I played violin when I was younger, and I was quite good at it, but I was going into junior high and I just wanted to be a kid and not really practice, so I put it away. But I remember I was working on this Vivaldi piece around the time I quit and I could really kind of feel the music. It was a difficult piece and I loved playing it, but I just didn’t want to practice. I just wanted to be done with the whole thing.
I wasn’t interested in classical music at all, and I thought it was kind of stately and formal and a little bit boring. My town was very Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin-centered. I was a crazy U2 fan circa The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire, that kind of stuff. I was really over the moon about U2. I went to college at Kenyon, and it was a Phish, Widespread Panic kind of time. In my senior year, I got incredibly obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, I would carry it around with me and insist that people play it wherever I was. When I got out of grad school I got the Nick Drake box set and listened to that — I was probably a little depressed and that wasn’t helping at all. You have different records for different times in your life.
I still listen to a lot of different stuff, but in the last few years, I came back to classical music. It’s almost like being an adult and something you didn’t like as a kid, like Brussels sprouts or coffee, you suddenly taste it in a different way. You can taste the subtleties and get why people love it. That’s what happened to me with classical music. As I’m writing, I can’t really listen to music that has lyrics, it’s just too distracting. I was writing Liberal Arts, this movie about college, and thinking about the buildings at Kenyon, where we ended up shooting. I had started to talk about British Romantic literature in the script, like Wordsworth and Keats and Byron and Blake and those guys, and something in the music I was listening to at the time sounded like it could work, because classical music occupies the same space as those poets.
Liberal Arts is about a 35-year-old guy who goes back to his campus and meets this 19-year-old sophomore who is very sophisticated and quite bewitching. She tells him she’s taking this music survey course that’s really changed her life, and before he leaves the first time she burns him this CD of her favorite classical songs and they agree that they’re going to stay in touch and she asks that he write her hand-written letters. He basically starts writing about how the music is affecting him.
The first song on the CD is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the first movement of the Pastoral symphony. It’s one of my favorite pieces. There’s a line in German that accompanies it, something along the lines of “pleasant feelings that arise when entering the country,” and before I even read that, I had flipped it because it’s the character leaving the country and going back to the city. So he’s having pleasant feelings upon going back to the city, and the gist of it is that the classical music she’s given him is altering his consciousness and his perception of New York City, a city he has a sort of fraught relationship with, and he feels punched in the face by often. Listening to this music, it makes the city come alive in a totally different way, and it’s incredibly beautiful to him all of a sudden. What was once sort of filthy takes on a new glow.
The second song is a Vivaldi piece from an opera called Giustino, but it’s sung by a French counter tenor named Philippe Jaroussky who is very famous in this kind of classical/opera world. He’s a man who sings like a soprano, and he has a startlingly amazing voice. It’s kind of haunting. It makes my character feel like he’s a double agent in some kind of sexy espionage movie. You see him very slyly put creamer and sugar into his pocket as he walks away with his coffee, like a spy who is trying not to arouse much suspicion as a co-worker walks by.
Classical music is the kind of thing where you start exploring, and the rabbit hole just goes deeper and deeper in terms of different recordings, different symphonies. You find conductors you really like. The conductor that I have found to be the best for me is Herbert von Karajan, and he was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Every decade he did a recording of the Beethoven symphonies, and the ones I’ve been obsessing over are ones from the 1970s. His sound is fuller, and more emotional somehow. I think I also used his recording of Tannheuser, the Overture by Wagner for a slightly mystical moment in the movie for Jesse, because he’s walking through Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn when the farmer’s market is going on, and he’s a little distracted and in his head as he often is, and he stops and realizes he has a body — feet and hands — and he’s breathing and alive and he starts looking around as the music swells.
He said this great thing that made me think about becoming a director versus just being an actor. He was a piano player, and someone at music school told him, “You’re never going to get the sound you’re yearning to express from just one instrument. You need a whole orchestra.” So he started thinking about becoming a conductor. That’s how I felt, in a way, about my transition from being an actor. I’m never going to be able to say everything I want to say with one instrument, myself as an actor. I loved making this transition into be a director, and telling this bigger, sweeping story. It’s akin to conducting an orchestra.
Josh Radnor is the writer, director and star of Liberal Arts, in theaters now. You can buy the soundtrack to the film on iTunes and Amazon on September 25th. Radnor also currently stars on CBS’s Emmy-nominated comedy How I Met Your Mother, which begins its eighth season on September 24th.