If you can ignore Aled Jones, listen to the Muhly music

Aled Jones has a wonderful skill: no matter what the subject matter is, about which he is discoursing, he always manages to sound as though it’s all about himself. I’m nore sure how he accomplishes this feat; it’s a tricky one to pull off, when you’re not actually discoursing at length about, well, yourself.

If you can get past his involvement in the programme, though, then listen to ‘The Choir’ on Radio 3 iPlayer from yesterday, for a chance to hear an interview with, and music by, composer Nico Muhly.

Steeped in the English choral tradition, Muhly writes some transclucent gems for choir – several sections of his ‘Bright Mass with Canons’ are featured in the broadcast, as well as ‘Archive’ from Mothertongue, which explores (as Muhly indicates in interview) the emotional associations people can have with mundane collections of letters and numbers such as area postcodes and telephone numbers.

Muhly comes across as lively, garrulous and full of vibrant enthusiasm for music; he’s a terrifically articulate guest, who readily trounces the idea of the composer as Romantic master scribing giant masterpieces; there’s a moment where, when asked about the future of his music, he negates the idea that, as a mdern composer, he is looking to ‘take over the world with my next symphonic gesture… I’d rather go home and pat the dog.’

Such a down-to-earth and readily communicative personality should not belie the fact that Muhly writes some of the most exciting and colourful compositions around at the moment in a musical language which combines accessibility with sheer joy in inventive writing, whether the skirling patterns of Motion or the dynamic rhythmic punch of Step Team, or the evocative string instrument soundworld behind the tenor soloist in Impossible Things.

The whole programme is online for a week here.


Hearing the angels: Jonathan Harvey’s Messages

I’ve listened in twenty-five minutes of utter wonderment to Jonathan Harvey’s Messages, which was broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now over the weekend, in the second of two broadcasts from last week’s ‘Total Immersion‘ day devoted to Harvey’s music at the Barbican.

Premièred in April last year, and with a text consisting entirely of the names of angels, the piece captivates from the very opening gesture, as though a veil is being parted into another realm. A major piece for chorus and orchestra, Messages follows in the tradition of other mighty choral works such as the Dream of Gerontius or Vaughan Williams’  Te Deum; however, Harvey’s work transcends the epic-choral-piece niche and becomes instead a sublime and powerful evocation of the immediate presence of angels, singing above a landscape of shimmering sound.

The piece is on iPlayer until Saturday, and there’s a video of the first ten minutes of the piece here.

Also in the same broadcast is a choral piece Harvey wrote in the 1980’s, Come Holy Ghost, a blend of plainsong and sustained choral chords, the colours of which positively glow, sung by the BBC Singers. Listen and revel in the sonic pleasure of both pieces.

Autumnal sheddings: Radio 3 loses more listeners

Further to my previous piece on the infuriating pollution of Radio 3’s programmes with the inanity of ‘Listener Views’ and the empty excitement of classical chart countdowns, news of declining listener figures for the station appears in an article in today’s Guardian.

According to reports, Radio 3 has ‘lost more listeners than any other BBC national radio station in the three months to 18 September.’ Consumers are reacting not with their feet, but with their fingers as the dial is rapidly spun away from the mind-numbing sharing of listener’s e-mails, or (and to my mind, the most hideous addition to the programming) listener telephone-calls.

Other BBC radio stations have also lost listeners: Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC 7). And the Controller of Radio 3, Roger Wright, is reported as saying that positive response to the changes in the station’s scheduling has far outweighed the negative.  But with a reported loss of 5.6% of listeners, and the rumblings of discontent on blogs, forums, and discussion boards around the ether and in the printed media as well, the signs are that people are becoming increasingly tired of the new feel to Radio 3.

I have no problem with institutions adapting to embrace change; it’s a vital part of keeping themselves open to new developments, embracing new thinking and new ways of engaging consumers. Being receptive to the idea of change keeps them vibrant, aware of contemporary cultural climates and being willing to respond to them. I love Radio 3 dearly. But change has to be managed without alienating or abandoning the core consumer base, without losing the customer base whose loyalty and adherence to the brand have established the product for what it is, and without compromising or sacrificing the product’s unique identity.

Come on, Radio 3. Change is good: selling out to popularism is bad.

Listener views: keep them out of radio programmes

I find myself becoming more and more disillusioned with Radio 3’s efforts to involve members of its listenership in its programmes. Tuning in has become something of a trial, whereby you risk running the gauntlet of listeners’ e-mails interrupting the programmed pieces of music. Now we’re bombarded by broadcasters reading out e-mails from listeners, offering their views on the greatest moment in classical music, their experience of an opera, or why they have fond memories of particular works.

This is of no interest to me whatsoever. Neither is my interest in classical music  going to be heightened by the supposed excitement of a Classical Chart Countdown, or competing with other listeners over ‘What is your favourite String Trio of All Time ?’


Image: Phasesofme.com

I’m not interested either in someone else’s fondness for individual pieces of music; what is it to me that Brian Bootlace of Snivelston loves Gounod’s Ave Maria because it reminds him of taking tea and biscuits on a walking holiday in Weston-Super-Mare ? The individual reaction to a piece of music is intensely private, a distillation of memory, personal experience and musical perception. it won’t be helped by hearing another’s reasons for liking it; in fact, the reactions of others can often be intrusive and interfere with your own hearing.

The author Jilly Cooper speaks in a recent article about keeping the listeners away. I agree. (I never thought I’d be agreeing with Jilly Cooper). A platform like Twitter offers the opportunity for dialogue with consumers, with audiences and listeners; it gives the illusion of personal dialogue, albeit one conducted over the internet where anyone following your ‘tweets’ can follow the conversation. It’s something that Twitter does well, but it has no place scheduled into radio programmes generally. Listeners have every right to correspond with broadcasters, to e-mail their views in to breakfast programmes, but I don’t tune in to the radio to hear them. I want to hear the music, not what someone else thinks about them. For that, I’ll go to the discussion boards or Twitter.

Any minute now, someone will rap on the screen and start muttering about ‘ownership’ and ‘participation.’ Arts organisations, particularly in the current budget-tightening era, need to reach out to their consumers, to involve them more and make them feel a part of their cultural provision – mainly in order to keep them coming to events and buying the tickets. But bringing this directly into on-air consumption by other listeners interferes with the music – the reason people tune in to begin with.

Keep listeners’ views out of the programmes, and let us enjoy the music for ourselves.

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