In this short radio play, the consequences of living life in a tinderbox are revealed through a series of scenes taking place within their various rooms.
Heat was produced in 1990.
Susan Stone works inside juvenile halls in the San Francisco Bay Area as a mediator in restorative justice programs, bringing youth offenders together with their victims to talk about the crime, its impact, and how to repair the harm to all affected. She was the arts director for Pacifica Radio from 1988 to 2005, where she produced documentary features; served as host of Radio Chronicles, a weekly oral history project; and founded The Audio Salon workshop series for the creative radio exchange of international audio artists. Stone is known for her experimental work in voice and language, the accessibility of her writing, and her deep commitment to community issues.
Listen to more stories by Susan Stone.
BEHIND THE SCENES with producer Susan Stone
Do you define your work as documentary or drama or something in between? Where do you draw the line between the two forms?
Pesky thing, audio nomenclature. It makes me a bit dodgy when it comes to a hardening of the categories. The ear craves sensation as much as it may information, don't you think? So how to involve the listener in the story, and leave one feeling something, not simply informed, on some new level. How to keep the adventure. I much prefer the slippery slope, where the origins and entrails of a story blur, and language or motives are tweaked to elaborate a reality, brighten the colors of a place. For me, it's less about where fact and fiction separate, but rather overlap (gossip vs. gospel), which is, perhaps truer to those little audio slices of life after all: what is seen as truth is often suspected as fiction. These days, our government is taking that idea to unparalleled heights: "Intelligence doesn't necessarily mean something is true. It's just -- it's intelligence... It doesn't mean it's a fact," said General Richard Myers just last week, confidence-inspiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Even in wrestling with the film medium, Jean-Luc Godard said something to the effect that some people start with a documentary and end up with fiction; others start with fiction and end up with a documentary.
Find the voice. Don't fret about the name 'til it's born.
The story Heat is made up of many aural layers. Which parts are "true" (interviews, documentation of a real space, etc.) and which are created (written or acted)?
Heat is science in fiction. The set-up is derived from those sunny real estate pitches for life in coastal Floridian splendor.
Along the Miami shoreline come stories from the flotsam of tenants living in a kind of refuge from the glare and the furnace in their tenement tinderbox. Somewhere the polar ice caps are melting.
The aural weave is that of true stories edited and constructed as scenes taking place within various rooms in a seaside transient hotel. Except the opening woman's tale, which I wrote for a lovely, moody voice to perform, based initially upon a tenant's tale, who killed herself before we completed the interview. (That, as you might suspect, is another story.)
The stories you have here (these two, excerpted from the longer version) are commingled with observations on global warming.
What else is true? My latent love and dusty collegiate study of earth and atmospheric sciences gave vent to my script for the mellifluous Erik Bauersfeld. Not quite time to get out the hip boots, but things are heating up.
What became increasingly transparent (as I collected these stories) was the common thread of vulnerability in everyone's story. Isolation, old age, disappointment, rootlessness. A certain kind of suffocation, like a lowering ceiling in the glass house/green house.
In producing a story, do you begin by writing, interviewing or collecting sound?
I think first about the sound, and what that sound might provoke in terms of resonance. Feeling, over content. Matter over mind. Sensation before information. It suggests a narrative thread, offering the first dramatic bones of the piece.
The initial sound has often been a voice. Something once said, or someone now speaking. Above all, accents, intonation, cadence can be so arresting. The resulting piece is often, simply, about the voice, revealing character or story through gathered field tape and studio recordings of raw as well as studied delivery… an elaborated inner monologue, conjuring surprise or suggestion through the simplicity of the cut, or through emotional shorthand of the looped sigh.
Who isn't riveted by the sound of the calving glacier, the car crash. The most seductive audio play to me is in the evocative power of the soundscape. I wish, for instance, I spent more time in the southeastern United States where I grew up, playing around more in the linguistic landscape of tobacco auctioneers, apostolic faith worshippers, square dance callers, revival meetings, errant riflemen on the run (Virginia Real, created for WDR-Koln, Germany; Snake Charming in America, New American Radio), where the cars are on blocks and the houses on wheels.
Instead, it's terra infirma: the geological events that happen in biblical shape-shifting proportions here in northern California have inspired a few soundscapes and some very wacky recording situations.
Lately, I'm caught up in recording stories of how and where people would choose (or have attempted) to take their lives if they could pull it off. The missed bullet. The failed leap. And why. (Recording, not pondering.)
What can documentarians learn from dramatists?
The artful uses of sound and silence.
Subvert the expected with the wiliness of the unpredictable beat.
Choose a non-narrative path by mining the riches of self-sustaining interview material.
Dispense with the repetitive uses of identifying framework of the who said what.
In other words, top and tail a story with all the necessary credentials of the doctor, soldier, tailor, spy, but let the content flow without the painful I.D. logjam book-ending the tale.
Considering that a lot of your work blends fact with fiction, how do you convince your audience to trust what they're listening to?
Certainly, there's the risk of too many odd tricks, of leading a listener in labyrinthine ways through sound to story, through too much effect, devoid of a lead. The desire to tantalize might, dang it, ostracize. How to execute the story and not kill the tale? It's fun to play fast and loose with narrative deceptions, and sidetrack the tale through provocative uses of sound and language. But then comes the question, to whom are you telling the story, and don't you care? And in the pursuit of painstaking constructs of silence as accent, in the uses of manipulated voice as ambient material, doesn't it matter? This is not navel-gazing.
You want the listener to participate in the creation, relate to the acoustic field of associations. That's the adventure. Not to be provocative in an alienating way, but to poke around and provoke a bit. Because you hope the work is anchored in a way which resonates, which means something in the end to the listener.
In that netherland between fact and fiction, there is always creative possibility of recomposing radio through novel ways of imparting information about the pressing issue, the hot topic. It can be in the writing, the sound-gathering, the assembly, the mix. How to whet the ear, that infinitely erotic orifice which always discerns what really matters (your name across a crowded room)... the last door to close at night.
To the eye appeals the outer man; the inner to the ear (Wagner, McLuhan, Schafer, and probably a lot of other people).
Your production style is so distinct. How did this develop over time?
The first, truly arresting audio compositions that caught my ear were the radio plays of horspieler Peter Handke, the text/song compositions of Luciano Berio performed by Cathy Berberian, a little trilling seahorse and flying fish poem of dada poet Tristan Tzara, and Helene Sisoux's audio play Dora. Works that can change the temperature in a room.
Lilting, looping, sonorous voicings, luscious and bizarre. Rhythms and layers, multilingual collages, polyphonic. Bon-bons. The constructions seemingly serendipitous. Artists in love with language, with the abstract and nonsensical, taking pure pleasure in utterance, noise, and ambient sound.
It led to a love of cyphers, riddles and charades. Fertile ground to someone with a little kinky Appalachian family lore—where accents can weigh down speech just long enough that a voice seem mores instrument than message.
So my work began, and returns, to nuances of language and inflection of the human voice to reveal character and conflict within a story. Early pieces were drawn primarily from imagined inner monologues, building outward to a physical plane linking the character's relationship to the space (the bedroom, the hotel, the snake pit, the bridge). It's still easy to fall back into the construction of collage or portraits based on imagined thought rather than what was said. And to frame it all based on what bearing the landscape has on the subject. But there are new things bumping along now.
I must keep asking myself: what makes the tale -- if not tall -- at least tilt?