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Roll Call

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.

It’s C-SPAN 2’s 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-SPAN’s 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. “It’s 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 don’t 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.

“We’re in the process of refining our playlist,” said Robert Kennedy, C-SPAN’s president, co-chief operating officer, resident music geek and sometime keyboardist. “We’re looking for [music] to pull out and to add. There is a lot of great classical music out there. Going forward we’re 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 don’t 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.

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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