imomus (imomus) wrote,

Bright sounds, dark rooms

Dark rooms are the perfect place for radio. My favourite room at the Whitney is a dark one: Sturtevant's collection of reproductions of Marcel Duchamp readymades. The ceiling is covered in hessian coal sacks (they smell pleasantly musty) and there are only two sources of lighting, a video projector throwing film of a nude descending a staircase, and a brazier casting dim shadows of a wine rack and a bicycle wheel against the walls. Several times a day, rotating the building with bullhorn in hand, I settle on the floor in the corner of this dark room and create a sort of real time radio, casting or broadcasting stuff like this in the direction of visitors:

"The first person to write "Don Quixote" was a genius. The second person to write "Don Quixote" was a genius... Once in a hundred years an artist is born whose abilities so outstrip the mean that we can only assume a divine provenance. Marcel Duchamp was such a one... The 21st century will be a carbon copy of the 20th... "

If a dark room is the high point of my day, a dark room is also the high point of my night: I come back to the Brooklyn industrial space where I'm staying and enter a room without windows, a room where there's no day, only a kind of perma-night. It's the perfect room in which to plug headphones into a computer and listen to a certain kind of radio. The kind of radio, for instance, produced by Piers Plowright.

For over 30 years Piers Plowright has worked as a drama and documentary producer at the BBC. He's won three Italia prizes and several Sony Gold awards. His latest piece is A Ship of Voices, a celebration in sound of the BBC's own headquarters on Portland Place.

In a small but significant way Plowright changed my life with a piece he made in about 1980, a programme about Paul Klee with Edward Lucie-Smith and Tom Phillips, featuring music by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was called "Going For A Walk With A Line". I'd never heard sound used that way in a British radio feature before; sudden big reverbs, tiny high synth lines like fireflies, voices that moved about in the stereo image arbitrarily, ticky tocky electronic clay drums evoking Klee's trips to Tunisia, transitions between talking heads and dramatic readings of poems... the raw material to illuminate a thousand and one pictures in my mind, even in a dark room. Particularly in a dark room.

In an Ubuweb "Radio Radio" documentary about his work, Plowright says: "Although I'm not against abstraction in radio -- I think it's quite exciting, and we don't, perhaps, in Britain, experiment nearly enough with what sound can do, with what concepts can do, we're rather tied to the journalistic tradition from which, say, the BBC has come -- nonetheless, if it hasn't got heart, if it hasn't got a passionate tale, if that doesn't reach out and touch you, then I don't think you've got a very interesting piece of radio."

It's true those experiments in sound don't tend to happen as much in Britain (the odd "sound recordist" like Chris Watson aside) as they do in France and Germany. Arte Radio continues to feature beautiful sound-pictures like Sortie D'Ecole by Marc Voiry, and France Culture has a long tradition of creation radiophonique (often using rather more questionable and hackneyed sounds than Arte, though). German stations like WDR call it horspiel, hearing-play. Whatever it's called, it's the best reason to hurry to a dark room. Well, the second best.
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