Reviewed: Noise - A History on BBC Radio 4

Give us a Scooby.

Noise: A History
BBC Radio 4

“We assume the past was much quieter,” chides David Hendy in the opening seconds of his new 30-part series (weekdays, 1.45pm) on the history of noise (“turning up the volume on the past; making sense of history through sound”). Hendy is clearly walking down a New York street and then suddenly – unusual travel budget alert! – hauls us to a black cave in Burgundy looking for evidence of life from 20,000 years ago. “Put humans in a cave,” whispers David, feeling his way along the bare rock, “and it can become quite unnervingly noisy. If we hum or sing, the cave . . . sings back as if the cave itself is alive.”

How nose-stroking can a lunchtime show get? In the background, terrible sounds recur: groans repeatedly dissolving into the kind of surprised, rising grunt issued by an on-hisuppers Scooby-Doo. “That’s Igor Resnikov,” admits David after a moment, awed. “He’s a French archaeologist conducting an interesting experiment.” No way. Igor communicates exclusively through grunts and taps, uttering not a human word, leaving us to imagine him rocking through weeks of intense glooms, a jungle of bone medallions nestling in a hairy chest, occasionally visited by neuropsychologists and economic historians eager to widen the scope of their funding applications. Igor has been searching for the most aurally resonant places in cave systems for decades, proving that 80 per cent of prehistoric paintings occur in places where the acoustics are particularly unusual. David insists it’s incredibly interesting –but the moment Igor detects something that sounds outré, he turns on his torch and finds a painted bison. “Something drew them to these most inaccessible chambers . . .” ferrets Hendy, a professor of media and communication at Sussex who one suspects is never more than a phone call away from a mixed mezze at the Lebanese opposite Portland Place. “Whoever created this art seems to have chosen acoustically ‘interesting spaces’ as if mesmerised by echoes . . .”

Next up: the alarm calls of the vervet monkey, the “talking drum” and a song to summon rainforest spirits. Put like that, this sounds like the most sub-avant-garde and brilliant new programme on BBC radio. And what a way to intro The Archers!

Professor David Hendy makes some noise. Photograph: BBC

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.