Radio-Activity I: Picks From The Airwaves, By Jude Rogers
, January 5th, 2013 06:16
It's the first instalment of Radio-Activity, a new column by Jude Rogers looking at the best listening on the radio
Welcome to Radioland. Here, the world slips. It's a place that's just about you and the sound signals travelling through air. At times, these sounds mist, twist or knot in a shimmery blur. At others, they cut in, then they tunnel, forging intimacies, sinking you entirely.
This is my new radio column for The Quietus. But why a radio column? Here's why.
1) Because radio feels like a medium that rebels against the modern world. It requires engagement of a kind that we rarely turn on elsewhere. Listen to the radio while doing other things and good examples of the form will snag the ear, dig its hooks in. You become lost; you blend into it. Nothing else exists.
2) Because there's so much good radio around, and lots of it gets easily missed. And now thanks to iPlayer and similar inventions, lots of it can be accessed after the fact. Radio-Activity will offer a weekly round-up of interesting programmes, items, ideas and incidents every weekend, for you to spend time to wallow in.
3) Because radio is good for you. OK, I haven't got empirical proof of this; it's a purely personal hunch. And I know Theodor Adorno, the great early 20th century philosopher and mass culture sceptic, thought it was the opposite, that it misrepresented how things actually sounded in the real world, that it invented new fictions. To Adorno, I say phrrrrrtht. I say bring those fictions on. I also know that the lull of one speaker, that the curation of material for one sense, provides a welcome space for the brain these days, and a welcome place for it to work. And so, listeners, on we travel.
Winter is a perfect time for radio. Dark mornings lifted by the radio alarm, dark evenings made warmer by other murmurs in the room. This week, I've been ill, spending bits of time recovering in bed, trawling the BBC archives on my laptop for something to soothe the dull aches. And then one afternoon, the voices came, comforting me with much-needed words of cleverness.
This week's unmissable programming came from someone our generation dismisses far too readily: Lord Melvyn Bragg. Admittedly, the hair is less South Bank Show-swooshy these days, but that voice is still a combination of Oxford college colour and tiny hints of his working-class background in Carlisle. The Value Of Culture ran in the 9am Radio 4 slot for five consecutive mornings, taking us from Matthew Arnold's bold mid-19th century assertion that culture could be an agent of improvement for all classes, to contemporary debates about what culture (and cultures) mean now. The subject itself is obviously an obsession of Bragg's – he also had a BBC2 series Class & Culture last year, the upwardly-mobile jammy devil – but this was radio straight from the progressive lecture theatre, and none the worse for it.
This is the BBC at its best: unafraid of going in-depth into the effcts of particular essays or arguments, but tying their relevance in subtly to the world we know now. It doesn't happen often enough. And yes, these shows require concentration (especially when one is in a Lemsippy fug) but the fourth episode on Mass Culture is essential Quietus mind-expanding listening. It flashed with brilliant ideas to get the brain whirring, from film director David Puttnam's idea that cinema became global by virtue of its beginnings in silence (i.e. without the distancing forces of language), to Robert Hewison reminding us that the term "culture" was brought into English around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The last programme wonders where that term sit sits now in terms of politics and education, although I'd have liked some more discussion of the Online Revolution and its impacts. Not that there wasn't enough in this series to get the grey cells up and at 'em – you can download every episode now, to keep forever, to help them swarm on.
Otherwise, Radio 3 became my new, sickly jam. A repeat of the Kronos Quartet's 2012 Prom in the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday evening provided this electronic music fan with a few unexpected pleasures. Hang on: is that an esteemed New York string ensemble playing an Omar Souleyman track? Shit, it is. Is this the Radiophonic Workshop? Not quite, but a piece by contemporary Canadian composer Nicole Lizee called The Golden Age Of The Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers). It was a particular treat to hear Kaossillators, sampled voices and analogue synthesisers transporting violins and cello into a much more menacing soundworld. The Prom announcer's delight after it finished was also sweetly old-fashioned: "oh, the wonderful display of recherché oscillators!" Then the quartet – who've played with Bowie and Björk before admittedly, so they've got form – played a Clint Mansell composition as an encore. You know, him from Pop Will Eat Itself, and now a renowned soundtrack composer. Sometimes even the most traditional institutions surprise you.
Radio 3 shook off its fusty reputation – to ignorant me – even further on New Year's Day. Admittedly, I'd tuned in first to Radio 4, but there was some comedy or other on, the kind of thing that counteracts poorly sleep, rather than coaxes it on. So I turned the dial once, and heard the chilling, dreamy sounds of Can member Holger Czukay's Boat-Woman Song. Oh, hello. Then came someone called John Paul Jones playing a collapsed steel guitar – a terrifying thing, its sound the stuff of nightmares. Then Diamanda Galas, and Judy Garland singing the dreadfully gloomy Happy New Year... then the realisation that, oh, they mean that John Paul Jones, don't they. Him from Led Zeppelin. The old lag in Them Crooked Vultures. The architect of the soupy strings on 'Everybody Hurts'. Well, I never. The whole show, listened to again later in the week, was a doozy. More aural surprise and satisfaction surely await in coming weeks.