Show Hide image

"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

Getty
Show Hide image

Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496