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Radio Days 

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
For a while there, in the '30s and '40s, radio plays were big. You sat beside an enormous piece of walnut furniture with electronic guts and listened to actors' voices create comedies, soap operas, and the occasional serious drama. Beckett wrote brilliantly for the radio; so did Dylan Thomas. Sightless broadcast was a style of theater unprecedented on the planet, with its own strictures, but after TV it disappeared as quickly as it arrived, at least in America. European countries still subsidize radio plays, but here it takes someone stubborn like Garrison Keillor to revive the form (with Lake Wobegon Days) -- or someone stubborn like Erik Bauersfeld, with Bay Area Radio Drama.

For over 13 years, BARD has devoted itself to producing plays that eventually air on stations like NPR or KPFA. One of Bauersfeld's projects is adapting Eugene O'Neill for radio; another is a series called "Locations," an ongoing experiment that asks local writers to evoke a certain place with sound and voice. Four installments of "Locations" are currently airing Sundays on KPFA, including an apocalyptic vision of America called One of These Days (or Nights), by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The series began last Sunday with Helen Cline: The Soul of a Bell, a portrait in collage form of a blind poet living in Berkeley. Its "location" was Helen Cline herself. For blind people, of course, every play is a radio play, so there's a clever idea at the back of a piece that lets us hear nothing but Cline's voice and the sound of what's around her -- busy noises in a supermarket, bleating goats on Skywalker Ranch, and so on. Cline is a charming, girlish-voiced woman, blind since the age of 3, or for the last 60 years. Her poetry and prose are both as tight as a drum.

"This is 'Goat Poem,'" she announces before a story about a goat named Narcissus. "It is not a poem, but I don't like the sound of 'Goat Story,' and I love the sound of 'Goat Poem.'"

She also makes some intriguing observations. "You can hear people's body language. Of course you can't, but you can," she says. "You can almost always tell -- particularly with females, sometimes with males -- whether people have been regarded as attractive." Body language and tone of voice tell how a person has been treated, Cline says, and as a rule, beautiful people "have never developed."

Another fascinating item: While Cline's hearing was still sharp she could sense not just a person's body language but also the shape of a room, or even the presence of stairs, by a kind of sonar. "It's the sound waves reverberating from what is or isn't there," she says. But now that the sonar has faded with age, she runs into pieces of furniture.

It needs to be said that Soul of a Bell is really an act of journalism, not drama, although Cline made a happy and fascinating topic for a sound-rich piece of radio. Sound designer Randy Thom put together this portrait with a nimble hand, but created what's basically an NPR report without the journalist's voice.

Ferlinghetti's piece is different. One of These Days (or Nights) starts as a journey up a mountainside, which may or may not be the slope of purgatory in Paradiso. We hear nightingales, a crow, a cello, and a dog. A struggling old man (Ferlinghetti) gasps and whistles. "C'mon, pooch! We gotta keep movin'. We're not there yet." It's not clear where he's going. Then a storm approaches, and the man hears gunfire. He looks over a ridge and sees a battle. "They're still firing down there!" he says. "I thought that was all over by now. ... It's a veritable inferno down there ...."

Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately, Ferlinghetti can't let the Paradiso conceit, and its attendant notion of a soul's march, ferment under the naturalistic sounds of a hike and a war. He has to keep prodding it. The old coot whistles to his dog and says something about armies and their "dingbat boundaries," and soon it's clear that our sense of place in this show has been made vague and therefore Universal. "Berlin Walls? Or whatever. Nicaragua? Or whatever. Toward paradiso? Whatever, wherever ...." It's dreamlike, protean, but ultimately a cop-out, and you wish Ferlinghetti could have stuck to the assignment, and made poetry out of the sounds on a mountainside instead of trying to stretch his metaphor artificially.

After the mountain hike fizzles, the old man sees a vision of a mile-high Pacific tidal wave, and we get an engineered-for-radio reading of his poem "Wild Dreams of a New Beginning." Water slops over the continental United States: "Los Angeles breathes its last gasp, and sinks into the sea, like the Titanic, all lights lit ... Chicago's Loop becomes a rollercoaster, skyscrapers fill like water glasses, great lakes mixed with Buddhist brine, great books watered down in Evanston." The imagery's great, and attaching the poem to the mountain hike brings out new facets in each half of the show. But the whole thing, again, is not a drama. It's a dream, as Ferlinghetti himself says in a cafe conversation framing the piece -- a rambling and jazzlike poetic vision, given depth on the radio by a setting of interesting sounds.

The other two shows in "Locations" are Inside, by Millicent Dillon, an "interior soundscape" of a man inundated from without by modern white noise; and Teaching English, a piece about a writer and teacher-of-English-as-a-foreign-language named Gary Soto. Teaching English sounds like the only play in this series that takes the "Locations" assignment literally, which is too bad. The discipline of evoking a certain place in sound is no longer a discipline when three out of four artists give it an excessively clever twist. But the breakdown of a concept isn't the death of a form; and the BARD project, as a whole, is fighting a worthy fight.


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