28 September 2021
Disasters, homesickness and radio
Thomas Meadowcroft in interview with Matthew Shlomowitz
© Harry Schnitger
Berlin-based composer Thomas Meadowcroft makes music for the concert hall, theatre and radio. His latest radiophonic work, Talkback Burnback, will get its premiere broadcast on Deutschlandfunk Kultur at 0.05am on 8 October CET (9:05am AEDT on 8 October). The work had its genesis in Meadowcroft's residency in rural New South Wales during the dramatic bushfire summer of 2019 - 2020. He is interviewed here by colleague, Associate Professor in Composition at the University of Southampton, Matthew Shlomowitz.
Matthew Shlomowitz: How did Talkback Burnback come about? What was the impetus? Why fires?
Thomas Meadowcroft: In 2019 and 2020, I was fortunate to live and work at the Golden Vale residence in the Southern Highlands, Australia, courtesy of the National Trust NSW and the Bundanon Trust. The landscape in the region is beautiful, although the class divide is pronounced, as is increasingly the case in regional Australia, where there are those who choose to live there, and those who have to live there. For instance, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman were fly-in / fly-out neighbours... Unfortunately though, by early January 2020, two of the bushfires which made up part of what is now colloquially referred to as the 'Black Summer' of 2019/2020 were in relative proximity to the residence.
During this time, using a community service mobile app, I began recording the NSW Rural Fire Service Southern Highlands Division CB radio transmissions every evening before going to bed, letting the recording device run while sleeping. This app provides an extra source of information about the fires for people in the district, on top of the warnings provided by local ABC radio and the NSW RFS website.
What became clear upon waking in the morning and checking the recordings, is that they had a strange poetry: lots of radio silence punctuated either by brief, tender exchanges between firefighters about relatively prosaic topics ('where to get a feed at midnight', where to find petrol for the fire truck etc.), or brief technical exchanges about backburning and fighting the fire front. The paradoxical proximity and distance of the recordings at the time was also striking; sitting in a beautiful house with a beautiful garden, you could nonetheless see and smell the smoke clouds in the distance, knowing that at the base of these clouds were the firefighters battling away. This is much like the problem of climate change, where there is a lag between knowing and sensing.
MS: What are the sonic components or layers that make up Talkback Burnback?
TM: The piece is made up of six sound sources: the CB radio transmissions, a child's voice 'translating' and mirroring the transmissions, recordings of 'Albert' the long-billed corella who was the 'bird-in-residence' at Golden Vale, pedal steel guitar, a multi-tracked children's choir, and a mono synthesizer run through analogue tape delay.
MS: Could you say more about the child's voice. How do you think the mirroring frames the way we hear the firefighters? I like how the child usually repeats the snippets of text, but sometimes it comes before and sometimes it's missing.
TM: There were a couple of reasons to use the child's voice. Initially there was a concern that the mid-range frequency spectrum and digital noise of the CB radio recordings would become tiring on the ear, even though they can also be heard at a distance, in a way, as found objects. Thus, the 'naturally recorded' kid's voice, with a wider frequency spectrum, acts as a counter-balance. Children's voices also signify in strange ways: on the one hand they signify innocence and playfulness, but kids can arrive much quicker at the truth than adults when they speak.
In terms of the doublings, omissions and anticipations between the child's voice and the CB radio, this was done intuitively to keep 'time afloat'. There's an interview with Quincy Jones where he marvels at how small variations in music keep it alive. Also, I was thinking about Mimi Johnson's French translation of Robert Ashley's gated voice on the record, Automatic Writing. In that recording the two voices are in conversation and running parallel - it's a wonderful thing.
MS: Where and on what did you make the piece?
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, and the cancellation of various live projects for the concert hall, I began to work on the CB radio transmissions, the FFP masks from the fires also having been repurposed. This entailed cutting up the many hours of recordings into single-line snippets and sorting them into various thematic categories such as greetings, good-byes, fire fighting and so on.
I also had the pleasure of working with the Sydney-based pedal steel guitarist and Australian Pedal Steel Hall of Fame inductee, Graham Griffith, during lockdown. Given Graham's training and immense knowledge of the instrument and its associated stylistic contexts, I made many recordings by asking him to play over the top of some generic C&W playbacks I had made. The playbacks were eventually thrown away, leaving the solo stems to be repurposed in a new context. At the time of these recordings, I didn't know what that new context would be, but upon finally being able to get back to Berlin, at the end of 2020, all these recordings, along with CB radio transmissions, were in my suitcase.
With the financial backing of Deutschlandfunk Kultur, the piece was then assembled in the home studio. The CB radio transmissions were further cooked down into a narrative of multiple voices running through the piece, consisting of five sections: an introduction, waiting, observing fire, radio breakdowns, and going home. The synthesizer parts were then created, not inspired by the fast moving fire-front, but by slow-moving smoke clouds. A makeshift vocal booth, using mattresses and a Neumann KM 104 microphone, was also set up at home, for my daughter to record the kid's parts. All of these recordings were then mixed at the radio studios in Berlin.
MS: Do you want the bush fire topic of the work to register the broader issue of climate change. That's not how I hear it, but it seems one way it could be read. Making art on a tragedy is complicated. In making a piece about a natural and human disaster, what did you worry about?
TM: The purpose of this piece was to capture and enhance the very human aspects of the radio interactions, in sound. In that sense, Talkback Burnback is hopefully not just another didactic climate awareness piece - you cannot not but be aware of climate change anymore anyway! - but rather a gentle and muted celebration of the colloquial Australian accent and character located in our new (ecocidal) reality.
Susan Sontag's essay The Imagination of Disaster is incisive here, where Sontag examines the pithy responses made in disaster movie screenplays, which are simultaneously absurd and deadly earnest. Indeed, banality juxtaposed with fear features in my previous radio piece, Moving Homes, about cyclones in Far North Queensland. However, the original recordings of the firefighters in Talkback Burnback get us somehow closer to 'the real' than the fanciful 'comedia dell'arte' texts of the cyclone piece.
MS: Good you bring up the cyclone piece. Talkback Burnback is the third in a series of radiophonic works on cultural memory in contemporary regional Australia - Song Buslines and Moving Homes the first two pieces. You've said that this music was made in a state of homesickness for Australia and that you wouldn't have made them if you were still living in Australia. Can you expand on that? What does it mean to negotiate one's homesickness in sound?
TM: When I say I would never have made these pieces if I lived in Australia, it's done with solipsistic hindsight of course, but, sure, moving to Berlin in 1998, after studies in the USA, I got haunted about what music to make. In retrospect, it makes sense to have often returned to the more mundane aspects, and tensions, of the regional culture from where I came. This informs a lot of music I've made, with references to grandma's home organ, cousin Peter's Holden car, or the late-nite 'hot boxes' found in service stations, and so on. Sure, the themes probably got fetishised along the way, and it's probably an odd thing to do in contemporary music, but then you don't have to be Russian to enjoy The Brothers Karazamov, nor Australian to get Kath & Kim, so I hope that the cultural specifics of some of this music are open to all. The aesthetic moment in everyday life, as catastrophe, is after all a universal sensation.
The impetus for these radiophonic pieces, though, began not with remedying homesickness per se, but with a joke between my brother and I to pass time while driving between Brisbane and Toowoomba. When you drive around Western Europe, every few kilometres there's a sign-post pointing towards some local historical attraction: an ancient Roman ruin, a medieval castle, a 19th century chateau... We wondered, obviously facetiously, if you could do the same in 'Queenzland', that you could signpost a turn-off to the 'Ancient Big Pineapple', or 'Sprenger's Famous Pineapple Crush' at Blacksoil; all clearly 'sacred sites' of banal, white-fella cultural significance. This got me thinking about imaginary ethnographies, in particular musical ethnographies. Here some of the work of Jon Rose or Michael Snow comes to mind.
Song Buslines is a musical-map of the routes of the now-defunct McCafferty's Coaches, Toowoomba. Having taken these buses a lot, I once travelled eighteen hours to Winton in central Queensland with a mix tape of Edgar Varese and Barry White in hand. Neither of these musics fit the view out of the bus window though, particularly at night, so I would have to eventually make my own. In Song Buslines generic Country & Western motifs were used, in deference to the musicians featured in Clinton Walker's Buried Country. The piece was developed in Berlin over a couple of years, first of all by sitting in the home studio and reciting place names over the top of C&W 'train-beat' chord changes. This music-making was a way of 'driving around' regional Australia while stuck in Berlin. When you get off a bus or plane, there's a delay before your body reunites with your suitcase and your self, and making Song Buslines was a way of making sense of this process.
In the second piece in the series, Moving Homes, a piece about cyclones and (property) loss, the musical ethnography riff was taken further, inspired by (South) Pacific musical montages: in particular the music of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Dick Dale, and Haruomi Hosono. Having visited Far North Queensland a couple of times in my life, I was homesick for a people and place I didn't know that well. Here, the peculiar German idea of Fernweh comes to mind, where you long for a place you have never really been... On the other hand, sure, the making of Talkback Burnback was timed precisely to alleviate homesickness! The firefighters were recorded over the 2019/20 summer and the pedal steel tracks six months later, secure in the knowledge I could return to a bleak European winter armed with recordings and memories of home.
MS: Why are you drawn to making radiophonic works?
TM: The making and the dissemination of the pieces has been a drawcard. Regards making, it's very different to writing music for the concert hall - although charts were written for the recording sessions, working in the studio is more immediate and concrete to notating a score to hand over towards the end of the process. Regarding dissemination, free-to-air radio is for everybody, anybody and nobody. Sure, it has other problems, but public radio is at least outside the standard, directed field of exchange and resultant micro-commodification associated with other obscure musics; whether that be making reverb-drenched drone tracks for download on Bandcamp by other people who make reverb-drenched drone tracks, or advancing the cause of the avant-garde bassoon community. It's outside these fields of exchange, because, at least for now, publicly funded, music for radio gestures towards a symbolic public space, however sentimental, however much that space has been trashed by neo-liberal cultural logic in recent decades, and, in particular, by the internet where notions of private and public can no longer be split.
MS: Where, then, would you position these works in relation to other radiophonic works? Does the rise of podcast suggest a potential rise in this genre/medium?
TM: I thought of these pieces privately as concept albums when I was making them, with a track logic, but where vocal lines are largely replaced by the spoken word. Also, there is a dramaturgy to each piece, but they are not examples of Hörspiel because the music is as equally important as the text. The spoken text and the popular music references, though, don't necessarily mean the music aspires to the lofty cultural heights of 'Sound Art'. That said, I guess pieces for radio can double as podcasts, but not all podcasts seem to necessarily double as radiophonic works. I say this insofar as the rise in podcasts appears to be less about a preoccupation with sound per se, but more to do with the increasing democratisation of information, digital platforms and prosumer music technology, and an ensuing, if unintended, glut of content provision.
This however gets us back to the dissemination aspect of public radio as what sets the format apart; it's the accident of listening free-to-air, not via the internet algorithm. Cynics may wonder who is listening to radio these days anyway, but you'd be surprised... Indeed, returning to the content of Talkback Burnback, you will always find a lot of people listening to free-to-air radio if there's a disaster unfolding - and nowadays when isn't there one?
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Matthew Shlomowitz is a composer and Associate Professor in Composition at the University of Southampton.
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