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BEHIND THE SCENES with Gretchen Miller, producer of City Nights


Where did the idea for the City Nights project come from and how did the collaboration come together? Could you describe the process of how you collected the stories, decided on the best, and then interpreted them in sound

I had spent a year working a day a week on the new Radio National Pool website – an innovative participatory media site run on the smell of an oily rag – and this was very much its beta phase. The idea being people join, upload their artistic content as text/audio/video/photograph, comment on each other's work, and perhaps collaborate. A couple of experimental projects had run, calling for the Radio National audience to join the website and tell us stories of "My Street," the best of which would get broadcast on Radio National. People were engaged by the idea, worked their way through a fairly clunky upload process, and there were quite a few contributions, and Pool started to gain momentum as a result. Initially sceptical as to whether we would attract high enough quality work for national broadcast, I was soon seduced by the contributions, and wanted to run something similar myself, with a broadcast outcome

From looking at projects that didn't attract much engagement, I worked out the subject matter had to have wide appeal - in that most people would have a story to tell about it. But there also had to be something that spoke to the person within... something mythic, something universal. As a radio maker and as an audio artist/composer, I have always had a great passion for landscape – the Australian bush, the desert. But it was while out in the bush that I had a sudden yearning to explore the mythic dimensions of the city

Once the contributions started to come in, I realised the outcomes would probably change as time went on. I had intended to merge audio documentary and written fiction contributions together, but decided quickly that it would be better to broadcast documentaries as separate pieces, and instead create a unified sound world that was a journey through a single night, encountering "characters" and their stories, along the way. It was quite interesting trying to draw together such disperate styles and subjects... Of course, in the end, it was my subjective choice, but I went for stories that were well-written, told a unique and surprising and very personal story, that contrasted nicely against one another, and would immerse you evocatively in their world. If they were innately suggestive of sound, so much the better

Why did you decide to focus on stories about the night? What was particularly evocative about that time / idea

One summer I was out camping, trying to think up a Pool project for myself when I went back to work. Sitting around a campfire at night, watching the flames and feeling the potency of the darkness I realised of course, the sense of the mystic nature of the night was such a universal experience, and can be approached in so many different ways. But it needed containing somehow – just "night" was too big. And being in the bush, I of course started thinking of the city, as a kind of crucible for extraordinary things happening. So that's how it was born

Were you at all surprised by the variety of stories submitted

Oh yes. I was amazed, and utterly blown away by the variety, and also the quality of the content. The stories people told, in audio, text, and with images were so powerful and so revealing and personal, and they came at considerable volume, so each morning when I logged in to see what had been delivered, it was as if the tooth fairy had been. It really was that magical, to be honest. Each contribution was so unique – as if a thousand fresh water springs had just burst through the surface, each one a different colour, offering a different taste, a different delight. I became hooked – this year I'm running two more such projects, even though they are incredibly labour intensive... I just love it. In the end, as well as the one hour broadcast of blending nine contributions, I also produced a further six separate stories, two slideshows that blended images and texts in quite a poetic way – and these were shown for three months on the big screen in the heart of Melbourne, at Federation Square. And there were another six documentaries were aired individually. But more than that, what was generated was a community of ‘citynighters' – people who supported each other and commented on each other's work, and were as excited as I was to see new works coming on board and energetically discussed the project, in the forum. I don't know a competition in the world that would see such interaction and generosity amongst contributors to one another. Like strangers in the night, they were unified by the experience. Lovely

Could you talk a little bit about how you approached the sound design for the City Nights stories

Well, I wanted to write music for live instruments, for each piece. Nice to stretch those muscles occasionally, as mostly my composition background for me is expressed in found sound, rather than instrumental writing. I like to use instruments both melodically but also as extensions of the sound effects I gravitate towards – and visa versa. I tend on the whole to use natural sound rather than synthetic. But to then blend those sounds with the instruments, so that you're sometimes not sure what's sound effect, and what's an instrument, what's natural, what's slightly processed. There was often a bit of text editing to shape the pieces for radiophonic performance – and while I did that, the sound and musical ideas just came... Creatures of the Night which frames the other stories in the broadcast, demanded to be percussive, ghostly and fluid. And into that I wove sounds from the other stories in the radio program, laughter, footsteps, blended with a shifting percussion score to help unify the sound of this hour of quite diverse stories. From Freo was more about a rhythm and pace with double bass, clarinet and vibraphone playing a more melodic simple tune, that moves in and out of the spoken voice, with spot sound effects taking us on the journey from the city to home. With Ice Skating we had such fun, engineer Russell Stapleton and I blending car sounds and some wonderful recordings of ice skates we found! Again music and sound effects work together -- clarinet and double bass. Pace, phrasing and rhythm are really important in this performance – from the casual storytelling to a rhythmic intensification of the inevitable conclusion. Interesting to achieve when we recorded the reading and music separately

As a producer at Pool, you're forging new ground in radio and figuring out ways to expand audio storytelling beyond the traditional broadcast. What are some of the important lessons you've learned during your time there

I'm not a Pool producer permanently – I'm based in the features unit as a radio producer. But I am one of the few who has embraced the site as a very rich source of surprising content, and as a way to engage with the audience which I thoroughly enjoy, though I must say it can be exhausting! I find it very personally rewarding to give people the opportunity to get their work into a national performance space – they just love it – and I love the window into individual lives, each one so unique, and the editorial process of crafting the work for radio. What I still believe after now running a few projects, is the subject matter has to be really widely appealing, BUT it needs to have some containment, some direction, or else people will flounder. And as I mentioned before, for me, I'd even say the idea has to speak to archetypes, to some kind of essence, symbolic undercurrent – of community or environment or personal narrative. I also find I have to be very flexible in my expectations – what I loved about City Nights was to let go of my expectation of control, and really respond to the material as it comes in.