The sudden and unexpected release of Bowie’s first new material in almost a decade was certainly a welcome surprise – and the single “Where are we now?” became his highest placed single since “Let’s Dance” in 1983.
But back in Oct. 2012 – it was a very different story…
Fans who’d gathered at “Strange Fascination?” at the University of Limerick, the world’s first David Bowie symposium, were debating whether or not he’d ever return – with many assuming he’d slipped into retirement.
I attended the symposium to deliver a revised version of my paper “Bowie’s Waiata” which examined online fan responses to a series of radio documentaries I’d produced in 2008 to mark the 25th anniversary of the “Let’s Dance” Album and the accompanying Serious Moonlight World Tour. Throughout the symposium I carried out a series of audio interviews, vox pops, field-recordings and narrative “links” with presenter Ian Chapman to document the event as an audio memento for those who attended and to share with those unable to attend.
Ian and I questioned those who presented papers, seeking clarification and drawing out the main themes of their deliveries. Informal conversations were recorded with attendees before and after sessions and during coffee breaks along with more in-depth discussions with the organisers of the Symposium from the Department of Sociology at the University of Limerick.
In some respects this collection of audio can be viewed as a form of “oral history”. The content was used to investigate immediate responses to the various presentations and question sessions. We examined the motivations behind those attending the symposium and grouped together common threads between various discussions. Comments from members of the public who attended the symposium were also captured along with reflections on the overall success of the event.
On the opening night of the symposium Bowie tribute act Rebel Rebel performed at Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick. Audience reactions to the band were recorded along with comments from the band themselves who had the unenviable task of performing Bowie songs to a roomful of skeptical Bowie academics. It was a tough start – but as the crowd warmed up, and the bar tabs grew – the band succeeded in winning over the audience. Members of the public who attended the concert also offered their thoughts on the show and on Bowie’s lasting legacy.
Elements of this audio were then edited and condensed into a fifteen-minute audio diary, presented by Chapman, which was subsequently broadcast nationwide on public service network Radio New Zealand.
An extended half hour edition was also produced for online consumption via the “Mixcloud” on-demand audio site (see link below). The audio will also be included in a one-hour David Bowie music documentary scheduled for broadcast on the “Absolute Eighties” digital radio station later this year.
The project was an unscripted experiment to attempt to capture the informal conversations surrounding the symposium, alongside the recordings of more formal presentations, to help provide a richer, more nuanced overview of the event, rather than simply reading a book of assembled papers (planned for publication in 2014). It’s my hope that this audio can be seen as something more than simply a radio feature. In recent years, academia has become more welcoming of the study of sound and there has been a growing recognition of the unique properties of sound as a mode of communication, capable of carrying very different forms of meaning than written text alone. As Greg Goodale comments in “Sonic Persuation; Reading Sound In The Recorded Age” (University of Illinois Press, 2011) audio can in a sense be “read” in an academic context as a form of aural writing.