I’m not sure where you’ll find it now it’s vanished from iPlayer, but the BBC4 series The Sound & The Fury is one of those licence fee justifying programmes that you really don’t want to miss. Essentially it’s the history of ‘classical’ music from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune through to the holy minimalists, taking in all the milestone works and making even the worst excesses of serialism at least make a kind of sense, even if Boulez and the like remain – to me at least – totally unlistenable academic exercises.
I was most comfortable with the third part of the series – essentially post-serialism through to Arvo Part and John Adams, taking in Morton Feldman, Reich, Glass, Part and the rest. I knew I liked the holy minimalists but the real discoveries for me were Feldman – especially his Rothko Chapel – and Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps.
As well as being beautifully put together, one of the best things about this series was the relatively small number of ‘talking heads’. The same half dozen people (Alex Ross, obviously, George Benjamin, the wonderful John Adams amongst others) cropped up often enough that you got a sense of them as people, of their tastes and biases. Anything with Terry Riley was a joy and the interview with Arvo Part (it always amazes me somehow that he’s a living composer) was perfect – he’s so sad and dour and pure. Plus, John Tavener in his late 60s pomp, prancing around in a hippy shirt with the kind of hair Bobbie Gentry would have baulked at, was the funniest thing ever, especially juxtaposed with him being all sombre later in life