Kurzwellen and other Shortwave works

Starting in the early 1960s Karlheinz Stockhausen composed several instrumental works which he called “process compositions”. These did away with traditional stave notation and instead used symbols including plus, minus, and equal signs that indicated the successive transformations of sounds that were otherwise unspecified or unforeseeable by the composer. In this way he brings elements of improvisation into the fold of Western classical music where the strict adherence to a fixed score left little room for interpretation by musicians. The scores in his process pieces don’t dictate specific notes or ways of playing but rather specify the way a sound is to be changed or imitated. Taking a cue from his studies of information theory Stockhausen created a way of writing music that is similar to computer programming. The program “determines the way information is processed while leaving the choice of information to be processed to the individual user.” (Maconie 1990, 156-157)

Stockhausen’s process pieces include Plus-Minus (1963), Prozession (1967), Kurzwellen, and Spiral (both 1968). Eventually they led to the text based processes of his intuitive music compositions in the cycles Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) and Für kommende Zeiten (1968–70).

Kurzwellen (Short waves), the third of the process pieces also marks the beginning of Stockhausen’s magnificent voyage using shortwave receivers as a medium for musical transportation. The formal procedures in Kurzwellen (and the others) are fixed. Stockhausen thinks of these not as fixed in the way Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is a fixed piece that will sound the same to a greater or larger degree from recording to recording or performance to performance. Only the processes themselves are fixed. These are indicated primarily by plus, minus, and equal signs and constitute the composition.
Yet the sound materials themselves, like the knobs on the tuners, are variable. The process scores can be followed and bring about very different results each time they are played and yet somehow still sound similar. The sound material coming in from the shortwave radios is unpredictable. Yet the prescribed processes themselves can be heard from one performance to another as being “the same”. These developments in musical theory and practice make live performances and new recordings exciting events.

The sounds coming in from the radio are what they players use as source material for the process of transformation as indicated by the score. Each player has a radio at their station. Stockhausen writes, “An undreamed intensity of listening and of intuitive playing is reached – and shared by all co-players and listeners – through the concentration of all players on unforseeable events coming from the realm of short-waves, in which one only very rarely knows who composed or produced them, how they came into being or from where, and in which all possible acoustic phenomena can appear.”

In practice the performers search for desirable sounds on the radio. These are for the most part the more abstract and noisy sounds found in the spectrum. Then they replicate those sounds on their instruments and transform them by using variations in register, volume, duration or rhythmic density. There are additional instructions in the score for players to form synchronous duo, trio and quartet events, where players play together in tandem, or alternatively trade short events with one another.

Part of the reason Stockhausen proscribed shortwave receivers rather than just the AM and FM broadcast band receivers most often used by John Cage is that they pulled in sounds from around the world. This played into his idea of creating a kind of world music. Shortwave also has a rich variety of sounds that allows the musicians greater freedom in finding sound material transform.

He continued to use shortwave radios in the pieces Spiral, Pole for 2, and Expo for 3. Writing of Spiral the composer says, “Doesn’t almost everyone own a short-wave receiver? And doesn’t everyone have a voice? Wouldn’t it be an artful way of life for everyone, to transform the unexpected (which one can receive on a short-wave radio) into new music – i.e. into a consciously-formed sound process which awakens all intuitive, mental, sensitive and artistic faculties, and makes them become creative, so that this awareness and these faculties rise like a spiral?!”

Expo is kind of the penultimate of these pieces, though it shares close similarities with Spiral and Pole, differing mostly in the number of players. All can be heard as being part of the same family of process pieces using shortwave radio. Expo was written for Stockhausen’s 1970 stay in Japan at the World Fair in Osaka (“EXPO ’70”). For the Fair Stockhausen designed a large spherical auditorium that was then developed by his collaborator Fritz Bornemann. Outfitted with 50 loudspeakers the audience was literally surrounded on all sides by sound. Karlheinz was able to control the movement of the sound mix around these speakers, moving the audio vertically and horizontally. Sometimes he created rising and falling spiral motions using what was termed a “rotation mill”. There were also various balcony stages and platforms as the podium that gave the works peformed there further spatial dimension. For 183 his crew of twenty performed daily from 3:30 to 9pm. With breaks for individual musicians I’m guessing. The German pavilion became one of the main attractions at Expo ’70.



These pieces represent a kind of music where both musicians and listeners must surrender completely to the process without worrying about the outcome. As humans this “not worrying about the outcome” of an action or a path taken can be a brutal challenge. These works embody a philosophy that has the effect of helping me to worry less about outcomes in my life. Process music as applied to my life gives me a sense of freedom from the outcome of an action. This allows me to be more present with the action itself as it happens, whether it is writing, radio, or some other activity. Listening to process music reminds me that I need to surrender to what I am doing in the moment. Surrender is difficult. Part of the joy to be found in the arts is submitting to how they grasp hold of us. Listening itself becomes a transformation.

To the amateur radio or SWLing enthusiast the sounds of Kurzwellen will be familiar. The static crashes and buzzes, warbling of telemetry, announcers in multiple languages and mysterious numbers stations are sweet nectars of sound for the radio hobbyist. Listening to these recordings is like drinking a fine wine. I prefer it served in a darkened room with ears open to the world.

http://stockhausenspace.blogspot.com/ (plus/minus series of articles)
The works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, by Robin Maconie, 2nd edition.

Note: This article was originally published in the Oh-Ky-In ARS May 2018 newsletter.

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Layups and Laydowns

st-gall-scriptoriumHere is the latest BiblioTherapList, the music and books that crossed my radar detection systems down here in the cataloging scriptorium. March saw a mildewed new design trend take shape. In dryer regions friend Andre Cactus shot some hoops on an abandoned court showing his mad spirit. Meanwhile FM pirates in Colorado continued to make waves on the air despite the FCC. In the book world Southern squatters scavenge for scraps on the fringes of society and environmentalists time travel to the past to study old rivers. Magic and science meet in the realm of superstition.

Hollie Cook: Vessel of Love
Daughter of Sex Pistol’s drummer Paul Cook. Produced by Killing Joke bassist Youth. Featuring the Jah Wobble throughout, as well as the Orb’s Alex Paterson. (Burn this CD for Joe.)

Shopping: The Official Body
Excellent post-punk outfit. The opening track is killer-diller. Out on Fat-Cat. Propulsive bass and and snappy drum kit. It makes me want to pogo. No shit. The assymetric guitar rhythms are abstract and satisfying. And the album shows that punk still has the power to critique. In this case, societies idea of what a perfect body is.

Hawthonn: Red Goddess (of this men shall know nothing) out on Ba Da Bing!
I’m always curious to see what Phil and Layla Legard will do next. This album doesn’t disappoint. The mugwort I planted in my backyard is starting to shoot up this spring. I’ll have to burn some when I listen to this next.

Sunwatchers: II, from Troubleinmind records.
Hot free-jazz post-rock tracks. The song “There are weapons you can bring to school” seems apropos.

Luther the Jet: Hobo Bard

Andre Cactus: Layups
The enigmatic Andre Cactus gets prickly with the album Layups. Imagine shooting hoops at an abandoned court in the desert after a dust storm. I especially liked Fizzy Cola Dreams. My own dreams are of Moxie.

I especially liked Fizzy Cola Dreams. (I dream of Moxie.)

Superorganism vs. Andrew W.K. = Anthony Robbins
Superorganism is the sound of the millenial generation. An endearing sound. The sound of my daughter and step-daughters. Their song mentions Anthony Robbins.

Anthony Robbins is probably a hero of Andrew W. K.

I also liked the Orielles new album, Silver Dollar Moment. It’s the kind of psychedelic pop I can really sink my teeth into.

Random song of the month: Stopp, Seisku Aeg! Some classic Estonian soul music from the early 80s.


gods monsters lucky peachGods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity’s ancestral habitat. She’s spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel. When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology. Published by Tor.

Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda
let no one get hurt“Fifteen-year-old Pearl is squatting in an abandoned boathouse with her father, a disgraced college professor, and two other grown men, deep in the swamps of the American South. All four live on the fringe, scavenging what they can–catfish, lumber, scraps for their ailing dog. Despite the isolation, Pearl feels at home with her makeshift family: the three men care for Pearl and teach her what they know of the world … While Pearl is out scavenging in the woods, she meets Main Boy, who eventually reveals that his father has purchased the property a magical worldon which Pearl and the others are squatting”–Amazon.com.



A Magical World: Superstition and Science from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment by Derek K. Wilson.
Spanning some of the most vibrant and fascinating eras in European history, Cambridge historian Derek Wilson reveals a society filled with an ardent desire for knowledge and astounding discoveries and the fantastic discoveries that flowered from it. There was the discovery of the movement of blood around the body; the movement of the earth around the sun; the velocity of falling objects (and why those objects fell). But these these thinkers were steeped in―and drew from―intellectual traditions that might surprise us. There was folk religion, which in its turn had deep roots in a pagan past. Others referred to spirits or tapped into stores of ancient wisdom and herbal remedies. This was the world of wise women, witches, necromancers, potions and incantations. Even the mighty Catholic Church, which permeated all elements of life, had its own “magical” traditions. Devote believers and accomplished scientists alike both pursued alchemy. Astrology, also a rapidly developing field, was based on the belief that human affairs were controlled by the movement of heavenly bodies. Casting horoscopes was a near-universal practice, from the papacy to the peasantry. Yet from this heady cultural mix, the scientific method would spring. But it was not just Europe where this tidal wave of intellectual innovation was colliding with folk wisdom to create something new. The twelfth-century Islamic polymath, Averroes, has been called ‘the father of secular thought’ because of his landmark treatises on astronomy, physics and medicine. Jewish scholars melded mysticism to create the esoteric disciplines of the Kabbalah. By the mid-seventeenth century, “science mania” was in full flower. In 1663, The Royal Society in London received its charter. Just three years later, the French Academy of Sciences was founded, and other European capitals rapidly followed suit. In 1725, the word “science” was at last defined as “a branch of study concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified.” Yet just nine years before, the last witch had been executed in Britain. Fascinating and thought-provoking, A Magical World is a reminder of humanity’s paradoxical nature―our passionate pursuit of knowledge alongside deep-rooted fears, superstitions, and traditions.

Pirate Radio is one of my voluminous interests and the following stories caught my eye and ear last month.

New design trend: Mid-Century Mildew. As climate change accelerates, and people’s homes become even more humid, the furniture of the past acquires a dank mossy glaze. Pairs well with highballs and overflowing art deco ashtrays.

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Gesang de Junglinge, Telemusik & Hymnen

Gesang der Jünglinge

There is a mystery in the sounds of the vowels. There is a mystery in the sound of the human voice as it is uttered from the mouth and born into the air. And there is a mystery in the way electrons, interacting inside an oscillating circuit, can be synthesized and made to sing. Karlheinz Stockhausen set out to investigate these mysteries of human speech and circuitry as a scientist of sound, using the newly available radiophonic equipment at the WDR’s Studio for Electronic Music. The end result of his research was bridged into the vessel of music, giving the ideas behind his inquiries an aesthetic and spiritual form. In doing so he unleashed his electroacoustic masterpiece Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) into the world.

Part of his inspiration for Gesang der Jünglinge came from his studies of linguistics and phonetics at the Bonn between 1954 and 1956, with his mentor Werner Meyer-Eppler. The other part came from his spiritual inclinations. At the time of its composition Stockhausen was a devout Catholic. His original conception for the piece was for it to be a sacred electronic Mass born from his personal conviction. According to the official biography, he had asked his other mentor Herbert Heimert to write to the Diocesan office of the Archbishop for permission to have the proposed work performed in the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. The request was refused on grounds that loudspeakers had no place inside a church. No records of this request have been uncovered, so this story is now considered apocryphal. There are doubts that Eimert, who was a Protestant, ever actually brought up the subject with Johannes Overath. Johannes was the man at the Archdiocese responsible for granting or denying such requests and by March 1955 had become a member of the Broadcasting Council. It is likely Heimert and Overath were associates. What we can substantiate is that Stockhausen did have ambitions to create an electronic Mass and that he experienced frustrations and setbacks in his search for a suitable sacred venue for its performance, one that would be sanctioned by the authorities at the church.

These frustrations did not stop him however from realizing his sound-vision. The lectures given by Meyer-Eppler had seeded inspiration in his mind, and those seeds were in the form of syllables, vowels, phonemes, and fricatives. Stockhausen set to work creating music where voices merged in a sublime continuum with synthetic tones that he built from scratch in the studio. To achieve the desired effect of mixing human voice with electronics he needed pure speech timbres. He decided to use the talents of Josef Protschka, a 12-year old boy chorister who sang fragments derived and permutated from the “Song of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace” in the 3rd book of Daniel. In the story three youths are tossed into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. They are rescued from the devouring flames by an angel who hears them singing a song of their faith.This story resonated strongly with Stockhausen at the time. He considered himself to be a fiery youth. Still in his twenties he was full of energy, but was under verbal fire and critical attack from the classical music establishment who lambasted him for his earlier works. Gesang der Jünglinge showed his devotion to the divine through song despite this persecution.

The electronic bedrock of the piece was made from generated sine tones, pulses, and filtered white noise. The recordings of the boy soprano’s voice were made to mimic the electronic sounds: vowels are harmonic spectra which may be conceived as based on sine tones; fricatives and sibilants are like filtered white noise; and the plosives resemble the pulses. Each part of the score was composed along a scale that ran from discrete events to statistically structured massed “complexes” of sound. The composition is now over sixty years old, yet the synthetic and organic textures Stockhausen pioneered for it are still fresh. They speak of something new, and angelic.

Stockhausen eventually triumphed over his persecution when he won the prestigious Polar Music Prize (often considered the “Nobel Prize of music”) in 2001. At the ceremony he controlled the sound projection of Gesang der Jünglinge through the four loudspeakers surrounding the audience.

These breakthroughs in 20th century composition practice wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of the WDR in creating an Electronic Music Studio and promoting new music on their stations.


As the world caught wind of the work being done at the WDR’s Electronic Music Studio, other radio stations and broadcasting corporations followed suit. NHK (Nippon HosoKyokai) in Japan built their electronic music studio in 1955, directly modeling it on the one at WDR. In 1958 the BBC created their famous Radiophonic Workshop. (I blame starting to watch Doctor Who as a ten year old, with its strange soundtrack and incidental music, for what became my lifelong fascination with electronic music.) The studio at NHK was just over ten years old when they invited Stockhausen over to work there and create two pieces for their airwaves.

When he arrived in Japan Karlheinz was severely jet lagged and disoriented. For several days he couldn’t sleep. That’s when the strange hallucinatory visions set in. Laying awake in bed one night his mind was flooded with ideas of  “technical processes, formal relationships, pictures of the notation, of human relationships, etc.—all at once and in a network too tangled up to be unraveled into one process.” These musings of the night took on a life of their own and from them he created Telemusik.

Of Stockhausen’s many ambitions, one of them was to make a unified music for the whole planet. He was able to do that in this piece though the results sounded nothing like the “world music” or “world beat” genre often found on CD racks in coffee houses and gift shops. In the 20 minutes of the piece he mixed in found sounds, folk songs and ritual music from all over the world including the countries Hungary, Spain, China, Japan, the Amazons, Sahara, Bali and Vietnam. He also used new electronic sounds and traditional Japanese instruments to create what he called “a higher unity…a universality of past, present, and future, of different places and spaces: TELE-MUSIK.” This practice of taking and combining sound sources from all over is now widely practiced across all genres of music in the form of sampling. But for Karlheinz it wasn’t simply making audio collage or taking one sample to build a song around it. Even though he used samples from existing recordings to make something different, he also developed a new audio process that he termed intermodulation.

In his own words he speaks of the difference between collage and intermodulation. “I didn’t want a collage, I wanted to find out if I could influence the traits of an existing kind of music, a piece of characteristic music using the traits of other music. Then I found a new modulation technique, with which I could modulate the melody curve of a singing priest with electronic timbres, for example. In any case, the abstract sound material must dominate, otherwise the result is really mishmash, and the music becomes arbitrary. I don’t like that.” For example he used “the chant of monks in a Japanese temple with Shipibo music from the Amazon, and then further imposing a rhythm of Hungarian music on the melody of the monks. In this way, symbiotic things can be generated, which have never before been heard”

Stockhausen kept the pitch range of Telemusik piece deliberately high, between 6 and 12 kHz. This is so that the intermodulation can project sounds downwards occasionally. He wanted some of the sections to seem “far away because the ear cannot analyse it” and then abruptly it would enter “the normal audible range and suddenly became understandable”. The title of the piece comes from Greek tele, “afar, far off”, as in “telephone” or “television”. The music works consistently to bring what was “distant” close up. Cultures which were once far away from each other can now be seen up close, brought together by the power of telecommunications systems, new media formats, new music. By using recordings of traditional folk and ritual music from around the world Stockhausen brought the past brought up close and into the future by mixing it with electronics.

To accomplish all this at the NHK studio he used a 6-track tape machine and a number of signal processors including high and low-pass filters, amplitude modulators and other existing equipment. Stockhausen also designed a few new circuits for use in the composition. One of these was the Gagaku Circuit named after the Japanese Gagaku orchestra music it was designed to modulate. It used 2 ring-modulators in series to create double ring-modulation mixes of the sampled sounds.12 kHz was used in both the 1st and 2nd ring-modulation, with a glissando in the 2nd ring modulation stage. Then music was frequency-filtered in different stages at 6 kHz and 5.5 kHz.


Writer Ed Chang explains the effect of the Gagaku Circuit: “For example, in one scenario the 1st ring modulation A used a very high 12 kHz sine-wave base frequency, resulting in a very high-pitched buzzing texture (for example, a piano note of A, or 0.440 kHz, would become a high 12.440 kHz and 11.560 kHz).The 2nd ring-mod B base frequency (in this case with a slight glissando variation on the same 12 kHz base frequency) has the effect of ‘demodulating’ the signal (bringing it back down to near A).  This demodulated signal is also frequency filtered to accentuate low frequencies (dark sound).These 2 elements (high buzzing from the 1st signal and low distorted sounds from the 2nd) are intermittently mixed together with faders. By varying the 2 ring-mod base frequencies and the 3 frequency filters, different effects could be achieved.  This process of modulation and demodulation is what Stockhausen means when he says he was able to ‘reflect a few parts downwards’.”

The score was dedicated to the Japanese people and the first public performance took place at the NHK studios in Tokyo on 25 April 1966.

Telemusik prepared Stockhausen for his next monumental undertaking, Hymnen (Anthem) made at the WDR studio. The piece had already been started before Telemusik but he had to set it aside while in Japan. Hymnen is a mesmerizing elaboration of the studio technique of intermodulation first mastered at NHK in Japan. It is also a continuation of his quest to make a form of world music at a time when the people around the planet were becoming increasingly connected. To achieve this goal he incorporated forty national anthems from around the globe into one composition. He had collected 137 anthems in the process of composing the piece, by writing to radio stations in those countries and asking them to send recordings to Germany. The piece has four sections though it was first slated for six. The last two never materialized. These anthems from around the world are intermodulated into an intricate web of sound lasting around two hours long. Thrown into the kaleidoscopic mix are all manner of other sounds produced from sine wave generators, shortwave radio, his voice speaking, and many others. Whenever I listen to Hymnen the sounds of the music from different nations reminds me of someone tuning across the shortwave bands. In the audio spectrum and in the radio spectrum borders and boundaries are porous, permeable. And that is one of the things I love about amateur radio: the sharing of good will between women and men from all across the globe, our signals reaching each other across space to make the formerly distant close. Hymnen ends with a new anthem for a utopian realm called “Hymunion”. Perhaps it can be reached through the shared communion that comes from truly listening to each other.

Hymnen: Region 1 & 2

Hymnen: Region 3 & 4

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The Order of Anti-Poke Noses

As a newly minted member of the Order of Anti Poke Noses, I’m here to spread the word.

From John Michael Greer:

The Order of Anti-Poke-Noses? Yes, indeed. It was founded in Arkansas in 1923 by people who were sick and tired of the revived Ku Klux Klan’s insistence on poking its long and sheet-draped nose into everybody’s business. There were actually a whole series of anti-Klan secret societies, who figured that the best way to beat the Klan (itself a standard-issue secret society) was to play the secret society game against it.  (It worked; look it up.) One of the most colorful (which also deserves a revival if I can ever find a copy of the ritual) was the Knights of the Flaming Circle; where the Klan only admitted white Protestant men born in the US, the Knights of the Flaming Circle admitted everyone else — women, people of color, immigrants, members of other religions — and wore black robes; their emblem was a circle of flame around the Statue of Liberty, and they stood for constitutional liberty and the rule of law.

dog noseBut it’s the Order of Anti-Poke-Noses, it seems to me, that deserves revival here and now, in an age full of pompous blowhards who want to tell you and everyone else how to live their lives. Here’s my proposed membership application:


Do you agree that, within the due limits of civil and criminal law, people have the right to live their own lives however they want, without being pestered by you or anybody else?  (  )Yes   (  )No

Do you agree that nobody needs to know what you think about what they think and what they do, unless they specifically ask you for your opinion?  (  )Yes   (  )No

Do you agree that you don’t get the right to interfere in other people’s choices just because you feel butthurt that they didn’t make those choices the way you would? (  )Yes  (  )No

Do you agree that your freedom to live the way you want stops at the point when you use that freedom to tell other people they can’t live the way they want?  (  )Yes  (  )No

If you answered all four questions “Yes”: 

Congratulations! You’re a member of the New Independent Order of Anti-Poke-Noses! Your annual dues consist of upholding the values you’ve just affirmed, and telling officious busybodies of all persuasions to take a long walk off a short dock. Our Honorary Grand Musician, Hank Williams, will now play the initiation ode: [Click Here]

Thank you, and welcome to the Order.”

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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 subscriptions@intotheruins.com 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 editor@intotheruins.com, 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 Antheil

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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