Nocturne

By Sofie Andersen
 
It's the beginning of the year and with winter stretching ahead - at least in the northern hemisphere - it's time to draw the curtains, open our minds and embrace the shorter days, by heading into the night.
 
Some years ago, Cathy Fitzgerald, writer and radio producer, and Neville Edwards, interactive designer and sound editor, did just that. In fact, they did something that most of us can only imagine: walk around a museum, looking at art - but mostly listening - long after the other visitors have left, long after dark. The result was Nocturne, part of the National Gallery of London's monthly podcast series, that has since gone on to have a life of it's own. I'll let Cathy and Neville take it from here.
 

Firstly, how did you end up doing this - telling stories about art at night?

CF: We got lucky. Most months we’d need to feature specific items on the podcast: an upcoming exhibition, a new acquisition, that kind of thing. But then May 2007 came around and the National Gallery didn’t have any particular marketing messages. I’d had the idea for Nocturne a while back and saw the chance to make it. The Gallery had been working with us for a while by that point, so they trusted us and gave us room to play.

NE: It was and remains a real privilege. It was such a contrast to have the gallery to ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday crowds. It was both at once eerie and serene, and I think in many ways that sense of calm and echoing space was something we tried to translate into the sound design.

As you were burning the midnight oil, what do you remember most about making it?

CF: The author, Tracy Chevalier, arriving a little tipsy and a lot wonderful from a book party. It was late and the lights in the Dutch gallery wouldn’t turn on, so she sat in the dark and communed with Vermeer’s young woman (‘Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’) while I thanked the god of radio for faulty wiring.

Can you tell us about your collaboration and the story coming together?

CF: We both wanted to make the best piece we could, which is a pretty good place to start - neither of us was trying to wrap it up fast to get onto the next thing. In broad terms I shaped the story and Nev created the atmosphere, but there was a lot of overlap. It never got ego-y or irritable as collaborations can. Nev is imaginative and insanely reliable and takes real care with projects - I love working with him.

NE: I think as Cathy says it became a work of love and we were happy to keep pushing things about. For me personally it was just a chance to broaden the sound palette that we are normally expected, or allowed, to use and to have fun! I think myself and Cathy always respect each others opinion and we’d been working together a long time anyway. Cathy is an amazing producer and I think has the uncanny ability to present not just ideas but a real atmosphere or mood that therefore connects with the listener at a deeper subconscious level, beyond just the top layer subject matter.

Your subject - the nocturnal life of the National Gallery, in London - seems to get at some deeper identity of the museum, something like the soul of the place. Is that what you were aiming for?

CF: I don’t think I started with an aim; I started with a question. What is it about a museum at night that’s so mesmerising? It starts with that notion of the secret-life-of-things… movement out of the corner of your eye. But then the interviewees take it much further, into far more interesting places. It took me three or four years to figure out that Nocturne is really about why we give life to things, whether the things in question are art-works or audio stories or ghosts in museums. To paraphrase what Marina Warner says in the piece, we stave off the fear of our own ultimate inanimation by animating others. So I guess it isn’t about the deeper identity of the National Gallery per se, it’s about the deep origins of our urge to make art.

This episode was made back in 2007, but more more recently was featured by US Third Coast Audio Festival as well as broadcast by the Australian network, ABC - what do you think has drawn people to it?

CF: I think it has mystery and wonder… a sense of things numinous (and luminous! despite all the dark). Nev’s sound design is very atmospheric. And although it starts off on solid ground – closing time at the museum – it leads the listener into very strange, uncanny territory fairly swiftly. You’re lost in the dark forest before you know where you are.

Also – there’s a lot of room for the listener. There’s a German literary critic, Wolfgang Iser, who talks about the plot points in a novel being like stars – and the meaning being like the black space in between. That’s the bit the reader has to fill in. Some stories are all plot and there’s not much for the reader to do. Others leave a lot more room for dreaming and speculating. And there’s pleasure in that, in being treated like an equal, an active participant. I hope Nocturne does that (and everything I make, actually).

NE: I think it is that sense of pacing within the piece that is it’s real achievement. The sound design helps accentuate that, with the poetry serving to break the interviews and the constant drones, the transitions serving to propel the story onwards, whilst also reinforcing that uncanny half silence of the Gallery at night.

What’s important to you, personally, about this piece?

CF: It was the first time I made something out of my own mental compost, that sounded like me. I’d spent decades thinking I wasn’t creative and facilitating other people’s ideas. Blimey, I was bored. And then all of a sudden I had enough confidence (or maybe it was self-loathing) to stop playing safe and make something real. It saved my life really – and all the good things that have happened since – the creative opportunities I’ve had and the sparky, clever people I’ve met – have followed from it.

NE: For me I just really enjoyed it. The sound design was great fun and gave me the chance to play with creating synthesized sounds and moods, all blended with real world recordings in a far more abstract way than usually allowed.

Cathy, another of your radio pieces is about a museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, where you draw out the emotional life of the objects and our connections to them, and you've also returned to the nocturnal theme with Dreaming Dickens. Do you think there is a particular subject or creative approach you are drawn to as a storyteller?

CF: Yes, definitely, I think that’s how it works. A subject sparkles away at me and I know it’s mine, though I can rarely tell you why (I don’t think I’d need to make it if I could). I like stories about grief and the restoration of hope: hard-won happy endings. And I like intangible, poetic stuff – magic carpets, angry ghosts, broken hearts, blue-skies – because they’re often projections of our emotions. It’s interesting to approach a feeling sideways rather than head on.

Neville, we were discussing the work of Chris Watson the other day -  do you have a favorite piece by him? Is there anyone else you look to for inspiration when coming up with ideas for audio?

CF: No – there are lots of people whose work I really love. But I don’t want to make their work because they’re already making it, and doing a great job. I tend to get ideas from books, newspapers and conversations with people.

NE: There’s no one real piece - I think it’s just fair to say he’s a master of real world recording. In terms of inspiration for sound design it’s a kind of sum of it’s parts thing. From early electronic and experimental pioneers to modern pop, the sound of Radio 4 and everything in between.  For Nocturne in particular it was about creating subtle drones and atmospheres that for the most part filled in the sonic spectrum and complemented the speech and story, without taking away from them.

Above all the content and tone is key. Silence can still be the most affecting sound and never under estimate the transition in allowing ideas to breathe.

One of the best pieces of radio I’ve ever heard is a piece called “Advice to the Living” (produced by Loftus Media). It has no special sound effects, no real narration other than from interviews and yet it’s totally captivating due to it’s beautiful pacing and tone.

Now that long-form audio is attracting renewed interest, with the popularity of Serial and the BBC & British Museum’s 100 objects series, what do you think makes successful storytelling in - and about - museums?

CF: A really good hook – something that’s genuinely thought-provoking and new. Sometimes one will turn up out of nowhere when I’m boiling the kettle or (and this is when it’s particularly wonderful) when I’m talking nonsense with a friend. But just as often they’re the result of graft and thinking-till-it-hurts.

Honest engagement as a writer / producer. Though it’s very difficult to manage when you’re working within the constraints and seductions of a genre like the audio-guide. It’s too darn easy to do it the way I’ve done it fifty times before.

And the basic: pleasure. We deal in back-story. We can either tell it dry, or we can be the brilliant teacher who sparkles and intrigues. Have we looked under the facts to find the shape of the story? Have we provided the information in a pleasing (narratively teasing) order? Have we made the listener think about the emotional/existential questions a work asks as well as its art-historical provenance? Have we said too little? Have we said too much?

NE: For me it’s summed up beautifully in Cathy’s last statement. It’s about the emotional, existential questions that we can all relate too. It’s the connection that is likely to draw us in.

 

Cathy  Fitzgerald - working on her Radio 4 'Gravediggers' story. Photo credit - Matt Thompson.

Cathy Fitzgerald 2014, working on her Radio 4 'Gravediggers' story. Photo credit - Matt Thompson.

Neville Edwards

Interactive Designer, Neville Edwards, 2014.

And for related thoughts on visiting the museum after dark, see American art critic Jerry Saltz's article, here.

 

- author