What makes a sound frightening?
If we hear footsteps during the day, it's just somebody walking; hear them at night, and it's a different story. It's all about context and in The Sound of Fear, Sean Street – a poet and a Professor of Radio, no less – explored the ways in which sounds get not just inside our head but also under our skin.
The musician and writer David Toop recalled lying in bed as a child and hearing the creaks houses make at night: "I heard a sound in the bedroom, and I could hear it circling round my bed." He says, "we hear with our ears but we listen with our mind".
There were fascinating insights into how perception of sound is as much subject to cultural influence as perception of anything else. The historian, David Hendy, recounted how discombobulating many found the advent of radio broadcasting. It came in the wake of the First World War, when millions had had to grieve without a body to bury, and the resulting spiritualism craze was all about apparently disembodied voices: now there was a genuinely disembodied voice in the parlour.
Street assembled a battery of experts – including a neuroscientist who's been working with a sergeant-major whose parade-ground roar starts at 115 decibels then gets louder – but Toop was best value. "Sound is always disappearing," he said. "As soon as you make a sound it has gone ... that connects us with a sense of loss – to me, sound is always intimately connected to death." I can safely say I'd never looked at it that way before – the best testimonial a programme can have.
I was sorry when Radio 4's morning interview strand was canned. Now two of the replacements are with us: Jim Al-Khalili's The Life Scientific, and One to One, the first series of which features the BBC's Middle East expert, Lyse Doucet, talking to Afghan figures of import. On Tuesday, she met Saad Mohseni, who over the past decade has improbably built a media empire in that disturbed country.
It felt like a chat between, if not old friends, then at least old acquaintances: relaxed and amiable, but with Doucet willing to challenge him. His critics, she said, believe that if it all goes horribly wrong he'll go back to Dubai and run his empire from there. "I probably will. It's true," he conceded. Indeed: if the Taliban get anywhere near to power, people like him will be on every proscribed list going.
It was also an instructive glimpse into a world most of us only think about now when a British soldier is killed. When Mohseni allowed footage of a female singer, dancing on stage, to be transmitted on Afghan Star, his version of The X Factor, she was forced into hiding and he received death threats. Now she is a genuine Afghan star, dancing on stage, without a veil. Quite an achievement. "What's your next challenge?" Doucet wondered. "Surviving, I think."Reuse content