NMSAT :: Networked Music & SoundArt Timeline

1929 __ Hörspiel
Comment : In search of Radio Art.As the same time that programmers were fumbling, however reluctantly, to accommodate the taste of a popular audience, they also were trying to sponsor forms of are appropriate to radio. From the outset it was obvious that music was the art most amenable to transmission via a purely acoustic medium. Poems and other works of literature also were read over the air. It soon became clear, however, that the marriage of radio and literature was troubled. Audiences found pure listening strenudous. Despite the persistence of evening-long works, many station directors rapidly became aware that the attention span of the public generally lasted from sixty to ninety minutes, at least for more difficult literary or dramatic pieces. Part of the problem resided in the fact that most of modern culture had been mediated through the eye; the public simply had no experience with processing alone. This was obvious for books and newspapers, the visual arts, and film; but it also applied to drama and even music and lectures, where words and sounds were backed up with visual impressions in the theater, the concert hall, or the auditorium. It made a great difference whether one “saw” a lecturer or simply “heard” a disembodied voice speak the same words on the airwaves. If listeners’s concentration was strained by having to focus on sound alone, the problem was compounded by the technical difficulties of radio in the 1920s: all crystal detectors and some of the cheaper vacuum-tube sets required continuous tuning adjustments to receive clear signals. Until the late 1920s, when a new generation of receivers was introduced, few radio fans could simply “sit back and enjoy” the airwaves. Fortunately, the special characteristics of radio provided not only obstacles but also opportunities. Just as silent film had given birth to a new form of visual culture, radio, it seemed, could nurture novel forms of art that were exclusively acoustic. At the same time that broadcasting studios experimented with means of adapting older literary forms to the infant medium, they also encouraged the creation of entirely new genres that would be appropriate to radio, that would be truly “funkisch”. [...] A word for the desired art was soon coined -- “Hörspiel”, usually translated as “radio play” -- but it took many years to develop viable specimens, after a long process of trial and error. In the first months of broadcasting a number of dramas were transmitted live from Berlin stages. It immediately became apparent, however, that listeners unfamiliar with a given play had difficulty following it, since they lacked the gestural and visual cues that are so important in every theatrical performance. For that reason, stations began to organize studio productions of plays and operas, rewritten so that the audience could imagine the dramatic going-ons more clearly. The Radio Hour’s major director of these performances was Alfred Braun, by far the best-known figure in the Weimar broadcasting, sicne his voice was ubiquitous. Previously an actor and director at BErlin’s Schillertheater, he spoke many roles on air and served as an announcer for sports and other public events. As a director of radio performances, he became known for his “sound sets” (“Geräuschkulisse”), or “acoustic sets” (“akustische Kulisse”), the variety of audio effects and music that could be used to eveoke particular actions, objects, settings, and landscapes. Braun worried that lack of visual stimuli in radio plays would leave listeners confused, so he developed a repertory of more or less realistic sounds to represent different locales. But soon the practice became routine and mechanical. One critic wrote in retrospect, “Whenever someone entered a room, one had to hear the door creak and slam shut, one had to hear the person’s footsteps; if he leaned out of the window, one had to hear cars honking on the distance; in scenes on a ship, the water would be splashing; and in a laboratory, all of the apparati were humming”. Braun’s profuse acoustic stimuli eventually got on the nerves on many critics and listeners, so already by 1928 a countermovement to minimize sound effects had set in. [...] Most of Braun’s studio productions belonged to the genre of “Sendespiele”, that is, plays from the already existing theatrical repertory that were adapted for radio. [...] But occasionnaly contemporary works were produced. One notable early example was Brecht’s “Mann ist Mann”, aired by the Radio Hour on 18 March 1927. [...] Having contemporary authors like Brecht adapt their stage works was a step up from rewriting the classics, but the most ambitious goal of radio programmers was to encourage the composition of entirely new works written specifically for the wireless medium. [...] But just as film had to free itself from other genres in order to develop into a truly cinematic art, radio too would have to find new themes and forms. The search of purely acoustic work took various guises. One possibility, also developed by Alfred Braun, was the so-called “Hörbild”, an “acoustic picture” that attempted to characterize a particular setting, occupation, or idea. The sounds of a city street, a factory, an office, a harbor, a sports event : these could be used to evoke modernity or contemporary life in an impressionistic and nonnarrative fashion. [...] Such works laid the basis for even more experimental projects. When a series of “Hörbilder” were juxtaposed, they constituted what came to be called a “Hörfilm-Symphonie” or a “Film-Hörspiel”, in reference to the cinematic principle of montage. Initially, before the invention of audiotape, the constraints of technology kept such works very simple, since sounds either had to come from a live feed or be prerecorded on rather cumbersome disks. “Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball!” (“Global Station Calling!”), a 1928 work by Fritz Bischoff, the innovative director of the Breslau station, consisted of disparate scenes strung together in succession. The first venue was a newspaper office, characterized by “telephone calles of editors wth the typesettets, with cabinet members, wireless telegraphy with America”. The second scene, set aboard a trans-Atlantic steamer en route to New York, included “songs of Russian immigrants, mélange of voices between decks, dance music, a love scene”. The work continued in that vein, with segments from Africa and further scenes from Europe. The rather straightforward additive principle of composition in Bischoff’s work was due partly to the limited technology available in 1928. Because of the cost, very few works were created emplying the audiotrack of sound films, a recent invention that allowed true acoustic montages with rapid and finely tuned cuts. The first major work of that genre, entitled “Weekend”, was composed by Walter Ruttmann, whose film “Berlin, Symphony of the Big City” (1927) had been a landmark of non-narrative cinematic montage. “Weekend”, which was aired by the Radio Hour on 13 June 1930, consisted of 240 sound bites, averaging less than three seconds each, spliced together to form an eleven-minute work. [...] The works of Bischoff and Ruttmann were the most advanced and most discussed of the acoustic “symphonies” in the Weimar era. Whereas their montage principles occasioned comparisons with film, their impersonality -- the lack of narrative plotline and identifiable characters -- evoked the New Objectivy of the late 1920s. Forms of montage, or at least creative juxtaposition, came to characterize various genres of Weimar broadcasting. One common type was the so-called “Hörfolge”, an “acoustic sequence” consisting of texts, music, conversations, and other “Hörbilder”. The uses were manifold : a “Hörfolge” could, for example, be used to evoke the age of Goethe or the French Revolution. In 1930 Arno Schirokauer, an employee of the Leipzig station and the author of several radio plays, composed a “Hörfolge” entitled “Asphalt”. [...] [Hörspiel], which had been launched in the journal “Der deutsche Rundfunk” in 1924, was conceived in contrast to the “Sendespiel”. Whereas the latter referred to an already existing drama that was rewritten for wireless transmission, the “Hörspiel” was supposed to be a completely new work, composed exclusively for broadcast, which took into account the peculiarities of a medium that was entirely acoustic. But unlike the “Hôrbild”, the “Hörfolge”, or the “Hörfilm-Symphonie”, the “Hörspiel” was supposed to be like a drama insofar as it had human cahracters and a story line. Even before the first radio play was written, commentators assumed that the genre eventually would constitute the epitome of radio art -- a belief that demonstrated the persistence of eighteenth-century aesthetics, inasmuch as German culture since the age of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller had canonized drama as the highest genre. The word “Hôrspiel” immediately became something of a mantra in discussions of radio art. It was supposed to provide the aesthetic justification of radio; it would reveal a perfect marriage of art and technology; it would open up a wholly new, purely acoustic level of experience. [...] (Peter Jelavich)
Source : Jelavich, Peter (2006), "Berlin Alexanderplatz : radio, film, and the death of Weimar culture” University of California Press, 2006, pp. 74-73.

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