Tag Archives: Music

Feminism and me

As a young man, I got my feminism from three sources: first, mum and dad. Not radicals, not even feminists. Working class trade unionists who lived the struggle. Second, the academic stuff I soaked up at college: bracing, mind-altering stuff from Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous; teachers and artists like Marie Yates, Mitra Tabrizian, Simon Watney, Cindy Sherman – people who offered me a new way of talking about life and art. Then there was the big one: music. The fabulous, raucous post-punk voices of the Delta 5, the Raincoats, the Slits and, above all – for this fanboy anyway – the Au Pairs. The mighty Au Pairs (look them up).

I’ve got a new source, though: Twitter. It won’t have escaped your notice that Twitter has become home to a new generation of clever, bolshy, uncompromising, articulate feminists. Feminists who are working out new positions, new language, new responses to oppression and discrimination – in the wide-open public space that Twitter offers. Feminists, incidentally, who are not afraid to take on actual sexist scumbags (and those ‘men’s rights’ cavemen). But who also offer a constant challenge to settled positions and to the complacency of old gits like me – people who can’t understand why we can’t just be nice to each other.

This resurgence of disputatious, public feminism on Twitter has got everyone thinking. These activists sometimes make my skin prickle in a ‘not in my name’, ‘how dare you assume’ kind of way but they’re constantly challenging me and they’re updating my worldview in real-time. They ask me what I think about rape and abuse, gender, FGM, porn and sexuality, women’s work and capital. Twitter, of course, since the beginning, has been a crash-course in contemporary thought and there’s never been any shortage of feminists on there but it seems to have become a kind of high-speed laboratory for radical thought, thinking about liberation and social change. And it’s gripping stuff.

Seven gems from Radio 3′s ‘Sound of Cinema’ season

It’s over. The ‘Sound of Cinema‘ season finshed last week. Most of the music has expired but there’s a ton of stuff that’s still available:

1. These really gripping Sound of Cinema downloads from Neil Brand (learn things, like just how badly Visconti carved up Mahler’s Adagietto for Death in Venice).

2. This glorious film of a concert from the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers (includes the spooky choral music from 2001).

3. This feature about Charlie Chaplin as composer from Matthew Sweet (did you know Chaplin was a music publisher before he got into the movies?).

4. This jazz improv response to a 1905 silent film called ‘A Trip to the Stars’ from Jazz on 3 (twitchy, kooky, really engrossing).

5. This set of four conversations with film directors and composers from Tom Service (Baz Luhrmann and Craig Armstrong about as different as you can get from Ken Loach and George Fenton).

6. These lovely photos of film music greats (Neil came into the office and searched the archive himself).

7. The man himself, John Williams, talking to Donald Macleod for his Composer of the Week (which you can also download here).

What should really modern music radio sound like?

You hope it’ll be seamlessly social: a nice, natural flow from online to on-air and back again, with social features that are as confidently crafted as the on-air stuff. Not endless shout-outs and retweets, no ‘in the next hour’ or ‘how was your weekend?’ updates. No blather, no cheesy vanity activity from presenters.

You probably want a visual element – something to watch on your phone that’s not a ‘studio cam’. Something that expands on the in-your-ears element without attempting to be TV.

You’ll want smart integration of on-demand, downloads, streaming music. Producer and presenter working to extend the life of the programme outside the slot, carrying it over onto other platforms and into other contexts, growing the show’s footprint.

But really, more than all that, you’ll want it to cut through – to feel current, confident, connected. All the tricky-to-define stuff, the real magic of a great music show that’s about authority, empathy, exactly the right blend of warmth and energy.

As ever, the laboratory for all this stuff is Radio 1, where the Saturday night schedule (which is a simulcast with 1Xtra) has just been refreshed. Younger voices, brought from other parts of the schedule, with all the stress and tension and the weight of expectations in their first night voices.

You could almost hear the senior management lurking in the studio, trying not to overstate the urgency of the update, being cool about it, reassuring everybody. But it’s a pretty big deal. Saturday night is where the competition is at its most intense, where innovation has to work hardest to sustain radio’s relevance. The stakes are high.

I’ll be listening.

Tension and release. My Bloody Valentine and building radio excitement without exclusives

Music radio’s all tension and release. Building anticipation – highs and lows strung together to keep things moving and bring listeners along with you. Mary Anne Hobbs’ breakfast show on 6 Music this morning was built around a classic music radio high – the long-awaited record release.

My Bloody Valentine have a new record out (seasoned hacks are getting emotional) but things have changed. The band released their new record online, direct to fans, with no build-up and no radio station exclusives. So Hobbs, in the studio for the station’s first live programme since the release, had no advantage over listeners, no head start at all. But it’s OK. It turns out you can still do exciting radio around a new record, even without an exclusive.

Hobbs and her producer downloaded the track with the hordes of MBV nuts doing the same thing (enough to crash the MBV web site, natch) – and played it out with all the excitement of fans. The buzz came from the shared excitement of that moment. The reactions of fans who’d already heard the track became part of the build-up. It was a shared moment. A post-social radio moment. Lovely.

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

The Pussy Riot case is an affront to humanity, a miserable, dispiriting state-sponsored kicking for three angry free spirits. It’s so depressingly like the kind of relentless, malevolent crucifiction handed out to non-compliant creative people across the decades of Soviet rule it’s as if the country has lost its memory (Hari Kunzru has a post about the absurdity of Pussy Riot’s persecution on his blog).

If they were poets instead of punks, a well-organised international boycott would by now be in place. PEN International would have organised a conference and a letter signed by hundreds – including a dozen Nobel laureates – would already have been delivered to the Kremlin (PEN has already taken up the case, of course).

International musicians should boycott Russia. They shouldn’t go there and they shouldn’t permit Russian releases of their work. They should do this for Pussy Riot and on behalf of their Russian peers who can only provide a cryptic, compromised, Sovietised response to this nastiness.

A letter from every major musician on the planet – from Barenboim to Gaga to Jagger – should already have been lodged with the Russian government. Advertisements in national newspapers should announce the action. There should be a hashtag. Record labels and promoters should join in. Individual musicians are angry about the persecution of Pussy Riot – speaking out, putting on protest gigs and benefits. But does the music business have the guts and imagination to act? Or are they too greedy and venal to take on Putin’s bullies?

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.

Noisy beds

John Humphrys in Liberia

I love a bed. I should leave it to a radio production expert to explain what I mean by a bed, but since I don’t have one to hand, a ‘bed’ is the radio term for sound (usually music) played under the presenter’s voice during a link. In music radio it stops things going dead, keeps the pace up and provides a bridge between tracks. Sometimes it’s specially-recorded – and then it’s usually the kind of super-bland library music that’s designed to be unobtrusive, secondary to the presenter’s message.

But that’s old hat. Current practice (at least in pop radio) is to use a real track (an intro or outro) and to play it pretty loud. I think Zane Lowe‘s beds are the loudest in the business (go on, contradict me). He plays his bed so loud he has to shout to be heard over it. And that’s the point.

He sets up a competition with the music. It’s as if he’s challenging the music to a fight. It’s exciting. An adrenaline rush. Check your pulse after a really noisy Zane Lowe link – your heart will be racing.

You need to be confident to do this, though – a rookie DJ couldn’t set up that fight for fear they’d actually lose. So as Zane gains experience and stature I think his beds are actually getting louder. Pretty soon you won’t be able to hear him at all:

6 Music‘s new boy, Gilles Peterson, likes a fairly loud bed and in his new show I’m pretty sure they’re louder than they were when he was on Radio 1 (although I’ve only got one week’s output to go on, so don’t quote me). Is he trying to tell us something? Is he starting as he means to go on? Kicking things up a gear to make an impression in his new job?

I’m going to be listening. If his beds get quieter from now on it might be because he misjudged and overshot to begin with. If they get louder or stay the same it’ll be because the show is a hit and he can take more chances, push things a bit – especially in his more forgiving new home on the digital station:

This week’s best bed wasn’t really a bed at all. It was the lush and frankly rather disorienting background noise during John Humphrys’ links from Liberia on Wednesday’s Today Programme on Radio 4. It’s a marvellous idea: Humphrys is going to present the programme from Liberia several times over the next year.

The programme is exploring the idea that Africa is on the verge of a boom, that things are about to change for the better – and quickly. And they’ve chosen Liberia because, although the country’s struggling in all sorts of ways, it’s not a hot-spot. There’s no war, no famine. It’s ‘Middle Africa’.

So, unless someone in Liberia builds a sound-proofed studio soon, we’re going to get used to the lovely bed of crickets, birdsong and passing traffic that brightened Wednesday’s programme substantially.

And in radio terms, it’s a hard-working bed. It’s providing information about the context (“hey, we’re in Africa”) and a useful contrast with the programme’s acoustically-sterile home-base back in London. And it provides authenticity – the kind of auditory cues that prove the programme’s on location and make the output more vivid. I’m really looking forward to the evolution of Today’s Liberia bed. Will it be eliminated? Or will it evolve to represent the programme’s location in interesting ways? Will the sound vary? Will it remain the same across the whole year?

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.

The second-best book about twentieth century music

'Thus, from the birth of radio circa 1922 to its death by TV and reruns in the mid-1940s, there was almost enough work for all the talent in a ballooning country, and all bets were off concerning the incidence of genius.' Quote from 'The House that George Built' by Wilfrid Sheed

Everybody knows the best book about Twentieth Century music is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise but there’s another brilliant book set in the same period – Wilfrid Sheed’s The House That George Built, a history of the golden age of American popular music. It’s about the generations of American songwriters, starting at the turn of the twentieth century in what Sheed calls ‘the piano era’, who essentially invented what we now know as popular music.

It’s sub-titled ‘with a little help from Irving, Cole and a crew of about fifty’ and it’s told through the abbreviated life stories of the dozens of lyricists and composers who grafted on Broadway, on Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood to make us all song addicts. It’s warm and entertaining and full of mad insights into the psychology and economics and aesthetics of pop music.

It’s also a catalogue of amazing songs – from Basin Street Blues to Body and Soul to Baby it’s Cold Outside to April in Paris. I’ve created a Spotify playlist for each section. The artists are a bit variable – performers from the other end of the Twentieth Century aren’t as well-represented as they ought to be on Spotify – and there are a few gaps but it’s an amazing mosaic of song. Let me know if you’ve found better versions.