Ambient, techno... classical?

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
As the Purcell anniversary year nears its climax, broadcasts are spreading out beyond the specialist music stations. BBC2 on Saturday had its lavish Dido and Aeneas (previewed here last week), and the World Service's turn came on Monday with the launch of a series on Purcell's London. Nothing flashy here: just a straightforward, engaging survey of a lively musical centre, with Locke and Humphrey setting the scene for church music by the man himself. Quite apart from the city portrait, it gave a sense of how striking Purcell's music would have sounded in its time.

The World Service is good at traditional documentaries like this. Radio 3, meanwhile, is trying to be more sophisticated. When this evolving approach works, there is usually a close link between music and information: the Masque into Opera series, which began on Tuesday, makes it clearly enough. The same day's "portrait of musical life in Bradford from the mid-19th century to the First World War" seemed an arcane way of stringing together unrelated pieces.

Mixing It (Monday) catches the current style at its best with vigorous, spontaneous discussion of the most contemporary music that Radio 3 carries. This week's programme came across like a performed version of Wire magazine. Techno, ambient tracks called "The Politics of Digital Audio" - there it all was, bundled up with Xenakis, experimental jazz, and an attempt at Chinese-Tibetan fusion which matched the political equivalent (not much trace of Tibet left). Guest musician Richard James, alias Aphex Twin, had a fine time debunking the more pretentious efforts. "I'd get into it if I was drunk," he said after a leaden, jazz-free number by the supposedly anarchic Moondog Junior.

Some laid-back Xenakis reminded him of Forbidden Planet, only not so progressive. Stock, Hausen and Walkman were "crash, bang, wallop music". James, who had his music publicly belittled by Stockhausen himself a couple of weeks ago, came back with a robust refusal to accept any Stockhausen influence on 99 per cent of techno. Not a man to trifle with: in the past he has had his own way in an argumentative collaboration with Philip Glass.

In Radio 3's new music output, Mixing It is an oasis of vitality. Goodness knows why it runs so late at night, for it is the one slot that, over a few weeks, shows something like the spectrum of current music-making. The rest looks through the wrong end of the telescope, whether in Proms commissions or mid-evening relays - a cautious, composer-centred consensus from a dying, institutional world.

A long-delayed UK premiere of Gavin Bryars' Medea gave the week's list of composers a more contemporary look than usual. But how much bolder if it were a decade ago, when Bryars was a cult figure sniffed at by the Radio 3 mandarins, instead of safely tagging on to his official acceptance. Purcell would have been dead before he got in. Even now Medea was immediately followed, also live from the Tramway in Glasgow, by an ultra-conventional concert of recent Scottish pieces, as though to wipe out the memory as fast as possible.

The daily Music Machine tries hard to open up the range, but for all its enthusiasm to reach young listeners, it keeps falling back on old didactic ways. This is the programme that got Stockhausen to go pompous about pop, though that damaged him most. Now it is making a meal of African music. Good intentions, but there has been a lot of talking, mostly by Europeans, and little of the stuff itself. It's like going to a zoo and being told about the habits of the animals. Chartwell Dutiro's guest spot yesterday was the first extended sign of normal human life.

Monday's programme diverted temporarily into international comparisons, and sampled an Indian percussionist vocalising a rhythmic composition - very exciting, but it wasn't what the interviewee, Richard Widdiss, was talking about. Tuesday featured an embarrassing few minutes in which Tommy Pearson struggled to play interlocking patterns on percussion with Richard Benjafield. In the end they fell back on Steve Reich's Clapping Music. The sense of relief was palpable.

What listeners are they speaking to? Home Counties grammar-school boys who specialise in classical music, you might guess. Most other young people would be at ease with African styles in the first place. Mixing It comes to the rescue again with a focus on Africa next Monday. Radio 3's Jazz Week is starting, too: certainly there are signs of movement there. But it's taking a long time.