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C-SPAN’s Chamber Music

Marilyn Gates-Davis/ Roll Call photo illustration
C-SPAN relies on the public domain for musical accompaniment that is “pleasant without being distracting,” but some want more modern compositions.

Its C-SPAN 2s version of elevator music. At least once a day, the cable network for U.S. Senate proceedings airs a quorum call a parliamentary procedure to check attendance that can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

To fill the dead air, C-SPAN plays classical music as it shows the empty chamber. But not everyone is happy with its selections, and the network is considering changing up the mix.

C-SPANs playlist mainly comes from long-dead European composers, with a heavy dose of Mozart, Liszt, Schumann, Bach and Beethoven. 

There are few, if any, American composers such as George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein and no modern classical works. Jazz music, that great American invention, is nowhere to be found.

Emil de Cou, conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap, is critical of the current playlist. 

The endless Vivaldi concertos? My God, how many could there be? he said. Its like the musical equivalent of packing peanuts.

C-SPAN executives say they look for music that is pleasant without being distracting. To avoid any charges of editorial bias, they stay away from anything with lyrics, even in an instrumental version, and dont play music that is either triumphal or sad.

To keep costs down, the network sticks to music in the public domain, often using classical recordings from the early 20th century.

Still, C-SPAN is looking to get a little more adventurous.

Were in the process of refining our playlist, said Robert Kennedy, C-SPANs president, co-chief operating officer, resident music geek and sometime keyboardist. Were looking for [music] to pull out and to add. There is a lot of great classical music out there. Going forward were hoping to include lesser-known composers.

Since its early days, C-SPAN has preferred classical music. 

In the early 1980s, the network started using it during roll call votes in the House of Representatives. 

We need to have something on audio-wise so people dont think there is something wrong with their television, Kennedy explained.

In 1986, the network added a second channel, C-SPAN 2, which was devoted to full time Senate coverage. Suddenly, producers had hours of dead air. In order to fill them, they moved the musical interludes from the House channel to be the exclusive domain of the Senate channel.

For more than 20 years, C-SPAN producers have collected audio files to cover up the quiet of the quorum call. Today they have 72 of these files, each running about 60 to 80 minutes the length of an average compact disc. That adds up to more than 5,000 minutes of mostly Baroque classics.

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