Sonic Twin? A Poetics of Poetic Radio

By | 1 August 2018

2: Poetic radio

In her research on acoustically inventive radio programs in Australia, the scholar and radio producer Virginia Madsen details a tradition of radiophonic (or ‘acoustic film’) works. She notes that Richard Connolly brought knowledge of this tradition – along with the capacious and sonically rich ‘feature’ – to the ABC in the 1970s, after a tour of cultural radio in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK (Madsen par. 5). Connolly states:

Of most interest to me were the programs of the atelier de creation radiophonique [‘workshop for radiophonic creation,’ at the station France Culture] …This three hour program may consist of a single work, or more often a number of works … (talk, documentary, music, poetry) all on a particular person or hovering around a particular theme – but suggestively, paying due attention to the fact that radio is an associative medium and operates at various levels like a poem (cited in Madsen par. 9; emphasis mine).

It’s tempting to characterise the trajectory of poetic radio as running parallel to formal poetics, with the abandonment of metrical verse in modernism leading to the lexical and typographic distortions of postmodernism – but this would be a false analogy. There have been avant-garde traditions fostering poetic radio making, such as those just mentioned, but these have often co-existed and overlapped with more conventional productions in the genres of documentaries, radio talks, and music.

Features producers often draw on poetic techniques (I am straying now into broader and less formally strict notions of the poetic) to shape audio in artful ways; these techniques include: patterning, repetition, and use of sonic motifs; formal reflexivity; the creation of metaphor (in sound); and a general interest in making a subject new through oblique or startling representations – which poetry is so good at doing. Here, for instance, is a description of sonic metaphor, in the work of an Australian sound artist and radio producer:

Ron Sims used the repeated sound of an iron gate opening and closing for his feature on the Chinese poet Du Fu (Poetica, 2000) as a metaphor for exile, since Du Fu was forced into a life of wandering. The gate, or door, is a common metaphor in poetic radio, as are page turns, clock chimes, and footsteps of one kind or another. Careful attention needs to be paid to their use so they don’t become sonic clichés. (Ladd ‘Notes’ 168)

In this production, called ‘Du Fu: The Drunken God of Verse,’ Sims creates sound corridors, using a gate as the marker of a new experience (for both the listener – in the heard space beyond the gate – and the poet); it is a considered use of a particular sound as a metaphor for transition.

I want to evoke in more detail the work of two contemporary poet-producers whose radio work is often poetic. These evocations reflect the essay’s various definitions of the poetic in radio sound. The first of these poet-producers is Robyn Ravlich, an Australian who had a long career at the ABC, and has been recognised locally and internationally for her radio work (her ‘On the Raft, All at Sea,’ about inter-generational experiences of seeking asylum, was awarded the Human Rights Radio Award and the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize for Radio in 2002). Ravlich was a founding member of The Listening Room and its executive producer from 1995. She was also contemporaneous with the Generation of ’68 poets, and a friend of Vicki Viidikas, on whom she made a moving and sonically rich radio tribute called ‘Vicki’s Voice: Remembering Vicki Viidikas’ (Poetica, 2005/2008).

Ravlich’s radio work is often shaped by poetic repetition; the producer also has an ear, and an eye, for the patterns in everyday life. In her expansive ‘Left Wing’ (360 Documentaries) she explores the experiences of left-handed people, the link between left-handedness and creativity, left-handedness and gender, and other ‘leftist’ traits including politics. Her ‘Timewarp: a memoir of place’ – the first episode in a two-part program broadcast on Earshot in 2015 – is a poetic exploration of place, identity, and memory, drawing on the writing of San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit and Sydney-based writer Nadia Wheatley (particularly on her children’s book My Place, set in inner-Sydney over generations of children’s lives from 1788 to 1988). In the episode these writers speak about the geographies of their respective homes; they both explore and resist the vanishing of cultural memory when places undergo physical change. The episode is structured by symmetry: Solnit and Wheatley live on either side of the Pacific Rim, and Ravlich positions herself – using scaffolding from Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995), particularly his concept of places having a layered history – as a bridge between the two, whose voices she interweaves with hers.

The bridge is a common metaphor in Ravlich’s work. ‘Mostar: a bridge in the water’ (2010), a short work that aired on RN’s 360 Documentaries, is a sonic exploration of the aftermath of the Bosnian war; the program is focused on the destruction of a bridge in the Bosnian city of Mostar – a bridge that symbolised the possibility of unity between Christians and Muslims. The bridge was destroyed by Croats on 9 November, 1993, and in the program’s introduction we hear that Ravlich has ‘had a longstanding interest in the history and culture of the former Yugoslavia [she has part-Croatian heritage], and for her, like many others, it was painful even to witness from afar the tearing apart of the Balkans in the 1990s.’ The production features original music and sound engineering from Russell Stapleton, and readings by Australian actress Linda Cropper. In the intro we’re told, ‘“Mostar: a bridge in the water” is built from archival fragments, dreams, memories, and letters to another radio producer, himself something of a cultural bridge builder: Arsenije Jovanovic, a Serbian who’s always been a peace maker.’

The program begins with an excerpt from Australian and British news reports, over faint sounds of an accordion being played and people milling: ‘There was no greater symbol of multiculturalism in Bosnia than Mostar. And the symbol of Mostar was Stari Most, the old bridge, which gave the city its name, and fame … It had survived invasions and wars for 427 years … It’s been hit many times, but it’s still standing, just about.’ The accordion and voices then fade, and suddenly the word ‘DREAMS’ comes at us, like an eagle swooping low and close, twice. I instantly felt the power of this word – this sound – in its flight. The repetition is an incantation: the word becomes a portal into Ravlich’s dreams about Mostar, collaged with letters to a fellow radio artist from Serbia: ‘In my dreams I wanted to be a part of a bridge between people, transcending the limitations of place / Dear Arsenije, the reason why I was trying to contact you at first in New York is that I wish to broadcast a selection of your work, interspersed by some comments, and some thoughts from you.’ The actress’ voice interjects: ‘You sing sound in the ether, broadcast sound, as a kind of air bridge.’ Ravlich continues: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you when I visited Yugoslavia in 1986, but I didn’t know you then. I have learned of a magazine from Yugoslavia called Most, the bridge. And I’m wondering, now that I do know about you, and of your work, if we might form something like a bridge: a sound bridge, you and I. Let’s try.’

A dirge played on a violin is a segue way to free-floating thoughts, voiced now by Cropper: ‘This is a romantic image. Consider what can happen to bridges. A bridge across water, in Mostar … Here was a bridge, of which was written: ‘it was an attempt to grasp eternity. The bridge is all of us, forever.’ For four centuries, people needed that bridge, and admired its beauty.’ These surreal impressions are cut with an archival news clip about Mostar being bombarded, the sounds of mortar explosions, and a nameless bird calling in distress. Stari Most rapidly becomes a metaphor in this audio work – a metaphor for mutual cultural understanding (or lack of it), for an attempt by one producer to communicate with another through sound, and for a stable connection to reality. Stari Most is imbued with such significance here that its destruction seems to represent the obliteration of civilisation – of historical time itself.

A final news clip tells us: ‘It survived a Serb bombardment at the beginning of this war, but could not survive a final Croat onslaught last month.’ The sounds of exploding mortar shells, and the strained-sounding bird, give way to an electronic drone reverberating into silence, conveying a sense of time folding in on itself; this is confirmed by what follows: ‘I would say those people who destroyed it, whoever they might be, they do not belong to this civilisation. Civilisation built on the idea of time, civilisation built on the idea of a future.’ The piece ends with the sounds of flotsam in lapping water, and Cropper’s voice: ‘A bridge like that just doesn’t disappear … A bridge blown into fragments. Can you find something there to cling to, to serve as a raft in the water?’

This radio work has the concision of a short lyric poem (it is only five minutes in length), with no sound out of place. It also revels in the formal reflexivity of poetry, with the producer drawing attention to her creative orchestrations: ‘I’m wondering … if we might form something like a sound bridge, you and I. Let’s try.’

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