(Re)writing for radio

Recently I’ve been through the process reworking an interdisciplinary piece to be suitable for radio. I found this to be intriguing, challenging and much more useful than I thought it would be, so I feel that it’s worth identifying the steps I went through to do this.

The piece is Fortune Favours the Brave, a very visual, even theatrical piece for flute and objects that I wrote for Jenni Hogan this year. Fortune Favours the Brave centres around a unique score – handwritten and made out of 4.5 metres of shot silk and rice paper and presented in the form of a Chinese handscroll – and significant moments in the piece are conveyed using ritualistic gestures. The subject matter of the piece – about decision-making in performance – depends on the gestures and score, which is fine in the performance situation for which it was designed, but how do you remove key visual elements from an interdisciplinary composition and still end up with a piece that works?

Performance detail, Fortune Favours the Brave

I have to say, it wasn’t an easy process. Several things required attention, including the score, the gestures, the coin tossing/dropping, the limited time allotted (Fortune in its natural state is variable in duration) and the need to fit in with a radio show’s predetermined length.

The easy bit came first. Clearly the gestures weren’t going to work on radio and would just result in an unexplained hole in the music and needed to be dumped. Also quite clearly, the score object needed to be discarded for this performance – it wouldn’t have any impact on an audio-only audience and as it’s quite slow to scroll between sections in it (much slower than turning a page), again this would leave unexplained holes. In both these cases, while I didn’t mind the idea of silence mid-piece, with the limited time available it seemed better to tighten things up a bit.

The problem with all this discarding though was that with the gestures and the score gone, what happened to the idea of choice that is central to the piece?

The only one of the choice-indicators left at this point was the coin-tossing, which I was keeping as a way of separating movements and because I was concerned that removing all the decision mechanisms of the piece would just leave it as sounds without a real concept.

However, during a group workshop day we (Bastard Assignments) held to work through our pieces for the radio gig, it became apparent that the coin toss wasn’t working as strongly as I’d hoped. As a separation device between movements it was fine, but it was pointed out that the sound of a coin toss comes with a bunch of semantic baggage and also that due to the need to predetermine the sections played because of the time limit, there was actually no choice being made. So the implications of the coin toss sound were false, making it an insincere gesture – the coin toss became just a sound which had no relationship to the music except to separate and could just as well be replaced by something else which might be less semantically burdened. Clearly, the coin toss was doomed but as the last thing which connected explicitly with the work’s purpose of exploring decision-making, I had a lot of trouble letting it go.

Another thing which came up in the workshop was that the breathing in the piece was a mix of intentional, scripted breaths, and more relaxed “I’m just taking in oxygen” breaths and the latter diminished the impact of the former. So I focused on the breathing while I considered the problem of the coin toss and ultimately it provided an answer.

It became clear to me that what the scripted, audible breathing provided in the piece which the more relaxed breaths undid was to create a line of tension throughout each movement. I worked with Jenni over a couple of sessions and we plotted out the breathing across the entire work so that each movement’s breathing was fully scripted to use audible, intentional (almost sucking) breaths. In this context, the dividing signal which ultimately replaced the coin toss was a relaxed version of a tense-breath gesture used several times across the piece – in-out-in – purposefully drawing in the relaxed breathing that had been the apparent problem before and giving Jenni a chance to ‘come down’ and recover a bit between movements.

Obviously, this still didn’t solve the issue of the theme of decision-making, but in my mind this tension/release situation helped in that the increased difficulty of the radio edit version moved the location of decision-making so it was no longer a question of deciding whether or not to play the next movement, but whether or not to engage with the piece at all. Because not only has it become quite a difficult and physically demanding work, but it does so many things (with the breathing in particular) that go against ‘proper’ flute training that it poses a challenge to people’s perception of the flautist’s technique. It’s a little bit ironic perhaps that a piece that requires a flautist of extreme technical prowess to perform should put them in a position of potentially sounding like they don’t know what they’re doing…

And so we turned up at the Southbank Centre and did our live gig on BBC Radio 3 (which you can hear over on iPlayer until 24 October!) and that all went well, but what interested me in particular as a follow-up to this process was the effect that this work had on the piece in its original interdisciplinary state. Jenni performed Fortune Favours the Brave again the following day for a private event and I could really see immense improvements in the way the whole piece worked based on the changes we’d made for radio. The tension in the played sections created a much more dramatic space for the gestures and overall I felt the radio-edit process had significantly strengthened the entire work.

Rejection gesture - Fortune Favours the Brave, Jenni Hogan

For me it’s still an interdisciplinary piece (hey, even on the radio they were talking about the score and we weren’t even using it!), but the experience of focusing solely on the sound of it was a hugely valuable experience and one I’ll be returning to in future.

The radio edit of Fortune Favours the Brave was performed by Jenni Hogan at London’s Southbank Centre for BBC Radio 3 Hear and Now on 24 September 2016. Hear it as part of the Bastard Assignments live performance on iPlayer until 24 October 2016 »

My most heartfelt thanks go to Jenni Hogan for asking me to write Fortune Favours the Brave and for her amazing technique and patience while developing this piece. Hear more of Jenni’s work on her SoundCloud »

Score: Fortune Favours the Brave

All photographs in this post are by Alejandro Tamagno and were taken at Jenni Hogan’s performance of Fortune Favours the Brave at Cake Club on 25 September 2016.