Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
AT PRESENT, Radio 3 music documentaries seem to fall into three categories; programmes about music, programmes around music, and programmes produced by Antony Pitts. Admittedly, the "around" category still appears in the ascendant in the wake of Nicholas Kenyon's controllership; programmes such as Sound Stories in which more or less any old "theme" may be drummed up to link a selection of discs, provided all specific talk about the music itself is sedulously avoided.

True, there are also illuminating talks, discussions and documentaries on individual works, composers, and so on - still intermittently to be heard, notably as interval items during the Proms. But amid the thousands of hours Radio 3 devotes per year to record miscellanies, not a single one is currently assigned to the detailed exploration of a selected work in the way that the much-loved Antony Hopkins used to do.

Among the network's younger producers, Pitts has shown he is perfectly capable of straightforward documentaries in both the "around" and "about" categories. But he is also a composer with a special love for all manner of dizzying textural pile-ups and naughty harmonic contradictions. Where this creative ingenuity has fed back into his broadcast features, as in his production of Adrian Jack's Chromatic Fantasy in 1994, the resulting multi-tracked and cross-faded collages of music, speech and directional sound have proved some of the most intricate and evocative in recent radio. Where the same techniques invade his documentaries, the result can be more problematic.

As it sometimes has been in the sequence of three programmes considering rhythm, harmony and melody plus form in 20th century music, which Pitts has recently contributed to the Sunday evening series, Settling The Score, for Sounding the Century. Granted, the musical evolution of the past 100 years has proved so complex, it would require a series of Open University scope and care justly to represent it. Pitts's alternative approach of sampling and cross-cutting at least offers the virtue of concentration. All the same, there were patches in the first two programmes so nifty in their multi-allusiveness that it was hard to imagine that anyone with less than total recall of the century's music could keep up with the half of it.

So that last Sunday's more lucidly textured melody and form programme, devised by Julian Anderson, suggested a lesson well learnt. Nor were Pitts's ingenuities any less vivid; it was fascinating to hear the voice of old Joseph Taylor singing "Brigg Fair", recorded in his Lincolnshire workhouse almost 100 years ago, gradually modulating into the harmonisations of Grainger and Delius, or birdsong slowly lowered to the same pitch as Messiaen's transcriptions. Yet, among the recorded remarks of composers, from the venerable Elliott Carter to the rising young Thomas Ades, you remained tantalised by a richness and variety of ideas that there was no time to follow up - as when the late Morton Feldman raised the question of which composers were good at beginnings, and which better at endings. Beginnings, middles and ends: now there is a "theme", not just "around" or even "about" but "of", and which, clearly explored in a series, could surely draw even a casual listener back to the music itself.

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