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"I make myself sit there from nine to one": Matt Kaner is Radio 3's first embedded composer

The composer is writing one new piece of music a week for the BBC station's breakfast show – mostly, by hiding in the spare room.

“Here we go: take one.” In a chilly production booth at the BBC studios in Maida Vale sits the young composer Matt Kaner, pulling at his short beard. Not altogether woken, the meandering old building is morning-quiet, chefs in a distant canteen vaguely clattering baking trays. Through the glass, in a giant recording hall and sitting in a wintry semi-darkness, the cellist Guy Johnston plays a forlornly exquisite solo piece that sounds at first like a series of exercises testing the resonance of the instrument, climbing up and down the stave, through a sad C-sharp and always returning to a Novemberish A.

Kaner, Radio 3’s first “embedded composer”, is this month writing one new piece of music a week for the breakfast show (no small feat). He says that this latest three-minute work, called Sicilienne, is complicated by using scordatura tuning – a retuning of the cello’s strings up or down just a semitone. It’s not enough to be awkward for the instrument, but “a bit disorienting” to play and hear nonetheless.

“This feels a little top-heavy, maybe,” Kaner mutters, head bent over score. “Top-heavy?” frowns the paternal, fiftysomething studio manager, but Kaner nods. He’s 30 but looks much younger, dressed in a too-large brown woollen jumper like a grammar-school maths teacher. It strikes me that although he smiles and laughs freely, this baleful and languid piece sounds like something written by someone almost with a premature insight into death. Where does Kaner compose?

“In my spare room. I make myself sit there from nine to one. And things seem to . . . happen.” He says he uses an electric piano most of the time, but with this piece he took his girlfriend’s cello one morning and re-tuned it to Sicilienne’s unusual chord, only for her to come home and start playing, and wonder if she was slightly losing her mind.

On the other side of the glass, Johnston has finished and is waiting for instructions. “Say something encouraging to him,” the studio manager recommends, and Kaner stands and shakes off his concentration, slipping through the doors and into the cold, vast ocean of the hall beyond.

Matt Kaner’s compositions air on Radio 3’s breakfast show through November

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 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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