San Francisco luminary and famed poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti takes listeners on a freewheeling tour of his neighborhood haunts in San Francisco's Chinatown and North Beach.
Producer Jim McKee captures Ferlinghetti chatting over coffee at the Growers' Market with his friend, dramatist Erik Bauersfeld, as he explores the city and examines how his relationship with water and the sea emerge in his poems and paintings.
Jim McKee is currently an active owner of Earwax Productions, Inc., San Francisco, which he co-founded in 1983. As a sound designer, composer, engineer and technical producer, he works primarily with computers, samplers, and tape, using concrete sound elements and human voice to build impressionistic and abstract sound environments. Radio credits include: Locations for Bay Area Radio Drama; Lost and Found Sound for National Public Radio's All Things Considered, as well as feature programs for Radio Atelier Finish Broadcasting, New American Radio, Soundprint, and PRI. Film credits include: Cast Away; Final Fantasy; IMAX films Whales and Yellowstone for Destination Cinema; special effects sound design for Bram Stoker's Dracula; and design and effects with American Zoetrope for The Secret Garden.
Hear more work from Jim McKee's Earwax Productions.
BEHIND THE SCENES with producer Jim McKee
Where did the idea for this program originate?
Robyn Ravlich from The Listening Room at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned the piece.
It's beginnings? To be honest, I would have to say it had its origins in the Locations radio series that I helped Erik Bauersfeld put together over the past seven years. That series had authors write about a specific location. The piece was then recorded on location with the actors blocked, similar to how you shoot a film. This piece takes a kind of backwards approach, in the sense that we're hearing how a location like The Sea, in this case, plays into the poetry and aesthetics of Lawrence's writing.
How much of a role did you play in directing the conversations between Erik Bauersfeld and Lawrence Ferlinghetti while you recorded them?
Most all of the conversations came out of topics that would regularly come up at our Saturday Farmers Market caffeine marathons. Lawrence and Erik both served with the navy in WWII as well as being from the same neck of the woods in New York. There's a series in that alone. Robyn had asked for a piece about San Francisco, so I pulled some site specific topics from Lawrence's vast collection (i.e. Bouncers Bar, Green Street Mortuary Band, At the Golden Gate). After making my edit selects of the field recordings, I put together a list of about five to six questions that I felt were needed to tie the piece together. Erik asked these in the studio, so we get to hear a more intimate side of things.
Can you talk a little bit about the music that's used throughout the piece?
Yeah, what about that music! Around six years ago I was introduced to this violist, Wieslaw Pogorzelski. At the time he was putting together a CD of classic works for Warner Brothers that needed some sound design to help bridge the pieces together. After that, we started meeting every Tuesday evening for three hours of improvisation or mixing, then beer. We set the three-hour limit just to keep it on the fun side. In the past six years, we've helped score a dozen films, made lots of radio and incidental music, given live performances, and consumed countless bottles of beer.
This program seems to be equal parts a profile of San Francisco, and an exploration into Ferlinghetti and his poetry. Which story came first in your approach to the piece?
Actually, it was originally supposed to be about the city with Lawrence as guide. It turned into a piece more about the companionship between Lawrence and Erik and their relationship with water and the sea. For instance, if you read Lawrence's A North Beach Scene, you realize right away how he has recreated the bow of a Liberty Ship on the roof tops of San Francisco.
How do you know when you've captured the essence of a place through audio?
Unless you're looking for something specific, I think it's mostly about being lucky. You have to record a lot and make tons of mistakes and then something wonderful happens. It's way too easy to make a list of effects, have this postcard image of the place in your head, then go hunting for the sounds. Most of the time you'll come back empty-handed or at best unsatisfied. What works best for me is to go to the place at different times of the days, with different people, and just listen. I also believe it's a personal experience, and that both recordist and listener is going to have his or her own point of view.
There's such a range of narrative in the program -- from casual, almost overheard conversations at a cafe to intentional, careful recitations of poems. In producing the piece, what sort of decisions did you make in bridging the two?
I like to record candid interviews or at least try and make the microphone as transparent as possible so the subject isn't performing to the microphone. In some cases (like poetry and narration) you want this effect, and at these times I generally give a set of headphones to the talent so they can hear exactly what's going on. People do things naturally with their voices and bodies that tell you a lot about their personality and what the scene or location is. It's amazing how quickly a person will adapt to a situation in the way in which they speak. If a plane flies over they get louder, if they're in a big empty room they play with the reverb, if you're in a super quiet room everything is soto voce. Most of the time it's not what a person is saying, but how they're saying it that I find most interesting.
Are there other places that you're interested in documenting?
Yeah, send me to Paris, Saint Petersburg, and then how about a couple months in Crete?
What the three of us [McKee, Ferlinghetti, and Bauersfeld] are trying do now is put together a series of works that feature a location, poetry of Lawrence, and some discussion about the artists relating to the site. Currently, we're putting together a piece on Big Sur/Bixby Canyon and then, if the funds come in: Guadalahara, Mexico; Taos, New Mexico; and Queens/Rockaway, NYC.
What sort of work does Earwax Productions do on a regular basis?
Regular? It's all over the map. The group had its beginnings with theater sound design, then radio drama, Audiographs (a song/documentary structure we developed in the mid-80s), and some commercials work. Nowadays it's documentaries, some feature films, Internet, and product design stuff. I'm interested in the interactive space of DVDs and museum exhibit work. Currently, my partner Barney and I are creating a soundtrack for a real interesting documentary called The Loss of Nameless Things, scheduled to come out this fall. The piece focuses on a brilliant young playwright in the 1970s who suffered a severe head injury. The piece recounts the story of the accident through a repertoire group associated with the playwright and brings us up to date with a West Coast premiere of a play written back in '76. Barney is collaborating with cellist Joan Jean Renaud in writing the music and I'll be doing the design and mix.