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29 October 2014

Insight: In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub

Musings On Sonic Fact, Fiction, Radio Art and the Search For the Un-findable

Colin Black Image: Colin Black  

Composer, sound artist and academic Colin Black's new radio art work In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub will receive its Australian premiere on ABC Classic FM's New Music Up Late on Saturday 8 November at 10:30pm. In his work, Black takes a character from Dylan Thomas's 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood and creates a new fictional reality, or, as he puts it, 'a space where the sea sings of the living, the dead and the imagined'. The work has already been broadcast by the Irish RTÉ lyric fm and Resonance 10.04fm in London.

In the following feature article, commissioned for Resonate's 'Insight' series, Black talks about his work on In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub, as well as more generally about the unique but endangered mix of fact and fiction that is radio art. See also: more Insight feature articles by the AMC's Represented artists.

Truth and beauty have two poles, documentary and fiction. You can start with either one. (Jean Luc Godard1)

For me in radio, or should I extend that to audio, everything is fiction unless proven otherwise. … in radio art we decide that fiction is fact. (Hélène Prévost2)

In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub (sub-titled A 'Play' for Collected Sounds) is inspired by the fictional blind character of Captain Tom Cat in Dylan Thomas's classic Under Milk Wood. This work, as Godard suggests is possible, is approached as a creative quasi-audio documentary that reveals its subject's truth and beauty. It is a work that strives to poetically blur the distinction between fact and fiction so as to explore themes of nostalgia, isolation and, as a meta-reference to the process of making this work, the futility of the pursuit of searching for something that is not really there (a fictional character), a theme that echoes throughout much of humanity. It explores concepts of mythology (or, in the case of Under Milk Wood, modern day mythology) referencing Simon Schama who, in his book Landscape and Memory, proposes that we overlay mythology and the human imagination on to geographical locales and embody them in memory.3 Moreover, Pierre Nora, in Realms of Memory has argued that within a community lieux de memoire (places of memory) have arisen as a replacement for the lived experience of memory.4

With In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub I visit the proposed places of memory for the fictional character to create a quasi sonic vestige, mnemonic, an overlay of mythology and human imagination projected onto the sonic geographical locales that meld with, and can sometimes replace, the lived experience of the listener's memory. In this way, the work responds to Hélène Prévost's supposition that, within the framework of radio art, this blurring of fact and fiction can be further amplified to the point that what seems to be fiction can be perceived as fact, even when the work ventures into Captain Cat's imagined dreamscape.

Prévost also suggests that with 'audio, everything is fiction unless proven otherwise', which is similar to Jonathan Sterne's idea that audio reproduction 'results in the creation of a distinctive form of originality'5 [or a type of audio fiction] and Francisco López's notion, 'I don't think "reality" is being reproduced … rather, a hyperreality is being constructed. … it is not a version [of the original sound] but a different entity with its own inherent value'.6 I would go further and say that - no matter how high quality the audio equipment and resulting recordings are - all media is a lie, it is fundamentally flawed and downright deceitful. In this sense all we can ever capture are shadows of the real world in a similar fashion to the shadows in Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave', which is why I find it a somewhat limited exercise when acoustic ecologists strive to create an audio taxonomy of endangered sounding sites. In a sense it is like looking at a lifeless, stuffed specimen of an animal that only holds one pose - so, too, is the shadowy audio recording ossified with one viewpoint without the rich and dynamic sonic cues we use to navigate through the real acoustic world and is debased by the electro-acoustic process.

Nevertheless, what really interests me as an artist is how totally engaging acoustic art can be created out of these shadows (or degenerated echoes of the real world) by using sonic 'slight of hand, smoke screens and mirrors' while highlighting the cultural dimensions of the audio content, and how this shadowy illusionary mix, with its poetic language, can take on a life of its own, stimulate the ear and ignite the imagination of the listening. This, to me, is the real art of using audio recordings to create sonic artworks, or to compose - which, from its late Middle English origins, simply means 'to put things together', 'construct' or 'composite'.

To question whether this type of work is music, in the twenty-first century, seems to be a redundant question, because we first must invalidate the ideas and work of John Cage, La Monte Young, R. Murray Schafer, and generally disregard many of the developments of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, while this new work may receive concert performances, diffused over two or more loudspeakers, a term I prefer to use for this type of work is radio art, as it is primarily intended for broadcast by terrestrial radio and/or live webcast with the additional possibility of podcasts (that I and others would argue retain some of the residue of the original broadcast7). In this sense, these types of works are conceptually exhibited in a gallery space that consists of the composite of all the non-contiguous locations that the radio art work is heard for the duration of the broadcast; furthermore, due to the mechanism of the podcast and conceptual link to the original broadcast, can also resound across multiple time periods.

If we start to think of these works as artworks exhibited in a type of gallery space, this then raises issues of cultural and social responsibilities for supporting this publicly accessible gallery. The initial question that I would like to pose is: is there a difference between denying the public access to this type of gallery space, compared to denying the public access to something like the National Gallery of Australia that houses priceless visual art? In short, if our cultural organisations are not embracing this type of artwork, ranging from short-form works to feature-length works, then are we really being diligent about all forms of Australian art?

Moreover, from my PhD research between 2008 to 2012, radio art in Australia has faced many challenges that, I would argue, have resulted in a lack of lineage and awareness of the art form, the intensification of art form identity confusion, a reluctance of arts education providers to include a more predominant radio art component in their curriculum, a lack of discourse and documentation, the seduction of new technologies without a critical awareness of evolving applications for radio art, and a changed linguistic focus from around the 1990s (perhaps it could even be called a type of linguistic genre genocide) which is demonstrated by the omission of the genre of radio art or radiophonic art in official documents produced by Australian cultural bodies and organisations.8

Returning to my work In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub, I can also think of this type of work as a sonic painting, infused with the intriguing shadowy echoes and perspectives of Cardigan Bay (West Wales) and the mythical spirit of Dylan Thomas's Captain Cat. It is a scenographic montage and mise-en-scène with minimal dialogue, where sound elements are strategically positioned as cultural objects to convey multiple layers of meaning. In fact after Douglas Cleverdon produced Under Milk Wood for radio in 1954 he stated that it [Thomas's work] '… has no rules determining what can or cannot be done. And though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot.'9

In a sense I am exploring this possibility in this new work … it has no rules but the intent of developing a language out of sound, from recordings gathered in Welsh fishing villages on Cardigan Bay. Moreover, it is a hybrid audio work that takes the listener into an exotic and imagined composed soundscape, a space where the sea sings of the living, the dead and the imagined.

Some key elements (or sonic cultural objects) of this work include radiophonic arrangements of sea shanties sung by Gerald Morgan in Welsh, the traditional folk song 'Y Wasgod Goch' [The Red Waistcoat] that tells the story of being haunted by a recently deceased lover, as sung by Mr Robert Pierce Roberts. These arrangements include a heterophonic textural approach where the melody is imperfectly traced (or varied) as an analogous reference to the futility of trying to trace the footsteps of a fictional character.

The radiophonic arrangements also include Bach's 'Fuga sopra il Magnificat' that has been augmented with a chiefly stratified texture of the sounds of sheep, the sea and a blacksmith at work, to evoke an imaginary soundscape of Llareggub. In addition to these, the work contains location recordings from Thomas's house in Laugharne [Welsh: Talacharn], and New Quay [Welsh: Cei Newydd] (places believed to be the inspiration for Under Milk Wood), sparse interviews with locals describing New Quay, Welsh maritime historian David Jenkins describing life at sea, archival recordings from the audiovisual archive at St Fagans National History Museum, including Mary Jane Rees's interview explaining the Welsh myth of adderstones that are believed to cure blindness, sounds from aboard various ships in motion and other coastal locations in Wales.

Finally, an acoustic theme running throughout this work is that, from the perspective of Captain Cat's sonic reality in the work, the boats are heard as beached or docked and tethered by ropes to the quay, or attempting to start their motors. It is only in the Captain's dreams and daydreams that the boats are free to set sail on his emotional sea of nostalgia.

This also brings us back to Prévost's pronouncement that '… in radio art we decide that fiction is fact.' How else could we enter into the shadowy sonic reality of Welsh coastal locations and the dreams of the blind fictional character of Captain Cat, all from his perspective and, as with all stories, inherent in their retelling, presenting a mythological mix of fact and fiction?

This project has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.


1 Jean Luc Godard quoted in Ellen Freyer, 'Chronicle of a Summer - Ten Years After', in The Documentary Tradition, ed. Lewis Jacobs (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1969), 71.

2 Hélène Prévost quoted in Andra McCartney, Gregory Whitehead, Hélène Prévost and Alessandro Bosetti 'Soundscapes of the imagination: the grey area between fact and fiction', (panel discussion, Radio Without Boundaries 2009 Conference, moderated with introductory remarks by Andra McCartney, panelists: Gregory Whitehead, Hélène Prévost and Alessandro Bosetti, Toronto, May 29, 2009). http://naisa.ca/wp-content/audio/RWB09/May29_mp3/soundscapes_imagination.mp3 (accessed March 4, 2012).

3 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory. (London: HarperCollins, 1995).

4 Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, The Construction of The French Past. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 8.

5 Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 220.

6 Francisco López, 'Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter' in Cox, Christoph, and Daniel Warner Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (New York: Continuum, 2004): 84.

7 Virginia Madsen, interviewed by author, North Ryde, NSW, December 9, 2008.

8 Documents include:
Join The Conversation: ABC Annual Report 2011 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2011) http://about.abc.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/AnnualReport2010-2011CompleteReport.pdf (accessed July 19, 2012).
Our Strategic Plan 2010-13 : A Clear Direction for the ABC (Ultimo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2010) http://about.abc.net.au/reports-publications/abc-strategic-plan-2010-13/ (accessed July 19, 2012).
• Paul Mason, Music Sector Plan 2011-2012 (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, 2011) http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/103486/Music_Sector_Plan_2011_2012_Revised_for_Publication_V2.pdf (accessed April 15, 2012)
• Andrew Donovan, Inter-Arts sector plan 2010-2012 (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, 2011) http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/103484/Inte-Arts_Sector_Plan_2011-12_Web_Version.pdf (accessed April 15, 2012).
• Andrew Donovan, Sarah Miller and Elaine Lally, New Media Arts Scoping Study Report to the Australia Council for the Arts (Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, 2006) makes no mention of 'radio art' but does mention bio-art, screen-based art, networked media, mixed and virtual realities, nanotech, artificial intelligence, wearable computing and robotics.
• Jeremy Blank, Scoping Study for a National New Media/Electronic Arts Network (Perth: Curtin University of Technology, 2009). http://mass.nomad.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/NOMADscoping%20studynet.pdf (accessed April 14, 2012) makes no mention of radio art other than in my paper's title and abstract.

9 Douglas Cleverdon quoted in John Drakakis, British Radio Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 9.

Further links

Colin Black - AMC profile
New Music Up Late 8 November - program website
'Radio art - broadcast or outcast?' - an article by Colin Black in Music Forum (April 2009) - via www.academia.edu
'An Overview of Australian Radiophonic and Radio Art Practices' - an article by Black in the World New Music Magazine No. 20 (2010) - via www.academia.edu
'International Perspectives on the Historic Intersections of Electroacoustic Music and the Radio Medium' - an article by Black in the Organised Sound, Volume 19 No. 2 (2014) - Cambridge Journals ($)

Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist. Winner of the 2003 Prix Italia Award, his feature-length works were selected for the final rounds in the 2010 & 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova. He has received commissions for innovative long-form works, broadcast across Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include showcases of Australian acoustic & radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ORF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art, and the ABC's 'Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art' series (2013).


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