Archives for December 2011

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in surround sound

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Rupert Brun Rupert Brun | 16:00 UK time, Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Picture of An early TV recording of Carols from King's (1963)

An early TV recording of Carols from King's (1963) Photo © BBC

Rupert Brun, head of technology for BBC Audio & Music, invites you to participate in a seasonal surround sound experiment.

When the BBC moved its Research and Development function from Kingswood Warren in 2010, Andrew Mason, one of our audio research engineers, discovered an experimental stereo recording of the 1958 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. In 2007, Steve Richards, one of the BBC’s senior sound supervisors, made another experimental recording of the Festival, this time in '4.0' surround sound.  For Christmas this year we are offering a technical evaluation of various surround sound formats based on these recordings. There are a number of reasons why the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols continues to be a popular event for technical experiments of this kind.

  • The rich, reverberant acoustics of King's College Chapel, and the location of choir, organ and congregation give us a complex and immersive audio landscape to reproduce.
  • At Christmas we hope you will have time to sit down and really listen to this famous annual event. You may even have some new technology as a Christmas gift to help you enjoy it.
  • The 1958 experimental recording gives us an interesting story to tell and the engineers a wealth of material to experiment with.


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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

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Fiona McLean | 16:41 UK time, Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. Pictured outside the New Statesman in 1978.


Editor's note. We're republishing two of Christopher Hitchens' contributions to Radio 3's Night Waves, as a tribute to the author and journalist, who died this morning. Fiona Mclean, a senior producer on the programme, remembers him here - SB.


Christopher Hitchens' death is very sad news for the Night Waves team. Christopher has appeared on Radio 3 for many years. He was the perfect guest: provocative, stimulating, entertaining, eloquent and contrarian. Whenever he was in the studio everyone raised their game. You didn't have to agree with him on the many topics he discussed - religion, Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, the war on Iraq - but he always made you think more about whatever he was dissecting.

And he was fun. In one of his last appearances on Night Waves he came in to talk to Matthew Sweet about Thomas Paine; after a terrific defence of the revolutionary Founding Father he performed, in a whisky infused bass, and much to Matthew's delight, a song about Paine to the tune of 'God Save the Queen'.

He was a fascinating man, a contrarian who started life as a Trotskyist but who went on to defend the war in Iraq. Two things remained a constant to the end though: his love of literature and his hatred of religion. In 2007 he was in the studio for a heated and very lively discussion about his book on the immorality of religion with Philip Dodd.

He returned in 2008 to talk to Matthew about his decision to undergo 'waterboarding' and why he had changed his mind, very publicly, about the practice. And, in his last appearance on the programme, just before he was diagnosed with the cancer that has led to his death, he talked about his memoir, 'Hitch-22', a riveting read through his journey of radical ideas.

Fiona McLean is a senior producer on Night Waves

Backstage at the Royal Ballet with Radio 3

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 11:24 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Photo of backstage at the Royal Opera House


Here's a Blog from BBC Concert Orchestra senior producer Neil Varley and concerts & planning assistant Tammy Daly who get a glimpse behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House’s Costume Department ...

Ballet on the radio? It doesn't sound all that promising does it; all that music without the dancers leaping and twirling, not to mention the sets and costumes which make up the whole experience? But we have Shakespeare plays and operas on Radio 3, and you can't see the actors, or the scenery, or the costumes, or the expressions on their faces either. So why not ballet on the radio? And, since the Concert Orchestra will be camping out in the pit at the Royal Opera House over the coming months providing the music for their production of The Nutcracker, we thought we’d bring a little of the Christmas magic to Radio 3 listeners.

So last Friday (2nd December) we went to watch The Nutcracker, score in hand, ready to record it twice the next day – for recordings like these, two takes are better than one, just in case.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is such wonderful music that it's a delight to hear in its own right. Enthusiasm is infectious, so recording a performance live in front of an audience who cheer and whoop with delight when the Sugar Plum Fairy has performed 30-something faultless fouettés in a row, or there has been a spectacular battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, only adds to the enjoyment.

Watching the performance, we were amazed not only by the sumptuous costumes and how they brought the characters alive, but also by how the dancers move so effortlessly in them. To name just a few, there are Christmas Angels that glide onto stage as if they’re on wheels, and when the toys come alive at midnight out come dozens of mice with masks that cover their faces which are probably half the weight of the dancers wearing them.

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Concerts and Christmas markets with the BBC SO in Germany

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 10:24 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Picture of a  Christmas Market in Germany


BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall finds warm, welcoming  and well-dressed audiences on the band. recent German tour ...

One of the joys of touring Germany in late November is the ubiquitous Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). Christmas comes early in Deutschland and they really know how to make the outdoors cosy or, as they say,  'gemütlich'. Amid the giant Christmas trees and twinkly lights we circle the colourful stalls and feast on curry Würst and Glühwein with a shot of rum. I buy a few presents including a cat basket for my  new kitten and an oversized Stollen cake. Then I wonder how on earth I'm going to get them all home ...
The nice thing about audiences in Germany is that they tend to dress up. They smile often too. Unfortunately on this occasion some of them seem to have been suffering from something akin to emphysema as I have seldom heard so much coughing and spluttering in a concert. 

Fortunately the concert is not being recorded and whilst the vibrant acoustics in Dortmund's Konzerthaus amplify the noises off, it does assist in us delivering lively performances of Dvořák's Golden Spinning Wheel and Janáček's blood-thirsty yet stirring Taras Bulba,  pieces close to conductor Jiří Bělohlávek's heart.
Due to availability problems we hadn't had a chance to rehearse with Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev in London, so with only a run-through  before the concert we had to be on our toes a bit for the Liszt 2nd concerto. However upon leaving the stage we are rewarded with free local beer.  Thank you Dortmund.

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In Tune whiteboard - find out who's on this week

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 16:06 UK time, Tuesday, 6 December 2011


Notes from a composer, Part 9 - Staying Light

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 17:40 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

Edgar Degas: Two Dancers Resting (pastel)

Edgar Degas: Two Dancers Resting (pastel)

Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his ninth post explaining the process

Fast and light is very difficult to maintain. As a performer, the bow is easily too heavy for a moment, the breath loses its constancy, the urge to shape creates over-emphasis. It’s just the same for the composer. A phrase sags, buoyancy is lost, and most of all the music can so quickly get overrun with too many notes. How right Schoenberg was, in his composition manual, to warn against letting the ‘smallest notes’ take over!

As I battled my block of the last few weeks, perhaps as much as anything it was this that was stopping me in my 5th movement, On Gossamer Wings. Not that I had too few notes - but too many. And I’ve found the danger of ‘over-writing’ especially hard to resist in composing for large orchestra. Perhaps it was a particularly difficult challenge to set myself. For the image I had in mind was of something up in the air, as if flying – as weightless as possible, untrammeled, continuously on the move. And to make 80 or so musicians try to do that felt at times almost contradictory.

There are of course many examples of perpetuum mobile-type movement in the repertoire, and the symphonic scherzo is in the background to my piece. But most of these are earth-bound dances rather than heaven-directed flights. Orchestral lightness instead normally seems to come with spaciousness and stillness. But there are exceptions of course – Mendelssohn for example, Berlioz at times, and when I’ve thought particularly of the second movement of Debussy’s La Mer, I’ve been suitably inspired and humbled. How extraordinary the way the music rises and falls, somersaults and floats: water is as good an extra-musical trigger as air.

So what have I learnt from Debussy? And how did I break the block?! For a start  - and it’s a big and basic one – orchestration, even of loud music, can be made delicate in all kinds of ways. One instrument or group can trigger or overlap with another, an illusion of lightness can come from the speed of change of the sonic palette rather than simply from the turnover of notes. Then there’s a very careful ear given to register: high notes immediately lighten the sound, but subtly placed low ones, or cushions of sound can give spring and lift. The interplay of particular rhythms, their lilt and flux, adds to lightness; and the careful avoidance of downbeats or over-emphasis of metre is terribly important. I’ve thought too of what Ligeti said about his Piano Concerto: he wanted to achieve ‘lift-off’ there through his use of poly-metric layers.

And then there’s the image of waves. Debussy’s full of it of course. But so is music in general – from Bach to Berio. And what freed me up in the end was finding a way to pull back rhythmically and in terms of harmonic movement at a certain point in the piece, only then to be able to allow the music to ‘break out’, or fly higher, later on. But I had to be careful to reduce things down without losing momentum, and I did this by decreasing the number of notes, but increasing the layering of different pulses. This way, I hope, the music stays buoyed up, expectant, energy-full.

Well, the metaphor has moved from air to sea! But talking about music is often most expressive when using metaphors. And so here’s another of sorts. Last weekend I went to the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy and was especially struck by one late painting called Two Dancers Resting. There they are, the dancers, appearing to do nothing – and yet the colour of the pastels, the mixture of definition and blur, is doing everything. The painting is marvelously poised - between vivid textural richness and the restraint of the subject. It’s as light as a feather. Here’s hoping my piece is that too.

  • Find out more about Michael Zev Gordon here.
  • Read his eighth post: In the wilderness
  • Read his seventh post: Still centre
  • Read his sixth post: Venice once again
  • Read his fifth post: Found Objects
  • Read his fourth post: Lost Worlds
  • Read his third post:Time Travel.
  • Read his second post: The composer's dilemma, what to call the piece?
  • Read his first post: Composing as it happens.
  • Calling New Generation Thinkers

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    Matthew Dodd | 16:49 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

    Radio 3's head of speech programmes introduces Round 2 of the New Generation Thinkers scheme 

    Day-in, day-out Radio 3 calls on the knowledge, expertise and charisma of Britain’s diverse university researchers. They appear as guests on Night Waves, advise us on our special projects like Mozart or Chopin and they present some of our flagship features. Twelve months ago BBC Radio 3 created a unique way of formalising our relationship with universities - the result is New Generation Thinkers.

    We have a track record of developing new talent, from commissioning the most amount of new composers and their works to running schemes like New Generation Artists and World Routes Academy. And so last March, I and some colleagues sat in a rather dingy conference room in BBC Bush House looking at the first 15 finalists of Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers scheme – and I don’t mind admitting I felt incredibly excited. All were academics at the start of their career, and they’d fought off competition from over a thousand other applicants to attend a workshop about broadcasting ideas and new research. Their energy, the range of their expertise and their readiness to engage with broadcasting left me feeling incredibly optimistic.

    When we unveiled our final 10 winners several months later, there was so much interest in our choice that the Guardian put a photo of them on their front page.


    Since then our NGT’s have made regular live appearance on Night Waves, taken part in our Free Thinking festival of ideas, pitched ideas for documentaries and presented their own editions of The Essay.  And before they started, some had never set foot in a radio studio!


    We’ve now launched the second year of the scheme – and there’s just a few days to go before the deadline for applications. Our partner is the Arts and Humanities Research Council which funds much of academic research into the arts – and it’s through their vitally important connections with the university sector that we try to get the word out to people that they can apply


    This year we’re delighted to be joined by the people behind BBC Two’s The Review Show to see if we can develop some of the ideas for television.

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