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.