Tag Archives: gregory whitehead

No Background Music

An adaptation for BBC radio 4 of a stage play by Normi Noel, itself based on poems, letters and conversations with former Vietnam field nurse, Penny Rock.

We only had two days in the studio (the now sadly closed Looking Glass); a challenging schedule for material of this depth and complexity. Fortunately, Ms. Weaver was equal to the task, and it was a pleasure to work with her, and with her extraordinary voice.

The two days were harrowing, exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. With the clock ticking down, we found time at the end to have some fun improvising with singing and other vocalizations, which would prove invaluable as transitions and beds. Those final recordings also gave us a way back into the present from the dark and traumatic memory play.

Elements for the sound design included various bass guitar stings and manipulated amplifier throbs and pulses; I also used little noise scraps and tears as acoustic “wounds” to punctuate (and even puncture) the montage; there was no way this space of trauma should ever be made “seamless”. With each scene, I searched for a tone and overall aesthetic that reflected the fractured yet loving (against all odds) qualities in Ms. Rock’s fearless recollections.


For now, at least, the entire play seems to have been uploaded to youtube (not by me):

A final excerpt from the script, with a message that remains all too contemporary:

Four Trees Down from Ponte Sisto

I first came across a sampling of Sharon Charde’s poetry completely by chance, while browsing through a local women’s magazine. I was instantly struck by the disarming directness and documentary detail in poems that dared to articulate the unspeakable loss of her son Geoffrey while a student abroad, under circumstances that remained obscure, with no known witnesses. At the bottom of the page, there was mention of a forthcoming reading at a library nearby, which I attended. As Sharon read, I was once again moved by the calm precision she was able to bring to the most terrible scenes, and by the rich polyphonies that gave subtle dimension to such a raw wound:


That evening confirmed my sense that her poems, written across three decades, comprised an important body of writing that deserved a wider audience. Fortunately, Sharon agreed to the idea of a BBC radio adaptation, and generously provided me with Geoffrey’s own journals, photographs and documents, as well as many supplementary stories and recollections, some of which I then incorporated into the script. Since her writings obliterate the idea that grief unfolds in tidy linear stages, I became increasingly committed to the fundamental truthfulness of an unresolved narrative structure, where the traumatic moment of the fall remains vivid, through to the very last sound.

We considered many actresses to give voice to the play, though my first choice was always Anne Undeland, who brings an open spirit of brave simplicity and deep insight to everything she does. I knew that Anne had recently performed a one woman show based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and she has worked with me on a number of other radio plays, including The Loneliest Road. As it happens, she also lived in Rome during the 1980s, and knew the Trastevere neighborhood where Geoffrey had lived, which helped bring the story fully into the present.


For music and sound design, I had in mind the image of a precious Roman mosaic that I had let slip from my hands, and thus it was left for me to piece it together again. There would be jagged edges to be sure – imperfections – and sometimes the edges might cut fingers. To achieve this acoustically, I improvised to recordings of Anne’s voicings on mandolin, bowed psaltery and a cigar box guitar, and then added a variety of sounds to the mix, including the snapping of twigs and the crushing of dry leaves.

I knew Geoffrey liked Simon & Garfunkle, and that he had used a quote from the song “Old Friends” in his High School yearbook. Though I never actually play the song, those chords and rhythms were certainly on my mind as I slowly assembled the final montage.

An informative article by the Litchfield County Times can be found here.

The play will air on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, June 29th. The first three minutes are excerpted here:

Post-broadcast comments on Netartery

From the blog Beyond Goodbye:




An anticipatory documentary for BBC radio 3, produced in collaboration with the BBC’s Mark Burman. Based very loosely on the life and writings of Philip K. Dick, whose achievements as a writer and thinker are only now being given their due.

Our structural idea was simple: the weaponized android head of PKD has found its way into the general population; as it passes from hand to hand, the head leaves behind a series of rips and tears in the fabric of reality.

Performed by the talented members of my ensemble of actors here in the Berkshires, all of whom tolerate my directorial idiosyncrasies; and greatly aided by the ears and brain of Nick Zammuto, whose own work has been a major source of inspiration for me in recent years. Also featuring the exquisite voice of Laura Wiens, supported by Billy Sokol on lap steel.


And finally, one of my favorite quotes from PKD, regarding one of his central literary and philosophical themes, the “authentic human”:

A Gory Road to Glory

Or, the day King Hammer fell from the sky.

A play in the form of a documentary, examining the aftermath of a shocking fall from the heavens, broadcast on BBC 4 in 2008.

In the summer of 2007, at the bursting point of a historic credit bubble, a famous hedge fund manager named Harry Hammersmith pledges one billion dollars to his beloved Alma Mater, an elite College south of Boston named Plymouth Mather, founded in the year of our Lord 1728 to honor the memory of one Cotton Mather, a distinguished puritan zealot and accomplished witch burner.

Sir Harry Hammersmith, knighted by the Queen of England, and known throughout the financial world as “King Hammer”, plans to deliver his big swinging — gift — in person: at high noon, he shall arrive at the dead center of the Plymouth Mather quad by parachute.

It is a very hot summer day, not a cloud in the sky, seconds before the appointed hour: the elegantly attired guests have assembled upon the freshly mowed green, eager to witness such a sublime moment in the history of philanthropy, the largest single gift ever made to a private institution of higher learning.

Later, during the Kerry Commission Hearings on the Violent and Untimely Death of Sir Harry Hammersmith, a student who had been hired to pour champagne gave the following eyewitness report:


Nothing But Fog


A radio navigation commissioned by Sound Culture 1996 in San Francisco, with radio works curated by Susan Stone. Produced in close collaboration with Richard Busch, with inspiration from his exquisite Drei Nebel Lieder.

Text derived through the improvisational “dealing” of cards based on Mexican Lotería, liturgical fragments and the maritime alphabet. Performed by GW, Richard Busch and cabaret singer Ilse Pfeifer.


Other materials include scraps from a live performance at an International Feature Conference in Basel, and instructional texts on the art of navigation. Sound beds composed by GW and RB. Recorded in the sea-crow media studio on Nantucket Island, over the course of several foggy days in late winter.

Following the premier broadcast on KPFA, Nothing But Fog has aired numerous times throughout Europe, North America and Australia. The below link is for private use within the creative commons; for broadcast or festival rights, please email me.



All About Squid

William S. Burroughs suggests that language often behaves like a virus as it passes from mouth to mouth, gathering microbes along the way: microbes provoking strange mutations that may express themselves through the most toxic utterances.

With the below acoustic amuse bouche dating from the year 2000, I propose that at certain times and at certain places, language may also behave like  a fungus, a fungus that if left to its own urgent proliferation soon becomes entangled in the axons and dendrites of the human brain, leaving us with the severely impaired fluency.

I have experienced the fungal quality of language myself when on a hot day in the New York subway, I chanced to hear one departing passenger say to another: So you want to talk about squid? Then they were gone, leaving me in deep corn smut. For whether it was something in the actual voice, or some magical mycological chemical embedded in that precise arrangement of phonemes, it was only a matter of minutes before my entire brain was helplessly possessed by a numbing and relentless repetition of this one cruel sentence, in every stage of fungal bloom and decay — so you want to talk about squid?

Somehow, through instinct or intuition, I sensed that my only hope was to write down what I was hearing in my head, and as I did so, indeed, a squidlike form began to emerge on the page, a form that then became a score for a bit of fungal audiophony:

The Meaning of Martha


In 2002, The Verb commissioned a brief series of four “audio cartoons”. One of them concerned Martha Stewart, and her annus horribilus following certain stock market “indiscretions”.

Martha: the iconic brand who doubles as a cipher, begging to be decoded. The script derives from a series of twelve sentences whose words  begin with the letters M, A, R, T, H, A; these were then voiced live-to-air (with recorded back track) according to rhythms set by the calendar year. Performed many times over in cabarets and mixed bag sorts of live-to-air occasions, The Meaning of M.A.R.T.H.A. :


Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered

Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered is a freely associative “gothic documentary” essay produced during 1997, and first broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s excellent Listening Room program in 1998, and since broadcast numerous times elsewhere, with themes that remain stubbornly contemporary.

Four very different conversations arranged into rotating quatrains, offering floating buoys for the listeners, who are invited to voyage down a foggy coastline by dead reckoning; the essay also became, inevitably, a meditation on the nature of making radio, for radio journeys often end in shipwreck, airwaves offering an electronic mirror for the submerged graveyard of the Atlantic. How do we navigate through such dark and beautiful vibrations?

Inspiration for the structure came from walks on the labyrinth of paths and tracks that wind through the Nantucket moors, in the company of Nat Philbrick who was working on his masterful In the Heart of the Sea at that time. The old Nantucket phrase for such a walk: rantum scoot, an open and intuitive venturing that seems to resonate very well with the nature of radio space.

Radio, like a human body floating in a vat, is nebulous, which is the very opposite of opaque, for the longer you look at a nebula, the more you see; it is simply a matter of allowing scant light to work on cognition, a process that cannot happen over the duration of a single sound bite. In deep fog, when you shine a bright light, you may actually see less – better to listen for the  buoys, the lap of the waves, and keep a mind open to every possibility.


Reptiles and Wildfire

Another MINERVA EDITIONS release of a short docufiction made for the Miami New Music America Festival. Reptiles and wildfire coupled, like instinct and intuition; sometimes moving with each other, other times against, yet forever soaking wet and on fire.

Broadcast many times over in a variety of contexts, and now released into the digital everglades:

You will note the address for MINERVA EDITIONS. From 1987-1992, I lived in Philadelphia within walking distance of the abandoned Great Eastern penitentiary, Duchamp’s étant donnés, the Mütter Museum, and the Rodin portes d’enfer. Each had an influence on my thinking during those years and are still roaming around my brain.

The Pleasure of Ruins


Inspired by the book with the same title (by Rose Macauley, with remarkable photographs by Roloff Beny), I set out to conjure an acoustic ruin through the poetic disintegration of a chanted list of global ruins, using the technique of rhythmic cyclical “eruptions” that I had developed in Disorder Speech.

At the time, there was a good deal of heavy cultural theory about libidinal flows and “economies of pleasure” in the air during the late 1980s, an irresistible invitation for humor; thus I proposed a sort of radiophonic archeology of pleasure, unfolding (or degenerating) in real time.

With the exception of a tour guide speleologist and a few other documentary scraps, the only voice used is my own, through a variety of personae.

Commissioned by the brave New American Radio series, under the direction of Helen Thorington and Regine Beyer, The Pleasure of Ruins has been broadcast throughout Europe, Australia and North America, in all of its ruined pleasures:

The Pleasure was resuscitated with a variety of other castaways on a 1993 Staalplaat CD release. I have a small number of copies of the original MINERVA EDITIONS cassette release, available to serious collectors.

Let me here sing praises for Patrick Sumner, whose stunning photographs and design work enlivened the MINERVA releases, as well as the Staalplaat CDs. The photograph below shows the salvaged remnants of a house owned by Patrick, and Sheila Davies, burned during the terrible fire that rampaged through the Oakland hills in 1991.

Disorder Speech


A cassette release of short audio razorgrams made in 1984/85. During those early years between 1980-1985, I was intensely interested in analog editing; to this day, I remain convinced that there are qualities in the analog cut – a physicality of acoustic energy – not possible to simulate in the digital realm. Part of this might be explained with reference to the kinetic investment; editing for long periods of time is physically demanding and logistically complex, keeping track of dozens of slivers of audio tape that carried no searchable file names.

In production workshops, I recommend that all students learn analog editing, in the same way that photographers should all experience the joys of the darkroom. The artisanal nature of the analog editing process slows down thought, in a positive way. Processes that become too easy lead inevitably to lazy thinking and flaccid broadcasts.

The philosophical/poetic overtones of physical cutting also attracted me, as I developed ideas about the “woundscape”, and about the razor cut wound as an expressive opening, with a story to tell. In addition to ideas about the razor wound/cut, I became fascinated with cyclical structures of generational decay and improvised eruptions;  one generation of voiced material would be copied and added to the montage, yet with several fresh spliced slivers of eruptive sound.

Through time, this process created an unusual rhythmic pattern, with an acoustic depth of field shaped by the subtle shadings of analog degradation across the generations, a result that I found (and still find) compelling.

Eva, Can I Stab Bats in a Cave explores the anomalies of live vrs. recorded voice, and also offered much fun in the studio as I learned to vocally replicate 1/4″ tape played backwards, which seemed a timely skill to have in 1984.

Several of these pieces were used in dances by choreographers such as Karen Bamonte and Susan Salinger; they were also included in audio art compilations released by Tellus and others.

Disorder Speech circulated very widely through the cassette underground; a few copies are still available, for serious collectors.

Shake, Rattle, Roll

Shake, Rattle, Roll is a radio manifesto dating from 1993. I used every category of material at my disposal, and every compositional and editing technique, explored in shorter castaways; digital audio tape was part of my studio by then, used in tension and interplay with my workhorse Otari reel-to-reels. To decay or not to decay, among my questions.

Made during a very intense period of two weeks for New American Radio, the hybrid assemblage explores themes of structural entropy in relation to free play; the living dancing with the dead; the bottomless cave mixed with the ephemeral utopia; songs collapsed into screams and scrambles; language elucidated and on the verge of disintegration.

Sheila Davies (an ideal listener, to be sure) wrote:

Later distributed in a lovely black box by the indispensable Netherlands V2, together with a companion piece, Degenerates in Dreamland.

The play/performance has received many dozens of broadcasts in every conceivable context, and I enter its circles and cycles into the cultural commons, though the V2 release is quite stunning in its own regard, and is still available here.

The Thing About Bugs

Etymological radiophony created in collaboration with Christof Migone for New American Radio in 1995. An exploration of deep bug muckmusik, digital hygiene, ethnic cleansing and the True Bug plan of attack.

The process was collaborative at each stage, with raw materials generated through a series of improvisations. Christof was experimenting with mouth mics and various home made noise boxes. We then worked on the raw materials independently, creating brief buggy sub-mixes, which were then finally composed at sea-crow media studio on Nantucket island. GW plays the voice of the etymologist; CM performs as the True Bug, and as a concerned homeowner in search of a final solution.

{The complete BUG OUT, together with other tasty bits of acoustic bush tucker, is available on CD from Generator Sound Art.}

The Loneliest Road

Radio play in the shape of a flight by the Hungry Raven along Route Five Zero in the naked state of Nevada. With music composed and performed by The Books.

First broadcast: BBC Radio 3, October 2003.


Gregory Whitehead, writer and director of The Loneliest Road, interviewed by Gordon House.

GH     So Gregory – where’s The Loneliest Road, and how lonely is it?

GW     The Loneliest Road is an actual road which does exist; it’s the designation for a stretch of highway in the state of Nevada, through a fairly barren desert landscape. But, of course, it’s also a metaphorical road – The Loneliest Road of the American spirit, in every sense of that word, in the year 2003. My objective is to invite the listener on a journey along and over and across this territory via words, sounds and music.

GH     And who are the people we meet on this road?

GW     In addition to the pirate radio host, who calls herself The Hungry Raven, there are two main characters. The first is an individual whose life work has been to memorise the Oxford Anthology of American Poetry. Every word of that anthology he’s able to draw out of his memory and then – in the same way that indigenous cultures would use landscape as a memory device – he’s using The Loneliest Road as a mnemonic device, with mile signs along the road triggering off each poem. So he drives the road back and forth, back and forth, back and forth three rounds trips a week – and it’s a long road. Why? Well, for the answer to that, you have to listen to his interview with The Hungry Raven.

GH     And the second key individual?

GW     An iconic figure of the American imagination, the morally righteous assassin, in this case, one Oswald Norris, born the day Jack Ruby shot Oswald. And unlike the poet, who is constantly in motion, Oswald is fixed in space, looking at cars going by on the road. Now there are not a lot of cars on the Loneliest Road – that’s why it’s The Loneliest Road – but 70 or 80 each day go past him and he “sights in” each one through his rifle, and we overhear him as he imagines the inhabitants of those cars, and unwinds his critique of a fallen America, a critique that is both lucid and slightly mad.

GH     But it’s a metaphorical road as well as a real one?

GW     Yes. And those two characters are the key – poet, assassin, poet, and assassin, turning around and even inside each other; which is which? I believe that’s very much where we are in America right now. There is, always, the Walt Whitman America – the heroic, the genuine romanticism, the idealism of Whitman – that I think is still very much here, though battered. But sometimes the idealism takes on a violent, and even savage tone, often with reference to a Higher Power, which would seem to justify anything. Hear the angel whisper, and pull the trigger. The final chorus of the theme song is “A hungry raven in the sky, a wounded rabbit slow to die; bones piled in the sun, America has all the fun. It’s the Loneliest Road.”

Gregory Whitehead with Oswald Norris (left).