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Let it slow, let it slow, let it slow – enjoy your radio chilled this winter

There’s no rush, relax and take your turn over some slow radio. Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3, turns the dial to laidback

We all know there is benefit in taking time out to reflect. At Radio 3 we like to take our time over things. Whether it’s broadcasting a live piece that takes all night (such as Max Richter’s Sleep) or just an everyday Mahler Symphony in full – we’re into long form.

Recently we’ve been giving audiences a wide range of ‘slow radio’ experiences. We want listeners to have a place to listen to the world as it is and to hear new things. We’ve taken ambient sounds of nature or of places and presented the sound in a way that allows the listener to slow down. This has ranged from a contemplative week in a monastery, a night listening to nightingales, a netherworld of clocks at Upton House, the sound of the desert in the evening or the soundscape of urban Tokyo.

Slowing down, taking the time to listen and to hear new things is important. In life things can pass us by every day at lightning speed. The human brain and spirit needs time to absorb things and consider them – especially complex things like music, poetry and art. By giving a window on to natural, ambient sound listeners can use their brain and sonic senses fully. We can allow people to re-engage with the art of mindful listening – that we so often have little time to realise in our busy, stressed lives of making ends meet and getting by.

Earlier in the year – in spring and autumn – we explored the notion of the forest and how it has inspired artists and creators over many years. We looked at the forest as a place for escape. We explored the tonewoods which provide the raw materials for music making, and from Sherwood Forest to the great forests of New England we brought listeners into the wood through radio programmes. Walking was a key theme.

By giving a window on to natural, ambient sound listeners can use their brain and sonic senses fully

It is a slow way to travel and we’ve been trying to encourage a more mindful approach to life through reflecting the art of walking in a series of Sound Walks. These brilliantly insightful and engaging radio programmes and podcasts are by author Horatio Clare. The first took him from the Brecon Beacons to Hay-on-Wye in real time, allowing us to get inside his head as he walked on a glorious summer’s day, with poetry and music woven in. We followed that up with a week’s worth of programmes last year retracing the footsteps of the 19-year-old Bach from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the music of his hero Buxtehude – Horatio being convinced that the young Bach would have taken the hard road over the Hartz Mountains rather than the easier ways around them.

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This year we have asked Horatio to explore artistic responses to the idea that was prevalent in art of the Romantic movement of ‘the wanderer’ – a person travelling far from home, alone with the universe under the sun and the stars. For them it was a device to express a heightened engagement with the world of nature – but it had a dark and scary side too – always with possibilities of danger and the harsh reality of being alone in a hostile world. The starting point is a mixture of the following: the folk song Spencer the Rover – a man who “Had been much reduced and caused great confusion / That was the reason he started to roam” in the atmospheric version by John Martyn; Schubert’s Winterreise – a song cycle about the misery of wandering and exile in winter, with no redemption or relief; Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and Hermann Hesse’s novel Narziss und Goldmund, which illustrates clearly the dangers of the physical world as opposed to the world of the mind. 

Horatio will start at Holzbronn in the Black Forest, west of Stuttgart, and then he walks, without a clear idea of where he is going and with the possibility of being lost. The aim is to explore the heightened sense of mindfulness that walking can bring – thoughts about the embers of the day and of the year, and of Christmas and the thoughts that come at us then. Woven through will be the writings of Goethe and other poets, and the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Mahler. It will be beautiful, slow, and give the audience time to reflect deeply on the world at Christmas. 

It will be time well taken. That’s the essence of slow radio and the mindfulness that it brings.

Alan Davey is Controller of BBC Radio 3, BBC Orchestras and Choirs and BBC Proms @BBCRadio3

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