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Cinema for the ears: radio at The Studio

Virginia Madsen

Virginia Madsen is a research fellow at the University of NSW writing a history of this overlooked area of radio. Her work Dark Room: Nocturne is included in Audiotheque.

What do you think of when you think about the radio?

The endless mix of sound bytes—a music concrete of numbers, letters, call signs? A symphony of booming voices, jingles, ads, station IDs, news flashes on the hour, competitions...numbers to ring? You can hear them can’t you? all too clearly—and the midnight DJ whispering into your REM sleep; his music a soundtrack to your interior cinema; his voice seductive in the dark. There is the news too, the latest information and analysis...the traffic, voices from the world’s hotspots...the stockmarket, a riot in Seoul, a killing on the Paris Metro, sport, impresarios with noises to cover all the uneasy gaps...gardening tips for the season. You can hear these voices in your head, some distant as quasars, others so familiar they’ve become, for all intents and purposes, part of your extended family...talk-show hosts, bombastic and opinionated or concerned, inquiring...committed commentators ready to tackle life’s problems or assassinate your already strangled and gated voice at the other end of a line. You remember radio stories so compelling you were brought to tears.

This is the parallel universe opened up by the radio, but it might surprise you more if you stopped for a moment, stepped out of the noise, and really listened. Although entirely naturalised in the everyday world, the radio is much more than this non-stop rolling mega-mix of messengers loved and hated. It is more than the sum of its music, news, information, DJs, opinions and sadomasochism.

What else is the radio? What else ‘on’ the radio? What of the genuinely exploratory; what pleasures for the ears beyond the blinding, deafening lights of the more commercial and politically dominant media? What is there right now ‘on air’ that is compelling and yet might perform beyond the frames of information, light entertainment, therapy or even mass communication?

As if to answer these questions, independent radio producer Jackie Randles and the creative team behind Radio National’s audacious and exploratory The Night Air (Sundays 8.30pm), have stepped beyond Ultimo to bring radio to a live audience at the Sydney Opera House. In April, The Studio, best known for its innovative programming of contemporary musics and edgy performance, will host Audiotheque—a program of radio pieces and features, some from radio’s earliest days of experimentation and others from recent forays into what might be termed an ‘art of the radio.’ Audiotheque’s curators call it “cinema for the ears.”

These works defy easy categorisation. Certain selections could be considered etudes, others follow the ‘acoustic-film’ tradition. To use radio jargon, some are ‘features’ distinguished by dealing with a reality (in the form of recorded actuality) that constantly glides towards fiction. Audiotheque also includes auteur works, less interested in the art of instruction or information than in creating and revealing distinct universes that can be intimately woven through and implicated with the real.

Listen to German filmmaker Hans Richter’s description of Walter Ruttmann’s first acoustic film—300 feet of optical sound-film montage broadcast as Wochenende (Weekend) in 1930 on Berlin radio: “There was no picture, just sound. It was the story of a weekend, from the moment the train leaves the city until the whispering lovers are separated by the approaching-home struggling crowd. It was a symphony of sound, speech-fragments and silence woven into a poem.” Few critics since seem to know of this unexposed film’s existence, which Richter believes is Ruttmann’s most inspired. It has never been ‘screened’ before in Australia.

In Weekend, hundreds of sound sources are woven together. Ruttmann understood that radio could offer a space par excellence for conjuring mental images. Thus this ‘film’ of a city ready to exchange the rigours of work time for the promised ‘time-out’ of the weekend, was arguably the first attempt to think and make radio in terms of filmic montage and authorship. (Ruttmann’s grafting of film techniques onto radio using optical sound film to montage produced a new moment in radio history, but also marked a lost opportunity. The technique, using the best available recording system, the Triergon process, was briefly used before 1933 but abandoned under the Nazis. Flesch and other young radio-film directors were arrested by the SS and Ruttmann left the brief weekend of his radio exploration forever.)

If we read this apparently ‘innocent’ piece only in relation to its form, and if we allow the many singular voices recorded here—children, workers, lovers chattering, singing, laughing, sighing, murmuring—to be tainted by an easy nostalgia, we risk suppressing other readings. We may hear in these hörbilder, these ‘sound pictures’ or portraits, the sonic death mask of daily life under the Nazis recorded in all its ‘innocence’ by Ruttmann.

The works in Audiotheque’s program lie somewhere between reality and fiction, and like documentary photography, carry an analogue imprint, or trace left by the real that punctures us. I can hear and feel a kind of wound opening in the (accidental?) juxtaposition of Weekend and Natalie Kestecher’s strangely unsettling contemporary German odyssey, The Silver Umbrella, about missed connections; a lost umbrella—did it ever exist?—a lost childhood, a lost father, and an unrecoverable body of work in the form of Hemingway’s mislaid manuscripts.

The radio feature has the ability to powerfully engage actuality, and yet it’s never stable. There is something at stake in these works that lie between documentary and fiction. There is what fiction makes of the real (storytelling, scenes, worlds, characters...) and then there is what reality does to these fictions—threading itself throughout, complicating our relationship as listeners and authors. This action of reality on fiction in The Night Air has the disturbing effect of raising the stakes for author and audience. Even if we are unsure of what’s real and what’s fabricated, like the narrator in The Silver Umbrella telling us of her father’s lost childhood, lost family, lost life during the unspeakable years of the Holocaust, the traces of the real—the actual voice of the narrator’s father stopped dead in his tracks—have all the power to disturb us. For me, they even have the effect of breaking the author’s hold over her own story. Kestecher’s autobiographical journey into loss and forgone opportunity offers us one trajectory at one end of the radio feature ‘film’s’ history.

Also on the Audiotheque program are: Roz Cheney and John Jacobs’ deceptively simple The Listening Room, a piece of contemporary concrete first broadcast on ABC FM’s The Listening Room and American raconteur Joe Frank’s story of an operation performed ‘in the dark.’ Riveting but real scary, Hawaii (excerpt) musters the power of storytelling, pure and simple with the voice and nothing else except a little thread of a tale. Then there’s Stan Zemanek from his 2UE talkback show reminding us of radio’s darker sadomasochistic aspects; German Ferdinand Kriwet’s remarkable journey through the ionosphere of radio in Hortext 16—3,400 recordings from around the world, 10,000 edits (and when Kriwet made this it was nothing but tape and razorblades). There’s a live performance from a Sydney institution, The Loop Orchestra—yes, tape machines on stage; Russell Stapleton’s Radio Alive or Dead, to remind you that there is something to all this talk about radio and death (why is it a recurring trope?). And to end, a composition of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity from an accomplished radio and audio artist on the theme of birth, death and rebirth: Sherre DeLys’ Jarman’s Garden. In the bleak expanse of shingle, facing a nuclear power station in Dungeness, Kent, artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman made a garden and final home. After his death, the garden remains to conjure its magic, returning it seems at last to the fishermen who live there—an epiphany in sound, with music by Sherre DeLys and Chris Abrahams. Writer Barbara Blackman will introduce this array of unexplored sonic constellations in a night sky ever illuminated by the spark of radio.


Audiotheque, presented by The Night Air, Radio National, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Apr 14.

Virginia Madsen is a research fellow at the University of NSW writing a history of this overlooked area of radio. Her work Dark Room: Nocturne is included in Audiotheque.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 41

© Virginia Madsen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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