Proposal towards the completion of A SPECIAL TIME: THE 1960s

When a novelist friend, a few years ago, challenged me to write a novel, I thought first of the 1960s, not as a chronological period but as a cultural concept, and of writing a panoramic novel, roughly in the manner of Dos Passos, about the experiences of a variety of people at that time. However, once I made notes about experiences to include in my novel, I began to hear voices telling particular stories; and since I have recently been producing so much radio, I decided it would be best for me to work initially with authentic voices.

My initial themes were two: The 1960s was a special time as other decades were not, and then that it was special in more ways than we commonly remember or understand. While I did not want to neglect the political protest commonly associated with the period, my principal interest was episodes of "anonymous history," to use Sigfried Giedion's phrase--dimensions of experience that remain invisible or forgotten, even though, in this case, they occurred only two decades ago. So in selecting participants to interview, I looked first of all for individuals who had either personal experience or expert knowledge of some specialness in this period. Thus, I have a pharmacology professor talk about the last age of drug optimism, during which, in his most prominent example, valium sales peaked at 75 million prescriptions, only to become by now half of what they were; a math professor to remember the rise and fall of the "new math"; the manager of an investment fund to talk about the stock market boom of the middle sixties and then about how, because of values predominant in the period, he felt more comfortable not displaying his wealth, again unlike now; a fashion writer to talk about the radical changes in female dress and the current persistence of these changes. And so on.

In selecting interviewees, I also looked for another quality--voices so distinctive that they need not be reintroduced. This was necessary because I wanted not to make a conventional radio feature, with an announcer (probably a celebrity) identifying speakers and making connections, but an informal symposium in which the remarks of various individuals would be interwoven as though they were participating in a continuous conversation. My assumptions were that the speakers would establish their authority not through an announcer's identification of their current positions (or even their names) but through the authenticity of their articulated memories and perceptions, and then that this authority could be extended, in a listener's mind, to their subsequent appearances on the tape. I also wanted to let sophisticated listeners, like those of public radio stations here, make their own connections from the testimonies.

For the pilot of A Special Time, I personally conducted over three dozen interviews, initially with old friends, and then with new friends, such acquaintance accounting for why the speakers sound as though they are talking to someone familiar. These interviews were necessarily transcribed, because one disadvantage of audiotape, unlike film, is that there is nothing to see. Since words seen are easier to organize than words heard, the tapes had to be transcribed. Studying these transcriptions, I decided which passages to excerpt for the opening 60-minute feature and then in which order those excerpts should go. My aim was to compose an associational flow, as though each new participant were extending what had previously been said, and then to introduce many of the topics that would be developed in individual hour-long programs later in the series. Many speakers were edited to sound clearer, more fluent and more interesting than they actually were; so that this testimonial from an early listener is partially an implicit tribute to our artifice: "There are a lot of people on this tape I wish I knew."

Once in a private eight-track studio, I decided to distribute these participants over the stereo spectrum; and since six separate tracks were available to me for speech, there were, so to speak, six seats from which they would speak: on a metaphorical clock at 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, and 2:30. In the remaining two tracks of multitrack tape, I placed music and historic sounds mostly from the period as a kind of counterpoint that could be acoustic or thematic or both. Most of these background sounds extend over at least two monologues, bridging the natural pauses between successive speakers. Since moments when music and speech pause together were rare, we had to mix in live time the eight tracks of sound down to the more accessible two tracks of a stereotape. All in all, we worked over thirty hours in this studio simply to produce the rough draft of an illusion of a fluent hour-long conversation accompanied by appropriate background sounds.

Though I already have enough testimony on tape to compose several more hour-long conversations on individual topics such as politics, manners, values, enterprise, culture, learning--research and the War, I expect to do yet more interviews, many during my tours as a visiting artist/lecturer, hopefully discovering yet more "hidden history." The plan is initially to remix the pilot, eliminating imperfections, and then produce either a dozen more hour-long programs or a single program several hours long (ideally for a special comparable to say, the 25th anniversary of the JFK assassination and then for release on a single hi-fi videocassette). One element I enjoy about this project is its reawakening my training in American history (M.A., Columbia University) and earlier curiosity about innovative historiography, now all at the service of my more recent interests in the artful organization of speech and sound.

Need I say there is evidence is all around us for continuing interest in the 60s as the most significant of recent decades, as reflected in many areas of our culture: Movies, popular music, fiction, clothing, and political debate. The critical and popular success of the "Vietnam" series on public television illustrates the continuing appetite for analysis and recall of this period in American life. Nonetheless, there have been no comprehensive oral histories of decade since Walter Cronkite's contemporaneous updating of Edward R. Murrow's decade-by-decade Hear It Now, a three-record set (CBS) of narrated newsclips that by contemporary standards seems stylistically primitive. That is the vacuum that A Special Time aims to fill. Interested sponsors should please contact. Thank you.