Sunday, March 05, 2006

These moments are rare in radio ...

Pliable reports lots of Bach on Radio 3 for Christmas- great. Lots of vacuous chat - less than great. The insult to the injury must be knowing that your taxes support this noise pollution. I’ve nearly abandoned radio these days, for those reasons and more. But it could be worse. You could live here in the United States and be subjected to the pain of our domestic radio programming. Forget about the commercial stations; I have. I’d swap our network of National Public Radio-affiliated stations, the rough equivalents of Radio 3, with you any time. These publicly supported stations do have their charms – classical and world music, jazz, news, some dedicated and knowledgeable announcers. But the downsides make it less than rewarding – announcers who don’t know when to shut up and the fund drives with their monotonous pleas for more and more money. I’ve trolled my way through many of BBC Radio’s offerings and have been more rewarded than alarmed with what I’ve found. But it’s Late Junction on Radio 3 that for me captures much of the spirit of radio that educates, informs, and entertains. The four-night weekly program is usually about an hour and 45 minutes long, filled with music that crosses borders, both state and musical. One recent program included Hungarian folk music, British hornpipes, Eastern European church organs, modern Chinese music from an upcoming Real World release, folk music from Anatolia, and a Kodaly adagio from ECM. Not lowest-common-denominator programming, for sure. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say most of it is unidentifiable to me. I depend on the playlists and the announcers to set me straight. Fiona Talkington and Verity Sharp keep the musical interruptions tolerably brief. They attempt, and succeed at, difficult pronunciations of artist names and song titles that my eye drifts from in fear of getting wrong. I think of Late Junction as a mix tape that comes from friends in Britain four times a week. There are some duds, there is some music that just flat out goes by me (Teflon music; it never sticks), and some head turning moments. One was Tommy McCook’s (right) Blazing Horns, traditional horn-section ska coupled with a dub mix. It was haunting, with a beat and ambience that induced me to actually stop what I was doing and sit and listen. I went straight to Amazon when I found out the artist and title and bought myself a copy. These moments are rare in radio. Yet it’s crucial for the medium. Remove the frisson that comes with being pleasantly surprised at what’s being played and much of the life is drained away. American radio is wall-to-wall with the absence of surprise. Familiarity is what it seeks and it’s what audience, advertisers, and programmers get, courtesy of near-constant rating sweeps. In many ways, it’s perfect a deal because, in this way, mass markets get what they want and deserve. But it also leaves a great many people grasping for what they aren’t getting, including variety and surprise. Late Junction has startled me many times. The program is a great advocate of certain musical niches, such as Indonesian gamelan, and Scandinavian jazz, the kind specifically promoted by ECM. For those who say and truly believe that jazz died a natural death when Ornette Coleman showed up, or when John Coltrane disbanded the quartet, I point them to this Munich-based label with the roster of world-class improvisers. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek (right) is a regular on Late Junction, whether it’s an ECM recording or his 2004 appearance at the London Jazz Festival. He’s the perfect ECM artist, walking through an aural landscape that is at once bleak and beckoning, all seemingly conjured on the spur of the moment. There’s always someone who isn’t going to like this modern variant on jazz. Their loss. Only loosening a too-tight grip on the past is necessary. There have been some confusing moments, yet they too have been rewarding. Bluegrass isn’t a Late Junction staple, but one night the sounds of Jim and Jesse’s version of Georgia Mail came tumbling from the speakers, a concise, banjo-driven ramble from the American past. It sounded perfect next to whatever songs it was bookended by, most likely European or Asian. A feat of broadcasting magic. I’m a beneficiary of the BBC’s audio archiving. Late Junction airs at about 6 p.m. here in Atlanta. In order to listen live, I have to sit near my computer and stream in the signal. It’s much easier to listen at my leisure, when I’m ready, not when the station is. I still catch everything from the archive and if it’s something worth listening to again, I’ll either replay the program or buy a copy of the recording. A perfect example: In an unusual move, Verity Sharp (right) played Gong Chio Xia’s late 1920s recording of “Chiang Wei Cu Cu Kai” from the Rough Guide to the Music of China. It’s a catchy slice of Shanghai pop from the past that delivers the goods in three riveting minutes. I felt as captivated as the announcer. And how often does that happen in radio? Not often, but I get more of it from the BBC than anywhere else. I don’t want to subscribe too heavily to the romance of the BBC, though it’s an undeniable ingredient. The Internet has turned my Beeb listening from catch-as-catch-can shortwave World Service listening to digital clarity in the past few years. I’m more of a fan now than ever, but that may be due to distance and money. I’m not a prisoner of its enormous broadcasting shadow because I can escape elsewhere, such as satellite radio, my iPod , or my own music collection. And I’m not offended by the news department or by its programming quirks because I’m not paying for it with my taxes. So call me a stealth listener, and one who gets away with it. I’d be offended too if a BBC fat cat thanked me for my positive email when I’d sent them a negative rant. But I’ve learned to ignore these people in American mainstream media. They’re everywhere and the only way to survive is to pay no attention and move on. Like you, I’m no fan of needless chat. I am a fan, however, of finding good music and Late Junction is consistently my stop of choice. It embodies what I wish radio consistently delivered. But those days are gone. .........................................................................................

That is guest contributor Lee Landenberger's take on BBC Radio 3. Lee has already guested here with the very well received The Year is '72, and based on this new article I'm sure we will be hearing more from him. Lee can be contacted at - ddewitt4 at bellsouth dot net Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Image credits: Header - Seven South Record Shop, Santa Barbara Tommy McCook - Reggaevibes.com Jan Garbarek - Musicolog.com Verity Sharp - Arts.telegraph Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. If bandwidth is a problem with your permission I will host your image. If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to No such thing as free BBC MP3 downloads

5 comments:

Qbox said...

God read !!!

Cheers

Guthry Trojan said...

Hi Pliable
Was interested and not a little inspired to read your views on Radio 3's Late Junction, which as you say "captures much of the spirit of radio that educates, informs, and entertains." Happily such aims have yet to be entirely erradicated by the likes of Pandora, which must surely represent the antithesis of this notion. You might like to read my bleatings about this.
In my view, the success of companies such as ECM, whom you mention, and Hyperion is explained by the singularity of their approach: instead of trying to cater to all tastes, or to court popularity they promote what inspires them.
When frisson gives way to familiarity we're on the path to monotonous mediocrity.

Rod... said...

...great post about a great program - radio three the shining light in a dull and boring corporation - jazz on three and mixing it worth a listen as well - and what I love about the internet is - well, stumbling across the above comment and finding Pandora - typed in 'Cecil Taylor' -and am now enjoying... thank Guthrie!

elf said...

Don't be misled by Radio 3s presentation. It's the content that counts.

My public radio station lost me completely during the Bach bash. Quite a challenge to deal with the 5 hour difference, but there was so much of value there to me that it made my holiday season.

Then, there's the morning Composer of the Week, from 7-8am while WGBH is yammering at the poor folks trying to get up and going in the morning with its noisy news stuff, as though we aren't all drowning in the miserably daily crap coming out of my country.

Then there's the Early Music show - quite a lot of old style programming there, not the predigested stuff from GBH either.

Finally it's twice now that I've caught your wonderful Radio 3 broadcasting live performances of your superb tenor, Mr. Padmore, singing his newer repertoire - Schubert. Görne? Forget it. Quasthoff? Bo - ring, Padmore - spellbinding, and only on Radio 3.

Am then there's this new Radio Ballads series on Radio 2, and Archie Fisher's Travelling Folk on Radio Scotland.

I'm so glad I got my DSL. Finally, I can listen to some real radio.

Richard Friedman said...

I'm a great fan of Radio 3 and especially Late Junction. I will admit to have purchased a number of CDs on line right after hearing them on the internet feed.

The purpose of radio was to present to the listener things you didn't know about. It's not to provide background music. Best thing about Late Junction is that I'm ALWAYS surprised. And its scope is wide enough that it always dives into the areas I haven't been to yet.

I've given up on traditional radio. Even replaced the FM tuner in my system with an iMac playing internet radio. Thousands of "stations" and feeds to pick from. Even so, Late Junction is on the top of the list.

But I must complain that the sound quality coming from the Radio 3 feeds is not as good as it used to be. Definite distortion. I wish they'd up their sampling rate to at least 64KBs. It would sound SO much better.