The “Classical” Button (MP3)

A hotel radio gives a glimpse of the classical music of the future.

The radio in my hotel room is branded with the hotel’s logo: H, for Hilton. The H has the same swirl that so many companies have opted for in their corporate identities. As a result of the ubiquitous swirl, it makes perfect visual sense that the logo would appear on a consumer-electronics device as well as on a hotel.

The radio is multipurpose: there’s an alarm clark, FM radio reception, an alarm, and an auxiliary jack to allow you to pipe in your laptop or MP3 player. On the top of the clock is a large, central snooze button, and five additional buttons, each a small circle denoting, with one exception, a genre. The exception is a button marked “MP3 / line in / AUX.” The four genres are “rap,” “oldies,” “soft rock,” and “classical.” This is what it sounds like when you hit the classical button:

It’s rough radio static with an evident cyclical beat. Perhaps the beat is the result of a rhythm inherent in the source of the distorted signal. Perhaps the beat exposes a fault in this radio’s own technology. Either way, what plays is not “classical” by any common understanding of the word. Clearly, whoever’s job it was to tidy up the room before guests arrived had neglected to (re)adjust the radio’s settings. Or perhaps doing so isn’t stipulated by the Hilton’s own internal systems — perhaps the exposed fault is not a matter of the radio’s technology, but of a gap between the hotel organization symbolized by an H and its sister consumer-electronics arm symbolized by an H.

All of which said, the sound of the static begs the question: What is “classical”? Is there any particular commonly agreed upon subset that still wouldn’t be so broad as to make that term virtually useless in this technological context? “Soft rock” is the most self-contained of the genres listed on the radio, because it includes an adjective that confines the material (thus confirming my longheld belief that genre is meaningless, and only tags are useful). “Rap” is fairly broad, but still suggests a certain realm of common elements: voice, beats. “Oldies” is almost as meaningless as “classical,” because “oldies” simply means that music prior to a certain era is considered valid. As for “classical,” given that this might mean a Beethoven piano sonata, or a Wagner opera, or a Bach cello suite, or Ravel’s Boléro, the word is virtually useless. Use is of concern because the radio’s construction suggests genre as having utility. And while “classical,” like “oldies,” is a term that suggests the past, it is less the case with “classical.” There is new classical music produced every day, and on occasion contemporary works find themselves fitting comfortably along with the canon.

I like to think that this particular hotel radio is tuned to sounds leaking back from the future, a time when this kind of electronic noise, this light industrial piece, this static-laden minimal techno, is considered classical music.

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3 thoughts on “The “Classical” Button (MP3)

  1. ha, i swear i had a similar thought as i listened on soundcloud, before i read your text. among the detritus of the endless reams of science fiction i read in my youth, there’s a tiny remark one the characters in Donald Moffit’s Jupiter Theft made in passing, upon hearing some random bit of music.

    “It was classical, like Bach, or Beatles, or something.”

    i spent nights awake trying to imagine the music of the future that was so different that it made Bach and Beatles sound sort of the same. (at least that’s the way it got stored in my brain, can’t find the quote anymore .. i very much recommend the book, btw — it’s all about the music of sounds, the sounds of language, and the language of music. )

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