The ever clued in Colm Coyne gave me a heads up about a fascinating radio event in Brooklyn last month: ‘Ears Forward‘ @ JACK performance space in Clinton Hill. Brendan Baker, sound designer / musical collaborator on Nick van der Kolk‘s award winning radio show ‘Love & Radio‘. I’ve been a huge fan of this (too rarely updated) gem for years. The show experiments with point of view, blending fiction and reportage into a dreamy soundscapes that are by turns hilarious and unsettling. Each episode focuses on a single story – sometimes true, sometimes rooted in truth, and occasionally altogether fictional. This is the kind of pomo journalism represented by the best moments of shows like This American Life, or Radiolab, minus the formers political aspirations and the laters fixation on lowest common denominator comprehensibility. It’s really fucking good radio, a million miles from anything on the air in Ireland, and it’s a huge inspiration for me as I work on my first documentary series.
Brendan Bakers contribution to the Love & Radio is primarily musical – structuring the ambient soundscapes that bed the more recent episodes. I expected his talk to focus on music and it’s interaction with the spoken word. Instead Baker took us on an aural journey through some of the most interesting radio pieces of the last couple of decades. We listened in a foil insulated space, dark but for the light from Brendan’s laptop.
Gregory Whitehead‘s ‘Dead Letters‘ was a project funded by a defunct NPR satellite fund for innovative radio in the early 1980’s, and inspired by Walter Ong’s work [PDF] on the differences between pre-literate and literate cultures. The piece builds musical rhymes from the machinery and speech of workers at the New York postal department’s Dead Letter Office. Many of Whitehead’s innovative radio pieces can be streamed or downloaded from UbuWeb Sound, an unmatched archive of avant-garde audio art. Brendan spoke about how Whitehead had employed William Burroughs’ cutup technique to reconfigure individual elements of speech in a way that had been inspirational for Love & Radio. This technique – weaving real world found sounds with elements of interviewee speech and music to create thematically unified beats and implicitly connect themes, is something I want to make part of Mad Scientists of Music. It can be used to create lots of different effects, and Love & Radio’s signature style is to do this humorously or ironically, creating amusing misdirections and counterpoints. Below is my first primitive effort at something similar.
Phil Smith’s short piece ‘Lullaby’ creates a lullaby from vocal loops of an elderly man talking about childhood lullabies. The piece is reminiscent of the soft syllable music of Australian mashup artist Nick Bertke (Pogo). Berlin based Smith has lots of other great experimental music available on his soundcloud.
Signal to Noise by Paolo Pietropaolo focused on the artist’s own tinnitus, and how it affects his experience of the world. The piece was confrontational (in it’s use of high pitch sounds), informative and surprising – in it’s conclusions about what Pietropaolo calls ‘social tinitus’ and in Pietropaolo’s conclusions about his relationship to his disorder.
The Hackney Podcast by Francesca Panetta started as a modest effort to record the goings on in Panetta’s adoptive London Fields neighbourhood, but became a piece of ongoing sound art and location based storytelling. The clip Brendan played brought home something Ira Glass talked about in his recent Phil lecture: Storytelling is all about suspense. Audio is almost uniquely suited to creating mysterious narratives through techniques like in medias res (beginning in the middle), and the many disjunctions possible between the imagined and revealed speaker.
The final two pieces Brendan chose, played with the narrator as a character in the story – something that can as effective (as it so often is in Love & Radio) as it is difficult to do deftly. The final piece used the technique of the narrator stepping into famous movie clips to respond to rhetorical questions (most notably as God answering Harvey Keitel’s despairing appeal in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant). I’d only ever seen this used once before, in Slavoj Zizek’s Perverts Guide to Ideology, and it worked brilliantly on radio. [I managed to miss the names of both the last two pieces – please let me know if you were there, so I can add them here and re-listen if possible – they were both outstanding.] Update Thanks to Brendan for pointing out that the final two clips were ‘Big Ass Toothbrush‘ by Carl Scott, and Everything, Nothing, Harvey Keitel by Pejk Malinovski for BBC Radio 3’s ‘Between the Ears‘.
This stunning evening exposed and clarified techniques that can make radio feel more contemporary and more alive. Techniques like blending drama and documentary – something so tacky in film and TV, which can be used to great effect in the medium of sound. Techniques like building suspense, making music out of voice, contrasting naturalistic interviews with cut ups, loops and colourful post processing. Kudos to Brendan Baker and Jack for organising such a unique occasion.