In the beginning there is always the story to tell and the words to write it. I try to make of any story a smooth precious thing, a globose of language, like a pomegranate to be split open and privately consumed.
Then comes sound with its waves and disturbances of air, with its illimitable qualities. Sound is a democratic and very public domain.
I consider myself a kind of translator. The imagination, hermetically sealed, is interpreted through technology into something audible and physically measurable -- the sound recording.
When all my story is written, I interpret and recast its passages. Philosophical or poetic observation now find a particular voice or sonance or breath. The description of the dry desert winds changes into the whining of an infant; a pivotal dialogue becomes instead the mating song of two old owls on a rooftop; the tintinnabulation of a train's horn remains exactly that; a ball dropping down a stairwell is the rhythm behind epiphanic and harmonic monologues. And thus do the dramatis personae spill out, exposing themselves to the adoration of the sound wave.
Once this translation from word into sound is supposedly complete, the process goes all the other way. Language becomes the barely audible ground upon which figures of sound are flowing, easily musical, until these figures, altogether greedy and protean, have swelled out of control and are in need of a few starched narrative passages. The story seems to oscillate like this until one day it's plumb, and an absolutely real thing emerges, a sort of figurative sound field which is also called radio play.
Attempting to explain even this translation of a story into actual recorded-space brings on an unparalleled madness of sensory deprivation. Because the sacred material is saturated with air, an element lighter than smoke or vapor, the audio artist is plagued with a weightless mysticism. Something confusing is at work.
The eye, which is the beneficiary of visible light, seems to have claimed exclusive rights over the flesh. As if the loss of our eyes is the inevitable loss of the bodies in which they are lodged.
A translating experience of sound is the lacework of its literal meanings -- an undamaged swim through noise, which occasionally and without warning pulls you down through its underwaves. However long you are able to hold your breath determines what quantity of subtext and narrative will ooze through. And how deeply you are pulled down brings on intense reverberations of the sonances you were grown from, which seem to influence most of the stages in developing an audio space.
I have discovered that sound will suggest its own sacraments and elegances of form which make a story come to life. These graces, of which I have found four, are like the locks of the Panama Canal or most of Sleeping Beauty's godmothers; if I yield to their superior designs they will gladly help.
The first grace is the Song, which deepens while it also levitates. It flashes the gain, so to speak, in its beautiful economic commentary upon the story. Putting to song allows tragicomic ideas that might never be tolerated if they were spoken. Whether the chorus is the non-sense of a Zen monk, or subtle like a verse of Haiku, or a wild glissando of psychological cross-referencing, it is mostly without a conscience and is therefore free to bring counsel and just as hastily recant, and to footnote or make smooth and euphonious the reveries of a character burdened with moral concerns. Sometimes this impartial chorus is sacrificed for the soloist, an individual of higher purpose. One of the girl groups of the sixties, the Shangri-las, got away with just this sort of ethic. They mixed the sublime torched-voice soloist with the crude bloodletting chorus. Their flat dialogues were drenched with melodrama as they threaded street talk, back talk, and lip service into elaborate three-part harmonies. They also seemed to have a lot of fun.
The second grace is the Strata which fattens while it also binds. A story gains weight, becoming voluptuous and fluid through layerings of sound, be they animal, industrial, or synaptic, and through deposits of the thinnest sheaths of ambience. Time can be experienced not sequentially but dimensionally in substrates of past, present, and future during this constant shifting of the horizon. These layers are the sensual and spatially present respirations which hold a story to place, and like any atmosphere it is possible to hear these several realities all at once.
The third grace is the Segue, which lengthens while it also shortens, and because of this is worth a thousand pictures. Segue means to "follow without pause". It is the place where one part of the story consecutively touches another, a threshold or a psychological point of entry. It can be a sudden abutment of two radically opposed domains which, like a dream, draws attention to their paradoxical relationship. It can be a gradual intussusception, the slipping of one part into another so the change of story comes as a surprise. This gradual segue is prepared by melting together song and stratum and all the airs of the piece itself, then clarifying them into a kind of soundstock. At its most beautiful, such a deviling of sound is evidence of God: seamless, perfect, and thrilling.
The fourth grace is Style, which divides while it also weaves. The style ranges from the type of story told to the type of storyteller. I grew up in a family where languets of phonesthemic words switched down the hallway like trapped lightening, where tongues of parlance and idiom, lyric, stutter, and poetical prattle shot arrow for arrow through my cranium. My grandmother, in her presumed theatrical solitude, uttered nocturnal soliloquies in a spooky, guttural singsong which seeped through me like gothic romances. My mother's pendulum swung between outbursts of scintillating wit and the Platonic dialogues she would conduct so dulcetly among her multiple selves; additionally, she was in continual elocutionary battles, dodging but never retreating from my sister's projectiles of lisp, sass, and profanity. My aunts were a group of recalcitrant sibyls preoccupied much of the time with divination through slang; my rowdy Irish uncles turned dialects of threat and debacle and bravado into excellent adventures; and my father was the gregarious mythmaker, the bringer of fairy tales with their sobering punishments.
Decanting this entire theater of one's mind into a vessel of air feels like some kind of magic. To play with diaphanous sonarants and auras is good for only so long until you are finally lifted out of time and space, and your whole existence is defined as the presence of something weightless.
The eye, which has been awarded the light of consciousness -- which is that other, more abstract "I" -- has turned our feelings into amorphous shapes we think we can see. Reliance on this eye has successfully camouflaged that we neither know how to feel, nor know what feelings we might have. When our ears are in ascendancy, however, our center of gravity is strongest and we can immediately distinguish between the fire of Scarlet Fever, the fire of an inferno, and the fire of the passions. All without ever looking. A feeling experience of sound will make of any material a studio in which to vibrate, and most studios are brood chambers of one kind or another in which to hatch. The vibrating body can be a psycho-acoustic event dwelling within certain emotions. Sometimes I can feel where to place sounds within the audio space using this acoustical nervous system, which concerns specified areas inside or near the body, shaped and fortified through inchoate emotions. So, refinement of feeling makes for a truer and more sensual basis in creating a whole sound complex.
My sister and I had an early history of eavesdropping on any conversation between adults. We used water glasses pressed against the inevitably closed door, and the material of glass seemed to heighten the conflicts we heard as well as to induce a slow spiraling vertigo, as if we were being squeezed through a warp. This feeling, from the inside-out, remains acoustically placed below and in front of me, moving in vast circular waves as I approach singular doors.
Our continued explorations led to using the vacuum-cleaner hose as an audiogenic device, and to my particular appreciation of my body as an auditorium. Through this tube, my sister screamed loud and long, which permeated my inner ear and intoxicated me with an ecstasy of tickling pain. Eventually, a little bubble formed right in the center of my brain, which was still so new that all the signals were probably being worked out. This feeling, from the outside-in, has never left me, and perhaps for evident reason has thus far eluded reproduction.
The natural world I grew up in was an open sky of angelic creatures whose songs would cascade down over me, as if applied directly to the bones of my head. From where I stood on a crescent of the earth I could hear the cries of rabbit and fox, the ululation of owl, and the knocking together of bucks' antlers--sounds which propagated from the ground upward through my feet. The one realm met the other one infusing me in their collective bell jar. This feeling for nature is an acoustic double, so the upper half of my body and the lower half are in different places, finding proportion at my solar plexus. And there, still, remains this portentous airshot: My sister and I are chattering away late into the night. Out of the dark, only a breath from our bedroom window, a brawny and daring voice shouts, "I'm the big bad wolf! Go to sleep!" His voice bears down upon me in noxious, radiating waves which I cannot deflect. This nameless feeling, a literal wolf-note, is acoustically and heavily placed just above my left shoulder, like an anvil which threatens to drop.
When it finally comes to hatching all these feelings onto magnetic tape, I rely upon the tools and generous technology of the production studio. In the walk-in closet with its wool blankets surrounding a microphone that hangs from the ceiling by a string, I have recorded voices, singers, and effects. In the cellar I have assembled all materials and then borrowed every consumer tape machine in the neighborhood to make a multi-track mix. In the attic I have spliced and edited tape, and while doing so have twisted, burned, drenched, and pricked holes in it just to see if it would make a difference. Which it mostly did not. In the atelier, the "pile of chips" that comprises a digitally computerized studio, I haven't been extended even the quarter-inch tape to manipulate, and so the weightless electromagnetic waves have again over-ruled me. I am set adrift upon the currents.
Surviving this isolation cyber-chamber brings a new meaning to physical therapy. Movements are confined to swiveling in your chair and circling your hand across one spot on a rubber mat. Rhapsodically, you begin to suspect the presence of other weightless people: St. Theresa levitating above her stove in the convent, Christ walking the waters, Neil Armstrong in his moon suit, and Glenda, the good witch of the North.
The eye, which has been granted the lion's share of light, both visible and conscious, is also considered to be the "window of the soul." It is certainly the workhorse of the senses, for when we lose our sight we lose all of our eyes. But if the eyes became the ear's handmaiden they might become acoustically "tuned" and be free to do something really chancy -- like holophonically observe the imagination. A lot of new things would arrive for us to hear.
A listening experience of sound removes those boundaries the eye has constructed including the division between the inside and the outside of the body, so we could suffer a little more the condition of a detached retina.
The nymph Echo was compelled to listen to Narcissus before she could reply, but when she did, in those brief moments available to her, she made her voice insubordinately the foreground. She did not regret the lack of a stage or a movie theater. The same is true when creating audio space. To make of sound a whole imaginal place, as real as any geography, is to make it foremost; the moment you begin to listen with your eyes is the moment sound is drained of its most subtle powers.
Some of the time I've only listened to the past. A sound stage is as frequently revisited as it is created, and for me a previous auditory experience seems to resurrect on a routine basis. When this happened the first time I had unburied my father's antiquated audio gear and used it to record a short narrative. I meant to tell the story in a dispassionate and sobering kind of way but it raveled out of me like a cowboy song, pitched for melancholy and full of my experience at summer camp around the fire. There was the same clipped sound of my voice surging out from the chamber of my mouth and then disappearing into silence as if it had fallen over a cliff. The second time this happened I was rehearsing a series of inflections for a telephone monologue. I meant it to be spirited and tone-bright but what I got was the sotto voce murmuring of my voice interred inside a confessional. So I made an "act of contrition for answering machine," mortal sins and all.
Some of the time I've only listened to the present. I begin to notice how the physical voice is like a compass. I span cumulous to coral, grimace to arabesque, Queen to King to Joker, and anywhere from the chilly accent of West Minster to the humid and heated one of Louisiana. Then I try to find some of those places in my own larynx. I chew on wadded-up paper while singing, gargle smooth pebbles while speaking, and control modulation, pitch, and volume by pulling on the ends of a scarf tied around my throat. I try to come to the same results in another way: I listen for where a noise has a voice, where that voice has an underwave of text, where that text is more deeply a song, and so at length I hear that the noise is a song.
Some of time I've only listened to the future, or my equivalent of it. I think it might be possible to hear the song of every speaking voice, where all of its properties will be naturally polyphonous, and how this song alone might become circumfluent: so "acting", at least for audio, will be a thing of the past.
And, some of the time I've not only listened through my ears, but through a second pair as well. Surely I could have known that the bus I recorded in Ireland was full of geese and not villagers. Or when I recorded the cracklings of a fire, how did it become a carriage wheeling along a cobblestone street? Through my human ears, I know I heard the trebled rushes and whisperings of the wind, but through the ears of the microphone it was very clearly ten thousand soldiers pronouncing "Heal Hitler." And then there was that flamenco dancer in the castanets rhythm of the film projector, how did she get in there? I wonder if I'm really listening to fluctuations brought about by the sylphs, those playful inhabitants of the air.
After this, it's all radio. You just can't ignore the broadcast.
Radio can be mythologically defined as hearing a noise in the middle of the night that for reasons of delight or dread you do not investigate.
Radio can be lyrically described as the medium over which the imagination, once so mute, now becomes fully audible. Everyone can hear it.
Perhaps this movement of the imagination from the inside to the outside really does make us lighter by some quantity of air, and thus disturbs the inner ear. Perhaps the exposure of a very private resonance, once so intimately situated between the temples, throws off the body's balance, and a weightless feeling ensues. It might even be said that the imagination has been "out there" all along, playing in and flowing through the auras of the force field, and we have inadvertently come to it through our technologies. These are ethereal ideas. Maybe it's simpler to just take a walk on the seashore and find a conch shell. When you bring it to your ear you can listen to it and when you bring it to your mouth you can play it. So it would be very natural that between the two there would be a story to tell.
-- Sheila Davies, January 1994