Racket Science: Two Coconut Shells, a Blowlamp, and a Raspberry"

Well, what does it sound like? Home, I mean. The everyday we inhabit. Perhaps, home is a space in which we no longer pay much attention to what our ears can pick up because we are so accustomed to and at ease with our surrounding soundscape. Or perhaps it is that private environment within whose confines we can drown out what is strange with a soundcarpet of our own weaving. Today, my sonic rug received another sound beating, and I guess this is some of the dust that fell off.

There was an awful lot of howling and rattling, produced by the fierce winds that, while no longer unfamiliar to me after two years of living here in Wales, still suggest the foreign, the uncanny, the inhospitable. I guess I could have countered it by turning on the radio or by playing some of my favorite tunes; but I rarely listen to music these days, at least not as a means of muffling the world or creating an alternate one. I am trying to remember past places I called home and the sounds that might have made them such.

Do you recall sounds as easily as images? We tend to take pictures of our friends and surroundings; but, unless we take moving images with our digital cameras, we rarely record our lives in sound. Right now, I am not even sure about my father’s voice, for instance. He died some ten years ago; but I hadn’t talked to him for some time before that. My family was just about as functional as the clan in Little Miss Sunshine, with which I finally caught up this evening at a local cinema.

I was the teenager in that picture—moody, aloof, and not inclined to share my thoughts with the family to which I scarcely belonged. I might have a photograph of the man somewhere. I’m not sure; but I could get my hands on one should I require such supplemental image for the mental ones still vivid. Now, I could not produce a sound portrait of my father; at least not one featuring his own voice. He breathed his last . . . and the “rest is silence.”

Our voice excepting, what sounds might best represent us? That is a challenge few radio artists had to meet: to create a life in non-verbal, non-musical sound. Generally, aural effects were thought of as a crutch to the spoken word. They might create atmosphere, aid in setting scenes or in visualizing a body moving in space. Footsteps and doorslams, that sort of thing. Instead of supplementing or complementing, sounds may also counter the image the word creates. We are told one thing, but hear another, wonder and chuckle at the irreconcilable differences.

There was a little of that in the BBC 4 documentary “Two Coconut Shells, a Blowlamp and a Raspberry”, which is once again available online for a couple of days. However cursory, it tells the story of the BBC sound effects department and the uses of noisemaking in 1940s comedy programs like ITMA (It’s That Man Again). As in the US, the low humor of bodily sounds was frowned upon by the BBC; but there were a few amusing substitutes of the “raspberry” kind to suggest forcefully what escapes all of us from time to time. It rendered as over-the-top what was generally off limits.

Comedy is exempt from the realism often expected of radio drama, the realism for which the medium was famous—and infamous. Last night I watched the MGM musical Hullabaloo, which feebly sends up the panic created by the Mercury Players’s production of “The War of the Worlds.” Some of the humor, such as there was, derived from the sounds coming out of lip-synching Frank Morgan’s mouth, unexpected voices including those of stars like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. Closing your eyes, you’d see a scene from Boom Town, the box-office hit that Hullabaloo promoted by way of promising, conjuring, and withholding. Sounds can contradict both words and visuals in a way Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” does; but they can also confront each other so as to shatter the mental images we create while listening.

Perhaps I would resort to this sort of playful surrealism in a sonic portrait of my jovial if booze-wrecked father, who, when I created my first audio plays with my tape recorder, advised me not to use a narrative voice but let noises and dialogue speak for themselves. Now, we are well past dialogue, my father and I; but in rendering him, I might use sounds that speak against the revisionist and fragmented image I’ve made up, sham yet real—the mental picture that has become as much of a crutch as the old doorslam.

Now, I was all prepared to review “Two Coconut Shells”; but my mind was unruly tonight and wandered off into the cloud-shrouded sunset like . . . two coconut shells in a gravel box; carried away by the autumnal fury of sound, it decided not to return home in time for today’s post. Instead, it’s that man again, knocking on my windblown mind like the proverbial skeleton in the family closet. He insists on revisiting from time to time, as much as I’d like to send him off with an old-fashioned raspberry.

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