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Embracing classical music and its potential for 'sonic salvation'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Amidst all the chaos in the world, we offer a tonic for your Friday evening.

Jeffrey Brown talks to a musician and programmer about how anyone can benefit from a dose of classical music every day of the year. Take a listen.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: If it's January 3, why not try a bit of Hildegard of Bingen, written in the 12th Century, March 27, an overture of a Mozart opera, or, for November 3, a contemporary Icelandic composer, Olafur Arnalds?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Selecting a piece of classical music for every day of the year. And I hope that it will elicit a year of wonder. I am constantly wonderstruck by the incredible gift that classical music can be.

Jeffrey Brown: Clemency Burton-Hill is an evangelist for what some see as a dying art form, classical music. She's the creative director at WQXR, the classical music, public radio station serving the New York metropolitan area.

And she's author of the new book "Year of Wonder," which she wrote, she says, because too many feel excluded from this music she loves.

Clemency Burton-Hill: People were saying to me, you know, I would love to listen to more classical music, but I'm not sure I'm doing it right, or I'm not sure how to.

Jeffrey Brown: Literally like, I don't know how to listen to it or where to pick it up?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Exactly. And I feel that people would say to me things like, I don't know if I'm listening right.

And I would want to just say to them, if you're a human being, and you have ears, and you're responding to that piece of music, that's listening right.

The difficulty is that I think people don't even get to engage with the music to know whether they might be wonderstruck or not. There are so many barriers to entry around this thing that we rather unhelpfully call classical music.

Jeffrey Brown: Barriers to entry, such as?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Well, so many. How long have you got? There are educational, social, class, racial. I mean, there are so many reasons why people think that they're not allowed to engage with this music.

Jeffrey Brown: Burton-Hill herself came to classical music very early, as a child in London who fell in love with the violin. She went on to Cambridge and studied at the Royal College of Music, winning prestigious prizes.

She is well-known to BBC audiences as a presenter for a variety of programs. And while she is dedicated to her classical roots, she says she grew up loving rock, jazz, hip-hop, all kinds of music.

Clemency Burton-Hill: I'm not suggesting that classical music is so superior to other forms of music, and that's why more people should listen to it. But I am saying, there is a whole sonic world of wonders out there. And that's what this book is all about, to say, here are 366 pieces. We will start small. Baby steps.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, 366. "Year of Wonder" even gives us music for leap year, a piece by the Italian opera composer Rossini, who, it turns out, was born on February 29, 1792.

Burton-Hill includes that kind of biographical detail about the composers and other brief notes. And she's created a Spotify page, so readers listen along.

Clemency Burton-Hill: I got a nice message the other day from someone who was reading along and listening along with the book, and said, I put the book next to my dishwasher, and then every evening, as I'm loading the dishwasher, that's the moment that I do that day's entry from "Year of Wonder," and it's really transforming doing the dishes for me.

And that's great. I love that.

Jeffrey Brown: You're very concerned to diversify classical music, open it up in that sense?

Clemency Burton-Hill: I really wanted to actually, where possible, bring people out of the shadows, bring people out of the fringes and say, you know, there were incredible human beings making this music who don't fit the stereotype of what a classical composer is.

Jeffrey Brown: Which means more women.

Clemency Burton-Hill: More women, more minorities, more people from backgrounds that we don't necessarily associate with classical music, so, Latin America or Africa or India, or places where it's not just all Austria and Germany, basically.

Jeffrey Brown: So, give me an example of someone that you -- maybe didn't even know very well, or that you just thought, I want to include this person, this piece of music.

Clemency Burton-Hill: In terms of the great revelations, there's a contemporary British composer called Anna Meredith. There's a piece in there called "Heal You."

There's an Australian composer called Elena Kats-Chernin. She writes a piece called "Unsent Love Letters" I include in January. That falls on Australia Day, as it happens.

Jeffrey Brown: But if I come with you on this journey through a year, what are you promising? What do I get?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Well, I hope you will get something that makes you think and feel, and might change your brain chemistry along the way.

Jeffrey Brown: My brain chemistry?

Clemency Burton-Hill: If that's not too grand a claim. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? But we know, neuroscientifically, that music can have this effect on us. And I think we lead very, very frenetic and busy and stressful modern lives.

And, actually, music might play a part in being a sort of sonic salvation.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, Clemency Burton-Hill will continue her mission on behalf of classical music over the airwaves.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at WQXR in New York.

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