What we learned from OTR

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Readers of this blog might remember past posts of mine that highlighted the Luther composition studio's silent film projects. We've made three complete film scores for "Nosferatu," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Metropolis"; it doesn't get much more retro than that. So, it might not surprise you to learn that our latest project involved Old Time Radio (OTR), specifically, a recreation of Orson Welles' historic 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds."

Similarly to Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air, our production at Luther (directed by Jeff Dintaman and Bobby Vrtis) featured a range of voice actors, most of whom read multiple parts. We used two microphones to capture those voices, along with a third mic which captured some live sound effects. Along with those live effects were 12 electronically produced sound effects, ranging from a billowy smoke sound to a Martian "heat-ray." We also created 17 music cues, many more than were used in Welles’ production. Also parallel to Welles, our production was broadcast over the radio on KWLC AM 1240 in late October.

What was perhaps most different about our production was that we performed this radio play in front of a live audience. This is a somewhat odd proposition in 2018 (as it was in 1938)—in our production, the actors did very little physical acting, there was no set or costume design, and there was no attempt to create the visual illusion of a make-believe world. Instead, watching a live radio play, we are invited to enter into a creative relationship with the play and with those who are performing—not through our eyes, but through our ears and thus our mind's eye.

To prepare for this production, the actors spent several rehearsals in a recording studio environment, learning how to work with microphones and then listening back to the results. For the composers, we had the interesting task of creating music which sounded like it "could" have come from 1938 but wasn't trying to replicate that era specifically. And even more interestingly, we had to create sounds that told a story without any visual aid. This may seem like a fairly straightforward procedure, but we found ourselves in some interesting philosophical terrain. Take, for example, the famous scene at Grover's Mill (Horsell Common in H. G. Wells' original novel), where the first Martian cylinder has landed. The play describes the cylinder as comprised of a smooth metal of extra-terrestrial composition. And then, the cylinder begins to unscrew or flake off, the top crashing to the ground. As Caleb Linville, the student who took on the task of creating the unscrewing cylinder sound, put it, "I don't think the technology from an advanced alien species would sound very metallic or physical. It would sound fluid and refined, with minimal friction." Indeed... except such a frictionless sound wouldn't necessarily translate well to a listener. So, Caleb created a more inventive sound that both captured the physical sensation of a large object coming apart as well as the anxious feeling one might experience upon encountering a vessel not from this planet.

Technical considerations aside, I believe there is much to be learned from creative work (and creative processes) that encourages audiences to fill in the gaps created by absences, whether they be of imagery, sound, movement, or something else we normally expect. When we as audience members have to do a little work to engage with art, we become more invested in the experience, and more often than not, we ourselves become transformed. I suppose it’s no wonder that many 1938 listeners heard Welles' broadcast and, however briefly, assumed the worst was true!

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce is associate professor of music and composer-in-residence at Luther College. Joyce's music has been described as "vividly pictorial" by the San Francisco Chronicle and "exceptionally gripping" by the Los Angeles Times. His works have been performed by soloists and ensembles around the world, including the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, the Brentano Quartet and tenor James Gilchrist.

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  • November 16 2018 at 11:27 am
    Toby Cain

    Y'all did a fantastic job with this production! I happily tuned in from home and was blown away by the professionalism of the performance. Bravo! 

  • November 16 2018 at 11:43 am
    Brooke Joyce

    Thanks much! I'm so glad to hear that we had a radio audience!

  • November 16 2018 at 1:41 pm
    Sky Macklay

    Wow, what an awesome project! Were the music cues performed live?

  • November 19 2018 at 9:07 pm
    Brooke Joyce

    Thanks, Sky! No, we opted to have everything pre-recorded--just one less thing to coordinate. 

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