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Interview: Elizabeth Alker, BBC Radio 3 presenter

22 March 2019

‘Younger audiences are sometimes put off classical music because of the way it’s presented’

I’m based in MediaCityUK, Salford. It’s a big complex on the banks of the Manchester ship canal. It’s exciting: there are lots of people here, with Radio 5 Live, children’s work, BBC sport, some of Radio 4, and Radio 2. I left 6 Music at Christmas after 12 years. I’ve loved every minute of it, and I’ll still be involved in some way.

I’ll continue to work at Radio 3, where I present some of their weekend breakfast shows and have a late-night contemporary show, Unclassified, showcasing music by composers who blur the genre lines. They might have a classical background but they also draw from the worlds of pop, rock, jazz, and experimental music.

Radio 3 dives really deep into ideas: brilliant and new daring ideas like the Forest seasons, Slow Radio, and the new music seasons. It reaches out into all the corners of the arts. It’s one of the most exciting and stimulating places to work in broadcasting right now.

I had worked for 6 Music since 2006, when I was 24 and literally landed my dream job. It’s the BBC’s alternative-music station, dedicated to independent, alternative, new music — anything that has a slightly dissenting spirit: rock ’n’ roll, hip hop, indie, reggae, experimental, electronic . . . new, pioneering, different. I got to go to gigs and festivals in the north and interview lots of my musical heroes — Paul McCartney, the Arctic Monkeys, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, to name a few — and then talk about my adventures on the radio. After a few years in London, doing pretty much the same job, I returned to be the northern reporter again, in 2011.

There are a lot of similarities with Radio 3. Both appeal to curious listeners and people who love music — even if the sound is different.

I’m passionate about what’s happening in the north, which is so culturally rich, and about having different kinds of voices and experiences broadcast on the radio. And a special shout-out to my Radio 3 Salford colleague Tom McKinney, who is wonderful.

Splitting my time between Radio 3 and 6 Music meant that there wasn’t really a typical day. My work at 6 Music was partly office- and studio-based, but I went out to record interviews. For Radio 3, a lot of the listening, research, and scriptwriting happens at home, and then I come into the studio to present the shows.

The BBC’s library is an incredible resource, and we also have an online database, which has pretty much got everything. I find music for Unclassified online, through blogs, record labels, word of mouth, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify. There’s a lot of listening involved.

My parents are both musicians and music teachers; so there was always a wide range of music playing in our house. They’re both pianists and love classical music, but my dad also loved Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Mike Oldfield. So I grew up swimming in lots of different sounds and hanging out with music nerds at school — I liked being in that community.

I learned the recorder and clarinet from the age of six, and, although I just play for fun now, my teacher has a group of ex-pupils to play for weddings and functions, and I play with a clarinettist friend, Hilary, or with my dad. I love going to see live music — it’s one of my favourite things. I’m especially interested in composers such as Edmund Finnis, Laurence Crane, David Lang, David Fennessy, Anna Meredith, Mica Levi, and Emily Hall.

I studied communications and politics at Leeds University, though. It was an academic course, critical-theory-based, not practical — not journalism. But then I did a Master’s in English, and got involved in student radio, applied for work experience at the BBC, and wrote for magazines such as Dazed and Confused, Manchester’s City Life, and the NME.

Younger audiences are sometimes put off classical music because of the way it’s presented. So much of the music is exciting and rebellious and important, but presented in such a formal, controlled way. I love thinking of ways this could change. Of course, you want people to be focused on the performance, but they also need to feel they’re in an environment that they understand.

The BBC Philharmonic presented a series of concerts last year in collaboration with Salford University, which were a bit of an experiment in the way that audiences engage with live music. It was a very informal atmosphere: there were no rules around when it was or wasn’t OK to clap; you could head to the bar during the performance; and, during the interval, there was a Q & A with the conductor, soloist, and composer, if they were available. There were live-scrolling programme notes, which the audience could access on their phones during the performance.

Minna Leinonen, a Finnish composer, said that it felt more like an atmospherically charged rock concert. The players repeated parts of the programme in the second half to allow people to listen again and get a different insight into the music, and people were slightly more tuned into it. It was a brave thing to do: the programming was different — a lot of brand new music by people such as David Hennessy, Thomas Adès, Tansy Davies, alongside Mozart and Elgar. Different people came; so it was a really good exercise.

I really like to present sacred music, on whatever day of the week, learning about figures in history who drew inspiration from their faith, and digging back into the biblical texts. In the past, music was written for the Church, and everyone went to church, but, sadly, the Church doesn’t commission music that ends up being mainstream now.

I was brought up in a Christian home; so I considered what it meant to believe in God from a very early age. I was five when I knew that I wanted to be a Christian, and I remember telling my Sunday-school teacher at a youth event at church. I’ve been learning more about what this means ever since.

“Alker” is from Alsace-Lorraine, but there are lots of Alkers in the Wigan and Leigh area of Lancashire, bizarrely, where the Alker side of my family originate. I recently connected with another Elizabeth Alker on Facebook. She was born and lives in New York, but her family came from Wigan, too.

My childhood was busy. We had music and dancing lessons, and my parents were both very involved in our local church. My dad planted a church when I was 11. We always had lots of people at the house. We fostered a teenager for a short time, so I have a foster-sister and a younger sister and a younger brother. I don’t know how my mum and dad fit everything in.

I like to travel and I love walking up hills, most often in the Pennines, but it’s a treat to get up to the Lake District. I also go to lots of concerts and festivals, and the ones abroad are always most fun. Last year, I went to an electronic music festival in India.

I like strings playing high-pitched strange chords. I also love the piano, because it sounds like home for me: my dad constantly, constantly played the piano.

Injustice, poverty, and bad driving make me angry.

My family makes me happy, especially my nephew, who is three, and a constant source of entertainment — and being at a great gig with friends, finding a really great new artist, or when one of my favourite artists releases a really great album.

I do pray very regularly. All the time. I’m just constantly on at God about all kinds of things: thanking him for all the blessings, asking him for guidance, wisdom, good things for my friends, to get to the petrol station before my car runs out of petrol. . .

I’d choose to be locked in a church with J. S. Bach. I’d love to know how he interacted with God on a personal level, how he drew inspiration from God’s goodness, how wanting to give God glory spurred him on to produce the most breathtakingly beautiful music the world has ever known.

Elizabeth Alker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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