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Sound tradition and experimentation in Brighton

A round up from the Sound of Story sessions on innovative radio drama, putting visuals to emotional voice recordings and work of sound designer Paul Davies

In its mission to explore the uses of audio and music as storytelling tools, the Sound of Story symposium has featured contributors working in the expected areas of film, television, radio and music. Under those fairly traditional headings the presentations, supported by workshops, have shown the more esoteric applications of audio technology, incorporating the now more mainstream discipline of sound art.

The Sound of Story 2016, organised by the Lighthouse culture agency in Brighton, was more cohesive than the 2015 outing but now less wide-ranging. From the sound effects and location recording of Ann Kroeber (see PSNEurope January 2017 for full report) to the big screen sound design of Paul Davies to the reinvention of radio drama in Akiha Den Den, the sessions looked at how audio is crucial to narrative in particular and the creative process in general.

Musician-producer-artist Matthew Herbert was in radical mood, describing the recording studio as “the enemy of sound”. While Foley is usually confined to studios, more of this arcane art is being done in specific locations. Foley artist Sue Harding has worked in Winston Churchill’s reserve wartime bunker; in another departure she performed many common effects live for the audience in the Dome Studio Theatre.

Like many elements of sound, Foley comes later in the production chain. Very rarely does a visual project start with sound. An exception to the accepted rule is Notes on Blindness, which was released to critical acclaim in 2016 and is nominated in the Best Documentary category at this year’s BAFTAs. The source was the 16 hours of C90 cassette recordings made by theologian and academic John Hall after he began to go blind in 1980.

Hall decided to keep an audio diary to help him come to terms with losing his sight. His measured but still emotional tones set an atmosphere, which directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton wanted to convey visually. Spinney and Middleton had already made a series of short films about blindness when they were put in touch with Hall. Mike Brett (pictured. Credit: Adam Bronkhorst), their producer, appeared at the symposium to explain how they expanded what was originally an intimate and very personal experience.

“The start was the sound and the words,” Brett explained. “It was all about the delivery and the timbre of John’s voice. From that Peter and James created a 90-minute timeline of audio before they began shooting.” When filming did commence it had been decided not to record any atmospheric sounds on set or location; all effects were built up in post under the direction of supervising sound editor Joakim Sundström.

The actors playing Hull and his wife Marilyn – Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby – lip synched to the recordings while filming. “They were in character and taking on somebody else’s voice as well,” Brett commented. “Simone would mouth the words but Dan said them out loud, which made for a weird one-sided conversation. But Dan said denying him his voice and his sight [he closed his eyes while acting] helped the performance because, like John, he went through an isolating experience.”

The sound for Notes on Blindness has been expanded in several ways to produce different versions. There are alternative audio descriptions, one featuring what Brett calls the “chocolatety” voice of actor Stephen Mangan and another with John Hull himself, plus additional narration and sound effects. Brett also produced a six-part virtual reality version subtitled ‘Into Darkness’. As well as interactive elements this offers an immersive experience through 3D Ambisonics.

Radio has flirted with wrap-around sound, largely through binaural techniques. Part of the reason for this not always working is that many producers are worried the words will be lost if the music and effects are continual. Producer Neil Cargill has experimented in this way through his work with cult humorist and singer Ivor Cutler and a multi-layered Radio 3 production based on the diaries of filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Cargill decided to take this further in Akiha Den Den, described as “radio drama meets audio art meets waking dream”. Inspired by late night listening to mysterious transmissions from the old Eastern Bloc as a child in the 1970s, Cargill has written and directed a strange saga involving a radio ham picking up the voice of a girl in an abandoned amusement park.

Their ‘not-quite reality’ was partly created through a collage of music and sound effects by sound designer and composer Simon James. Their working relationship was demonstrated in almost performance art style in the opening to their presentation; a spotlight picked out an old reel-to-reel tape machine, which turned on remotely and played recordings of phone conversations between the two men.

Cargill explained that a psychological starting point for Akiha Den Den was noise, something expressed by one of the more unusual characters – a talking cockroach. The introduction of this character initially caused James some concern: “I wasn’t sure what was going on, which was frustrating at first. But I treated the script more like poetry than forcing it into a traditional narrative, putting it over some music I had already starting writing.” Cargill adds that funding the series independently and distributing it online instead of going through a broadcaster gave a lot more freedom. “It grew organically,” he said.

The final session of the day saw Paul Davies (pictured) in conversation with journalist Amy Raphael. Now well known for his work on feature films, including ’71, Hunger and the work of director Lynne Ramsay (notably We Need to Talk About Kevin), Davies explained that his first experiments in sound had been in electronic music. Influenced by the works of John Cage, Terry Riley and Stockhausen, Davies owned an early synthesiser and ran a small studio in Wales during the mid-1980s.

He realised the potential of audio in film after seeing David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with sound design by Alan Splet. “It was mono but sounded so powerful and massive,” he said. After film school Davies worked on a number of TV and film projects before what he considers a breakthrough: Love is the Devil, telling the story of artist Francis Bacon. Sitting in the audience for this session was Ann Kroeber. Alan Splet’s widow and herself a Lynch collaborator; she pointed out the connection that “David was influenced by Francis Bacon”.

Davies illustrated his technique with clips from several of his films. Ramsay’s Morvern Callar broke a cardinal audio rule; out-of-sync dialogue. “Tim Alban [re-recording mixer] said to me, ‘If you’re going to do it, really do it.’ So we put it out by 12-frames,” Davies explained. His early experiences in electronica came in useful on the 2010 film The American, which director Anton Corbijn saw as a Western. “There was a scene in that which was very much from that genre, with strangers getting off a train,” Davies said. “There was no score on that; instead we used an electronic tonality, a drone, which I put underneath.”

A small but significant blurring of the lines between music and sound design. Something that in many ways sums up the aims of the Sound of Story, which drew just about a full house for each of the symposium sessions, with audiences a mixture of students, experienced hands and those with a curiosity for audio.