When Max Richter’s eight-hour composition, Sleep, was first broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 in September 2015, I decided to go full method, and listen to it in bed. The result of this was that within a few minutes of lying in the dark with the light off while Richter’s neurologically inclined epic washed over me, I promptly fell asleep.
Richter’s performance that night alongside soprano Grace Davidson and five string players took place between midnight and 8am in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Collection in London. Played in front of an audience lying in beds rather than seated, Sleep formed the climax of BBC Radio 3’s Science and Music weekend. It was composed, as Richter described it, as “a call to arms to stop what we’re doing.” Ergo, my response in nodding off so rapidly, before drifting in and out of conscious and unconscious hearing over the next eight hours, was probably the point of the exercise.
Whether this happens again when Sleep is rebroadcast this coming Easter Saturday night from 11pm as part of BBC Radio 3’s Slow and Mindful series of broadcasts during the current pandemic-enforced lockdown remains to be seen. And indeed heard, as Richter’s Guinness World Record holding composition for the longest broadcast of a single piece of music and longest live broadcast of a single piece of music is aired across Europe, the USA, Canada and New Zealand.
My response to Sleep in 2015 was akin to what used to happen thirty-five years or so earlier, while listening to John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 late-night programme in similar circumstances. The self-mythology of my generation as being a bunch of socially awkward teens who found solace tuning in to Peel-championed unlistenable obscurities on unreliable transistor radios under the bed-clothes has been propagated to the point of cliché, but only because it was true.
For me, while I was kept as alert as I could be in my back bedroom overlooking Anfield Cemetery by all manner of noiseniks, eccentrics and avant-provocateurs, my Achilles heel was dub. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. Being a skinny white indie kid I had absolutely zero frame of reference for reggae, but heard it between bands at pretty much every gig I went to. Which, to be honest, wasn’t many at that time, but still.
As soon as Peel announced a pre-release by King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Eek A Mouse or any other of their sound-clash contemporaries, however, I knew I was a goner. There was something about the elongated bounce of the low-slung rhythmic sludge that seeped into the brain and slowed down the heart enough to drag me under into dreamland. Next thing I knew, I’d come awake to the crackle and hiss of the post-show static that punctuated the airwaves back then when it was BBC radio that went into lockdown after midnight once Peel’s show was over.
These days I listen to dub all the time. Played low, the bass and drums possess an unobtrusive propulsion that makes it easy to work to. Live, it’s trouser-flappingly loud sonic whoosh is brain-meldingly invigorating. Either way, dub reggae keeps me very much awake. It’s playing now, in the middle of the night while I’m writing this, my playlist on permanent shuffle as I try to get on with stuff.
As with the intention behind Sleep, my everyday soundtrack is one way of getting through the lockdown, giving each day some kind of ballast. As a long-term freelancer who works from home in a job where I’m essentially trying to make some kind of sense of what’s going on in my head, this was the case long before the pandemic took hold. One might argue too that not being able to go out anywhere and being stuck on your own indoors is a bit like being back on the dole. Except, even though solitary confinement undoubtedly becomes me, it’s all a bit different than both those things, and requires a new set of responses that Sleep is contributing to.
The fallout of the pandemic in terms of the closure of theatres, concert halls, music venues and galleries has provoked a wave of activity from assorted artistic communities, many of them online. First out the traps that I became aware of was Cryptic, the Glasgow-based experimental visual music auteurs, who had programmed one of their Cryptic Nights events in the Glad Café on the city’s south side. Rather than cancel, Cryptic took advantage of the company’s multi-media aesthetic, and streamed the event’s performances by Russian artist Aeger Smoothie, Vietnamese composer, LinhHafornow, and Glasgow electronicist, Alex Smoke, live online from an otherwise empty venue.
Stina Tweeddale of Glasgow band, Honeyblood, set up a regular half-hour nightly show, broadcast first from the sofa of her Iceblink Luck studio, and featuring guests Emme Woods, Carla J Easton and Martha Ffion. Once full lockdown hit, Tweeddale streamed a series of intimate shows from her living room featuring stripped-back original songs from her back catalogue alongside some charmingly quirky cover versions.
Meanwhile, in London, Café OTO, arguably the UK’s most adventurous small music venue, presented a series of nightly shows by the likes of Alasdair Roberts, free vocalist Elaine Mitchener and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor. These again, were performed to an otherwise empty room, with creative multiple camera action taking advantage of the space to play in.
If Tweeddale’s Honeyblood Studio Sessions looked like early ‘80s DIY public access TV, the Café OTO shows recalled proper 1970s BBC 2 arts television. Both used the situation they had found themselves in as fund-raisers. With planned live dates by Tweeddale cancelled, she set up a GoFundMe campaign, with money raised split between paying her guest artists and the Help Musicians Scotland charity. Café OTO similarly invited those watching to donate in order to ensure some kind of survival in the precarious post-pandemic world that will exist at some point in an increasingly far-off future.
Other venues too started fund-raisers, with Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh setting up a GoFundMe to accompany the venue’s weekly Monday night open mic style affair, now hosted from assorted living rooms and kitchens. Quarantine Cabaret set up something similar, while the first night of The Stand comedy club’s regular online Saturday shows saw the likes of Phill Jupitus and Jo Caulfield perform online to an audience of 8,000.
Film-maker Mark Cousins improvised an indispensable two-hour online essay, 40 Days to Learn Film, and art galleries across the globe promoted their long-standing virtual tours. There were already existing podcasts, including Ida Schuster’s Old School, a wise and witty look at life and work by the 101-year-old actress and one-time doyen of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, who sadly passed away this week.
As the full impact of the Covid-19 lockdown took root, larger institutions responded to enforced cancellations of entire seasons. The National Theatre of Scotland announced a series of Scenes for Survival commissions. Pitlochry Festival Theatre started up a daily broadcast of solo performances. Elsewhere there were mini ceilidhs, bedroom gigs and an online performance of Bubble, a new play by writer of Beats, Kieran Hurley, presented by Theatre Uncut. Edinburgh baroque pop band Storm the Palace made a wry video cover of Eric Carmen’s 1975 mope-along classic, All by Myself, with the band’s five members operating out of rooms in different locations.
Others put their archives online, with the National Theatre of Great Britain starting a weekly stream of hit shows, including One Man, Two Guvnors and Sally Cookson’s reimagining of Jane Eyre. The Metropolitan Opera in New York did something similar, as did Scottish Ballet in Glasgow and The Wooster Group in New York. There have been benefit shows for frontline workers by Elton John and fund-raisers by Frank Turner for the small venues he came up through.
Glasgow-based record label, Last Night from Glasgow started taking pre-orders for The Isolation Sessions, a forthcoming double album of the label’s roster covering each other’s songs. All proceeds from sales are set to go to the various venues where the label had planned assorted launches and show-cases. While the album has yet to be completed, it is already the biggest seller by the label to date.
All of this was pretty great to have around to fill the void where work used to sit alongside rest and play, and for the first couple of weeks of lockdown I embraced it. Myself and a couple of mates developed a kind of virtual kidology, whereby we made out we were just having a normal night out, only indoors.
“What are you up too, later?” we’d ask each other by text as the off-the-leash weekend-starts-here anticipation began on Friday afternoon.
“I’ll probably head over to Stina’s place early doors,” came the reply, “then grab a bite to eat and a couple of beers before going down to Café OTO. Although Blanck Mass are playing tonight as well, so I might swing by there if I can make it work.”
The global village of online entertainment was a non-stop party of living room gigs, straight-to-camera stand-up and intimate-as-anything performance poetry sets. It was all very urgent in the need to keep alive the spirit of the places that had just gone dark.
But for all the energy and the will to survive and the need by some artists to get their work out there, sometimes it became barely possible to take all this in along with everything else going on in the real world without at times feeling overwhelmed. There is the sneaking suspicion as well that, regardless of this sudden surge of bespoke not-quite-live online artistry, most people are watching box sets on Netflix as they would do anyway, same-as-it-ever-was, carrying on regardless. Having just caught up on six seasons of laugh-out-loud American police precinct comedy, Brooklyn 99, I’m totally down with that as well.
And then there are the treasures of YouTube. One of these is Marc, the cut-price tea-time pop vehicle for doomed glam pixie Marc Bolan, made by Granada TV just before he died in a car crash in 1977. Given the overload of music TV these days, it’s fascinating to watch Bolan’s awkward and clearly out-of-it intros to a limbo-land compendium of old hams and new wavers. Other than Top of the Pops for teens and The Old Grey Whistle Test for album-loving bores, this and other shows produced by Muriel Young was all there was back then
After watching the first three episodes of six, Bolan’s own performances include a cover of Jody Reynolds’ rockabilly teenage tragedy, Endless Sleep, later a hit for Marty Wilde. Other delights have included the Bay City Rollers, who previously hosted their own Young-produced show, Shang-a-Lang. There was also an appearance by mutton-dressed-as-lamb punk pretenders, Radio Stars, fronted by Andy Ellisson, Bolan’s old mate in ‘60s hippy combo, John’s Children.
Then there was Alfalpha, led by future Dream Academy fop and Pink Floyd collaborator, Nick Laird-Clowes, and a Scottish would-be heartbreaker new to me called Jamie Wild. There are appearances too from The Jam, Hawkwind doing the very Velvet Undergroundesque Quark, Strangeness and Charm, and Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats performing Looking After Number 1.
A treat too is the sartorial elegance of Bolan’s bassist Herbie Flowers, the man whose bass-line for Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side pretty much defined the song, and who here sports an entire range of workman’s dungarees, dirty old man’s raincoat and pyjamas ensemble.
Best of all is the show’s resident four-woman dance troupe, Heart Throb, whose school disco routines to numbers by Showaddywaddy, Confessions actor Robin Askwith and Desmond Dekker make the same era’s Pan’s People and Legs and Co troupes on Top of the Pops look sophisticated. It turns out that Heart Throb’s choreographer, Teri Scoble, was also an actress, who played one half of Siamese Twins, with her sister playing the other half, in David Lynch’s film, The Elephant Man. It also turns out that both Scoble siblings played uber-blonde demon seeds from outer space in Village of the Damned, the 1960 big-screen adaptation of John Wyndham’s science-fiction novel, The Midwich Cuckoos.
The first thing I thought of when lockdown happened was another science-fiction story, this time written by an American. The Pedestrian, by Ray Bradbury, was first published in 1951, and collected two years later in The Golden Apples of the Sun. Bradbury’s poignant short tale charts a late-night walk by an old man living in a future where the empty streets are policed by robot cars. As the man is walking, he is detained by one, taken in, and driven down the deserted boulevards and past his own house in which the warm glow of humanity still resides.
I first read The Pedestrian years ago, probably around the same time I was listening to John Peel under the bed-clothes. I later heard a recording of it read by actor David Horovitch on BBC Radio 4 that was first broadcast in 2001. I first heard the recording on BBC Radio 4 Extra, the BBC’s brilliant archive station that I sometimes listen to on what used to be the BBC iPlayer Radio app, but which has now been rebranded as BBC Sounds.
On being reminded of The Pedestrian, I looked up Ray Bradbury’s name on BBC Sounds to see if the recording was still available. It wasn’t, but what came up was a programme from 1989 called Meridian, which featured an interview with Bradbury. I’d never heard of Meridian before, but it had an archive dating from 1980 and 1981 – again, the same era I was falling asleep to dub on John Peel – going right up to 2004.
Meridian seems to have been the BBC World Service arts magazine equivalent of Front Row. Features to be found in the treasure trove include William Burroughs talking around the time of his Cities of the Red Night tour, and English sci-fi novelist JG Ballard interviewed about his then new 1981 novel, Hello America. Ballard’s book is set in a future where an ecological collapse has caused North America to be virtually uninhabitable, with most of the world’s population evacuated to Europe and Asia. England, meanwhile, is suffering from a radioactive fallout, and the book charts an expedition to North America by the European crew of a steamship in order to discover the cause of the fallout.
Meridian has become part of my new daily lockdown routine, as I listen to one episode through headphones on my mobile each morning over breakfast, working my way through the archive in date order. One of the interesting things about listening to it is how attitudes have and haven’t changed since then. The presenters of Meridian are terribly posh, and not a little patronising towards their subjects. One interviewer basically tells Peter Ustinov to his face that the film he just made is rubbish, while a younger writer is informed his work really isn’t up to scratch. A review of play on in Stoke about the history of the mines is judged with the disclaimer that some of the regional accents might be hard to understand.
In an analysis of whether the British Museum should be giving its plundered treasures back to colonised African nations, the then head of the Museum, Dr David Wilson, rather testily makes clear that while they might be happy to loan them on a short-term basis, the Museum categorically wouldn’t be giving anything away. In other episodes, Meridian covers the death of Bob Marley, the opening of Mustapha Matura’s play, One Rule, about a successful reggae star not unlike Marley, and the latest fiction from African Caribbean writers now living in the UK. All this and a report on the gala opening of Pitlochry Festival Theatre too.
Put in context of these early episodes of Meridian being broadcast around the same time as the UK inner-city riots of 1981, such snippets are a fascinating time capsule into attitudes towards cultures outwith the Oxbridge-designated canon. In some of the items described above, Meridian tip-toes its way around issues of diversity and inclusiveness without ever really knowing what to do with them.
In contrast, I was alerted to Between the Ears, BBC Radio 3’s programme of what it styles as ‘adventurous listening’, but which does roughly what online at radio station Resonance FM has been doing for years. The episode I was pointed towards was aired a couple of weeks ago, and featured Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson talking about his work, Me and My Mother, in which once every five years he gets his mother, actress Guorun Asmundsdottir, to spit on him.
I first encountered Kjartansson’s work several years ago in Reykjavik, where I saw two of his multi-screen installations. One of these, The Visitors, features a group of musicians filmed playing a song written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, Asdis Sif Gunnarsdottir, over and over. Each musician or group of musicians are filmed playing in nine separate rooms in Rokeby House, set in a large estate in upstate New York, before they eventually come together at the end of the film and wander off into the grounds of the estate, still playing. The techniques used in bringing the performance together in different places probably aren’t that far removed from how Storm the Palace made their video for All by Myself.
Other episodes of Between the Ears have featured impressionistic studies of Victorian dioramas and fairground arcades, as I’ve now discovered after introducing an episode a day to my daily routine alongside Meridian, this time while cooking dinner. As I move through the archives of both programmes, with Meridian I am moving forwards towards then unknown futures I can now judge in hindsight. In contrast, with Between the Ears, it feels like I’m rewinding on a state-of-art present of tone poems built from the past.
In thinking about Sleep again, I remembered first encountering Max Richter when he performed in Stirling in 2006 as part of the Le Weekend experimental music festival. Interviewing him beforehand for the Herald newspaper, I discovered the German-born composer had not only studied music at the University of Edinburgh, but had later moved back there, where he co-founded the contemporary classical ‘post-minimalist’ group, Piano Circus.
Since then, Richter’s work has become ubiquitous. Amongst a welter of big screen credits, Richter recently composed the soundtrack for the Josie Rourke directed film, Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary. Other credits include dystopian sci-fi TV drama, Orphan Black, and episodes of Black Mirror. Almost a decade ago, Richter scored David Mackenzie’s 2011 film, Perfect Sense, starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor as a scientist and a chef caught up in a global epidemic that causes people to lose one of their senses.
Inspired by all this, I looked up Max Richter on the BBC Sounds app. As expected, I found a host of programmes with him on. He’s there on Front Row talking about composing his ballet about Virginia Woolf, Woolf Works, writing music for TV show, Taboo, and the prolific use in film of his piece, On the Nature of Daylight. He’s there too on Music Matters and My Classical Favourites. Presenting Saturday Classics, he showcases a thirty-odd minute selection of music by the likes of Charles Ives, Bill Evans and ‘deep-listening’ composer Pauline Oliveros, all based around the theme of peace.
Richter is there too on Only Artists, which brings together two disparate artistic practitioners in conversation. Richter meets visual artist Tacita Dean. Other editions rather tantalisingly include a meeting between actress Maxine Peake and musician, artist and former member of Throbbing Gristle, Cosey Fanni Tutti. I make a mental note to add Only Artists to my daily radio routine. I also check out Richter on a podcast of In Tune Highlights from 2016, on which he talks about Sleep a year after its first broadcast. Rewinding to 2015, there he is again, talking about Sleep on Front Row prior to its world premiere and sending me to sleep.
Inbetween my daily bookends of Meridian and Between the Ears, there is plenty to be done. The state-sanctioned daily outdoor exercise has opened up other possibilities beyond a computer screen. In the last week, I have stumbled on a park I never knew existed, and watched the ducks flap about in the pond. I found at least three chip shops open for business, but managed to resist them all. I have a new favourite street, with houses built largely of red brick in a way you don’t often find in Edinburgh.
In the not quite deserted retail park that my flat overlooks, the shops have become Ballardian warehouses of everyday consumerism in which bath mats and tea towels are reimagined as limited edition multiples to pore over. I have bought an ironing board cover, attracted by the pattern, even though I do not own an iron. Inbetween the retail park and my new favourite street, a half-built housing development somewhat optimistically calls itself Urban Eden, despite their being no discernible patch of grass in sight. The only thing evident is the unoriginal sin of bad planning.
In the other direction, on the hoardings beside the deserted building site next to Meadowbank Stadium, posters for theatre shows at the Lyceum and concerts at Edinburgh Castle now look like memorials for events that never happened. Next to them is a display of graffiti art, at the centre of which is Shona Hardie’s gorgeous mural of Andrew Weatherall that went up a couple of days after the record producer, DJ and sonic wizard who married dance music to dub and pretty much everything else beyond died in February. It’s ridiculous it’s taken me so long to get out to see something that lit up social media when it first went up, and which is only five minutes away from me, but I guess I thought there was no time in the way there is now.
Further on, past the boarded up shops and an incongruous looking pair of empty steel benches outside an insurance office, a blackboard in a pub window bears the chalked-on legend, ‘No money, no booze, only hope. I walk home along a street I’ve never walked along before.
None of this experience can be replicated online. None of this can be found on Facebook, Zoom, Patreon, Instagram or Twitter. On the one hand, everything going on in these various virtual outlets is creating an artistic archive of a crucial time in history which will make or break many of us. On the other, I’m reminded of a one-minute monologue by Quentin Crisp that first appeared in 1980 on the Cherry Red Records compilation, Miniatures, then again two years later on another compilation, Pillows & Prayers. Actor and Still Game star Gavin Mitchell tellingly put loaded Crisp’s tersely polite damnation onto his Facebook page the other day. It’s title? Stop the Music for a Minute.
But what to do instead? The broadcast of Sleep and all the online performances that go along with it won’t make Covid-19 go away. If only. Neither will they protect the NHS doctors, nurses and care-workers on the front-line, the post men and women, the cleaners, the public transport drivers and supermarket staff, heroes and heroines all, from possible infection.
What Sleep might do, in the ongoing storm of uncertainty and fury at the barrage of misinformation, conspiracy theories and out and out lies is maybe, just maybe, offer something resembling a few moments of peace.
And me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I have plenty to keep me amused. I have worked at home for more than twenty years. I have ‘worked at home’ on the dole and beyond for considerably longer.
I am not spending any money. This is just as well, as there is unlikely to be much coming in for the near future, at least. I took out fifty quid from the cash machine three weeks ago in case of emergencies. I still have thirty-five of it left, plus some loose change. To be fair, grocery shops have been paid for by card, but even so.
There has been no dashing for tea-time trains. As a result of this, I am cooking regularly. I have tea bags and toilet rolls. I am domesticating. If it wasn’t for the walks, I might never leave the house again.
In the meantime, I’m off in tonight. I might take a wander around the Cooper Art Gallery in Dundee first, where the website has a host of film and audio material relating to their postponed exhibition of work by radical film-makers, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero. There’s a new film as well by artist Mairi Lafferty called Tongues that’s just gone online, and there’s bound to be a gig on somewhere. There’s the other three episodes of Marc as well, but let’s see. I’ll listen to Meridian in the morning, Between the Ears at teatime, and dub reggae in-between. But for now, at least, it’s time to catch up on some Sleep.
Sleep is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday April 11th at 11pm to Easter Sunday April 12th at 7am as part of Slow and Mindful. Sleep will also be broadcast across the globe over the Easter weekend care of the European Broadcasting Union.
Stina Tweeddale’s Honeyblood Studio Sessions archive can be found on the Honeyblood Facebook page.
Café OTO’s sessions are archived at www.cafeoto.co.uk
The Isolation Sessions can be pre-ordered from Last Night from Glasgow at www.lastnightfromglasgow.com
Mark Cousin’ film, 40 Days to Learn Film can be watched at www.vimeo/399407221
A non-BBC recording of The Pedestrian by Ray Bradbury is available at m.youtube.com/watch?v=KtpDc3ySSbw
Details of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival season can be found at www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
The Meridian and Between the Ears archives are available at www.bbc.co.uk/sounds
Episodes of Marc can be viewed at m.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0NEfm_Y-io
A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero – Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollan, is at the Cooper Gallery, Dundee on www.dundee.ac.uk/cooper-gallery
Tongues by Mairi Lafferty is at www.mapmagazine.co.uk
Stop the Music for a Minute by Quentin Crisp is on Pillows and Prayers, available from Cherry Red Records on www.cherryred.co.uk, and can be heard at m.youtube.com/watch?v=5k6UdtxJXMI
Shona Hardie’s mural of Andrew Weatherall can be seen on the hoardings outside the building site at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh.
Bella Caledonia, April 2020