Last month we posted the first half of our interview with Carl Scott. You can read that interview here. This month we kick off the second half of the interview with the question on everyone’s mind.
The Recollective: What was it like working with Terrance McKnight?
Carl: Terrance is great. Above all he has a superb ear. He’s a classically trained pianist and it most definitely shines through when he approaches a project. As I submitted drafts of the Hazel Scott piece for listening, he’d return with subtle transitional changes that would shape the emotional content of the story perfectly. Terrance is amazing at maintaining his musical sensibility throughout his work. And not to mention the voice! It was a great learning experience writing with a host and taking note of the process of having my voice come through another person and still sound authentic. Lots of edits and ad libs. But ultimately, Terrance is really the main character of every show. He’s able to translate scripts into his own language and not get in the way. It’s really inspiring to watch him work. I learned to follow Woody Allen’s method of script writing; his scripts are always guidelines. The point is for the actors to bring their own voice to the work in a way that is comfortable for them. You can never really be married to each word. And once Terrance gets behind the mic, he’s a master. I get out of his way and let him do his thing.
The Recollective: What was it like going from the shorter form audio episodes of Rip and Rebind to the longer form documentary about Hazel Scott?
Carl: It was a LOT more work. And also a lot of fun. The preparation is crazy. When it’s a work of my own, I tend to plan in such a way that it doesn’t stress me out too much. Feeling responsible for telling someone else’s story to a large audience brings in an entirely different set of pressures. But I like what that kind of pressure brings out of me. I had to read the book on which the doc is based (Karen Chilton’s Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC) in three days. I then had to outline and write multiple drafts of the script that gathered together the edits of everyone involved. I listened to hours and hours of Hazel’s songs and conceived of all the possible music cues. Lastly, I sat down and produced several drafts of the doc in collaboration with Limor and Terrance. All in all, it was a true journalistic endeavor. Much less is left up to chance and interpretation. This process of working raises the level of quality of the work. It affected my approach to radio production immensely. But thankfully so I was still able to bring in my Rip and Rebind modes of spontaneity. In making a sample based show, I learned to recognize the importance of stumbling onto genius and using sounds when they were more effective than words. I’d add more sound effects, or transition between music in an unorthodox way that may have been the result of my having pushed the wrong button. But it felt good. And it sounded good. Thankfully some those additions stayed in the piece.
The Recollective: Your most recent production work for WNYC was I, Too, Sing America: Music in the Life of Langston Hughes. Once again you worked with Terrance McKnight. What were some of the differences in this latest production compared to Still Swinging?
Carl: The most significant difference was the scope of the project. The great thing about Still Swinging, Still Classic was the fact that Karen Chilton was directly involved. Because Hazel’s story is much lesser known, and Karen spent seven years of her life devoted to researching Hazel, we had access to an authority on the subject. Her book is one of the few collected resources on Hazel Scott’s life. And it’s really well written. It was a matter of translating (and editing) her well structured narrative for the medium of radio. Langston Hughes has many biographers and there’s a wealth of information available. The amount of research and sifting required was immense. And the story of music in Langston’s life is even more obscure. It was an unwieldy project. But I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish. My mother loved it. It definitely taught me how to handle really large scale projects in radio. I’m very thankful to every hand that helped me put that project together.
The Recollective: Has working on the Hazel Scott and Langston Hughes projects changed the way you approach Rip and Rebind?
Carl: Absolutely. My sound is a lot more refined. In addition to teaching me valuable aesthetic and business lessons, working for a public radio station also gave me access to methods, technologies and standards that people in professional radio stations use. I definitely picked up things that help the quality of my work over all. Even something as simple as the quick fade. I was never good at that transition in my own work. But when both Hazel and Langston were being mastered, the engineer always altered my fades to make them a bit quicker. And to be honest I like the effect. But it makes me laugh to think that my style of fade is a bit slow for public radio. That’s a random example, but it’s a tactic that I now use in my Rip and Rebind work. Also my use of music has gotten much better. And I understand the basics of narrative. I now have established processes that allow me to complete radio work in a much more efficient fashion, and I continue to improve on them. All of this improves Rip and Rebind episodes and other work that I do.
The Recollective: What are you working on next?
Carl: I’ve become obsessed with dramatic radio. I’m now writing short stories that will utilize voice actors and musicians together to create a really cinematic experience. I want to make radio that you can see. Eventually I’d like to see these works on a stage. There’s definitely more Rip and Rebind to come. It’s funny that you guys have asked so much about that show. It’s been a while since I made an episode and in just answering these questions, I got ideas for new work. Thanks! Also, The Recollective is doing some amazing work with a sports organization called 4th & 1 this spring/summer. I’m really looking forward to participating in that. There’s a lot of stuff on the horizon, and I’m excited to get busy making ideas into reality.
The Recollective: What is your trick to scoring a piece of audio?
Carl: Emotional content. Making radio that is based heavily in music is like DJing to me. It really requires you to gauge the emotional state of the listener and drop the right song at the absolute right time to keep the interest of the listener and contextualize the story in a way that continues to pull them in. Never shut out the listener. Once you lose them, it’s really hard to get them back in the middle of the story. So prior to scoring any audio the narrative has to be thoroughly flushed out. What am I trying to convey at this point in the narrative? Otherwise, it’s easy to get heavy handed with music. The narrative should be the focal point. If it were a written body of work, I’d consider music to be equivalent to underlines, bolding, color and other methods of emphasis. Music should always support an idea. It’s not the idea by itself. Not in narrative radio anyway. So I consider the story first, then I gather all of the music that I can think of that conveys the emotions embodied by the story. I always have more music than I use. I’ve heard Questlove say that there is no such thing as good or bad music, only effective and ineffective music. So I keep to that guideline when I score any audio I’m working on.
The Recollective: You’ve become adept at balancing the less lucrative world of freelance radio with jobs that actually pay money. What have you learned?
Carl: Never exploit the thing you love, your true passion. There are other things that you are good at that probably make really good money. Do those. Use that money to facilitate your vision. I’m a web developer and art director. I love them just enough to stay current and continue thriving. But I don’t expect to make money from radio. I just do it because I love it. And money usually comes, but it can’t be a deciding factor. The fact that I strive to feel good about everything I make in radio keeps me in a place of integrity that carries my work. That is most important to me. The canon of work should speak for itself. Build it consistently and with love, and the people will come. With the people comes the financing that will allow you to continue.