Creating the journey

I was at the point in my career when I had become confident enough with the radio documentary form to start experimenting and pushing the boundaries of how the form can be shaped. I could do this, or I could fall into patterns of familiarity.

So I set myself a challenge, to burn my normal set of paradigms and scatter the ashes around to see what emerged. The first experimental challenge I set for myself was to disintegrate time. This was because I came to documentary as a historian and I had brought with me a need to find meaning through historical devices. So, break time, break cause and effect. Create a timelessness by not allowing the documentary to sit in any one time. Slightly scared of the resulting chaos, I set up ‘place’ as a unifying and organising force. The idea was to jump through different times within the one place. What was not clear to me was how I could do this without alienating the listener. At the outset I was a subscriber of the idea put forward by Stephen Cleary of the primacy in knowing ‘when you are’ before the audience can identify with character.

At this point it will help to explain the ‘story’ of the documentary: Suleiman the Magnificent marched through Eastern Europe, right up to the gates of Vienna, where he was finally defeated, but more by the cold weather and spring rains than by any opposing army. He had travelled too far outside of his linguistic and climatic environment. The route he took up the Danube has been used by other invading armies, including the communists and the Nazis. It has a war torn history. My Piece ‘Suleiman’s Journey’ was about conflating the history of these places into one work.

In the research process it was really hard to stay true to the notion of timelessness. I found out that the Diet of Worms was taking place as Suleiman was readying to invade parts of Europe. Luther was in the limelight and he and Suleiman even spoke of each other. The early 1500s was a fascinating period: the rise of Protestantism and Luther, the quite literal duel between Spain and France, Henry’s trajectory to leaving the church, were all key parts of why Suleiman felt he could invade Europe when he did, but they would all hit the cutting room floor. I admit that I couldn’t stop myself from noting these things down, but I made sure that they never entered the timeline of the edit. Meaning could not be found through this method. That was the old me.

The Night Air, who commissioned the piece worried a little about this timelessness and wanted assurance there would be a narrative to engage the listener. Maybe they thought I would actually succeed at breaking time, in which case, I would also break narrative, which I came to realise essentially relies upon time. What they didn’t realise is that narrative is my native form, and not one I was intending to dump in this experimentation. One part of my brain was setting out to break time, another part of my brain was fully intending to create some form of narrative arc, I hadn’t thought it through and realised that I would probably not be able to do both.

As Brent Clough, my commissioning editor pointed out, I had the diaries of Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, to act as a narrative link. I had found a number of references to these diaries in a number of historical and biographical texts and thought they could form an excellent guide through Eastern Europe. I thought that finding these diaries would be simple and that I’d do that when the project was greenlit. I was very wrong, and there is a fabulous anecdote for another day involving travelling the world in search of a footnote from a German history, meeting the white lab-coated archivists of the Süleymaniye Camii in Istanbul and translations through four languages to finally access these diaries.

I had received an Australia Council grant to create this project at a Varuna radio residency run by Siobhan McHugh. I brought with me a series of news archives from ABC, soundscapes of Europe I had recorded, and the translations of the diaries I had created. In the modern digital world there is very little point in creating a ‘paper cut’ of the project. Gone are the days when I gave the actor pages and pages of original historical material knowing about a tenth of it would make the final cut. Now I can edit the text as I edit the documentary and then give the actor the exact text that I need. This is done by recording my own voice as a guide track for the edit.

Using my own voice as a guide is incredibly useful, but brings up its own issues. There were going to be between five or six voices reading historical material in the final edit, each one with a different accent. By using my own non-actor voice for all the parts I created a sameness throughout the work. It was not simple to distinguish characters and it was hard to latch on to a voice or a character and let it ground you in his or her time.

The comments I received from the other residents in the evening play throughs reflected this. They wanted more character and more knowledge about the character. They were after the type of work I might create for Hindsight, where I am concerned about making sure all parts of the story are very clear to the listener. Where I mix archive material and historical recreations with contemporary analysis by ‘experts’. Where I develop character as a way of telling the story.

Their comments pulled me back from creating a completely experimental piece. I realised that I wanted to rise to the challenge of creating an experimental work that still engaged this type of audience. So I added a couple of excerpts from a Venetian Ambassador, who wrote contemporary accounts of Suleiman and his army. It was a small concession to their desire to bring in experts to talk about Suleiman or about the Janissary system. What I had worked out was that everyone in this documentary had to speak about their own time. The times needed to be broken, not connected across the centuries. No-one could reflect upon another time.

At this early stage the structure of the piece was fairly set. There was a sound bed of atmospheres I recorded in 21st century Europe, street music, trains etc. There were ABC news archives from various times in the 20th century from these regions, for instance the last speech made by Ceausescu in Bucharest, or the arrival of the Russian tanks in Budapest. There was historical material for actor readings, for instance Suleiman’s war diaries. Finally there was a small narrator role to help move the story along.

Once I had finished this draft of the edit I realised that rather than break time I had replaced linear time with circular time. A sense of repetition and inescapable fate was emerging in this version of the documentary. Rather than a dissonance between the times, a circularity of inevitable repetition appeared. By having my voice as the only voice, other than in the archives and language tapes, it had meant that identification with character was next to impossible. Without being able to identify with character, how can you identify with their time? I had previously followed Stephen Cleary’s idea that time is more important than character for audience identification. I am now less convinced of this.

As I replaced my temporary voice guide track with the final accented voices the nature of time in the piece changed. The biggest change took place when the voice of Suleiman went into the work.

The Night Air agreed to hire an actor for the role of Suleiman. I directed the actor Fayssal Bazzi to give an emotional performance of the brief war diary entries. The entries are very matter of fact: “April 23.  It was a Monday. Departure from Constantinople, the army stops at Halkali Binar.” so the performance had to be anything but this. I was hoping that this would help create the identification with character that was missing from the guide track version of the edit. At this stage I was resigned to the project being clearly set in circular time.

Fayssal brought Suleiman to life, he gave him concerns and worries and hopes and fears. I no longer felt worried about character missing from the piece. In fact, in this version of the edit Suleiman very much dominated the work. Time was no longer circular, it had returned to linear, it was very clearly set in the 1520s. Fayssal’s Suleiman had stolen time back.

In the meantime Brent Clough was worried that I was creating an historical vignette, and wanted to make sure that the 21st century sound bed had a meaning and presence. He wanted 21st century Catherine, who recorded the material, to be more clearly in the piece, he suggested a reflective role for this character, but in keeping with previous notions, she needed to exist wholly within her own time, not reflect upon another time.

I was most clear about what 21st century Catherine wouldn’t do. I didn’t want her to be a character in the documentary who underwent a narrative arc. I didn’t want her to be a narrator, who generally helps the listener understand key plot points and let them know when and where they are in the story. She needed to provide disharmony to the timeline. After some thought I let her take on the role of the English speaker in the language tape excerpts, as well as existing in some of the atmospheres. In this sense she was never a character, more an unsettling presence.

By creating 21st century Catherine, I had created the problem of including two roles played by myself, I still had small pieces of linkage narration there to identify people or drive the story forward. Rather than the obviously solution to bring in a different voice for the small narrator role, I decided to use the problem as a part of the time breaking solution: one voice, two characters in two different eras. I clearly set this up in the introductory remarks. Up front we meet the two Catherines, the 21st century abstract disruptor of time, and the 16th century narrator and storyteller, and since Suleiman is the key character, we also meet him.

It’s all very well to set up the idea of two roles for one voice, but once in the body of the work, how does a listener identify which voice is speaking? It was John Jacobs, who mixed the project, who found the sonic solution to the two Catherines. He created a unique EQ for each voice so that they had a distinct sound. This was enough to create distinct entities for the voices, and yet still be aware that they are the same person in different times.

Brent Clough was completely right, 21st century Catherine helped to displace the complete dominance of Suleiman’s time. Suleiman’s time still acts as a ‘present’ in the work, and the news archives from the 20th century act as an illustrative ‘flash forward’, but at times the 21st century sound bed and 21st century Catherine pull the ‘present’ of the narrative out of the 1520s. And at times, especially when the 1520s historical voice is not Suleiman, the present is not really set in any time. For instance the letter from Ferdinand I has a modern sound bed introduction and is read over the sound of typing on a Mac keyboard, a very 21st century sound. It is one of the few points in the work that I feel is truly lost in a timelessness. One of the few places where I came close to breaking time.

The importance of this experiment with time is that now when I go back to my more conventional work and take with me a greater understanding of working with multiple times within the one story. I have revised my understanding of the importance of character within the narrative. I now feel that time follows character, not the other way around. 21st century Catherine was providing a break in time because she was not a character, and therefore we could not identify with her and settle into her time. By testing the limits of what is possible and by focusing on the form rather than the story I am more confident about my creative skill.

It is sad that The Night Air has gone, and I really hope that there will be another programme that will allow documentary makers to create the occasional experimental work where they can test ideas, methods and practice. I hope that there will still be a slot where listeners expect to have to listen a little more closely than normal, and expect to hear the unexpected.

Suleiman’s Journey was broadcast on Radio National on December 9, 2012.

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