Friday, October 31, 2008

Let's get lost: Music on the New York airwaves

One of the recurrent themes at this year's conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (subject of my last few entries) was the importance of technology's role in the world of music today, as stated in numerous papers, the splendid Seeger lecture by Bob Garfias, and even the President's Roundtable.

To be sure, technological advancements were more than apparent in the various events at the conference, as well, of course, as technological impediments, which over the years of attending lectures and conferences I've come to refer to as "Projector Council Moments", from my school days more than fifty years ago, when some aspect of audio-video technology confounds the presenter, and an expert has to be called. (I was very proud in those days to be one of those "experts", and even now, as a member of the audience, I have to stifle the impulse to rush heroically up to the podium to attempt to assist when such a crisis occurs . . . .) There were more than a few of these at Wesleyan, given the diverse nature of computer hardware and software, as well as the varied technical capabilities of the presenters. But then, technical challenges have always faced speakers on musical subjects, earlier with tape or cassette recorders, slide projectors, and even simple microphones.

But I digress. In any case, it was on the return drive home that I was perhaps most grateful for technology, and at that, a technology that has been with us for more than a century.

My vehicle's radio has an automatic search function, and at some point driving down Interstate 95 toward the George Washington Bridge, I came across a station playing a most intriguing fusion of some form of traditional world music with wildly gyrating jazz.

This was one of those "Radio Music Moments" that I experience occasionally when I simply HAD to know what this music was, and who was playing. (Do others share this same compulsion?) As my auditory consciousness overrode my navigational priorities, I suddenly found myself in totally unfamiliar territory, proceeding south (according to the compass in my vehicle--the only clue to where I was) on Interstate 295, apparently in one of the New York boroughs, but still, most fortunately, in full range of the FM radio station, which had in the interim identified itself as WKCR, and the program was "New Music."

As the broadcast (which had begun at 3:00 that afternoon and was to run until 6:00) progressed, for once in my life I was grateful 1) to be lost, and 2) to begin to be stuck in traffic, as the Friday afternoon wore on and the weekend flow of vehicles thickened and slowed. The guest was Adam Rudolph--whose name I had heard over the years, but whose music I had never experienced. As details of his life emerged--high school days in Hyde Park in Chicago (where I had attended graduate school) I began to wonder whether he was related to (indeed the son of?) Professors Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph, who so far as I could remember had a son about the age of Adam. The program host skilfully integrated musical examples into his interview, and as I listened and the minutes passed, I realized that this in-depth examination of the work of a single musician (and a "world music" practitioner at that) was most welcome--in contrast to the necessary limitations of the papers I had been listening to for the past five days, where the presenters had 20 minutes or so to cover the full range of their subject, including music or video clips.

It was an odd experience to savor--simultaneously--both geographical and musical disorientation. I am not familiar enough with jazz to understand conceptually much of the music that was being played. But being to some extent "lost", both as to where I was, and what I was hearing, was nothing short of exhilarating--with the various New York skylines shifting continuously on my right as I drove south, and sensing in my gut the strange magnetism of that city of infinite possibilities.

I have since learned that WKCR is of course a college operation, affiliated with Columbia University. What other than a university radio station would be able to avoid the commercial imperatives, as well as the shortening attention span of today's audience, in order to devote three hours to a single subject? Nor did the modest but most accomplished host inject his own name into the flow of conversation, or even the station IDs; a subsequent telephone call to the station was necessary to learn that his name is Ben Young.

It was a fitting experiential coda to the geographically static conference experiences for me to have no choice but to listen to the music and ideas of Adam Rudolph as I drove, drove, drove through the afternoon.

Of Adam Rudolph, WKCR, and music media in general, more later.

And as for the subject line of this entry, it refers to the splendid film on the life of the late jazz genius Chet Baker, "Let's Get Lost", one of the great musical film biographies of all time.

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