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a crack in your ear through which sound surreptitiously slips, or an illicit substance which gives your ears immense pleasure while enslaving them to a crippling addiction

Monday, February 14, 2011

modern radio drama

I wrote an essay about radio drama that just appeared on the Transom website. It explains what we're trying to do with our radio project The Truth, and why.

Modern Radio Drama - by Jonathan Mitchell

A champion of modern radio dramas, producer Jonathan Mitchell writes, "the fact of the matter is, radio drama is almost non-existent on public radio. And this is a little odd when you consider how good radio is at telling stories."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

5 questions about Eat Cake

A got an email not too long ago from Andrea Silenzi, a fellow radio producer who is teaching a radio drama class to high school students at 826 Chicago, that city's branch of the Dave Eggers-created 826 Valencia writing center.

Her students listened to my piece Eat Cake, and afterwards she had them write out questions for me. Here's the piece in it's original January 2009 broadcast on Weekend America:

Here is what the students asked:

1. What motivated you to make this story?

In Nov 2008, I got an email from Hillary Frank, who was working as an editor on the program Weekend America. She asked me to pitch something to the show. I was dying to do more radio drama, and Hillary has lots of experience writing fiction, so I thought she'd be an ideal editor to work with on a short radio drama piece. She told me that Weekend America was receptive to fiction, and it would be easiest to do something if I could "peg" it to something that was happening the weekend it aired, a holiday for example.

I looked at the calendar, at the end of January and beginning of February (because that's how long I thought it would take me to do a piece), and I looked for what I might be able to use as a peg. Valentine's Day is February 14th. Perfect.

I pitched them on the idea of developing something with improvisors. I've had a long interest in improv, I've taken lots of improv classes, and I'd become familiar with an incredibly talented improvisor named Eliza Skinner whose voice I thought would be perfect for public radio. My idea was to make a story with her and a few other improvisors based on the theme of "being alone on Valentine's Day." Most of my radio work has been more documentary-oriented, and I was interested in applying some of the techniques I'd used in documentary to make fiction, and I thought that working with improvisors was a good way to tap into that.

I cast the story before I knew what the story would be, and we built it around the performers I chose. I first just brought them into a studio with no preconceptions, and recorded them improvising all kinds of different scenarios, trying this idea and that idea, everything we could think of. After four solid hours of this we didn't have much. What was I thinking? This was not working.

I went home depressed, and listened to all of the tape. I heard one idea in there that I thought might work. We'd hit upon this idea of Valentine's Day traditions, and having some sort of anti-Valentine's Day tradition. I mentioned this to Hillary, who said, "what if you have two characters with competing traditions?" And I said, "how about one of them always calls people at random on Valentine's Day?" and we were off. I took the idea to the improvisors, and we played out the scenario in lots of different ways. I took that tape, edited it (a lot!), heard changes that needed to be made, brought the improvisors back again and we recorded pickups and new scenes. That's how the piece got written, going back and forth like that. We had four recording sessions in all.

The story came out of the process of collaboration. It doesn't sound improvised so much in the end because it's very tightly & thoroughly edited, but absolutely nothing you hear was scripted.

Incidentally, after the 2nd recording session, we found out that Weekend America was cancelled. The last show was to be January 30th, two weeks before our scheduled air date. Luckily, they let me do the piece anyway, and it aired on Weekend America's final broadcast (even though Valentine's Day was still two weeks away).

2. What was your favorite part to make?

I wouldn't say there's one scene or part of this that was more fun than another. Everything has its challenges and rewards. Overall, I'd say my favorite part was finishing the piece, because up until that point, I had no idea if it would even work as a story or not. I find making these kinds of stories to be such a delicate balance, one false note and you can lose your audience. It was a big relief to end up with something we all liked, that felt bouyant and cohesive, and that was actually going to air after all that. It always feels really good to finish something.

I also really enjoyed the casting process, Eliza was a big help with that, she introduced me to Birch Harms and Curtis Gwinn. Working with good performers makes everything easier.

3. Which scene was the most difficult to produce?

The most difficult aspect of this piece was figuring out how to make Eliza's switch from "creeped-out " to "intrigued" believable, and how to do that in a very short span of time. When Brian says he never meets the people he talks to in person, Eliza came up with this great line, "how do you know?" I think she really saved the piece with just that one line.

4. How do you picture Brian? Is he nerdy but secretly handsome? Or is he just nerdy, but that's Elizabeth's type?

I think the beauty of radio is that we each get to decide that kind of stuff for ourselves as individual listeners. Listening to the radio is a constant reconciliation between what we are told and what we imagine. What we're not told adds up to something in our heads based on what we are told, and because radio has no pictures, what it adds up to is often very different from person to person.

When Eliza says, "I didn't think you'd be blonde," that just came from the fact the Birch really does have blonde hair, she was just reacting honestly to the situation as an improvisor.

I think notions like "handsome" and "beautiful" are very subjective, and the truly important thing here is that the characters were right for each other. Elizabeth & Brian happened to click and be on the same wavelength, and they were really lucky that they liked each other even more after they met. It's hard to explain why that ever happens.

5. How authentic were the sounds you used? Were they all recordings of real places and actions?

Almost the entire story was recorded in a studio, with three mics (AKG 414's), one on each performer. I had the luxury of isolation booths, so each of the performers had their own track, which could be edited independently of the others with no bleed-though. This made working from improvisations MUCH easier.

There are two exceptions to this: At the beginning, when Eliza is talking to her cat, we recorded that down the hall from the studio, where there was a small kitchen area. And then when she's outside and yells "taxi" we recored that out on the street.

These days, my preference is to record on-location. But in the case of this piece, it was easier to do it in a studio because we were doing so much improvising, and we didn't always know what location we'd need. All the stuff that sounds like it's coming over a phone line was recorded through a studio mic and then processed & eq'd later to sound as though it were over the phone, with the exception of the random strangers Brian is calling in his exposition section. All of the ambience, sound effects and music were done in post-production. I wrote all of the music myself, and most of the sound effects came from commercially available sound effects libraries.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

old artist diptych

I have a new piece on Studio 360 this weekend. I interviewed two artists (Betty Woodman and Taylor Mead) who have little in common except their age. In the piece, they give their individual reflections on spending a lifetime as an artist.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

eat cake

I produced and directed this radio fiction piece, which features performances by Eliza Skinner, Birch Harms, and Curtis Gwinn. We developed the story by recording and editing improvisations over the course of several weeks. It aired this weekend on Weekend America's final broadcast. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

washing lint

My cat is famous.
Courtesy of my friend Sally.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

wordless music

The four-hour radio series I made about the Wordless Music concerts in New York is airing this month on WNYC. You can listen to it here.

Jad Abumrad hosts the programs, I wrote & produced. They are based around live recordings that WNYC made of several concerts from the Wordless Music series that took place last fall.

The Wordless Music Series pairs rock and electronic musicians with more traditional chamber and new music performers, to create an entirely new concert experience. As Wordless Music opens on a new season, WNYC presents four one-hour specials that highlight and underscore the ground-breaking '07-'08 season, hosted by Radio Lab's Jad Abumrad.

The shows are music/documentary hybrids, with pieces that support the live performances and explore some of the issues that the concert series raises, particularly the relationship between classical music and pop. Guests on the shows include Meredith Monk and David Lang, with music from Beruit, Do Make Say Think, Electrik Company, Nico Muhly, Sandro Perri, Hauschka, Torngat, John Adams & Gavin Bryars.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

free agent

As of now, I am officially no longer an employee of Fair Game.

I left my job there so that I could get back to doing more documentary and music work. There are lots of new and exciting things on the horizon, I'll post more here as they happen along...

In the meantime, I'll be working on a limited series (4 episodes) for WNYC based on the Wordless Music concert series in New York. They'll be music show/documentary hybrids, with full musical selections accompanied by short documentary-type pieces that support the music.

Friday, February 08, 2008

walter ruttman's weekend

I just found this blog post from my friend Jesse Shapins, who is at Harvard working on a doctorate in urban documentation (that's not the exact name of the degree, it's just my understanding of what it is). Last semester, he wrote a paper on Walter Ruttmann, whose work I spoke about at my Union Docs talk last August. Click on the links below for a pdf of his paper. Here's a copy of his blog post:

The subject of the first paper was inspired directly by the presentation of Jonathan Mitchell in The Documentary Bodega Audio Series (thanks UD & Jonathan!). This essay explores Walter Ruttmann’s 1930 experimental radio documetnary Weekend. In particular, as I write, my aim here is to develop an analysis of Weekend in the context of the discourse of documentary arts, sensorial experience, and urban representation. While groundbreaking on many fronts, I am most interested in Ruttmann’s attempt to represent the urban experience in a purely sonic form through documentary recordings. For as Fran Tonkiss writes, “The modern city, for all that there is to see, is not only spectacular: it is sonic.” It is precisely this interplay between the visual and the aural in the context of urban space and its representation through montage that makes Ruttmann’s work so compelling. While my analysis focuses on Ruttmann’s Weekend, I also travel through the work and theory of other avant-garde critics and artists of the time, especially Rudolf Arnheim, Dziga Vertov, Alfred Döblin, and Walter Benjamin. Recent research into the role of the senses in experiencing place conducted in geography and neuroscience helps further develop the framework for my theoretical arguments. Cultural geographer Gerald Pocock writes, “[Sound] is dynamic: something is happening for sound to exist. It is therefore temporal, continually and perhaps unpredictably coming and going, but it is also powerful, for it signifies existence, generates a sense of life, and is a special sensory key to interiority.” It is the auditory faculty’s unique “key to interiority” that can be developed through temporary blindness that grounds my final argument about the new subjectivity suggested by Ruttmann’s Weekend.

You can read listen to the piece and read the whole paper online or download a PDF.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

no comment

I finally break my blogging silence to bring you this...

Monday, September 10, 2007

new toy

I've been working on this score for a television documentary, and I decided that I'm going to need a broader palate of sounds. So last week I bought a set of fairly realistic orchestra samples. I have it all set up so I can record the instruments directly into Pro Tools. I played with it all weekend, just to get to know the software and see what it's capable of doing. This is what I ended up with:

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If you have trouble getting the flash player to work, try clicking on this sentence.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

new news

There are a few things that have been going on lately that I'd like to share with you all...

Item #1 - Union Docs
I'm going to be giving a talk at Union Docs next Sunday, August 26th at 7pm, part of their Documentary Bodega series. I'll be discussing the idea of documentary as a musical artform, and my talk will include work by Walter Ruttmann, Glenn Gould, and Steve Reich. The address is 322 Union Avenue, in Brooklyn. Click here for directions. Admission is $8. Come check it out if you can!

Item #2 - PRX's mp3 downloads
Ear Crack the downloadable mp3 collection is here! PRX has started an mp3 label, and one of their offerings is a collection of my work. You can check it out here or here. They also offer collections of other producers' work, including Jake Warga, Benjamin Walker, Dmae Roberts, Long Haul Productions, and Love & Radio, to name a few. Check out their whole catalogue here.

Item #3 - Half-time
Starting Sept 1st, I'll be half-time at Fair Game. I was really missing doing documentaries (and other non-comedy related stuff), so I decided to start using half of my week to produce work for other shows again. My first project will be the sound design and musical score for a television documentary that will air as an episode of Nova on PBS in January 2008. I'll post more details when I can.

That's it for now. Hopefully I'll be posting more often when I'm back to freelancing again, so keep checking in!