BEHIND THE SCENES with John Jacobs

The Golden Room is the first in your series of Bedtime Stories. How did you... dream up the idea?

Tucking up into bed and listening to the radio seems to go together for me - a time and place for thoughtful intimacy and relaxation. And Soundproof is a wonderful on air place to dream these audio adventures. In the series of short works, I want to explore what an adult bedtime story could be - magical, erotic, surreal, playful, mysterious, beautiful, surprising, meditative.

Would you describe The Golden Room as a sonic essay? Audio art? A song? Does the label even matter?

Labels, like titles, can be a good way into a work. So I'd probably say The Golden Room is very much like a song - words and ideas surrounded by sounds to bring out feelings and allow openings for listeners to explore their own meanings.

Radio and music are both time-dependent mediums. So I think it can be useful to think of our radio work as music. Musical compositional techniques like repetition, motifs, pauses, and flow are great tools for the radio maker.Gaps in the flow of the voice help create an interplay between the music and the text, allowing the spoken performance to become musical. The listener can enjoy the words for more than just their meaning.

In my work as a radio producer and sound artist I try to come at ideas sideways to allow the listener to build their own meanings and to find a poetic, emotional experience. I think of the listener as my best co-producer buddy as we go on a genre busting journey into sound together.

Can you describe the process of making The Golden Room - how did you approach the text, and the collaborations with the composer and writer?

I first heard the author Karina Quinn at a reading about her experience as a queer mother and was very taken by the power and directness of her words and performance. I could tell she would be great on radio.

In the recording session Karina performed the text almost in one take, we then picked out single iconic words from it to form a subtractive, reduced version of the full text to act as dream echo space at the end of the piece, a kind of abstracted, or "dub mix" version of the piece. The "studio as instrument" philosophy behind dub reggae's) master mixers like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry are a big influence on my sound. Reducing a work down to its components and then slightly shifting this exposed framework can allow new meanings to emerge.The idea was to give listeners a thoughtful space to reflect on the meaning of what they've heard as they drifted off to bedtime.

I knew the shimmery dreamlike sounds of a vibraphone would be the perfect complement to these words. So I took Karina's edited performance to Dale Gorfinkel who is a talented multi-instrumentalist and adept improvisor. We talked through the intention and mood of the text and as Dale listened in his headphones, he responded by playing melodic lines and close-mic'd spot effects on the vibraphone. All the backing sounds in The Golden Room come from his modified vibraphone. Dale has "expanded" the voice of his instrument by changing the motors and layout of the chime bars. You can hear some of these effects as rattling, tinkling and squeaking sounds.

The final part of the process was editing and mixing the voice, vibraphone and dub sections into a coherent whole with a satisfying intro, arc and ending. The structure is very simply informed by the original text, which was unchanged with the addition of the dub mix-dream section at the end. I try to support the words with my production rather than over decorate or upstage. Simple structures are often the best.

Stories featuring the wisdom of children run the risk of being overly precious. Did you make conscious choices to avoid this?

You're right, there's the temptation to fall for the cutesy kid angle. I felt the writer, Karina, had already successfully overcome sentimentality with her strong, direct storytelling. I wanted the accompanying sounds to be a bit playful but engage with the weighty themes of the story - mortality, death, and the human condition. We hear dissonance, friction, and unresolved musical intervals, as well as the beautiful warm golden tones of the vibraphone.

Do you tell - or receive - any bedtime stories these days?

I really enjoy sharing stories with my young son these days, it's such a special, dreamy fun time. Right now Jakey loves uncovering the mysteries hiding in lift-the-flap books.

BEHIND THE SCENES with Julie Shapiro

You've moved to Sydney to be the executive producer of ABC RN's brand new Creative Audio Unit. What does that mean?

In a roomy nutshell, this means I'm in charge of two weekly shows, Radiotonic and Soundproof, on RN, (formerly known as Radio National), which is ABC's "ideas network" - basically the NPR of the ABC. The Creative Audio Unit was created in early 2014 to explore all forms of, as advertised, creative audio, from straight texts to completely sound-dependent works. We are a small but mighty team (a familiar feeling!) within the enormous ABC organization (4600 + employees between TV and Radio) filling 3.5 positions: myself, Radiotonic presenter Jesse Cox, Soundproof presenter Miyuki Jokiranti, and producer Sophea Lerner. The CAU is rooted in RN's legacy of supporting artistic audio works (via shows such as Radio Eye , The Night Air and The Listening Room - none of which are still running,) but is also meant to flourish in the current digital age and hyper-media climate, and answer to various new technologies, and an ever-evolving listening culture.

I think a lot about how to deliver "radio programs in the Podcast Age" to Australia and beyond, but we're also very aware of the enormous (and enormously valuable) terrestrial listening audience across the country. We're mostly commissioning original work from producers and reaching out to artists, writers, and makers of all stripes, who may be interested in exploring their practices through audio. We're also curating third-party audio, and occasional gems from the ABC back catalogue. The CAU is hugely about collaboration - with individuals, organizations, museums, theatre companies, festivals... we're available for and interested in external partnerships and joining forces with unusual suspects. And we can work at any scale - from two to three minute absurd-but-somehow-profound philosophical musings to the full length radio adaptation of a high-profile theatre production. For now, we're still very much finding a balance for both shows, and are still experimenting, taking risks, and learning (some) lessons the hard way. But mostly we're fairly pleased with how things are going and sounding. And we're less tired than we were in months 1 - 4.

You told me that the two shows you produce - Radiotonic and Soundproof are twins "separated - but not entirely - at birth." How would you describe each of their personalities, and your goals for them?

In broad strokes, Radiotonic leans more narrative: fiction, non-fiction, essays, dramas, hybrids of all of those; and Soundproof pushes the envelope with soundier works: composed features, soundscapes, live performance, conceptual pieces. So they're definitely geared toward different listening experiences and may cultivate different audiences. But an overarching goal for both is to fully engage listeners' attention, to coax the closer listen no matter what we're offering. Both shows are highly produced, and will especially reward headphoned listeners.

How did the Bedtime Stories series come to be? Were you at all surprised by the results?

John Jacobs is a sound engineer ninja, which I knew from my years at Third Coast - he's behind countless beautiful sounding works such as Sherre DeLys' If - an early Third Coast winner and favourite. He basically had the series all, um, dreamed up, part and parcel, right around the time the CAU finally came to life (it had been in the making for awhile) - lucky for us! In truth John could have pitched a series on pretty much anything: weeding, boiling vegetables, tax returns - and I probably would have commissioned it. But it just so happens he pitched Bedtime Stories, which immediately resonated as a perfect series of endings for Soundproof - almost like a little audio P.S. each week, for four weeks... something to take you into the next, later hour.

Knowing of John's mad skills, I was expecting beautiful stories and careful, sound-rich production. He mentioned he wanted to push some boundaries, which I'm generally in favor of, so that was cool. But I wasn't exactly sure what this would add up to in the stories, so was definitely a bit surprised by I wanna go down and A New Bed for Mr. and Mrs. Wolf . And then grateful to be surprised - even before I knew how I felt about either. I mean, how often does radio surprise you, let alone make you blush

Some of the bedtime stories get a little... racy! Racier than I can imagine hearing on broadcast radio in the U.S. Have listeners responded? And - more generally - how have listeners reacted to hearing challenging audio art on the air via Soundproof ?

I was expecting to hear from embarrassed or uncomfortable listeners, but actually quite the opposite happened - we heard from people who were delighted to stumble upon the Bedtime Stories on the radio, many mentioned they hadn't heard audio works quite like them. Regarding Soundproof overall , I've heard from a lot of appreciative listeners who haven't found these sort of artful productions on the radio (or haven't for a long time) and the "maker" community in Australia and beyond - artists, producers, sound artists, musicians - has been very supportive of there being this new, nationally broadcast outlet (that pays, no less) for featuring their work.

In general, I think listeners are grateful to explore new sonic territories with us, and if they don't care for something they hear one week, they can still appreciate the fact it's on the radio. That Soundproof airs on Sunday and Friday evenings is helpful - those are both great times for destination listening, when audiences might expect to hear work that's less rooted in information or story, and more geared toward the overall listening experience.

I know you've only been there for about 6 months. But have you changed at all, as a listener?

Well the honest truth is that I don't have much time for listening - the first few months were mad with details-wrangling and systems-learning, etc. And I only lived five minutes (walking) from the ABC - which completely sabotaged all listening-while-commuting. Now things are settling down, we've moved out beach-ward (!), more like 40 minutes commuting, and I find myself mostly tuning into the work we're producing for the shows - giving feedback, hearing final mixes, auditioning work for occasional buy-ins. But I do think my ears are opening wider along a couple avenues - we're considering drama and fiction for Radiotonic , so I'm hearing a lot more potential in those forms, and I'm able to listen carefully and closely to much less structured/more conceptual work for Soundproof , so am coming to terms with what "works" with a whole other set of parameters, in that context. This has been interesting - deciphering emotional and intellectual responses to sound art (and then explaining either/both) is engaging new vocabulary, new imaginations, and I think I've actually become more discriminating along these lines.

I'm also starting to catching back up with favorite podcasts from Life Before Moving, phew. And am starting to discern how an American style of podcasting and hosting has become so widespread, entertaining, its own "thing," compared with other countries' offerings.

For Radiotonic , we've been commissioning works we think of as "Monologues PLUS" - 1000-ish word essays, fiction or non-fiction, that we're then producing with light or medium sound design (that's the PLUS part). They've covered a wide range of topic and tone, and I'm beginning to hear them as their own distinct "type" of audio work - Pretty Weird Shit, Stories and Driving, To Skin a Rabbit, to name a few. And we have a couple in the works for Soundproof as well. I will also say that observing the ABC engineers do their thing is nothing short of awesome, as in literally awe-inspiring. We've had the pleasure of working with a handful - Timothy Nicastri, Mark Don, Steven Tilley and Russell Stapleton to name a few, and they're truly masters in the studio. I've already learned so much, simply by watching them do their thing, and have even more respect for the potential (and then hearing this realized) for sound design, than ever before.

What are some new-to-you/notable sounds from your life in Sydney?

Not surprisingly, because it's a beautiful city and we're outside as much as possible, a lot of notable sounds these days are natural ones - birds (loud, everywhere, amazing) and the water down by the beach, and the wind rattling our windows (most Sydney apartments are not very air-tight). The top-of-the-hour RN news jingle is more and more familiar (and equally as dramatic as NPR's). The cross-walks are unmistakable. And here's a new favorite song around the home front - via one of ABC TV's (British, but huge here) biggest stars.

Please describe the contents of your ABC office snack drawer (actual or ideal).

Oy! I must confess, we don't have a CAU snack drawer in effect... yet. But you've now inspired me to instigate such measures, very soon. In the meantime, on my own shelf you'll currently find dates and tamari-covered almonds and green tea. I had a box of American pretzels on offer to passers-by while they lasted. But we're sorely short on chocolate around the place, the great staple of any workplace snack drawer! Consider the memo drafted...

[Update from Julie at press time: "I've heard rumors of a 'lollies bowl' plan in the works, after mentioning the absence of workplace sugar to a few VIPs around the place. Progress!"]