Light Music: A Reconsideration -An Interview With David Ades
In its March/April issue, the American music magazine 'Fanfare' included a survey on Guild Music.
David Ades was interviewed by the magazine's regular light music reviewer, Paul A. Snook, to discuss the story behind the "Golden Age of Light Music" series of CDs.
Light Music: A Reconsideration (An Interview With David Ades)
By Paul A. Snook
Over the past several years some 70-plus volumes titled Golden Age of Light Music have emanated from the unlikely source of the Swiss label Guild. Under the authoritative guidance of compiler David Ades, this series now represents the most comprehensive and diversified cross section of a kind of orchestral music that during the first 60 years of the last century appealed to a large and varied audience that has now unfortunately dwindled to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts.
This sorry state of affairs is no doubt due to the accelerated dumbing-down of the standards of so-called popular music over the past half-century, due to the unthinking canonization of adolescence and the resulting lemming-like embrace of Neanderthal - or perhaps more accurately Lumpenproletariat - culture by the educated elites, for whom the sound of even a Leroy Anderson miniature constitutes a form of "classical" music. Conversely the classical crowd for the most part harbours a reflexive contempt for any work whose primary aim is to entertain in a musically intelligent manner within a compressed two-to-three-minute framework.
Ades and his cohorts are making a brave - and perhaps foolhardy? - effort to reverse these lamentable trends, or at least to document an era when there was an unquestioned acceptance and appreciation of much more elevated levels of musical artistry than obtains today among the general populace.
Here is how David Ades perceives his role in this musical wasteland:
Q. Before we talk about the Golden Age series proper, perhaps you could fill in the background of your personal involvement with light music.
A: Growing up in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s I heard a lot of light music on the radio. Unless we were prepared to endure often awful reception from stations based in Europe (usually Radio Luxembourg), our radio entertainment came from the non-commercial BBC, and they employed a large number of musicians. There were orchestras based in all the main regions of the United Kingdom, and the schedules included a lot of live music - partly because the airtime allocated to playing records was restricted to avoid musicians losing their jobs. Things gradually changed during the 1960s, when many broadcasting ensembles were either reduced in size or simply disbanded. Partly this was due to the public's changing musical tastes, but BBC radio was also being starved of funds, which were increasingly diverted to its television channels. However, during the immediate post-war years radio reached its peak of popularity, and it produced an amazing array of all kinds of light-entertainment programs. Many of these had signature tunes selected from the recorded music libraries of major music publishers, and even today people still talk about the themes associated with their favourite shows. Public demand resulted in some of them being recorded commercially, which many people avidly collected. As a teenager I was curious to learn more about the composers and conductors whose work I admired, especially as I was starting to see them in their own television shows - notably Robert Farnon and Ray Martin. Through a friend I learned in 1956 that a Robert Farnon Appreciation Society was being formed by a group of enthusiasts based in London. A magazine was launched and the society made slow but steady progress in the following years. This allowed music lovers elsewhere to become involved, and the society gradually expanded to include all composers and musicians working in the light-music field. Today the scope of music the Robert Farnon Society (the word "appreciation" was dropped early on) covers is even wider, with members in all five continents. I was asked to become honorary secretary and treasurer in 1962, a commitment that continues to this day. For much of that time I have also edited the society's magazine, Journal Into Melody.
Q. What was the origin of the idea for this kind of series?
A: Guild Music is an independent record label that now operates from Switzerland. For many years it concentrated mainly on historical classical recordings (and it still does), building up a fine reputation internationally. The managing director is Kaikoo Lalkaka, and during 2003 he happened to mention to the company producing his CD booklets that he was thinking of expanding the range of his releases. It so happened that the same company was designing booklets for another record company that regularly employed me to compile their CDs of light music, including writing the booklet notes. They told Mr. Lalkaka what I was already doing elsewhere, and he approached me to ask if I thought there was a future in a series of light-music CDs. Initially I suggested that the market should be tested with just one compilation, but he said that it would make a better impact if we issued three at once. To be honest, I thought that might be all we would do, and I tended to include some of the very best pieces of light music in those first three CDs! But to my slight surprise and delight, the CDs sold sufficiently well to continue with the series and I was asked to prepare new compilations at a rate of two CDs every two months. I am now working on the 80th collection. This certainly is the "Golden Age of Light Music": there has never been a time when so much of it was available to the public on compact discs and Internet downloads.
Q. Why did you decide to use the concept of themes for each release instead of some other basis as an organizing principle?
A: As a lifelong collector myself, I am very much on the side of record buyers. I have always thought it unfair that so much music gets duplicated in new releases. I have a wide knowledge of what is available, so I think I have a good idea of what keen music lovers will already have. It should also be emphasized that there is no duplication of tracks within the series, although, of course, there are instances of more than one recording of the same piece as interpreted by different orchestras. The vast majority of other releases of light music are simply reissues of LPs. This means that a lot of other music (especially older 78s) is automatically excluded. By allowing each collection to contain music from many different sources it is possible to include a vast range of music and, hopefully, a lot of pleasant surprises. It is necessary to create different themes to give the collections a foundation for the repertoire chosen, although every so often I compile what I acknowledge is a haphazard selection to mop up some of the tracks that inevitably get excluded because they may not fit specific themes. I like to think that my deliberate policy of trying to include some rare pieces in most collections is helping to get certain composers far better known, and encourage people to seek out some of their other work.
Q. Why the decision to include instrumental pop standards instead of only actual light-music compositions?
A: The simple answer is to try and make the collections more attractive, especially to casual purchasers who may only come across them when browsing in record stores. Although there is a vast amount of what might be termed "pure" recorded light music available (much of it locked away in publishers' libraries, never previously available), the majority of it is probably unknown to all except the most serious students of the genre. People coming across unfamiliar titles by composers unknown to them are going to need some persuading before they will make a purchase, and I have little doubt that the Golden Age of Light Music series would probably have come to an end fairly quickly if I had adopted a narrow approach toward the repertoire. "Light music" (or concert music, easy listening, middle-of-the-road, etc.) covers a wide range that can embrace the traditional styles of light music (perhaps a bit prim and proper to some younger people) and lush orchestral arrangements of popular music, especially show tunes. If these CDs don't sell in sufficient quantities the series will come to an end. I have to make new CDs appealing to casual buyers as well as confirmed enthusiasts (an amazing number of people automatically buy each new release unheard), so from time to time I include a collection of general interest, such as the Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers CDs. With around 2,000 tracks now included in the series there should be something for everyone. Compared with pop music, one has to acknowledge that light music appeals to a relatively small number of people, and probably over 90 percent of the music reissued on the Guild CDs is no longer of any commercial interest to others. I should add that, as the series has progressed, we get an increasing number of contacts from regular purchasers asking for pieces of music to be included; most new collections now contain several tracks in response to specific requests.
Q. I imagine locating some of these long-out-of-print 78s, LPs, and single 45s must be quite a chore. What are your sources?
A: Initially the music came from my own collection with additional titles supplied by Alan Bunting, who handles the digital sound restoration and remastering. But very quickly collectors around the world sensed our mission to try and make available a whole range of recordings that had been neglected by other record companies, and I have been amazed at the generosity of fellow enthusiasts in many countries, such as the U.S.A., Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and Portugal - as well as a large number in Britain. They have allowed us access to their precious recordings, and the result has been the creation of the foremost library of light orchestral music in the world. It would be nice to hope that future generations of music lovers will appreciate the importance of our work.
Q. In this connection, many of these older recordings probably require a good deal of tuning-up, right?
A: In some respects we have made a rod for our own backs in deciding that each CD would include music from a variety of different sources. Some collections feature music recorded well over 30 years apart, from a period when the techniques of sound recording went through many different stages. Collectors will know that contemporary recordings made today in different studios can have a distinct sound; when you add that to the advances made in microphones since electrical recording was introduced in 1925 - not to mention stereo - you can appreciate the challenge in trying to avoid too many harsh fluctuations in sound quality. I am very fortunate in having Alan Bunting as my colleague handling all the technical aspects. He shares my passion for light music and is widely recognized as a world leader in his field, going to great lengths to obtain the finest possible sound quality from the often less than perfect discs that come our way. We spend hours listening and refining the sound of each collection, with test CDs going back and forth several times before we are both satisfied with the results. Only very rarely do we allow something of historical importance to sway our judgment of what is acceptable. It is not unusual to use passages from more than one disc where there may have been needle damage, and I frequently experiment with different styli. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction comes from records made in the 1930s, which sound superb when processed with the latest state-of-the-art restoration tools. In one collection we even restored one of the very earliest stereo tests from 1934. Strangely some of the recordings that give us most problems are LPs from the 1950s, where there were often excessive amounts of treble (particularly from some U.S. labels), which made the strings sound distinctly harsh.
Q. How would you define "light music" in all its ramifications?
A: It would be difficult to find two people who agree on the exact definition of "light music." Music has been called the international language, and in its many guises it is probably as diverse as all the spoken tongues around the world. Individual styles constantly develop and change in response to various influences, and there is no doubt that our ancestors who listened to what we might term "their" light music in the 1800s would find the sounds of the 1950s too avant-garde for their ears. Light music is not alone in this; some of today's best-loved classical works were harshly criticized at their premieres. My own personal idea of light music is that it is essentially non-vocal and performed by an ensemble that can range in size from a quartet to the full forces of a symphony orchestra. But often it is a case of "less is better." An orchestra that is too large can struggle with the delicate nuances that are a feature of many of the finest light-music cameos. For many works, a concert orchestra of around 30 musicians is often ideal, with perhaps a few extra soloists as the composer (or arranger) demands. Tasteful orchestral arrangements of songs also impress me as light music, although I am aware that not everyone will agree with me.
Q. How do you perceive the role and place of light music in the wider context of music as a whole?
A: It is a pity that some musicologists find the need to pigeonhole different styles of music. They are often the losers, because their blinkered attitude prevents them from exploring a lot of the available repertoire. Many concerts of "serious" classical music could benefit from the inclusion of a lighter work as an opening number, or to fill a short gap between longer works. During its best years radio used to offer such a wide variety of music: you could tune in to one station early in the day and if you left it playing you would come across many different styles - often providing pleasant surprises. Today that doesn't happen, and broadcasters are to blame for fostering generations with a very shallow knowledge of music as a whole. I have heard critics say that pop music (especially in the 1950s and 1960s) was to blame for the demise of light music, but I believe that is a fallacy. Light music has always been squeezed between other music forms, and the main losers from the Presley and Beatles generation were the crooners and swing bands of the 1940s.
Q. What are the differences between the U.S., U.K., and the Continent in their awareness and appreciation of light music?
A: I think that the more traditional style of light music has a slightly stronger base in the U.K. and Europe, but the U.S. and Canada (don't forget that Robert Farnon and Percy Faith came from Canada) have had a major impact on the development of this genre. It is impossible to overstate the importance of people like André Kostelanetz, David Rose, Morton Gould, and the Boston Pops in keeping light music alive internationally.
Q. Do you envision any future hope for a wider audience for light music in any form?
A: In Britain there are several young conductors who are doing a good job in keeping light music going - John Wilson and Gavin Sutherland immediately spring to mind. They make the valid point that - unlike the older generation - it has nothing to do with nostalgia as far as they are concerned; it is simply well crafted and very enjoyable music. The problem is that radio stations tend to ignore it. Unless people are allowed to hear this music, they won't know it is out there. When young people (such as amateur youth orchestras) are exposed to it, the reaction is usually favourable. Light music won't go away, but it needs enthusiasts to keep giving it the kiss of life!
The above interview appeared in the March/April issue of the American music magazine "Fanfare", and is reproduced with due acknowledgments.
The interviewer, Paul A. Snook writes regularly for Fanfare, and he has been a member of The Robert Farnon Society for many years.
Paul was born in 1935 in the Bronx, and during his childhood years in the 1940s he was constantly exposed to radio broadcasts by the big bands and their vocalists doing mostly "Hit Parade" material. At the same time he responded instinctively to the sounds coming off the screen when his mother took him to the movies. After eight years of piano lessons, he had learned to read music, but his teacher told him he would never go beyond competency, whereas at playing the phonograph he was a virtuoso! So he naturally began to focus more on the music he heard over the air and on early television. At the age of 14 he took a survey course on the history of classical music, realizing that the harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of late Romantic and early 20th-century composers paralleled those of Ellington, Goodman, and Kenton, together with the Hollywood composers, all of whom he loved. With the advent of long-play records, he began to haunt Sam Goody's and other stores, to acquire the music he began to unearth from the Schwann catalogue - Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartók, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Milhaud, Honegger, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, as well as the American symphonists. Most of what he learned about this repertoire he absorbed by listening to the records and reading the liner notes.
After graduating from Princeton with a BA in English, Paul fulfilled his dream of moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to attend graduate school at Columbia. His record collection grew exponentially as he discovered the many composers in other countries who derived from his favourite modern masters, while at the same time rediscovering the great pop artists of his earlier years.
Eventually he amassed over 20,000 LPs - which he still plays and enjoys - plus some thousands of tapes and cassettes exchanged with fellow collectors throughout the world, which were ultimately donated and housed in a special archive located at Columbia University, to which Paul maintains lifetime access.
Meanwhile, to pay for all this, he held jobs in public relations (Queens College) and public information writing (United Nations), but his most musically significant posts were three years as classical music director for Riverside Radio (WRVR) and most of the 1970s working for his friend Will Lerner at his legendary record store, Music Masters. Now a grandfather, Paul says he plans to go on reviewing recordings of 20th-century music for 'Fanfare' until he is too weak to load the tray on his CD player!
This feature appeared in 'Journal Into Melody' - September 2011