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Radio review: Between the Ears: Isolation, in your words, Crowd Science, and Comedians vs. the News

06 November 2020

BBC

In Between the Ears: Isolation, in your words (Radio 3, Saturday), verbatim transcripts of people’s experiences were manipulated to create a playlist

In Between the Ears: Isolation, in your words (Radio 3, Saturday), verbatim transcripts of people’s experiences were manipulated to create a pla...

“NOTHING to be, nothing to do.” The message is bleak, even when reconfigured as a disco groove; nor is the refrain “It’s more of the same” any more alluring when composed in a cappella harmonies. The state of semantic friction in which words and music for ever co-exist provided the creative energy for the latest Between the Ears: Isolation, in your words (Radio 3, Saturday). It was a programme in which verbatim transcripts of people’s experiences were manipulated to create a playlist by turns comic, bathetic, and despairing.

The emergence of music from the continuous repetition of single phrases of speech is a phenomenon exploited frequently in recent times by composers and producers in various genres. Similarly, the grafting of speech patterns on to musical lines has become widespread.

The genius displayed by Arun Dhanjal (Zar) in this programme — part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series — was in the range of speech-song techniques employed and the almost seamless transition from one to another, such as a frenetic rap juxtaposed with an account of Ramadan in lockdown, to the accompaniment of improvisation on the drums.

Inevitably, as in all such boldly experimental projects, not all of it worked — or, to be more generous, the cognitive dissonance between words and music was too much to comprehend — but the hit rate was certainly high enough to compensate.

If all speech can, through electronic processing, be turned into song, then there is hope for Jenny and Anastasia, whose question to Crowd Science (Friday, World Service) was whether everyone can learn to sing in tune. “A bear stepped on my ear” is the evocative Russian saying that Anastasia used to describe her inability to pitch-match. She was not wrong. As she tried to sing a simple phrase, one wondered whether the bear had done something unspeakable down her throat as well.

The presenter, Marijke Peters, deftly disentangled the various deficiencies that result in what colloquially, but inaccurately, is called “tone deafness”. There are those who have not learned how to control their laryngeal muscles; there are those who have the rare condition of being unable to distinguish accurately pitches that they hear; and then you have the people who think that they are singing the correct note, but aren’t.

Those in the last category — and we all know at least one — are the most dangerous. The condition might be termed Florence Foster Jenkins syndrome. By the sound of it, there is little, short of highly invasive neurosurgery, that can be done for anyone who has it.

Competitive comedy has been suffering without audiences; so, if The News Quiz et al. are sounding flat, then you could check out Comedians Vs. the News (Mondays), which, coming from the World Service, has an international panel. I don’t promise belly-laughs, and it is very pointedly right-on; on the other hand, it is intriguing to find out what (in the case of last week’s show) constitutes satire in Sweden and Malaysia.

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