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Immersed in music

01 December 2017


Continuous: Sacred River (Radio 3, Sunday) was a six-hour musical marathon

Continuous: Sacred River (Radio 3, Sunday) was a six-hour musical marathon

NOTHING is really real until it has been shared, liked, and retweeted. Thus the eventfulness of Radio 3’s ambitious event Sacred River (Sun­day) required for its evaluation the social-media engagement of us all. “Show us how Sacred River flows through your day,” the Radio 3 web­site demanded.

Sacred River was about full im­­mersion: a six-hour musical mara­thon concocted and knit together with enormous skill and intelligence by a team of producers, and introduced by Neil MacGregor, whose ongoing Radio 4 series Living with the Gods this anthology was intended to complement (Features, Radio, 3 Nov­e­­m­ber)

But even those of us not fully im­­mersed in the feast of Christ the King will inevitably have zoned in and out, as Gregorian chant and Renais­sance polyphony gave way to Bud­dhist chant and the avant-garde. The strong Western bias in repertoire will have provoked if not a Twitter storm, then at least a whirlpool, but this was still sufficiently varied that there was no danger of stepping into the same river twice.

The six hours were topped and tailed by chant; an appropriate choice since, as Professor Christopher Page declared on Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week), “chant is wise”. It entails within its phrase structures and pacing a deep wisdom about how the voice works, and thus, by exten­sion, a knowledge of how we com­mune as human and spiritual beings.

Ernie Rea had invited represent­atives of three faith traditions — Christian, Buddhist, and neuro­scientific — and they all agreed, at least in respect of the consciousness-alter­ing effects of chanting. Whether or not this turns you into a mystic or not is a different matter.

It seems that nowadays you cannot make a programme discussing aes­thetics and emotion without a neuro­scientist popping up. Michael Trimble was the rent-a-materialist for this occasion, and did his best to remind us of the amygdala and various im­­portant cortices; but, as Page re­­minded us, the business of producing vocal utterances, and shaping them into coherent and meaningful musical phrases, is just what musicians have been trained to do. It needs no neuro-universalist explanation. It is cultural tradition.

Since I’m sure that nothing in the radio schedules happens by accident, presumably the rebroadcast of a Be­­tween the Ears (Radio 3, Saturday) on “the three-second rule” was also de­­signed as preparation for Sacred River the next day. The three-second rule in question is not the one that dictates how long you can leave food on the floor before it becomes unsafe to eat. Nevertheless, the rule that apparently dictates the rhythms of life — our breathing, for example, and the waves lapping on the beach — seemed here as arbitrary as the food-hygiene version.

This impressionistic sound-montage was itself an experiment in relaxation techniques, built up of regular pulses, recitations, and the sounds of nature. “Angels are making lace tonight”, one voice chanted re­­peatedly. I would not want to go into an ECG scanner to find out why, but it was wonderfully soporific.

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