BEHIND THE SCENES with Zack Ezor (ZE) and Connor Gillies (CG)


How would you describe Stylus to someone sitting next to you on a plane?

CG: A documentary radio series about themes in sound, music, and listening

ZE: To someone sitting on a plane, I'd say, "Look, it's obvious you've got some time on your hands. Take a deep dive with us."

Where did the idea for Stylus originate?

ZE: It was fairly organic. Conor and I were working together at WBUR, where we discovered our shared interest in music and radio-making. I had been producing small, non-narrated Sonic IDs (Jay Allison's neighborhood-focused field recording project), which was a pretty great way to start out, if you ask me, because it felt like I was pursuing something magical. Literally every sound in the city started jumping out at me.

CG: Yeah, then I remember Zack and I walking around Commonwealth Ave. after work chatting about radio we enjoyed: stuff from Radiolab , documentaries from Radio 4, and probably more than anything else the work of Paolo Pietropaolo. This show he did called Hark really got us thinking about radio as a kind of music, and also a way to explore music. Meantime I was in school studying cultural history and sound studies and realizing all the while: public radio ought to cover this beat.

ZE: Eventually we applied for an internal fellowship at WBUR, for which we suggested a non-narrated, experimental documentary series about listening. We made a pilot, Silence , and Stylus was born.

Why non-narrated?

CG: There are a few reasons why we don't have a host. A basic one is the feeling that a series devoted to the kind of sound and music we're exploring shouldn't be personality-driven or heavily moderated. To let guests speak for themselves and create a sense of openness, I suppose. One effect might be to make more space for listeners to think and feel and move around and tune in and out of.

Songs of the Earth runs the gamut between sound collage and traditional reporting. What influenced the structure and style? And how did you go about weaving together all the elements once they were collected?

CG: The whole process was quite improvised. We start with the framing idea, the hour structure, and a deadline, but really let our group of producers work how they like. Our pilot might have set a certain tone and pace, but for this show we wanted to open it up more—whether it was Ari Daniel doing a reported news piece or Anna Cataldo lightly scoring a monologue. Then we editors organize and score the hour so it flows and contrasts in interesting ways.

ZE: Stylus isn't narrative driven, and it doesn't have a host. Those features have turned it into a kind of unbridled thing. For Songs of the Earth , the segments were produced as stand-alone pieces first, then tied together for the full hour, which turned it into a mosaic.

CG: A lot of this hour explores distance and scale, particularly the middle section, which is a series of contrasting impressions—between deep, interior sounds (deep-earth recording) and far-away ephemeral noises (natural radio from the ionosphere), between oral folk tradition (Penobscot song) and shocks of terror (earthquake recording). This organization felt right for us when we made it, but you could probably remix this hour in any number of ways...

What earth sounds in this hour were most surprising/delightful to you? **** The tape from high school band practice during a 1965 earthquake was a favorite of mine.

CG: Yes! Isn't that brilliant? A friend of mine had just seen a lecture given by the artist Margaret Noble, who stumbled across that vinyl recording at a used record store. She was happy to share the found sound with us.

ZE: I love the similarities, observed by Bernie Krause, between the sounds of radiating electrical signals and the vocalizations of seals in the arctic and antarctic. It's still just a hypothesis that one was learned from the other, but the resemblance is really striking.

CG: Yes Zack mixed that geophony piece...and I think the moment in which Murray Schafer reads poetry over music and low-frequency glacier sounds is kind of perfect in a way. I'm delighted by the variety of wind sounds throughout the hour, too.

Who do you imagine as your ideal listener? What are they doing while listening?

ZE: Stylus grew out of a joy of listening and a curiosity about sound. I think our ideal listener shares in that joy and that curiosity.

CG: I have this image of someone listening to Stylus in the car on a late-night drive. In the distant future, when radio is still around.