21 Jan 2013

Marshall and Me: the genesis of Letters to Sibelius

From Letters to Sibelius, 1:53 pm on 21 January 2013

by Tim Dodd

Marshall and TimOne of the first tasks when I first joined the staff of Radio New Zealand in 1990 as a producer for the Concert Programme (as it was called then) was to look after the Composer of the Week programmes. 1991 was Prokofiev’s centenary and we planned to devote two weeks to him. A man called Marshall Walker – a professor of English Literature – was game to take it on.

Pictured: Marshall Walker and Tim Dodd.

I had never heard of him but my colleagues let me know that Marshall Walker was something special. They said he was a ‘natural broadcaster’ – whatever that meant. But I was impressed. I think it was with some trepidation that I rang him to discuss how he might approach the Prokofiev project. I was but a callow youth, new in my role.

The first thing that strikes you on the phone or on the radio is the voice. It’s tangy, it shoots you a bolt, but it warms you and makes you smile and it hints at mysteries of the soil and of Celtic ancestors. It’s like a mouthful of Laphroaig.

At first I couldn’t work out how old he was. His reputation, the authority of his voice, his ‘professorshipness’ led one to assume that he was an older gentleman and yet on the phone that day when we spoke for the first time he was talking to me as a long-time friend and equal. He was casual and funny – he could have been one of my older brother’s set. I was charmed.

In 1997, Marshall sent me a script of something he’d been working on which he thought might have potential as a radio programme.

It was a letter to Sibelius, written to relate the story of Marshall’s pilgrimage to Finland, visiting the places of significance to the composer. I could sense immediately that this was something of a different order than what I had seen till that point. The words cried out for music.

And when I started working on it, putting Sibelius’s music around and under Marshall’s voice with the help of studio engineer Richard Hulse and one of the very early Pro-Tools editing systems in New Zealand, magic happened. In that first programme, Marshall mentions Sibelius’s belief that there’s a mystical logic that governs a work of art – Sibelius calls it ‘God’. Well, for me making these programmes, there were many instances of a similar feeling. The pieces just had to be assembled in the right way – very often they fell in place by themselves – and the truth emerged. I have to say that, Marshall’s brilliant writing aside, the music of Sibelius is a radio producer’s dream material. It gives you strong emotion, intense drama and space. I don’t think we would have come as far as we did if he had brought along an equally brilliant Letter to Boccherini. (Pace, Luigi).

We went on to make four more Letters over a period of ten years. The subsequent ones became more elaborate in their production. I got the opportunity to experiment with feature production techniques that were new to me. I introduced sound effects and ambiences and a few voices other than Marshall’s: a local Scottish folk singer and my own daughters singing There’s Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose in Valse Triste and a bunch of wonderful Xhosa actors for Doctor Big Man. But in the most part it is just Marshall’s voice and music. And that is all that is needed.

I’m immensely proud of all five programmes. They were all finalists at the NZ Radio Awards and two of them were winners. My partnership with Marshall has been absorbing and rewarding work – the core and greatest satisfaction of my career. It’s made me a better radio producer and it’s also been a hell of a laugh.

Marshall Walker

Marshall WalkerThe Radio New Zealand Concert community was saddened by the death of Marshall Walker on Friday, 11 July 2014, aged 76 Years. Marshall, who was Professor Emeritus of English at Waikato University, contributed many programmes to the network over the years on a variety of topics in music and literature. To many listeners, he is perhaps best known as the writer and presenter of Letters to Sibelius in which he recounted episodes from his life and the impact of Sibelius’s music in them. Aside from his professional achievements, which are many and significant, he was a wonderfully warm, wise and congenial person – a politically-concerned and active citizen, a keen and amused observer of the quirks of the human condition, a great raconteur and a hell of a laugh.

Pictured from left: Tim Dodd, Cláudia Pacce and Marshall Walker

Rest in peace, dear friend. In this photo, Marshall, right, is accompanied by his wife Cláudia Pacce and Tim Dodd who produced  Letters and many of his other programmes for Radio New Zealand. The occasion is the 2009 NZ Radio Awards at which the fifth letter, North and South, won the award for Best Music Feature.

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