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Schoenberg in shorts

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

For anyone who missed The Sound and the Fury (Tuesday, BBC4) here is a reason — one of many — to catch it on your iPlayer: footage of a fierce, frowning and elderly Stravinsky, sitting in the empty stalls of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and recalling the ‘near-riot’ which greeted the first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913. ‘It was full — ’ (he gestured crossly around him) ‘ — of very noisy public. Very ’ostile public. I went up — when I heard all this noise — and I said, “Go to hell! Excuse me, Messieurs et Dames, and goodbye!”’

The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Modern Music is a three-part series which began this week with Wrecking Ball and led us — urged us — from Paris in 1894 (where Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune ‘brought new breath to the art of music’) to New York in 1924 (and the première of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue). Those 30 years — only 30 years! — contain a dense and forceful chapter in the history of music and this film pressed through it with vigour and purpose.

Almost as exciting as a walking, talking Stravinsky was to hear composers such as Steve Reich, Pierre Boulez and John Adams describe, explain and comment on the music of their predecessors; almost as thrilling was to see footage of Schoenberg and Gershwin playing tennis together in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Yes, that’s right: the ‘father of atonality’ up at the net and the ‘great Broadway tunesmith’ at the baseline; both of them wearing shorts, gym shoes and friendly smiles. Momentous.

Hugh’s Fish Fight (Thursday, Channel 4) was the first episode of a three-part series in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall puts up a fight on behalf of all fish. It is not related to Jamie and Jimmy’s Food Fight Club, which was a regrettable series on Channel 4 last year, and it did not announce any kind of fantastical or nonsensical contest involving celebrity chefs fighting each other with fish, fish-related utensils or fish recipes. No: this is a serious endeavour and it is part of Hugh’s campaign to educate us about what goes on under the ocean wave — strictly speaking, it is a ‘Fish, Shellfish, Marine Mammal and Ocean Floor Fight’ — and to remind us that the expression ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ is now as meaningless as it is annoying.

Footage of scallop-dredging along the seabed made my mouth drop open like a sick guppy’s. It was shocking enough to see an entire habitat (and all its inhabitants) destroyed in a matter of seconds but to know that this is an ordinary, everyday, usual and legal method of harvesting food is shaming and awful: we are dropping napalm to crack a nut. ‘I didn’t expect that much… nothing,’ said Hugh when he had viewed the barren aftermath.

Anyone keen on a sheltered life and a sustainable footprint could do worse than imitate the habits, and envy the physiognomy, of the naked mole rat. This marvellous creature, after having lived underground for 24 million years without interference, has been the focus of a global TV audience not once but twice in recent weeks: first playing a supporting role in Africa and now starring as one of Sir David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities (Wednesday, Eden). While Africa took a jokey, ticklish attitude — lighting it with a cruel glare and scrutinising its sex life — this week’s programme redressed the balance as Sir David focused respectfully on the naked mole rat’s ‘almost supernatural’ powers.

Its appearance, for anyone as yet unfamiliar, is not unlike a naked, shrunken Mr Magoo, searching the floor for his spectacles while eating a pair of ice lollies. An unlikely hero? You might think so — but the species has much to teach us. Naked mole rats are warm-blooded, hairless mammals who enjoy long and contented lives without need for daylight or sun. Their social structures are similar to the super-efficient colonies of ants or termites: many workers exist to serve and protect a reproducing queen. They spend their time digging tunnels through hard soil in search of scarce, tough tubers which are the only food they require — hence the lolly-stick teeth.

The pay-off for that closeted lifestyle and those exotic looks is significant. Naked mole rats feel no pain — they lack a neurotransmitter called ‘substance P’ — and therefore suffer no stress or discomfort despite the dark, dank, stuffy and invariably toxic environment in which they live. They possess iron constitutions and are seldom ill — none has ever been discovered to have cancer. Without anxiety or disease, they age remarkably slowly: we were shown a queen who, at 24 years old, ‘still has the body of a two-year-old’. I did not know whether to shudder, applaud, or telephone Dr Sebagh: it seems that if we want to live a long time and remain disturbingly youthful we must stay indoors, eat potatoes, wax off all our body hair and do the domestic chores. Simple, cheap — and absolutely no call for scallops. Count me in.

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