The Piers Plowright Lecture Series

Between 1999 and 2017, Piers Plowright’s lectures, opening the School of Sound conferences, grew to become a tradition. Delivered with charm and charisma, his much-anticipated talks gave the impression of apparently spontaneous, intimate chats with friends, even across the wide open spaces of the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank. There was, of course, much more to them than that, as students and teaching colleagues at academic institutions around the country would attest. Piers’s  grace and elegance of style concealed a profound understanding of his chosen medium, radio, but beyond that, the poetics of sound in general. His work in the BBC had begun in 1968, and after a spell with the drama department, he found his natural home: the radio feature; by the time he retired from the staff of the BBC in 1997,  he had won the Prix Italia Prize for radio drama and documentaries three times, as well as three gold and two silver Sony awards and a special Sony award for his lifelong dedication to the radio industry. Through the years, his ear and mind became increasingly tuned to the minutiae of meaning within the everyday sonic signals so often hidden by the rushing world, and his thought and programmes reflected that through the practicalities of production.

The list of his SoS talks bears witness to the sheer range and depth of this lightly-worn but profound knowledge, and his deep and loving interest in humanity;  it was a trait that flowed through every aspect of the man. He genuinely and sincerely engaged with everyone with whom he came into contact; he was more than a professional listener, he possessed a consummate empathetic spirit which beguiled and enchanted all who knew him.  For more than thirty years he was a friend, mentor, teacher, and above all inspiration to me, as to so many others. He was multi-faceted, as a poet, an artist and a musician, but his working passion was sound in all its forms: location recording gave him the material from which his features were shaped and crafted, but there were other cultural influences at work, sometimes audible, sometimes implicit. We shared an enthusiasm for jazz, and in particular  the music of Bill Evans, and he introduced me to the gentle genius of the Vic Dickenson Quintet, recordings he’d first come across while on National Service. He particularly loved the 1953 Dickenson version of ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ which he felt had the spontaneous logical unfolding of themes and extemporisation that a good radio feature should possess. As he said to me once, ‘music is about much more than its sound.’  And his thoughts on music appear in these lectures, as do reflections on silence, things left unsaid, the potential for ambiguity of sound and the complexity of the pictures it evokes. Above all, it is his love for the grain and nuances of the human voice as it strives to explain feeling and thinking, that comes over time and again in his own programmes. He himself had a beautiful voice, and in many ways, its richness and gentle lyrical flow gave you the man. Which is why it is so perfectly appropriate that the Plowright School of Sound Lectures are gathered together here not as written texts, but rather as what comes across often as almost thinking aloud. What a blessing it is that they were recorded, preserved, and can now be  shared here with the world. We hear with our ears, but we listen with our mind, our heart and our spirit. No one knew that more, or could express it better, than Piers Plowright. Just listen.

Professor Seán Street

1998 The Shadow Knows
Using radio clips from his own and others’ work, Plowright looks at the connection between radio and film

1999 Ambiguity
Piers considers the power and ambiguity of sound and the images it inspires

2001 When Does the Connecting Train Arrive?
Exploring the connection between music and meaning in his own and others’ radio work and how he considers this relates to the use of music in film

2003 Silence Is …? Piers Plowright Looks Into Space
Radio Producer and cinéaste, Plowright surveys the use of silence in creating soundtrack

2005 Filling the Space – Sound, Depth and Meaning in the Art of Radio
This year Plowright explores the acoustic space radio creates and fill

2007 Does Sound Matter?
Piers wonders aloud about what it is that makes us listen

2009 Counting and Guessing
Radio producer Piers Plowright considers the invisible and the unspoken: how listening may lead to seeing and how looking may lead to hearing.

2011 The Voice and Its Mysteries
Piers considers what vocal storytelling does to us and how it does it. With clips from radio and from film soundtracks. Sometimes you may not know which is which!

2013 A Listening Life
A history of a world in 20 sound clips.

2015 The Tallatchie Bridge and Other Mysteries
Broadcaster and writer Piers Plowright explores the pictures that sound creates and considers the silence that surrounds the best music and words. His starting point is Bobby Gentry’s 1967 hit, Ode to Billie Joe.

2017 Ghost Voices
Plowright considers the immediacy and power of the human voice and what it tells and doesn’t tell us. And what listening might tell us about looking.

Some texts for listening 2017, suggested by Piers.

Recordings  prepared by Mark Underwood.