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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

Martha Kearney. CREDIT: GETTY
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Why Radio 4’s Martha Kearney is the best presenter on the BBC

In Kearney, the BBC has (for once) identified the right star.

“But when you have a regime that’s apparently prepared to use chemical weapons on his own people, doesn’t that add an urgency to it? Isn’t that the need of the avoidance of extreme humanitarian distress?” Martha Kearney speaks to Shami Chakrabati about the bombing in Syria during a Monday morning of interviews while co-presenting her fourth edition of the Today programme (her first was 7 April.)

The way she delivered the word “apparently” encapsulated why she is the best general-purpose presenter the BBC has bar none. She put a faint breath of parenthesis around it, in a way that didn’t sound vetted by lawyers, but perfectly natural. While very characteristic (she is ever the sun rather than the wind, but can burst with an almost-annoyed “hang on!” when interrupting), this was someone instinctively a long way from being aware of their own brand. How freakish a breed the political interviewer generally is. Freakish because of their proximity to a delusion of mattering – a delusion that they “set the agenda”. One could always kind of forgive Jeremy Paxman because he’s just a peculiar, sui generis kind of guy. But Kearney has never been a stymied celebrity or comedian (see Nick Robinson or Eddie Mair) or a wannabe intellectual (see James Naughtie’s more recent interviews with authors. The crenellated frown in his voice, as though this were Gore Vidal talking to Abraham Lincoln.)

Even with the perfectly okay Laura Kuenssberg, you occasionally sense someone who hopes that Meryl Streep might play her in the biopic. Whereas Martha is simply exactly what she wants to be: a presenter of general affairs on radio and TV. In response, Chakrabati was more forthcoming, less thrusting and careerist. More got said. That old Today style of interview is dead. Super-confrontational, internally high-fiving, frankly impolite. It contributed nothing to British society. It made politicians more defensive and bland, entrenched in positions and sowing discord (and equally freakish). They became like footballers, poised to say less and less. The ego of the media has been a key player in the diminishment of British public discourse. But in Kearney the BBC has (for once) identified the right star. 

Today
BBC Radio 4

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 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge