NPR’s Pitch-perfect “All Songs Considered” Podcast, Your Weekly Music Fix.

At the end of last year, the terribly clever bean counters at The New York Times decided that what the organization needed was to make it more like a traditional newspaper, and less like something more attuned to the 21st century. So they axed nearly all of their superb podcasts, leaving just a skeletal three. And one of those included in the cull was, alas, the excellent Popcast.

So in January of this year I went in search of a replacement podcast for all things musical, and was quickly pointed in the general direction of NPR’s “All Songs Considered“. And despite only tuning in to it for the last few weeks, I can confidently declare it mandatory listening.

National Public Radio is an enlightened attempt in the US to replicate the (at least original) ethos behind the BBC. It’s a non-profit organization and the programmes that are produced there are made by people because they’re the kinds of programmes that they would like to hear aired, and they rightly assume that there must be others who are similarly curious. They are in other words programmes that are made regardless of ratings.

All Songs Considered is the musical version of one of their most successful shows, All Things Considered, and it first aired on the web a little over ten years ago. It’s chaired by Bob Boilen, who created it, and Robin Hilton, and between them they manage to strike exactly the right balance of careful casualness and quiet planning. You get the impression that you’re eaves-dropping on a private conversation, but one that you’re meant to be over-hearing. And the areas that they cover every week with each of their guest reviewers really are all-encompassing.

A recent edition for instance looked at the collaboration between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the veteran avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Hearing how in awe the former is of the latter, and how unashamedly he echoes him on his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood was a revelation.

In another which focused on electronica, they gave us a taste of the latest project from Joe Goddard, one half of Hot Chip whose The 2 Bears, and yes, they really do dress up and DJ in bear suits, is about to release its debut album.

And it was here too, in an earlier edition again, that I was introduced to the ethereal delights of the bewitching Julianna Barwick, whose album I reviewed here earlier.

Next week they’re previewing this year’s South By Southwest, and the following week they’ll be covering the event proper. SXSW is to music what Sundance is to film. It has in other words become so much a part of the mainstream that referring to it now as being in any way indie is frankly laughable. Nevertheless, it still manages to somehow unearth an undiscovered gem every year.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells (whose follow up album Reign Of Terror has just been released). And on this, its 20th anniversary, it’s unlikely to prove any less illuminating. Either way, the best place to keep tabs on it is All Songs Considered’s pitch-perfect podcast, which you can find here.

“Da Vinci – The Lost Treasure” – BBC

Every now and then, viewers write into the BBC to complain that the only thing Fiona Bruce seems to be good for is striding in and out of shot with those elegant, never-ending legs of hers. They ought of course to be castigating her employers for not making better use of her, instead of laying the blame at the woman herself.

Just what they’re missing by asking her to act as little more than window dressing on the Antiques Roadshow was revealed by the wonderful programme she produced on Leonardo for BBC1. It was made with two ends in mind. First, as an introduction to the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, which was recently revealed as one of Leonardo’s lost masterpieces. And second, as a celebration of the National Gallery’s mouth-watering exhibition of Leonardo’s principle paintings.

Given that the incurably curious Florentine conducted detailed studies of pretty much just about everything, and succeeded therefore in completing only a handful of paintings, the discovery of the Salvator Mundi really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. And a painting that was sold for just £45 in 1956 is today valued at in excess of £120 million.

Happily, this coincides with an exhibition of his work that the National Gallery will be putting on between now and February next in London, and which will now include the newly authenticated Leonardo. Almost as excitingly, the exhibition will also provide an opportunity to scrutinize a rarely seen exact replica of The Last Supper that Leonardo so disastrously experimented with, and which began to deteriorate almost from the moment he finished it.

Interestingly, no reference was made by Bruce to the fascinating article in the New Yorker on the laborious and thorny authentication process that the Salvator Mundi underwent (here). David Grann began his typically expansive piece as a fairly standard overview of how a lost masterpiece becomes authenticated. But halfway through, it suddenly morphed into an exposé on Peter Paul Biro, a Hungarian émigré based in Montreal who claimed, enterprisingly, to have pioneered a method of authenticating artworks by revealing hidden fingerprints using his own microscopic photography. Coincidently, the article suggested, he had more than a passing acquaintance with many of the works he successfully “authenticated”.

That I suppose would have been a different programme. As it was, Bruce used the compact hour to confidently and concisely present a crisp overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and to offer up a mouth-watering preview of the National Gallery’s exhibition. The sight of her serenely and authoritatively chatting away in French and Italian to academics in Paris and Florence ought to have been enough to silence her many doubters. Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and they all complained in their droves about it.

This programme did exactly what it should have done. It made the exhibition unmissable. And the National Gallery is to be congratulated for embracing an exhibit other institutions might have shied away from.

“Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” – Channel 4

It’s always a little conflicting whenever you see the name Stephen Hawking in a programme title. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a man who clearly presents something of a challenge to the medium of television being afforded the sort of attention he unquestionably deserves.

On the other, it’s hard to suppress the sense that the channel involved is just lazily cashing in on his renown. Happily, both of the most recent examples were made by people as interested in our understanding of the world as he is.

Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking (or Stephen Hawking’s Universe as it was called in Britain) was shown on the Discovery Channel and, despite its occasional brashness, was a genuine attempt at intelligently sculpting a programme around his core interests; the nature of the universe, and our place in it. And now, though very different in its scope, Channel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking looks at the many very practical discoveries that emerge from the explorations conducted by people like him.

Essentially, it’s an up-market (and alas condensed) version of Tomorrow’s World, the BBC series that used to gaze into the future with Blue Peter awe and child-like wonder. Sensibly, they’ve enlisted the services of five or six of our most respected popular scientists, including David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Jim Al-Khalili, and Richard Dawkins.

Scientists who are popular not because they in any way play down the complexities of their respective fields, but because they manage to communicate the nature of those complexities so accessibly. And the most iconic of all our popular scientists is Hawking (though quite how accessible A Brief History Of Time actually is, is very much open to debate).

There are just five episodes, each covering four or five different items and each segment is presented by the expert appropriate to the given field. Conceptually, they begin with an apparently arcane corner of the scientific landscape, before illustrating how incredibly useful that particular area of enquiry proved to be, by showing us one of the wholly practical inventions that grew out of it. As with all the best television, the examples they chose all needed to be seen to be fully appreciated, and often indeed to be believed.

The driverless car, for instance, that Google has developed is all very well. But you really need to witness the extraordinary way that it handles corners, at speed, to appreciate just how staggeringly fast the processing power in the computers that it relies on are. Similarly, you need to see what it means to paraplegics to be able to step into what amounts to a bionic suit that enables them to walk, to appreciate what this could mean to them.

And you need to watch physicist Kathy Sykes, as she travels down for more than two kilometres into the bowels of the Earth to visit the SNO laboratory in Ontario Canada, where they study the precise nature of Neutrinos, to appreciate what was involved in constructing a laboratory there. Our increased understanding of the nuclear fusion that powers our Sun has had, and will continue to have innumerable practical uses.

The programme acts as a wonderful celebration of all the practical things that complex areas of science can produce. And crucially, it treats the viewer as an intelligent equal. Hopefully, Channel 4 will have the good sense to commission a second series. And when they do, they’ll allow the programme makers apply the same rigour that they did to the first series.