How do you compose a birthday tune for a beloved cultural institution in a midlife crisis? “Well, I myself am middle-aged. So I can sympathize with the sad situation at the station. I feel like an anachronism–just like the station.” Jan Bach is talking about WFMT, which earlier this year commissioned from him a string quartet to commemorate its 40th anniversary. “There was a time not too long ago when people didn’t use four-letter words, when civility was valued. There was no heavy-metal music or simpleminded minimalism. No desecration of music into commercial jingles. Now even FMT is forced to accept canned advertisements–in order to survive as an anachronism. So I titled my piece Anachronisms. Intentionally provocative.”

Ten years ago, when WFMT celebrated its 30th, a dozen composers wrote birthday fanfares. This time program director Norm Pellegrini’s ambition has been scaled down considerably. “We asked for two pieces–to be performed by the symphony and by the Vermeer, our city’s premier string quartet.” For the orchestral work, the nod went to the CSO’s composer-in-residence Shulamit Ran; her fanfare for brass and percussion Chicago Skyline will lead off the CSO’s subscription concerts this week. For the string quartet, he consulted with the Vermeer Quartet, and it took them no time to settle on Jan Bach.

Educated at the University of Illinois, Bach (no relation to the German musical dynasty) studied composition with Aaron Copland and apprenticed under the opera composer Thea Musgrave. Since joining the faculty of Northern Illinois University in 1966–where members of the Vermeer also teach–he’s pursued a busy if quiet career as a teacher and composer. In writing music, he says, he looks to the examples of Bela Bartok and Benjamin Britten. “They did not break with tradition. They wrote music to communicate. When I was in school, overly organized 12-tone technique was the rage. Now of course minimalism is in fashion. I myself work with easily comprehended musical structures in between the two extremes. I was delighted about the commission of a string quartet. The genre may be an anachronism now, but in an earlier time even amateurs could find pleasure making gentle music in small groups.”

Anachronisms, he says, is a response to the question, What has FMT meant to me? Performed as one continuous movement, the textually distinct subsections of Anachronisms are separated by “cliff-hangers, motifs, and grand pauses.” The form of each section “belongs to previous centuries.” “Sonatina” harks back to the concerto and symphony; “Song Without Words” is meant to remind WFMT listeners of two of its enduring nostalgia programs, “From the Recording Horn” and “The First Fifty Years”; “Dueling Cadenzas,” which follows the farcical “In moto perpetuo,” pays tribute to “The Midnight Special.” “The four strings try to outshine one another, like dueling banjos, but one loses out,” says Bach cryptically. And finally in the witty, jazz-spiked “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” named after Mondrian’s famous canvas, “a thieving viola hogs the spotlight.”

The premiere of Anachronisms will be broadcast live today at 5:30 PM on WFMT (98.7), capping the station’s daylong commemoration. The piece will also be played during the Vermeer Quartet’s season opener (which also includes quartets by Beethoven and Mendelssohn) at 3 PM Sunday, December 15, at DePaul University’s Concert Hall, 800 W. Belden. Tickets are $20; for more info call 242-6237.