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Radio review: Between the Ears, Assignment: Poland’s forest frontier, and Assume Nothing

08 December 2023


Between the Ears (Radio 3) explores the adventurous use of sound

Between the Ears (Radio 3) explores the adventurous use of sound

FROM Finnish death rituals to a guide to vampirism, Between the Ears rarely fails to surprise; and, judging by the 15-minute “miniatures” broadcast each weekday on Radio 3 last week, there is a clutch of younger sound artists prepared to maintain the tradition.

The strand has become an institution of the kind that one is glad to have around, even if it doesn’t all float your boat. For instance, you have to be in the right mood to appreciate the Scandi noir evoked by Suvi Tuuli Kataja and Elli Suter in “Hidden Touch” (Wednesday): one of nihilistic melancholy, in which gazing into the inky blackness of existence is a better option than making a mug of Horlicks and switching over to the Shipping Forecast.

Nor does the promotional puff do much to advance the cause. Thursday’s offering, “Sight-reading”, promised “a choreography of gestures that house the incalculable forms of our living”. If somebody hasn’t got there already, I shall look forward to my £15 from Private Eye.

Yet the polyphonic textures of all these pieces — straightforward or arcane — were so fascinating as to move the listener beyond a merely transactional relationship based on information exchange. Monday’s contribution presented a beautiful account of how memory is stimulated in a dying man by the smells of his youth; and Max Syedtollan made some amends for the general lack of humour in this series by teaching us how to be cool. Listening to Radio 3 is a first step; but, to reach the Parnassian summit of cool, one must, of course, earn a review in Church Times.

The best radio documentaries share with the sound-art of Between the Ears an ambition to reach beyond the audio-descriptive and create a unique, untranslatable experience. At the end of Grzegorz Sokol’s outstanding Assignment: Poland’s forest frontier (World Service, Thursday of last week), we were invited to imagine a deep, primeval forest in which animals and humans could, through night cameras, be seen running, for food and for shelter.

We are on the border between Poland and Belarus, in the forest of Bialowieza, a place that, for centuries, has seen migrations of peoples in both directions; and which for millennia has been the home to herds of bison, wolves, and moose. Now that a thick steel wall has appeared, Sokol is keen to understand the effect on the environment. One must assume that it has been profound; although it was comforting to get the long view from an environmental historian who told of how the ancient forest has adapted to many traumas in the past, and will do so again.

This is the third occasion in a year that I have had been moved to write in praise of the Radio Ulster strand Assume Nothing: this time, for a series, all now downloadable from BBC Sounds, recounting the escapades of a Special Branch Office in Northern Ireland during the early ’70s. So slickly does the docu- merge with the drama that one barely notices the joins.

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