Saturday, 7 January 2012


The dulcet tones of an (imaginary) BBC announcer: "Now on BBC2, are black holes really black? Exploring new revolutionary ideas that threaten to blow apart our traditional view of science, it's Horizon." As the BBC logo vanishes and a computer simulation of Space In All Its Infinite Majesty begins, a wavy melodic line starts up on strings, oscillating between just two notes, played in steady quavers above a long-held note. Before any change comes into the music, the (imaginary) narrator (probably Jack Fortune) starts speaking, building up suspense for the wonders of the universe to be brought before our awed attention. The music goes on underneath for a while, alternating minor and major harmonies, before being dumped in favour of the programme's 'theme tune', before anything so interesting as, say, a saxophone solo appears. 

Oh yes, we've been here so many times, whether for science programmes, arts programmes, even current affairs programmes, that wavy two-note melody, that low long-held note...

The music is Facades by Philip Glass, the fifth movement of a piece called Glassworks. Its simplicity, its enigmatic  tone, its neutral yet oddly haunting quality, all these, presumably, account for its mood-enhancing appeal to programme makers. I noticed the ubiquity of this piece as background music for BBC programmes a couple of years ago and others have began to notice too.  I must have been aware of it for even longer as for years whenever somebody spoke of 'minimalism' my brain would automatically press the 'Play' button of those opening notes of Facades. I have to say though, I never knew what came next under fairly recently, meaning that my 'minimalism' reflex quickly got stuck on the first few seconds of the piece and continued in my imagination, irritatingly, without evolving. This link will (should you chose to click on it) bring you the whole of Facades, complete with solo saxophone, which shows that the music does evolve after all. 

YouTube comments can really scrape the barrel (and beyond) but one on the link provided struck a sympathetic nerve with me:

I HATE HATE HATE THIS PIECE OF MUSIC ! Why? Because it has become ubiqitous. It is played on nearly every TV & radio documentary programme & now spoils their content. I TENSE UP every time I hear the damn piece. No, don't try to convice me. Blame UK TV and radio programme makers for overusing it. NASTY, NASTY MUSIC !

I must admit to feeling the same way whenever that music came on, but I think - having FORCED myself to listen to the whole damn thing! - that the saxophone playing of Jon Gibson and the occasional dissonances in this overwhelming consonant music helped allay my hatred. 

Overplaying a piece of music (surely?) cannot fail to do it harm. I once read a comment by the critic Michael Tanner who, if I remember correctly, said that Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata was a piece you could hear too often. For me even so beautiful, moving and noble a piece as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings becomes infuriating if heard (at least) monthly for years on end, as seemed to be the case some years ago when a certain radio station kept playing it and playing it again and again. Similarly, though I love Copland and his ballet suite from Rodeo, if BBC Radio 3's Breakfast plays the Hoe-Down (once a favourite of mine) one more time I will not be held responsible for my actions! 

Lazy programming is not a friend of certain pieces. 

I could be wrong though. I suppose the assumption, perhaps drawn from pop music stations, is that there is no limit to the number of times you can broadcast a piece of music because the public will never tire of hearing it - most obviously all those Christmas hits from Slade, Wizzard, The Pretenders, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, etc, which the public indeed don't ever seem to tire of. Maybe, I'm a rare beast in tiring of the Barber Adagio and Copland's Hoe-Down and Michael Tanner is just as rare a beat in tiring of the Appassionata, and both myself and crimsonabsinthe from YouTube are unusual in finding the opening bars of Glass's Facades so annoying, though in this last instance I'd bet not because because this is a different type of repetition - the repetition of a short snatch of a piece rather than the piece itself, which, maybe, changes the issue. 

Still, I bet everyone has some pieces they are sick to death of hearing.

P.S. A factoid about Philip Glass, ubiquity and the BBC (courtesy of the Jewish Chronicle) is that until 2009, the BBC Proms had only broadcast 7 minutes-worth worth of music from one of the world's most influential composers. Just one piece! Can you guess which piece

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