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All jumbled up

02 December 2016


IN HIS last book, Apocalypse, D. H. Lawrence writes of the “oriental” mind-set “whose image-thinking often followed no plan whatsoever . . . flitting from image to image with no essential connection at all”. It is the mind-set of the Psalmist, and of whoever was responsible for the book of Revelation. And, by quoting it at the end of his radio production Tower of Babel (Radio 3, Saturday), Robert Wilson no doubt hopes to pre-empt any criticism of the work we have just endured.

Tower of Babel was part of Radio 3’s experimental Between the Ears strand, and savvy listeners will have been expecting the unexpected: the juxtapositioning of high art and ephemera, the sublime and the ri­­diculous. Wilson described Tower of Babel as being constructed of two sonic pillars. But the archi­tecture was a good deal more ram­shackle: there were some gleaming surfaces, for sure, but no straight lines, and a depth achieved with the use of well-placed mirrors.

It is easy to put together some­thing that sounds like experimental radio. All you need is some passable software, and friends such as Fiona Shaw and Daniel Libeskind to read stuff for you. Indeed, radio is the medium in which incoherence and non-linearity thrives: the perfect mod­­­ernist vehicle.

But to make something meaning­ful out of fragmentary materials is more difficult, not least because sound does not operate like architec­ture or theatre. There is no symmetry in sound as there is in a building; and the long-term sym­metry could be detected across the 50 minutes of this piece only with the help of a script on the BBC website.

Nevertheless, there was some delight to be had in the detail. Cécile Brune’s recital of lines from Racine’s Phèdre was so sonorous that I dis­pensed with the online transla­tion and just swam in the music of it. Christopher Nell’s German Hamlet was similarly engrossing; and this is your chance to hear Ion­esco’s La Cantatrice Chauve in Romanian.

Babel was represented not just in the assortment of voices and languages, but also in the comment­aries by Lawrence and others on the impossibility of translation, cultural or linguistic. Produced by the BBC in association with four German radio companies, Tower of Babel was an ambitious project, which ulti­mately collapsed through over­­sight of basic building regulations.

If you want to learn about nar­rative architecture, look no further than The Archers (Radio 4, passim), whose scriptwriters do long-term planning like nobody else. The res­ult of the Helen Titchener trial has given their creators a vast net­work of narrative possibilities.

And, once in a while, we, the lis­teners, get a glimpse of their excite­ment: such as Tuesday of last week, when the Vicar, Alan Franks, ad­­vised Rob that he could “change the future”. It is the cruellest of aliena­tion devices. “No you can’t,” the scriptwriters cackle; “for a God greater even than Alan’s is in control of your destiny,” and disap­pear behind their computer screens to type out another episode.

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