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Music to sleep by

02 October 2015


IF EVER there was a time to acknowledge the clearness of the blue water between Classic FM and Radio 3, then last weekend was that time. Why Music?, a weekend of music-making, discussion, and experimentation from the Wellcome Collection, explored for Radio 3 listeners the multiple registers in which music operates: to energise and enervate, to mourn and to praise, to give pleasure and to deliver pain. By contrast, Classic FM appears to recognise only the one register: music as relaxation for weary gardeners.

I should declare that I had a part in one of the Radio 3 programmes: a mere 90 minutes in 48 hours of diverse programming, and a drop in the ocean compared with the eight-hour marathon broadcast of Max Richter’s Sleep that took listeners from Saturday night to Sunday morning.

Sleep was the longest live performance ever broadcast by the BBC: an extended lullaby, the criteria for whose success was how much you were able to sleep through it. This was so slow-moving that it made Górecki’s soporific Third Symphony sound like the hokey-cokey. If you’re a fan of G flat major, you would have loved it. If not, you might have preferred the shipping forecast.

Music Matters (Radio 3, Saturday) dealt with perpetual music deployed for a very different function: as an instrument of torture. With information now emerging from Guantanamo Bay about the use of loud and constant music, we are forced to recognise that music can be as much an assertion of authority as an invitation to empathise.

As the musicologist Suzanne Cusick explained, perpetual loud music not only depersonalises and disorientates the victim, but also has a physical effect, the pounding rhythms causing bodily vibrations that feel like a beating.

We heard from a defector from the North Korean regime about the control exercised by Kim Jong-Il on music-making: official folk-songs only are allowed, and music theory is policed so that only harmonies approved by an official committee are tolerated.

It is music’s ability to make us tingle that is perhaps its most powerful and subversive quality, and some of classical music’s most tingly pieces were analysed in Feeling Music (Radio 3, Sunday). John Sloboda, an authority on the psychology of music, said that it was the appoggiatura that made Albinoni’s Adagio so tingly.

But what of those cultures that know nothing of appoggiaturas? Are they similarly moved? I have no doubt that, somewhere in that 48 hours of programming, somebody can give me the answer; thank goodness, and the licence fee, for iPlayer.

And for In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursdays) as well. If I ever wrote one of those Feedback letters declaring that such-and-such a programme was worth the cost of the licence fee alone, it would have to be In Our Time, which opened a new series with discussion of perpetual motion. Melvyn Bragg seems living proof of the possibility of perpetual motion, though his guests seemed convinced that all things — forces as well as public institutions — must revert eventually to a state of chaos.

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