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Pen and paper  

12 January 2018

Sunday Feature (Radio 3); The Conversation (World Service); The Infinite Monkey Cage (Radio 4)

BBC/Richard Ansett

The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4 with Professor Brian Cox (left) and Robin Ince

The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4 with Professor Brian Cox (left) and Robin Ince

IN THE ninth century, a group of monks thought it a good idea to annotate their chant books with dots and squiggles. The function of these pen strokes may have been merely to prompt recall of particular melodic formulae; but with them began a technology — musical notation — that transformed everything about the medium of music.

You do not need to know what all the buttons do on a Buchla synthes­iser to understand how music and tech­nology have interacted over the ages: you just need to understand the relationship between a pen and a piece of paper. And, to his credit, that was precisely the point made by the com­poser John Luther Adams when he was talking to Clemency Burton-Hill for Radio 3’s Sunday Feature this week. Adams eschews modern com­pu­ter software as he shapes his new musical composi­tions. The “heavy lifting” is done with pen and paper.

This was the first in an ambitious three-part series by Burton-Hill, exploring the creative dialogue between inspiration and the means by which that inspiration is realised. She has gathered an eclectic group of interviewees for her project, from composers of the old-school con­serva­tories to a sound engineer who appears to despise the fetishisation of instrumental excellence, and the hours of tedious music practice that go into making a virtuoso. Thou­sands of tiger parents would, no doubt, have swooned to hear such heresy, were it not for the fact that they were busy drilling their children in their melodic minor scales.

The traditionalists can, however, content themselves that the Stradi­var­ius and the Steinway have already outlived the first generations of electronic instruments. Indeed, the period-instrument movement is now turning from 17th- and 18th-century repertoire to reviving the classics of experimental music from the 1960s and ’70s using reel-to-reel tape.

From the world of synthetic bleeps to a more elemental sound: in The Conversation (World Service, New Year’s Day) we met two women who had spent their lives on or beside the ocean. As they talked, we were trans­ported to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands: rugged waters, where a woman has to struggle to make it in a male seascape.

But this is no place for cinematic romanticism: one of the women described what it was like to be afloat with morning sickness, which, com­bined with a lifelong seasickness, meant that she had suffered voyages in which she was vomiting every 15 minutes. Surely her body is trying to tell her something.

Once in a while, it is worth revisit­ing old haunts, to see if anything has changed. I can report that The Infinite Monkey Cage (Radio 4, New Year’s Day) is just as smug and irritating as it always has been.

Scientists cannot hope to carry a programme on nerd-chic and the indulgence of a live audience. In the Christmas special, the presenters fatally ran out of material, and their attempt at freestyling was a reminder of how difficult it is to fill the empty void that is radio time.

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