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Things could have been a lot worse for David Furst, given what he’d asked for.
On Jan. 9, Furst, the producer and host of WAMU-FM’s weekly local-news-and-arts magazine, Metro Connection, told his listeners that the show’s theme music—a dated little ditty that sounds like a parody of a PBS jingle—had seen its day. Then he invited them to write a new one.
“It was like ’80s bathroom wallpaper,” says Furst of the old theme, written and recorded by musicians no one seems to recall. “I’ve been wanting to change it from the day I got here.”
But writing theme music for a public radio show is a delicate exercise in peppy unobtrusiveness, and Furst says he initially wasn’t optimistic that the contest could get him everything he wanted. The new signature piece would have to be able to tease segments on topics ranging from lead in the water to the area’s best open-mike-comedy spots. And the show wasn’t offering any money for it.
“You don’t want the music to be without character—but
it shouldn’t add too much commentary to what I’m saying,” Furst explains. “I thought we’d get three, maybe four, entries.”
Eight days before he was scheduled to announce the contest winner, though, Furst sat behind a mixing board in one of WAMU’s Tenleytown studios and stared occasionally into a small plastic basket, which looked to contain only about half of the 50 or so submitted discs and tapes—one from as far away as Gettysburg, Pa.—representing everything from bluegrass to techno. “I was stunned,” said Furst, who sounded as if he still was.
Among the entrants was guitarist Jonathan Matis, director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Composers Forum. Matis happened to be a guest on Metro Connection when Furst announced the contest, and he decided to use his entry to better learn a new computer music program. Oh, and he thought it was appropriate, too.
“The piece, compositionally, has a sort of schizophrenic character, and I think schizophrenia is something that’s just on every level in D.C.,” said Matis. But he wasn’t optimistic about his chances: “I expect them to toss my recording in the garbage.”
A behavior you could forgive Furst for engaging in en masse, given the tinny, early-MIDI stylings or the clichéd horn intros or the New Age atmospherics of many of the entries he’d had to wade through. Still, the majority of the contenders swelled dynamically in just the right places to punctuate Furst’s weekly intro, and he says he heard a lot he liked. “I gotta play you this surf stuff,” he said, reaching for a disc by a band called Atomic Mosquitos.
On March 5, Furst announced a winner: techno-influenced Chestertown, Md., band Astralyte, with an atmospheric tune that sounds dead-on perfect for the task at hand. But Matis won’t have to worry about his contribution ending up in a landfill, according to Furst. Although Metro Connection has no plans to release a compilation disc of the other recordings, Furst says he’ll have them close at hand.
“I’m going to keep all these things in the box here,” he says. Maybe as a head start for next time. —Mike Kanin