In Review

Podcasts of the week: sitting down, music, and life-altering events

Featuring A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down, Aria Code, Sticky Notes and Life Changing with Jane Garvey

Life Changing with Jane Garvey

Its ability to cater to niche or unlikely interests has always been part of podcasting’s charm, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. But an eight-part series about being seated? It sounds bizarre, but A Somewhat Complete History of Sitting Down, from Audible, is highly absorbing. It helps that we’re in the safe hands of Greg Jenner, the historian, author and host of the BBC Sounds podcast You’re Dead to Me. Here he uses the “story of who gets to sit and on what and when and why” as a means of exploring different societies and eras. The series takes us from Rome’s Colosseum to Victorian music halls, from the Palace of Westminster to Montgomery, Alabama – yielding stories of injustice, struggle and triumph. Jenner has long “perfected the art of livening up potentially dusty subjects”, and his script here is “irreverent, illuminating and sharply funny”. It’s a clever idea, cleverly done.

Classical music has been “slow to embrace podcasting”, though the medium is “ideally suited” to its sounds and stories, said Joshua Barone in The New York Times. But over the past year, with live performances on hold, classical and opera podcasts have flourished. Aria Code, hosted by the “cross-genre luminary” Rhiannon Giddens, has found “new depths of poetry and resonance”. Recent episodes cover operas by Stravinsky, Mozart and Rossini. Sticky Notes, from conductor Joshua Weilerstein, has been experimenting with approaches to score analysis. Beethoven fans are particularly well-served by its current season, which discusses his symphonies in depth. And the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, known for its excellent anthology Composer Portraits, is breaking new ground with Mission: Commission. The series follows three contemporary composers as they create pieces for the final episode (released this week). “Rarely are audiences granted this kind of insight into a composer’s process.”

Life Changing, a Radio 4 series and podcast from ex-Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey, is simply “mesmerising”, said Charlotte Runcie in Prospect. In it, she talks to ordinary people affected by dramatic, life-altering events. One guest is a Welsh man, adopted as a baby, who tells of setting out to trace his birth parents and discovering that his natural father was a Malaysian prince. Another is a gambling addict who embezzled £1m. Other episodes are more sombre, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer – such as the story of Grace Spence Green, a young medic. She was left paralysed in 2018 when a man jumped from the top floor of a shopping centre and landed on her. “I’m not out for revenge,” she says. “If I had any anger directed at this man, I think I would just feel miserable.”

The Week Unwrapped: Toxins, abortions and rectal breathing

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