Old-time Radio Primer: G Stands for Gravel Box and Glass Crasher

Well, where to begin? Picture this, if you will. You decided to write a play that will never be seen; a play that will be imagined rather than staged; a play that will be taken in as sound alone. In short, something—some immaterial thing—that used to be called radio drama. Audio drama will suffice as a name for it, even though other, more grandiose terms have been suggested. Having studied the history of such performances for years, I might as well try my hands, my ears, and my mind at them. The question remains; where to begin?

This is what I am pondering as I sit here in the relative still of our garden, where life plays itself out in a display of colors, a cool breeze and the rays of the sun stroking my bare skin, and (to borrow from Tennyson) the air stirring to the “murmur of innumerable bees.” Now, audio plays can conjure any number of concrete images and intimate sensations; they may trigger memories of feelings—or desires for them—and thus bring them about. Audio drama. It is certainly not all sound.

Yet sound is the non-matter with which to do the conjuring. And to me, audio play has to be about sound and of sound, rather than a verbal exchange place, sequences of lines uttered and interrupted or augmented by non-verbal noise and moments of silence. I don’t hold with those critics who think of radio drama primarily as an oral medium. It is, more inclusively, aural.

Too often sounds have been relegated to the business of supporting a drama unfolding as dialogue or narration—of setting scenes, creating backdrops, or, at best, enhancing its atmosphere. The sounds of opening or closing doors, for instance, create the space in which characters are heard to move, as do those steps on rocks-strewn earth produced by sound(wo)man playing in the “gravel box.”

A gravel box, you see, is a container filled with pebbles, a box which used to simulate the ground on which the dramatis personae of the air were heard to tread. Are bodies immaterial without such sandbox sounds? Or does it suffice, after all, to rely on the voice box alone.

Then there are in radio dramatics those stirring noises of shots and sirens, crashing waves or smashed windows. There is the glass crasher, for example, which, as the name suggests, is a device used for creating the sound of breaking glass. G, in this entry in my old-time radio primer, does not stand for gadget or gimmick.

Sounds have a life beyond live support, beyond adding color or concrete markers of space, which merely enhance what is often already expressed in words: “Don’t you just love the ocean?” (biz: sound of waves); “Isn’t it romantic out here in under the stars?” (cue the crickets); “What are you pointing that gun at me for, you thug?” (insert shots here).

To appropriate another line of poetry (from Pope, this time), must sound seem an “echo to the sense”? Must it make sense? Must it be echoing something else? Does it always suggest a body, some certain corporeal entity responsible for such noise? Must sound be a relationship, a communicating passageway between one hearing and one sounding, traceable to an originating source which gives it meaning, as footsteps getting louder might mean “danger” if tracked down to the body of an approaching adversary or “the promise of pleasure” if traced to the form of a lover?

In other word, is sound an echo of the reverberating body producing it? The question, to be sure, is older than the wireless; it is as ancient as the atmosphere and the dark of night begetting such thoughts. Consider this exchange from Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Alley (1818), which investigates the relationship between (re)sonance and reception, between sounding and sounding out:

“Nonsense, sir,” interrupted Mr. Glowry. “That is not at all like the sound I heard.” 

“But, sir,” said Scythrop, “a key-hole may be so constructed as to act like an acoustic tube, and an acoustic tube, sir, will modify sound in a very remarkable manner. Consider the construction of the ear, and the nature and causes of sound. The external part of the ear is a cartilaginous funnel.” 

“It wo’n’t do, Scythrop. There is a girl concealed in this tower, and find her I will.”

Should I lead the ear to that concealed someone? Or will my play be all architecture, tower and bells, without a body in sight? We shall hear . . .

3 Replies to “Old-time Radio Primer: G Stands for Gravel Box and Glass Crasher”

  1. These sound like the proper considerations for someone approaching the medium of radio as an art form. One might also consider how film music is so omniprescent as an aural means of setting the mood for a visual sequence. Our most important sense is the sense of hearing.I do urge you to explore the radio work of sound artist / musician Felix Kubin: What I\’ve heard originates from the same deciation to the theory of sound that you describe here.


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