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Bjork sours classical fans' custard cream moments

CLASSICAL music fans of a certain (fogeyish) vintage often take a dim view of The John Kelly Ensemble. I've concluded this through rigorous application of deductive reasoning. Or, to put it another way, by just standing and listening as 'mature' radio listeners tell me things like, "Ooh! I don't care much for that John Kelly!"

The 'problem', as I understand it, is this. You turn on Lyric FM in the afternoon expecting to hear, say, the cloying Lesley Garrett. Or a steadying snippet of Bizet's Pearl Fishers Duet. Or a nostalgia-soaked slice of 'Count' John McCormack. The kind of unobtrusive thing that keeps you company as you munch contentedly on a custard cream (while polishing off the crossword).

But what do you get instead? All manner of unsettling weirdness, that's what. Bjork, Miles Davis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tom Waits.


And I'm not talking about the "lovable ol' barfly", Tom Waits, either. I'm talking about the "intoxicated dog with its head stuck in a megaphone", Tom Waits. The one that sounds like he's barking out the date of the apocalypse (while trapped in a haunted kennel).

After discombobulating noise assaults like that you'd need a double-dose of Nationwide, or something, to settle yourself down.

I can only imagine what Lyric's fustier listeners make of Nova -- Bernard Clarke's delightful weekly blast of avant-garde fruitiness.

On Sunday, (a repeat, but regular service is resuming soon) Clarke eased the audience in with excerpts from the Crash Ensemble's Free State 7 concert (a celebration of emerging Irish composers).

Not exactly music to doze off in front of a lovely fire to, but it was like Perry Como (languorously crooning in a rainforest) compared to what came next. The French musician Franck Vigroux was introduced, by Clarke, as a "sonic explorer" who was fond of "new media composition and improvisation". An innocent enough description, but mentions of "nightmare techno" and "a delirious love of the overdriven" may have caused warier listeners to feel a wee bit jittery.

If Bjork is your idea of unacceptably outre "modern music", then you were probably peeling yourself off the floor (a sobbing and hysterical wreck) after Vigroux's Trait.

Imagine the sound of two subatomic Atari cars hurtling around the Large Hadron Collider at faster-than-light speeds.

Imagine a ZX Spectrum screaming in agony. You can't? Well, you haven't heard Trait. To (terrified) traditionalist ears this probably sounds like the kind of music Satanic computers will be imposing on enslaved humanity after the global robot revolution.

Joking aside, it's to Lyric FM's credit that the station continues to find a space and a place for much-needed shows like Nova and The John Kelly Ensemble.


The last time I listened to Classic FM, for example, it was enthusiastically selling itself, and 'classical' music in general, as nothing but soothing background noise (a Radox bath for the ears). "Relax, with Classic FM" was the endlessly repeated mantra, delivered by an avuncular voice that sounded the soul of twee contentedness.

Forget about the mighty Franck Vigroux, that's the true sound of suffocating, mind-numbing oppressiveness right there.

Speaking of Lyric FM gems, Culture File continues to be one of the most stimulating things on Irish radio.

Smuggled in daily towards the end of Liz Nolan's Classic Drive -- and clocking in at under 10 minutes -- it's an easy feature to miss, but one that's consistently surprising and refreshing.

On Monday, host Luke Clancy issued a cheery "warning". "This report," he said "contains blokes chatting wistfully about vintage audio technology and features the phrases 'Nakamichi cassette deck', 'back in the day' and, of course, 'the good old days'."

The wistful blokes in question were Clancy himself and Philip Marshall, of The Tapeworm -- a Berlin-based label aiming to keep tape alive by "releasing all their material only on cassette".

Marshall spoke affectionately, and compellingly, about the seductive aspects of the humble cassette.

This retro-infused wistfulness could easily have become irritatingly indulgent, but Culture File's approach prevents matters from becoming too precious. Like a Nakamichi cassette deck, the levels are usually perfectly set.