Tom Cho is a Chinese-Australian writer who’s been exploring identity through colourful, pop culture-strewn short fiction for a long time – and The Sound of Music is one of his classics, rendered in audio by Paper Radio (the podcast I co-founded in 2010). Nepotism (me-potism?) aside, this story takes the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and crafts a bent, Happy Days infused narrative alongside it – digging playfully into blurred edges of gender, desire, sex and identity. Even Fonzie makes an appearance. I can’t talk about the soundtrack without sounding like an idiot, but anyway – I endorse this, or I wouldn’t have let you hear it.
I generally try to avoid using the word ‘seminal’ for any of its possible meanings, but I’ll make an exception here. If is one of those stories that influenced a lot of great radio people, and you can hear why. A young patient at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney pits his imagination against his illness. If –
Love+Radio is a great podcast, especially great when it dips an entire leg into composed music and really deep sound design. Jack and Ellen is one of those episodes, in which Love+Radio’s classic fodder – morally ambiguous people and situations – meet the sharp editing hand and precision-timed sensibilities of its makers. I’m not going to spoil it, but protagonist Ellen comes across work that ‘allowed her to make over $30,000 for just a couple hours of work each week’. Think StartUp, but f***ed up.
Blue Jam is not for everybody, and if you’re easily offended, your thumb will be hovering over the skip button. Helmed by evil British comic Chris Morris, this ‘ambient radio programme’ blends off-colour sketches with music, monologues and sarcastic parodies of radio clichés. It’s nasty, messed up, absurd, obnoxious, nightmarish and really unlike anything else. Morris worked on the show with some of the best British comic writers and actors of the 90s. It’s the kind of radio that probably couldn’t be made today, and you ought to hear it so you know it existed, like it or not.
The premise of this show – which collects two rather different stories – is quite a simple one. What are you hearing?
First, American radio maker Aaron Henkin plays experimental music to a group of test subjects, and records their responses. Then, one of my favourite pieces, African Feedback by Alessandro Bosetti. Bosetti describes himself as a musician whose instrument is the human voice. In African Feedback, he plays Western avant-garde music over headphones to kids and adults in West Africa, then records their descriptions and responses – composing them into an incredibly beguiling thing that you’ll just have to hear for yourself.
Tim Hinman’s other podcast, Third Ear, is a sumptuous listen … but not the easiest if you don’t speak Danish (and if you do, I’m envious). For anglophones, Sound Matters is a kind of luxury podcast commissioned by hi-fi brand B&O – and through eight episodes (so far), it sees Hinman delving into the nuts and bolts of sound and perception. Some will be familiar to sound buffs, but Hinman’s gently droll approach to narration is just right here, and sonically it exemplifies Hinman’s approach well: a part of Europe’s much more sound-rich radio culture, he draws greater influence from film sound than most American producers do. The result is a crispy, detailed listening experience. In this episode, he broaches sound art and the ways in which natural sounds and composed ones can interact.
Radiolab remains one of my favourite podcasts, and I’d thought about including Radiolab’s Musical Language episode here (and I still heartily recommend it!) – but opted for this short podcast special, Happy Birthday Bobby K, because it digs up some decades-old work made by Robert Krulwich. What’s most interesting about it to me is how creatively he was able to play with journalism and sound, even back when it was presumably more challenging (at least technically) to do so. We often talk about a new age of audio while caricaturing old radio – and yes, there’s some truth to that too – but here, I believe we hear stuff that we still aren’t really hearing done well in this ostensibly freer environment.
SBS is Australia’s multicultural broadcaster, offering media in a genuinely remarkable number of languages and dialects. It’s also got a long (if somewhat unsung) history of investing in interesting digital projects, and its True Stories podcast is but one of them. Season three of the show sees it turn toward true crime – but from season two, I particularly loved this story, Chinese Straight by Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean background, Maxine Beneba Clarke. Like many of the stories in the series, Clarke talks about her struggles to fit in, but this story is done so well; evocative and mournful, with a tangible whiff of Australian summer. It’s a slim finger of memoir, dipped in a soup of synths and sassy drum machine (courtesy James Cecil, aka Super Melody and formerly of the band Architecture in Helsinki). I love how much effort (and likely money) they’ve invested in these episodes; in addition to the lush and colourful sound design, you can also see the story laid out online like a long-scrolling picture book; they’ve even commissioned incredible illustrations and animations from artist Isobel Knowles.
In almost the same way that HowSound deconstructs radio, Song Exploder pulls apart songs – how and why they sound the way they do. Hrishikesh Hirway separates songs into tracks, isolates sections, interviews the musicians (and sometimes producers) about each small decision along the way, as well as the broader intention behind the work. In this particular episode, he talks to New York-based musician Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, about his song called ‘Sticky Drama’. And this is the thing: even though it’s far from my favourite Oneohtrix Point Never song, Hirway’s format exposes the fascinating thought processes that underpin the work of some exceptionally intelligent musicians. (Other favourites include interviews with Blonde Redhead, Peter Björn and John, Thundercat, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and The Microphones, to name but a handful.)
Moving Homes is by the Australian-born and Berlin-based composer, musician and radio artist Thomas Meadowcroft. What I love about this piece is how it plays up – and with – a bunch of familiar and varied genres of Australian talk radio, and sets it in a goop of mesmeric/poetic music. It’s a long listen, and inevitably has its ebbs, but where else are going to hear overstated Aussie FM drawl, emergency broadcasts, horse race calling and European critical theory mushed together?
The story itself pivots on the role radio plays in a natural disaster – as a glue and sometimes lifeline between people – and deploys testimonies from cyclone survivors in Far North Queensland. Is radio the last connection to go between merciless nature and the fragile construction of our human world?
Moving Homes is but one of many great pieces that dance between music and voice that you’ll hear on Soundproof – one of the most consistently interesting shows out there.