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Apr. 26 2020

Programming music in a time of crisis

By Judith Krummeck | Posted in Host Blogs | 1 Comment

“The music you offer us has always mattered, but right now it’s even more important.”

This wonderful comment from Linda Cades is one of the many we have been receiving from WBJC listeners during the COVID-19 response. Linda was reacting, in part, to the interview I’d done with Dr. Leana Wen about the coronavirus pandemic, and, more specifically, to the tone poem, “In the Fen Country” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which I programmed immediately following the interview. “Somehow the mood Vaughan Williams created all those years ago fit the current challenge we face,” she wrote. “It expressed the darkness of the moment, but at the same time it was calming and inspiring.”

Linda then went on to say, “The juxtaposition of your interview and the piece that followed it led me to go ahead and write to ask you a question I have been pondering these last few weeks.” The question is this:

“Do you and your fellow hosts find yourselves either consciously or unconsciously programming with the pandemic crisis very much in mind?”

This is such an interesting question, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. On the conscious level, I knew that an interview about the coronavirus crisis could not be followed by a jovial march or an upbeat waltz. It needed something contemplative, and I felt intuitively that the tone poem by Ralph Vaughan Williams would fit the bill. The composer himself described the work as a “symphonic impression,” and it’s a musical picture of the bleak, marshy plains on the east coast of England.

Simon Brackenborough, who studied at nearby Cambridge, as did Ralph Vaughan Williams more than a hundred years before, gives a thoughtful musical analysis of “In the Fen Country.” But, even without this insight into the musical techniques, one can sense from the music the wind sweeping over the flat plains of the fens; the dark clouds lowering over the landscape; the bleak melancholy of the space. Mostly importantly, I think the music conjures up a sense of distance and isolation—something many of us are feeling at this strange time.

“The Vale of Dedham” 1828
John Constable
National Galleries of Scotland

Now obviously, in the seconds it took me to program the piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I was not cognizant of all these implications. I simply knew instinctively that it felt appropriate. And, thinking about it in this context, I have been wondering about the unconscious, or subconscious, level of programming. How far does that go? The part of England that inspired Vaughan Williams to write his tone poem has taken on a personal connotation for me since my sister settled in Essex, the county just south of the fen country on the east coast. The area on the border between Essex and Suffolk—the southernmost part of the fen country—has become known as Constable Country, for the myriad paintings of the area by John Constable.

The last time I visited Essex was towards the end of January, just two weeks before my sister died from interstitial lung disease. Of course, I couldn’t but be reminded of her struggles to breathe towards the end of her life by the symptoms associated with COVID-19. Whether that was deeply imbedded in my subconscious when I programmed “In the Fen Country” I can’t truly say, but I do believe that nothing is random. The tone poem by Ralph Vaughan Williams led Linda Cades to reach out to me. That, in turn, led me to think more deeply about the conscious and unconscious impetus that goes into programming music, and to share my thoughts with you.

Many people have reached out to us to thank us for being here during this time of Stay at Home and Social Distancing. Truly, I consider it a privilege. On a practical level, as I watch my husband try to give structure to his formless days while he runs the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program from home with Zoom and conference calls, I know how fortunate I am that the pattern of my days is not substantially altered. On a deeper level, though, and as an eternal optimist, I see a silver lining to the repercussions of this pandemic, and it is this: it has heightened my awareness of how we are interconnected through the music that it is our privilege to program for you on WBJC. This is—and always will be—something we can still share, no matter how socially distanced we might be.

It is one of the benefits of having classical music hosts who program their own music, and are part of the community in which you live. Even if you listen online from another part of the country or the world, we are of this time and place along with you. So yes, I do think that we program with the pandemic crisis in mind. I am aware, for one thing, that the shape and rhythm of your days have changed, so I can play longer pieces at certain times of day, and I want to be sensitive to the seriousness of the situation that we face, hoping to provide some calm and comfort. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our music choices reflect not only who we are, but also the times in which we collectively live. Thank you for being there.

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Judith is WBJC's afternoon host. Her full bio can be read here.

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