Into the Ruins: Winter 2018 issue now available

This is just in from Joel Caris, editor of Into the Ruins, the only science fiction quarterly soley focused on deindustrial fiction:

Into the Ruins: Winter 2018 is Now Available!

I’m pleased to announce that the eighth issue of Into the Ruins is shipping to subscribers and is now available for purchase! This Winter 2018 issue runs 106 pages, featuring six excellent new stories, as well as an Editor’s Introduction, letters to the editor, and a new book review from Justin Patrick Moore.

In this issue of Into the Ruins, a seer tells a mad king his future under the threat of death. Two men isolated on a Northwest island work to re-establish contact with a devastated outside world. A powerful woman struggles with how to respond to the upcoming power shifts in both her society and home. And a man’s life is changed after a chance encounter in the forest leads to an intense love affair.

These are just a few of the stories found in this eighth issue of Into the Ruins, continuing our exploration of future worlds riven with the consequences of today’s actions. These are worlds near and far in the future, uniquely their own, giving glimpses into the sort of realities we actually do face while making clear that the worlds of tomorrow are just as compelling and complicated as the world of today.

Subscribers will be receiving their issues in the coming days, with most already working their way through the mail system. Those of you who aren’t subscribers but would like a copy of the new issue, you can order a copy here from our store, which will ship immediately. The issue is also available from Amazon or you can purchase a digital edition of the issue at Payhip. For  international readers, you can go to the issue page for links to international Amazon sites it’s available through.

Many of you have subscriptions that have expired with the release of this new issue. Please consider renewing today if you haven’t already! Subscriptions are the lifeblood of this publication; if you want it to continue, show your support by reupping your subscription. (If you’re unsure when your subscription expires, simply email me at and I’ll let you know; similarly, if you’re an international subscriber, contact me at the same email for a renewal link.)

And iff you aren’t already a subscriber? Consider signing up! The consistent support provided by subscriptions is critical to the success of Into the Ruins.

As always, I encourage readers to send their thoughts and feedback to me at, both as casual emails (rambling acceptable!) and as official letters to the editor that I can consider for publication in the ninth issue of Into the Ruins, scheduled for publication in May. Comments for contributing authors will be happily forwarded on.

Now go read the issue and enjoy some fantastic deindustrial and post-peak science fiction!

— Joel Caris, Editor & Publisher

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The Radiophonic Laboratory

♫ Radio is the perfect medium for the diffusion of electronic music. The unpredictable sounds coming from radios are also a perfect source material. In many cases the production studios available at broadcast facilities made them the first laboratories for the scientific investigation of sound, for the sole purpose of making music, to be used by electronic music pioneers. Likewise these stations became the first to introduce electronic and other avant-garde music to the public. Such was the case with Westdeutscher Rundfunk, or WDR, the German public broadcasting institution located in Cologne. Their Studio for Electronic Music was the first of its kind in the world and became an epicenter for musicians working in the new medium. On the broadcasting side the WDR promoted new music through unique programming that included radio lectures, the playing of live and recorded music, and commissioning new works from composers working in the field.
The story begins with Herbert Heimert, a student of musical theory and devotee of the atonal serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg. At the age of 24 while still a student at Cologne Heimert published his first book, Atonal Music Theory. He followed this with a twelve-tone string quartet for his end-of-term examination in composition. This piece became the cause of a heated dispute with his teacher. This was in the early 1920’s and at this time Schoenberg’s work was considered intellectually decadent; as the Nazi’s rose to power in Germany, his work came to be labeled as degenerate music, and the composer emigrated to America to escape persecution. Heimert was found guilty association just for following Schoenberg’s theories, and was expelled from the composition class for his decadent string quartet.

Heimert was only temporarily thwarted by his teachers rigid adherence to tradition. His activities as a student were just the beginning of a long and industrious career promoting new developments music and educating the public about them. A few years later he found himself employed by Cologne Radio (-then NWDR) while working on his doctorate and writing articles for various music magazines and journals. He kept up this pace of activity on through WWII. In the aftermath he found himself the first salaried employee of WDR under the administration of the British occupying forces.

After gaining more influence and moving a few steps up the ladder at the station in 1948 he initiated the Musikalische Nachtprogramme or late-night music programs. He was the director of and a presenter of these programs until 1965. The tradition of playing avant-garde, intellectually demanding, or just plain weird music on late night radio programs has it’s beginning with Heimert in Germany. It was on these late night music shows that Heimert was able to showcase works by new composers and the first forays into recorded electronic music.

At the same time as Herbert was plugging along on his inspired path, another man was carving away at his. The two men would join forces at WDR in due time. Werner Meyer-Eppler was a Belgian-born German who worked in physics, experimental acoustics, phonetics and was also an early information theorist. During the war he was an assistant at the Physics Institute of the University of Bonn. Afterwards he focused his efforts on phonetics, in particular speech synthesis. Recruited into the Bonn’s Phonetic Institute he started to publish essays on synthetic language production and gave presentations on American inventions like the Coder, the Vocoder, and the Visible Speech Machine. He was on the team who developed the electrolarynx, a device that continues to be used by people who are speech-impaired.

Through his work on speech synthesis Meyer-Eppler also became interested in making music through purely electronic means and published a book in 1949 titled Electronic sound production: Electronic music and Synthetic speech, promoting his ideas. Ten years later he published what is seen to be his most important book, Basic Principles and Applications of Communications Theory.

Since Eimert had been an advocate of new music since his days as a student, he was well acquainted with musical outliers. The development of electronic music technology throughout the thirties and forties was just one of many pulses his busy fingers were watching. Aware of Meyer-Eppler’s phonetics research at the Bonn, he was quick to realize it had implications that would be of use to composers and musicians.

There exists a close relationship between the way speech sounds and music are organized. Meyer-Eppler had applied his knowledge of information theory, in the form of statistical and probablistic analysis to study change in the units of speech over time. One of the methods Meyer-Eppler used to study speech was the cut-up method, later made famous by author William S. Burroughs. Werner would take tape recordings of speech, cut them up into individual sounds, and later reassemble, or edit the tape, to make synthetic words and phrases. Eimert had heard these experiments and it convinced him of the need for the creation of an electronic music studio where sound could be explored from both a scientific standpoint of research into tone synthesis and the underlying principles of music oranization and perception, and with an aesthetic agenda towards pushing against the boundaries of compositional practice.

In 1951 Eimert launched another broadcast series, Die Klangwelt der elektronische Musik, or the sound world of Electronic Music, that was a spin off of his popular late night music program. The first show aired on October 18, 1951. A meeting had been held on the same day as the broadcast with WDR’s general manager about the establishment of a Studio for Electronic Music. Those at the meeting included Heimert, Werner Meyer-Eppler, and others working in this area such as Robert Beyer and Fritz Enkel. The general manager gave the greenlight for the project and a new chapter in musical history was born. The studio was promoted as the first of its kind ‘to produce new musical material and to study the problems of its production and processing systematically’.

WDR studio for electronic musicThe original equipment in the studio consisted of a Trautonium, a kind of proto-synthesizer developed by Dr Friedrich Trautwein. Modified to Meyer-Eppler’s specification it was called an Electronic Monochord. There was also the Melochord invented by Harald Bode. Besides those instruments the studio consisted of signal generators: sine , rectangular, sawtooth and noise; filters: octave, third, radio drama (W49) filters ; a pulse generator ; ring modulator ; oscilloscope ; rotary speaker for recording spatial sounds ; echo and reverb chambers: the reverb chamber being a large empty room where sounds could be played through speakers and re-recorded with the room ambience added ; sixteen channel (2 X 8 channel) audio mixer ; patchbay to route modules ; tape Machines: several mono, 2 -track and one 4-track (one of the earliest 4-track recorders made) tape recorders and a ‘Springer’ variable speed tape recorder with a rotating 6-fold playback head.

Many new composers worked in this studio throughout its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s. These included György Ligeti, Nam June Paik, and Gottfried Michael Koenig among many others. Their names are all overshadowed by that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had been studying under Meyer-Eppler and later succeeded Heimert as the director of the WDR’s Electronic Music Studio in 1962. Next months column will focus on some of the compositions Stockhausen created at the studio, and at Japan’s NHK studio which followed the WDR’s example, before turning to Stockhausen’s fascination with, and incorporation, shortwave radio into a number of his pieces of music.

The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen by Robin Maconie, 2nd edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.
New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification by Amy C. Beal, University of California Press, Berkely, 2006
Live Wires: A History of Electronic Music by Daniel Warner, Reaktion Books, London, 2017

WDR Electronic Music Studio, Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer & Herbert Eimert, Germany, 1951

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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Music inspired by Wilhelm Reich

A few weeks ago I had the urge to listen to the Nocturnal Emissions album “Collateral Salvage” -a title in their catalog I wasn’t as familiar with as many others. As I absorbed the deftly collaged audio I noticed one of the tracks was titled “Listen, Little Man!” the name of a book by Wilhelm Reich. It got me interested in reading “Listen, Little Man”, which I haven’t read, as well as thinking about other songs and pieces of music that have been inspired by Reich. Back when I was at Antioch College, and first working in a library, I’d devoured a number of books by Reich. At the time, my reason for doing so had been to further my study of magic. Israel Regardie, himself a Reichian therapist, considered the works of Reich to be mandatory reading for any would-be initiate. And I dutifully worked my way through a chunk of his works. For me, the ones that have had the longest lasting impressions have been “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” and “Character Analysis”.

“I thank my fate that I’ve been able to live my life free from filth and greed, to see my children grow and to look on as they first began to babble, to take hold of things, to walk, to play, to ask questions, to laugh and to love; that I’ve been able to preserve, in all its freedom and purity, my feeling for the springtime and its gentle breezes, for the gurgling of the brook that flows past my house and the singing of the birds in the woods; that I’ve taken no part in the gossip of malicious neighbors; that I’ve been happy in the embrace of my wife or husband and have felt the stream of life in my body; that I haven’t lost my bearings in troubled times, and that my life has had meaning and continuity. For I have always hearkened to the gentle voice within me that said, ‘Only one thing matters: live a good, happy life. Do your heart’s bidding, even when it leads you on paths that timid souls would avoid. Even when life is a torment, don’t let it harden you.'” –Wilhelm Reich, Listen Little Man.

For the past couple of decades a lot of musicians have been inspired by Wilhelm Reich.  Perhap’s it all started with Hawkwind, as so much does. Their song “Orgone Accumulator” comes from the classic 1973 album “Space Ritual”. It’s a track, that with it’s trippy guitar riffs and wailing sax, is sure to get your vital life force flowing.

“It is as a pioneer in the field of character analysis that Reich is most likely to be remembered for it is he who noted that reactive character traits were an armour used by the ego to protect it against both instincts and a thwarting environment. Such character traits as ambitious behavior, which covers inadequacy, or arrogance, which hides deep feelings of inadequacy, do indeed protect the ego, but they have the serious defect that they are maintained indiscriminately, regardless of their appropriateness in a given situation and, because they insulate the individual from external stimuli, he becomes less susceptible to re-education.”—Dr. J.A.C. Brown, Freud and the Post-Freudians, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 99.

Patti Smith came next with a song called “Birdland” inspired by Peter Reich’s “A Book of Dreams”. Patti has said that she imagined the spirit of Jimi Hendrix was watching the band as the song was recorded.

“Every time they built a fire he ran over every five minutes to make sure no coals got on the floor; he worried about the oil burner overheating and talked about chimney fires. There were fire extinguishers everywhere and surrounding the stoves were thick asbestos panels. And in the observatory, on the wall opposite the huge stone fireplace, were the paintings: a person holding a child in front of a fire, a solitary figure before a fire. When Peter finished talking, Ed asked, ‘What did your father think about fire?’
Peter didn’t hesitate. ‘He always said the only color an artist couldn’t capture was that of a dying fire.’” –Peter Reich, A Book of Dreams.

Bob Dylan’s controversial album Desire came out in 1976. The song “Joey” about the gangster Joey Gallo mentions Reich. Apparently Gallo read Reich and Nietszche during a stint in the slammer. Other than that, the song has nothing to do with Reich really. It just mentions him. Yet the song itself is a great example of an outlaw/murder ballad. Despite the controversy surrounding the glorification of this criminal, I think it is a fine song.

“Reich than describes how it felt to be a demonstrator and how the various factions looked to an involved and extremely curious participant. Most striking to Reich was his impression of the police. He emphasized not their brutality but their mechanicalness. Reich suddenly saw them as rigid automatons. He, too, he realized, had been just such a robot when he fired on the enemy in World War I.”—Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth: a Biography of Wilhelm Reich, page 124.

My first exposure to music inspired by Reich was through the Utah Saints song “Something Good”, who sampled Kate Bush’s  song Cloudbusting. Me and my older sister Margaret loved this  ’90’s techno track. It still gives me chills, because I just know that something good is going to happen, and this songs remind me of that. It was a big club hit at the time even though I was too young to go the clubs. Kind of dated now,  but still a solid thumper. Listening to it these days is something of a guilty pleasure.

I later heard the actual song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush. Whenever I hear a song, that I had previously heard a sample from, but hadn’t heard the original first, there is this awesome shudder of recognition. Kate’s track, like Patti’s was also  inspired by her reading A Book of Dreams. It came out on the 1985 classic album “Hounds of Love” -which features truly incredible synthesizer work. The album gets its unique sound from the judicious use of the Fairlight CMI synth, traditional Irish instrumentation, and deeply layered vocals. Cloudbusting is about the very close relationship between psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich and his young son, Peter, told from the point of view of the son after he has grown up. He describes his memories of life with Reich on their family farm, called Orgonon where the father and son spent time “cloudbusting”, a rain-making process which involved pointing at the sky a machine designed and built by Reich, called a cloudbuster. In the lyrics Kate describes Wilhelm Reich’s shocking arrest and imprisonment by the FDA, and the pain felt by Peter at his helplessness in being unable to protect his father.

“Every time they built a fire he ran over every five minutes to make sure no coals got on the floor; he worried about the oil burner overheating and talked about chimney fires. There were fire extinguishers everywhere and surrounding the stoves were thick asbestos panels. And in the observatory, on the wall opposite the huge stone fireplace, were the paintings: a person holding a child in front of a fire, a solitary figure before a fire. When Peter finished talking, Ed asked, ‘What did your father think about fire?’
Peter didn’t hesitate. ‘He always said the only color an artist couldn’t capture was that of a dying fire.’” –Peter Reich, A Book of Dreams.


Miles Davis and Quincy Jones even got in on the Orgone vibes. Here is a cut from their “Live at Montreux” album from 1991. Arranged by Gil Evans, it’s a bit of standard jazz that while listenable, would have been better if John McLaughlin or some of his colleagues from the 1970’s fusion period could have joined in. (Thinking here of “Shhh/Peaceful”) Maybe if it had been a jazz version of the Hawkwinds “Orgone Accumulator” song it could have been better. As Lou Reed said, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

In 1995 Kim Cascone released his Heavenly Music Corporation album Lunar Phase. The album was compiled of material composed especially for St. Giga, Japan, a satellite broadcast radio station that transmitted ambient music 24 hours a day. It was a really interesting satellite, whose programming was based around current tidal movements. I plan to write more about St. Giga in the Music of Radio series when I get to the subject of satellites. This track is titled “Orgone” and is one of the main theories Wilhelm Reich is remembered for.

Kim Cascone’s music is awesome. And I’ve just really started getting into it thanks to Phil Legard. The Heavenly Music Corporation material in particular is some of the best ambient music to come out of the ’90’s. Very intelligent. Good for the body and the mind. Kim has put up the entire catalog of Silent Records up on bandcamp.

“The knowledge of God as the love in your body, which you persecute, is breaking down your guards at the entrance to paradise, which you yourself have put up in your dreams, and your obstruction of living Life on this earth.” –Wilhelm Reich, The Murder of Christ, page 130

Then there is the band Orgone from Oregon state. Kind of a funk jam band. Not my usual speed. This song, “Give it up”, live on KEXP, channels Reich’s sexual energy quite well though.

“Further careful observation tells us that bio-energetic superimposition is closely linked with plasmatic excitation and sensations of current in two orgonotic systems, be they children, adolescents, or grown ups. It is absolutely necessary, in order to visualize this function in its proper aspects,  to abandon all the many social, cultural, economic, psychological, and other implications that, in the case of man, have complicated and all but obliterated its original, bio-energetic functioning.” –Cosmic Superimposition, page 182.

I can’t forget about my German friend Alexander Nym, editor of Schillerndess Dunkel, and his band Orgonautic. Their industrial trip-hop song “White Light” is one of my favorites from their discography:

“It is necessary to sum up again the basic functions which were found by orgonomic research in the depth of man’s biophysical functioning, in order to understand fully the meaning of character structure. In the light of orgone biophysics , this ‘structure’ appears as the sum total of the relationship between the orgonotic energy system and the sensory-motor system which has to perceive the plasmatic currents, to execute the energy discharges, and to coordinate all energy functions into an orderly, total, unitary functional system: ‘orgonotic system’.” –Character Analysis, page 456

Destination Future is another winner.

“MAN IS FUNDAMENTALLY AN ANIMAL. Animals, as distinct from man, are not machine-like, not sadistic; their societies, within the same species, are incomparably more peaceful than those of man. The basic question, then is: What has made the animal, man, degenerate into a machine?
When I say “animal,” I do not mean anything bad, cruel or “base”; I am stating a biological fact. Man has developed the peculiar concept that he is not an animal at all, but, well — man; a creature which long since has shed that which is “bad,” which is “animal.” He demarcates himself in all possible ways from the bad animal and points, in proof of his “being better,” to culture and civilization which distinguish him from the animal. He shows, in his whole behavior, his “theories of values,” his moral philosophies, his “monkey trials” and such, that he does not want to be reminded of the fact that basically he is an animal, an animal, furthermore, which has much more in common with the “animal” than with that being which he asserts to be and dreams of being. The theory of the German Übermensch has this origin. Man shows by his maliciousness, his inability to live in peace with his kind, his wars, that what distinguishes him from the other animals is only his unbounded sadism and the mechanical trinity of the authoritarian concept of life, mechanistic science and the machine. If one looks at the results of civilization as they present themselves over long periods of time, one finds that these contentions of man are not only erroneous; more than that, they seem to be made expressly for the purpose of making man forget that he is an animal.”

Maybe it is a stretch to say the next song by Coil is inspired by Reich. However, I bet Jhon and Sleazy were familiar with Reich and his work.

In June 2010 Crass alumni Eve Libertine saw the world premiere in Brussels of Listen, Little Man! a new work by Libertine and electronic artist Mark Webber. Drawing on the writings and research of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, it is a semi-improvised performance for voice and signal generators with a back projected, scrolling graphic score. Since my time in highschool I’ve been a big Crass fan, and of anarcho-punk in general. After years of languishing within my music collection, Christ the Album, Dirt, and a bit of Rudimentary Peni have made it back into the rotation.

Penny Rimbaud, Charles Webber and Eve also collaborated on Kernschmelze II, out from Cold Spring, which looks quite tasty.

I imagine that I have missed a number of songs or artists who have been influenced by Reich. If so, please let me know by leaving a comment.

In Love, Work & Knowledge.

**** Feb. 12 update****

My friend Erik T. Lawson sent me a message about this Pop Will Eat Itself version of Orgone Accumulator. Thanks Erik!

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Water Walk and Variations VII

John Cage’s composition Imaginary Landscape No. 4 wasn’t the end of his engagement with the use of radio as a sound source. In fact his imagination, now glowing like a hot tube, was just getting warmed up. I will turn to his next experiments shortly, but I wanted to dwell for a moment on his earliest radio work, that I overlooked in last month’s article. I had quite forgotten about Cage’s involvement with the Boy Scouts in Los Angeles in the early 1920’s . It was during this time period that his fascination with radio was sealed. His father had built a crystal set that could be plugged into an electric light system. For his effort it got his father listed in the city directory as a “radio engineer” though he had been more recently famous for his work on submarines. Cage sr. had invented parts and systems for subs that helped keep them level and also a system for running the engines on gasoline instead of batteries, which increased the speed of the subs. His father’s flair for invention seemed to have been passed on to Cage jr. As a Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts John got the idea of hosting a scouting program on the radio. First he obtained permission from his organization, and then he approached LA station KFWB who rejected his proposal. He next took his idea to KNX, and they gave the show the green light. It broadcast weekly on Friday afternoons. John at the time had considered himself destined to be in the ministry as his grandfather had been. As such he began each program with ten-minutes of oratory from a local religious person, be they minister, rabbi, or priest. The rest of the show was devoted to singing Scout songs over the air, sometimes with John accompanying his fellows on the piano. Other topics included such favorites as building fires and tying knots. KNX is still on the air on 1070 kHz in L.A. as one of the original clear channel stations, blasting a non-directional 50,000 watts. KNX had begun with a humble 5-watts when amateur Fred Christian put it on the air as 6ADZ. It was from these small beginnings, and his first taste of the airwaves, that he built on as a composer, presenter, experimenter, creating works for radio and incorporating radios themselves into a number of works.

After Imaginary Lanscape No. 4 Cage’s next piece involving radio was written for a television program. His piece, Water Walk, lasts about three minutes and consists of many small actions relating to water. He timed each of his sound making actions to the precise second required by the score using a stop watch. Written for such fun sound making things as gong with water gun, and crushed ice in electric mixer, it also includes five radios and a piano. He stopped at the radios and adjusted frequency and volume, then released steam from a kettle, and plinked a few keys on the piano. Water Walk appeared live on television twice, first in 1959 in Milan, on the show Lascia o Raddoppia, an Italian version of the then popular Double or Nothing Game Show. Returning back home he got the chance to share it with American audiences on I’ve Got a Secret in 1960. It’s a slice of media history that you can watch:

Six years down the road came Variations VII that was presented on two of the nights of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering that paired artists, musicians and performers with engineers from Bell Labs in presenting new works fusing technology to contemporary art practices. The 9 Evenings was the first in a series of projects that came to be known as E.A.T., or Experiments in Art and Technology. This was the first organized large scale collaboration between artists, engineers, and scientists. Some of the engineers included Max Mathews (whose work was included previously in this column), Bela Julesz, Billy Klüve, John Pierce, Manfred Schroeder, and Fred Waldhauer, alongside many others, around 30 in total. There were 10 artists involved including Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman. The collaboration between the artists and engineers produced a number of “firsts” for technology in the theater. Some were specially-designed systems and equipment. Others repurposed existing gear in innovative ways. Closed-circuit television and television projection was used on stage for the first time; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound; a fiber-optics camera picked up objects in a performer’s pocket; and portable wireless FM transmitters and amplifiers transmitted speech and body sounds to loudspeakers. The performances took place between October 13-23, 1966 at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory, at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street. Around 1000 people attended each evening.

The engineering side for Cage’s piece was overseen by Cecil H. Coker whose primary area of focus was acoustic research, specializing in articulatory speech synthesis. Coker, with two colleagues, wrote the first software text-to-speech program in 1973. Coker had worked with Cage before on the piece Variations V helping to develop a system of for using photoelectric cells to provide lighting and randomly triggered sounds. Variations VII was considerably more involved though it still used photoelectric cells as a key component for triggering sounds.

In composing Variations VII, Cage used no previously prepared sources of music. It consisted only of “those sounds which are in that air at the moment of performance.” Part of the elaborate set up included ten telephone lines installed to the Armory and kept open at various locations in New York City. Some of the places they were connected to included Luchow’s restaurant, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, The New York Times press room, Merce Cunningham’s dance studio, and one next to fellow composer Terry Riley’s turtle tank. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage’s sound manipulation system, and from there to a dozen loudspeakers, one ceiling speaker. He also used 20 radios, one tuned to the police department dispatch), 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters. Oscillators and a pulse generator were other sound sources. Rounding it all off were a dozen household appliances such as blenders, fans, a juicer, and washing machine, wired with contact microphones. If that wasn’t enough sounds from four wired body parts, heart, brain, lungs and stomach were included in the unpredictable mix. The entire set up stood on a platform with equipment stretched across two long tables. Cage, David Tudor and three other musicians moved around between the rows twisting knobs, plugging and unplugging cords and circuits, and flipping switches. Adding further randomness to the mix were the 30 photocells and lights mounted at ankle level around the performance area. These activated and triggered different sound sources as the performers, and audience who came in close to watch, moved around the set up.
Video artist Naim June Paik compared the roaring noise of Variations VII to a Niagra Falls of sound. Nothing like it had ever been heard before. And since so many of the sounds came from live sound sources an exact sound replica can never be recreated. Paik also considered to be Cage’s masterpiece performance in the realm of electronic music. Here is a video made of part of the performance can:

The Maker and Hacker movements have had a great success in continuing to build relationships between the technically minded and the artistically minded. Ham radio has different restrictions imposed on it by the FCC. However it seems to me that somehow Hams could still work in creative ways with artists and musicians, and continue to forge vital connections between art and technology.

Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012.
Reception: the radio works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, by Alana Pagnutti, Smith and Brown, 2016.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the Q-Fiver.

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Imaginary Landscapes

The development of telecommunications technology and electronic circuits had a major impact on the creation of new musical instruments from the very beginnings of the field. But it was only in 1951 that a composer first got the idea that the radio itself could be used as a musical instrument.  Since then the use of radio as a source for live, unpredictable sound, music, and voice has become commonplace across the genres of contemporary classical, and the various styles of electronic, rock and pop music. The next several installments of the music of radio series will explore some of the key composers and pieces of music that used radios as the primary instrument. Using the radio as an instrument has become part of what composer Alvin Curran has called “the new common practice” or grab-bag of themes, principles, and methods being used to create the sonic backdrop of the landscape that everyone now inhabits in this age of electronic multimedia.

“It’s not a physical landscape. It’s a term reserved for the new technologies. It’s a landscape in the future. It’s as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass.” John Cage wrote this about his series of Imaginary Landscape compositions that first began in 1939 with No. 1, written for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano, and cymbal. It was potentially the first piece of electroacoustic music ever composed. The turntables played test tones. Some were constant, others had a sliding pitch. From the very beginning the piece was envisioned for radio, to be performed for either live or recorded broadcast. Since Cage had been a boy, he had been fascinated by the medium. Born in 1912 broadcasting was still in its infancy when it first reached his ears. Radio was so new anything could be done with it. The lackluster formats most common on the broadcasting portions of the spectrum now could well use an injection of the wonder the medium held in those first few decades.

Imaginary Landscape No. 1 was written while Cage held a teaching position at the Cornish School in Seattle. The school had been founded by Nellie Cornish, who had received some education in radio technology from Edward R. Murrow when visiting him at the CBS station in New York. In 1936 she created at Cornish the first school for radio technology in the United States. The studio at the school was equipped with the latest broadcasting and recording gear. It was there that Cage first began to experiment with the use of electrical sounds for musical purposes. At that time he was deep into writing percussion music and he began incorporating the sounds of radio and oscillator frequencies into these pieces. Reporting on Imaginary Landscape No. 1 the Seattle Star wrote that it was a “staccato roar of radio static and ghastly, ghostly whistles with intermittent shrieks”. While this might have terrified listeners of the time, anymore people take such music as a matter of course, paying it no mind, especially when it is used in such things as the soundtrack or incidental music in film and television.

In 1941 Cage had found himself spending a large part of the year in Chicago. It was here that his interest in radio music continued to grow. Around this time he had published an article “For More New Sounds” in the journal Modern Music. In this essay he wrote about the similarities to be found between the materials used to create sound effects in radio studios and the instruments in the percussion wing of an orchestra. One of his interests was to bring radio sound-effects to the concert hall. He wrote, “organizations of sound effects, with their expressive rather than representational qualities in mind, can be made. Such compositions could be represented by themselves as ‘experimental radio music'”. That same year he got to work with the poet Kenneth Patchen in creating a radio play for CBS. The first draft of the musical score was scrapped by the sound engineers however. Some of the sounds he wanted to create, such as the escape of compressed air were too expensive to produce for the program, he was told. After some revisions he eventually gave CBS something they considered acceptable. The resulting piece by Cage and Patchen, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, was broadcast on May 31st, 1942. The surreal text by the poet was mixed with sounds of telephones, crying babies, rain, foghorns and Cage’s metallic percussion instruments. In 1942 he also wrote No. 2 and 3 in the Imaginary Landscape series. No. 2 was written for tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion’s roar and amplified coil of wire. No. 3 required musicians to play tin cans again, muted gongs, audio frequency oscillators, variable speed turntables with frequency recordings and recordings of generator whines, amplified coil of wire, amplified marimbula (a Caribbean instrument similar to the African thumb piano), and electric buzzer.

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 was first performed in 1951 and is scored for 12 radios played by 24 musicians, two on each radio, one to control the tuning, the other to control the volume. It is a great example of indeterminate music. The only guarantee about the piece is that no performance of it will never be heard the same way. This is guaranteed because John incorporates chance operations to determine how much the dials of each radio are to be turned by each performer. The novelty of each performance is also guaranteed by the nature of radio itself. Depending on the place and time of a performance, the things coming out of the radio speakers are going to be different. During its premier concert at Columbia University’s McMillin Theater those in the audience heard the word “Korea” over and over again, as well as snippets of a Mozart violin concerto, news about baseball, static, and silence. The performance took place around midnight and many of the stations in New York had already gone off the air for the night.  Of course the silence never bothered Cage, who considered  in an integral part of the experience. He had said that “silence, to my mind is as much a part of music as sound.”

Listening to a recording of this piece from 2008 reveals the prevalence of country music and commercials. Voices come in and say things like “60 percent off” and read the weather and the latest buzz words in the news cycle. Many people listening today might be as confused about the “musical” quality of such a piece as they were back in 1951. But what John Cage has done  is to ask people to tune in and experience the unpredictable sounds and signals coming in from the radios and from the world, as a form of music.

The Imaginary Landscape compositions came to a close with No. 5  a work for magnetic tape recorder and any 42 phonograph records. This piece in the series was written in the same year as he began work on Williams Mix, for eight simultaneously played independent quarter-inch magnetic tapes, that became the first piece of octophonic music. As John Cage continued to compose until his death in 1992, he continued to work musically with new technology, including early computer music compositions in the 1960’s.  A number of other composers and musicians have taken a vast amount of inspiration from Cage’s work with radio and continued to build on it. These will be explored in further transmissions.

Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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Two Pioneers of Spread Spectrum Radio

In wireless communications spread spectrum radio is a transmission technique where the frequency of the signal is intentionally varied. This gives the signal a much greater bandwidth than if its frequency had remained constant. In the conventional transmission and receiving of signals, the frequency does not change over time, except for small fluctuations due to modulation. The signal is kept on a single frequency so two people communicating can exchange information, or so a listener in the broadcast bands knows exactly where to go to find his favorite station.

That is all fine and dandy for typical uses of radio. But as radio has developed the inventors and researchers who expanded the state of the art found a couple of hitches that made it problematic for certain types of signals to remain parked on one frequency. The first was interference caused by deliberate jamming on the desired frequency. This category also included other non-malicious interference coming from transmissions on nearby frequencies. The second issue with using only one frequency in a communication is when the information being transmitted is of a sensitive nature. Constant-frequency signals are easy to intercept. The military and others can make use of codes and encryption to veil transmissions on single frequencies, but codes can be broken. Radio researchers found that another layer of communication security could be added by the use of frequency-hopping which was the first technique established in spread spectrum radio.

Hedy_Lamarr 1940Though attributed to multiple inventors, the first patent for frequency hopping was granted to actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil in 1942 for their “Secret Communications System” that was designed to protect Allied radio-guided torpedoes from being jammed by the Axis powers. Both Hedy and George are most remembered for their main fields of activity, movies and music, but they each had a touch of the polymath inside of them, and their other passions allowed them to make a significant advance in the radio arts.

Hedy was born in 1914 in Vienna and started training in the theater as a teenager in the 1920’s. By the age of eighteen she had married her first of six husbands. Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl was a wealthy ammunitions manufacturer whose weapon systems later gave her inspiration for the patent. During this time she had started a career in film in Czechoslovakia with the 1933 film Ecstasy  which became controversial for its frank depictions of nudity and sexuality. Hubby Mandl got a bit ticked off by these movie scenes and attempted to stop Hedy from continuing her career as an actress. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me she claimed that she was kept virtually a prisoner in their Austrian castle home. She wrote, “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife…. He was the absolute monarch in his marriage…. I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own”. And Hedy had a keen mind with natural talent for science and invention.

Both Mandl and Lammar had Jewish parents, but Mandl also had business ties with the Nazi government, to whom he sold his weapons. Mussolini and Hitler were among those who attended the lavish parties Mandl hosted at their Schloss Schwarzenau castle. Hedy would accompany him to his meetings where she got to associate with scientists and professionals involved in military technology. It was at these conferences where her interests in inventing and applied science were first sparked.

As her marriage grew unbearable she decided to flee to Paris where she met movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who was scouting for talent. With all the trouble brewing in Europe he found it easy to persuade her to move to Hollywood where she arrived in 1938 and began work on the film Algiers. She was in number of other popular feature films, including I Take This Woman (1940), Comrade X (1940), Come Live With Me (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and her most famous role in Cecil B. Demile’s Samson and Delilah (1949). After starring in the comedy My Favorite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope her acting career started to peter out.

It was during the height WWII and her career when she was also grew bored with acting. Hedy had complained that the roles given to her required little challenge in terms of technique or the delivery of lines and monologues. Mostly the films she had starred in cast her for her beauty rather than her talent and ability. Stifled by the lack of more demanding roles she found an outlet for her intellectual capacities through the hobby of tinkering and inventing which was nurtured by her friendship with aviation tycoon Howard Hughes.

George AntheilLamarr had some ideas about using radio controlled torpedoes in the war effort. To help her in its implementation she eventually tapped composer George Antheil, who had also found success in Hollywood scoring films. Antheil had been a part of the Lost Generation, and like many of his contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, he had moved to Europe after the horrors of the first World War to live a bohemian and artistic life amidst the cafes and salons of Paris in the 1920’s. It was during this time period when he composed his best known work Ballet Mecanique. It began its life as an accompaniment to the Dadaist film of the same name made by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, with cinematography by Man Ray. The techniques Antheil developed in this composition were to be key to the success of his shared frequency hopping patent.

Ballet Mecanique was scored to use a number of player pianos. He described their effect as “All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary.” There are no human dancers. The mechanical instruments are what make it a ballet. Antheil’s original conception was to use 16 specially synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren and three airplane propellers. There were a number of difficulties involved in this set-up that broke away from traditional orchestral arrangements. The synchronization of the player pianos proved to be the largest obstacle. Consisting of periods of music and interludes of relative silence created by the droning roar of airplane propellers. Antheil described it as “the rhythm of machinery, presented as beautifully as an artist knows how.”

Besides composing Antheil was a writer and fierce patriot. He was a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and wrote a book of predictions about WWII titled The Shape of the War to Come. He also penned a newspaper column on relationship advice that was nationally syndicated and he fancied himself an expert on the subject of female endocrinology. His interests in this area was what first brought into contact with Hedy. She had sought him out for advice on how she might enhance her upper torso. After he proposed that she could make use of glandular extracts their conversation turned to the kind of torpedoes being used in the war.

Lamarr was herself a staunch supporter of her adopted country, though she didn’t become a naturalized citizen until 1953. Using knowledge she gained from her first marriage with the munitions manufacture she had the insight that radio controlled torpedoes would excel in the fight against the Axis powers. However the radio signals could easily be jammed and the torpedo sent off course. Working with Antheil she devised their “Secret Communications System”.

lamarr-patent-web_1The action of composing for the player pianos helped Antheil with one of the aspects of creating their system, which had a striking resemblance to the still top secret SIGSALY system. It is best described in the overview of their patent number 2,292,387: “Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a  remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent. Furthermore, we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist, of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional player piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations, and in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals. Furthermore, records of the type described can be made of substantial length and may be driven slow or fast. This makes it possible for a pair of records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, to run for a length of time ample for the remote control of a device such as a torpedo. The two records may be synchronized by driving them with accurately calibrated constant-speed spring motors, such as are employed for driving clocks and chronometers. However, it is also within the scope of our invention to periodically correct the position of the record at the receiving station by transmitting synchronous impulses from the transmitting station. The use of synchronizing impulses for correcting the phase relation of rotary apparatus at a receiving station is well-known and highly developed in the fields of automatic telegraphy and television.”

Although the US Navy did not adopt their technology until the 1960s the principles of their work continue to live on and are now used in everyday devices such as Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Spread spectrum systems are also used in the unregulated 2.4 GHz band and on some walkie-talkies that operate in the 900 MHz portion of the spectrum. Other spread spectrum techniques include direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS), time-hopping spread spectrum (THSS), and chirp spread spectrum (CSS).

In 2008 Elyse Singer wrote the script for an off-Broadway play, Frequency Hopping, that features the lives of Lamarr and Antheil. It won a prize for best new play about science and technology. Hedy and George’s pioneering work eventually led to their posthumous induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Ecstasy and Me by Heddy Lamarr
The Bad Boy of Music by George Antheilécanique

Suggested Listening:
George Antheil, Ballet Mecanique: Digital Re-creation of the Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927, Conducted by Maurice Peress, Music Masters Inc. 1992.

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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Stairway to Heaven

IMG_20170706_084805172This past July I was fortunate to be able to visit the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii. My step-daughter Ilia left home for Oahu in the spring of 2016 to join her husband who at the Pearl Harbor base where he is serving with the Navy. My YL and I started saving for a chance to go visit not long after. Moving to Hawaii was especially exciting for the young couple as Ilia is part Hawaiian on her father’s side. She had visited twice before, and now gets to live in a place where she can really connect to her Polynesian heritage. Most of our time on the island was spent hanging out with the kids, meeting their friends in the military, hiking, swimming, checking out sites, and learning more about Hawaii’s rich history. I also kept my perked for anything I might learn about radio while I was there.

While thinking about different trails to hike my son-in-law told me about a spectacular hike and what was once the amazing site of a Naval radio station. That hike, called the Ha’iku stairs, or the Stairway to Heaven. Unfortunately that hike is currently illegal to go on. Folks who sneak on it early in the morning before the guards arrive may be rewarded on the way back down with an arrest or heavy fine, and I wasn’t willing to pay those prices, as it might have put a cramp in our vacation. While not being allowed to take in the views at the top of the 3,922 stairs saved my legs from cramping, it did give me a research project for back home. I did get to see Pu’ukeahiakahoe mountain and drive through the Hai’ku valley a number of times. The fact that there had once been a center fed dipole antenna strung between two mountains with the transmitting station nestled in the valley below filled me with wonder. The Stairway to Heaven trail took hikers, when they were allowed to go, up to the top of the 2,000 foot mountain where one side of the 7,500 foot long antenna was anchored.

In 1942, as WWII raged in the Pacific, the U. S. Navy needed to communicate with fleet members active in distant theaters of operation. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor the existing station had proved to be highly vulnerable. The main radio station was only 4,000 yards from the shoreline with power supplied from overhead lines. Nor was the 600 foot tower at Lualualei deemed high enough to reach the desired destinations. A giant VLF sending station had to be built that could reach the waters of Australia, the Indian Ocean, and most crucially every submerged Allied submarine, especially those lurking in the bottom of Tokyo harbor.

Antenna-anchor-sitesSo began construction of a top-secret high-powered experimental radio facility in the Ha‘ikü valley. The natural amphitheater surrounded by 2000-foot-high ridges was considered an optimal spot. To gain access to the spot where the antenna was anchored a ladder-like stairway was constructed with much grueling and painstaking effort. Other anchors were also placed on cliff ridges, with wires running to the transmitter. A copper grid system was installed on the floor of the valley to help conduct signals. After more than a year of this work, the station was commissioned in 1943 where it served as the primary long-range communication system to the end of the war.

Even with a badass antenna system the Navy needed a similarly capable transmitter to get their signals to the destination. They needed something that was more powerful than the vacuum tube technology of the time was able to give. What they decided on was a bit of older tech in the form of the Alexanderson alternator a rotating machine that generates high frequency alternating current invented in 1904. It was one of the first devices capable of creating the continuous radio waves needed for amplitude modulation. At the beginning of WWII the Navy had taken control of the of RCA’s American Marconi Station at Marion, Massachusetts, where there were two Alexanderson alternators. One of these was purchased and shipped to the Hawaii.

With everything in place the Ha’iku VLF station operated at a frequency of 22.3 kHz and wavelength of 13,443 meters. It’s powerful signal was capable of long distance travel and could penetrate obstacles such as mountains and water.  The site continued to be of use in military communications until 1958. Besides the anchor to the antenna a Communications Control Link was used there by the military for VHF communications on the island, and the Air Force had a microwave relay station there until 1963.

After five years of dormancy the site was eventually repurposed as part of the Omega navigation system. Following on the heels of other radio navigation systems such as LORAN, Omega was the first truly global-range radio navigation system. It was operated by the U.S. with six partner nations. Ships and aircraft were able to determine their position  using VLF signals in the range of 10 to 14 kHz that were transmitted by a network of beacons to onboard receiver units. The Ha’iku valley station was reopened and retooled by the Coast Guard in 1968. The whole system became operational around 1971 until it was shut down in 1997 with the advent of GPS. (For satellite buffs the U.S. Air Force Space Command operates a satellite tracking station on another side of the island. I saw some dishes and domes while hiking along the coast in that area. Having no clearances I didn’t try to go up through the guarded gate!)

The closing of the Stairway to Heaven to the public seems to be mostly a matter of funding, politics, and environmental concern. Posted on the friends of Hai’ku website ( was the folliowing: “April 23rd 2017 that the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) announced in an Environmental Impact Statement Preparation Notice (EISPN) that it plans to tear out the Haʻikū Stairs. This notice (see link) triggers a 30-day comment period, during which time the public can express their opinions on the project. Of particular importance is identifying issues not mentioned in the EISPN that you feel should be discussed in the EIS. The BWS is required to address in the EIS all relevant issues brought up during this comment period.” etc. etc.

While the access to this historic radio site remains uncertain a good deal of further information about the operations have been preserved.  Much of the preserved information is thanks to silent key Thorn Mayes who worked under the following call signs W6AX, W9AX, 6BDQ, 6AX, K6BI, K2CE, and W1CX on the west coast in the early days of our hobby. After retiring from his a manage position with GE, Mayes became an avid collector of antique electronic gear (prior to 1922), books and magazines, as well as recording the history of early wireless in the United States. Before his death he had compiled a good deal of information about the Hai’ku stairs, some of which can be The Perham Collection of Early Electronics at History San José, and also in the following article on radio ops in Hawaii:

History is all around us. We just have to pay attention and keep the aerials of optimism raised and ready to receive the signal.


Thorn Mayes


And here is a lovely song from Evolution Control Committee:

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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Tuning the Terrestrial Monochord, or listening to the Harmony of Earth

Antennas and monochords have a lot in common. A monochord is an ancient musical and scientific lab instrument made of one long string, similar in that respect to a long single wire antenna, only the string is stretched over a sounding box of equal length. One or more movable bridges are then moved up and down the string to demonstrate the mathematical relationships among the frequencies produced and for measuring musical intervals. Though it was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets, many attribute it’s invention to Pythagoras around 6 BCE. These ancients saw within the monochord a mystic holism in which notes, numbers, ratios and intervals combined with the sense of hearing and mathematical reason. Monochords are related to other instruments such as the Japanese koto, the hurdy-gurdy, and the Scandinavian psalmodikon this last used as an accompaniment to voice in sacred music. In medicine the sonometer, a variation of the monochord, continues to be used to diagnose hearing loss and bone density for those who may be at risk for osteoporosis.19th century psalmodikon player

The discovery of the precise relationship between the pitch of a musical note and the length of the string that produces it is also attributed to Pythagoras. If he had been able to put electricity into wire strings it might have been Pythagoras who discovered the principle of resonance that makes an antenna match a frequency. What Pythagoras did propose was the idea of the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that conjectures that the movement of celestial bodies creates a form of heavenly music. This theory has continued to haunt the imagination of the West since it was first proposed. Later Plato described astronomy and music as “twinned” studies of sense recognition that both required knowledge of numerical proportions. Astronomy was for the eyes and music was for the ears. Now millenia later astronomy can be studied with the ears of a radio receiver and number crunching supercomputers.

Robert-Fludds-Celestial-Monochord-1618In 1618 the physician, scientist and mystic Robert Fludd conceived a divine or celestial monochord linking the Ptolemaic conception of the universe to musical intervals, suggesting that the instrument could also be used to demonstrate the harmony of the spheres. In Fludd’s picture a divine hand reaches down from out of a cloud to tune the monochord to the celestial frequencies of the planets and the stars. Around two and a half centuries later scientists unknowingly started tuning into the terrestrial frequencies that were unknowingly being picked up by telegraph and telephone lines.

In his masterful book Earth Sound Earth Signal Douglas Kahn writes that “radio was heard before it was invented”. He goes on to describe how the first person to listen to radio was Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson. He tuned in with a telephone receiver “during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas were invented.” Other telephone users also listened to radio for two decades before Marconi made his first transmission. Watson enjoyed listening to the natural VLF signals given off by the earth, though he did not know it’s origin or that it was even radio at all. The natural signals were picked up on the telephone line acting as an extremely long wire that was resonant in the VLF range, from around 3 kHz to 30 kHz and corresponding to wavelengths of 100 to 10 kilometers. Watson’s own line from the lab stretched a half mile down the street. Since he wasn’t transmitting it didn’t have to be fully resonant to pick up the VLF signals. I like to think of these long antenna wires as a type of terrestrial monochord that tunes in to the harmony of the Earth.

Watson did not try to do anything about the noises he heard on the line, as they did not interfere with voice communication. In fact he actually enjoyed listening to spherics, whistlers, dawn chorus and other VLF phenomenon he likely picked up, even as he didn’t know or understand their cause. I like to listen to this form of natural radio myself. There are a number of live internet streams from people who have set up VLF listening posts, such as those found at I think those sounds are as relaxing as listening to the surf of the ocean or a gentle breeze in the trees.  Kahn goes on to write that nature “has always been the biggest broadcaster, bigger than all governments, corporations, militaries, and other purveyors of anthropic signals combined.” May it remain so.

Fludd’s image of the celestial monochord was made famous in 1952 whenharry_smith1 it came to adorn the cover of The Anthology of American Folk music compiled by Harry Everett Smith and released by Smithsonian Folkways. I think some divine inspiration was passed on to Harry Smith, from the same hand that tunes the instrument, and from him it passed on to all the lives his massive compilation touched. The six-album set brought new levels of cultural awareness to musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt and went on to kick start the folk music revival of the 50’s and 60’s. It had a strong influence on Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who are acknowledged as disciples of the anthology. It continues to touch new generations of musicians today.

Avant-garde composer and father of minimalism La Monte Young found early inspiration from another type of electrical monochord. He recalled as a child listening to the droning sound of the power plant next to his Uncle’s gas station. He became fascinated by the 60-cycle hum of electricity as it moved along the lines. This inspired such pieces of music as “the Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer“. John Cale and the late Tony Conrad are among the many influenced by Young’s work. Both were involved in Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale went on to a long and varied career and is notable for being a founding member of the Velvet Underground. During rehearsals with Young, Cale and Conrad would tune their instruments to the 60-cycle electrical hum, what Young called the “underlying drone of the city”.

In the late 70’s composer Alvin Lucier started working with physicist John Trefny on a musical acoustics course they were teaching at Wesleyan University. They had set up a monochord and placed an electromagnet over one end while an audio oscillator drove the wire. This created an interaction between the flux field of the magnet and the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, causing the stretched wire to be observed vibrating by the naked eye. This demonstration captivated Alvin’s imagination and he started thinking about building a monochord to be used on the concert stage or in galleries. After getting some metal piano wire, clamps and a horseshoe magnet he had a built a portable version whose length could be varied depending on the size of the space. This became his classic piece Music on a Long Thin Wire. What he did was extend the wire across a room, clamping it to tables at either end. The ends of the wire were connected to the speaker terminals and a power amplifier placed under the table. The amplifier in turn had a sine wave oscillator connected to it, and a magnet straddled the wire at one end. Wooden bridges with embedded contact mics were put under the wire at both ends, and these were routed to a stereo systems. This electrified monochord is played by varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator to create slides, frequency shifts, audible beat frequencies and other sonic effects. Lucier eventually discovered that the instrument could be left to play itself by carefully tuning the oscillator. Air currents, human proximity to the wire, heat or coolness and other shifts in the environment all caused new and amazing sounds to be heard, sometimes spontaneously erupting into triadic harmonies. This electric monochord is an instrument that can play itself just as the long thin wires of the early telephone and telegraph system tuned into the terrestrial harmonies continuously being broadcast by Mother Earth.


Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Magnitude in the Arts by Douglas Kahn
The Hum of the City: La Monte Young and the Birth of NYC Drone by Alan Licht
The Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Everett Smith
Alvin Lucier, Music on a Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music LCD 1011

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The Synthesis of Speech: Part 5: From a Clockwork Orange to DMR

In last month’s episode I explored the genesis of the first song uttered by a computer, Daisy Bell, and how that song ended up in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this installment on the history of speech synthesis I’ll track the use of the vocoder in popular music on up to its implementation into the DMR radios that are currently a big buzz in the ham community.

In 1968 synth wizard Robert Moog built the first solid state vocoder. Two years later Moog built another musical vocoder, working with Wendy Carlos. This was a ten-band device inspired by Homer Dudley’s original designs. The carrier signal came from a Moog modular synthesizer. The modulator was the input from the microphone. The brilliant application of this instrument made its debut appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, where the vocoder sang the vocal part from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the section titled “March from a Clockwork Orange” on the soundtrack. It’s something I could sit down and listen to on repeat over and over while enjoying a fine glass of moloko velocet. This was the first recording made with a vocoder and I find it interesting that the two earliest uses of speech synthesis for music ended up in films made by Kubrick. The song “Timesteps”, an original piece written by Wendy, is also features on the soundtrack. She had originally intended to include it as a mere introduction to the vocoder for those who might consider themselves “timid listeners” but Kubrick surprised Wendy by its inclusion in his dystopian masterpiece.


Coming down the road in 1974 was the classic album Autobahn by the German krautrockers Kraftwerk. This was the first commercial success for the power-station of a group. Their previous three albums had been highly experimental, though well worth an evening of listening. Kraftwerk’s contribution in the popularization of electronic music remains huge. Besides using commercial gear such as a Minimoog, the ARP Odyssey, and EMS Synthi AKS, Kraftwerk were dedicated homebrewers of their own instruments. Listening to the album now I can imagine the band soldering something together in the back of a Volkswagen Westfalia as they cruise down the highway at 120 km/h on to their next gig.

Three years later in 1977 Electric Light Orchestra released the album Out of the Blue, much to the delight of discerning listeners everywhere. There is nothing quite like the music of ELO to lift me up out of the melancholy I often find myself in during the middle of winter when spring seems far away. “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Sweet Talking Woman” are songs that toggle the happy switches in my brain. When I hear them things brighten up. This is in no small part to the judicious use of the vocoder. ELO was in love with the vocoder and it can be found littered across their recordings. (As a bit of a phone phreak another favorite cut is “Telephone Line”.)

During the 1980’s the vocoder started being used in the early hip-hop and rap groups. Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from WWII to Hip-Hop notes the echo of history in the vocoders use alongside two turntables for the SIGSALY program and how DJs use two turntables to mix and scratch phat beats while a rap MC will drop lyrics over top of the sounds being produced by the vinyl, sometimes processing those vocals through the vocoder. The use of the vocoder continues to present times on hip-hop and jazz fusion albums such as Black Radio (1 & 2) from Robert Glasper Experiment.


While the vocoder was enjoying great success in the entertainment industry, its use in telecommunications was still ticking away, though a bit quieter, in the background.  Since 1970’s most of the tech in this area has focused on linear-predictive coding (LPC). It is a tool used for representing the spectral envelope of a digital signal of speech in compressed form, using the information from a linear predictive model and is a powerful speech analysis technique. When it came out the NSA were among the first to get their paws on it because LPC can be used for secure wireless with a digitized and encrypted voice sent over a narrow channel. The early example of this is Navajo I, a telephone built into a briefcase to be used by government agents. About 110 of these were produced in the early ’80s. Several other vocoder systems are used by the NSA for encryption (that we are allowed to know about).

Phone companies like to use LPC for speech compression because it encodes accurate speech at a low bit rate, saving them bandwidth. This had been Homer Dudley’s original intention with his first vocoding experiments back in the 1930’s. Now LPC has become the GSM standard protocol for cellular networks.  GSM  uses a variety of voice codecs that implement the technology to jam 3.1 kHz of audio into 6.5 and 13 kbit/s of transmission. Which is why to my ear, smart phones, for all the cool things they can do with data, apps and GPS, will never sound as good with voice as an old school toll call on copper wires. LPC is also used in VoIP.

LPC has also been used in musical vocoding. Paul Lansky created the computer music piece notjustmoreidlechatter using LPC. A 10th order derivative of LPC was used in the popular 1980s Speak & Spell educational toy. These became popular to hack by experimental musicians in a process known as circuit bending, where the toy is taken apart and the connections re-soldered to make sounds not originally intended by the manufactures. This technique was pioneered by Cincinnati maker and musician Q. Reed Ghazala into a high art form. Reed’s experimental instruments have been built for Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson’s Pat Mastalotto, Faust, Chris Cutler, Towa Tei, Yann Tomita, Blur and many other interesting musicians. And not so interesting ones (to me) such as Madonna. A future edition of The Music of Radio will cover his work in detail, but a lot can be found on his website

Finally vocoders are utilized in the DMR radios that are currently gaining popularity among hams around the world. In Ohio the regional ARES groups are being encouraged to utilize this mode as another tool in the box. DMR is an open digital mobile radio standard. DMR, along with P25 phase II and NXDN are the main competitor technologies in achieving 6.25 kHz equivalent bandwidth using the proprietary AMBE+2 vocoder. This vocoder type uses multi-band excitation to do it’s speech coding. Besides it’s use in DMR the AMBE+2 is also used in D-Star, Iridium satellite telephone systems, and OpenSky trunked radio systems.

From what I’ve heard I didn’t really care for the audio quality of DMR, as on cell phones. My ears would rather dig through the mud of the HF bands than listen to the way speech is compressed in these modes. I think the vocoder is better suited to musical studios where it can be used for aesthetic effects. However with the push to use these in ARES, and needing something to play with at OH-KY-IN’s digital night on the fourth Tuesday of the month, I do plan on taking the plunge into DMR. And when I do I will know that every time I have a QSO using the DMR platform I will be taking part in a legacy starting with Homer Dudley’s insights into human vocal system as a carrier wave for speech. A legacy that stretches across the fields of telecommunication, cryptology and popular music.


Chip Talk: Projects in Speech Synthesis by David Prochnow, Tab Books, 1987.
…and some other research on the interwebs.


This piece was originally published in the April 2017 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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The Synthesis of Speech: Part 4: A Bicycle Built for Two

Speech synthesis confers a number of benefits to technology end users. It allows individuals with impaired eyesight to be able to operate radios and computers. For those who cannot speak, and who may also have trouble using sign language, speech units such as the device employed by Stephen Hawking allow a person to communicate in ways unthinkable a century ago. For these individuals speech synthesizers play an integral role in adding quality to their day to day lives. On our local repeaters synth voices make announcements about nets and club events, and speech synths read the weather on the NWS frequencies. Beyond these specialized uses, one of the ways everyone can share in the joy of chip talk is through the medium of music.

280px-IBM_Electronic_Data_Processing_Machine_-_GPN-2000-001881The IBM 704 was the first computer to sing. It was first introduced in 1954 and 140 units had sold by 1960. The programming languages LISP and FORTRAN were first written for this large machine that used vacuum tube logic circuitry. Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) physicist John Larry Kelly coaxed the 704 into singing Daisy Bell aka A Bicycle Built for Two using a vocoder program he wrote for the 704.

Lovely as the a cappella computer was, it was deemed in need of instrumental accompaniment. For this part of the song the expertise of fellow BTL employee Max Vernon Mathews was sought out.  Max was an electrical engineer whose first love of music enabled him to become a pioneer in electronic and computer music. In 1954 he wrote the first computer program for sound generation, MUSIC, also used on the IBM 704. The accompaniment to the voice portion of Daisy Bell was programmed by Max in 1961 using the IBM 7090.

bicycle built for twoThe IBM 7090 was the transistorized version of the 709 vacuum tube mainframe. The 7090 series was designed for “large-scale scientific and technological applications.” The first of 7090’s was installed in late 1959 at a price tag of close to $3 million. Adjusted for inflation the price today would be a whopping $23 million buckaroos. Besides its musical capabilities, the 7090’s other accomplishments included being used for the control of the Gemini and Mercury space flights. IBM 7090’s were also used by the Air Force for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System up until the 1980s. Daniel Shanks and John Wrench used it to calculate the first 100,000 digits of pi. Yet none of the above uses compare, in my mind, to the beauty of the IBM 704 joining forces with the IBM 7090 on the song Daisy Bell.

Another computer, HAL 9000, still gets most of the credit for this electronic version of Daisy Bell. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, happened to be visiting his friend and colleague John Peirce at BTL when John Larry Kelly was making his demonstrations of speech synthesis with the IBM 704. He was so fascinated by witnessing this computational marvel that six years later he wrote that version of Daisy Bell into his screenplay, as sung by HAL in the middle the machines climactic mental breakdown. The song was on the vinyl platter “Music from Mathematics” put out by the Decca label a handful of decades ago.

Daisy Bell went on to have a notable reprise for the Commodore 64 when Christopher C. Capon wrote his program “Sing Song Serenade”. The sounds for his version were played direct on the hardware by rapidly moving the read/write head of the computer. The resulting audio was emitted from the floppy disk drive.

Max Mathews continued to make strong contributions to the humanities in the realms of music and technology. In 1968 he developed Graphic 1, a graphical system that used a light pen for drawing figures that could be converted into sound. In 1970 Mathews developed GROOVE (Generated Real-time Output Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment) with F. R. Moore. GROOVE  was the first fully developed music synthesis system for interactive composition and realtime performance. It used 3C/Honeywell DDP-24 (or DDP-224) minicomputers.

An algorithm written by Mathews was used by Roger M. Shepard to synthesize Shepard Tones. These tones (named after Roger) consist of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When the base pitch of the tone is played moving upward or downward, it is known as the Shepard Scale. Playing this scale creates an auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet seems to get no higher or lower. It is the musical version of a barber pole or of the Penrose stair, a type of impossible object in geometry, made famous in the drawing Ascending and Descending by M.C. Escher.


Max also made a controller, called a Radio-Baton and Radiodrum, used to conduct and play electronic music. Developed at BTL in the 1980s it was originally a kind of three-dimensional mouse. The device has no inherent sound of its own, but produces control signals that are used to trigger sounds, sound-production, effects and the like. The Radio-Baton is similar to a theremin. Magnetic capacitance is used to locate the position of the conductors baton, or mallets in the case of the drum. The two mallets are antennas transmitting on slightly different frequencies. The drum surface, also electronic, acts as another set of antennas. The combination of these antenna signals is used to derive X, Y and Z, and these are interpreted according to the assigned musical parameters.



Besides the use of Daisy Bell in the soundtrack for 2001, director Stanley Kubrick used a wide range of work by modern composers. The piece Atmospheres written by Gyorgy Ligeti in 1961 was used for the scenes of the monolith and those of deep space. Ligeti’s earlier electronic work Artikulation, though not used in the film, shares an interesting connection to some of the ideas behind speech synthesis. Artikulation was composed in 1958 at the Studio for Electronic Music of West Deutsche Radio in Cologne with the help of Cornelius Cardew, an assistant of Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose works involving shortwave radios will be explored in time). The piece was composed to be an imaginary conversation of multiple ongoing monologues, dialogues, many voices in arguments and chatter. In it Ligeti created a kind of artificial polyglot language full of strange whispers, enunciations and utterance.


Music from Mathematics: Played by IBM 7090 Computer to Digital Sound Transducer,  Decca LP 9103.,_Jr.
Gyorgy Ligeti: Continuum / Zehn Stucke fur Blaserquintett / Artikulation / Glissandi / Etude fur Orgel / Volumina, Wergo 60161, 1988

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