To be clear, I know nobody asked for this. The audience for the first season of my podcast Ghost Echoes was fairly small, which was probably inevitable. It’s a very weird show. So I don’t have people beating down my door for me to go through my process in detail. But I want to. Ghost Echoes season one was a huge undertaking that’s been occupying me in one way or another for five years. I think it’s only natural I should want to reflect a bit–as much on the stuff that didn’t work as the stuff that did. Also, I do wish more creative people would break down their work the way Kieron Gillen does, because it’s really valuable reading for other people who want to make stuff. So, consider this ten percent public service, ninety percent exercise in vanity.
Oh, and if you’re looking for me to give away the secret rules, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
First, some background. The idea for Ghost Echoes came to me in 2015, and it was supposed to be a blog. I was reading a lot of Elizabeth Sandifer and Chris O’Leary, whose blogs both followed the format of “discuss a body of work, piece by piece, in chronological order.” For Sandifer, the pieces were Doctor Who stories; for O’Leary, David Bowie songs. (Sandifer calls this way of writing “psychochronography,” if you must know.)
The thing I loved most about both writers was the way they turned the comprehensiveness of their projects into a feature, and not a bug. Not every Doctor Who story or David Bowie song is as interesting as every other. So, if you’re going to cover each and every one, you’re going to have to find an unconventional approach to keep things fresh. Instead of simply discussing the topic at hand, Sandifer and O’Leary discuss an entire world that’s adjacent to their main subject. Their own personal lives and pet obsessions are fair game as well. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Doctor Who characters reimagined as elements from the cosmology of William Blake.) These blogs can be a little self-indulgent, but they’re also risky and complex. They can be thrilling to read, in a way that conventional arts and culture journalism almost never is.
I thought I could have a crack at this. All I needed was an appropriate set of cultural objects to cover one by one and we’d be off. Enter the secret rules–and hey presto, there it is: a decades-spanning, eclectic list of LPs made by a cast of thousands ranging from celebrities to the hopelessly obscure. I had the subject for my blog. The only thing that made it different from the ones I’d seen before was that I could never tell anybody what that subject actually is.
The working title of my blog was “Infinitesimal Gradations,” Christ alive. I’d written one post when another pair of obsessions made me switch gears. Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace was the first podcast to convince me that one-voice scripted podcasts can actually work. DiMeo’s show tells historical stories, generally without any interviews or archival tape. It’s the sort of thing where, when you describe it, you might think it doesn’t need to be audio–it could work just fine on the page. But DiMeo’s writing is a sort of performance poetry. It demands to be heard, not read. Maybe, I thought, my psychochronography project could work in this format instead. Hearing Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, which was even more similar to what I had in mind, sealed the deal.
While I was considering all this, I’d been working on a pair of comedy podcasts with a group of writers I knew: The Syrup Trap Pod Cast and Mark’s Great American Road Trip. Neither one made it past five episodes, but they got me used to making scripted radio set in imaginary sonic environments, rather than the documentary-style stuff I was making at my actual job. And they got me writing music, for the first time in my life.
At this point the ingredients were all there: Sandifer, O’Leary, DiMeo, Longworth, my dodgy sound design skills, and the secret rules. I changed the name to Ghost Echoes.
All of this took two years. By 2017, I was ready to make some radio.
No. 1 – The Great Learning
There’s a fantastic old video of Stephen Sondheim giving a masterclass on how to sing “My Friends” from Sweeney Todd. He talks about how he wrote lots of ‘s’ sounds into the song’s opening lines to give it a whispered quality, and amp up the trancelike mood of that scene. “Thesssse are my friendssss… sssseee how they glissssten…”
So, when I needed to draw my audience into a theatrically trancelike mood, where better to turn for advice than to the greatest songwriter in the history of the Broadway stage?
“Ssssingerssss consssstructed thissss ssssonic casssstle out of ‘ifssss’… out of possssibilitiessss and happensssstansssse.”
Somewhere in the forgotten depths of a Google doc, there’s a draft of the script that goes on like that throughout the entire first section: with at least one ‘s’ sound in every word, aside from articles and conjunctions and such. Obviously it didn’t work. But the first line of my Sssstephen Ssssondheim draft made the final cut, and I think it does the job: it establishes an atmosphere of weirdness. It keeps the audience from starting to think of this narrator, whoever he is, as a friend. (More on that when we get to episode three.)
But even more importantly, that idea of only using words with ‘s’ sounds in them just helped me start writing. It reduced the number of words that were available from a terrifying near infinity to a comparably manageable subset. Paying this much attention to the letters that make up words may seem a little eccentric. But as a prescription for the dread of the blank page, I highly recommend it.
My point in bringing this up is that the script writing process started with the arbitrary imposition… of a rule. I am very serious about walking the talk. And I thought it was important to keep my mind trained on the theme of rules and rule-based creativity while I wrote this script, because the business this first episode needed to attend to included:
- Explaining what Cardew’s The Great Learning is and how it works
- Telling the story of how he got to the point in his career where he founded the Scratch Orchestra, and
- Establishing the premise of the podcast
The thematic connective tissue between all of these is rules. The fact that the very first album prescribed by the secret rules happens to also be an example of rule-based creativity was practically dumb luck. As soon as I started reading up on The Great Learning, I realized that all I had to do was explain and advocate for Cardew’s approach to music, and I would effectively also be explaining and advocating for myself. I’m still slightly in awe of how elegantly everything came together. I really had nothing to do with it—the rules did all the work.
Okay, I will take credit for one thing. The rules did not discover Emma Cons. That was all me. You can get from Cardew to Cons in two jumps on Wikipedia. And once I’d supplemented that reading with a proper trip to the library, I realized that putting Cons in the story would help to underline another important theme: that people are generally curious, intelligent and open minded when given the resources to be. Cons and Cardew prove that this is a valuable principle in social reform and in the arts. And it’s a very important principle to me. (I know I sound extremely public radio right now, but note that public radio is conspicuously not the forum in which Ghost Echoes eventually appeared.)
Essentially, the connection between our three main characters (Cardew, Cons, and me) boils down to this: trust the audience. That’s another rule of Ghost Echoes, and the main purpose of this episode is to ensure that rule isn’t secret at all.
A final note on the music: the Ghost Echoes theme song went through many variations throughout the season. Six out of the ten episodes have their own unique version. But this original one is my personal favourite. Partially it’s the way that it fits together with Cardew’s music. But mainly I love it because I made it entirely in GarageBand on an iPad. As a mediocre but very rigorously trained musician, I hesitated to use a piece of software that comes preinstalled on a mass market consumer electronic device. But I also didn’t (and still don’t) really know how to record and mix music the professional way. So I swallowed my pride, freed myself to work within yet another useful restriction, and it turned out great. There’s life advice in there somewhere.
No. 2 – Roxy Music
In general, the famous albums were the hardest to deal with. For every episode of Ghost Echoes, I strove to come up with some kind of premise that went beyond “so, what’s the deal with this record?” But I felt like that was especially important with the albums by famous artists like Roxy Music, John Cale, and Nico. Enough has been said about all of them that I personally have nothing much to add. But the rules dictate that I must deal with these famous musicians somehow. So I’m obligated to at least find a novel way of framing what many people already know. I think the results of this were fairly mixed, and episode two sits right in the middle of the pack.
I figured out the premise for this one after watching Ken Russell’s wonderful documentary about British pop artists, Pop Goes the Easel. Russell made this film in 1962 for the BBC program Monitor. It was one of a slew of films he made for the BBC that reimagined what an arts-focussed broadcast documentary could be. There are no dour talking heads or garrulous voiceover. Instead, Russell takes inspiration from his subjects and presents a collage-like cavalcade of arresting images, intercut with footage of the artists at work and moments of pure fancy, as when all of the artists in the film gather at a carnival to play bumper cars.
I thought I could do something like that: a pop art collage about an album full of pop art-inspired collages. So, for good and ill, it’s got the most hyperactive sound design I’ve ever done, it’s full of archival tape from previous documentaries (including Russell’s) and it contains a frankly brazen amount of copyrighted material. If I ever receive a cease and desist, it will probably be for this.
The conceit of “four short films about Roxy Music” came from the theme song–I’d come up with a fun silent movie honky tonk version of the theme, and I thought it would sound good with a film projector sound over it. So I needed a reason to start the episode with a film projector sound. Also, credit where it’s due to François Girard.
With those two conceits in place–the pop art collage and the four short films–I realized there would be parts of this episode where I would have to try and convey the sense of old Hollywood glamour that Bryan Ferry was so attached to. My reach kind of exceeded my grasp, here. In retrospect, I could have drawn on all the hours of Karina Longworth I’ve listened to and I might have come up with something. Instead, most of this episode is a shameless Nate DiMeo impression, the Roxy movie palace section in particular. When you’re writing in a very heightened register, there’s a fine line between poignant and cloying. DiMeo’s really good at staying on the right side of that line. In 2017 I hadn’t really figured it out, and I kind of still haven’t.
Listening now, I hear a few things that mark this episode out as something I made a few years ago, with a bit less experience. The overcooked writing is one. Others include the omnipresent reverse cymbals, and the bit where I name all the rock stars who went to art school accompanied by a montage of tiny musical fragments. Those are choices that feel kind of hacky to me now. With the first episode, the stars aligned, and I managed to squeak out something I’m still proud of a few years later. That’s pretty rare. I can’t say that’s true of this one, although I think it’s got some good bits, particularly the stuff about Wagner: an unexpected recurring character.
Incidentally, I cut an entire section shortly before the episode went live, about King Crimson. I released a fragment of that section as a bonus episode towards the end of the season to buy me some time to finish the finale. In the bonus episode, I offer an explanation for why I cut this scene, then totally contradict myself mere minutes later. The real reason I cut it is because it was boring.
No. 3 – Little Red Record
The most challenging formal element of Ghost Echoes was trying to reconcile the fact that it is a third-person, exposition heavy, narrator-driven podcast with my desire for it to include an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. Whew, even trying to frame that in a sentence nearly made my brain fall out. I’ll try to elaborate.
Let’s think about movies for a second. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t force you to think all that deeply about how the story is being told; you’re just meant to sink into it. You can basically take for granted that everything that appears on screen, notwithstanding the occasional heavily signposted dream sequence, is “true” within the world of the movie. And story threads that seem unrelated in the beginning always connect in the end.
But filmmakers also have a tradition of doing the opposite of this. Why are the integers 1 to 100 shown on screen sequentially throughout the duration of Drowning by Numbers? Why are large chunks of Shakespeare’s Henry IV interpolated into My Own Private Idaho? “What is the purpose of this jar? Why did I paint it this certain way???”
It happens in prestige television, too: what’s with that scene where Don Draper nearly steps into an empty elevator shaft? The answer is not clear. You’re meant to come up with your own interpretation–or maybe you’re not. Even if you don’t, and you remain unclear forever, all of those examples are still satisfying, and they make sense in a sort of dream logic way. As Flann O’Brien put it, their components may be “entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author,” but this in no way invalidates the piece.
I think this tradition exists in radio as well: obviously in sound art, which seems almost entirely based on unexplained juxtapositions of sound. But I’m sure it also exists in independent radio drama. And I can think of some examples from The Heart.
But in general, the kind of radio that features a host or narrator talking directly to the listener (which is to say, almost all radio and almost all podcasts) resists this kind of approach. I think listeners have a notion that when they hear that familiar narratological voice, in the context of nonfiction, they can assume that person is there to explain things to them. They assume that part of the host’s role is to reconcile away any ambiguity and close the loop on the story–or at least to clearly lay out any remaining questions in a straightforward way, Radiolab-style.
These assumptions are very understandable. When you tell a story with your voice on the radio, you’re basically doing the same thing as we’ve been doing at campfires and at children’s bedsides and in pubs since time immemorial. If you start telling a story to your friends, why would you refuse to fill in the gaps? Why would you insist on going on tangents, then not explaining their significance? Surely you’re telling the story because you want the people around you… to understand the story. Right?
My counterargument to that is based on a premise that many generations of radio professionals wouldn’t buy: that talking into a microphone isn’t necessarily the same as talking to people in person. The conventional advice given to beginning radio hosts is that it’s not a performance, it’s a conversation. Don’t picture a group of people you’re talking to. Picture one person.
Fine, but I prefer to picture zero people. I am not cognizant of any hypothetical audience at all when I tape the narration for Ghost Echoes. (Which may have something to do with why Ghost Echoes does not, in fact, have a very large audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) The narration in Ghost Echoes isn’t the same as a campfire story. It isn’t me talking to you. It’s just me talking. I’ve always considered my voice in this podcast to be just one component in an audio collage. The fact that it resembles conventional nonfiction podcast narration is almost a coincidence.
I suppose what I’m describing isn’t exactly new–it’s something like Brechtian alienation. But that’s a hard thing to do in a medium that so many listeners turn to specifically to form parasocial relationships with the hosts.
Anyway: back to that question of ambiguity. If you accept my admittedly bold premise that in the narration I am not actually talking *to* anybody, that should theoretically free me up to do some of the stuff you’re not supposed to do at the pub, i.e. going on long tangents and refusing to explain yourself. And it should therefore allow me to incorporate some element of ambiguity into the story: it should allow me to bypass the listener’s perception that I am talking to them directly, and thus their assumption that I owe them a complete explanation.
(There is one precedent for this that I’m aware of, namely the quasi-documentary F for Fake by Orson Welles, which is the single greatest and most confounding use of narration in the history of audiovisual media. But don’t take my word for it.)
This third episode (see, we got there) was my first attempt to pull this off. As per the secret rules, it was always going to have something to do with Little Red Record, and its chief architect Robert Wyatt. But I figured I’d throw our old friend Cornelius Cardew back into the pot as well, because I saw some resonances there. I thought it might be fun to just put the two of them beside each other, interleaving their stories, and leave it to the audience’s discretion to determine why I’d done it.
But I just couldn’t make that work in a way I felt good about. I got some feedback that the first cut of this episode didn’t make a lot of sense and felt sort of unmotivated. And for all the big ideas I just outlined about ambiguity in radio, I actually agreed.
I think in the end, pulling something like this off takes more trust from the listener than I’ve earned. It takes more sure-handedness as a storyteller than I possess. So instead, I preface. I disclaim. I announce my intentions. And I replace all of this episode’s tasty ambiguity with tedious journalistic affirmations of What You Are About To Hear And Why It Matters. Kill me!
Anyway, this is one of the episodes I’m least proud of. I think it’s objectively better than the Roxy Music episode, mainly because of the Cardew material. But it’s the one that disappointed me most compared to my initial mind movie. It is somehow my mom’s favourite, and I have no idea why.
No. 4 – For Your Pleasure
After episode three and its attendant frustrations, I quit making Ghost Echoes for two years. I had some rough sketches for this fourth script. I knew what the premise would be. But I didn’t finish and record the script until late 2019, once I’d found a network. The upside of this is that I got a lot better at making radio over those two years. Modestly, I think episodes four and five of Ghost Echoes are the two best pieces of radio I’ve made so far. That’s mainly because I made them in a beautiful golden sliver of time where I had the advantage of two extra years of radio experience, and I also didn’t have the pressure of looming deadlines. (We started dropping episodes once I was halfway done making the season, thinking that would give me a comfortable amount of runway. It did not.) So I’m really sorry if this next bit seems like gloating. I’ll get back to dragging myself soon enough. Promise.
I’d wanted to make something about the Pygmalion myth for ages, because I just kept seeing it everywhere. Aside from the examples I cited in the episode there’s The Stepford Wives, which I tried to incorporate into the robot sex montage at the end of the episode, but it didn’t work tonally. There’s the marvellous indie game Kentucky Route Zero, which reflects on the legacy of Joseph Wiezenbaum’s ELIZA and relationships with simulations. It also subtly undercuts the whole Pygmalion dynamic by featuring a couple who are, refreshingly, both robots. There’s the Yes song “Turn of the Century.” There’s the real-life story of Davecat and his relationships with two hyperrealistic Japanese sex dolls, as told by Love + Radio.
Indeed, the one scene I cut from this episode because it was just a little too gross was about the origins of the Japanese term “Datch waifu,” used to refer to modern sex dolls. They say that Dutch sailors in centuries past pioneered the practice of using rag dolls as sex surrogates when they were away at sea. Ergo, Datch waifu. Dutch wives. Cutting this segment deprived me of the opportunity to reference yet another Wagner opera (The Flying Dutchman) and it also meant I lost my favourite line in the entire draft script: “Remember, there is no such thing as the Dutch Hygiene Museum.”
Anyway, the whole premise is very Feminism 101–teetering on the precipice of mansplaining. (At least, I hope it only teetered.) But I had never seen a whole bunch of these stories all lined up in a row. And it seemed like an opportunity to do something that connected to the album in question, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, without focussing on it specifically. So I decided to go for it. It solved the problem of how to deal with a very famous album in a novel way. For Your Pleasure is probably the most revered record I covered this season, and I ignored almost all of it. Worked fine.
I don’t have much else to say about this, except to point out one of my favourite moments of original music in the whole season. The music in the Ovid section, almost at the start of the episode, is made up entirely of mandolin samples lasting an absolute maximum of three seconds apiece. The Philharmonia Orchestra, god bless them, have made a massive sample library available of single notes at multiple dynamic levels from every instrument in the orchestra, plus a few auxiliary players like mandolin. But even the most sustained long notes on offer are of such teensy weensy lengths that if you want held notes, your mix ends up looking like this:
It was worth it, I think. The moment where this mandolin music comes back for a second appearance in the Bernard Shaw segment, to mark the moment when Eliza breaks free of the story as told by Ovid, is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being Jad Abumrad.
No. 5 – The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics
At first I didn’t want to admit that this was the best episode of Ghost Echoes, because it was so easy to make. There’s no question: it was straightforwardly the simplest episode to write and produce. And after all the work I’d put into episode four–all those crossfades–I couldn’t bear to think this one was better. But it is.
To go back even further in my personal history than this episode does, I was on my high school improv team. There’s a famous improv format called the Armando, where the improv team’s scenes are broken up by monologues from a designated speaker. Each monologue inspires the next scene. I remember learning that there was a format similar to the Armando called, maybe, the Miranda? The Melinda? I can’t find any reference to either online. The main difference is that in the Miranda (let’s call it that) the monologist is expected to deliver a final monologue at the end of the performance that gracefully ties together everything that’s gone before. After forty minutes of improv, this is nearly impossible. But when you see it happen, it’s magic.
The human brain craves connections, and it’s really good at drawing them. So a big part of my storytelling practice, in Ghost Echoes and elsewhere, is just to take things that don’t seem like they should fit together, put them together anyway, and draw lines between them. That was the case with Emma Cons and Cornelius Cardew, and with Robert Wyatt and Cornelius Cardew, and it’ll come up again in episode six with Robert Calvert and the German military, and in episode ten with Nico and the end of the world.
The uncharitable word for this is “contrivance.” And in a sense, contrivance is baked into this show’s DNA. To me, it doesn’t matter whether the stories naturally connect or not. The value comes in witnessing the attempt to make a connection anyway.
But this episode, the best one, contains no contrivance at all. The pieces fit together naturally because they all revolve around a central idea: failure. I first encountered the Portsmouth Sinfonia in a YouTube video called “Orchestra Fail.” I have my own personally scarring experience of musical failure to draw on. And then there’s Tom Johnson’s “Failing.” Those are the three main narrative elements of this episode, and once I’d decided on them, everything else fell into place easily.
I will always have time for stories that attempt to connect a large number of distant dots. But to paraphrase LaMonte Young, there is something to be said for simply drawing a straight line and following it.
No. 6 – Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters
A note on the marching band rendition of the theme song at the start: I mainly constructed this note by note from that same Philharmonia Orchestra sample pack I used in episode four. But after episode five, I decided that this one needed to have at least a snippet of my trumpet playing in it. So, in the melody line of that theme, and the smoky jazz rendition that comes right after, you’re hearing my first attempts to play the trumpet in more than seven years. It is what it is.
I had to find a way to record my trumpet playing in my quarantine studio (i.e. closet), so I improvised a mic stand out of a desk lamp, a washcloth, some electrical tape and a loop of kitchen twine to secure it to the hanging rack above and keep it from drooping. I am honestly prouder of that mic stand than I am of this episode.
I don’t have much to say about the episode itself except that the same phenomenon I complained about with episode three applies here as well. The same as in that episode, I tacked on a preface and an epilogue to try and tie the different story threads together thematically, and it didn’t work. Framing the stories of Robert Calvert and the Lockheed scandal as “two typical post-war stories” is a connection so broad that it’s meaningless.
There’s a difference between this and episode three, though. This time the two stories I’m telling, Robert Calvert’s biography and the story of the Lockheed bribery scandal, actually are related to each other in a demonstrable, material way: they both directly factor into the album I’m discussing, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. But I couldn’t allow that to be the full extent of their connection, because then I’d be veering into territory where I’m just making an episode about an album, without it having any larger significance or interest. So, I resorted to our old friend contrivance. I tried to bring the threads together like you do in that improv game, the Miranda. (The Mariah?) And the result is faintly disappointing.
This is the moment where I started struggling to maintain the sense that Ghost Echoes isn’t just about storytelling, but also about ideas. There’s a reason I didn’t start the show with an anecdote, but with a detailed explanation of how a piece of music by Cornelius Cardew actually works under the hood. Unfortunately, at this point I didn’t have any ideas for the show to be about. Which, to my great dismay, leads us to…
No. 7 – Fear
You know, it’s kind of a miracle that only one episode turned out this badly.
I’ve actually known John Cale’s Fear longer than any other album I covered this season. I still have my two-CD set of Cale’s complete recordings for Island Records, which I remember buying in my hometown’s one tiny, indifferent music store. You picked up what treasures you could find. But even having listened to this album for fifteen years or more, I could not find the premise for this episode. There was no obvious detail to hone in on, like with For Your Pleasure. There didn’t seem to be any clear opportunities for interleaving narratives like with The Great Learning or Little Red Record. And I’d already done one big pop art collage episode.
I realized I didn’t have much of a choice but to do what I’d come perilously close to already in the Captain Lockheed episode: I’d have to just discuss the album straightforwardly. I Do Not Like This. It’s not what Ghost Echoes is for. So, in the absence of a premise that would determine the episode’s story content, I decided to impose a purely formal premise instead.
That premise was inspired by the trailer that I made for the show’s announcement. The trailer was based on the pitch deck I sent around to potential publishers, which was phrased in a mildly snarky Q&A format. So, when I needed to translate it to radio, I figured why not have the questions voiced by a robot, with no explanation. That’ll show people what kind of podcast it is! (One might speculate about this robot’s relationship to the quippy male robot voice that occasionally appears in the right stereo channel, but I’ll leave that as fodder for headcanon.)
A few weeks later, having reached an impasse with Fear, I figured why not extend that idea out for the length of a whole episode. To be clear, I don’t think that was implicitly a bad idea. Listening back to my narration, I admire my commitment to the bit. And I’m glad it offered a chance to tease the secret rules a little more. I’d been neglecting that side of the show for a while. But it still all strikes me as a vaguely amusing way to say absolutely nothing original about music or history.
Moreover, I can’t help but notice that the robot character’s whole function is to ask me questions and not to offer any perspective or personality of her own. She is a Galatea. I wandered haplessly into the wrong side of my own feminist parable from three episodes prior. I am a jackass, and this episode is one of the worst things I’ve ever made.
No. 8 – Hallelujah
The situation at this point was that I’d just put out two episodes in a row that I wasn’t especially proud of, I had a pair of good ideas for episodes nine and ten that I knew were going to be incredibly labour intensive, and I was running out of time. I needed episode eight to be good, and also simple to make. Enter the Collection Of Fun Anecdotes: a story format I can do in my sleep.
I think it worked fine. A lot of crazy things have happened at the Royal Albert Hall, so there was plenty to choose from. I did cut one scene, about Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor to appear at the Albert Hall. He’s a fascinating figure, but there are too many lingering questions about his life that are more the business of a biographer than a podcaster looking to put together a four-minute anecdote. So we got the Kray twins instead, and their boxing grandfathers who were both named Jimmy. What a gift.
All of this did make me feel a little bit like a guy making lists on the internet, but it was perfectly straightforward and it bought me some of the time I needed. There are some bits I’d smooth over if I had my time back. Certainly I’d correct my pronunciation of the poet Simon Vinkenoog’s name. I have no idea where “Vinkenoov” came from. I don’t think any language works that way.
I guess it’s nice that there’s one episode of Ghost Echoes where my reach didn’t exceed my grasp, because my reach was only about a foot in front of me. I don’t have strong feelings on it one way or the other.
A couple notes on the music: the synth soundtrack to the scene with Arthur Conan Doyle’s seance is my extremely simplified rendition of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a classic of British memorial services that I am very happy I worked in. Also, this is the first episode where I didn’t use my splainin’ music. Generally, whenever I launch into a more abstract section of the script, where there’s no real need for mood setting, I immediately reach for the arpeggiator track of the theme song from episode one. (E.g.: timecode 9:29 in episode five.) It works really well for splainin’. That arpeggiator does not appear anywhere between this episode and the final credits of episode ten, which I assume was a relief for some.
No. 9 – Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy
I knew that this whole episode would take place at a house party since episode three, which has a scene at this same house party. (Not a thing you think you’ll get to say as a music history podcaster.) But the significance of that choice had obviously changed by the time I’d started making it. Nobody was hosting parties anymore. On the surface, this episode is about the wonderful June Campbell Cramer. But really, it’s an elegy for all the 2020 chilli nights I never got to have.
Here’s something else that’s been weird for me throughout the pandemic: normally I like to listen to podcasts something like this one. I like immersive, story-driven, crafted podcasts with lots of music and sound. But this year, I suddenly developed a nearly exclusive taste for roundtable chat shows. Over the past few months, I have listened to so many hours of podcasts from the McElroy family that I had no ethical choice but to finally become a MaxFun member. All I want to do is listen to those good good boys play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad.
Obviously, Ghost Echoes is never going to be the kind of show that can offer that sort of casual companionship. It is precisely the sort of thing I disavowed earlier, in my reflection on episode three. But just this once, I thought it might be nice to talk to the listener as if both they and I are actually people. So there’s our premise: you and me, at a party we couldn’t possibly have been invited to–even in the before times.
It took a bit more imagination than other episodes. I don’t know what the interior of that flat looked like, whether it actually had a paisley sofa, or whether Robert Graves was on the bookshelf. Call it historical fiction. Someday, on another podcast with different aims, I’ll track down somebody who was actually there and see how close I came.
It is the only episode where all of the sound is diegetic, owing to the goof where I give my guest wireless earbuds. It’s a bit, sure, but it’s also a way to integrate a music mix without breaking the premise. The other music you hear throughout the episode, the background music at the party, is just some junk I made on my iPad and digital piano. Both pieces of mood music are shameless Caravan rips: “Nine Feet Underground” at the start, “Winter Wine” a bit later. Caravan was a band that fluttered at the edges of Lady June’s scene. But they’re a heck of a lot easier to impersonate than Soft Machine. The music is just low enough in the mix that you don’t hear my terrible organ soloing.
This turned out to be one of the season’s simpler episodes, but I actually like it a lot. Plus, I feel like the bit about the balloon floating all the way over Europe is my first successful Nate DiMeo impression, so perhaps I’ve atoned for the misfires in episode two.
No. 10 – The End
So, listen. I started making this show in 2015. Back then, the claim that “people are generally smart, open-minded and curious” wasn’t quite as hard a sell as it is these days. But honestly, most of the time I still believe that. I think it’s probably best to conduct oneself as if it’s true, even if it’s not. But I don’t blame anybody who thinks I’m full of shit.
Anyway, I made my bed, and I found myself tasked with producing an inherently idealistic series during the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Twenty: a year when it makes a lot more sense to be cynical. Still, I wanted the season to end where it started. Specifically, I wanted it to end as far away from cynicism as possible. I wanted to express, if only through force of rhetoric, and even though it is a shameless platitude, that people are still worth believing in: even if there are no indications that this is true, and even if we have absolutely no cosmic importance. I cannot defend this idea. I refuse to even try. It’s a matter of faith.
So the question was: how do I get to that from Nico? Well, the album’s called The End. The title song is a cover of a Doors track famously used in Apocalypse Now. And in Ghost Echoes, we are perpetually a maximum of two degrees of separation away from Wagner, apocalyptic storyteller par excellence. So I figured the end of the world was the best way in. One of humanity’s most adorable traits is the way our apocalypse stories don’t even show the world ending, just changing in some much-needed way. Surely a species with that habit is worth rooting for, in spite of *gestures broadly.* The last few lines of the script were the first part I wrote: “Make me something. Play me a song,” etc. Everything else had to lead up to that.
From there, the structure fell into place: a hybrid of the whole bunch o’ stories approach of episodes four and eight with the interleaving narratives structure of episodes three and six. Nico’s story would proceed chronologically. And in between the bits, there’ll be apocalypse stories where the world conspicuously does not end. Making this episode, I got to leverage everything I learned by making the first nine.
But the thing I’m proudest of about this one is that, finally, in the last episode of the season, I had the guts to not try and explicitly connect the two sides of the story. There really isn’t any specific connection between Nico and the apocalypse, so why force it? AMBIGUITY UNLOCKED.
There is, however, a figure that appears in both strands of the story. Naturally, it’s Wagner. So I thought I could lend some cohesion to the whole deal by making Wagner’s music the connective tissue of the episode. All of the original scoring is made up of excerpts from the Ring, arranged for a combination of my old Alesis Micron analog synth and a janky-ass Lowrey Micro Genie that’s older than me. (The exception is the Halley’s comet section, which is a corny acapella “Ride of the Valkyries,” referencing all the way back to the Roxy Music episode.) The Chen Tao scene has the forest murmurs from Siegfried. The last few minutes have a combination of music from Siegfried’s funeral march and Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. And at the beginning, what you hear is a mashup of the prelude from Das Rheingold with Nico’s cover of the Doors, and with the chords from the Ghost Echoes theme song. That one wasn’t easy. I learned pretty fast why Wagner kept that whole prelude rooted firmly in E-flat major. Start throwing around more chords and everything stops lining up.
I think this finale turned out to be one of the highlights of the season. If I never make another episode of Ghost Echoes, which is a distinct possibility, I’d be happy to end with this.
If you do the math, you’ll find that my claim to have been working on Ghost Echoes for five years is a little dubious. The first two years were basically planning. And there was another two-year span in there between episodes three and four where I wasn’t actually working on it. Nevertheless, I definitely feel like I’ve been working on it for five straight years. Even when I set it aside, I still thought about it every day.
Since the finale dropped, friends have been congratulating me on finishing the season. Usually I find it very difficult to accept congratulations or praise with any grace at all because I am almost never proud of myself or my work. I’ve had absolutely no problem graciously accepting congratulations about Ghost Echoes. That’s in spite of the fact that I don’t think this season was a straightforward success–certainly not in terms of metrics. And as I’ve just outlined in tiresome detail, I have serious misgivings about nearly half of the episodes from a creative point of view.
But let me again reiterate a brief passage that became something of a refrain for Ghost Echoes: a repeated quote that I consider the single most important thought expressed in the whole season. It is, of course, a remark by Cornelius Cardew:
I confess, I do find the configurations produced by my own failures quite wonderful. I am not proud of all the individual parts that comprise Ghost Echoes season one—that would be too high a bar to clear. But I am proud of the whole. And that is such an unexpected and novel feeling that I needed to write seven thousand words to process it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well.