After the death of his wife, renowned blacksmith artist Steve Weis moved from Toowoomba to Kin Kin on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
Seeking to make sense of his life and recover from his grief, he cleaned up the surrounding industrial land and began building an array of metal sculptures from derelict metals, large fuel tanks, steel bars and gravel crusher parts.
Today his property hosts a vast sound garden full of works with a huge range of sonic potential. Whether it's the ambient tones of the Dueling Banjos, the resonant hum and rasp of the Wandjina or the brassy plinks and plonks of Whirlygig, all these sounds celebrate what Weis calls a "sizzlingness" in our existence.
The Blacksmith's Song was produced by Hamish Sewell for Into the Music on ABC Radio National. Cathy Peters is executive producer, and Mike Don is technical producer. Thanks to Steve Weis and his partner, Janka, ABC Radio National and the Sunshine Coast Regional Arts Development Fund.
Behind the Scenes: Hamish Sewell reflects thoughtfully (and with humor) on the challenge of producing radio about the intangible.
Hamish Sewell has worked as a radio producer since 2000, and his work has aired in New Zealand, Australia and America. Hamish has worked with ABC Radio National, local ABC radio, the Queensland State Library and the National Library of Australia and today he lives with his partner on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia where he works as both an oral historian and as a director on The Story Project.
Photos by Yan Chen.
The Blacksmith's Song was supported by the Sunshine Coast Regional Arts Development Fund. The Regional Arts Development Fund is a Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and Sunshine Coast Council partnership to support local arts and culture.
Read the corresponding blog and watch the audio film version of The Blacksmith Song.
Find out more about Hamish Sewell, and hear his Third Coast award-winning work Battle Flagging Father.
You can contact blacksmith artist Steve Weis here.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Hamish Sewell
How did you first learn of Steve Weis, and what prompted you to share his story?
I first met Steve Weis at the Dreaming Festival here in South East Queensland. It’s an indigenous celebration of arts and culture. With his shirt off and various pendants around his neck, Steve seemed to fit right in: fifty-something with cobalt blue eyes, pierced nipples and his arresting looking partner, Janka, at his side. He struck me as an interesting character, perhaps a little too ‘out there’ for me, and he mentioned something about his sound-garden that day but it never really registered. It was only months later, when my partner and I were passing through Kin Kin, the tiny hinterland town where he lives, when I noticed the large sculptures on a property on our left and I realised that this was his house. We pulled in. It was a weekend and both he and Janka were there. They generously invited us inside and fed us cake and coffee. Strewn with curvaceous iron work, richly painted panels and tropical plants, their house is a visual feast in itself.
Those things, I asked him, pointing to the hulking metal structures around the perimeter of his yard. What’s the story?
Steve took me on a tour of his garden and sound studio. Violin bow in hand, he got all sorts of noises out of all sorts of weird and wonderful things and in his own distinct manner, he spoke with great love about each of his pieces - these great big rusting configurations that could just as well be abandoned junk as creative treasures. It was clear that Steve's sculptures afforded him no financial gain and was counter intuitive to commercial drive and clipped yards, brick homes and spiritually vanquished world of middle Queensland. He clearly loved what he did, and had dedicated his life to it, yet he had no pretensions of being a great Artist, nor did he seem obsessed about gaining recognition or pretend any great expertise.
Weeks later, on a clear autumn morning, and with no idea where our conversation would lead us, Steve and I sat opposite each other with just the microphones before us. When I turned on my digital recorder, the rest seemed to follow.
In previous work we've heard from you, especially Battle Flagging Father, your own voice and narration were central to the story. In The Blacksmith's Song, your role is clearly backgrounded. What are challenges and rewards of producing stories in these two different ways?
I don’t really like the sound of my own voice. To me it seems overly affected and self conscious. In BFF I had to include my voice as a central element by dint of there being such personal feelings on the line. As my father bared all for the tape, there was a certain quid pro quo written into the bargain that necessitated me articulating something of my process and my struggle. At times this felt like an onerous responsibility with not just a potentially good radio piece at stake but my the continued relationship with my father hanging in the balance.
TBS prompts no such soul searching, nor was there, to my mind at least, any great danger, any hidden skeletons in the cupboard, in term of what is shared. If there is any decision to place the spotlight firmly on Steve, and not on me, it’s because he’s a charismatic and loquacious man. And yes, he likes to talk about himself. For me, he’s a natural subject, a river captain on a slow and languid journey through time and space and the elemental universe which sees every one of us oxidising in much the same way as iron rusts red. A hard thing to capture. A hard thing to articulate. But Steve doesn’t do too badly. His whole life he’s been trying to get there. And as a long time meditator, as someone who’s interested in the calibration of experience, the touch, the sound, and the smells in the present moment, I’ve never heard this articulated so clearly before.
The sounds made by the metal objects and instruments in The Blacksmith's Song story almost tell (or sing) their own story, alongside Steve's. How did you approach the sound design?
There are a range of sound elements here. The voice of Steve talking with me - close mic, the instruments in all their ugliness and splendor, and small bits of Steve and me out in the field. With the close mic elements, the ongoing sound of Steve’s voice is very smooth to the point that it’s almost a drone. Hence sometimes I wanted to create ruptures to break the monotony. I tried to do this with my questions.
What does metal taste like?
It tastes like blood.
Steve easily handles my short sharp question and the exchange gives the work an injection of energy and punch. And it’s the energy of vibration, of tone, of tension that is so important here: a residual energy inherent in all things. A magnetic pull of opposite forces. Of molecules and atoms colliding and smashing in a cosmic symphony. Steve gets this. I get this. We’re of the same whacky church grasping to articulate what is in essence inarticulable (is this a word?) [Ed. We know what you mean, so, yes.] Then there’s the gnashing, the grating sounds of metal begins. And the notion of beauty buried within the sounds too. Hence where words reach the limit, the actual experience of the sounds and metal kick in. I love this. It’s a reminder of how powerful radio - albeit associative sounds - can be. A bit like poetry, it drags you over hill and dale to a place that is both intellectually unfamiliar and yet true to our heart.
"I reckon people listening to this piece are going to find time just slipped away," Steve said, the first time he heard the rough edit. "At the end they’ll wonder where they’ve been and how long they’ve been sitting there." This reassured me. Not that I was necessarily doing anything right. But that I wasn’t getting in the road of what was a certain ease and flow to this work. This piece is not about a series of events or a ground-breaking story. This piece is an ambient journey into the cosmic world. My job was honouring this without making it into a cheesy mess.
You've also produced quite a lot of visual material for this story, including a web site, "audio film" and photo gallery. What do the visuals offer a listener, compared with the audio version, and vice versa?
Steve and Janka’s place is a visual feast. And I felt it needed to be a part of the story. As I mention on the blog, I hope this doesn’t take away from the primacy of the sound. Shortly after I interviewed Steve for the first time, I realised that I wanted Yan, my photographer friend, to come out with me and stay overnight. I think Yan does a great job and his photos are rich documents of the story told. They make up the bulk of the visual material used - both the slideshow and the digital film - yet I tried not let them take away from the audio story. The coloured lights, that might be a cheap shot - Steve’s idea. But hey, why not? It’s an appropriate fit for the sub-atomic world, and Steve and I were enjoying ourselves on that cold winter night. And audiences today are so incredibly visually literate. All the visuals here, these could be likened to a narrative lure for the underlying story audio. But the audio’s where it’s really at for me.
The story ends with Steve saying "In many regards, I can honestly say, I don't understand what I'm doing. I do have occasions where I seriously doubt the path that I'm so invested in." As producer, what's your message in ending with this?
I suppose if there’s a message, it’s that we don’t really get anywhere. And where exactly were we trying to get to with this stuff anyway? And what sort of expectations are written into this? Steve’s self-effacement in this final comment is priceless in that it gives the work a lovely sense of complete uncompletion. The narrative is, I suppose, a guise: Steve Weis, once was a well known blacksmith artist, comes to Kin Kin to recover from the death of his beloved wife and decides to made a sound garden. And what the hell is he doing making these great big hulking things, when he doesn’t make any money or have a normal day job? He doesn’t really know. And he actually says this. Some people would be grief stricken by this. Steve is a lot more philosophical about it and his ability to hold these contradictions attracts me greatly. He seems to recognise the value of his work without having to measure it conventionally and his approach is refreshing for me. It is not just forged at a university or in his head. It’s forged in grief and joy and loneliness and partnership, determination and skill and enormous bravery. It is a story that essentially obviates him as it goes into life and death and the big questions, the big issues. So hey, let’s jump right in here. And yes, as the producer, I had to tread carefully not to slip off into cliche. Steve is not a charlatan and he does not afford us with a neat narrative closure. But he does afford me a wonderful sense of humility and humour and an uncanny insight into the world of experience.
How do we get "sizzlingness" into the OED?
Actually, Steve refers to the "sizzling is ness" of experience. I prefer his way of putting it - as it’s got the ‘is ness’ in it. I believe it refers to the Sufi poets, something about the babbling brook in the river of life. For the sake of radio blurb, Cathy Peters, the executive producer, changed it to sizzlingness. Sounds too much like an Aussie sausage sizzle to me. But I let it go.
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