Hello and welcome back to Parallel Worlds. I hope you’re well, amply rested, and feeling creatively ready to take on another week.
Last week you tried some sound activities, recreating sounds from your immediate surroundings. How did you find them? Is this your medium? Have you found a voice? Do you feel comfortable? Perhaps working in audio work is going to be like wearing a new pair of shoes, where you have to spend a while breaking them in. Some of the best work can be produced when you’re on the edge of your comfort zone, where you feel you’re pushing yourself slightly into the unknown.
There was a shift in the exercises last week – I’m sure you noticed it – from the first day, where you wrote as many ridiculous lies as you could, and then made one of these lies into a mini story, to the second day, where you created an artist origin story, to the third day, where you wrote about objects you own, and then gave some of those objects special powers, to the fourth and fifth days, where you recreated mundane sounds from your environment using your own mouth, and then other objects around you.
Maybe you’re now thinking, why did I do that? Why did he ask me to do those things? Where is this going?
Well, we have just under a month left of this course. By the end of that time, you will have produced an audio story, a short work which documents your life, your reality right now, in these strange times, if you like, it can include an overview of your artistic or design or creative practice, the things you’re doing every day. But it’s also going to jump into, or reveal, a parallel world, a fantastical, maybe inaccessible place, which we’ll have to reach through our imagination.
So, by now, you’re used to the documenting of the everyday. You’ve been producing 5 minutes of reflection each day, the first activity in each podcast. I hope you’ve kept some sort of record of your daily musings, your reflections on what’s going on now. Not to show anyone else, or to criticise your own writing, but to be used as raw material to turn into an audio story. The free-writing exercises are there to loosen you up creatively, to get you to write or speak or draw or whatever else without consequence, without editing, without the normal quality-controller who’d stop us from probing into strange and unexplored parts of our own minds. Whenever I’m working on something I know someone else will see, I’m more inhibited, I’m more aware that somebody else will be passing some sort of judgement on it. The sketches I do that are just for me, they’re different to the ones I do for other people. When I’m free-writing, or free-drawing, or making anything that I know is somehow private, it is different. Turning off that quality controller really enables you to be bold, to be silly, to be playful, in ways that you otherwise couldn’t be. Sometimes it produces utter rubbish too!
There’s a part of me that also likes these secret, weird thoughts that won’t necessarily go anywhere, or become anything. I like knowing that whatever I do in my own practice, or in my own teaching, there’s another strange layer happening in the background. One reason I like this is because it’s really easy, when you have a creative career, to feel like you’ve backed into a corner, to feel like as an artist you’re stuck to one style, or one theme, or that your entire professional practice has to be related to one set of ideas. You’re not! Sit down with a blank sheet of paper, give yourself ten minutes away from emails and messages and other distractions, set that pen writing, and your mind will wander to all sorts of places you never imagined. Or rather, places that you did imagine, but you didn’t imagine you’d imagine.
I hope you have a similar experience. I hope you remember that you’re not limited to the small set of skills or ideas or techniques or materials you become known for, or you define yourself through, that there are other possibilities. And no matter what happens to you, in life, professionally, creatively, there is still a world of possibilities there in your mind, just under the surface. It’s been there all along, you just need to know how to reveal it, to open the can, to turn on the tap, or use any other terrible analogy. But it’s there, and it’s yours.
So, back to that earlier question, why did I ask you to do those other exercises last week?
Well, as you know, this course is called Parallel Worlds, and we are operating in parallel between the worlds we inhabit now and the ones we could inhabit. We’re making an audio production to explore these worlds.
Last week’s exercises were about finding points of departure between one world and another, and honing your audio-storytelling skills. In any work of fiction where the concept of a parallel world is invoked, there’s a point of departure, something that shifts the viewer’s experience from the world the story starts in, to another plane. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, there’s a magical wardrobe which is a gateway to another world. You go to the back of a seemingly normal wardrobe, between old fur coats, and you’re suddenly in Narnia, another world with different rules. That’s a similar plot device to the objects you looked at and gave special powers to last week. Could you use one of those fantastical objects that you devised as a point of departure to link this world to another one? Does one of your objects reveal a different layer, invisible to the human eye, where there are different rules? To use a completely obvious example, you could put on a pair of glasses which reveal a different reality, like in the 1983 John Carpenter film They Live. Or any one of your fantastical objects could exist between planes, slowly revealing another place, time, dimension – it’s up to you.
We also looked at artist origin stories. Again, these could be a point of departure, where you, the creative practitioner listening to this right now, become something else through a fantastical back-story. Perhaps your parallel world will be something from the past. Who knows?! It’s likely you don’t know at the moment – and that’s something that’s exciting. In less than a month from now, you might have made a work that’s different to everything you’ve done before, taking you to places you haven’t even thought of yet. How often does that happen, that you have such freedom to escape into, or out of, your own mind, and create something new?
Lastly, you made audio reproductions of everyday sounds. Now this was for a very specific reason. Within fiction that plays with the idea of parallel worlds, or planes of existence, or anything in that general theme, there are always similarities between the new, strange place, and the place the story started in. A story that started in your home, as it is now, with all of the objects that are around you, then jumped into a completely different place that had no parallels at all – say, you had different physics, fifteen dimensions, no people, nothing similar to the place you started – well that story probably wouldn’t make sense. Or at least, it probably wouldn’t make for a compelling or cohesive story.
Your audience are going to be looking for patterns, similarities between one place and the other. We need devices that connect the two worlds. These can be literal devices, like the wardrobe that connects a normal bedroom to Narnia, or any of the objects with fantastical powers you wrote about. Or they can be structural devices – for example, if in one story the protagonist is someone who looks like you, perhaps in another world there’s a mirror protagonist who has a similar set of experiences to yours. Perhaps you could use two story structures that are similar. Perhaps there are similar spatial arrangements, or similar themes – whatever makes sense to your story.
But because we’re telling this story in audio – and you’ll probably be using your voice to tell both stories – it needs some way of differentiating between one world and another. You’ll probably need an audio cue that we’re jumping from world one to world two, or back again. The reason I asked you to create fake versions of real sounds is that these could be a very simple way of jumping. If you’re telling a story about your life now, and you use, say, the sound of a fan in your room as a motif for repetition (bah, bah, bah, bah), you could use your fake version of this sound to signal that you’re jumping from one place to another. You need to create patterns that your listeners will recognise, and that they’ll recognise will change. Your noises might work as incidental things in the background, like a sound bed, or maybe they’re what we call diegetic noises, that is sounds that appear as part of the story. In film a diegetic noise is something that appears onscreen. In our audio stories, perhaps you will use a sound to tell part of the story – for example, perhaps a door opens, a light is switched on, you make some coffee, who knows? But perhaps you could fade between the real-world versions of these sounds you’ve been recording, and the fake versions you made last week, and use that to differentiate between the two worlds.
So, let’s get on with today’s exercise. Today we’re going to be doing something a little different. The exercise today is to listen to another audio story, and work out how it works.
Now, I’ve talked about Ross Sutherland’s Imaginary Advice podcast before. I really think it’s one of the best podcasts out there, because it really plays with the medium it’s made in. Its tagline is experiments in audio fiction, and each episode takes you to a completely different place. Ross manages to produce work that is so immersive, so experimental, they can be profoundly moving, really funny, really weird, merging the fantastical with the mundane, they can take you to very strange places and states of mind. And the stories do things that would be impossible, or at least really expensive – in another medium.
Today you’re going to listen to an episode of Imaginary Advice called Six House Parties, where Ross talks about going to six ever-more elaborately themed house parties, and each time, failing to impress a girl, and then being out-done by an acquaintance, or rival, called Dave. The story is just so well told, it’s touching, and funny, it really takes you on a journey – and it uses sound to create atmospheres that you couldn’t create in another medium.
So, here is Six House Parties, with kind permission of Ross Sutherland. I will be back at the end to talk about a few things that I like about this story.
<the audio story Six House Parties by Ross Sutherland>
Hi and welcome back. I hope you enjoyed that story as much as I did – please do consider subscribing to Imaginary Advice, it’s a great podcast with a whole new world every month.
I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about a few things that Ross does in the story that make it work, which are worth considering when you’re writing your own audio story.
Firstly, the title of the podcast is Six House Parties. The audience know what they’re getting from the very start: six stories. Each story is a different house party. Plain and simple. At the beginning of each party, Ross announces ‘party one’ ‘party two’ and so on, and then the theme of the party. So, built in to the structure of the stories, there’s a form of signposting, of letting the audience know where they are. You’re at story three, welcome to story four, and so on. It’s like chapter headings in a book, but because it’s delivered in the same factual way each time, with a DJ scratching noise to jump between each party, you get used to the structure, you know what to expect. This is something worth thinking about in your own work – how do you help the audience know where they are, without ruining the story itself? Another thing that works well is that the story builds up, from something simple and relatable – a simple toga-themed house party – to ever-more elaborate and obscure ideas. If the story had started with the themes of party four or five at the start, it wouldn’t have made any sense. It holds together because it builds and builds, it uses patterns and repetition. Then, let’s talk about the sound itself. Six House Paries uses sound in a way that’s completely appropriate to the story. The fact that the story is about parties means the audio vocabulary is also party-related. Each party – which is really a mini-story – has a sound bed of different music, and the transition noise between each one is a DJ scratching noise, the sound of a record deck being abruptly stopped. In other words, the sound does a lot of the storytelling for us. The music builds each time, from a muted drum to a louder, more full electronic soundtrack. But each time, the music throws us straight into an atmosphere, and builds and builds and builds. Music can often be distracting, but in this story, it masterfully creates a different atmosphere, a different mood. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been to all of those parties, the audio took me through a set of worlds I’ve already inhabited. And finally, at the end of the final story, the climax is superb. The pacing of the reading, the reverb on the weird ethereal soundtrack, it creates exactly the atmosphere needed to tell this story. The first time I heard it I was blown away, I couldn’t believe so much depth, so much immersion, could come from my cheap earphones. The sheer audacity of portraying everything in an audio work – incredible. But the way that the sound complimented the absurd idea is just great.
So, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed a slightly different exercise.
I want to recommend two things to end the day – firstly, listen to more of Imaginary Advice! It’s all there to be listened to for free, all you need to do is hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. If you’re after a good hour of story, listen to number 67, Black Eye, featuring Abi Palmer. Again, the audio production is superb, it has one of the best ways of exploring a black hole I could imagine. Plus Abi is actually going to be our guest on the podcast in a couple of weeks’ time.
Finally, you’re now working in sound. This means it’s your job to have a listen around for great audio storytelling. What a great job! Become a magpie, picking up interesting ways to structure and tell stories, to use audio, to make points, to build worlds. There’s a list of recommended podcasts on the Parallel Worlds website, but there are many many more I’ve never heard of. If there’s one you particularly love, leave the show a voicemail!
Thanks for listening, I’ll be back again soon.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Trailer for John Carpenter’s They Live
- Six House Parties by Ross Sutherland
- Black Eye by Ross Sutherland and Abi Palmer
Listen to Ross Sutherland’s Six House Parties. It is episode 17 of his podcast Imaginary Advice. You can listen in this Parallel Worlds podcast episode – but I really recommend you subscribe to Imaginary Advice!
Whilst you’re listening, think about the way that the story works. Think about worlds you’d like to inhabit with your work. Think about audio production, how to create atmospheres, how these ones enhance rather than overwhelm the story. Think about themes you’d like to explore in your own audio stories. But mostly, enjoy.