Posts Tagged ‘gregory whitehead’

Four Trees Down From Ponte Sisto

I first came across a sampling of Sharon Charde’s poetry completely by chance, while browsing through a local women’s magazine. I was instantly struck by the disarming directness and documentary detail in poems that dared to articulate the unspeakable loss of her son Geoffrey while a student abroad, under circumstances that remained obscure, with no known witnesses. At the bottom of the page, there was mention of a forthcoming reading at a library nearby, which I attended. As Sharon read, I was once again moved by the calm precision she was able to bring to the most terrible scenes, and by the rich polyphonies that gave subtle dimension to such a raw wound:


That evening confirmed my sense that her poems, written across three decades, comprised an important body of writing that deserved a wider audience. Fortunately, Sharon agreed to the idea of a BBC radio adaptation, and generously provided me with Geoffrey’s own journals, photographs and documents, as well as many supplementary stories and recollections, some of which I then incorporated into the script. Since her writings obliterate the idea that grief unfolds in tidy linear stages, I became increasingly committed to the fundamental truthfulness of an unresolved narrative structure, where the traumatic moment of the fall remains vivid, through to the very last sound.

We considered many actresses to give voice to the play, though my first choice was always Anne Undeland, who brings an open spirit of brave simplicity and deep insight to everything she does. I knew that Anne had recently performed a one woman show based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and she has worked with me on a number of other radio plays, including The Loneliest Road. As it happens, she also lived in Rome during the 1980s, and knew the Trastevere neighborhood where Geoffrey had lived, which helped bring the story fully into the present.


For music and sound design, I had in mind the image of a precious Roman mosaic that I had let slip from my hands, and thus it was left for me to piece it together again. There would be jagged edges to be sure – imperfections – and sometimes the edges might cut fingers. To achieve this acoustically, I improvised to recordings of Anne’s voicings on mandolin, bowed psaltery and a cigar box guitar, and then added a variety of sounds to the mix, including the snapping of twigs and the crushing of dry leaves.

I knew Geoffrey liked Simon & Garfunkle, and that he had used a quote from the song “Old Friends” in his High School yearbook. Though I never actually play the song, those chords and rhythms were certainly on my mind as I slowly assembled the final montage.

The play will air on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, June 29th. The first three minutes are excerpted here.

Banned Production: cassettes, crypts and beavers

You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone

I have a deep affection for a format that diminished to the brink of extinction during the early years of the digital age, yet a format now happily making something of a comeback: the audio cassette. My first studio consisted of two Superscope cassette recorders and a cheap Sony microphone, rigged up to create lengthy odes to phonic decay, bouncing tracks between the two machines while simultaneously adding mike voices or noise until I reached a satisfying reduction of entropic mud.

Home Studio Number One

Most of these early experiments have been lost to posterity, and possibly that is all for the best, but this rare surviving fragment should give the general idea. Since most radio stations were rather hostile to the notion of broadcasting such cryptoacoustic ephemera even during graveyard hours on a Tuesday night, the notion of “cassette radio” (prototypical podcast, but with more soul) became widely circulated, enabled by post office intermediation. Every day, strange packages would appear stuffed into my rather cramped loft mail box in NYC; packages that would often be adorned with bits of cloth, or hand cut stamps, or wrapped in ribbons, or even (once) chicken wire.

Audio Crypt

The packages themselves were often fabricated from recycled shoe boxes or other consumer flotsam. I became friends with my neighborhood postman, a friendship which undoubtedly saved some of the more aggressively undeliverable packages from the Dead Letter Office. Inside the packages, there would often be more layers of wrapping and concealment, and then finally, the cassette itself – hand colored, painted, smeared, scratched and  sometimes unplayable.

Cassette Mythos

By 1990, all  of this networked activity and output was referred to by Robin James as Cassette Mythos, but it would be wrong to retroactively impart too much conscious coherence to the scene. The dispersed, casual and even random quality of the exchanges (mostly barter) was a large part of what made it so appealing, as did the raw sensual nature of the artifact.

Hand made cassettes may have lacked commercial mojo, but they possessed an abundance of character, and cassette culture was thereby populated by a lively assortment of appealing characters whose ideas and aspirations did not quite conform to other channels. Some of these characters produced labels that celebrated the cassette aesthetic, though they also often

Needlemaster AMK

released vinyl as well. Among the vast array of enchanting untergrund labels, one in particular caught my ear: Banned Production, under the direction of a prolific, generous and brilliant individual (male or female I did not know) who for many years I knew only by the initials AMK, though his cover has been blown for at least a decade: AMK, aka Anthony King.

In any event, it seems that for some people, downloading audio pancakes from itunes just does not cut it, with cassettes one again beginning to appear along the vibrant edges of the electroacoustic universe.  Banned Production appears very much in the thick of the renaissance, assembling an enviable stable of contributors, a veritable Who’s Who of Legendary Audio Experimenters you might never have heard of.

Impedance or Philosophy?

I titled my most recent radio castaway Potato God Scarecrow, billed as a freely associative radiophonic disorder in the approximate shape of a beaver lodge, and now also available as a Banned Production cassette. Like beavers, cassettes are paradoxical critters. Both have experienced near extinction, yet survived against the odds precisely because of their oddness, and their remarkable ability to complicate monocultural flow, whether riverine or digital. May they both live long and prosper.