CUT OR FADE
The change of perception
by Peter Klein
Head of Feature & Feuilleton of ORF (Österreichische Rundfunk)
(with examples in RealAudio)
Chapter I: The genesis of the workshop
The question is: Are radio features or documentaries with a duration of 40, 50, 60 or more minutes too long for our listeners?. Are they – the listeners – able to follow our programmes in times of shorties and quickies?. This is of course an absolutely silly question. Because nobody would ever complain that Thomas Mann‘s 900-page novel ”The Magic Mountain” could be too long. Also Sergio Leone’s movie ”Once upon in America” , which lasts about 4 hours, is not too long.
Maybe Tolstoj’s ”War and Peace” is a bit too long, and Richard Wagner’s 5 _ hour-mammoth opera ”Mastersingers” would be better bearable in a shorter version. Definitely too long, for instance, is the director’s cut of Goethe’s FAUST I and II by Peter Stein. The performance lasts for 21 hours, usually presented in two pieces on two subsequent days. But I have never even seen a performance of a play by Anton Chechov which was too long, or a film by Billy Wilder, John Houston or Woody Allen, and I have never read a novel by Ian McEwan, a book by Richard Kapuscinski or a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann which was too long. However, there a times when a trailer may seem too long, and even very short commercials appear boring and endless.
Everybody knows what I want to say now, but sometimes the banal and well-known facts have to be repeated: It is bullshit to say that 40, 50, 60 or more minutes are too long. Every piece (of art or every radio piece) defines its own criteria. It’s too long if it doesn’t meet its own demands. It’s too long if it doesn’t follow its own breath and rhythm – and it’s too long if we are neither entertained nor informed. To say it with other words: discussions whether our programmes should be shorter or not are senseless, stupid, and they are the wrong reaction. Of course they can be short, they can even be very short – but there are no reasons to declare that short forms are in general better than long forms.
If we want to find a solution to a widespread problem of radio and media politics nearly all over the world, we have to be aware that the solution ”short form” is nothing else than the imitation of TV and commercial radio programmes. And you can be sure that on this battlefield, the others are better.
This is, as everyone knows, the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. A piece of music full of rising and falling lines, where everything flows and where you can watch the structure blossoming and growing. The waltz starts – and we are going to repeat this now – with a sort of a life-fade-in. Which, by the way, isn’t easy to do even by a one-hundred-men orchestra.
Example 3: From the beginning
More than 100 years later another piece of music about Vienna became rather popular: ”Vienna calling” by Johann Hölzl, better known as Falco. He quotes the fade-in of the ”Donauwalzer” in the beginning, but – the song was recorded in 1985 – after this the beats have to do the job. The drums replace the violins, the cut replaces the fade.
Chapter II: Cut or Fade
When the idea to this workshop in Berlin came up half a year ago, we gave it the title: Cut or Fade – the change of perception. Because ”Cut” and ”Fade” are of course symbols for different approaches. ”Cut” means fast, ”fade” means slow. Cuts are ”in” nowadays, fades are ”out”. Cuts are modern, fades are old-fashioned. Cuts symbolise the digital age, fades the analogue age.
Cuts symbolise the parallelism and equality of the present and the past, the parallelism of different spaces and different times. Cuts suggest that different realities can exist side by side without any connection.
Fades symbolise the narration, the continuity of time, the attempt to understand and the pretence of meaning. Fades suggest that one gives birth to the other, that everything is connected to everything, and that behind all a deeper meaning is waiting to be discovered.
I’ll give you a well-known example: Chicken, by PLB.
Example 5: Chicken (RealAudio)
The question is why Leo Braun did it this way. Of course the new technologies prefer or suggest rapid movements, and it is easier to cut on the computer than it was in former times. But even in 1967, when ”Chicken” was produced, Leo Braun could have done it that way:
Example 6: Chicken – cut version (RealAudio)
But why did he choose to do it differently? Because I didn’t know that we simply could ask Leo here at the conference, I had to find my own explanations: In fact, Leo wanted to tell a genuine story. A story with a beginning and with an end. ”Chicken” is a piece of literature, it follows the traditional rules of storytelling. It gives the audience time and space to follow the author step by step; there is room between the thoughts and you can prepare yourself in expectation of whatever follows.
But ”the art of narration”, said the philosopher Walter Benjamin already in 1936, ”the art of narration is dying”. Because there is no continuity in life and no meaning anymore, narration is an inappropriate form, as it insinuates meaning and continuity.
The contemporary form in modern post-war times – I still quote Walter Benjamin – is information. Because information doesn’t explain, it gives the readers or listeners every freedom to handle the pieces of information in whichever they want. Information is of course a fast business. It is the nature of information – especially if transmitted by electronic means – to be as quick as possible. Topicality is one of the fundamental elements of information. Slow journalism is as unthinkable as quick philosophy at the other end of the spectrum.
Philosophy needs time, information saves time. And it doesn’t happen by chance that we discuss all these questions in an international conference on features. Because the feature contains all that: Information and philosophy, topicality and cognition, poetry and entertainment, the demand to be successful and the demand to be wise. And that means that we have to achieve the impossible: To be journalists and philosophers, to be fast and to be slow, to be poets and investigators, to use cuts and fades. I’ll give you two examples.
The first is an excerpt of a German programme about the techno scene in Berlin:
Example 7: A journey through the techno scene in Berlin (RealAudio)
In this case the cuts are justified of course. They transport a certain lifestyle and a special feeling – which is what the following piece achieves as well: A boat trip on the river Loire in France.
Chapter III: The change of perception
The subtitle of our workshop is: ”The change of perception”. This suggests that in former times everything was different. This may or may not be true. One thing that has definitely changed – and this is important for our profession –is our relation to time. Travelling through Africa will teach you the hard way what this actually means.
We can take it for sure that the so-called ”time-units” became increasingly smaller in the history of mankind. In former times our lives were determined by the cycle of nature. Then we invented the calendar, then the clock, then the hours, the minutes and the seconds. Meanwhile hundredths or even thousandths of a second decide over victory or defeat in a downhill race. This acceleration of time is especially important in the electronic media. Pauses are not permitted, the credits at the end of movies are cut off.
It is obvious why this method of cutting is preferred in this case: Cuts save time and use the effect of surprise.
50 years after Walter Benjamin, Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard told us that the acceleration of time by traffic, mass-media and computer technology leads to the end of history in the sense that history doesn’t extend from a starting point to an aim anymore. There is no present, no past and no future. Time circles around and the history produces violent turbulence without any continuity and without any direction. We call it: the destruction of time. But features like ”Chicken” don’t deconstruct time, they do the opposite: they construct time. They create a framework of time for all those phenomena they deal with.
Nevertheless: the attempt to tell stories may be nice and charming, but it is – if we follow Benjamin, Virilio, Baudrillard and a lot of others – a totally unqualified way to copy or to duplicate the reality. In literature, William S. Burroughs knew this earlier than Boudrillard and Virilio. In the Fifties he started to work out his so called cut-up-method.
Helped by various drugs he also came to the result that different states of consciousness cannot be duplicated in developed stories. Burrough’s method was the montage. He cut together different unconnected pieces to imitate the simultaneousness of everything. – And: He gave his readers the chance to create their own senses and meanings. The attitude to know everything, to have the overview and to educate the readers (or listeners) was given up. It is not without reason that this method was also very welcome in radio studios of the Sixties and Seventies because of its anti-authoritarian touch. The narrated story was old-fashioned and authoritarian.
The cut became much more interesting than the fade.
Example 10: A radio drama from the Seventies (RealAudio)
Chapter IV: Cut & Fade and the reactions of the human body
Natural science presents some very interesting results on the question how the human body reacts to high-speed media offers. The quick change of places, spaces, content and time-levels by series of short cuts produces stress. The human perception is not prepared for high-speed cuts. And stress produces endomorphines, as we know. And we also know that the human body becomes self-addicted to its own endomorphines. If the endomorphine-production stops immediately, one feels bad, nervous and unsatisfied. That’s the reason why children cannot stop watching TV and why it’s hard to stop switching or channel-hopping once you started it. And that means that it is very hard to slide from a high-speed piece into a slower piece. The art to achieve this is called dramaturgy.
And if we as feature makers want to compete with the big ”enemies” like TV, movies, video clips, computer games etc, we would have to be better than – for instance – the following example. It’s the showdown of a film called ”Matrix”. In the following sequence, Keanu Reeves and his female partner kill all their enemies:
Example 11: Matrix (RealAudio)
Do acoustical experiences like this influence our perception? Do people who listen to stuff like this day after day from their early childhood to their pension still have the ability to follow a slow documentary on ARTE or a radio feature by Rene Farabet or Barbro Holmberg? The media-science gives us two answers. The one is yes and the other is no.
One theory says that the high-speed mass media changes the perception once and for all.
This would mean that our audience only could be one which doesn’t watch TV, which is not interested in the latest movie production, and which prefers Mozart to Rap music. If we follow this theory, we need to become shorter, faster and more violent.
But the other theory says that people are very well able to distinguish between media and the daily reality. They can distinguish between media time and real time. This of course enlarges our potential audience.
Chapter V: What do our listeners want?
But what – and I’ll come to the final chapter now – what do our listeners really want! As far as the Austrian audience is concerned, we get some sort of clue from our so-called quality surveys which are done every five or six years. Our audience – and this is naturally a well-educated classical-music-information-culture-listening audience – prefers programmes like the following one:
Example 12: A programme about Albert Camus (RealAudio)
For four weeks, our listeners had the opportunity to give marks to every single programme they listened to. And this piece –a very simply made piece about Albert Camus – received the highest marks. It is very slow, very conservatively done with a lot of narration, and it would never ever succeed in an international competition. What the majority of our listeners definitely dislikes are programmes like the following one: A piece about Slobodan Miloseviv, told on different layers and levels at the same time.
… this was obviously too nervous and too complicated for our listeners. A woman wrote in a letter that she got the impression, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation aired all its 13 radio programmes by accident on one channel.
Finally, and stressing the question again whether our programmes are too long and – given the media soundscape around us – should be shortened, I‘ll want to finish with an anecdote. In the early days of the 20th century, paintings by Paul Cezanne were exhibited in Berlin. But the people in Berlin didn’t like impressionism at all, and his reviews were very bad.
One of the arguments concerning his painting was that Paul Cezanne obviously would be unable to paint an anatomically correct body. It claimed that the arm was too long. Max Liebermann, a painter himself and at that time President of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, joined the discussion to defend Paul Cezanne. ”A well-painted arm can never be too long ….” he said.
Peter Klein, 2002.