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I was all set to have my birthday (10 May) at MONA, the fabulous new contemporary art museum in Tasmania, when I got word that Eat Pray Mourn, the audio feature I made with Jacqui Baker about crime and punishment in Jakarta, had been selected to be ‘screened’ at the renowned International Features Conference in Leipzig, for its fortieth year: too good to miss. My husband Chris kindly offered to defer MONA – we would finally get there on Christmas Eve..

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asparagus dayThus it was that I arrived on 10 May in Leipzig, jet-lagged and exhausted, to find that my birthday was being celebrated all over town – as White Asparagus Day!

Leipzig was lovely – history at every corner, and small enough to walk around. Here was the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, a choir performing gloriously as I arrived. There’s St Nicholas, where peaceful Monday Protests began in 1989 that ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Goethe studied here, and Martin Luther gave a speech, and Mendelsohn composed.

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The eminent Rene Farabet with a young Portuguese audiophile

On it goes – but once the IFC convened on 11 May, there was no time for tourist stuff. It was wall-to-wall LISTENING. What an experience! Some 300 audio makers, from venerables like the elegant Rene Farabet and the very proprietorial Leo Braun to acclaimed current Prix Italia, Marulic and Europa winners to emerging artists – all of us immersed in 18 audio works over 4 days. After each listening session, we repaired in small groups for robust critiques.

My group was led by Canadian Chris Brookes, whose input was always perceptive and respectful. It was a revelation to see how the same work could polarise opinion. One person would applaud the rawness of a personal narrative, while another would lambast the producer for not introducing complex textures. We agreed on some things: the power of Hugo Lavett’s glacial pace and beautiful composition in Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore (so gripping some of us Googled to find out whodunnit), the humour in Brett Ascarelli’s attempts to prise revelation from a stubbornly unforthcoming interviewee (‘It’s Private’), the high octane adrenalin feel of Kathy Tu’s US fighter pilot, the lyrical writing of Rikke Houd’s The Woman On The Ice.

As for me, I was mortified to realise I had stuffed up in preparing the required 25min excerpt of Eat Pray Mourn. I missed the bit about it being linear – an uninterrupted sequence – and, working hastily to meet the deadline, essentially created an extended trailer of the 50min program. Three distinct protagonists and settings were butted up against each other, allowing no sense of light and shade, or narrative flow. Given that THE buzzword at IFC is Dramaturgy, or how the narrative is dramatically executed (great article on that HERE), Eat Pray Mourn could not be properly assessed. Micro aspects could be evaluated, such as sound design of a particular scene. Here too, I cringed. Listening back to the Day in the Life of a Kampung which I had so enthusiastically choreographed from Jacqui’s description of hawkers and rituals, and which ace ABC sound engineer Louis Mitchell had smoothed and enhanced, I was acutely conscious of how over-dense it felt. Let it breathe!, I admonished myself. At the time of mixing, it seemed to aurally evoke, as intended, the chaos and colour of these slum neighbourhoods. But now – coming directly after the careful stillness of Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore – it sounded over-literal, more Tell than Show. As Rene Farabet commented, in some frustration, ‘I feel as if I’m in a train travelling through a beautiful landscape, and I want to shout, “STOP!” I want to get off.’ I also grimaced at one point where I had looped the trenchant sobs of a woman – TOO MUCH, I realised now, wishing I could live-mute the track. But such is the reality of making a program to a deadline. A final mix has to be delivered – and lived with.

And there were positive comments too. Some of the younger Scandinavians, schooled in mindful dramaturgy, were unfamiliar with my rendition of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy through a kaleidoscope of office sounds mixed with surreal snippets of altercations. This piqued their interest, and led to warm exchanges – the heart of what IFC is about, a communing of like audio souls.

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Nikoleta, from Bulgaria, whose first-ever feature was screened at IFC.

But the IFC was also a vibrant showcase of distinctive cultural traditions of audio storytelling. The Poles’ secret was based on ‘talent, vodka and patience’, declared acclaimed Belgian producer Edwin Brys, over dinner in a historic Leipzig pub. De BrysOthers mentioned their history of political oppression, which led Poles to disseminate vital national narratives as deceptively apolitical radio stories, which passed under the radar of the TV-censoring authorities. The Germans had a thriving output of sophisticated radio features from their many well-supported stations, while Bulgarian producer Nikoleta Atanasova was part of a tentative new movement, her piece exploring a young woman’s scary brush with trafficking.

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Leo Braun in characteristically emphatic mode at Leipzig.

The BBC features tended to be shorter, reflecting broadcast slots of 30 minutes, compared to the more common European duration of 50-60minutes. Francesca Panetta, the innovative multimedia producer at The Guardian, showed us how genres were being stretched and blended – her works such as Firestorm are among my favourite, and it was a great treat to share dinner with her, and to hear her affirm that no matter how hi-tech digital media gets, AUDIO is always the narrative backbone and emotional heart of a complex story. And IFC Leipzig gave us plenty of proof of that – so thanks to Peter Leonard Braun for starting it all back in 1974 and long may its fellowship and robust criticism endure.

A whole year since my last post! Among the highlights: four stolen days in Paris (good as when I last visited 30 years before), Leipzig (first experience of having a radio feature I produced critiqued by peers at the IFC: intimidating but valuable), contributing to my first MOOC (about transnational audio storytelling) and settling into our new home – still astonished by the endless horizons.

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2014 kicked off with an invitation to be the first lunchbox speaker of the year at the very civilised Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. My talk, The Affective Power of Voice, was a chance to play some choice clips to a large and engaged audience, and reflect on why and how the audio medium has such a singular impact. Serendipitously, it was national Sorry Day, and people listened to my clips of the Stolen Generations with special interest and empathy.

March/April was a hugely exciting period: the publication of the first RadioDoc Review critiques! As the paired reviews went online, with links to the audio feature, my tweets and Facebook posts were picked up and shared by the audio storytelling community around the world. Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions summed up the elation many felt at having the opportunity, at last, to read deeply perceptive analyis by people who understand and appreciate the aesthetic and production aspects of the crafted long-form audio feature. ‘This is invaluable’, he tweeted, of RDR’s first reviews, of Pejk Malinovski’s languid exploration of Poetry, Texas.

Every one of the ten reviews in Issue One brought some fresh insight. ‘Sound is a partnership between memory and imagination’, mused Seán Street. Poetry, Texas has ‘style and substance, enamoured equals engaged in a delightful dance’, observed Kyla Brettle. Sharon Davis saluted producer Laura Starecheski’s ‘endurance and commitment’ in tracking a confined paranoid schizophrenic for some ten years, but queried the efficacy of the narrator-driven American storytelling style of The Hospital Always Wins. Michelle Boyd found much to praise, but asked why the program erased race – given that the protagonist was black, and that race was subtly implicated in his treatment. The next program reviewed, Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, made by German producer Jens Jarisch and reversioned in English by Sharon Davis, elicited awe, admiration – and suspicion – for Alan Hall.  jens leipzigHe queried Jens’s transposing of his actual response to witnessing an African boy bludgeoned to death, and repositioning it to crank up the listener’s emotional reaction. When I met Jens, at the International Features Conference in Leipzig in May, he was greatly exercised by this challenging critique, and grateful for the unflinching commentary of another accomplished feature maker such as Alan. ‘He gets what I am trying to do, and makes me think’, he told me.

In the second review of Sodom…, Virginia Madsen drew on diverse artistic works to probe its complexity. Bruegel, Bosch, Dante, and Dostoevsky all illuminate this ‘pilgrim’s jouney between heaven and hell’, she suggests. Russian literature was more directly invoked in Tim Keys and Gogol’s Overcoat, a clever, surreal blend of fact and fiction that was also blessedly funny. And as Kari Hesthamar pointed out, it’s harder to make radio features that make people laugh, than cry. Michelle Rayner also saluted this ‘tantalisingly unreliable’ production.

It wasn’t all contemporary audio. Norman Corwin, the US ‘Bard of Radio’ beloved by Studs Terkel, had his 1944 ‘folk-cantata’, The Lonesome Train, receive searching attention. David K Dunaway, a radio DJ for over 40 years and the biographer of the great Pete Seeger, pondered the tensions between history and documentary, in this show about the repatriation of Lincoln’s body. Tim Crook, meanwhile, deconstructed the program using RDR’s brand new Review Guidelines, devised by Gail Phillips, Michelle Boyd and me. His eloquent analysis got traction on Twitter from a Professor of Democracy. I’m sure Corwin would have been delighted!

RadioDoc Review (RDR) was officially launched in April 2014 at the University of Wollongong by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Prof Judy Raper, to mark Open Access Week – a great honour. It’s a particular thrill for me that the whole endeavour is pro bono, emerging from the generosity, insight and commitment of audio scholars and producers. Clearly that enthusiasm and knowledge should be freely available, not hidden behind subscriptions and paywalls.

RDR was barely published when I heard I’d been named the inaugural Anne Dunn Scholar of the Year. This award, administered by the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia and the Australia and New Zealand Communications Association, commemorates academic and former ABC broadcaster Anne Dunn, whom I had last seen at the JEAA conference in 2010, when she had warmly encouraged me in the closing stages of submitting my doctorate. This was typical of her, and I was humbled to have my work in establishing RDR, among other things, acknowledged. Anne had been hoping to attend my Writing for Radio week at Varuna Writers’ Centre in Katoomba, 2012, but sadly became ill. She will be fondly remembered by many of those she mentored and supported.

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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