Sonic Reflections

Conversation with Colin Black about Radio Art

When I met Colin Black for the first time in June 2014 at the Radio as Art Conference in Bremen it made a strong impression on me when one evening this tall, slim man with shoulder-length blond hair from Australia looked up to the German sky and wondered whispering to himself: „Oh, this is how the moon looks like up here.“ Since then I was longing so much to go to Australia someday to find out how the moon looks like Down Under.

Of course the moon was not the only reason I very much wished to travel to Australia. Like Canada this huge country on the other side of the planet has an amazing radio research and radio art scene and as a radio art reseacher I of course wanted to find out more about the reasons why this is so.

In January 2017 thanks to a research grant by the University of Basel and a kind invitation as visiting scholar by Virginia Madsen from Macquarie University I eventually got the chance to go for three months to Sydney, the „Mekka of Radio (Art) Studies“, and do some final research for my PhD on contemporary radio art there. 

One of the protagonists of the contemporary radio art scene, not only in Australia, is Colin Black. In 2003 the musician and composer won for his first feature length radio art work The Ears Outside My Listening Room (ABC) about Australians and their view on Australia right away the renowned and prestigious Prix Italia. In 2015 he received the Golden Medal of the New York Festival for his outstanding sound art composition In Search of Captain Cat of Llareggub (2014). This radio art work was inspired by the blind ficitional character of Captain Tom Cat in Under Milk Wood (1954), the poignant classic BBC radio drama of the poet Dylan Thomas about a small fishing viallage in Wales and its inhabitants and their dreams, hopes, memories and everyday lifes. And in 2016 the German station Deutschlandradio Kultur commissioned Colin to produce a radio essay on radio art: Sonic Reflections, a unique acoustic reflection about a rather ephemral art form with such prominent radio artists and scholars like Kaye Mortley, Götz Naleppa, Heidi Grundmann and Elisabeth Zimmermann of Kunstradio Wien, Gregory Whitehead, Anna Friz, Douglas Kahn and many more. (For a very nice review of Sonic Reflections in German see here.) What all three of these works by Colin have in common is their tempting textuality: They are very mindfully and precisely woven collages made out of spoken word, music, electronical sounds and noises, which to listen to is a great pleasure. Hearing them one might get a very good idea of what the German composer Kurt Weill might have had in mind when he envisioned in 1925 a future art form, which he called „absolute radio art“ and described as „an absolute, soulful work of art, floating above the earth“. Colin instead mostly uses the term „dreamscapes“ to explain what he is interested in and the exceptional character of his radio art works.

When I met Colin during my research stay in January in the lovely little beach town Manly, 40 minutes by ferry from Sydney’s hub Circular Quay, we had a very intriguing conversation about Colin’s work, its background, the history of radio art, the streetlight signals in Syndey at summer and winter time, about his formative experience of the famous Australian radio program Kindergarten of the Air and how radio art can turn you into a rain drop. You can either listen to our conversation dubbed in German here or you can read it in English below.

At the beginning of our conversation I asked Colin to elaborate a little bit on his understanding of the three words „soundwalks, dreamscapes, radio art“, which describe his artistic practice the best:

„The idea of sound walks, dreamscapes and radio art is fundamentally what I do. A sound walk in its most basic form is walking, and instead of looking, listening to a place. You don’t go to look at the view, you go to listen to the sound scape and every place has its unique sound that makes it special. You become more in tune with it. That’s what I really like about sound walks, it allows you to build a deeper connection with that location. And the community in that location, the accents, the way that people are saying things, the rivers, the culture of the bird life or the animal life there.

Dreamscapes are what I do with audio works. When you make an audio recording it’s not real. A sound walk is really, you’re in the location, you’re interacting with the place. As soon as you take that sound recording out of the place, it becomes a projection of somewhere that it’s not, in a different location. And it becomes like a dream, or like in Plato’s Cave, a shadow being projected onto a wall. It’s not real but you can be fooled into thinking it’s real.

It’s this beautiful idea of making dreamscapes out of these projections of sound. That is the really special thing that I really love doing. Because I know that they’re not real but you can paint really beautiful sound pictures with sound recordings and using all the elements of sound, words, location recordings, musical compositions in a traditional sense. They are all the elements that I use to make radio art.

Radio art to me is using all of those elements as a creative tool and also thinking about the medium of radio and transmission and its cultural and media implications of using that media. It’s in many places all at once. That idea by itself is quite special. And with a podcast it’s in many locations at different times.

I am thinking about audio and media art as an art form and all its permutations and ways of doing it past the traditional narrative driven spoken word radio techniques that have been used from the start of radio. I am thinking more in terms of what Götz Naleppa and Klaus Schoening would call “Neues Hörspiel”. I am thinking of radio as, „What can we do with radio as an art form? How can we make it into something really special that intrigues the ear?“ – not just by words but with all the elements of sound, music, words and location recordings or sound effects.

You grew up in Australia on the countryside, actually not really close to “Neues Hörspiel”, at the other end of the world. How did you as an artist come across this art form and how did you discover that this is your way of accessing the world artistically or making expressions, comments on the world in an artistic manner that suits you the best?

It’s true, I grew up in a very remote location in Australia. The thing that radio does really well is: it connects people. I didn’t feel isolated from the city because I had the radio with me, and it brought all the dreams with it through the air. The thing that is different for me is that I had this different perspective, I wasn’t coming from the city and making something for the city. I was coming from this farm where you could see for kilometres and kilometres, a completely different sense of space. For me, sound was all about the space of the place and about encapsulating the qualities of that space and finding a way to reflect in my work something for the listener, to give them something to reflect on whatever is in the piece itself, giving them space to dream. Like you said before: dreamscape. A radio work for me is a space for the listener to dream their dream as much as my dream. It’s a relationship between the listener and the creator.

That’s the really special relationship with radio that I grew up. I instantly knew that when I was five years old. Every morning at school we’d have to listen to this radio program called ‚Kindergarten of the Air’, but what really made it special was that we couldn’t get it unless one of the students was holding the antenna. One day I was holding the antenna and I realized that I was part of this chain. If I would let go the program would be lost.

This is what radio does. It’s this personal relationship. You’re part of it. The listener is part of it as much of the radio people inside the radio.

I find that very intriguing and interesting what you are telling. You are saying that especially growing up in a remote place like the Australian countryside somehow enforced your fascination for radio. Is that maybe also the reason why radio art is big in Australia? At least that’s my impression. Or is that a misconception?

I think radio art was supported a lot in Australia for a number of decades. Unfortunately, recently the powers that be at the public broadcaster don’t see the value in radio art as much as they did before, even though Australians have repeatedly won international awards on a world stage, going this is the best of the best, and it’s coming from this small country with 20,000,000 people on the other side of the planet.

I did a research project for my PhD and asked different practitioners across the world from America, from parts of Europe and Australia and South America, briefly through email. I was asking whether they could hear something that was Australian with the Australian works. They couldn’t really put their finger on it but they all said that when they heard it, they knew it was Australian and it wasn’t the accent. It was the way that the Australians were making their radio programs and the way they were mixing them and pacing them and placing it together, and the sense of space. I think Elizabeth Zimmerman from Kunstradio in Vienna said that the strong element was this environmental quality within the Australian radio artworks.

What is this environmental quality? Would you please elaborate a little bit on that?

There’s been a number of works about recording the Australian environment. I once got commissioned by Deutschlandradio Kultur to make a piece about Ludwig Leichhardt who was an early Australian explorer who came in 1842 from Germany. He decided to go to the most remote places of Australia, where he would have been the first white person who went to those places.

On his last expedition in 1848 he goes straight into the desert and disappears and they’ve never found any trace of him. I made this program where I’m tracing his journal entries and I’m recording the different locations and making this story about Leichhardt, but not with words, only sparse words. I got this idea that I’d get a guitar and put extra strings on it that reached out into the environment so that the environment played the instrument in a very strange way. I had these location recordings at the same time with these strange extended guitar in stereo, two of them. As I further got towards the desert the sound of the guitar changes.

Do you think that Australia has a special kind of noises, very Australian noises? You permanently do your conscious sound walks here in Australia and you probably also did them in Europe and other place of the world. From your own experience: What’s the difference of the noises in Australia and the noises in other places in the world?

It always strikes when I go when I go to Germany and I’ll wake up for the first morning in Germany, the birds are all different. There are these strange sounding birds. I went to New York in 2015 and stayed in East Village. In that street, amazingly enough in the middle of New York City, you wake up and there are birds in the street. They’re different birds to the ones in Europe than the ones in Australia. Australia obviously has these birds that are completely different. And of course the accent is different, the sound of the city is different. The pace that people speak at is different. In the middle of summer you can almost hear the heat sometimes here. And you can definitely hear the cold. When it gets cold, you can hear that it’s cold.

How can you hear the heat or the cold? What do you hear then?

Well, where I live there’s a street crossing that has a streetlight. When it’s cold I can hear the streetlight signal much better than when it’s hot at night. It’s really crisp when it’s cold. When it’s hot, it gets fuzzy. It’s not so sharp and not so clean and not so loud.

Actually I love especially the signals of streetlights here in Australia, how they tell the people to cross the street. It just sounds like a Swoosh! or something. Is that the noise you are talking about?

 Yeah. That “beep, beep, beep, beep”. Yeah.

Then it makes Swoosh!, just like a laser sword or so.

“Run now!”

Yeah, but somehow it’s special. It makes me like feeling in a science fiction movie or outer space somehow.

I guess so, but growing up with it, it’s just normal. It’s like you don’t hear those things, but as soon as you say it it gets obvious. The street sounds in Europe are completely different, you are right.

When I’ve been to Ljubljana I learned that the river changes at different times of the year. And they’ve got in different parts of the old city in Ljubljana these underwater grates. When you walk over these sections, you can hear water running that kind of disappears, but you can’t see the waterway. That’s kind of nice.

In Vienna it’s kind of the sense of space. You almost can hear the architecture there, the way the sound bounces around those grand buildings, especially near the palace and places like that. If you listen, you can hear the walls and you can hear the reflections of different walls and the sense of the space of the place.

And the strange thing with New York is its subways. You can hear them on the street. You walk along the street and you can hear the trains because the tracks are not very deep in the ground underneath New York City. You walk the streets and there are trains going under your feet. That was kind of strange for the first time when I heard that.

Growing up on the farm I just loved the sound of the small creeks, just the way they bubble and gurgle and sometimes they sound very musical, the way the rocks lead the water through them. It makes a melodic contour in the sound.

You are renowned and award winning radio artist, but you’re also a composer and musician. I was wondering how actually did you become a radio artist? Did you come from a musical background? Did you get involved in music first and then developed in the direction of a sound and radio art? Or did the radio and the experience of recording sounds come first? How was your personal journey to radio art?

My personal journey to radio art, it goes like this: My mother bought me a radio that I had to put together, so I fell in love with the radio. Then, as a child I really loved sound. I’d record everything on a cassette player. Then I bought myself a guitar and I taught myself music, and when I got good enough I got a university degree in music. Then I played music professionally as a guitarist for a number of years. Then I got a grant of an arts residency at the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation (ABC) with the radio art program The Listening Room. I never had made a feature length work before. They gave me six months, they gave me help, they gave me a budget to hire a string quartet and various session musicians, so I pieced together this idea that I’d interview Australians and make field recordings from different parts of Australia, to find out what Australians thought about themselves as Australians. I called it “The Ears outside my Listening Room”.

Then I left the residency. I handed Robyn Ravlich, the Executive Producer at that time, my work over: „Here’s my DAT, here’s the master tape.“ I walked out and I thought that was a lot of fun. Then, she entered it into the Prix Italia and I won.

That was your first piece?

That was my first piece and I won the Prix Italia. This was in 2003. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think they could believe. At that time I was in Greece. I got the news but it kind of wasn’t real because I was more interested in being in Greece in summer and relaxing. But then, when I came back, that Prix Italia really had started the ball rolling. I got those opportunities to make more of that work because of the recognition from that international award. So I made pieces for Deutschland Radio and other international broadcasters. Then I did a PhD studying what the art form was, and I became really and deeply involved in finding out what it was, and what it was about the Australian radio art that made it special, and what were all the different facets and dimensions and properties of the art form across the planet. How does it differ in different countries? What are the different attitudes at different approaches? What’s the history of it? Where did it come from? Even going back to Hans Flesch in the 1920’s in Berlin and his ideas of, „Look, this is radio. What do we do with it? How can we experiment with this and make it really radio, not just the content being recorded and broadcast but radio as radio?“

Do you have something like a core finding? How would you put your conclusion in a nutshell? What is radio art? What were your main findings?

My main finding in a nutshell is problematic to do, but I think the main finding is that it’s a valid art form in itself. It has international dimensions and properties. It had different international approaches just like any other art form. It is as important to culture as any other art form whether we recognize that or not.

Most art galleries they go, „Well, it’s not sound art. It’s not music. Somebody’s calling it radio. Why don’t the radio people take care of it? How can we frame it?“ But: „The radio people they want to make radio,“ as Andrew McLennan said: “The problem with radio art is that radio people want people to make things that are expected for radio. Artists don’t make expected things. It doesn’t fit into radio so easily unless you create a slot specifically for experimentation with audio media and transmission and call it: ‘This is our radio workshop experimental space.’”

It’s kind of in this middle land between everything. Radio doesn’t want it, or radio finds it hard to place. Art galleries don’t know what to do with it. The music world, „Is it really music?“ That’s its challenge. How do you make it something that people instantly know what it is by calling it something? Sound art everybody seems to know what it is, but nobody knows really what it is because it could be anything.

Radio art has the same potential as other art forms to evoke all those human qualities. Whether it’s a great novel that changes your way of thinking of something. Radio artwork can do the same thing. It’s so beautifully painfully poignant. Nothing’s the same after you’ve heard it.

I got a friend and he works as a builder. He’s a labourer and he told me one day that by chance, this is a few years ago, he was listening to The Listening Room. He said, „I was lying on my bed and I was imagining that I was this big raindrop.“ I’m looking at him and he’s a big guy that makes buildings. „It was the best experience I’ve ever had.“ No drugs or anything, just listening to it and letting his imagination run wild. It was so surprising when he said it. Then he goes off to watch the football, but for a moment he was just hold out to be in this other space. This is what art does. It allows you to dream in a dreamscape. It allows you that space to dream and to have that other element, that other quality in your life.“

After our nice conversation Colin was so kind to show me his home town and took me on a sound walk along the trail from Manly to Shelly Beach and beyond. A lovely experience and very fond memories, recorded only by my soul. 

By the way: The moon really looks different in Australia, somehow upside down. However, it looks of course just as beautiful as anywhere else on planet Earth.


The moon over Shelly Beach.