Dear Friends, I hold in my hands the booklet for the ‘Scene & Heard’ festival 2017. Featuring my newest play ‘Mic Drop‘. I cannot explain what a huge deal it is for me to be featured alongside the incredibly talented people putting together shows for this festival. This is only my second play, and I already feel like I’m in love with writing for theatre, the horrible sweaty tension of watching the audience watch your play, the unpaid hours, the hair loss. Wait no, maybe its awful. But anyway the play is really good, and Adam Tyrell is brilliant in it, and it’s only 12 euro (10 euro concessions) so you should all see it. Otherwise the MAIN FUCKING SPACE in SMOCK FUCKING ALLEY will look hella empty. Please come, I love you. February 24th, 25th and 26th.
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I’m teaching my first course in A4 Sounds, this coming February. The six week course, ‘Storytelling Through Sound’ won’t focus on sound engineering, but instead on exploring the role of sound in multimedia artistic practice. No experience necessary. Details below!
Aimed at storytellers in all media, from writers to filmmakers. The goal of the class is to start thinking about sound in a new way: As a basic tool of storytelling. The mechanics of a medium, it’s limits and unique capacities, it’s textures and its intrinsic qualities are all key to making the most of it as a creative artist. This course will examine ways of using sound to tell a story – ways of treating sound as a first class citizen in multimedia work. We’ll be listening to some of the best sound design and aural storytelling from radio, sound art and cinema. We’ll explore the various relations to the listener possible through the medium, and what sound can add to other mediums.
I’ve written before about building a studio for radio drama, recording on location, and applying for funding through the BAI’s Sound & Visionscheme. But, I just realised I’ve never taken the time to write about storytelling through sound. I’ll be teaching a course at A4 Sounds on using sound to tell stories early next year, so now’s a good time to put together what I’ve learned. Hopefully it’ll be of use to writers and radio producers dipping their toes in the water of audio storytelling.
Starting in 2009, I’ve written and directed eight scripted radio productions, ranging from sitcom series to one off dramas. Meanwhile, the podcast revolution and listening events like Hearsay Festival have not just raised the bar of audio production standards, but have fundamentally changed how I think about sound. Hopefully some of the experience I’ve had making drama and docs, and the ideas I’ve been exposed to meeting and listening to brilliant sound designers and producers like Brendan Baker, Julia Barton, Steve Fanagan, Rachel Ni Chuinn and Mitra Kaboli, have left me with something useful to say about the potential of sound as a storytelling device.
Radio as a Medium
Take a look at this, it’s Georges Méliès 1902 film ‘Le Voyage Dans la Lun’ (A Trip to the Moon). You’ll probably recognise it as one of the classics of very early cinema, or as the inspiration behind Smashing Pumpkin’s 1996 video for ‘Tonight‘. One of the many fascinating things about the film is that here at the dawn of a medium is a piece of art that embraces it fully. ‘Le Voyage..’, is one of the first pieces of art to treat film as a distinct original medium, rather than a platform for adapting stage plays or still photography. While the succeeding century has brought revolutions a plenty in style and technology, the film remains startling evocative and inspirational – primarily because of it’s use (and invention) of many of the unique aspects of film grammar and visual storytelling.
Radio is a form with a long history, in some ways distorted by the commercial imperatives of the broadcast medium. But we find ourselves at a unique moment. Podcasting has come of age, and online audio in general is giving creators the opportunity to use sound in more diverse and organic ways than was allowed by the gatekeepers of broadcast radio. In turn, spoken word radio is opening its arms to more musical and sound driven storytelling. Together these trends provide us with access to the best and most creative sonic storytelling from sound art archives like UBU.com, to narrative journalism networks like Radiotopia. There’s really no excuse left to put a stage play on the radio. Sound is it’s own medium, and to ignore that is to work with both hands tied behind your back. So what are the unique characteristics of sound? And how can they be employed to convey emotion, develop character and immerse the listener?
Where People Listen
Much more so than film, sound is appreciated differently depending on how it is consumed. While a Stanley Kubrick film might lose a lot of its impact watched via youtube on an ipod nano, the unfortunate ‘2001’ viewer who enjoys the film like this will still hear and see much the same thing (all be it lacking in fidelity). However, a beautifully produced piece of radio may be completely incomprehensible on a car radio or a cafe sound system. With that in mind, when storytelling through sound we need to take tough decisions about the audibility and comprehensibility of what we’re making. My rule of thumb for broadcast radio is that it has to be readily audible through my laptops speakers, walking the streets with a ten euro pair of in-ear TDK headphones, and over my (pretty muffled sounding) Rokit 6 studio monitors.
Some of this is about mastering and compression, but a lot of it is about making sure that you don’t overwhelm a scene with too many similar sounds, or by contrast a cacophony of contrasting sound and action. Listeners are smart and media literate, they don’t need the script to be didactic, they don’t characters to explicitly tell them where they are or what they’re doing – good writing and foley will do that job. On the other hand, radio is linear, the listener can’t easily go back to check something they missed, and they can’t see the background action of a scene as clearly as on film. So a good rule of thumb for broadcast radio is to have one piece of foregrounded sound or action at a time – scuffles and shouting matches don’t work, unless the goal is to create a moment of chaos and confusion. Sound art or podcasts on the other hand – provide the opportunity to create work for a more predictable listening environment, whether a set of headphones or an octophonic speaker array.
Why is this even on the radio?
Well, why is it? What is it about listening, about sound, that makes the story you’re telling appropriate to be heard rather than seen? Or if you’re adapting an existing piece of work, what can you do with sound, to take advantage of the medium? I try to think of writing and making audio, not as a set of limitations – ‘oh we can’t show this, the audience won’t understand that, it’s to expensive to do such and such’, but rather as an opportunity. We have the listeners full attention, and that attention is on a canvas that can be painted with any scene the writer can imagine. In a moment audio can take us from the surface of Mars to the guillotines of the French revolution, from a characters subvocal thoughts to inside the organs of their body, from an orchestral crescendo to the breath of an individual cellist. One of the most powerful techniques of sonic storytelling is the journey. Movement and dynamics – the difference between the quietest and loudest, most sonorous and dissonant, most physical and ambient sounds – are incredibly compelling. They tap into how humans as physically vulnerable hunter gathers have evolved to be lulled by consistence and sensitive to sudden change.
The piece above is perhaps my favourite radio storytelling ever, and I don’t even know what to call it. Is it drama? Dramatisation? Illustrated storytelling? It doesn’t matter, because those boundaries are becoming irrelevant. Innovative artists like Pejk Malinovski (creator of the piece above), and Kaitlin Prest (whose podcast ‘The Heart’ seamlessly mixes dramatic reconstruction, live recordings of intimate moments and more conventional reporting), are using sound to take us deep into the moment of personal experience. This piece ‘Everything, Nothing, Harvey Keitel’ takes us with the writer / producer, as he attempts to meditate, while distracted by the presence of Hollywood legend Harvey Keitel. Malinovski’s mind drifts to his recollections of Keitel’s starring roles, and he can’t help but place himself in the action – as God responding to the plaintiff cries of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. So intimacy, bringing us right into the thoughts and the meandering stream of consciousness is a strength of radio. But that’s something literature can do too. Perhaps a particular strength of radio is to be able to combine real moments, whether captured by the producer or remixed from the culture, with a crafted narrative. Real and imagined combining the realms of the imagination.
Writing with sound
It’s easy to get confused between what we want to say, and what we think we ought to be saying. Every teenage filmmaker’s first script is a rip either of Richard Linklater’s early mumblecore faux naturalism, or Scorsese meets Tarantino cynically violent cool. Not just because we try to write like our heroes, but because we try to live up to the idea of a script. In the same way, there are ten thousand ‘Captain Proton and the Space Pirates’ radio dramas floating around. Not only because people who make radio drama are often fans of ‘the golden age of radio’, but because it seems like the natural thing to write when you sit down to imagine a radio drama. The canonical image is of well dressed old timey folks holding slapsticks and opening miniature doors in front of enormous ribbon microphones. There’s fun to be had with the stuff of course, and I certain don’t mean to condescend live radio theatre – which is an entertaining and challenging form. But radio drama, or audio drama, or whatever we’re going to call it, can do so much more.
First off, listen to this (another award winning piece from last years Hearsay Festival).
With the exception of the news report at the top, Conor Reynold’s piece ‘News is Proximity’, created while Conor was studying journalism, takes us on a wordless sound journey. It does this without abandoning narrative. We hear a character go on a very clear and easily comprehensible journey, an immersive voyage with a shocking conclusion. I use this piece to point out how much can be done without dialogue. As with screenwriting, often the less dialogue the better. But it’s also useful to show that sound is not about sound effects. Sound is about all the things we hear – breathing, clothing, wind, music, the street, cars, trains, footsteps, our perceptions and misperceptions, our bodies, our memories. Using sound to tell a story isn’t about capturing these things as they would have occurred in reality. Far from it – it’s about selecting the sounds which reveal our location, and tell us whats happening, from the perspective we want to emphasise. This point of view (POV) is always subjective, and can tell us as much about character and action as dialogue. We should never try to ‘capture reality’, we should instead convey what our POV character(s) believe they are hearing. This is as much about expression and perception as it is real sound. A door being opened is never just a door. It can be a scream, a menacing creak, a jaunty thump, a note of music. And this can and should be conveyed with sounds that are not simply and strictly literal. Sounds that emphasise the emotion of the listener. An excellent example of this is ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from Walt Disney’s fantasia, which synchs animation to music in a way that conveys action and experience, not to mention mood, without ever employing a ‘sound effect’ (the action starts 1 minute in).
Point of view is another particular strength of radio. We can be a ‘camera’ floating above a battle, or we can enter the thoughts of a single combatant, or move between moments of action, while retaining a coherence that’s difficult or impossible on the page or in film. So the important question to consider is why we are hearing exactly what we’re hearing. What does this moment tell us about the characters and their perception of whats going? What do we as producers / writers want to audience to feel, and how best can we evoke that? I’m not arguing for absurdism or surrealism necessarily, but for a richer consideration of sound than as ‘effects’. As an example (of what not to do), here’s a segment from one of my first scripts.
It’s the perfect storm of bad radio writing. Sound used to clumsily offset dialogue heavy writing. Hokey broad comedy, terrible script formatting and massive blobs of dialogue. It’s really embarrassing. By contrast, here’s a segment of my latest script (currently in post production).
While this is a dialogue heavy piece, which employs a lot of monologue – something I’d generally recommend avoiding, you can see that sound is an equal player – helping to convey in an expressive way the subjective experience of the character. I’m no longer thinking about a particular sound effect, any more than a screen writer would think about how the model of a space ship for a sci fi film is constructed. Now the concern is much more about the purpose of the sound – I have faith that the sound designer (although I often fill that role too), will creatively convey the intent by interpreting the the imagery of the script. This acknowledges that the world of the piece is very much constructed in post production – and shouldn’t be limited by the writers initial vision. This kind of writing is also more helpful for actors, who can get more of a feel for the finished piece than they would merely reading SFX cues. Character is conveyed subjectively – the POV character has a bleak view of events, reflected in his monologue but also the sound of his impressions of whats being done to him. What we hear is not the equivalent of a microphone stuck to his ears, but rather a window into his imagination.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to write for radio – comedy is completely different, as is documentary realism, and they each necessitate completely different production techniques. In my next post, I’ll talk much more about these distinct production and writing techniques, about the physicality of sound, as well as ways of thinking about music, and touch on the dark art of working with actors.
Lastly, a word on tools. Core skills like sound editing and script formatting are useful. They let you work faster, and think less about the process and more about what you’re trying to make. That said, the best tool for any job is often the one you’re most proficient using. What experience writing scripts and cutting sound on different platforms and with different people has taught me is that tools change and evolve. Different tools work better for different people and different projects. There’s no perfect script writing software, no ideal microphone, and no one size fits all digital audio workstation. Right now, for editing I use Cockos’s quirky but powerful and customisable software Reaper. Reaper is the pet project of anarchic genius Justin Frankel, who’s ‘Winamp’ programme helped overturn the music industry as part of the MP3 revolution. For more finicky audio manipulation I use Adobe Audition, a slow crashy beast that comes with a powerful variety of easy to use tools for playing with reverb, eq, delay, time and distortion. For writing scripts, I’ve recently switched from Celtx to the much more flexible, reliable Scrivner. Scrivner is ugly and overcomplicated, but it doesn’t need to be online to render a script, and it supports open scriptwriting formats like fountain. While there’s no ‘correct’ writing tool for drama, and formatting generally matters a whole lot less than people think it does (unless you’re submitting to RTE, screenplay format is generally fine for radio drama) – using a dedicated scriptwriting programme, like Scrivner, Final Draft or even Celtx is a much better idea than trying to cobble something together in Microsoft Word. Using Word will eat time formatting that a dedicated programme will fix automatically, and produce a script that you can’t edit in any other way.
Perhaps you’ve seen it. One of those instantly recognisable meme images, that neatly confirm our prejudices with a concise and tweet ready bon mot. The image shows a young man, trendily emaciated and nebbish, Brooklyn casual in navy and white stripped boaters, below his aquamarine shorts and Warby Parker goggles. He sits on a park bench, oblivious to his anachronism, pecking away at an analogue typewriter. ‘You’re not a real hipster’, the text smugly asserts, ‘until you take your typewriter to the park’.
Quoth another readily shared bon mot, ‘Christ what an asshole’.
As with so many pieces of received wisdom, this one is a primary source only about the beliefs of those who spread it. Look we say, as we reblog, tweet and post it to Facebook, ‘I spurn the ironic adoption of outmoded technologies, for I am unpretentious’. Unhappily for the hipster cliche, it turns out that our sartorially stereotyped analogue aficionado is in reality a writer ‘The Roving Typist’, making what must be an agonisingly modest living selling custom hand typed short stories, written one at a time.
I came of age, just as the typewriter was becoming obsolete. Say what you will about the destructive impact on concentration, artistry and erudition the computer hath wrought. For me, the spellchecker made writing possible. I remember the sinking feeling, just before my junior cert, on being instructed by a particularly pernicious crone, only ever to use words that I could spell. Well thats it, I thought. I’ll be handing up a blank English paper. I’m not actually dyslexic, the technical term is subclinical auditory working memory difficulties. But without the smooth forgiving inline recommendations of autocorrect, I’d be at sea with two es.
But that doesn’t make me immune to the allure of ageing technology – the pleasing hum of a vinyl record enticing you to listen all the way through. The pen gliding over paper, devoid of the distractions of the internet. Working with clay, or paint, in a tactile medium, making things that exist even when the power goes out.
The typewriter is something different, a tool that attained a mythology inseparable from it’s use. The iconic silhouette and the clammer of it’s chattering teeth are endlessly evocative – inseparable from the toiling writer, the sweating journalist, the bun mopped ladies of the secretarial pool. It is at once feminine and brutish. A tool which cracked open the workplace for women as it subjugated them into mere transcribers. As Friedrich Kittler, in his meditation on technological media ‘Gramophone Film Typewriter’, called the typewriter a ‘discursive machine gun’, ‘Typescript’ he wrote ‘amounts to the desexualization of writing, sacrificing its metaphysics and turning it into word processing.’
The permanence of typing, the ink spilled like blood, the trees felled and boiled to make the paper – has the quality of murder. Typing prose is a kind of creative destruction – connected to our colonisation of nature. The writer as a one man printing press, a wild egoist making permanent his thoughts. How strange that this machine, with it’s digital keys, engineered to bureaucratise and mechanise the act of writing, seems romantic to us. Will future generations eulogise the laptop, collecting battery heavy early models, propping them up on park benches to pay homage? I doubt it. There is something unique about mechanical machinery – something at once unearthly and comforting. The typewriter a beast that comes to life, only at our touch – magnifying our strength and dexterity. It is vulnerable to injury – clogging with paper, teeth knotting together. It hungers for ribbon.
It is not purely analogue. Florian Cramer in his essay ‘What is Post digital’ argues that the type writer, with it’s keys chopping information into ‘discrete units’ can be considered digital. And yet, each tap bears the mark of our fingers varying pressure. As a child I used to practice typing without ink. The slalom of my dancing fingers, marking the paper like footprints in snow. Hidden messages that could be uncovered like grave rubbings.
For some writers this physical connection, the hypnotic rhythm of words on paper, is a self conscious escape from the ferocious intangible. Words become real, only when spoken or written. And it’s here that the digital realm is a deadly peril. The computer lets us to reedit at a moments notice. The internet leaks endless accelerating accretions of material – reference and competition, distraction and response. So many voices, drowning out our own. So many screaming certainties, making certainty suspicious. The world becoming software dissolves our words.
The typewriter is a cathect, a storehouse for our feelings about the past. If the act of writing changes what is said, then writing on a machine purpose built and laden with history cannot help but shape our words. Taking the trouble to type, mastering the mechanical spider, binds our ideas in paper. A single vulnerable edition, peppered with human mistakes. A naturalised piece of the world, ready to blow away in a slapstick breeze. Perhaps it’s this image, the loose leaves of a novels single copy escaping it’s author, colliding comically with a street full of machinery, that captures something of the draw of the typewriter today. For a writer, the maelstrom of words which pours from the screens around us, can be overwhelming. A break is needed, a discontinuity, writing as retrograde amnesia. One word at a time.
Eric Satie – Parade – Performed by Griffyn Ensemble
Leroy Anderson – The Typewriter
Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle – Typewriter Tip Tip Tip
Liars – They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top – The Garden Was Crowded and Outside
Billy Fury – Gonna Type a Letter
Alicia Keys – Typewriter
Type of Music (featuring a typewriter) – Jon Brooks
‘White Cane Audio Theatre is a group of blind and visually impaired participants (aged 20’s to 80’s) led by theatre director Ciarán Taylor of Carpet Theatre with radio programme maker and composer Rachel Ni Chuinn (The Shape of Sounds to Come –Lyric Fm), and facilitated by the National Council for the Blind in Ireland with the support of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Arts Office. The group has been meeting for nine months exploring audio as a means of shared expression. Sightless Cinema is a presentation of some of the work generated during the project.’
I spoke to the group last week as they were finishing up recordings for the soap opera episodes based on their real life experiences, that serve as part of the project.
Sightless cinema, a live event showcasing the groups work, takes place this Thursday at UCD’s student centre cinema at 6.30PM. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org for ticket details.
William Morris, considered the founder of the late Victorian Arts & Crafts movement in architecture and design, twice visited Ireland. He toured the country, delivering lectures on art and socialism. The influence of Morris’s design philosophy, and to a lesser extent his political leanings, can be seen to this day in a number of Arts & Crafts buildings in Dublin, including Clondalkin library, Charlveille Castle Dining Room, and Senior College Rathmines. I visited Whitechurch Library (a 1911 building designed by legendary Irish architect John Byrne), in the company of art historian, Dr Eimear O’Connor, to discuss the enduring influence of Arts & Crafts in Ireland.
Special thanks to Librarian Breda Bollard for allowing us use of the library and providing a tour of the space.
Herman Finck Medley – The K-Nuts Medley: Gilbert the Filbert – I’ll
Make a Man of You Yet” by Kelli Uustani
The Mosquito’s Parade (studio) – Ian Whitcomb
John McCormack – Dear Little Shamrock
Andrew Grumman – Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS- Five Variants of Dives & Lazarus