Take the Slow Train

Alan DaveyFri 17th March 2017

BBC Radio 3's Controller on why life should be lived at a slower speed

At the Sage Gateshead on March 17 the theme of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking weekend was 'The Speed of Life'. We looked at speed - with Formula 1 racing driver Damon Hill talking about adrenalin, Radio 3 New Generation thinker Chris Harding talking about Buddhism - and many other leading minds across the arts, humanities, politics and more discussing how the rhythms of our lives affects us as human beings.

Slowness, in the sense of giving things the time they take, is something that we have been thinking about a lot on BBC Radio 3. When I arrived, it was hard not to notice that most radio breakfast shows were busy and fast, because it was assumed to be a busy and fast time of day for people. But we decided to ‘unthink’ this a bit, and make our Breakfast show less frenzied, with fewer things going on, and concentrating on the music, allowing it to breathe and for listeners’ minds to breathe with it.  We made the music longer – playing pieces like Mozart’s piano sonata K331 'Alla Turca' between the news bulletins which do remind you of the time – but also providing moments with shorter pieces, where listeners can think or respond in some way.

It's like Edward Thomas's poem Adelstrop - which in a short few lines captures perfectly the essence of a slow stillness that is attractive and inescapable; a minute that stretches long:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

If we present pieces of music – even short ones – in our breakfast show that give that stillness and slowness, we have allowed our audience to appreciate and take nourishment from a piece of music. The Breakfast audience response has been positive.

Look at Choral Evensong, a church service that offers a moment of stillness; real time out. Now getting its highest audiences in its 90 year history, the weekly outside broadcast fulfils an essential human need to slow down and take time amid the hustle and bustle of modern life.

At Radio 3, we decided our advantage was being able to play long pieces of music and allow the music to take the time it needs and give people the space to listen. This is an ethos which has been central to our work as a station since the first days of the Third Programme in 1946. We want to say explicitly to our listeners, ‘here it is, it's classical music, it's sometimes long, it takes a while, but look at the reward you get when you do listen’.

Radio 3 always broadcasts complete works in the afternoons, evenings and through the night, including single works lasting through the small hours (Max Richter's Sleep) and other long works (Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet). I think there is a growing hunger in audiences to take time, to see things as a whole, and not to want a short, easy alternative.

I believe that this could be where classical music claims an advantage for the attention of younger audiences. Young people are perfectly capable of appreciating long-form things that last longer than a three-minute pop song. We know this from the rise of the podcast, with young audiences consuming long, involving pieces of narrative voraciously. With classical music we have a story to tell within each piece of music we play. And if we give clues to the narrative, then we may be able to persuade people to devote the time it takes to listen.

Classical music takes time and involves a conscious time out of life's turmoil - while offering within it huge and often visceral engagement. But time is the ingredient. And the new appetite for slow may be to our advantage. 

Alan Davey

Alan Davey is the Controller of BBC Radio 3

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