Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Transcription Discs


Hello everyone!

This will be another short one, as I am behind on about a million things this week, namely, getting the final CANT files to John "Funkmaster" Funk, and layout for the Cerebus Art Dragnet certificate, which Mara is working on now as I type this. Not to mention the layout that needs to happen for the back matter of High Society...

Anyway, I was thinking this week about the High Society work, and thinking about a related bit of restoration and preservation, namely incredible ten-disc set of Orson Welles radio dramas put out by Radio Archives almost a decade ago.

As many of you probably know, Orson Welles was possibly the greatest radio director who ever lived, a fact made all the more remarkable by his young age-- the radio plays on which that reputation rest were made when he was in his early twenties. And like many prolific artists, Welles was a shark, always moving, only infrequently looking back on what he had created, with eyes squarely on the next project, the next story, the next thing to devote himself to.

Dave and Orson Welles. I've made the comparison before, in an article/addendum to an interview I conducted with Gerhard for The Comics Journal in 2011. Here's the relevant bit--
In the world of film, at least the technicians and artists behind each of the specialized tasks have names, have credits. And yet it doesn’t seem to have done much good, at least in the way that people tend to view the “authorship” of a movie. To take a ready example- it’s still routine to read analyses of Citizen Kane that mention Gregg Toland, the film’s cinematographer, in passing only. I find this example particularly apt, as it seems clear that Toland and [Orson] Welles created the visual look of Kane as equal partners, that in fact Welles was as eager to work with Toland as Toland was to work with him.
The Welles/Toland comparison seems even more relevant when you consider that although Welles was undoubtedly the central figure, the “author” and architect of Citizen Kane, the film relied very heavily on the visual innovations of Toland, and that Toland had himself been developing many of these innovations for years. In a certain way it could be argued that many of Welles’ chief visual contributions to Kane involved knowing when to collaborate, and when to leave Toland to his own devices.

Despite their obvious differences, there are actually lots of similarities between  Dave's work and Welles' work. Innovative, pioneering storytelling methods, so inventive that they could/would be mined by lesser talents for whole careers. Uneasy and shifting relationships with mainstream success. Both working in unusual narration-heavy "essay" forms in their later work, works which rely on their personalities and ideas rather than pure narrative interest. (This is an invitation for someone to write a comparison of glamourpuss and F For Fake.)

Anyway, I'm getting off track here. Back to the Radio Archives set.

These are fascinating to listen to, and hearing them for the first time was one of the most visceral aesthetic experiences I've ever had. Bracing. It's not just the command of narrative, the break-neck pace of the story telling or the compelling acting or the gorgeous music by Bernard Hermann. It's also that they sound so damn good!

You see, for the most part, Welles' mighty work in radio is currently represented by who-knows-how-many generations of audio. Someone taped a re-broadcast on their reel-to-reel, transferred it to cassette later, then made a dupe for someone else, who made a low-resolution MP3 of the whole thing and THEN applied some terrible noise reduction. 

Welles himself didn't think much about preservation. His secretaries kept files, sure, he had dupes of transcription discs made so he could review the shows later, improve things. But he moved offices, he lost staff, he moved countries. Nothing stayed with him. And certainly, at the end of his life, he was more interested in raising money to complete his current projects than spending time and resources on holding on to what was, in essence, his juvenilia.

But that Radio Archives set makes it clear how outstanding the work he did in radio truly was, in a way completely different from hearing those tenth-generation copies I was talking about before. On Dracula, the Mercury Theatre's very first broadcast, you hear ghostly howls, wind, murmuring of crowds, shrieks, the eerie mechanical sound of Welles' Dracula voice, all details that couldn't possibly have been heard even at the original point of broadcast. And all of these thing were captured by the transcription discs, recorded because of various broadcast regulations and then stuffed in a closet, only to re-emerge, decades later.

So why even bother creating that amount of detail when it would have, in all likelihood, be lost in the terrible-sounding A.M. radio signal, broadcast once and then never again?

Because it's better that way. Because that's what artist's do, even when they have an eye for broadcast (or reproduction), even considering all of the states that their work might go through before it reaches an audience.

It would be impossible to assemble a definitive collection of Welles' radio work at this point. Too many of the materials are gone, destroyed, or in private collections, hanging on someone's wall, never to see the light of day. The irony of this is, unlike his film work, which is owned by the many fractured pieces of his estate, much of Welles' radio work is squarely in the public domain. And yet, access to it, in a listenable form that gives full respect to the source, is mostly impossible.

Dave is in a unique position in that, though the work is now historic, the window for restoration has yet to close. There are still active collectors out there who are willing to help assemble the materials, there's still funding out there to help us make progress on the tremendous amount of work required per book. It seems likely that attempting a project like this a decade from now would be impossible.

There's a lot more to say here, about the public domain, about how estates do or don't manage the legacies of their creators. Rather than contribute any more words of my own, I'd appreciate any thoughts you all might have about these issues.

I'll leave you with a relevant Gerhard quote--
It’s amazing to see the difference between the printed book and the original artwork. If you ever see a copy of the Winsor McCay book, look at the difference between the illustration on the cover, which is a giant multi-layered, multi-winged multi-engined airship, and then it’s reproduced much smaller on the title page, and all that delicate line work is filled in to solid black. And that’s sometimes the difference between the original art and the printed version. I look at that and I think, “I’m not going to do all that crosshatching when it’s just going to fill in to solid black anyway.
But, of course, we all know they both did it anyway...


Gabe said...

Why would a collector hang a tape of audio material on a wall ???

Sean R said...

Believe it or not, "collecting" transcription discs is a real thing. When I (briefly) embarked on a Welles audio restoration/archivist project a few years back, that was my chief goal--track down transcription discs and persuade people to have them digitized. People see them as ornamental, and they're certainly exotic. I've seen some transcription discs that actually had a space on the box for marking how many times you played them--because the acetate was so fragile and the tone arms and needles so coarse and heavy, that they had a limited amount of "plays" in them.

Paul Slade said...

This new David Simon post on the process of transferring The Wire to HD with a new, more filmic, ratio touches on some issues you might recognise, Sean. It's a fascinating read.

Sean R said...

Hey Paul,

What a great article. David Simon is a remarkable man. Love his forthright analysis of the choices involved. (Personally, I would have updated to HD and kept the original aspect ratio, re-rendering the CG at the new res but maintaining the rest. Though even just changing the res brings up a host of new problems. Love the Star Trek episode, for instance, with a clearly chained-up terrifying lion, or mannequins as stand-ins for dead bodies...)

Did you know I co-wrote and illustrated a book related to the Wire? The unWired World of H.B. Ogden...

Paul Slade said...

Hello, Sean.

I didn't know that, but I've just read about the book on Amazon and ordered a copy. I'm a massive Wire fan, and have long bored my unconverted friends with "best TV ever"and "great Russian novel" arguments on its behalf. Not as long as I've been boring them about Cerebus, mind.

David Simon. Dave Sim. Two of my favourite crazily ambitious auteurs. Very similar names. Both with cropped haircuts - WAIT A MINUTE!

We're through the looking glass here, people...