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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.

Piotr Gajewski, musical director and conductor of the National Philharmonic, said it’s no surprise that C-SPAN ended up playing mostly classical works from the 17th to 19th centuries. 

“For the most part, whether you’re talking about music to be played in elevators, stores or on C-SPAN, there should be no lyrics,” he said. “You want music with a benign, calming effect. The most benign of these choices are from the 1700s. The earlier music sounds ancient to modern ears and later than that you get into music composed to pull at the heartstrings.”

But other experts say there is plenty of music from the 20th century that could also fill the network’s needs. 

Compositions become less emotionally charged by the middle of the 20th century, explained David Torn, musician and Hollywood composer. “From the middle 1960s forward, there is a hell of lot of music composed in a classical format that isn’t necessarily classical” and that isn’t emotionally wrought, he said.

“The fact is that there are many culturally diverse influences folded into American music and its composition. It seems like it would make a lot of sense to have our own music playing rather than European court music.” 

After all, he continued, “[Baroque music] is a classical music, but it’s not the classical music.”

De Cou, who debuted at Wolf Trap in 2000, said the network should consider its broader educational mission.

“C-SPAN could do a lot more to promote American music, culture and art,” he said, noting the network’s sizable national audience. 

Roughly 50 million people tune into C-SPAN regularly, and one in 10 watch one of the three C-SPAN channels for more than three hours at a time. 

By including music written by Americans from composers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first important American composer; early 20th century jazz music or the Minimalist composers, such as Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich, C-SPAN could actually “shed light on the unending experiment that is America,” de Cou said.

Torn said it could also help living composers. 

“Whether they would get paid or not, it is exposure. Maybe, as a result, people would start to seek it out,” he said.

At a minimum, Torn and de Cou say C-SPAN could provide more information about the musical pieces played during the quorum call, perhaps by highlighting the piece’s title, its composer and the performer of that particular version. 

Kennedy said there are some technical reasons why they can’t do that now, including the fact that C-SPAN does not have the information on all of the music in its collection, but he said it’s something the network might consider. 

Though C-SPAN considers its mission covering Congress, to the extent that it can educate the public about music, he said, “that’s an added benefit.” 

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