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Radio review: Ghost Church, In the Studio, and Unclassified

23 December 2022


Street signs in Cassadaga, Florida, the base for much of the investigation in the podcast Ghost Church

Street signs in Cassadaga, Florida, the base for much of the investigation in the podcast Ghost Church

WITH the holidays offering some time for idleness, there is time to catch up on the long form of radio born of the podcast era. And you might do worse than a box-set from earlier this year: Ghost Church (available on the usual platforms), which provides a sensitive yet quizzical account of the history of American Spiritualism.

The presenter, Jamie Loftus, possesses many of the irritating qualities of the typical podcast journalist; not least a flippancy that can sound gauche rather than charming and occasional, quite unexpected, cussing. On the plus side, she is self-aware enough to admit to her own spiritual baggage, and comes from a standpoint sympathetic to the movement’s traditions and intentions.

In this respect, the most important point for her to establish from the outset is that Spiritualism is not a cult. The community at Cassadaga, Florida, which is the base for much of her investigation, is not run by a single charismatic leader demanding a full investment of time and money in the cause. Indeed, the history of Spiritualism features many an enlightened soul, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and W. B. Yeats, although, according to the National Spiritualists’ Association manual, “Spiritualism has no beginning. Infinite intelligence is eternal, without beginning or end.”

Nevertheless, Loftus chooses to start her history with mysterious knockings on a bedroom wall in the spring of 1848. I won’t spoil it; but suffice to say, it is just possible they did not come from beyond the grave.

Of course, you don’t need a Ouija board or a pack of fancy cards to commune with the dead. The great pianist John Lill claimed to have had direct communication with Beethoven. For the Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, this meant travelling to Leipzig to inhabit the spaces known to J. S. Bach, in preparation for performances and a recording of the great man’s Goldberg Variations.

Criticised for his interpretational tics and ostentation, Lang Lang is nevertheless excellent company; and his meeting in In the Studio (World Service, Tuesday of last week) with the equally affable Sean Rafferty was a delight. This is a rare example of a programme that encourages artists to get technical: to move on from the waffle of sentiment and inspiration and on to the nuts and bolts of managing that trill or balancing the voices in that fugue. You don’t have to know all the lingo to appreciate the mechanics of technique. Bach, the ultimate jobbing musician, would surely approve.

The Goldbergs were designed to entertain a diplomat who couldn’t get to sleep. If you would like a more contemporary musical solution, then Unclassified (Radio 3, Thursday of last week) might suit: a beautifully conceived sequence of ambient tracks related to “sacred spaces”, real and imaginary: a synagogue in Krakow, a derelict church on Orkney, the lost Cornish kingdom of Lyonesse. It’s not a playlist that will get your feet tapping, but it may sort out your circadian rhythms.

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