Lice in the Fur of the Big: The Joys of Concertzender

by Joan Harvey

The British Library

I no longer remember how or when I stumbled on, an internet radio station located in Utrecht, but it has been with me through changes in location, partners, through raising a son: it has been with me from before they had an English translation on the website and before people from overseas could make donations, before they had an app. According to the website, “Thirty-four years ago, a group of music lovers shared the strongly felt urgency to create a sanctuary where everything revolves around music, music and musicians having the highest word, music in (almost) all its facets can be listened to as it is intended, no boundaries are drawn between genres and styles, almost every music lover comes into their own and no concessions have to be made to non-musical secondary goals.”

Max Roach. Contemporary Korean music. Electronic female artists from around the globe. Artie Shaw. Italian “infernal industrial” band Satanismo. Schnittke and Ustvolskaya. “Theremin genius” Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. Bach. Abbey Lincoln. Gregorian Chant. Songs by Kurt Weill. Music for the oboe family. Chanson. Motets. Makossa, the popular urban music movement originally from Cameroon. Mudhoney. Hummel. Liszt. Psychic TV. Frank Bridge. The Swans. Songs about refugees. Gogol Bordello. Bollywood Bhangra Disco Masala.

The is just a tiny fraction of the variety of music to be found on Concertzender. One click opens up a vast musical world.

There are 24 theme channels, plus an enormous number of easily accessible archived programs. There are theme channels devoted to the baroque, to industrial music, to hard bop, to ambient music, several for classical, several for jazz. There is a folk channel and a world music channel on which DJs play funky upbeat music great for dancing and partying and doing the dishes. I don’t normally listen to folk music, but the folk channel isn’t what one would expect. “This Folk it! can we better rename Folk it! extreme. We look for the—sometimes extreme—corners of the modern folk music. That apparently always includes a label. Literally and figuratively. Designations such as drone folk, rural folk, experimental folk, dark folk etc. And is it folk?”

I usually skip the Gregorian Chant channel, but every now and then a little uplifting monk singing might be just what the day calls for. There are ambient and noise programs I usually skip as well, but for those composing music like this, it’s a cornucopia. A program called Radio Monalisa features all female composers, not an easy thing to find other places. Electronic Frequencies has a show featuring electronic female artists from around the globe. “A feminine dance in between dreamy vocal lines, radical sound poetry, rough field recordings and some catchy laptop music.” The show Framework features ambient music curated by guest artists from around the world. One such is a collection of “Earwigs produced by students at Taipei University.” Am I going to listen to Taiwanese student earwigs? Nope. But somehow it’s great that Dutch programmers have chosen to play them.

You want nothing but Bach and his influences—try No Day Without Bach. New classical music? There’s a whole channel devoted to that. Experimental, ambient, avant-garde, industrial, and electronic music? X-Rated is the channel for you. There are over 100 unpaid “passionate experts and specialists in all possible genres, with an ear for new music developments and emerging talent” who have programs on Concertzender, programs with wonderful names: Sonorous. The Garden of Old. Terra Incognita. Free Radicals. The Palace of the Melancholy. Portamento. Missa Etcetera. Krizz Krazz. Between Dream and Did (which other places is translated Deed and sometimes Act). Roam the Baroque. Dr. Klangenden. Unknown is Unloved? Kairos. World Minerals.

While for years I enjoyed seeing how much sense I could make of the Dutch (and while listening, I still do), the website now comes translated into English, which gives additional, if unintentional, pleasures. I assume the translation is done by a program, but it leads to many delightful puzzles. What, for example is “That Chewing Gum Plate Feeling?” This is what a program called The Palace of the Sorrow is described as providing, along with “cheerful melancholy.” No matter how long I think about a chewing gum plate it refuses to yield to my understanding. Because it is part of the description of The Palace of Sorrow program, I gather it must be something that causes a bit of sticky but rubbery unhappiness. Still, as a feeling it evades me. And yet the concept tickles the brain. As do descriptions of many of the programs, like the one featuring, among other songs, “beautiful cowboy sorrow about a love letter that is sent back unopened by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, sitar artist Anton Karas and then also the Clark Sisters, the King’s Singers and poetic compellingness by actor Lee Marvin in ‘something’ what was meant as singing. In short, another Palace with the charm of a junk-room.”

Some programs have themes linking unlikely styles of music together. Why, for example, would you find Frank Zappa and Franz Schubert and Dvorák on the same program? Because it’s a show with the theme “The devil, demons and other rabble.” So Zappa’s “The Idiot Bastard” is linked with Dvorák’s “The Noonday Witch,” and Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” among others. Another programmer chooses the sounds of autumn, or rather the musical smells of autumn: “Not only in color, but also in smell, precipitation and extreme gusts of wind.” The songs have titles such as “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom,” “Sex with your Ex,” “Nude as the News.” Autumn, it seems, comes linked with nostalgic sex.

There’s something cheerful and joking about Concertzender—people who aren’t afraid of joyous melancholy, junk-rooms, and eccentricity. For example, a tribute to a programmer, Jan Kruit, who recently died, mentions that he “had a typewriter on which the letter A was missing. He wrote it in manually, often with a red fine writer. That gave his production form cachet. The other program makers wrote their program design using forms and on the computer. If not Jan. We have never managed to get the standard production forms made in all those years.”

Another programmer writes, this time in English, for a show called American Highways Rushhour: “Frederic Rzewski is a great composer, with an unforgivable personality. He’s one of the most difficult people I’ve ever interviewed: arrogant, complex, and irascible. Yet I have to grudgingly admit that his genius comes through, despite his personality and uncooperative grumpiness.” And I have to (less grudgingly) admit I find this bluntness refreshing.

While one doesn’t find much of what is considered normal contemporary pop music (the Pop channel has shows like Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention between 1966 and 1969, or groups like Ulver, Prince Buju, and White Reaper), it is also possible to find plenty of familiar artists, and also many unfamiliar recordings by those same artists. For example, Holiday for Hipsters features jazz and blues from 1930-1960 and musicians like Charlie Parker, Artie Shaw, and Duke Ellington. On X-Rated I recognize some John Zorn, the Swans, Lustmord, among many I don’t know. A program called New Music From the Last Century also has some artists I’m familiar with: Thomas Adès, Arvo Pärt, K. Penderecki, H. Gorecki. Some folk programs offer “famous names like Bruce Springsteen, Ray Davis, James Taylor and the two duos Jagger & Richards and Lennon & McCartney. But also songs by lesser-known pop gods such as The Stranglers, The Dear James and Bad Company pass in a folky arrangement.” A program called Mambo has one episode devoted to Tito Puentes, another to Bebo Valdes, another to “Two elderly stars in New York: Candido & Graciela.” Between Swing and Bop features musicians like Drummer Max Roach and countless greats like Coleman Hawkins and Clifford Brown. But much of Concertzender is made up of names I never come across, much of it unShazamable, and almost never played in America

While there are no specifically rap or soul channels, both types of music can be found on Solta a Franga, the upbeat dance channel, or Jazz Not Jazz, or a channel called Crosslinks. There also are no bluegrass or country channels, but these can be found on the folk listings. If you want non-Western music there is Orient Express, which has traditional Arabic classical music, as well as classical music from India, from Iran, from Egypt, from Azerbaijan. World Music includes much from Africa and South America. On Cantina Brasil you can find a show devoted to songs about football including “O Rei Pele.” Exitos Musicales—Golden Age of Exotica has a show on Hawaiian Music with a family group including twin brothers Nedward and Ledward Kaapana. There is Yma Sumac. Mexican Music. Music from Surinam.

I’m far from any kind of musical connoisseur, but my normal listening tastes aren’t particularly mainstream, and run from Pigface to Schnittke, from Verdi to the Gossip, from Skip James to Bob Willis to Al Green to PJ Harvey to Guru. But to have my eyes opened to the range of music I’m unfamiliar with has been to see (hear) the world in a different light. The range of music is so vast that it makes one realize how little one knows of the great variety of human creativity. DJ Rafadelic on Solta a Franga selects Latin, Afro, Reggae, Bhangra and Folk releases from the past year. Between Dream and Act is subtitled From Romance to Twelve Tones: the Fin de Siècle. Jazz Not Jazz arrives “in search of obscure and innovative broken beat, funk, glitch, electro, hiphop, skweee and other.” A show called Lost and Found XX is described as “A casual musical narrative that could end up in turbid, dark waters.”

Any listener can chart their own path—most people will skip the vast part of what is available, and still find much to satisfy. Suppose you like opera: you got it. But not just another version of La Traviata. Instead, how about a History of the Opera in the 20th Century, beginning with highlights from the year 1900. Excerpts from Alexander von Zemlinsky (“Es war einmal”), Sergei Prokofiev (“The Giant”), Gustave Charpentier (“Louise”), Gabriel Fauré (“Promethee”), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (“The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Сказка о царе Салтане)”), Ruggero Leoncavallo (“Zaz”). Plus a list of other operas and operettas performed that year. Standard opera listeners may have heard of these composers, or know some of their works, but chances are not these particular ones, and not that they were being performed in 1900.

Alternatively, possibly, you’re interested in post-Kurt Cobain grunge from 1995. From the show Free Radicals, here you go: “Even though grunge was over the peak, there were still enough bands that kept the sacred fire burning, like Strobe, Thelonious Monster, Guzzard, Headcleaner and Seaweed. All relatively unknown groups that nevertheless managed to hit the right strings, just as well as Tad, Chokebore and of course Mudhoney.”

Another lovely thing about Concertzender is that there is plenty to learn from the program notes. I didn’t know Dave Brubeck was a student of Darius Milhaud. Or that most Paraguayans are bilingual and, in addition to Spanish, speak Guaraní. Or that before Englebert Humperdink, who, I learned from Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, changed his name (“’We’re going to change your name, Gerry! Who we got? Zingelbert Bembledack, Tringelbert Wangledack, Slut Bunwalla, Klingybun Fistelvase, Dindlebert Zindledack, Gerry Dorsey, Engelbert Humptyback, Zengelbert Bingledack, Engelbert Humperdinck, Vingelbert Wingledanck…’’ “No, no, go back one. Go back one.” “Engelbert Humperdinck. That’s it.”), there was a real Englebert Humperdinck who lived from 1854 to 1921, and has several shows on Concertzender devoted exclusively to his music.

Where else would I hear a whole Residents concert beginning with “For Elsie,” a wonderful and strange version of “Für Elise.” Or from the Ensemble Klang, a song called “Cutest Little Arbritage.” Obviously spelled wrong. But nice either way. Concertzender won’t take the place of Pandora or Spotify or Amazon Music or iTunes, or wherever you get your on-demand music, and yet just having one’s ears opened to the incredible range of music out there is worth the time. I live in the American West, but it’s on this station from Utrecht that I first heard Native American Jim Pepper’s “Yo Na Ha,” with its wonderful “Oh yes I love you Honey. I don’t care if you’re married, I will drive you home in my one-eyed Ford.”

One can learn from Concertzender that music can smell like autumn. That we humans are bound together in a vast musical universe. That we know so little of it all. That there are experts who work for free to share with us their passions. I’ll almost certainly never listen to the program on contemporary Korean composers, but someone might. And it makes me realize I’ve never thought before about Koreans composing modern music, just as most of the thoughts of the world have not been thought by me. But a bigger world is a larger space for the mind to move in. A bigger space for the pleasure of the ears.

“We throw the bat into the henhouse and confront you as a listener with … the label MORC… the democratic, individual control, creative process and choices of the musicians are guaranteed at Morc. Morc is one of those lice in the fur of the big – do they still exist?” This is from a show on the Folk It channel. Most of us can only aspire to become lice in the fur of the big, but meanwhile we can listen to MORC label music, “a large spectrum of sounds and structures. From avant-garde to meditative drones, lo-fi pop and noisy electronics… very spontaneous, and slightly more dirty of sound.” Concertzender describes itself as a place to find “special, unprecedented, vulnerable, disruptive or surprising music.” You can listen to Deutsch Nepal playing “Impassive Metal Sex.” Or 13th Century Liturgy. Or the Bollywood Beats. What are you waiting for?