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Life in the Foley Pit

Mark Twain in Trouble? William Powell to the Rescue.

Sam Clemens

Sam Clemens slips into a parallel universe.

Foley pit? Huh? Foley is for James Donovan Foley, a sound man who moved from radio to the movies with the advent of the talkies. “To Foley” is to re-enact to projection the shuffles and fumbles of everyday life to give a soundtrack that feel of reality—anything from the swishing of clothing and footsteps to squeaky doors and breaking glass. Foley can also be used to cover up unwanted sounds incidental to location filming, such as airplanes or traffic. The trade term for such real world artifacts is burps and farts, a carryover from narration sessions.

Paul Peterson, a New York sound man and film editor, gave me this tip: When you’ve got a music edit coming up that’s bad, really bad, try knocking over a tray of dishes, blow up a tank, anything to cover the cut.

We were at the time laying in tracks for The Big Picture, an Army TV show cobbled together from WWII footage and parceled out to independent contractors. Hence we had lots of weaponry on tape from the Aberdeen Proving Ground. We improvised for random activity, high-stepping in a cat’s litterbox and brushing up against the ficus and potted palms from the lobby.

For more on burps, farts, slithers and hisses and the electronic savannas through which they prowl, see Period Technology on this blog.

The effort of creating the sound clusters for a fantasy tale, Mark Twain in Milan, with lovers separated by two hundred years of shimmering parallelisms and Samuel Langhorne Clemens and an eighteenth century mathematician trying to keep themselves warm inside the wallpaper of a Mafia don in 1920s Greenwich Village, had me crying “Uncle.” The Freesound Project to the rescue. (Mark Twain in Milan spoken word audio: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

The Freesound Project aims to create a huge collaborative database of audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps, ... released under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus License. The Freesound Project provides new and interesting ways of accessing these samples, allowing users to: “Browse the sounds in new ways using keywords, a ‘sounds-like’ type of browsing and more up and download sounds to and from the database, under the same creative commons license interact with fellow sound-artists!” Thanks to this jolly consortium of audio wranglers for helping build the sound clusters for Mark Twain in Milan, The Beewolf, A Special Providence, Saint Velcrotm and the Swan, and the blue spark and the werewolf’s howl in Boys’ Night Out.

The Freesound Project’s sound samples are there for free, licensed under a Creative Commons authorization. But a proviso: you are expected to credit your sources and contribute in turn. Here’s some of what I used for Mark Twain in Milan, with parallel worlds, antique technology and strange doings in an abandoned subway tunnel:

wood block.wav
STEAM.wav (0:35) Sounds from steam, water on hot metal plate
Industrial23.wav (0:01) An industrial noise
factory explosion steam burst.wav
balloon2.wav (0:01)
Balloon bamf.wav
Bucket1-FX2.wav (0:18)
5-gallon bucket22.wav (0:01)
Hitting a hollow metal object crash.wav (0:03)
Boom.wav (0:05) Made from a gunshot sample
electrocute.wav (0:04)
Electric shock.wav (0:03) Resampled sound of an iron bar drop.
crashing_in_the_alley.1.mp3 (27:47) furniture being dropped three stories.
Sword.wav (0:01)
classic double swoosh.wav (0:01) KungFu sword swoosh

And Why William Powell?

The Thin Man

William Powell as “The Thin Man”

Because, that’s why. In the Ninepatch Variation—a story of mine, you can get to it here—William Powell plays Tiresias the Seer to Libby Pease’s Antigone:

“If Myrna Loy is thinking of you, you are bound to link up,” says Libby reassuringly. “Eventually.” Her needle is flashing again. Red embroidery thread bounces from its skein. Places too distant and glamorous to be visited by her in life dance behind the screen in a darkened movie theater.

The Thin Man delicately digs a little finger into his ear.

“When you have an itch it means someone is thinking of you.” Libby has heard this. “Myrna Loy, I mean. You will see her soon.”

“If somebody bites you on the ass it means they are thinking of you, too, dear Libby. Eventually the Earth will fall into the sun,” says The Thin Man.

Libby Pease is my favorite person out of all of Willipaq County—an evocation of the usually broke and always hopeful denizens of, perhaps, just perhaps, Washington County, Maine—living free and wild in their very own Yoknapatawpha. The Libby tales became a triptych and she picked up a spiritual counselor, a 400-year-old medicine man (in The Red Sneaker Zones):

“I shall wear purple.” Libby Pease touches the framed poem that hangs on her kitchen wall. Libby could have memorized the verse, but prefers to be surprised by it.

“All the damned thing says is that when you’re old people expect you to be aligned a mite off center...” says the 400-year-old Algonquian spirit-priest who regularly joins her for morning tea, “...look at me. Go for it, Lib. Get naked, paint the cat; you’ve earned it,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon.

Ah, but Libby’s interlocutors, even as Doctor Who’s companions, had to start somewhere. William Powell as the first choice was all Wayne Croft’s fault. Wayne was a volunteer producer from the WBAI days. This was the 1960s and I followed him around toting the company’s (Pacifica Radio) Nagra III with neo-pilotone (The Nagra is a tape recorder and pilotone is a film sync thingy that we didn’t need at listener-sponsored radio—don’t ask. Try Googling Stefan Kudelski.) for his production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Tall and attenuated, Wayne sported a spindly beard and resembled John Carradine as Preacher Casey in the Grapes of Wrath. He heightened the effect by wearing three-piece box-back dark suits and chain-smoking Russian style, cigarette held between the thumb and index finger. Wayne was an actor, a damned good one, too. Hurd Hatfield played Faustus however. (see Annals of Tape below)

In the seventies Wayne had become the manager of the Carnegie Repertory Cinema—three floors down under Carnegie Hall where the subway (57th St. Station, a loop on the Q line) passed by on the far side of plush-covered walls. Once a month they ran all the Thin Man movies back-to-back. The big sliver faces and the discrete drapery of Myrna Loy’s shimmering dressing gowns got me hooked on the Thin Man and Myrna Loy.

In 1980 I attended a get-together of WBAI 60s survivors at the Kit-Kat Klub on 14th Street at Union Square—cash bar, sugar and complex carbohydrates. Old coots, new suits, and everybody handing resumes around. 2015 and nothing has changed but that there are fewer of us. So what’s new? I bought my suit at Abraham & Strauss (Fulton St., Brooklyn). I still have the suit and that was the only time I’ve ever worn it. Polyester never sleeps.

I could get around Manhattan pretty well on my old Sears 10-speed in the 70s. A Post Office truck gave me a clip with its protruding side mirror on 56th Street. I went flying like a gyroscopic rainbow top. The driver tossed me a hi-five and sped away on 56th Street toward to Grand Central Post Office; he was on government business. The close call reassembled my priorities and hiding out at the movies was now a fine idea. I walked the bike to work and decided to take Wayne Croft up on his offer for one free admission to the Carnegie Hall Repertory Cinema. That very night.

The Annals of Tape

In the Sixties WBAI was the place to be. I was there—cutting tape, recording shows, massaging volunteer producers, and helping to shepherd the station’s fund-raising marathons through our wasteland of navel-gazing toward a self-sustaining mirage of Free Speech Radio. Yea, verily. The staff personalities—hothouse flowers crammed too tightly together for comfort—sqaubbled incessantly. Somehow we got things done. Very worthwhile things, too, with 50-years worth of hindsight. Always broke, we couldn’t afford the line fees to broadcast a congressional hoedown on the righteousness quotient of Harvard professor John K. Fairbank, a “China Hand.” These were suspect, then as now. Student volunteers from WAMU in Washington headed north with 10" reels of tape and, handing off a Greyhound youth card like a relay runner’s baton, kept us current. Not yet the speed of Planck, the Greyhound Bus Co. kept us on the air and only three hours late with the daily feed.

Chris Albertson (WBAI’s station manager in the 1960s) lately reminded me of a stunt I once performed, helping a leading man to speak Latin for a Marlowe play. My inspiration was Nat Levy of Masterpiece Recording, my boss and life coach, who taught me the arcana of voice editing. Nat once metamorphosed an hour of Arabic into :30 seconds of fractured English. The speaker was King Saud; the pay was good. Chris’ WBAI Blog is here. Check his jazz blog Stomp Off, too. (See The Folio of Dorian Gray for more on the Marlowe affair.)

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