Last week on Front Row (Radio 4) the singer Joyce DiDonato recalled the advice she gave the new graduates of the Juilliard School, just about to embark on their professional careers in music. It’s a hard life. They’re asked to be perfect, which of course is unattainable. She wanted to encourage them to keep going, to persist in pursuing their art, despite the inevitable phases of discouragement and disappointment. Because, she says, art has the power to build bridges across cultures, religions, political divides. ‘It teaches empathy.’
She was referring particularly to musical art, but what she was saying applies also to radio. The intimacy and immediacy of listening create such a strong connection that it’s impossible not to feel a close identity with the person you are listening to, and to begin to understand something of their lives, what makes them tick, how they think, why they behave as they do. Take this Wednesday’s afternoon play on Radio 4, simply but so effectively produced by Tim Dee.
The Man Who Turned into a Sofa took us right to the heart of what it feels like to be so depressed you’re terrified to leave the house and the only safety is to be found on the sitting-room sofa. Put like that it sounds absurd. A parody of a Radio 4 domestic drama. But this was different. It was less a play and more like a sequence of poems, written and told by the man himself, Andrew Peters, and his partner and teenage daughter, and woven together with music by William Goodchild that was perfectly attuned to the piece. Each of them gave us their point of view on what had happened to their once-happy and sorted family. As the 45-minute sequence progressed, we were drawn closer and closer into the crisis.
The girl is angry that her home has been turned into a care home visited by various members of the Crisis Resolution and Home Treatment team; the partner bears a ‘monstrous anger’ that her husband sits there doing nothing while she has to manage everything, running the household around his somnolent frame, which has taken up residence on the sofa. Another voice enters the scene, that of the sofa itself, which turns into Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, covered with the detritus of daily life — empty mugs, unopened post, shapeless socks, sudoku books and dried-up pens.
The sofa complains that it’s now ‘being considered a work of art’. Meanwhile the husband is treated like a naughty child, no longer trusted to do anything for himself after he has attempted suicide by accumulating his pills and taking them in one go. ‘The scream I can’t stop rises up like sick,’ admits the partner, and you know exactly how she feels. ‘Let me not be here.’
This was so powerful, so economical, so completely honest, each of the characters laying themselves bare, without pretence or excuse, it had me hooked from start to finish and then I had to listen to it again to catch the phrases that rang so true.
Over on Radio 2 The Wonderful World of Cerys Matthews (Wednesday) took us on a musical journey through the life of the pianist and singer Nina Simone, that ‘high priestess of soul’. Matthews has such a great radio voice, distinctive, without being irritatingly affected, warm and inviting, and her approach is refreshingly different. Not so much a biography of Simone but using her story as an excuse to bring together as many different kinds of music as possible, from Bach to Dusty Springfield via Junior Murvin, the Buena Vista Social Club, a brilliant band from Mali called Tinariwen and of course Simone herself.
I thought I knew a little about Simone, the disappointed classical music student, the civil rights activist (her roots were in slavery), the feminist, the personality difficulties (she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar), the spine-tingling songs such as ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘He Ain’t Comin’ Home No More’. But Matthews gave me so much more by illustrating just how global Simone’s life became, starting off in a small town in North Carolina in 1933 as the daughter of a preacher woman (cue ‘Son of a Preacher Man’) and ending up in Aix-en-Provence, where she died in her sleep in 2003 (an excuse to hear Juliette Gréco). She moved to Africa to escape the colour prejudice she experienced in America, once saying, ‘If I were a boy it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer.’ From there she moved restlessly on to Barbados and back to America, before settling in Europe.
In less than an hour Matthews gave us such an insight into what made Simone tick musically, and at the same time revealed something of herself, her love of rhythm, of melody and of being taken into different kinds of musical world. It was a masterclass in how music can open your mind.
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