We may be a bit biased subject-wise, but here's a delightful, sound-rich exploration of an endangered sport and community in Maine that's got it all: history, suspense, expertise and devoted participants both human and winged.
Rachel James approaches sound as a language. From multimedia installation to documentary radio, James constructs worlds that honor story through listening. Her academic research explores narrative translation in the context of death, aging, and memory. She has reported for This American Life, is a distinguished student of cultural anthropology and oral history, graduate of the radio program at the Salt Institute, and MA Candidate in Adult Education and Community Development, University of Toronto. As a documentarian James promotes principles of integrity and playfulness.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Rachel James
What drew you to the pigeon racers? How did you find them, and was there any trepidation on their part about you documenting the race, lest you "get in the way"?
Photographer Nicolas Tanner and I collaborated on a multi-media version of The Pigeon Race. Initially we reached out to falconers. When the falconers started smack talking the pigeon racers we instantly thought a story about community tensions was apropos. But this turned out to be only a few disgruntled falconers’ perspectives. Then the question became obvious – “What on earth is pigeon racing?” The story unfolded from there.
The racers were extremely welcoming, but upon retrospect arriving to a pigeon race holding a deadcat [Ed. note: a wind shield for microphones] is not a good idea. When the reigning champ Jim Peck saw me standing outside his coop – unknowingly terrifying his flock – this became clear. But other than putting the grey fun-fur back in the car, the reporting went off without a hitch. This was a truly fun piece to produce.
Pigeon competitions aren't exactly conventional races – what were you expecting coming into the recording, and what did you find when you arrived?
Dare I admit I imagined a couple of street pigeons waddling across someone’s backyard? The truth is, I learned almost all I know about these remarkable creatures in the weeks before and during the reporting of this story.
The race itself is structured based on the pigeon’s homing ability – and no one actually knows how the pigeons find home. A conventional race has one start line, one finish line, and when the racers cross the finish line you know who’s won. Pigeon racing has one start line, multiple finish lines (a reporter’s nightmare!), and the dramatic climax of the finish line is well… as you hear in the piece, rather quiet. But I think these eccentricities make the sport all the more fascinating.
Many of the sounds are recorded very up-close and intimate. How did you capture such pure recordings of the birds and the racers?
I wish I had a more technical answer, but honestly I just get up in peoples’ grills in the gentlest of manners. I approach people with gear in hand from the moment I meet them. There’s no ambiguity about why I’m there so they get used to the microphone very quickly. Also, for better or worse I have an extremely expressive face. In this case it’s for the better.
My favorite cut of tape is Truck Driver John releasing the birds. This was the first time I asked someone to record themselves. The pigeons are released 150 air miles away from their coops which is about a five-hour drive. To record the finish line, I couldn’t physically be at the release. I set the gear up, wrote instructions on post-it notes, and crossed my fingers. After getting the tape back I suggested John go into radio, but truck driving is much more lucrative so my argument wasn’t too convincing.
Pauses and silences seem to be as much a part of the story as the sounds, interviews, narration and scoring. Can you talk about the rhythm of the structure and production?
One of the reasons I love working in sound is the ability to blur the lines between narrative and non-verbal elements. Music informs the subject’s words as the words inform the ambient tape and the tape informs the narration and vice versa. This integration veers away from conventional ‘acts and tracks’ and leans towards radio as a communication of a sonic landscape. In this piece, silence is the sound of an action – waiting for the birds to come home. The use of silence in the first cut of The Pigeon Race was too tentative. The structure was the same, but I was nervous about losing the attention of the listener. In the final cut, I pushed myself to take the risk. Now, listening to the piece, I hear even more available space.
Many radio stories documenting traditional sports or hobbies focus on the decline of these things, but you chose not to include this angle until the very end, and instead concentrate on the actual race itself. Was this intentional? Did the racers talk a lot about the future (or doomedness) of pigeon racing?
There is, as you mentioned, a narrative trope around dying traditions. As a producer it’s important to answer the questions “Why now?” and “Why is this important?” I chose to address these questions by celebrating the tradition itself. I tried to communicate what the racers love most about the sport – to get to the root of why men and women have passed the love of pigeon racing down through the generations.
Like all stories, this is one of a multitude of possibilities. The suffering economy and rising gas prices makes pigeon racing an expensive sport, detracting newcomers and old timers alike. The use of entertainment technologies has created a rift between pigeon racers and the younger generation. Hobbies in general have moved into the home and away from the streets where many of these old timers caught their first pigeons as children. The pigeon itself is one of the most interesting creatures I’ve come across. But race day is “what it’s all about”, as the racers say. So I listened to that.
These New Englanders do everything in their power to get younger folks interested. They will come to your back yard and build you a coop. They will give you as many birds as you desire from their own breeders. The problem is, if you’re not crazy for pigeons you won’t last. Pigeon racing takes a tremendous amount of year-round labor. The racers predict the sport will die within the next ten years.
What other sorts of documenting/projecting are you up to these days?
This August I will invite people to participate in an interactive sound installation in Toronto, Canada. For a number of years my academic research has focused on aging, memory and the concept of death in modernity. What started as a project based on my 105 year-old-grandmother’s stories has expanded outward and now includes the narratives of hospice nurses, young adults who have experienced the death of a parent, and elders reflecting on later life. I just constructed a micro version of this project in a big red barn in upstate New York and hope to find an equally inviting and mysterious space in Toronto soon.
Radio-wise I am perpetually in the midst of producing. Right now I’m editing a piece about what it means to be yourself. I tell the story of 14-year-old ambient musician and photographer (also secretly the coolest person I know) Leander Johnson. I’m also reporting a story about an all female accordion orchestra being wooed by America’s Got Talent, only to find themselves in what appears to be an absurd Machiavellian joke. What are reality shows really up to anyway?
It’s exciting to finally work primarily in sound. My background is in oral history and ethnography and I’ve spent many years trying to free narratives from paper.