Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
AN UNBROKEN quarter-hour of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is modest as his sessions went. Hearing it on Radio 3 (Late Junction, Monday) was another matter.

Verity Sharp was over-cautious to introduce him as "one of the greatest qawwali singers". Rather, one of the great 20th-century singers, full stop! And of course he has been safely part of music history for two years. But you can imagine a near future which clears schedules at the passing of world notables, or even celebrates them while they are still alive and can join in. The station is on the move.

It's worth taking more time over Late Junction. Welcome it certainly is, for the brilliance of the individual items. But, after a few weeks, its problems sound like signs of a transitional stage in music broadcasting. This week's programmes have regularly dipped into a powerful Nusrat tribute album - BBC Music Magazine's pick of the year back in December 1998, but let that pass (hint: look to Africa for 1999). As one item among many it wasn't prominent enough to be a theme. Overall, the content lacked focus.

Look at Monday's sequence. Anonymous 15th-century polyphony led into a meditative marimba solo by Evelyn Glennie, then Graham Fitkin's marimba- rich Hook. "Guaranteed to get your feet tapping," said Sharp, and she was right - you had to, if only to keep the beat through Ensemble Bash's plodding accompaniment. The continuity broke as everything stopped for qawwali, and the next item, apparently a Bjork sound-alike with more vocal technique, turned out to be Bjork herself singing a snappy number she devised with Glennie. Back then to the Hilliard Ensemble's polyphony, and another Fitkin piece, this time short and quiet.

Sometimes one piece links sensitively to the mood of the next, sometimes not. One item is introduced, another isn't. There is an element of recital- style references across the programme's length, and an element of randomness. And if Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's singing was the centrepiece, what did it have to do with the rest? More interestingly the beginning and end showed, by design or not, the emergence of basic DJ skills.

For ages I've wanted to hear an art-music programme try fading links and stream-of-consciousness continuity. It would need the care that Radio 3 lavishes on its mainstream programming, and would surely draw listeners. No doubt they will get round to it in a few years, when real DJs have moved on to another generation's new ideas.

BBC World Service continues to lead the way in open-eared music documentaries. Last Friday and Sunday, Michael Church reported on the medieval-sounding choral music of Georgia, a deep-rooted fusion of Christian and Muslim traditions which - like flamenco, or Corsican polyphony - has somehow survived intact. It was the perfect time to make the programme, as West European culture starts its onward march across the country. You can hear melodies becoming smoother, harmonies more tonal, even as choirs still go out collecting and arranging songs from country villages.

This process is usually the cue for anxious preservationists to start campaigns to save the heritage. Church, rejects the "time-warp museum of peasant life" and was, in contrast, relaxed about old ways vanishing as the lifestyle that supports them disappears. Quite right, too: drawing centuries of strength from hybrid origins, this music deserves the security of a creatively hybrid future. Kept in isolation it will atrophy, just like singing in England.