Here's an audio homage on three levels: first, to James Agee's poetic memoir of the sounds and smells of Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 1915, shortly before his father died; secondly, to Samuel Barber's 1947 orchestral setting of Agee's text for the soprano Eleanor Steber; and finally to the modern city of Knoxville.
Alan Hall is an independent radio producer with his own London-based company, Falling Tree Productions. Recent BBC credits include Icons, a music interview series with Tom Robinson; 84 Book Crossing Road, a trans-Atlantic literary adventure; and Challenging the Silence, the work of artists under Stalin. He’s also recently had programs commissioned by the ABC in Sydney, Danish Radio, and Resonance FM. Hall’s programs have received numerous awards, including the Prix Italia, the Prix Bohemia, and several Radio Academy Sony awards.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Alan Hall
What was the genesis for your making this documentary? (U.S. readers may be thrown by your 'program,' let alone 'programme.')
I was bewitched by Dawn Upshaw's recording of Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and reading the Agee text I found it full of possibilities for radio treatment, a perfect mix of the mundane and the profound: "it has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street." And those streets where full of musical and other noise -- street cars, locusts, whatever -- "And who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth . . . in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night."
I suppose I was looking for an opportunity to blend and blur radio formats -- the documentary, the biography, the musical piece -- and within the text and the music and the city, there lay a bundle of metaphors for the human condition and artistic expression that might gently be re-presented, in an impressionistic but truthful way, heightening the experience of the musical performance, the remembered childhood, the soundscape of the city. So there's an ambiguity of time and experience -- is the "I" the author, the composer, the child, the interviewee, the listener ... ?
What sort of preconceptions did you have about Knoxville before working on the story? How well known a city is it in England?
I had none -- hadn't a clue even where it was 'til I dug out the atlas. It's possible young film buffs know it as Quentin Tarantino's hometown, but for the BBC Radio 3 audience, the only resonance would have been Samuel Barber's.
How does Knoxville fit into your overall sense of America, as a place? Or, maybe the question is: DOES Knoxville fit into your overall sense of America, as a place?
I have a patchwork sense of America. It seems to me to contain as many countries or identities as Europe. And Knoxville came to stand for one particular kind of homely Southern town, based in reality but also imaginary, remembered or fictionalized, as it related to the central characters of the story -- James Agee the child, Agee the author, Samuel Barber the evoking composer, and the various residents. Though it was only weeks after my return from Tennessee that there was a spate of fire-bombings of black churches in the Knoxville area. Being a visitor and only venturing into certain quarters of the place, I'd not sensed that social/racial subtext (though the city centre did reflect the faintly sinister cleaned-up and presentable doughnut heart of American town planning).
What surprised you most about the city when you were there gathering material?
The almost complete absence of people from the street. My audio engineer and I walked everywhere, much to the bemusement of the locals.
Who was the most memorable interviewee?
Finding quite by chance a man and his son (the ages of young Agee and his father in 1915), sitting on their porch and happy to share the story of how the man's grandparents had rented the Agee house ... that, or the small boy who speaks some of the text ("with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds"). His mum was working on a road-mending gang. He couldn't read, so I spoke the phrase, word by word, and he repeated them into the microphone. It's strange how vivid these memories still are!
In what ways can sound better illustrate a place than forms of visual documentation?
I guess it can evoke the unseen landscape of a place, memories and associations and personal hinterlands, and all at once. But really I was trying to evoke the smell of Knoxville and of time -- and life -- passing (the collapsing of the 20th century into one sensation).
What do you like most about working with audio, as opposed to other mediums?
All sound is potentially musical and music means more to me than anything else, even the music of a garden hose or train whistle. Also, it's a modest medium, flexible and immediate, and anonymous (usually, as a public service producer in the UK). That suits me fine.