PROFILE: John Schaefer

PROFILE: John Schaefer

Molly Sheridan: New Sounds, your evening radio show on WNYC, covers a huge range of music. How do you discover all the material you program?

John Schaefer: Well, in the beginning, I had to really search out a lot of this music; there was quite a bit of musical sleuthing involved. But as word got out, “discovering” music meant nothing more than opening my mail. Now, I can’t keep up. It’s the single greatest frustration of my job – knowing that somewhere in those piles of CDs that I just don’t have time to get to there’s probably more good material waiting to be found.

Molly Sheridan: New Sounds has been on the air for 20 years now. What’s the history there?

John Schaefer: New Sounds started as a kind of “downtown” companion to the remarkable and adventurous programming that WNYC was doing in the early 1980s. One of the things I loved about this place was that we played music everyone else was afraid of – from serialism to minimalism, the whole range of contemporary classical composition. But it seemed that there was just a short leap to go from Reich, Glass, and Riley to the more experimental rock artists that I happened to be interested in. (And as Philip Glass’s Low and Heroes symphonies proved, he felt the same way.) So New Sounds was started as a kind of open door to invite listeners who perhaps grew up on rock music and were beginning to get bored with the same 3 chords and the same 3 artists on the radio to listen to something that might pique their curiosity.

Molly Sheridan: What are some of the most memorable shows? What are some of the most remarkable things your heard/learned personally?

John Schaefer: The most memorable shows? That’s tough. I forget them as soon as I’ve finished them. It’s 6pm and I’ve already forgotten most of what I did on Soundcheck, [my daily afternoon show], which aired between 2 and 3pm. Actually, some of the most memorable shows have been live ones. It wasn’t presented as a New Sounds Live, but when I produced WNYC-FM‘s 50th Birthday concert at Alice Tully Hall in 1994, with 12 composers presenting newly commissioned works (and one, Morton Gould, adding a second piece too), that felt like a wonderful event; and I remember that as being a great live concert as well as a broadcast “event.” The first time I presented guitarist Robert Fripp‘s “Soundscapes” at the World Financial Center was nothing short of magical. The fact that the space is now a wreck, even knowing that it’ll be rebuilt, adds a layer of poignancy to that memory. Laurie Anderson, appearing on the 10th anniversary New Sounds Live series at Merkin after making her way from Europe during the height of the Gulf War, and arriving without sleep and with every nerve raw, also gave one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen.

Things that I’ve learned through the show – that’s a list too numerous to detail here. David Hykes and La Monte Young created music that completely altered my perception of the role of the listener in music – a startling and profound change. And my first trip to the annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, to record concerts there for New Sounds, was also a tremendous experience – proving, without a lot of words and pretentious discourse, that there IS something spiritual in much of mankind’s music, and that you can feel it even if you can’t necessarily understand it. It raised the even bigger question – is music, ALL music, no matter how slick or angry or crude or lewd, an act of human spirit? Is Muzak? Corporate-driven pop? What is the intention of the music, and how do we, who didn’t write the song or compose the symphony, know what that intention is? So I guess what I’ve learned is what the big questions are. And that’s even better than thinking you’ve found the answers.

Molly Sheridan: You’ve worked at WNYC your whole adult life, you say, as well as produced recordings, authored liner notes. If you weren’t working in the “new music” field, what you most likely be doing professionally?

John Schaefer: Probably writing; I studied creative writing in college and fully intended to write fiction after leaving school. Radio was just an accidental byproduct of my time in school.

Molly Sheridan: The classical radio and recording industries are in the news every few days and it’s generally doom and gloom. What are your predictions for the future of the market?

John Schaefer: These things are cyclical. Right now the pendulum has definitely swung one way, and I’m hoping it’ll begin to swing back. But there are new factors to consider. Digital and satellite radio means that classical music can target its listeners even more effectively than good old terrestrial radio stations ever could. It may be that we’re in the middle of the labor pains as a new medium for classical music is born. What that’s going to mean for those of us in the current radio and recording industries is unclear, but I think in radio at least we’ll have to take advantage of our ability to do strong LOCAL programming to succeed. WNYC, based in New York, obviously has a great advantage there, since our local classical music community is extraordinary.

Molly Sheridan: Do you see any accuracy in the classical programming “rules” of no vocal, no long works, etc..? What are your feelings on the potential of Internet stations?

John Schaefer: Those rules were made for radio purposes, not musical ones. The irony is, there’s an inherent problem with classical radio. Classical music is composed to be heard – to be actively listened to. It is music that wants to convey something to you – a story, an emotion, the solution to a fugal problem or a clever invention that allows familiar musical gestures to be heard in a new way, etc., etc. But ask people why they like classical music and what do they say? “It’s sooo relaxing. I love to have it on while I’m working or driving or washing the dishes.” So the rules are to increase the number of people listening to the radio – not to increase the number of people actually listening – really listening – to the music. And to that extent, they are accurate. They are proven time and again. And they are part of the problem of which the recent changes in the classical radio and recording industries are just a symptom. That problem is the marginalization of classical music. The danger with digital or Internet radio is that it might marginalize it completely – leaving it in a darkened musical corner where only the converted will think to look. For it to really work, classical music needs to be seen as part of the bigger context of music – part of the music that is in turn part of our lives. That’s why new music, which has an immediacy, can be so important in bringing classical music out of that dark corner.

Molly Sheridan: With all the unknown variables, how valuable is broadcasting premiere performances on the radio?

John Schaefer: I think it’s terribly important. A well-attended premiere may be heard by a few thousand listeners, tops. An off-hours broadcast on WNYC will be heard by ten times that amount – at least. What radio has to do, and one of the things I’ve tried to do over the years, is make those broadcasts seem like an event – like something exciting. The first performance of a new work – it should sound like the musical equivalent of the start of the playoffs in your favorite sport.

Molly Sheridan: Soundcheck, your new afternoon show, has been on the air a few weeks now. How’s it going? What do you hope the show provides your listeners?

John Schaefer: It’s killing me. Seriously, it’s a ton of work, and it’s still finding out what it wants to be. I hope it’ll be a show that gets people who are culturally aware, or at least culturally curious, thinking about music and talking about it. Eventually, they’ll get excited by it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll go buy some or check out a concert. Again, radio isn’t the end – it’s just a means. The end in this case is to get people thinking about music the way they think about films, books, museums, plays, or sports.

Molly Sheridan: Speaking of books, you’ve authored a few yourself. Anything new in the works?

John Schaefer: People have been asking me for years to revise the New Sounds book. At this point, though, it needs a complete re-write. And right now I just haven’t found the right circumstances to allow that to happen.


John Schaefer has hosted and produced the radio series New Sounds from New York City’s WNYC-FM since 1982. This program, devoted to new and overlooked music from around the country and around the world, has at various times has been heard via National Public Radio in the US, via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Australia, and via Taipei Public Radio in Taiwan. Since 1986 he has hosted and produced the New Sounds Live concert series, presenting numerous debut performances, works in progress, and world premieres. In 1991, Mr. Schaefer created WNYC’s “Around New York,” a daily program of live chamber music heard each weekday afternoon. Since then, he has overseen the commissioning of numerous works, including pieces written by Ralph Towner, Steve Reich, Jocelyn Pook, Derek Bermel, Richard Einhorn, and Jerome Kitzke, for an array of artists including Christopher O’Riley, Anonymous 4, and Anthony DeMare. Mr. Schaefer’s extensive writings about music include New Sounds: A Listener’s Guide to New Music (Harper & Row and Virgin Books); the Cambridge Companion to Singing: World Music (Cambridge); and a biography of composer La Monte Young (in Sound and Light, Bucknell). He has produced commercial recordings of experimental, classical, and non-Western music, as well as radio features for NPR, PRI, and the Oxford University Press, and his liner notes appear on more than 100 recordings, ranging from the 1996 NAIRD winner The Music of Armenia to the new Bang On A Can realization of Terry Riley’s In C. Mr. Schaefer has curated new music and film series at the World Financial Center; the BAM World Music Festival; and has served on panels for Lincoln Center, BAM, and Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival.

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