"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.

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“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