Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
Choosing a radio station is a funny business. In Britain it's less about music than a social bonding ritual. Try Sunrise if you find that hard to believe - or, if you are a Radio 3 regular, ask yourself how often you turn to Radio 2. The station identities could hardly be more different, with continuity style and jingles (or the absence of them) calling to apparently quite distinct forms of human life. Yet, more and more, the contents meet and overlap. You wanted a contemporary composition for shakuhachi, ocarinas and Western classical instruments? Radio 2 was your place.

Musical explorers who have to get up in the mornings often discover the station's themed evenings by chance. Here, in prime time, they can catch what Radio 3 would put late at night or in an afternoon slot for young people. Wednesdays are for traditional music, dominated but not overrun by British folk. Currently Rob Provine is presenting a four-part "beginner's guide" to Japanese music and instruments (The Music of Japan), which is like an extended Music Machine for grown-ups. For the shakuhachi programme last week he brought in Yoshikazu Iwamoto to demonstrate, perform and explain. Iwamoto is a visiting fellow at Durham University and does the bamboo-flute business with some panache. Nonchalantly playing a bent-note version of the station identity jingle, he let slip that the vibrato technique may take three years to learn. That's after you have spent a month trying to produce a note in the first place. If you were really unlucky, you had to learn on a metre-long version where the notes are so far apart that you can only reach them by deliberately dislocating a shoulder.

There were performances of slow, concentrated solos - longer than less popular stations will sometimes risk - followed by ensembles with koto and shamisen. They only took a short bite at the new work. ("That's a very interesting piece," said Provine laconically - it was Frank Denyer's After the Rain.) But at least it was accepted as part of the mid-evening mixture; back on Radio 3, access to some options is denied to the unlucky souls who must drop off at half- past 10. Jazz Notes, Mixing It, even Hear and Now (if the wind is blowing in the right direction) - all are programmes to stay up for.

The one-time Friday afternoon traditional music slot has moved there, too, on Sundays. Most weeks, this half-hour is where the rest of the world has its say, except for Mixing It's forays into world and cross-cultural musics. So it carries responsibilities towards a daunting range of classical, folk and religious traditions. It has sometimes met them in quaint ways, relying on old-style ethnomusicologists who present them like curators showing off their treasures.

But there has been a gradual opening-up. The eight-part Sacred Music of India series, which concluded last month, caught a real sense of place and event. Out of the roar of Delhi traffic a reed-and-percussion wedding band pressed its demands on the ear as it would if you were standing there, across the street from the Red Fort. There was nothing revolutionary about the format - a series of extracts presented by Richard Widdess that hopped around the subcontinent from item to item as if Sri Lanka were just down the road. It was the attitude that sounded fresh.

The down-to-earth comments stopped you dreaming up anything too exotic, though they stayed silent on the amount of booze that usually sustains men's groups on their journeys to weddings. Widdess had to switch straight to a procession of 60 elephants with fairy lights in Kandy, then to a Rajasthani song for the dressing of Krishna at the start of his day. But he had found the art of immediately placing you at the centre of the scene.