Beating time: The secret musical life of metronomes, prison camps & airport lounges

Something Understood preview: Beating Time from Samira Ahmed on Vimeo.

For this week’s Something Understood producer Natalie Steed and I explored the idea of beating time.

There’s the piano I still keep by the front door, just  where my mother used to place it, to use up spare time waiting for deliveries or visitors or to work off some stress. And then there’s the metronome.

A metronome was the bane of my life as a child having piano lessons. That clockwork device to practise speed and rhythmn. My teacher would tend to take it down and wind it when she felt I could push myself a bit harder; get a piece even better. And I was never allowed to touch it. It being the seventies, she’d  brush the Limmits crumbs off her Beryl Reid-style nylon floral frock, set her empty Ski yoghurt pot on the edge of the piano lid, and take the metronome down from its shelf. There were those seconds of anxiety as I watched her carefully run her thumb down the settings, select a tempo (how fast would she go?) before winding the key and setting it off.

But in my twenties I bought one I found in a charity shop. Perhaps it was a declaration of adulthood. That I was in charge of my time now and I could discipline myself.

We explore the tyranny and liberation of the Waltz – from the swagger of Strauss to the intimate workings of Chopin’s salon pieces.

Brian Eno’s music for airports tries to set us free from the stress of airline lounges.

I first met the dynamic conductor Charley Hazelwood when we presented a Prom together back in 2011 and asked him to explain the mysterious power of the conductor and the beat. He does it wonderfully, with the help of Indian tablas which follow no Western style rhythmn at all, but uncoil like smoke in improvisation.

The time that must be measured in prison is reflected in a letter from communist activist  Rosa Luxemburg in the Kaiser’s Berlin, and in the remarkable music of Oliver Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time — composed for fellow inmates during the long months and years they were held in a German POW camp during the 1940s.

Virginia Woolf’s impressionistic The Waves captures the distorted power of the hands of a clock as school children wait for them to tick to hometime.

And Dave Brubeck offers the mischief of syncopated beats as time becomes something elusive and tricky. I hope you enjoy it.

The programme’s on Radio 4 on Sunday October 5th at 6am and 1130pm and here on i-player for seven days after.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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