THE AGE OF RADIO
It was the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 that made the world fully aware of the vital necessity, the deadly seriousness of radio. The survivors owed their lives to radio; those who perished drowned only because of confusion in the ship’s radio room and a lack of clear procedures for radio contact in a disaster.
Most listeners use radio as a source of information. But what kind of information? And how does it differ from what you find in newspapers or on television? It is my belief that the true, or as philosophers would say, the existential meaning of radio is in the magic of the voice, the magic of sound. And in this sense poetry and radio share the same element – air. My own personal approach to radio is as a sequence of sounds. They, the sounds, may be words, but not necessarily so. Drama, dramatic effect is created in the air, when sounds collide, smack each other round the head, rub noses.
My long years of work in radio are years of radio solitude. Editing tape is the work of a loner, an artisan, the work of a medieval craftsman: you do everything yourself, with your hands and throat, like a glass-blower. You are one-to-one with the microphone as well. It’s scary imagining listeners, and I try not to. I think I am a claustrophiliac: I love enclosed space and being alone. I’m also scared of letters from listeners. I am convinced that, as they sit by the radio, many listeners are on a voyage round the world, no, into outer space more like. I, too, am a travel maniac: I jump from wave to wave, and then from wave to wave. I get a special kick out of working with archive material. Occasionally I get to re-edit – or cut, to be exact – the voices of dead Radio Liberty colleagues: the poet Georgi Adamovich, the writer Gaito Gazdanov, the theologian Aleksandr Shmeman. Then it feels like I’m working in a radio graveyard. All these people are dead now and radio is their only link with life, and my link with death. But tape, alas, is slipping through our fingers into the past.
The things they
used to say about him, about Gutenberg!
Called him an ignoramus, egg-head, upstart.
Their fingers were slender, according to them,
and their nails manicured. While his were just… Stumps.
The plebs of print
treading hard on the heels of the aristocratic culture of the manuscript.
O how I sympathise, compelled to learn digitised computerised recording and editing.
Will my hands really never feel again the quiver of magnetic tape,
frog’s back, puppy’s tail?
The laws of physics mean that radio voices are beamed forever into space, so that if a person has even once been on the air, he is immortal. The hermetically sealed and soundproofed booths, the control panels, the lack of outside windows make radio studios like spaceships. And your voice alone is capable of unlocking this closed space.
So this is the kind of information source you have to handle: a source that invigorates, pulsates, assuages.
AIR IS FREE
The words “radiation” and “radio” have the same root. Physicists working with radiation wear special protective clothing. Radio workers have to do without: you can’t put on a lead apron out in space.
I’ve been a broadcaster for over three decades now, first for the BBC’s Russian Service (Bush House) and then the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Munich, Prague). As a rule I’m surrounded by thinking, creative people. Many of them represent the flower of their national culture: outstanding poets, directors, essayists. In “normal” countries a radio station is not the focus of such a gathering of “stars”. But I was born in a country which does not count among the “normal”. My colleagues are people from other “abnormal” countries, countries where freedom is severely restricted or even completely lacking. The result is that I am surrounded by historical losers, regardless of the personal success any of my colleagues may have achieved. I gaze longingly after my fellow-broadcasters who leave for the “normal” world. The first to go were the Hungarians, Poles and Czechs, then the Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians. The most recent departees were the Bulgarians and Romanians. Close your eyes for a second and the Ukrainians will have tried to make a break for it, too.
Am I really sentenced to this for life? I feel like a boy who has had to repeat a class, no, repeat a century or maybe even a millennium. What saves me from depression is the language I have discovered and fallen in love with: the language of radio. Radio language is wider, richer, more full-bodied than any spoken tongue. With it you can convey ageing, erotic excitement, the approach of madness, dying. I have no interest in describing culture. But to create and blow culture like glass is thrilling. To me radio is an art form. Radio and poetry live in the same element – air. So for more than thirty years the ground under my feet has been the element of air. A free element.
A WRITER ON THE RADIO
Modern Russian literature owes one to the Western Russian-language radios. For a long time the attitude of Russian writers towards the Western “voices” was one of condescension. The radios took it in their stride. During the Cold War they produced years and cubic miles of free poetry, prose and essays: Pasternak, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn… No radio in a free country could ever have done that: the air has its own language, its own aesthetic. Radio can, when it wants to, be a genre – rich, expressive, original. Sometimes I think I am an acrobat, at others that I am a fresh air salesman. Often I simply despair: working with radio is like heating a house in winter with all the doors and windows open.
Once in the studio I forget I am a writer. Working with sound is no less enthralling than with words. And the image of being an artist shaping sound seems to me much more dramatic than one moulding words: the laws of physics mean that your voice and breath settle out irrevocably into cosmic dust. I published a collection of my broadcasts. I didn’t just mechanically reprint the transcripts. The transfer of a broadcast to the printed page requires careful editing. Maybe this is a challenge to physics and the word “irrevocably”. There are bound to be losses in this process: without its acoustic colouring, the spoken word becomes etiolated, desiccated on the page. But something does remain, and if that something encapsulates drama, if earth and fate breathe in it, radio becomes literature. I began my radio career like a typical writer: I was patronising towards the broadcast script. But once I discovered the poetry of sound, I started to cheat on literature in the studio. My lyrical hero has been blabbering away in prose and poetry for over three decades. Radio helps atone for lyrical sin. It teaches you to stand modestly to one side, give up your place to those older and younger, nature, musical instruments. People who work with the microphone know what it means to have a compulsion to tell the world, speak out to it. We will not refuse it the right to give tongue, either.
During my career I have worked with two producers: Frank Williams and Marina Smirnova-Frezza. These are both people with especially sensitive ears. Sometimes I would have liked to have blindfolded them: so they wouldn’t be distracted.
Frank was very much influenced by crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas. Frank spends the summers on a Greek island where he has a house. Once he brought me back a present, a concerto for cicadas, crickets and bees, composed and performed by the insects of the Aegean. Frank had recorded them while on holiday. He went out into the olive groves at first light, so that the insects’ performance would not be spoiled by the extraneous sound; the whoosh of a passing cyclist or the putter of a motorbike. So to create a vehicle for Frank’s concerto I wrote a piece called M. Fabre’s Favourites. I didn’t invent Monsieur Fabre, he was a well-known Provençal entomologist. This enabled Frank to let his chirruping friends loose upon the world!
Marina had a profound attachment to dolphins, porpoises and whales. Once I asked her to work on a recording of aquatic voices: they seemed to me insufficiently expressive. Half an hour later I went to the studio and heard this incredible chorus: Marina, eyes closed, was harmonising with a pod of marine mammals. So that this work of art and nature could be released into the cosmos, I wrote a play, Love On Short Waves, and since then outer space has been populated with dolphins, porpoises and whales.
Frank is a trifle jealous of Marina: she seems huge to him. While Marina… Marina sailed past the island where Frank spends his summers and didn’t hear him. She hears only the noise of the waves.
ALL PRAISE TO THE EAR, OR AN ECLIPSE OF THE MOON
My work means I have to think all the time about the ear. For a normal person hearing is something to be taken for granted, and deafness is a defect, a handicap. In fact, hearing is a divine gift, and one granted to relatively few. There are whole types and sub-types of deaf and even earless animals. They compensate for the absence of hearing by developing a special sensitivity to vibrations. They use their whole body (the belly as opposed to the ear) to listen, as it were. After all sound is also a vibration of the air. Molluscs have a special kind of deafness. But this is a divine irony rather than a divine gift. A mollusc is protected by an exoskeleton, which we usually refer to as a shell. Our ear, on the other hand, is not an internal organ within the skull, but an extrusion of gristle covered in skin which anatomists refer to as the shell of the ear. Yet shells are deaf!
There is a Russian folk expression for people with especially sensitive hearing: “He can hear the grass grow.” The Russian verb “to hear”, слышать, can be applied to four of the five senses. One – you can hear in the usual meaning of the word (sounds), two – you can “hear” the taste of something (“your tongue isn’t a shovel, it hears what’s sweet, what’s sour”), three – “hear” in the sense of feel (“The girl didn’t hear she was pricked and bleeding”, Nekrasov), three and a half – simultaneously feel and smell (“You could hear the damp in the air”), four – to smell (hear smells). Plus on top of this you “hear” in the sense of understand (“he doesn’t hear Russian”) and also obey (“I hear, Sire”).
And that’s not all. Roland Barthes, the French semiotician and philosopher called the ear the most erotic of human organs in his short study I Hear and Obey. He was led to this conclusion by the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade tells Shahryar stories through the night. No, she doesn’t seduce him or do a belly dance, she ravishes his ear. Scholars believe that these Arabian stories come from Persian sources, and the last one originates in India. This sounds very plausible: otherwise why would the Kamasutra refer to aural (auricular) sex as the “eclipse of the moon”. So much poetry is contained in the ear!
A FAILED EXPERIMENT
I keep coming up against the problem of smell and have yet to find a good solution. I once did a programme in Munich on smell. I used a piece by Debussy to go with it, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. The sounds did, indeed, turn, but there was no hint of either perfume or smell for the nose to hear.
Even though the word “ether” has a whiff of alcohol about it, it is hard to appeal to a listener’s nose when a programme is in the ether. Poets like to discuss the scent of words. And, yes, words do have a smell. Take a sniff: jasmine, dill, rotting vegetables, orange peel (but not the actual orange), fermenting apple, compost, a wine cork (but not the wine! Wine is colour, deepest red). There are all sorts to choose from: both sweet-smelling and stinky. Poets exploit words’ olfactory auras.
Frost again smells of apple.
Mandelshtam doesn’t use the word “crunch” here, but it is crunch that marries “apple” and “frost”, producing a heady fragrance. In the Song of Songs Solomon is less refined when he compares the organ of smell with the source of the aroma: “And the smell of thy nose like apples”.
From time to time I have found it possible to convey smell over the radio. For example, Tom Waites’ hung-over rasp would convey the rank stench of the alcoholic. But my own programme on smell was a failure. The contributors were fine, very tasty. A Frenchman recalled the old épiceries packed with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla pods, coffee, cardamom and reduced colonial-imperialist politics to the struggle for spices and flavourings. A Brit recalled the smells of boarding school where young gentlemen were trained to lay down their lives for the Empire: the sickly sweet reek of lavatories overlaid with an all-pervasive odour of boiled cabbage. A Ukrainian poet fought down hatred of his empire to declare: “There is the Russian spirit, there it smells of Rus. Where is there? The Russian spirit blows where it wills!” While one of the last – from the days of perestroika – political prisoners from that same empire, an Estonian chimney sweep, compared the compressed stink of Tallinn jail with the pong of Leningrad’s Kresty prison and the sterile, morgue-like whiff of the one in Perm. His was a loving stroll down memory lane: “When the warders fry up onion and potatoes next the punishment cell, you can sense every last spare drop of sunflower oil… Or when you catch the scent on the wife of the chief warder, a dentist, in the prison corridor… And toilet soap? It’s a waste to wash with it. Better just to sniff it…”
But all this was the descriptive power of words, not radio. In Prague I had another go, to get listeners to hear me with their noses I made a program about cigars. I tried to convey the aroma through thick clouds of jazz, but I don’t think it worked this time, either.
A DEFINING IMAGE
I made this discovery in London towards the end of 1979, when I began working for the Russian Service of the BBC. The first six months were my probationary period and I tried very hard: I came to work at Bush House early, gobbled my lunch, stayed until late. I found writing and translating from English easy, but the technical aspects – recording and editing, mixing speech and music – were a challenge.
One evening I had been recording myself and listening to the result over and over again, when I detected a new timbre in my voice, an intonation that was not quite mine. I was actually taken with the new dimension I discovered in my voice. Where, I wondered, had it come from, this new metropolitan gloss: a combination of Moscow self-assertiveness and Petersburg refinement? Close examination of the tapes revealed the source. In the interests of economy, I had recorded on used tape, and on that particular evening I had picked up reels with the voices of Zinovy, a Muscovite, and Seva, from Petersburg. And by some curious acoustic trick my voice had absorbed, like blotting paper, the voices of my colleagues and acquired a new sound.
From that time on I began squirreling away old recordings of voices that I liked, hiding them in my desk. Thanks to them my voice began to acquire a number of different acoustic personae, not just Zinovy and Seva, but also Sonya, now an elderly lady, who had never lived under the Soviets, and Anatoly Maksimovich with his acquired English theatricality.
My superiors made much of my new-found vocal richness, while my simple- natured colleagues, whose voices I had appropriated, couldn’t quite figure out how I’d done it. I was called “a shortwave star”, “a wunderkind of the microphone”, “the golden voice of the BBC”.
I was able to make good use of this experience at Radio Liberty. In their Munich archives I searched out tapes of my favourite broadcasters: Father Alexander, Gayto, Fatima. I never stole old archive recordings. I would make copies and work from them. When they started cutting the budget in the wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika, some bean-counter suggested wiping old recordings and re-using the tape. Our archive started to dwindle and wither. I was horrified at the prospect of the inevitable consequences that lay in store. Computers came to the rescue: I was able to digitise much of what was left and then transfer it back to tape. To this day my modest flat plays host to mounds of reels. It’ll keep me going until retirement.
I am convinced that my radio palimpsest is a hugely important discovery. Around two and a half thousand years ago Plato compared the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius with a palimpsest scroll, since “beneath the gloss of sophistication” he saw Dionysius’s essentially despotic nature. Plato’s is the first use of palimpsest as metaphor. Coleridge in his notes for TheWanderingsofCainwrites of the “palimpsest of memory”. Coleridge’s admirer, Thomas de Quincey in his essay Suspiria de Profundis, written hard on the heels of Confessions of an English Opium Eater,described the brain as a huge natural palimpsest. De Quincey’s essay was translated into French by Baudelaire, and his palimpsest-like brain with its “infinite layers of thought” moved Proust. In our time, Orhan Pamuk has compared Istanbul with a palimpsest, while astronomers refer to the “shadows” of ancient craters on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, as a palimpsest.
I say there should be no doubt whatsoever: the palimpsest is the defining image for all of life’s processes. Are not we all a multi-tiered genetic palimpsest? And does not a jealous lover see in the object of his devotion a palimpsest of others’ embraces? O radio! How should I thank you?! Little did I know as I sweated over the tapes smeared with the voices of my colleagues in the studios of the BBC at the close of the second millennium that the secret of life was slipping unhurriedly by on a thin strip of magnetic tape and was carrying, transporting, lofting me up into the stratosphere, from where you see clearly and hear distinctly all intentions, all plans, all meanings.
PERSONALITY AND THE AIR MASS
“Personality” is me, and so can be regarded ironically. That, at least, is how I regard myself. The “air mass” is the material I work with on the radio. One of the materials. And I take this, the “mass”, seriously. Its role is crucial in my radio life. From time to time they change my “point of hearing”, force me to hear anew, listen closely again and again, correct my audio thoughts.
My latest passion is acoustic archaeology. Let me explain. From time to time I work on programmes about events and people from an age when sound recording equipment had not yet been invented. We can only guess at the character of the sounds and voices that made the air vibrate two hundred or a thousand years ago. It would take people with a very special, I would say, historical sensitivity to recreate the acoustic landscape of times gone by.
One such person was the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. In The Autumn oftheMiddleAgeshe described the motley, vivid contrasts of life at the time, of sounds, too: lepers with rattles, church beggars whining, madmen raving, bells ringing and chains jangling on the legs and necks of miscreants. The early tragedies of Aeschylus also create a soundscape of Athens: the chorus and coryphaeus, the actors literally tear the air of the orchestra apart. Tragedy is a combat of voices, and only secondarily of the hero and the fates. The richest, yet most treacherous, prop in creating an acoustic reconstruction of the past is music.
Spiritual, religious music helps penetrate the hierarchical inner world of a person, but blocks the material “palaeorealism” of life. Some help may be obtained here from “low” musical styles.
Getting back to the term “acoustic archaeology”, one of the key terms in classic archaeology is “excavation”. What can a broadcaster “excavate”? In my view, it is most like the work of a poet. Pasternak writes about the air “dug over with shouts”. Yes, once attuned, cleansed, the hearing can “excavate” prayers addressed to God or the forces of nature, deathbed groans, aubades and serenades, the agonies of cattle being taken to slaughter, the rustle of angels’ wings. No less intently than poets, spiritualist mediums hearkened and hearken still to the air. But for radio, the voices of the spirits are deprived of meaning, because spirits lack the necessary apparatus of the throat, meaning vocal chords, they lack the throat itself, the tongue, the lips, the soft tissue. The classic examples of vocal mediums are Job, Socrates, Joan of Arc who heard voices and even whole conversations. Alas, we can only read accounts of this or consider these cases theoretically. What is more, modern medicine describes these phenomena as deviations from the psychological norm. Psychiatrists think Socrates and Joan of Arc suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia. That is where acoustic “excavations” can lead the unwitting enthusiast!
All the same, I have evidence of a direct link between archaeology and electromagnetic waves. Marine archaeology, a sub-type of classic archaeology, makes extensive use of sonar and echo-locators. They are used to obtain an acoustic image of a submerged vessel, an acoustic “photograph” of the sea bed or drowned city. So, I will not be surprised if one day I receive visit from a marine archaeologist with an audio album of Atlantis.
To be continued