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BEHIND THE SCENES with Jonathan Mitchell


As both a musician/composer and a producer you have created music for many of your radio productions. How do you think about the use of music in your radio work

I'm really interested in exploring how all these different sound elements which are often thought of as separate -- speech, music, sound effects, ambiance -- how these can all be combined in a unified, cohesive way. I try to understand them in a way which isn't based so much on their categorization, but more on trying to identify the things they have in common, and trying to create a cohesive sonic expression from that

I guess I kind of think of the whole thing as music in a way, or I feel at least that there is this mode of listening to the material which allows for it to all be music. Rhythm and momentum are really important elements to me, and I like to think about the sonic flow of the elements as kind of like a musical phrase, in which each element flows out of and into the next in a way which really supports the content of the piece. When considering the amount of space between two interview clips, for example, a small fraction of a second can often make a big difference in the listener's perception of the content, and it can make a given idea more (or less) meaningful to the listener

When working with a music bed, I pay very close attention to where syllables of words fall in relation to the beats in the music, and where chord changes or musical phrases occur in relation to changes in the content of a spoken phrase. I try to arrange things in a way which completely supports the meaning of the piece at every second, so that the music changes when the idea changes, and the words and music move along in a unified way

Another big part of all this is the pacing -- knowing when to hold back, when to let the voice act as a solo instrument, when and how to use two voices together as a kind of "duet," and then when to bring the "orchestra" back in. And really paying attention to the timbre and character of a speaker's voice -- the sound quality of a voice may act like a bassoon, or it may act more like a viola or a french horn. I like to think of the sonic elements as being like instruments in an orchestra, being very aware of the instrumentation at any given point in time, and how that works to help make a point or sustain interest in the subject matter

How is writing music different from working with the spoken aspects of a documentary

I'd say that for me, the process of making music generally deals more with the generation of material, whereas the spoken aspects of a documentary tend to be rooted more in the collection and selection of material

The process of collecting material for documentaries tends to be somewhat chaotic and highly collaborative, because of course you have no idea what the interview subjects will say, and usually the material that they generate for you is dependent on what you say to them. Every sentence they say is like fresh cloth, and their mouth is like a fabric machine that's just spewing out new patterns which will later be cut together to make some intricate cloth mosaic. And in the editing stage it becomes all about the selection of the material, and really trying to find the documentary that exists within the raw materials that were collected

Music tends to be sort of the opposite -- it's more about starting with nothing and gradually adding more and more on. For me it feels a bit more like painting, or cooking, in that it's about understanding what effect certain colors or flavors can have on the whole and how to really create and support an intended experience. Although there's a lot of that going on in the selection of interview material, too. The two can be very similar in many ways. It's most interesting for me when the processes blend into one another, when the selection of interview material involves considering more "musical" ideas, and when the music adds meaning to the words which wasn't there before.

You've produced programs of all lengths, from six or seven-minute pieces for Studio 360 , to the hour-long feature Shades of Gray . What production problems and freedoms do you find are distinct to working in each of these formats

I feel like the difference between a six-minute piece and an hour-long piece is somewhat analogous to the difference between a short story and a novella

With the short-form stuff I've done for Studio 360 , it's all done with an understanding of the segment's place within the whole program. I understand, for example, that the piece I produce needs to flesh out the week's theme in a particular way, that it will be preceded by a host intro, and that it's meant to provoke conversation between the host and the through line guest following the piece. Listeners have a certain set of expectations about what they'll get when they tune in to hear this particular show each week, and I try to be aware of what those might be, and then play around with those expectations a bit, trying to stretch it as much as possible. Also, it's my feeling that there needs to be a certain stylistic consistency within the segment from beginning to end when it's that short. There isn't very much opportunity to develop more than two or three different stylistic strands

With an hour-long documentary, you have much more freedom because you're not obligated to function as a single part within this larger whole (unless you consider the broadcast day as a larger whole, which it is, but there are far fewer dictates). Also, when you have a whole hour you can develop ideas over a longer period of time to create a more sophisticated perception of the content. You have the opportunity to develop a certain kind of rapport with the listener, and by that I mean you can establish things early on that continue to develop and then return in new and unexpected ways over the course of the hour

Interview subjects, for example, can take on the role of a character who keeps returning, sometimes to offer just a few words. But those few words will have a deeper meaning because you just heard that same voice tell a really moving story ten minutes ago. And stylistic devices can be used as thematic devices in a more sophisticated way. When you hear a certain kind of music, for example, it can signal a shift in what the words mean to the listener, because you have had the opportunity to establish a broader style vocabulary over time

I try to imagine all the different ways a person might hear the piece, and account for that in the way that it's constructed. I feel that I learned most of what I know about arranging and pacing an hour through trial and error. I was fortunate enough to have spent time as the senior producer of an hour-long magazine show, and was the creative director of another show before that. So by the time I produced the hour-long documentary, I had developed a sense of how I might be able to pace things, where the trouble spots might be, and what types of devices might work well for solving these kinds of issues.

Tell us about the Producer Salons you host. What are they about, how do they work and what is your goal in offering them to the producing community in the Bay area

The salons are gatherings for radio producers to meet each other to share and talk about their work, and get feedback on what they've done. There is a relatively large number of radio producers in the Bay Area, and a very broad range of producers attend, both in terms of style and experience level. At our salons we have listened to documentary features, radio drama, radio art, commentaries, and even a few show pilots. Lately we've been starting things off by playing and discussing a featured piece, and then we open the floor for producers to present their own pieces to play and discuss. We encourage everyone to bring recordings of their own work or somebody's work whom they admire, something that might provoke an interesting conversation about making radio. Ideally, these meetings would be a place where ideas are shared and explored, sort of like a writer's circle, but for radio producers

Radio can be such a solitary medium (especially for independent producers), and often producers are not in a position to really have contact with their audience, the stuff they make just sort of goes out into the airwaves and disappears. It's really nice to have an opportunity to meet other producers, and I find it very helpful to hear feedback from people with such diverse backgrounds, who are usually very opinionated and passionate about the medium.

Who/what are the greatest influences (inside and outside of radio) on your work

I grew up in a somewhat typical middle class American atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s, which involved watching a lot of TV, going to see lots of movies, and listening to and performing all kinds of music. A lot of that vocabulary, the pacing and stylistic elements of those things, got ingrained in me at a young age. There's a certain pop culture sensibility that I think I've retained as I've grown older. Star Wars and the Muppets were a huge part of how I came to understand the world, for better or for worse, and I hear that in my work. I remember when I was a kid, eight or nine years old, my favorite record that I owned was called The Story of Star Wars , it was basically the dialogue and sound from the film with narration to fill out the visual details -- it was like a radio play. I must've listened to that thing two or three hundred times or more

When I got to college, I was majoring in music composition, and the people I was learning about who resonated with me most were people like Edgard Varese and Iannis Xenakis. Varese talked about music in terms of "organized sound in time," a concept which completely changed how I understood music, and which is still a big part of my work. And Xenakis was a composer who was coming to music from a background in architecture, so he brought a different kind of sensibility to his music, and I saw how mixing and applying ideas from different disciplines could lead to really interesting results. I was also very aware of people like Stockhausen and Cage, and Morton Subotonick and Steve Reich. I became interested in the recording studio, and making music which could only exist as a recording

Things changed for me when I found Frank Zappa. At that time, I was just beginning to get serious about the recording studio, and Zappa was a genius at using the recording studio as a musical instrument. But what was significant about him for me was that he borrowed from many different style worlds, and would switch freely between wildly disparate kinds of music and sounds. In finding Zappa, I felt permission to embrace my pop culture roots again, to really trust my instincts and be true to my tastes, that it could all be "good" music if I liked it. So I began to look for ways of incorporating all these really interesting musical ideas I was learning about in school with the stylistic vocabulary I was brought up with

Zappa also used a lot of talking in his recordings, he manipulated the human voice a lot, and mixed narrative styles with musical styles. I was always interested in the human voice as a sound source, particularly conversational speech. It's so colorful, there's so much variety to the sounds we make with our voices, and everyone's voice sounds different. Yet there's also this meaning attached to the words. So I began to understand human speech as something which could be heard as either abstract sounds, or sounds which are based in an established vocabulary, or both simultaneously, or they could even shift from one to the other over time. And I began to wonder what kinds of stories could be told using those ideas, and how this could be used in a sort of "musical theater" context

I was also interested in not staying in an academic setting, and not making music which might only be appreciated in that environment. I wanted to do stuff that would resonate with people who might have no idea who Varese or Xenakis was. And I felt like the audience who might be most receptive to the types of things I was interested in doing was the same audience who listens to public radio. I heard producers like Ira Glass and David Isay (although I didn't know who they were at the time) doing things that I thought were really interesting, and I identified with the public radio audience, and I thought that there might be other things which could be done in public radio which might resonate with that audience. So I opened myself up to the possibility of working in public radio, and then I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on a program called Beyond Computers

I continue to be influenced by the work around me, and I try to always be open to finding ideas in all different kinds of media. The work of the late graphic designer Tibor Kalman, for example, possesses a very unified expression of content and style which I find inspiring. And working on Loose Leaf Book Company gave me the opportunity to learn about some interesting creators of children's picture books, like David Weisner, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Maurice Sendak, Maira Kalman, J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, Chris Raschka, and many many others. These authors and illustrators are often very concerned with finding really cohesive ways of using pictures and text in combination, and paying attention to the form of the picture book, approaching the whole book as this unified object. I try to look for ways of applying that same sensibility to radio -- instead of words and pictures and fonts and layout, I apply those ideas to voices and music and timbre and pacing.