Why is RNZ Concert so wonderful?

Posted by Peter.

Disclosure: I make pieces of radio for Concert on a part time basis.

One of the gems of radio in NZ is RNZ Concert. Why is it so cool? Mainly for the immense range of music it presents. Moaning minnies tend to write it off as just ‘classical’ music. This is wrong on so many levels. The phrase itself is too general to make any sense. Technically it refers to music written between about 1750 and 1800 – the ‘Classical’ era as the music textbooks have it. Concert plays music that ranges over the last 1000 years or so from all around the world. Commercial stations tend to play a chronologically limited range of music (hits of the 60s, 70s blah blah) These limits are very tight indeed in some cases – I can’t imagine Flava or the Rock playing much that dates back beyond the last decade or so. Let alone music in languages other than English and from countries such as the USA, NZ, Aussie etc. So there’s a whole heap of geographical, linguistic and chronological limitations there. They tend to have very narrow and confined musical universes due to their functions as money making entities. Not so with Concert. One piece might be from 18th century Mexico and the next from 16th century France followed by something written in Wellington last week (OK, that may be a slight exaggeration – they still do coherent programming) So the range of music featured on Concert is the widest you will find in NZ’s commercially straitjacketed radio world.

Along with this range of music comes a committment to the Reithian ideas of informing, educating and entertaining. The music played on Concert is usually placed in some kind of context by the presenters and features such as Composer of the Week are designed to improve enjoyment of the music by providing knowledge. This is a Good Thing in many ways. Whereas mass (popular?) culture derives most of its commercial power by recycling styles and the inculcation of a type of blank minded ahistoricism, Concert ipso facto cultivates a longer view of cultural history by playing old music as well as new. And this includes genres such as Jazz and World Music (An ideologically loaded term if ever there was but let it pass) Out of this emerges the ability to make considered judgements about influences, changes and styles in music and the cultures from which it springs and in turns nourishes. Grand words maybe but I see that as being one the main roles of the media – Reith was no simple minded elitest and believed that the more people had access to knowledge then the more powerful they became. This is something derided by the commercial sector of radio as it pursues only profit.

The idea is to strike a fine balance between high minded and patronising didacticism and simple minded pap. I believe Concert does this. Take BBC3 as an example. In the main it is dry, arid and pompous. Dons talking to dons. On the other hand is ClassicFM which is simple minded drivel. Tightly playlisted and concentrating on the ‘top 20’ of warhorses it is promoted as ‘relaxation’ and a ‘haven’. So we won’t be hearing much there to challenge or stimulate. In between these extremes I think Concert has struck a fine balnce of informed comment and varied entertainment that can also move and provoke. Kate Mead’s Soundlounge (Tues 7-midnight) is one of the most provocative radio programmes in NZ. It can make most metal, hardcore and rap sound like Abba. Cadenza (Mon-Fri 5-7) is in contrast a collection of lighter pieces that makes for an enjoyable and interesting drive show that ranges over the centuries and the world. So I think they have got the balance between too much brain strain and bovine entertainment pretty well right.

The main argument against Concert tends to be that it is a waste of public funding as it broadcasts minority music of no interest to anyone. This is nonsense. Its ratings are respectable enough and it functions as a public service. I realise that in an age where our inner lives have been colonised by the commercial imperatives of the culture industries and public discourse is dominated by the language of profit/loss, greed/gain such ideas as public service have little traction with the likes of the corporate drones that dominate commercial NZ radio. They see public broadcasting in general as a waste of potential advertising/profit space and as compeition to the pablum of commercial culture. They are wrong. I believe the media is there to enrich our inner lives, not impoverish them. And there is room for all types of radio. It depends on people choosing to use it. I may not spend much time hiking through national parks but I believe that they provide a valuable public service. So does the public sector media (radio at least – TVNZ is just turgid hellhole of commercialism and stupidity)

I guess there are wider questions here that people may raise about the value of so-called ‘Classical’ music but these are arguments we can have about any form of music. And Concert is not just about this misnamed form of music. It is by no means perfect as is nothing in this imperfect world but I believe it is one of the most interesting and stimulating radio stations operating in NZ. All it takes is open ears and open minds. And on a lighter note I got to play in an orchestra a while ago.

Debut gig by New Zealand Friendly Orchestra (NZFO) at St Matthew’s, Auckland. 16 August 08. In the spirit of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. R. Strauss – Thus Spake Zarathustra (Dawn)


4 Responses to Why is RNZ Concert so wonderful?

  1. Kirst says:

    Peter looks sufficiently pomp and circumstance

  2. Dragon says:

    Peter – don’t worry, I share your love for Concert! I’m not quite sure I’d describe it as “cool”, like you did, but it tends to be one of only a few stations that I can listen to for an extended period of time.

  3. Tomson says:

    Peter, well said! Concert is a fabulous place, bravo RNZ – let’s hope it continues into the 21st century and does not retrograde…

    As for the funding argument – well of COURSE things should be funded if they are not necessarily the most popular. That’s what public funding is for! The popular things run at a profit so does not need funding, and although the reality of a minority audience is unfortunately true, it is of interest to many many people. The economic rationalists have failed spectacularly lately, and a minority of people go to university too, should we do away with them? Only a fool would suggest so. There are things that we value in society because they express our highest ideals and humanity, Concert is one of these, and we therefore fund it.

  4. Ian Goodwin says:

    Well, Peter, I just caught up – I know way too belatedly probably – with this post and felt I had to respond.

    I totally agree that Concert is a worthwhile station, and would never dream of arguing it should be axed, but why do you have to channel the ghosts of Mathew Arnold and F.R. Leavis in order to defend it?

    Commercial radio, with is emphasis on contemporary mass (or even – oh dear! – popular) culture is inculcating listeners into a kind of ‘blank minded’ ahistoricism??? Give me a break! There seem to be some pretty unhealthy views on popular audiences, never mind commercial radio, lurking behind your comments there.

    But hey, don’t mind me, its just that my inner life has been colonised by the commercial imperatives of the culture industries.



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