Tag Archives: classical

Igor Stravinsky, Tupac Shakur and the uncanny

The Player Piano was the Tupac Hologram of its day.

The most thrilling of our inventions are the ones that return to us a person we’ve lost or that recall a scene from the past that we couldn’t have experienced or a place we couldn’t have known. There’s a rush, a kind of zipwire effect. WOOSH. BANG. You’re there. And sometimes these experiences are so vivid they cross over into the uncanny and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A list of these moments would be a long one, but try this ultra-vivid portrait of the Carusos in 1920. The rush here is a compound effect of a fabulous technology, as-yet unmatched in the digital era – a large, glass negative – plus the amazing light on that New York terrace and those eyes. Blimey. Or this: the first view of the earth from the moon. Tell me you didn’t shiver (and note, also, that in order to qualify as ‘uncanny’ it doesn’t need to be a hyper-real simulation of a human).

The player piano is another piece of nineteenth century tech that’s highly productive of the uncanny. The knowledge that the sound you’re hearing, when the paper roll begins to turn, reproduces in detail the actual playing of a long-dead musician – not the acoustic effect but an actual mechanical trace, recorded as holes punched in paper – changes the effect startlingly. The fact that sometimes that musician was the composer – Gershwin or Rachmaninov or Stravinsky – makes it more uncanny still. I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of these player pianos – a kind of half mechanical-half human steampunk cyborg – ten days ago in a Broadcasting House studio, as its owner Rex Lawson brought to life one of Stravinsky’s amazing piano rolls. It was a remarkable experience: Stravinsky was very much in the room. Here’s a video I made of that strange encounter of machine, memory and music:

And a few days later, Tupac ‘appeared’ at Coachella, turning the uncanny dial up a few notches but instantly reminding me of that Stravinsky experience. I wish I’d been there. Everyone who was says that it was amazing – and some were so freaked out by Tupac’s ‘appearance’ they declared that they disapproved, that it was somehow disrespectful. And the Tupac hologram, which was a synthesis of historic appearances and some mindblowing 3D simulation, is from the same family of technologies as the player piano. Spooky.

Total radio – six reasons BBC Radio 3’s ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome

Franz Schubert

The ‘Spirit of Schubert’ finished a week ago. It was Radio 3’s biggest ‘takeover’ yet – over 200 hours of output devoted exclusively to the work of Franz Schubert. Every one of his ‘performable works’ was played, many in brand new versions, some for the first time ever. It was a remarkable thing – and for a Radio 3 new boy, a very inspiring and energising lesson in Radio 3’s values.

And that brings me to the required disclaimer. I work at Radio 3. But planning for the Schubert began before I joined and my concern is principally with the interactive stuff, so I can’t claim any credit for the idea or for its on-air execution. So I’m not neutral but I think I’ve got enough distance from the thing to offer some observations. So, here are my six reasons why the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome radio:

  1. It was a pure radio phenomenon. That’s worth remembering. A radio station did this. The radio industry seems to have more-or-less ignored it but it was a huge, joyful, all-consuming radio stunt. Not the first but quite possibly the biggest ever. And I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do this on TV – you’d have to steamroller too many appointments and it would be far too expensive. Radio rocks!
  2. It was a public service wonder. The kind of resolutely public service activity, in fact, that justifies the UK’s hybrid radio ecology and should have made executives at Classic FM as happy as those at the BBC. It was immensely brave – testing the limits of both station and audience (over 1200 performances, nearly 700 of them songs!) but I firmly expect the net benefit to be positive, both for Radio 3 and for radio in general – it raises the profile of radio and reminds everyone that singular, courageous content can still come from the senior service. Incidentally, I think it’s instructive to compare ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ with Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame‘ – two editorially-ambitious classical music offerings that bridge online and on-air and, between them, neatly define the quite exhilarating range on offer from UK radio right now.
  3. It was editorially sophisticated. It was excellent radio. BBC values were on display everywhere. The composer’s story was told in many different ways, using the tools of the scholar and curator, of the music broadcaster and of the radio storyteller. In content terms it was a triumph, presenting the life and work of an individual in ways that will, for some listeners – me, for instance – have been life-changing.
  4. It was packed with innovation. The season saw a step change for Radio 3: in integration of social media, in multiplatform production, in new storytelling techniques and programme formats, in on-air promotion of online content, and in production areas like computerised playout and programme metadata. And that’s just the areas I know about. It was a hothouse for new stuff, much of which will stick.
  5. It made exceptional use of the station’s assets. Dozens of hours of live performance, big OBs from unusual locations, deep music scholarship and a team (on both sides of the glass) comfortable with a big story.
  6. It was real storytelling. An immensely satisfying, impossibly engaging story. Reading the overwhelmingly positive reactions online, many talk about ‘falling in love’ with Schubert and about the emotional difficulty of the final stages of his story and – especially – about missing him now that it’s over. It was the kind of bridge to a distant historic period that you can’t get from a one-hour doc or an evening of output. The word is overused in broadcasting but if ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ wasn’t a ‘journey’ then nothing is.

Highlights. There were many. I loved the nightly Play Schubert for Me – a presented show that blended listeners’ voices, records and live performance beautifully. Really sophisticated night-time radio. The In Tune Salon – a frankly unlikely mix of musicology, history and performance set to a drivetime rhythm that really worked and was only occasionally overburdened with music (there was a lot to get in!). The Schubert Lab – quite a feat: upbeat, fun, live radio packed with real musical scholarship – and packaged in shortform nuggets that will thrive in the long tail.

And, if you don’t mind me highlighting some content from my area: @FranzIsUnwell – the clever and moving use of Twitter to tell Schubert’s story (a Caper production for BBC Radio 3) and the highly-immersive library of ‘Schubert Lab’ videos, an entertaining learning tool that will continue to inspire indefinitely (and should be added to the music curriculum at schools everywhere!).

And the station was on fire throughout. There wasn’t a single slack or lazy minute in the 200 hours of output. Sitting in studio 80B‘s booth – as I was lucky enough to be able to do quite a lot during the eight-and-a-half days – what I saw was a radio station bursting with confidence and passion for its work. It was glorious.

  • There’s a handy round-up of all the online content from the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ on the Radio 3 blog. Richard Leeming, who produced the interactive element of the season for Radio 3, wrote an interesting account from behind the scenes.

Three reasons #PromsXHQ is important

Panorama taken at Prom 62, Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2010

Radio 3 have improved the quality of their live online stream – it’s an experiment called #PromsXHQ (‘XHQ’ for Extra High Quality). For the final week of the Proms you can listen at 320kb/s AAC: a big improvement but not, on the face of it, a big deal. I think it’s important, though.Why?

1. It’s awesome. I don’t want to gush and I didn’t expect to notice much difference, but the higher quality is stunning and addictive. I’m no expert – in fact, I have cloth ears – but the additional detail is genuinely gorgeous. Listening to the Berlin Phil last night (a quite awesome Prom, by the way), tiny details of the sound jumped out with an uncanny vividness – the mental scene created by the audio seemed more complete, more involving – a quite delirious experience, in fact. A simple but massively effective product enhancement.

2. It’s from the BBC. There are 320kb/s classical streams on the net but none is from the BBC. This experiment is engineered to BBC standards, from end-to-end, with BBC professionalism and passion for the output. That’s a big deal. Audiophiles and classical fans will want to try it for that reason alone (and I like the fact that it’s a change that came from the engineers, not from a focus group or the marketing department).

3. It’s agame changer.’ This is the kind of incremental improvement that could change the behaviour of listeners. Once they’ve tried the improved service, listeners will want to drag computer and hi-fi closer together so they can run the 320 stream through their stereo or home cinema system. If that happenswidely, manufacturers will make hi-fi quality players, streaming to your stereo will become a mainstream activity, players will be incorporated into high-end integrated devices, TVs and so on. It’ll be like when LPs went stereo or when CDs arrived.

Really suffering for your art

Everyone says music is getting more physical again. We continue to get our daily sounds from ever more insubstantial sources, floating above us like those glittering landscapes in Neuromancer, but we’re going to more concerts and festivals than ever and buying more stuff while we’re at it (merch. fancy limited editions. Even musical instruments are booming).

Turns out we love schlepping around for some actual, physical experience of music in an actual physical place as much as we love the disembodied bits. But there’s twenty-first Century physical and there’s eighteenth Century physical.

I’m reading a terrific book called 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (who died last year). And it’s essentially a catalogue of grim physical trials – of epic journeys (in horse-drawn carriages quite often bought specially for the trip), of intolerable living conditions and diabolical food provided by hateful grandees who never paid their bills, of mysterious debilitating illnesses and (of course) of lives cut short by service to art (and to miserable patrons). The book’s full of enervating phrases like the one at the top (which is from an account of a dinner performance by Mozart) and:

The mail-coach with four horses left Vienna at eight o’clock in the morning and took three days, with twenty-one post stations, to arrive at Prague in the morning

(a trip to Prague to perform at a coronation). And here’s a job ad from Vienna in the period:

A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. The musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre…

(My italics). And then, of course, there was the final, ghastly physicality of his early death:

Suddenly he began to vomit – it spat out of him in an arch – it was brown, and he was dead.

(and that’s from a book based on his wife’s recollections, quoted by Landon).

What I’m left with is an image of the musician as grafter, as under-appreciated, barely-recognised labourer in the fields of art. Sacrifice, privation, hunger, physical collapse – evidently the necessary preconditions for creation in that golden age.

Being proud of the BBC

People have been talking about being proud of the BBC lately and I clearly can’t join in, since I work there and I’m inevitably partial. But, as I still feel obliged to say, I’m new at the BBC and I went to work there in my late forties, from a life doing all sorts of other things and from many years of well-documented criticism of the Corporation.

So I do feel qualified to say that I am immensely proud of the BBC – and, in particular, of the amazing people I meet there. Big-hearted, open-minded, clever and funny people like those in Jon Jacob’s brilliant Proms video. Jon works for the BBC College of Journalism but he’s a musician and a Proms nut and he – like the orchestral performers featured – does this stuff for love. What’s not to be proud of?