This is a podcast about music. A podcast about Nocturne. A podcast of a Nocturne inspired by the BBC’s nightly Shipping Forecast. Produced and presented by composer, Arthur Keegan-Bole
A K-B: Oh dear, I crashed the pips. In the world of radio, crashing the pips – that is, talking over the six sine tone beeps that mark the hour on BBC radio – is a serious faux pas. So, please, let me start again.
Hello you are listening to Nocturne, a podcast about music, its relationship with the night. My name is Arthur Keegan-Bole and I’m a composer. The music you’re hearing is a piece I finished at the start of this year. It is called Nocturne and Nocturne is what this podcast is about. In it you will hear about the music’s materials and meaning, especially the role of radio extracts in the sound-world of the music which includes the BBC pips and, everyone’s favourite sedative, the Shipping Forecast. The piece was written and premiered in America so we will also discover how a non-U.K. audience without knowledge of these niche British sounds might understand this music. Let’s start by thinking about what a nocturne is. This is musicologist David Fay…
David Fay: As you can probably tell from the words relationship with the English adjective ‘nocturnal’ a nocturne is a piece of music suggestive of the night. Although the Italian form of the word ‘notturno’ had been used frequently in the 18th Century as a name for pieces that were designed to be performed at night, it was Irishman John Field who first coined the French word ‘nocturne’ to describe a particular musical genre in a set of piano pieces published in 1815. Thereafter the Nocturne became a popular genre of composition for romantic pianist-composers most famously Frederick Chopin whose twenty-one Nocturnes remain the pinnacle of the genre. Field’s Nocturnes and many of those composed by others subsequently are lyrical in nature, with the pianist’s right hand playing a graceful, singing melody over broken chords in the left. The relationship with the night in these piano Nocturnes is usually in their evocation of a tranquil atmosphere which can be associated with the nocturnal ambience of a calm, still night… presumably in the countryside. However, despite the quietly lyrical, pianistic connotations of the word ‘Nocturne’ it has been used as a title for pieces written for other instruments and ensembles particularly from the Twentieth Century onwards. Some of these explore other aspects of the nocturnal environment – whether the natural sounds we hear at night or the world of dreams, or, perhaps, nightmares to which we succumb nightly.
A K-B I hope my piece simply has the sound of a nocturne – unspecifically yet unequivocally conjuring night-time. However, we all like a story to guide us, and a narrative of some kind helps the composing process a great deal. So, let me ask you… have you ever fallen asleep to the sound of the Shipping Forecast? Between 12:40 and 1:00am a magical series of sounds are broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This is Closedown. A tune called Sailing By kicks it off, this is what is known in the trade as an ‘identifier’ so those trying to tune in can easily find the station, it is also a ‘buffer’ filling time so that the Shipping Forecast (which follows) starts exactly the scheduled time. I’ve always wondered why they use Ronald Binge’s light orchestral tune. Would it not be clearer to continually repeat the name of the station? Perhaps, but that is certainly not good radio. So, to an extent at least it’s an aesthetic choice. For a long time I struggled to sleep, from time-to-time I still do but I can always count on this bit of radio to help me drift. It is about drifting between one state and another all sorts of strange, ‘in-between’ landscapes and seascapes. This is the narrative behind the first half of this music. It is a strange lullaby, drifting between the real and the unconscious, lingering in a penumbral state.
Folk singer Lisa Knapp has recently produced a brilliant radio documentary about artistic responses to the Shipping Forecast so I need not explore that aspect of this music any further. What has less attention than the Shipping Forecast is the poor old pips (those six beeps that mark the hour). A perfunctory acoustic signal…
I love the pips. Have a listen… They are great aren’t they? ! I’ve always heard a latent activity sitting between the pips, a restlessness as they try to break out of their crucial, chronological confines. Can you hear it? No? What about now? A-ha! There you go… now you are getting it!
Many of the British listeners to both the piece and this podcast will, hopefully, share a familiarity with the sounds I draw on in the tape part of Nocturne. A familiarity gained through experiencing the pips and the Shipping Forecast frequently over the airwaves of BBC radio. But what about those who haven’t had this pleasure? What about those who, through indifference, inaccessibility or pure radio phobia have no knowledge of the sonic signals that sculpt the dreamy narrative of Nocturne? The residents of Rochester, New York state for example, where this piece was written and received its premiere? What did the pips and the ships mean to them? Here’s David Fay again whose research into semiotics tackles the tricky tangle that is musical meaning.
D.F. Meanings are generated in peoples minds as they perceive and interpret signs whilst experiencing music. Which trigger related thoughts and feelings drawn from the listener’s memory. The resulting mental web of what I call meaning-relations – the signs, thoughts and feelings that are brought into contact with one-another whilst listening – draws on the listener’s relevant previous experiences. These are integrated with the signs that are being experienced in the musical situation and a mental concept of the piece’s meaning is built up in the listener’s mind. Meanings stem from the combination of a wealth of different signs from many different media, whether music, words, sights or smells.
A K-B So, whilst an American audience wouldn’t have previous experience of the Shipping Forecast upon which to draw in their construction of meaning, they would be reminded of radio in general, by the specific grain of sound and the nature of the extracts of spoken material.
D.F. Moreover [oh, he’s back!] in this particular case, ideas of Britishness would be integrated into their webs of meaning as they recognise the presenter’s BBC accents. And, even though they lack the knowledge of the specific nocturnal signifiers that insomniac British listeners might bring to their understanding of the piece, the title at least would direct American listeners toward a nocturnal interpretation of the piece.
A K-B Clearly, the meaning of the piece will differ between those who have previous experience of the material referenced in the tape part and those who don’t.
D.F. However, a core of meanings would probably be shared between listeners either side of the pond given their shared experience of the English language, the medium of radio and also, of course, a common cultural understanding of the Western harmonic tradition that Nocturne exploits to generate it’s hazy, happy sense of tucked up tranquility.
A K-B Okay. We are winding down now, sleep should soon be upon us. We’ve thought long and hard about it so let’s take a moment to just listen… for a short while at least.
This is the end of this nocturne about Nocturne and Nocturnes. To hear the music in full go to arthurkeeganbole.com. My thanks goes to Tom Torrisi, the guitarist you have been hearing, David Fay, Pod Academy and to you, for listening. Good night.
This is the first of a series on podcasts of New Music by Arthur Keegan-Bole, to be broadcast on Pod Academy in the New Year.
Picture: Sunset off Portland by Deck Accessory. Portland is one of the places mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.
If you are an insomniac or a night person, you might also like our podcast Night Walking.