Easter Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the holiday ahead.

Concert

Easter Weekend at Aldeburgh Music, Suffolk IP17 1SP. 29-31 March

The Alderburgh is marking Benjamin Britten’s veneration of Purcell with a weekend of concerts. Providing a snapshot of a powerful musical bond, the concerts will variously delve into musical history, bringing it up-to-date with a present generation of performers and composers.

There are two concert performances of Purcell’s powerful opera, Dido and Aenas, set in Orford Church, while La Nuova Musica connects Purcell with his predecessor, John Blow. Featuring ensembles closely bound to the Aldeburgh, including a leading role for the young artist programme, the weekend is described as “a celebration of the patron saint of music and musicians whose feast day is Britten’s own birthday”.

 

Dance

Sutra, Sadler’s Wells. London, EC1R 4TN. 3-6 April

After touring the globe, showing to audiences as far-flung as New Zealand and Singapore, Sutra returns to Sadler’s Wells on Wednesday for its fifth anniversary. The collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley and 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China has been described as "outstanding".

Polish composer Szymon Brzóska was specially commissioned to write the score, while Gormley’s set of 21 wooden boxes provides a striking backdrop for a unique artistic production which explores the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition.

 

Art

Nástio Mosquito: Nastia Answers Gabi. IKON gallery, Birmingham B1 2HS. Now-21 April

Following his appearance at the Tate Modern last November, artist, videographer, poet and provocateur Nástio Mosquito’s latest exhibition reflects on the nature of our globalised world, with particular reference to representations of Africa and post-colonial clichés.

A notoriously irreverent artist, his videos are knowingly politically-incorrect. He picks apart the philosophical language familiar to the art world in order to convey his philosophical scepticism about contemporary society. Including videos in which he talks to his female equivalent Nástia, as well as a short scene in which he answers questions from renowned curator Gabi Ngcobo, Mosquito uses humour to explore post-colonial clichés and expresses an urgent desire to engage with reality on all levels.

 

Theatre

Untold Stories. The Duchess Theatre, London WC2B 5LA. 22 March onwards

The National Theatre’s critically-acclaimed double bill, featuring two auto-biographical recollections by Alan Bennett, is now showing at the Duchess Theatre for a 12-week run.

Hymn, the first of the two plays, is a memoir of music and childhood, directed by Nadia Fall to music by George Fenton. A nostalgic piece, it brings together Bennett’s memories of concerts at Leeds Hall with stories of his father teaching him the violin.

Cocktail Sticks is directed by Nicholas Hytner and was first performed at the National Theatre last year. Described as "tender, touching and sad”, it is inspired by themes and conversations from Bennett’s memoir A Life Like Other People’s. Alex Jennings play Alan Bennett in both pieces.

 

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle. Soho Theatre. London. 3-20 April.

Nominated for ‘Best New Play’ at the Irish Theatre Awards and off the back of a hugely successful Edinburgh and Dublin run, The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle will be showing at the Soho Theatre throughout April. A play about a man who has barely lived enough to have regrets, critics have described it as “high accomplished” and a “marvellous production”. Written by Dublin-based playwright Ross Dungan and performed by eight Irish actors, this exciting new play is story-telling at its best.

 

Chinese shaolin monk performs in 'Sutra', a ballet by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, on July 8, 2008 in Avignon, southeastern France, as part of the 62nd Avignon international festival. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images
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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times