Intro from Jay Allison: We have a series here at Transom we call “Short Lists” where you hear a list of things and then find out how they’re connected. Hairpieces, Coyotes, Village Portraits, Grind Core Punk, Personal Tragedy, Songwriting, Fibromyalgia, Singing at Funerals, Roller Derby… okay, that’s a list of the stories produced by the Transom Story Workshop this fall. The students came here from all over the country (and two from Canada this time), somehow discovered these stories hidden away on Cape Cod, and then, using the skills they just learned, turned them into radio. It’s quite a trick—to go from never having done it, to doing it well. I’m amazed every time.
About “You Can’t Play The Old Songs Forever”
I don’t remember exactly what Google pathway led me to Peter Donelly’s door. However, I can say for certain that his being a musician had very little to do with my desire to profile him for a Creative Life piece. I was much more interested in his role as a founder and host of the long-running open mic night at the Muse Coffeehouse in Provincetown. I’m also an artist, so I’m naturally curious about how and why artists make space for each other. Though Peter’s particular medium was initially incidental, it allowed me to make my first foray into mixing lots of music into a radio piece. I play no instruments. My singing voice is shower-only, but after working on this story, I was hooked. I fell in love with all of the ways music can elevate radio.
The obvious role music played in this profile was informational. Peter is a musician, so including his music is like saying ‘Look, Here, see? Musician.’ It also conveyed the particular kind of music that Peter plays, which was valuable because, like many radio stories, my profile of Peter needed to fall within a certain time limit. By using his music underneath and between actualities and narration, I could convey information about the kind of music Peter plays without having to burn up the clock spelling out those details.
Beyond that, because Peter is a singer and songwriter, his lyrics could sometimes function like actualities without being actualities. This was very cool for two reasons. One: It’s nice on the ear to have singing break up all the talking. Two: the piece focused pretty heavily on his backstory, and I not only had the resource of present Peter who could talk about past Peter, I also had recordings of past Peter singing about past Peter.
One of the songs I used was called “Desperate Times.” Peter wrote it in the nineties, about the AIDS epidemic, specifically about losing someone who was very important to him. The song is a prayer. It’s a direct supplication to God. In the interview, Peter shared that he now considers himself an atheist, so he would never write a song like that today. Putting a recording of “Desperate Times” next to Peter commenting on the loss of his faith allowed me show without telling how Peter’s beliefs and artistic expression have changed as a result of the events in his life. I was pretty proud of that moment in the piece.
I’m a little less proud of my last use of music in the piece. It’s not awful, but it’s not ideal and thanks to a tip from Jeff Towne, I know exactly how I went astray and what I can do better next time. In the last actuality Peter says that if he could tell himself one thing back when he started to write songs, he’d tell himself to keep going because even though there were a lot of logical reasons not to pursue his dream, writing songs would help him get his life on track. The song I chose to lay under and frame this last actuality is “New Day,” which is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. It’s a beautiful song and I love it on its own, but pairing it with Peter was pretty heavy-handed. Here’s why: music in a radio piece, if it is conveying tone rather than information, should heighten the sub-text rather than text. I got this tip from the wise and wonderful Jeff Towne, who got it from a person who does movie soundtracks. The idea is that the ‘text’ (acts and tracks) is right there, spelled out for the listener to understand. The sub-text is subtler, and that’s where the listener could use some help.
And lastly: this is just for all the other music mixing newbies. Cut music on the downbeat. Apparently some people can hear this thing called a downbeat. I can’t, but it doesn’t matter because I can see it in the waveform. It’s a little dip. Cut the music at the dip and add a tiny cross fade. Works like magic.
Calling all magic assisters!
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Annabel’s Sonic ID
This sonic comes from the Fall Festival in Cotuit. I walked into a historic house as the Cornell’s and another companion were pulling a homemade apple pie out of the fireplace. They were in period costumes. They were holding a pie. They cooked the pie with fire. Obviously, I had to talk to them. I can’t take any credit for drawing this little bit of fun out of the Cornell’s, they were just great talkers, but the experience did underscore the importance of bringing (and wearing) your gear everywhere you go.