of sweaty earbuds and nourishing me all through that hot, dreary fall.

I thought of that recently while driving a moving truck definitively out of Portland after two drizzly decades drinking delicious coffee. Sure enough, the rugged old U-Haul was equipped with nothing but radio–always great for slipping into a “go with the flow” mindset. This time around it was Coast Radio that carried me home, DJ Ellen’s Celtic Aire program enlivening the evergreen-darkened Highway 30 with songs about witches and banshees.

On the way back into PDX (to drop off the truck), I turned quite automatically over to 89.9 and heard Kenji Bunch playing Allen Skirvin’s Sanguine Serenade at FearNoMusic’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert at The Old Church earlier this year, a million years ago. Kenji’s voice came on next, talking to host Gary Dubs–yes, I’d stumbled onto an episode of Fall into the Arts. Next up was Kirsten Volness’ oddly appropriate Year Without A Summer, performed by James Shields and Michael Roberts on the same concert, and by the time I rolled into the U-Haul parking lot I was blasting Regina Carter and the Metropolitan Youth Symphony performing David Schiff’s 4 Sisters Concerto.

The point is that I didn’t choose this experience–it simply happened. Out there on I-5, cruising between 18-wheelers schlepping goods from China and behemoth pickup trucks flapping blue lines into the Interstate Breeze, I suddenly hear the voice of this composer we all know, one of the very few plausible candidates for “voice of Portland new music,” and just like that everything seems like it’s probably going to be okay.

And right here is the true beauty and power of radio in our era. That “go with the flow” mindset is good balm for our souls right now, a counter to the “always on” mentality left behind when the information miasma washes over us, cranked up to eleven while we get ever more inundated by the million-and-one choices shrieking for attention every time we slip our smartphones out of our pockets.

“What should I listen to next? What sort of mood am I in? Have I listened to my friend’s band’s album yet? Maybe I should put that on instead of playing Vespertine for the millionth time. Or, no, I’ve been meaning to listen to that Duncan Trussell podcast everyone’s been telling me about. Eff it, I’ll put on a record. But which record?”

Radio cuts through all that. You make one decision–tune to a station–and then passively take in whatever it has to offer. Maybe it’s a bunch of Haydn or Mingus, maybe it’s an hour of spooky Irish music, maybe it’s interviews with local composers you’ve never heard of playing music composed by kids who go to school with yours. Or maybe you hear your friend’s voice on the radio, and your ears perk up and you think, “wait is that Brett?”

You can get a lot of this good stuff from various new media, as anyone who’s spent time hanging out on YouTube with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony can attest. Maybe the present author is just a fuddy old Luddite. But when the Miasma gets to be too much, and the decision fatigue sets in, the best medicine seems to be good old radio.

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Best of all is still our old friend All Classical. The wonders of internet brought them from rainy Portland diagonally across the country, obliviating space. The other, complementary function of radio in the digital age is curation, obliviating time. Consider two recent All Classical programs that we both missed: last Thursday’s Fall Into the Arts and last Sunday’s Played in Oregon.

Normally–in the bad old days–if I wanted to share a radio show with you, I’d have to tell you when it was on and you’d have to tune in right then. If you missed it, well, tough luck buddy, you shoulda been there. And if I wanted to listen back to Damien Geter’s new string quartet and S. Renee Mitchell’s new poem later on, I’d have to record the broadcast myself. This would require a specialized musical machine known as a “boom box,” and it would have to be the type that comes equipped not only with a radio receiver but also a recording-enabled tape deck. A stack of blank tapes and a sharpie complete the picture, and of course you the listener would also have to have one of these “boom box” machines or one of those even more ancient portable devices, the “walkman,” to play it back on.

Lots of hassle, in other words, even if this is the best new string quartet you’re likely to hear all year.

Now all you have to do is click the blue hyperlink and spend some time with Wessel and All Classical CEO Suzanne Nance while they boast–quite justly–about supporting local music, then hear the proof with their local resident artists: pianist Natalie Tan playing Brahms and Debussy and discussing the sublime; flutist Adam Eccleston playing new stuff by Francesco Santucci and Andres Carrizo alongside Kohler, more Debussy, and a very hot take on Vivaldi’s Summer concerto.

Click this blue line and you can read all about this episode of Fall into the Arts, the ninth and last of their special pandemic-era series. And if you click here you can read the program notes for this episode, just as if it were a real concert. You’d better do it quick, too, because for now this is the only place you can hear Geter’s String Quartet No. 1, Neo-Soul” and Mitchell’s Harmonizing with Joy, both commissioned by All Classical for this series. The archives keep these rebroadcasts active for two weeks, meaning you’ve got until Tuesday to get groovy with Geter and Mitchell and all the rest before the link goes 404.

No, I’m not going to tell you how to download the mp3. Just click the link.

Do the same with this link, and you can hear a recent episode of Brandi Parisi’s Played in Oregon, which is the only place you can hear Portland Youth Philharmonic’s recording of Lera Auerbach’s Chimera (more on PYP later, dear reader). You can also hear the Calidore Quartet premiering Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays at CMNW last summer (um, I mean, summer before last). You may have read about that here at ArtsWatch, or maybe you’ve been listening to Calidore’s dashing new album BABEL, where you can hear Shaw’s quartet schandwiched between Schumann and Shostakovich.

But here we move past “radio culture” and into the more sophisticated “taper culture” that Deadheads and Juilliard Quartet followers know so well: this earlier live version of Three Essays, recorded in Portland State University’s cozy Lincoln Recital Hall, has all the special charm you remember from those first appearances of “Estimated Prophet” in early ‘77.

And this is where we’ll pick up next week, with Shaw and the song I’ve had stuck in my head all summer. Until then, beloved Oregon: tune in and veg out! Those leftovers are not going to eat themselves.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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