How to Tell a Good Story, as Explained by George Saunders, Ira Glass, Ken Burns, Scott Simon, Catherine Burns & Others

in Radio, Writing | March 21st, 2017

All of us instinctively respond to stories. This has both positive and negative effects, but if we don’t understand it about ourselves, we’ve won’t fully understand why people believe what they believe and do what they do. Even given the deep human attachment to narrative, can we clearly explain what a story is, or how to tell one? Acclaimed author George Saunders has given the subject a great deal of thought, some of which he lets us in on in the short film above, which Josh Jones previously wrote about here on Open Culture. “A good story,” he tells us, says “at many different levels, ‘We’re both human beings. We’re in this crazy situation called life that we don’t really understand. Can we put our heads together and confer about it at a very high, non-bullshitty level?'”

At this point in his career, Saunders has tried out that approach to story using numerous different techniques and in a variety of different contexts, most recently in his new novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place in the aftermath of the assassination of the titular sixteenth President of the United States. Few living creators understand the appeal of American history as a trove of story material better than Ken Burns, author of long-form documentaries like JazzBaseball, and The Civil War, who finds that its “good guys have serious flaws and the villains are very compelling.”

And though he ostensibly works with only the facts, he acknowledges that “all story is manipulation,” some of it desirable manipulation and some of it not so much, with the challenge of telling the difference falling to the storyteller himself.

“The common story,” Burns says, “is ‘one plus one equals two.’ We get it. But all stories — the real, genuine stories — are about one and one equaling three.” Where his mathematical formula for storytelling emphasizes the importance of the unexpected, the one offered by Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar films like Finding NemoWALL-E, and John Carter, emphasizes the importance of a “well-organized absence of information.” In the TED Talk just above  (which opens with a potentially NSFW joke), he suggests always giving the audience “two plus two” instead of four, encouraging the audience to do the satisfying work of putting the details of the story together themselves while never letting them realize they’re doing any work at all.

“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty,” said the playwright William Archer. Stanton quotes it in his talk, and the notion also seems to underlie the views on storytelling held by This American Life creator Ira Glass. In the interview above, he describes the process of telling a story as recounting a sequence of actions, of course, but also continually throwing out questions and answering them all along the way, oscillating between actions in the story and moments of reflection on those actions which cast a little light on their meaning — a form surely familiar to anyone who’s heard so much as a segment of his radio show. And how do you become as skilled as he and his team at telling stories? Do what he did: tell a huge number of them, telling and telling and telling until you develop the killer instinct to mercilessly separate the truly compelling ones from the rest.

Glass illustrates the benefits of his lessons by playing some tape of a news report he produced early in his career, highlighting all the ways in which he failed to tell its story properly. He turned out to be cut out for something slightly different than straight-up reporting, a job of which reporters like Scott Simon of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition have made an art. Simon takes his storytelling process apart in three and a half minutes in the video just above: beyond providing such essentials as a strong beginning, vivid details, and a point listeners can take away, he says, you’ve also got to consider the way you deliver the whole package. Ideally, you’ll tell your story in “short, breathable sections,” which creates an overall rhythm for the audience to follow, whether they’re sitting on the barstool beside you or tuned in on the other side of the world.

What else does a good story need? Conflict. Tension. The feeling of “seeing two opposing forces collide.” Honesty. Grace. The ring of truth. All these qualities and more come up in the Atlantic‘s “Big Question” video above, which asks a variety of notables to name the most important element of a good story. Responders include House of Cards writer and producer Beau Willimon, The Moth artistic director Catherine Burns, PBS president Paula Kerger, and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Since humans have told stories since we first began, as Saunders put it, conferring about this crazy situation called life, all manner of storytelling rules, tips, and tricks have come and gone, but the core principles have remained the same. As to whether we now understand life any better… well, isn’t that one of those unanswered questions that keeps us on the edge of our seats?

Related Content:

George Saunders Demystifies the Art of Storytelling in a Short Animated Documentary

Ira Glass, the Host of This American Life, Breaks Down the Fine Art of Storytelling

Ken Burns on the Art of Storytelling: “It’s Lying Twenty-Four Times a Second”

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

Pixar & Khan Academy Offer a Free Online Course on Storytelling

John Berger (RIP) and Susan Sontag Take Us Inside the Art of Storytelling (1983)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Make a Comment ( 3 )

Download 1,500+ Episodes of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Where Famous Guests Name the Songs They Can’t Live Without (1942 to the Present)

in Music, Radio | March 14th, 2017

Introvert, bookworm, homebody… labels I have gladly worn throughout my life. I believe in civic engagement on principle, but there have been many times in the past few months, indeed in life, when I’ve wanted to strand myself on one of those proverbial desert islands, surrounded by my favorite books and records.

But surely one needn’t be an introvert to appreciate occasional solitude and time well spent with one’s favorite writing and music? Not in the least. As the BBC’s Desert Island Discs has shown us, many of the most outgoing celebrities, known for their constant presence in the spotlight, have cultivated their own inner castaway.

Or at least many have been happy to share what they would listen to and read on a theoretical voyage into solitude. Since 1942, Desert Island Discs has asked its famous guests to name eight recordings (not strictly limited to music), one book, and one luxury item that they couldn’t live without if left alone. One guest, Louis Armstrong, confessed himself married to the city and had such a long and successful career as a trumpet player, bandleader, composer, singer, actor, and all-around personality that it’s hard to imagine he ever had any time to himself.

Nevertheless, Armstrong possessed a key quality necessary for peaceful time alone: he was a man who enjoyed his own company. In his 1968 appearance on the show, Armstrong told the show’s creator and longtime host Roy Plomley that one favorite track he couldn’t live without was his own recording of “Blueberry Hill.” His luxury item? His trumpet of course. And book? His own autobiography.

Not all the show’s guests have been as intensely self-focused in their answers. Keith Richards, who owes his status, said host Kirsty Young, to a “single-minded dedication to the triumvirate pursuits of sex and drugs and rock and roll,” chose many of his heroes, like Chuck Berry and Etta James. And as a luxury item, he opted not for a musical instrument or an inducement to pleasure, but for a very practical machete.

The long-running Desert Island Discs owes its popularity not simply to famous people making lists, however; that premise has served throughout its 75 years as scaffolding for some of the most fascinating and intimate conversations with artists, actors, politicians, and other notables.

In Kirsty Young’s 2016 interview with Tom Hanks, the affable actor—whose list included Dean Martin, Dusty Springfield, Talking Heads and a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter—broke down in tears while telling the painful story of his lonely childhood. “What have you done to me?” he said to Young, then told her he was trying to express “the vocabulary of loneliness.” In 2014, Young pronounced artist and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen—a devotee of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Kate Bush—one of her all time favorite interviewees for his candid, engaging discussion of art as his “salvation.”

But of course, no popular entertainment succeeds without its controversies, and Desert Island Discs has had plenty of those moments as well. Sometimes scandalous moments—at least for the show’s host—have popped up in the midst of otherwise excellent interviews. In 2009, Morrissey sat down with Young for an interview that included “plenty of positive statements,” writes NME, including “his relative ease with life.” Yet she was shocked to hear him defend suicide as “honourable… an act of great control.” Whether he meant it or not, true fans of the singer would not have raised an eyebrow.

Another exchange hardly out of character for the interviewee occurred during a much less engaging conversation. In 1989, Lady Mosley, aristocratic wife of British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, proclaimed her admiration for Hitler and denied the Holocaust. Host Sue Lawley seemed “stunned,” the BBC notes, and accused Mosley of “rewriting history.” It’s hard to know what else the host expected from a woman The Guardian called “unrepentant” and “Hitler’s angel” upon her death in 2003.

Such unpleasant interviews as Mosley’s are few and far between in the massive archive of Desert Island Discs episodes on the BBC’s website, which spans the years 1956-2011, with many more recent episodes on the site as well, like this conversation with Bruce Springsteen. Other notable interviews come from Brian Eno in 1991, Yoko Ono in 2007, Maya Angelou in 1987, and Judi Dench just last year. Want to know their picks? You’ll have to listen to the episodes–all of which you can download–to find out.

All of the show’s subjects are accomplished people, but not all of them have been celebrities. The BBC has chosen as one of its most moving interviews a 2016 conversation with David Nott, who has volunteered as a surgeon on battlefields around the world since 1993. Nott’s harrowing stories of over twenty years of warzone trauma will likely have you convinced that among the show’s hundreds of guests, he may be most in need of that island getaway.

Given Desert Island Discs’ constraints of eight recordings, one book, and one luxury item, what would you, castaway readers, take with you, and why? Please tell us in the comments below.

Related Content:

Studs Terkel Interviews Bob Dylan, Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou & More in New Audio Trove

Library of Congress Releases Audio Archive of Interviews with Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons

Maurice Sendak’s Emotional Last Interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Animated by Christoph Niemann

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment ( None )

An Introduction to the Life & Thought of Hannah Arendt: Presented by the BBC Radio’s In Our Time

in Philosophy, Politics, Radio | February 8th, 2017

Unsettling historical parallels between the newly-developing world order and the terrors that scourged Europe in the 1930s and 40s now seem undeniable to most informed observers of contemporary geopolitics. Europeans have their own political crises to weather, but all eyes currently seem trained on the military behemoth that is my own country. “These are not normal times,” admits Jane Chong at Lawfare. Though she critiques Nazi comparisons as needlessly alarmist, she “sees no reason for optimism.” While references to history’s greatest villain abound, we’ve also seen Australian scientist Alan Finkel compare the U.S. leader to Joseph Stalin for the suppression and censorship of environmental data.

The devastation Hitler and Stalin visited upon Western and Eastern Europe can hardly be overstated—and we still find it nearly impossible to comprehend. But not soon after the end of World War II, one of the 20th century’s most probing analysts of political thought attempted to do just that.

Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism remains one of “several seminal works on tyranny and oppression that have recently gained popularity among readers,” notes Alison Griswold at Quartz. And Arendt’s 1963 classic Eichmann in Jerusalem also continues to inform the moment, offering a “sobering reflection,” writes Maria Popova, on what Arendt called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Arendt’s renewed relevance recently prompted Melvyn Bragg, host of the excellent BBC Radio program In Our Time, to bring three guest philosophy professors—Robert Eaglestone, Frisbee Sheffield, and Lyndsey Stonebridgeon air to discuss her ideas and influence. Bragg begins with a brief outline of Arendt’s biography, then turns to Sheffield, a lecturer at Girton College, Cambridge, for elaboration. They immediately address one of the most controversial aspects of Arendt’s young life, her affair with her mentor, Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party and remained a true believer in its ideology.

But the conversation quickly moves on from there to encompass Arendt’s multi-dimensional thought. “There’s a great range to her writings,” says Sheffield. A trained classicist, Arendt wrote her dissertation on the idea of love in St. Augustine. Her most philosophical work, The Human Condition, drew on classical concepts to rank human activity into a hierarchy of labor, work, and action. She “wrote on a great range of topics,” Sheffield notes, though “there is a consistent interest in politics and political themes throughout her work.”

Yet Arendt rejected the label of political philosopher and is herself “hard to pin down” politically. Her 1963 book On Revolution, critiqued leftist and Marxist thought and praised the American Revolution for its constitutionalism. She was skeptical of the notion of universal human rights, and her essay On Violence made the argument that violence appears only in the absence of political power, not its ascendency. As we learn from listening to Bragg’s assembled panel of guests, Arendt consistently emphasized two classical concepts: the value of a civic and political order and the importance of the “life of the mind,” also the title of a two-volume work published posthumously in 1978.

In Our Time‘s short, lively conversation provides an excellent introduction to Arendt’s life and work. To dive more deeply into the Arendt corpus, visit Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, browse the Library of Congress’s Hannah Arendt Papers, and read Lyndsey Stonebridge’s short online essay “Hannah Arendt’s Refugee History.” You’ll also find an extensive reading list of primary and secondary sources at the In Our Time BBC page.

Related Content:

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship:” Better to Suffer Than Collaborate

Hannah Arendt Discusses Philosophy, Politics & Eichmann in Rare 1964 TV Interview

Hannah Arendt’s Original Articles on “the Banality of Evil” in the New Yorker Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment ( None )

Hear Jeremy Irons Read the Poetry of T.S. Eliot (Available for a Limited Time)

in Poetry, Radio | January 25th, 2017

We may have come nearly to the end of January already, but we can still call 2017 a new year — at least until we’ve listened to the poetry of T.S. Eliot to properly ring it in. “There’s surely no better poet than Eliot to help us confront the problem of finding meaning in a world where old certainties are being troubled,” says Martha Kearney, host of BBC Radio 4’s New Year’s series celebrating his work.

“Our lives are so busy now that we need some help from the season to just take stock, both of where we’ve been and where we might like to go to,” says the first episode‘s guest, novelist Jeanette Winterson. We need to inhabit “that inward moment that poetry’s so good at,” and that Eliot made entirely his own. The bulk of that broadcast comprises a reading of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by Jeremy Irons, surely one of the poet’s ideal living interpreters. (Note: you can stream all of the episodes in the series here.)

Irons reads more in the second, which includes a discussion with Winterson and Anthony Julius, Chair of Law and the Arts and University College London, about the opening of “Gerontion” and the “ugly references” made in Eliot’s other poems. The discussion in the third, in which Irons takes on Eliot’s immortal “The Waste Land,” looks for the source of the power of its “poetry of fragments” with former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Scots Makar (something like a Poet Laureate of Scotland) Jackie Kay.

“The Waste Land” continues as a subject in part four, as its guest, the actress Fiona Shaw, has drawn acclaim for her own reading of the poem, but the Irons section of the broadcast offers various other selections, including “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “Journey of the Magi.” Finally, in part five, Kearney and Rory Stewart, Member of Parliament and man of letters, talk about and hear Irons deliver Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” whose language Stewart memorized on a walk through Nepal and which he later used during his political campaign.

This poetic, conversational, and performative radio feast comes to nearly four hours (listen to all of the episodes here), but you’ve got only the next six days to stream it. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until Radio 4’s next, as yet announced calendar-appropriate celebration of Eliot. They’ve used his work to refresh audiences after a troubling year; perhaps they’ll use it again to get us through the cruelest month of this one.

Related Content:

T.S. Eliot Reads From “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” & “The Hollow Men”: His Apocalyptic Post WWI Poems

Listen to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Masterpiece, the Four Quartets

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Modernist Poem The Waste Land

Hear Alec Guinness (The Legend Behind Obi-Wan Kenobi) Read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets & The Waste Land

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Make a Comment ( None )

Hear Kurt Vonnegut Visit the Afterlife & Interview Dead Historical Figures: Isaac Newton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

in History, Radio | January 24th, 2017

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Kurt Vonnegut wrote novels, of course, but also short stories, essays, and — briefly, suitably late in his career — correspondence from the afterlife. He did that last gig in 1998, composing for broadcast on the formidable WNYC, by undergoing a series of what he called “controlled near-death experiences” orchestrated, so he claimed, by “Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the facilities of a Huntsville, Texas execution chamber.” These made possible “more than one hundred visits to Heaven and my returning to life to tell the tale,” or rather, to tell the tales of the more permanently deceased with whom he’d sat down for a chat.

Vonnegut’s roster of afterlife interviewees included personages he personally admired such as Eugene Debs (listen), Isaac Newton (listen), and Clarence Darrow (listen), as well as historical villains like James Earl Ray (listen) and Adolf Hitler (listen). Other of the dead with whom he spoke, while they may not qualify as household names, nevertheless went to the grave with some sort of achievement under their belts: Olestra inventor Fred H. Mattson, for instance, or John Wesley Joyce, owner of the famed Greenwich Village literary watering hole The Lion’s Head. Only the Slaughterhouse-Five author’s courageous and impossible reportage has saved the names of a few, like that of retired construction worker Salvatore Biagini, from total obscurity.

Famous or not, people interested Vonnegut, who claimed to get his ideas from “disgust with civilization” but also served as honorary president of the National Humanist Association. This aspect of his personality comes up in the Brian Lehrer Show segment just above, a listen back to Vonnegut’s “Reports on the Afterlife” segments for WNYC’s 90th anniversary. (You can listen to all the segments individually here.)

Producer Marty Goldensohn talks about recording them at Vonnegut’s apartment, where the famous writer would answer the phone every few minutes for a brief talk with one curious fan after another, none of whom he’d taken any pains whatsoever to keep from finding his phone number. “It was a wonderful thing,” says Goldensohn. “He had a way of talking, hearing what he wanted to hear, thanking, and hanging up very nicely. Sixty seconds.” He’d also mastered, adds Lehrer, the art of the one-minute trip to the afterlife, and the stories this unusual radio format allowed him to tell surely drew from the vast range of experiences and emotions to which Vonnegut had exposed his mind not just through reading, but also with such frequent and brief yet very real human connections he’d make on a seemingly near-constant basis.

A little bit less than a decade after these recordings and the subsequent publication of their print collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, the unceasingly smoking and drinking Vonnegut would, at the age of 84, make his own final trip to the afterlife. There he now presumably awaits (possibly beside Kevorkian himself) the next correspondent intrepid enough to come up and interview him. Given the events of the past decade, listeners could certainly use whatever dose of his characteristically clear-eyed and sardonic perspective he might have to offer.

Related Content:

Hear Kurt Vonnegut Read Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle & Other Novels

Hear Kurt Vonnegut’s Very First Public Reading from Breakfast of Champions (1970)

Hear Kurt Vonnegut’s Novel Cat’s Cradle Get Turned into Avant-Garde Music (Featuring Kurt Himself)

An Animated Kurt Vonnegut Visits NYU, Riffs, Rambles, and Blows the Kids’ Minds (1970)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Teaches You to Read Fiction Like a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

In 1988, Kurt Vonnegut Writes a Letter to People Living in 2088, Giving 7 Pieces of Advice

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Make a Comment ( None )

Bill Murray & Gilda Radner Deliver the Laughs in Two 1970s Skits for National Lampoon

in Comedy, Music, Radio, Television | December 23rd, 2016

Bill Murray is America’s kindliest, most eccentric, best known secular elf, spreading joy throughout the year, as he treats strangers to impromptu birthday serenades, poetry readings, and bachelor party toasts.

How will younger fans, who’ve never been exposed to the brash Murray of yore, react to his late 70s Santa, above, for the “National Lampoon Radio Hour”? This Grinch is a spiritual forefather of such department store baddies as Billy Bob Thornton and that guy from A Christmas Story.

Forget about Flexy the Pocket Monkey… Murray’s sham-Claus gleefully denies even the humblest of sweet-voiced little Gilda Radner’s requests – a Nerf Ball and a Pez dispenser.

Saturday Night Live fans of a certain vintage may detect more than a hint of Lisa Loopner’s boyfriend Todd De LaMuca in Murray’s vocal characterization. Instead of Noogies, he sends Radner giggling through “the trap door.”

Man, these two had chemistry!

They revisited the scenario in a holiday sketch for Saturday Night Live’s 3rd season, with Santa downgraded from “evil” to “drunken.”

Murray’s “Kung Fu Christmas” for the National Lampoon Radio Hour’s 1974 Christmas show, above, makes a smooth vintage chaser.

In addition to Radner, collaborators here include Paul Shaffer, Christopher Guest, and Bill’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray, a lily white line up unthinkable in 2016.

The lyrics and silky vocal stylings conjure visions of a disco-gritty yuletide New York, where “every race has a smile on its face.”

This time Radner gets to do the rejecting, in an extended spoken word interlude that finds Christopher Guest showering her with offers ranging from a house in the South of France to a glass-bottomed boat. (“Didn’t you like that Palomino horse I bought you last year?”)

Murray who continued to explore his musical urges with his SNL character, Nick the Lounge Singer, was replaced by David Hurdon when “Kung Fu Christmas” was recorded for 1975’s Good-bye Pop album.

Related Content:

Watch Bill Murray, the Struggling New SNL Cast Member, Apologize for Not Being Funny (1977)

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rocking & Swinging Christmas Albums: From James Brown and Johnny Cash to Christopher Lee & The Ventures

Stan Lee Reads “The Night Before Christmas,” Telling the Tale of Santa Claus, the Greatest of Super Heroes

Bill Murray Reads Great Poetry by Billy Collins, Cole Porter, and Sarah Manguso

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

by | Make a Comment ( None )

Radio Garden Lets You Instantly Tune into Radio Stations Across the Entire Globe

in Radio | December 22nd, 2016


A pretty cool project.

Pick a place on the globe. Any place. Then tune in and hear what’s playing on the radio in that location.

The service is called Radio Garden, and here’s what it’s essentially all about:

By bringing distant voices close, radio connects people and places. Radio Garden allows listeners to explore processes of broadcasting and hearing identities across the entire globe. From its very beginning, radio signals have crossed borders. Radio makers and listeners have imagined both connecting with distant cultures, as well as re-connecting with people from ‘home’ from thousands of miles away – or using local community radio to make and enrich new homes.

While Radio Garden lets you tune into broadcasts across different geographies, another service previously featured here on OC–Radiooooo–lets you hear radio broadcasts across time. That is, historical broadcasts.

Between the two services, you’ll be covered spatially and temporally. What more could you want?

via Boing Boing

Follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, and Flipboard and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. To make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

If you’d like to help support Open Culture, please consider making a small monthly donation to our site. We would greatly appreciate it!

by | Make a Comment ( 2 )

George Orwell’s Life & Literature Presented in a 3-Hour Radio Documentary: Features Interviews with Those Who Knew Orwell Best

in History, Literature, Politics, Radio | December 20th, 2016

via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Say you find yourself in a one-party state that promises to dismantle every civil institution you believe in and trample every ethical principle you hold dear. You may feel a little despondent. While a “this too shall pass” attitude may help you gain perspective, the problem isn’t simply that you’re on the losing side of a political contest. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, total authoritarian control means that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The epistemic baseline you took for granted may become increasingly, frighteningly elusive as the ruling party reshapes all of reality to its designs.

With more vivid clarity than perhaps anyone since, Orwell characterized the mechanisms by which totalitarianism takes hold. His 1948 novel has not only given us a near-universal set of terms to describe the phenomenon, but it also gives us a metric: when our society begins to resemble Orwell’s dystopia in pervasive and alarming ways, we should know without question things have gone badly wrong. Whether we can do much about it is another question, but we should remember that Orwell himself was not simply an armchair observer of Fascism, Soviet totalitarianism, or oppressive English colonial rule. He fought Franco’s forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and as a journalist wrote critical articles and essays exposing hypocrisies and abuses of law and language. The impact of his work on later generations speaks for itself.

In the CBC radio documentary The Orwell Tapes, in three parts here, we have a comprehensive introduction to Orwell’s work, thought, and life. It opens with alarming soundbites from lightning rods (and villains or heroes, depending on who you ask) Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. But it doesn’t stray into the clichéd territory of overheated conspiracy those names often inspire. Instead we’re largely treated throughout each episode to firsthand accounts of the subject from those who knew him well.

“CBC is the only media organization in the world,” says host Paul Kennedy, “with a comprehensive archive of recordings featuring people who knew Orwell, from his earliest days, to his final moments. 75 people, 50 hours of recordings.” Edited snippets of these audio recordings make up the bulk of The Orwell Tapes, hence the title, making the program oral history rather than sensationalism. The interviewees include friends, former girlfriends, comrades-in-arms, and critical opponents. Each episode’s page on the CBC site features a list of names and relations to Orwell at the bottom.

But of course, accusations of sensationalism always follow those who warn of Orwellian trends and tendencies. Like many of our contemporaries, Orwell was a contradictory figure. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma even as he grew disgusted with Empire; he considered himself a Democratic Socialist, but he never looked away from the authoritarian horrors of state communism; and he has been held up as a pillar of resistance to state surveillance and control, even as he also stands accused of “naming names.” But the overall impression we get from Orwell’s friends and colleagues is that he was fully committed—to writing, to political engagement, to telling the truth as he saw it.

In releasing The Orwell Tapes this month, the CBC gives us five reasons why Orwell “is still very much with us today.” Some of these—modern surveillance, the corruptions of power (and the power of corruption)—will be familiar, as will number 3, a variation on what we’ve come to call “empathy” for one’s opponent. The 4th reason, CBC notes, is the renewed relevance of socialism as a viable alternative to capitalist predation. And finally, we have the continued danger of speaking truth to power, and to those who serve it religiously, uncritically, and often violently. As Orwell wrote in the preface to Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”

Related Content:

Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment ( None )

Hear a Great 4-Hour Radio Documentary on the Life & Music of Jimi Hendrix: Features Rare Recordings & Interviews

in Music, Radio | December 15th, 2016

The legacy of Jimi Hendrix’s estate has been in conflict in recent years. Since his father’s death in 2002, his siblings have squabbled over his money and battled unlicensed and bootleg venders. But Hendrix’s musical legacy continues to amaze and inspire, as Janie Hendrix—his stepsister and CEO of the company that manages his music—has released album after album of rarities over the last couple decades. Not all of these releases have pleased Hendrix fans, who have called some of them mercenary and thoughtless. But it is always a joy to discover an unheard recording, whether a live performance, wobbly studio outtake, or semi-polished demo, so many of which reveal the territory Hendrix intended to chart before he died.

In 1982, some of that unreleased material made it into a four-hour Pacifica Radio documentary, which you can hear in four parts here. Produced by what the station calls “some of Pacifica’s finest” at its Berkeley “flagship station 94.1 FM,” the documentary does an excellent job of placing these recordings in context. With help from Hendrix biographer David Henderson, the producers compiled “previously unheard and rare recordings” and interviews from Hendrix, his family, Noel Redding, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder, John Lee Hooker, John McLaughlin, Chas Chandler, and more. After a newly-recorded introduction and a collage of Hendrix interview soundbites, Part 1 gets right down to it with a live version of “Are You Experienced?” that pulses from the speakers in hypnotic waves (listen to it on a solid pair of headphones if you can).

“I want to have stereo where the sound goes up,” says Hendrix in a soundbite, “and behind and underneath, you know? But all you can get now is across and across.” Somehow, even in ordinary stereo, Hendrix had a way of making sound surround his listeners, enveloping them in warm fuzzy waves of feedback and reverb. But he also had an equally captivating way with language, and not only in his song lyrics. Though the received portrait of Hendrix is of a shy, retiring person who expressed himself better with music, in many of these interviews he weaves together detailed memories and whimsical dreams and fantasies, composing imaginative narratives on the spot. Several extemporaneous lines could have easily flowered into new songs.

Hendrix briefly tells the story of his rise through the R&B and soul circuit as an almost effortless glide from the ranks of struggling sidemen, to playing behind Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Ike and Tina Turner to starting his solo career. We move through the most famous stages of Hendrix’s life, with its iconic moments and cautionary tales, and by the time we get to Part 4, we start hearing a Hendrix most people never do, a preview of where his music might have gone into the seventies—with jazzy progressions and long, winding instrumental passages powered by the shuffling beats of Buddy Miles.

As has become abundantly clear in the almost four decades since Hendrix’s death, he had a tremendous amount of new music left in him, stretching in directions he never got to pursue. But the bit of it he left behind offers proof of just how influential he was not only on rock guitarists but also on blues and jazz fusion players of the following decade. His pioneering recording style (best heard on Electric Ladyland) also drove forward, and in some cases invented, many of the studio techniques in use today. Processes that can now be automated in minutes might took hours to orchestrate in the late sixties. Watching Hendrix mix in the studio “was like watching a ballet,” says producer Elliot Mazer.

This documentary keeps its focus squarely on Hendrix’s work, phenomenal talent, and uniquely innovative creative thought, and as such it provides the perfect setting for the rare and then-unreleased recordings you may not have heard before. Pacifica re-released the documentary last year as part of its annual fundraising campaign. The station is again soliciting funds to help maintain its impressive archives and digitize many more hours of tape like the Hendrix program, so stop by and make a donation if you can.

Related Content:

Jimi Hendrix Plays “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for The Beatles, Just Three Days After the Album’s Release (1967)

Jimi Hendrix Plays the Delta Blues on a 12-String Acoustic Guitar in 1968, and Jams with His Blues Idols, Buddy Guy & B.B. King

Jimi Hendrix’s Final Interview on September 11, 1970: Listen to the Complete Audio

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment ( 4 )

A Complete Reading of George Orwell’s 1984: Aired on Pacifica Radio, 1975

in Audio Books, Literature, Radio | December 8th, 2016

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Thus, with one of the best-known opening sentences in all English literature, begins George Orwell’s 1984, the novel that even 67 years after its publication remains perhaps the most oft-referenced vision of totalitarianism’s takeover of the modern Western world. Its fable-like power has, in fact, only intensified over the decades, which have seen it adapted into various forms for film, television, the stage (David Bowie even dreamed of putting on a 1984 musical), and, most often, the radio.

In recent years we’ve featured radio productions of 1984 from 1949, 1953, and 1965. On their program From the Vault, the Pacifica Radio network has just finished bringing out of the archives their own 1975 broadcast of the novel as read by morning-show host Charles Morgan.

Neither an all-out radio drama nor a straight-ahead audiobook-style reading, Pacifica’s 1984 uses sound effects and voice acting (some contributed by June Foray, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) to tell the story of Winston Smith and his inner and outer struggle with the repressive, all-seeing, language-distorting government of the superstate of Oceania (and the city of Airstrip One, formerly known as England) that surrounds him.

It makes sense that Pacifica would put the whole of Orwell’s dire novelistic warning on the airwaves. Founded just after World War II by a group of former conscientious objectors, its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, California, began broadcasting in the year of 1984‘s publication. As it grew over subsequent decades, the listener-funded Pacifica radio network gained a reputation for both its political engagement and its unconventional uses of the medium. (The Firesign Theater, the troupe that arguably perfected the art of the dense, multi-layered studio comedy album, got their start at Pacifica’s Los Angeles station KPFK.) Every era, it seems, produces its own 1984, and this one sounds as resonant in the 21st century — a time even Orwell dared not imagine — as it must have in the 1970s.

You can hear Part 1 of Pacifica’s 1984 at the top of the post, then follow these links to all ten parts on their Soundcloud page: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13.

Related Content:

Hear the Very First Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Starring David Niven (1949)

Hear George Orwell’s 1984 Adapted as a Radio Play at the Height of McCarthyism & The Red Scare (1953)

Hear a Radio Drama of George Orwell’s 1984, Starring Patrick Troughton, of Doctor Who Fame (1965)

George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Production in London

David Bowie Dreamed of Turning George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musical: Hear the Songs That Survived the Abandoned Project

George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Make a Comment ( 1 )