Just as Daphne Oram was stepping out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, another lady was stepping in. Though Delia Derbyshire may not be a household name, the sound of her music is certainly embedded in the brains of several generations of Science Fiction fans, as she realized the iconic score for the Doctor Who theme song in the Workshop studios. With the original Doctor Who series lasting for twenty-six continuous seasons from 1963 to 1989, the song has touched the lives of millions of people around the world. I give credit to my own love of electronic music to my being a fan of Doctor Who since I was ten years old.
I remember the first time I watched, catching a rerun of an episode late one Saturday night on the local PBS station, while my parents and grandparents visited at my great-grandparents house and all those adults were talking and playing scrabble around the kitchen table. The show was like a revelation. It was the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. Not only was the storyline a subject of fascination, but the sounds, and the way they melded with the visuals transported my imagination. I became a fan at that moment and ever since Doctor Who has been my favorite TV show. Though my first love remains the original series, and my first Doctor, the first few seasons of the 2005’s Doctor Who revival exceeded my expectations and I continue to tune in.
There is one area where I am a Doctor Who purist though. That is where the theme song is concerned. Each new regeneration of the travelling Time Lord saw the producers of the show making slight adjustments to the song. Eventually it came to a point where, though the theme was the same, they did not use the original version as recorded, and essentially, created by Delia Derbyshire. It’s quite a shame because there was magic in that mix.
The original tune was written by Ron Grainer, but he didn’t have anything to do with the production, how it was made. The project for realizing it and arranging it for electronics was given to Delia.
But how did she end up at the BBC in the first place?
She had been a bright girl, learning to read and write at an early age, and started training on the piano at age eight, but like many of us who have grown up as part of the working or middle-class it was radio that opened up her world. Delia said “the radio was my education”. Being involved with radio also ended up being her fate. After graduating from Barr’s Hill Grammar School in 1956 she was accepted by both Oxord and Cambridge. This was “quite something for a working class girl in the 'fifties, where only one in 10 were female,” she said. She ended up going to Girton College, Cambridge, because of a mathematics scholarship she had received.
Despite some success with the mathematical theory of electricity, she claimed to have not done so well in school at the time. So she switched her focus to include music, specializing in medieval and modern music history, while graduating with a BA in mathematics. She also received a diploma, or what the British call a licentiate, from the Royal Academy of Music in the study of pianoforte.
While in school she had developed an interest in the musical possibilities of everyday objects. This would later find its full expression in the musique concrete she would make and master at the BBC. While still in school in 1958 she also had the opportunity to visit the Worlds Fair in Brussels where she experienced Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique installed in Le Corbusier's pavilion. Varèse's work was a touchstone for the new generation of electronic musicians as Daphne had also experienced this work at the Fair.
Upon finishing her schooling she approached the university career office for advice. The pieces had been arranged on the board of her life but she needed help with making her next move. She told the counselor she had an interest in “sound, music and acoustics, to which they recommended a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding.” With their advice wanting, she made a move on her own and tried to get a gig at Decca Records, but was told no. No women were employed in the recording studio of the label.
In lieu of a job with Decca she scored a position with the UN in Geneva as a piano and math teacher to the children of various consuls and diplomats. Later she worked as an aid to Gerald G. Gross, who worked in diplomatic functions and oversaw conferences for the International Telecommunications Union. Eventually she moved back home to Coventry where she taught at a primary school. This was followed by a brief stint in the promotions department at Boosey & Hawkes, a music publisher.
The following year in 1960 she stepped into the BBC as trainee assistant studio manager. Her first job there was working on the Record Review, a program where hoity-toity critics gave their highfalutin opinions on classical music recordings. Just like Daphne Oram, she had a well-developed sense of where to drop the needle on any given platter. Delia said "some people thought I had a kind of second sight. One of the music critics would say, ‘I don't know where it is, but it's where the trombones come in’ and I'd hold it up to the light and see the trombones and put the needle down exactly where it was. And they thought it was magic."
Of this time period she further elaborated, “It was very exciting, especially on the music shows. All the records had to be spun in by hand and split second timing was essential. When tapes came in I used to mark them with yellow markers to ensure that one followed another, and that there were no embarrassing gaps in between,”
Not long after she had started working on the Record Review she heard about the Sound-House Daphne Oram had helped create, the Radiophonic Workshop, and she knew she wanted to be in the Sound-House, developing and working in the new field of electronic and electro-acoustic music, exploring the widest parameters of musical research.
When she approached the heads of Central Programme Operation with her wish to work in the Radiophonic Workshop, they were baffled and puzzled. The Workshop wasn’t a place most people sought out to work in, it was a place people were assigned, no doubt with grumbling resentment. It was a place only the eccentric, or visionary, would choose to go.
“I had done some composing but I had a running battle with the B.B.C. to let me specialise in this field. Eventually they gave me three months to prove I was good -- and I'm still here,” she noted in a newspaper article.
In 1962 Delia got here wish and was assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale. For the next decade and a year she gave the BBC a herculean effort in the creation of sound and music for about 200 radio and television shows.
“I have to sense the mood which the producer is trying to achieve. He may want something abstract, or it may be a piece with changing moods which have to correspond to specific cues in either dialogue or graphic designs.”
The next year was the year Doctor Who came to broadcast. The theme song was one of the first on television to be made entirely with electronics.
Brian Hodgson, who worked with Delia at the Workshop, and also produced a lot of incidental music for Doctor Who commented on her work on the theme. “It was a world without synthesisers, samplers and multi-track tape recorders; Delia, assisted by her engineer Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch. She used concrete sources and sine- and square-wave oscillators, tuning the results, filtering and treating, cutting so that the joins were seamless, combining sound on individual tape recorders, re-recording the results, and repeating the process, over and over again.”
Interviewed about the theme on a 1964 episode of the radio show Information Please she said, “the music was constructed note by note without the use of any live instrumentalists at all,” and went on to demonstrate the use of various oscillators, including the workshops famous wobbulator, which she said was “simply an oscillator which wobbles”.
It was a laborious process and the Radiophonic Workshop had become the perfect laboratory for the great works of sonic separation, granulation, elaboration and final distillation of the musical substance.
To create the Doctor Who theme each note was individually recorded, cut, spliced. Some of the base materials used for the process included a single plucked string, white noise, and the harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators. The bass line was the single plucked string. The pattern for the bass was made by splicing it, in versions that had been sped up or slowed down to create the perfect pitch, over and over again. The swoop of the lower bass layer was made through careful and calculated tweaking of the oscillators pitch. The melody was played on a keyboard attached to a rack of oscillators while the bubbling hiss and fry of some etheric vapor was made by filtering white noise and then arranging it in time on tape. Some of the notes were also redubbed at varying volumes to create the necessary dynamics heard in the song.
With all the basic materia in the laboratory now prepared, ready with the proper pitch and volume, it all needed to be conjoined. To do this the first step involved taking a line of music –the bass, melody, or vaporous bubbles of white noise- and trimming each note to length by cutting the tape and sticking them all together in the right order. Next further rectifications were required, distilling these elements down further and further until a final mix was completed.
At the time, there were no multitrack tape machines to ease the process. A method to mix it all together had to be improvised. Each separate portion of the song on individual reels of tape was played on separate tape machines with the outputs mixed together. Getting it all to synchronize was just one of the obstacles as not all tape players play back at exactly the same speed, and not all of them stay in sync once started. A number of submixes, or distillations, were created and these in turn synced together before the music could finally be said to be finished.
When Ron Grainer first heard Delias realization of his score he was more than delighted and said "Did I really write this?"
Delia relplied,"Most of it."
Grainer made a valiant effort to give Delia credit as a co-composer of the theme. His attempt was blocked by the bureaucrats at the BBC who had the official policy of keeping the members of the Workshop anonymous and only giving credit to the group as a whole. Delia was not credited on screen for her work until the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who.
Even so, her tenure in the Workshop was off to a grand start and she continued to produce music for radio, television and beyond.
Between 1964-65 Delia got to expand her palette of sound across the canvas of radio in collaboration with playwright Barry Bermange in a series of four pieces called Inventions for Radio. These pieces were broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme and involved interviews with people on the street on such heavy subjects as dreams and the existence of God, collaged against a background of electronic soundscapes and strange noises. It was a new form of documentary radio art.
Working with Bermange, the voices of the interviewees were edited in a non-linear way, creating insightful juxtapositions. For the episode on dreams she used one of her favorite musical sources, a green metal lightbulb shade being struck. The sound, as always, was later manipulated in the studio.
And even though her work for the Workshop continued to remain anonymous her reputation as a musician and electronic composer started to spread to some of the senior officials at the communications behemoth. Martin Esslin, the Head of Radio Drama, sent a memo to Desmond Briscoe, than head of the Workshop, noting his regret that Delia Derbyshire and her co-worker John Harrison were not able to receive credit for the work they had on a production of “The Tower”.
He wrote, “I have just been listening to the playback of the completed version of ‘The Tower’ and should like to express my deep appreciation for the excellent work done on this production by Delia Derbyshire and John Harrison. This play set them an extremely difficult task and they rose to the challenge with a degree of imaginative intuition and technical mastery which deserves the highest admiration and which will inevitably earn a lion's share of any success the production may eventually achieve. I only wish that it were possible for the names of contributors of this calibre to be mentioned in the credits in the Radio Times and on the air. But failing this I should like to register the fact that I regard their contribution to this production as being at least of equal importance to that of the producer himself.”
UNIT DELTA PLUS, KALEIDOPHON & WHITE NOISE
As Delia’s reputation grew, she began work on other projects outside the umbrella of the BBC. She joined forces with her friend and fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson, along with Peter Zinovieff, the creator and founder of the EMS synthesizer, to establish Unit Delta Plus. The purpose of this organization was to promote and create electronic music. A studio Zinovieff had built in a shed behind his townhouse at 49 Deodar Road in Putney served as their operational headquarters.
Zinovieff had followed the research of Max Mathews and Jean-Claude Risset at Bell Labs. He had also read the David Alan Luce MIT thesis from 1963, “the Physical Correlates of Nonpercussive Musical Instrument Tones.” You know, the kind of thing you read on a rainy day. These were some of the influences on his own work. The three were quite the trio.
They participated in a few experimental and electronic music festivals. In 1966 they demonstrated their electronic prowess at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave. This was the same event where The Beatles had been commissioned to create an avant-garde sound piece. They came up with song Carnival of Light in response had its only public playing.
Though there were intervening projects, the next major one outside of the BBC was to mark another landmark in the history of electronic music. It all get sparked when Derbyshire and Hodgson met David Vorhaus.
Vorhaus recalls, “I met Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, who were then in a band called Unit Delta Plus. I was on my way to an orchestral gig when the conductor told me that there was a lecture next door on the subject of electronic music. The lecture was fantastic and we got on like a house on fire, starting the Kaliedophon studio about a week later!"
Vorhaus was a classical musician, trained as a bass player. He also happened to be a physics graduate and electronic engineer. The three were an electrical storm of creative energy. Together they created the Kaleidophon studio at 281-283 Camden High Street, where they made music and sound for a variety of London theatres. They also made library music, contributing many tracks to the Standard Music Library, a firm set up in collaboration with London Weekend Television (ITV) and Bucks Music Group in 1968 to provide the music for hit TV shows. These recordings were done under pseudonyms. Derbyshire’s compositions were credited to Li De La Russe, something of an anagram with a reference to her auburn hair to boot. A number of these songs made it onto the ITV shows The Tomorrow people and Timeslip, which rivaled Doctor Who.
When not working on a commission they worked on their first album as the band White Noise, titled An Electric Storm.
The album is a masterpiece, spanning genres of giddy electro-pop to the more austere and serious sonorities. It spans a deep emotional gamut and is an excellent and dizzying listen from start to finish. Released on the Island label, it was something of a sleeper album, or what some call a perennial seller. It is one of those albums that didn’t do as great when it was first released as it has done over time. Now it is a continual best seller. Considering the difficulties the band had in even getting it onto a label makes their achievement even more remarkable.
Though the name White Noise lives on with David Vorhaus, Hodgson and Delia left the project and the studio after the first album.
MUSIC OF SPHERES AND I.E.E.100
A number of other commissions, recordings and events took place as the last years of the sixties unspooled. She made music for a film by Yoko Ono, contributed to Guy Woolfenden’s electronic score for Macbeth produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and collaborated with Anthony Newley for a demo song called Moogies Bloogies that has never seen an official release.
In 1970 Delia worked on an episode for the TV show series Biography that detailed the life of Johannes Kepler, the renaissance astronomer who showed that planets orbit the sun in ellipses, not perfect circles. The episode was titled, I measured the Skies and was taken from his epitaph which read:
I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure,
Sky-bound was the mind, earth-bound the body rests.
In his book Harmonices Mundi from 1619 Kepler explored the relationships between musical harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena and related his third law of planetary motion.
Medieval philosophers had spoken of the music of the spheres as metaphor. Kepler discovered actual physical harmonies in planetary motion, finding harmonic proportions in the differences between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of a planet in its orbit.
A newspaper article by Christine Edge that came out around the time explained, “Kepler had interpreted the sounds made by the planets into scale notes, and Delia subjected them to her own gliding scale of electronic sounds.” A few years later she revisited the Music of the Spheres, this time producing a piece for a segment on Kepler in Joseph Bronowski's 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man. Her short piece accompanies a simple computer graphic being shown on the screen.
Delia was in her own sphere and orbit, and as her velocity accelerated the people around started to notice its wobble.
In 1971 the International Institute of Electrical Engineers turned 100. The BBC commemorated the anniversary with the Radiophonic Workshop in Concert event on the 19th May. Delia composed the piece I.E.E. 100 for the program, but the tape almost didn’t survive. She looked to radio and the history of electrical engineering for inspiration.
She said, “I began by interpreting the actual letters, I.E.E. one hundred, in two different ways. The first one in a morse code version using the morse for I.E.E.100. This I found extremely dull, rhythmically, and so I decided to use the full stops in between the I and the two E's because full stop has a nice sound to it: it goes di-dah di-dah di-dah.
I wanted to have, as well as a rhythmic motive, to have musical motive running throughout the whole piece and so I interpreted the letters again into musical terms. 'I' becomes B, the 'E' remains and 100 I've used in the roman form of C."
Further elements of the piece included many touchstones of the history of telecommunications from, the development of electricity in communication from the earliest telephone to the Americans landing on the moon. She sampled the voice of Mr Gladstone congratulating Mr Edison on inventing the phonograph, used the opening and closing down of Savoy Hill, where the BBC had their initial recording studios with the voice of Lord Reith, the first general manager of the BBC, and Neil Armstrong speaking as he stepped onto the surface of the moon.
“The powerful punch of Delia's rocket take-off threatened the very fabric of the Festival Hall,” Desmond Briscoe wrote.
This was one of the events where Delia’s chronic perfectionism began to show itself, having a deleterious effect on her ability to finish work, despite being a professional who had tackled numerous large projects. She was working on the piece up to the last minute the night before the event, making edits, trying to make it live up to the rigorous standards she set for herself. Brian Hodgson was in charge of directing the program, and he was aware that Delia might have a breakdown and do something to the tape, so he called upon one of the Workshops engineers to secretly make a second copy of the final version of the work and to give it to him.
Hodgson’s intuition and assessment of the matter was quite correct. He said of the incident, “I said to Richard [the engineer] ‘Run another set in Room 12, don't tell Delia you're doing it, and that copy bring to me in the morning, because I have an awful feeling she was going to destroy the tape.’ And he did that. And she came in the next morning in tears, around 11 o'clock. And said, ‘I've destroyed the tape, what are we going to do?’ I don't think she ever forgave me for that.”
Two years later she would leave the BBC, fed up. In an interview on Radio Scotland she said, “Something serious happened around '72, '73, '74: the world went out of tune with itself and the BBC went out of tune with itself... I think, probably, when they had an accountant as director general. I didn't like the music business.”
She spent a brief time working at Brian Hodgson’s Electrophon Studio, before quitting that too. It was hard for her to quit radio though, as it is for many who’ve been hooked and tried to give it up. She got a gig working as a radio operator. She says of the time, “Crazy, crazy, crazy! I was the best radio operator Laing Pipelines ever had! I answered a job in the paper for a French speaking radio operator. I just had to sleep - everything was out of tune, so I went to the north of Cumbria. It was twelve miles south of the border. I had a lovely house built from stones from Hadrian's Wall. I was in charge of three transmitters in a disused quarry. I did not want to get involved in a big organisation again. I'd fled the BBC and I thought - oh, Laing's... a local family firm! Then I found this huge consortium between Laing's and these two French companies.”
By 1975 she’d stopped producing music for public consumption. According to Clive Blackburn, “in private, she never stopped writing music either. She simply refused to compromise her integrity in any way. And ultimately, she couldn't cope. She just burnt herself out. An obsessive need for perfection destroyed her."
Yet in the 1990’s she started seeing the electronic music she had championed starting to come into its own. Pete Kember, a member of the psychedelic noise rock band Spacemen 3 sought Delia out and befriended her. Kember had amassed a collection of synthesizers and electronic music gear as part of his musical research and interest. He was embarking on a new project called Spectrum making the kind of music she had been at the forefront of in previous decades.
Delia’s life had become chaotic though. The ravages of alcohol abuse were catching up with her body. Just as she started to work on public music again with Peter in 2001, she died of renal failure. A short 55-second collaboration they had made, called Synchrodipidity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream) was released after she had departed and was dedicated to her memory. Kember credited her with "liquid paper sounds generated using fourier synthesis of sound based on photo/pixel info (B2wav - bitmap to sound programme)."
After she died 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand papers were found in her attic. These were entrusted to Mark Ayres of the BBC and in 2007 were given on permanent loan to the University of Manchester. Almost all the tapes were digitised in 2007 by Louis Niebur and David Butler, but none of the music has been published due to copyright complications.
Her life was an unfinished dream, and it is a shame she did not stick around long enough to see the credit that was later bestowed on her for her generous contributions to electronic music.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years by Desmond Briscoe, BBC 1983
Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Louis Neibur, Oxford, 2010
If you liked this article check out the rest in the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
As co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop –the unit created in 1958 that produced sound effects, incidental sounds and music for radio and television –Daphne Oram held a key place in the history of electronic music. Alongside F.C. Judd she was one of the first proponents of musique concrète in the UK. Her development of the Oramics system, a drawn sound making technique that involves inscribing waveforms and shapes directly onto 35mm film stock, also made her an innovative, if arcane, inventor of new musical technology. Daphne also gets the credit for being the first woman to design and construct a musical instrument, and the first to set up an independent personal electronic music studio.
Oram was born to James and Ida Oram on 31 December 1925 in Wiltshire, England. She was taught music at an early age, starting with piano and organ before moving on to composition. Her father was a coal merchants manager, but was also an amateur archaeologist, and during the 1950s was president of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. Here childhood home was within 10 miles of the stone circle of Averbury and 20 miles from Stonehenge. Her mother was an amateur artist. It seems that her parents interest in history and the arts lent itself to Daphne’s blossoming in the field of music and technology.
At the age of seventeen the young Daphne was offered a place at the Royal College of Music but chose instead to take on a Junior Studio Engineer position at the BBC. She worked in part behind the scenes during live concerts at Albert Hall to ‘shadow’ the musicians, being ready to play a pre-recorded version of the music for broadcast in the event the radio was disrupted by the enemy actions of the Germans –not an unlikely fear just a year after the Blitz.
Graham Wrench was just a lad at the time but got to know Daphne through his father who was a musician in the London Symphony Orchestra. Many years he worked with Daphne as an engineer on her Oramics system. He said of her work for the BBC at the time, "Daphne's job involved more than just setting the levels. She had a stack of records, and the printed scores of whatever pieces the orchestra was due to play. If anything went wrong in the auditorium she was expected to switch over seamlessly from the live orchestra to exactly the right part of the record!”
Her other duties included the creation of sound effects for radio shows as well as keeping the broadcast levels of sound balanced and mixed. It was during this time period that she started to become aware of new developments in synthesized sound and started to make her own experiments with tape recorders late into the night, staying to work in the BBC studios long after her co-workers and colleagues had popped off to the pub or gone home for the evening. Cutting, splicing, playing backwards, looping, speeding up and slowing down, were all tape techniques she learned and became expert at.
In the 1940’s she also composed an orchestral work that is now considered by some to be the first electro-acoustic composition. The piece was titled Still Point and involved the use of turntables, a double orchestra, and five microphones. The BBC rejected the piece from their programming schedule and it remained unheard for seventy years. It was resurrected by Shiva Feshareki who performed it with the London Contemporary Orchestra for the first time on June 24, 2016. A revised version was performed again by Fesharek and the LCO alongside James Bulley following Oram’s composition notes.
We Also Have Sound-Houses
Despite the rejection of her innovative score the BBC promoted her to become a music studio manager in the 1950s. It was around this time she travelled to RTF studios in Paris where Pierre Schaeffer had been hard at work in his development of musique concrète. Daphne began a crusade for the creation of a studio at the BBC dedicated to the creation of electronic and musique concrete for use in radio and television programs. She demonstrated her vision of what this music could be when she was commissioned to compose music for the play Amphitryon 38 in 1957, producing the BBC’s first entirely electronic score. It was made using a sine wave oscillator, self-designed filters, and a tape recorder.
The production and piece were a success and these led to further commissions for electronic music. Fellow work colleague and electronic musician Desmond Briscoe also started to receive commissions for a number of other productions. One of the most significant was a request for electronic music to accompany Samuel Beckett’s All that Fall, which also was produced in 1957. The demand for electronic music was there, and the BBC finally gave in, giving Oram and Briscoe the go-ahead, and the budget, to establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The focus of the Workshop was to provide sound effects and theme music for all of the corporation's output, including the science fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958–59) and "Major Bloodnok's Stomach" for the radio comedy series The Goon Show.
One of Daphne’s guiding stars at the workshop came from a passage in the unfinished utopian and proto-science fiction novel The New Atlantis penned by Sir Francis Bacon in . The novel depicts the crew of a European ship lost at sea somewhere in the Pacific west of Peru. Eventually the reach a mythical island called Bensalem. There isn’t much plot in the book, but the set up allowed Bacon to reveal his vision of an age of religious tolerance, scientific inquiry, and technological progress. In the New Antlantis Solomon’s House is a state-sponsored scientific institution that teases out the secrets of nature and investigates all phenomena, including music and acoustics. His book went on to form the basis for the establishment of the Royal Society. Daphne found one passage in the book to be both prophetic, as well as something of a mission statement. She posted the following passage from the book on the door of the Radiophonic Workshop:
“We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”
Yet even before a year was out her own ambition for the sound-house she had worked so hard to establish, came at loggerheads with the station executives. The inciting incident seemed to be her attendance at the Brussels World’s Fair and the Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale exhibition she was sent to attend. It was there where she heard Edgard Varèse demonstration of his ground breaking Poème électronique. And she heard other electronic music that was pushing the boundaries of the possible further.
This exalting experience created a deep dissatisfaction in her when she returned to work and the music department refused to put electronic music at the forefront of their activities and agenda. The realm of the possible had smacked up against the wall of the permissible. So Daphne resigned from the workshop with the hope of establishing her own studio.
In the hindsight of an outsider it seems this move may not have been the most strategic. Yet it did give her the freedom to develop her own electronic music instrument, Oramics, ill-fated as it was on a practical level.
Immediately after leaving the BBC in 1959, Oram began setting up her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, in a former oasthouse (a building designed for drying hops prior to brewing) near Wrotham, Kent. The technique she created there involved the innovative use of 35mm film stock. Shapes drawn or etched onto the film strips could be read by photo-electric cells and transformed into sounds.
According to Oram, "Every nuance, every subtlety of phrasing, every tone gradation or pitch inflection must be possible just by a change in the written form."
While innovative, the Oramics technique was also expensive and Daphne met the financial pressure of having her own studio by opening it up and working as a commercial composer. Being director of the studio gave her complete control and freedom to experiment, but it also meant dealing with the stress of making economically viable. For the first few years she made music for commercial films, sound installations and exhibits as well as material for television and radio. She made the electronic sounds featured in Jack Clayton’s 1961 psychological horror film The Innocents. She also collaborated with opera singers created material for concert works.
These pressures eased in 1962 when she was given a grant of £3,550 (equivalent to £76,000 in today’s money). She was able to put more effort into building her drawn sound instrument.
In 1965 she reconnected with Graham Wrench, a few years after she had bumped into him at the IBC recording studio where she had brought in some tape loops for a commercial. She was in need of an engineer and technician and asked Wrench if he wanted the job, so he drove down with his wife to check things out.
Graham said of the visit, “on a board covering a billiard table in an adjoining reception room was displayed the electronics for Oramics. There wasn't very much of it! She had an oscilloscope and an oscillator that were both unusable, and a few other bits and pieces — some old GPO relays, I remember. Daphne didn't seem to be very technical, but she explained that she wanted to build a new system for making electronic music: one that allowed the musician to become much more involved in the production of the sound. She knew about optical recording, as used for film projectors, and she wanted to be able to control her system by drawing directly onto strips of film. Daphne admitted the project had been started some years before, but no progress had been made in the last 12 months. I said I knew how to make it work, so she took me on. I left my job with the Medical Research Council and started as soon as I could.”
Graham was able to help her build the system up, drawing on his experience as a radar specialist in the RAF. He started by designing a time-base for the waveform generator. To do this he needed to make his own photo-transistors which were too expensive to buy commercially, by scraping off the paint of regular transistors, still pricey at the time as they had only been on the market a few years.
The waveform-generator itself worked in the same fashion as an oscilloscope, but in reverse. It used a “six‑inch CRT [Cathode Ray Tube] mounted inside a lightproof box, with a 5x4‑inch photographic slide carrier fixed to the front of its screen. Mounted some distance in front of the CRT was a photomultiplier tube, arranged so as to detect light from anywhere on the screen. In the slide carrier was placed a transparency with an image of the required waveform; but this was not, as generally believed, simply a line drawing. The shape was filled in with solid black below the line and was left transparent above it, looking rather like the silhouette of a mountain range.
Across the bottom of the CRT screen a dot of light was made to trace a horizontal line by scanning repeatedly from left to right along the 'X' axis. If the beam happened to be obscured by the lower, opaque part of the drawn waveform, no light would be detected by the photomultiplier tube. If so, the beam was told to move higher up the screen until the photomultiplier could see it. In this way the moving dot of light was forced to follow exactly whatever profile was drawn on the transparency. Altering the voltage of the CRT's Y‑axis deflection plates controlled the up and down movement of the dot. The charge on these plates is very high — usually several hundred Volts. But if fluctuations in the Y‑axis voltage were scaled down to within just a Volt or so, it could be connected to an audio amplifier… And that is exactly how the Oramics machine generated its sound: the audio output was tapped off the Y-axis voltage of the CRT.
Whatever shape was placed in front of the screen became just one cycle of a repeating waveform. The speed at which the dot of light travelled across the screen on the 'X' axis was controlled by the time‑base unit, and was adjustable over a very large range so that the speed of the scan dictated the frequency of the sound it produced. If the beam travelled across the screen 440 times every second, it would scan the drawn waveform 440 times, producing a pitch of 440 Hertz, or the 'Concert A' above middle C.”
He had also created an analog digital system by dividing the film into four usable tracks, “each of which can be set to on or off by putting a spot of paint in the appropriate place on the film, to be read by a photo‑cell. Remember how the binary system works? Well, if each strip of film has four tracks, we can use them as four places of binary digits. The track on the lower edge of the film does nought or one; the next one up does nought and two; the next does nought and four; the top‑most track does nought and two again: hence, weighted binary. So it's very simple to 'program' each strip of film with a number — it only has to be between nought and nine — just by painting up to four spots on the film.
"Imagine that you've put a waveform picture in the scanner. If you'd like that sound to play at a frequency of 440 Hertz, then you go first to the strip of film that programs the hundreds of cycles per second. There are four available film‑strips of four tracks each, so just put a spot on the third track of the third film from the bottom (the hundreds). Then go to the film strip that programs the tens of cycles per second, and do the same. That's it — you've programmed 440 Hertz! When the film is run, those two spots of paint will be read by the photo‑cells, which in turn, control latching relays that switch in banks of resistors and make the time‑base run at whatever frequency. So you see, it is digitally controlled — but not how you'd imagine it! I know it seems a strange way to play a tune, but with a bit of practice it becomes quite intuitive.”
He also developed the means to control volume with the system by means of an optical system where a light is faded up and down to change the audio level by means of a photo‑resistor. He also figured out how to create tremolo and vibrato. The system had become vary flexible in the sonics it was able to produce. Being able to draw a sound gave amazing freedom in creating rich envelopes of music.
Sadly Graham, who had done so much to develop the system, was let go by Daphne following an illness that some believed had been a brain hemorrhage, but which was never fully diagnosed. Graham believed it was a nervous breakdown caused by her long working hours and perhaps the 5hz subharmonic frequencies caused by the Oramics machine, which he later fixed by adding a high pass filter to remove the subsonics. The reason for his release was never made clear. It was a real shame because Graham had done a lot of work to get the system as she had envisioned it in place.
Other engineers and technicians came in and copied what he had done to expand the Oramics system while Daphne continued to compose, research, and think about the implications of electronic music from a philosophical perspective. She turned her attention to the subtle nuances of sound that composers using traditional instruments had never been able to control before. She applied this research to the study of perception itself, and how the human ear influences the way the brain apprehends the world. Oramics came to encompass a study of vibrational phenomena, and she divided her system into two distinct parts the commercial and the mystical.
In her detailed notebooks Daphne defined Oramics as "the study of sound and its relationship to life."
Over the decades Daphne had lectured on electronic music and studio techniques.
Throughout her career, Oram lectured on electronic music and studio techniques. In the early seventies she was commissioned to write a book on electronic music. She didn’t want it become a how-to book, so instead took a philosophical and meditative approach to the subject. An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics was published in 1972 and reissued in 2016.
Later in the 1970s Oram began a second book, which never saw print but survives as a manuscript. Titled, The Sound of the Past - A Resonating Speculation, in this work the influence of her fathers interest in archaeology can be seen. In it she speculates and muses on the subject of archaeological acoustics and proposes a theory, backed by research, suggesting that Neolithic chambered mounds and ancient sites like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid in Egypt were used as resonators, and could be used to amplify sound. Her research suggested that ancient peoples, through their knowledge of sound and acoustics, may have been able to use these places for long distance communication.
By the time the 1980s rolled around she was engaged by the Acorn Archimedes computer company to work on the development of a software version of Oramics for their machine, receiving a grant from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. She had wished to continue the mystical side of her sound research, but the continuing financial struggles for such a project left that dream mostly unfulfilled.
In the 1990’s Oram suffered from two strokes that eventually led her away from her work and into a nursing home. She died in 2003.
In her book Daphne wrote, "We will be entering a strange world where composers will be mingling with capacitors, computers will be controlling crotchets and, maybe, memory, music and magnetism will lead us towards metaphysics."
It is true we are living in that strange world where computers control and Internet of Things, and smart fabrics are weaved by machines. It remains to be seen if the philosophers and spiritually minded musicians of today will marry their love of all things electrical and electromagnetic with the long memory necessary for us to understand the fundamental nature of reality.
An archive of her recordings can be listened to free here: http://www.ubu.com/sound/oram.html
A contemporary reinterpretation of her music from the BBC archives can be found here: https://ecstaticrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/sound-houses
IS THERE ANY ESCAPE FROM NOISE?
In our machine dominated age there is hardly any escape from noise. Even in the most remote wilderness outpost planes will fly overhead to disrupt the sound of the wind in the trees and the birds in the wind. In the city it is so much part of the background we have to tune in to the noise in order to notice it because we’ve become adept at tuning it out. Roaring motors, the incessant hum of the computer fan, the refrigerator coolant, metal grinding at the light industrial factory down the street, the roar of traffic on I-75, the beep of a truck backing up, these and many other noises are all part of our daily soundscape.
Throughout human history musicians have sought to mimic the sounds around them, the gentle drone of the tanpura, a stringed instrument that accompanies sitar, flute, voice and other instruments in classical Indian music, was said to mimic the gentle murmur of the rivers and streams. Should it be a surprise then, that in the nineteenth and twentieth century musicians and composers started to mimic the sounds of the machines around them? In bluegrass and jazz there are a whole slew of songs that copied the entrancing rhythms of the train. As more and more machines filled up the cities is at any wonder that the beginnings of a new genre of music –noise music- started to emerge? Is it any wonder, that as acoustic and sound technology progressed, our music making practices also came to be dominated by machines.
THE ART OF NOISES
And just what is music anyway? There are many definitions from across the span of time and human culture. Each definition has been made to fit the type, style and particular practice or praxis of music.
In his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises the Italian Futurist thinker Luigi Russolo argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the speed, energy, and noise of the urban industrial soundscape. In reaction to those new conditions he thought there should be a new approach to composition and musical instrumentation. He traced the history of Western music back to Greek musical theory which was based on the mathematical tetrachord of Pythagoras. This did not allow for harmony. This changed during the middle-ages first with the invention of plainchant in Christian monastic communities. Plainchant employs the modal system and this is used to work out the relative pitches of each line on the staff, and was the first revival of musical notation after knowledge of the ancient Greek system was lost. In the late 9th century, plainsong began to evolve into organum, which led to the development of polyphony. Until then the chord did not exist, as such.
Russolo thought that the chord was the "complete sound." He noted that in history chords developed slowly over time, first moving from the "consonant triad to the consistent and complicated dissonances that characterize contemporary music." He pointed out that early music tried to create sounds that were sweet and pure, and then it evolved to become more and more complex. By the time of Schoenberg and the twelve tone revolution of serial music musicians sought to create new and more dissonant chords. These dissonant chords brought music ever closer to his idea of "noise-sound."
With the relative quiet of nature and pre-industrial cities disturbed Russolo thought a new sonic palette was required. He proposed that electronics and other technology would allow futurist musicians to substitute for the limited variety of timbres available in the traditional orchestra. His view was that we must "break out of this limited circle of sound and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." This would be done with new technology that would allow us to manipulate noises in ways that never could have been done with earlier instruments. In that, he was quite correct.
Russolo wasn’t the only one thinking of the aesthetics of noise, or seeking new definitions of music. French Modernist composer Edgar Varèse said that “music is organized sound.” It was a statement he used as a guidepost for his aesthetic vision of "sound as living matter" and of "musical space as open rather than bounded". Varèse thought that "to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise", and he posed the question, "what is music but organized noises?" An open view of music allows new elements to come into the development of musical traditions, where a bound view would try to keep out those things out that did not fit the preexisting definition.
Out of this current of noise music initiated in part by Russolo and Varese a new class of musician would emerge, the musician of sounds.
MUSICIAN OF SOUNDS
Fellow Frenchmen Pierre Schaeffer developed his theory and practice of musique concrète during the 1930s and ‘40s and saw it spread to people such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the founders of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, F.C. Judd and many others in the 50’s. Musique concrète was a practical application of Russolo’s idea of “noise-sound” and exploration of expanded timbres possible through then new studio techniques. It was also a way of making music according to the “organized sound” definition and was distinct from previous methods by being the first type of music completely dependent on recording and broadcast studios.
In musique concrète sounds are sampled and modified through the application of audio effects and tape manipulation techniques, then reassembled into a form of montage or collage. It can feature any sounds derived from any recordings of musical instruments, the human voice, field recordings of the natural and man-made environment or sounds created in the studio. Schaeffer was an experimental audio researcher who combined his work in the field of radio communications with a love for electro-acoustics. Because Schaeffer was the first to use and develop these studio music making methods he is considered a pioneer of electronic music, and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. These recording and sampling techniques which he was the first to use and practice are now part of the standard operating procedures used by nearly all record production companies around the world. Schaeffer’s efforts and influence in this area earned him the title “Musician of Sounds.”
Schaeffer, born in 1910, had a wide variety of interests throughout his eighty-five years on this planet. He worked variously across the fields of composing, writing, broadcasting, engineering, and as a musicologist and acoustician. His work was innovative in science and art. It was after World War II that he developed musique concrète, all while continuing to write for essays, short novels, biographies and pieces for the radio. Much of his writing was geared towards the philosophy and theory of music, which he then later demonstrated in his compositions.
It is interesting to think of the influences on him as a person. Both his parents were musicians, his father a violinist, and his mother a singer, but they discouraged him from pursuing a career in music and instead pushed him into engineering. He studied at the the École Polytechnique where he received a diploma in radio broadcasting. He brought the perspective and approach of an engineer with his inborn musicality to bear on his various activities.
Schaeffer got his first telecommunications gig in 1934 is Strasbourg. The next year he got married and the couple had their first child before moving to Paris where he began work at Radiodiffusion Française (now called Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, RTF). As he worked in broadcasting he started to drift away from his initial interests in telecommunications towards music. When these two sides met he really began to excel.
After convincing the management at the radio station of the alternate possibilities inherent in the audio and broadcast equipment, as well as the possibility of using records and phonographs as a means for making new music he started to experiment. He would records sounds to phonographs and speed them up, slow them down, play them backwards and run them through other audio processing devices, and mixing sounds together. While all this is just par for the course in today’s studios, it was the bleeding edge of innovation at the time.
With these mastered he started to work with people he met via the RTF. All this experimentation had as a natural outgrowth a style that leant itself to the avant-garde of the day. The sounds he produced challenged the way music had been thought of and heard. With the use of his own and his colleagues engineering acumen new electronic instruments were made to expand on the initial processes in the audio lab, which eventually became formalized as the Club d’Essai, or Test Club.
In 1942 Pierre founded the Studio d'Essai, later dubbed the Club d'Essai at RTF. The Club was active in the French resistance during World War II, later to become a center of musical activity. It started as an outgrowth of Schaeffer’s radiophonic explorations, but with a focus on being radio active in the Resistance on French radio. It was responsible for the first broadcasts to liberated Paris in August 1944. He was joined in the leadership of the Club by Jacques Copeau, the theatre director, producer, actor, and dramatist.
It was at the Club where many of Schaeffer’s ideas were put to the test. After the war Schaeffer had written a paper that discussed questions about how sound recording creates a transformations in the perception of time, due to the ability to slow down and speed up sounds. The essay showed his grasp of sound manipulation techniques which were also demonstrated in his compositions.
In 1948 Schaeffer initiated a formal “research in to noises” at the Club d'Essai and on October 5th of that year presented the results of his experimentation at a concert given in Paris. Five works for phonograph (known collectively as Cinq études de bruits—Five Studies of Noises) including Etude violette (Study in Purple) and Etude aux chemins de fer (Study of the Railroads), were presented. This was the first flowering of the musique concrete style, and from the Club d’Essai another research group was born.
GRM: Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète
In 1949 another key figure in the development of Musique Concrète stepped onto the stage. By the time Pierre Henry met Pierre Schaeffer via Club d’Essai the twenty-one year percussionist-composer old had already been experimenting with sounds produced by various objects for six years. He was obsessed with the idea of integrating noise into music, and had already studied with the likes of Olivier Messiaen, Nadia Boulanger, and Félix Passerone at the Paris Conservatoire from 1938 to 1948.
For the next nine years he worked at the Club d'Essai studio at RTF. In 1950 he collaborated with Schaeffer on the piece Symphonie pour un homme seul. Two years later he scored the first musique concrète to appear in a commercial film, Astrologie ou le miroir de la vie. Henry remained a very active composer and scored for a number of other films and ballets.
Together the two Pierres were quite a pair and founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in 1951. This gave Schaeffer a new studio, which included a tape recorder. This was a significant development for him as he previously only worked with phonographs and turntables to produce music. This sped up the work process, and also added a new dimension with the ability to cut up and splice tape in new arrangements, something not possible on a phonograph. Schaeffer is generally acknowledged as being the first composer to make music using magnetic tape.
Eventually Schaeffer had enough experimentation and material under his belt to publish À la Recherche d'une Musique Concrète ("In Search of a Concrete Music") in 1952, which was a summation of his working methods up to that point.
Schaeffer remained active in other aspects of music and radio throughout the ‘50s. In 1954 he co-founded Ocora, a music label and facility for training broadcast technicians. Ocora stood for the “Office de Coopération Radiophonique”. The purpose of the label was to preserve via recordings, rural soundscapes in Africa. Doing this kind of work also put Schaeffer at the forefront of field recording work, and in the preservation of traditional music. The training side of the operation helped get people trained to work with the African national broadcasting services.
His last electronic noise etude was realized in 1959, the "Study of Objects" (Etudes aux Objets).
For Pierre Henry’s part, two years after leaving the RTF, he founded with Jean Baronnet the first private electronic studio in France, the Apsone-Cabasse Studio. Later Henry made a tribute to composing his Écho d'Orphée.
A CONCRETE LEGACY
usique remains concrete. Schaeffer had known of the “noise orchestras” of his predecessor Luigi Russolo, but took the concept of noise music and developed it further by making it clear that any and all sounds had a part to play in the vocabulary of music. He created the toolkit later experimenters took as a starting point. He was the original sampler. In all his work he emphasized the role of play, or jeu, in making music. His ide of jeu in music came from the French verb jouer. It shares the same dual meaning as the English word play. To play is to have two things at once: to make pleasing sounds or songs on a musical instrument, and to engage with things as way of enjoyment and recreation. Taking sounds and manipulating them, seeing what certain processes will do to them, is at the heart of discover and play inside the radiophonic laboratory. The ability to play opens up the mind to new possibilities.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of the Q-Fiver.
If you enjoyed this article please consider reading the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
On the bus ride home from work the other day I overheard an interesting conversation. Two guys were talking about their experiences in and out of prison, with the courts, with probation, with the criminal justice system in general. The two fellows talked about how the elevators at the justice center were broke for days on end, and how because the elevators were down, visitors weren’t allowed in. Not being able to see friends and family made their stay all the more miserable. As I sat there listening in I thought it sounded right on target, par for the course with societal collapse. As local governments lose funding for repair of public buildings, it makes sense that our jails might not be first on the list to get fixed.
One comment really stuck with me though. When the guy said he knew four dudes who OD’d on fentanyl while he was in the slammer, I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked.
People on the street are dying from this stuff. Now it seems so are the people who get picked up off the street by the police and thrown into jail for possession. Now they can OD from the convenience of their jail cell. I guess those cavity searches aren’t going so well.
Being on the wrong side of the law hasn’t really been part of my experience. Unless you count the one trip I made to juvie for stealing cough syrup, or the time I got a slap on the wrist by a judge for some graffiti I got caught carving onto a picnic table at a park. Then there was the time I got a misdemeanor at age twenty-four when I contributed to the delinquency of a minor by buying my disabled, then nineteen year old cousin some booze. I hadn’t actually expected him to actually chug the rum. I panicked when he started falling out of his wheelchair due to being in a quick drunken stupor. I couldn’t handle the situation and had to call 911 for assistance. I did the wrong thing, then I did the right thing, and I got a hefty fine. My cousin and I are still real close, and he doesn’t blame me for the incident. I do accept the responsibility for the part I played.
So unless you tally the times I’ve gotten caught breaking the law, I’ve been a law abiding citizen.
My own history with alcohol and drugs is rather checkered, as you might be able to guess from the incidents above. There were other ‘incidents’ if my addled memory serves me right. One thing I’m grateful for is that I never graduated to shooting up. Several of my close friends and some other cousins did when we were all at college together in the years around the turn of the millennium. Some of them are still in the throw of those addictions now, and one is homeless living on the streets of San Francisco. I remember being offered heroin with the caveat “We’ll shoot you up. We know what we are doing.” When I review that memory it’s one of the times I’m happy to suffer from anxiety because that was just one of the times when my neurotic fears have protected me from things so much worse.
But just because I didn’t shoot up doesn’t mean I didn’t do a bunch of other stupid shale, and waste a lot of time from age fourteen until I finally gave up alcohol and marijuana at age thirty-six. By that point they’d stopped working, and had been interfering in my life long enough. I didn’t hit rock bottom per se, but I hit a bottom, and was only compelled to quit when faced with a barrage of pain. It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
It’s kind of ironic that I took the path into drugs in the first place. When I was first getting into punk music I was in adamant opposition to all that. I blasted the hardcore sounds of the band Minor Threat on my Walkman, and I was influenced by their lyrics and by the mentorship of an older vegetarian Straight Edge punk who lived down the street. He turned me on to so much good music via his mixtapes. Around that time I claimed to be Straight Edge too.
Straight Edge is a philosophy that emerged from within the punk rock, hardcore and skateboarding subcultures whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational/non-prescribed drugs (marijuana, MDMA, LSD, cocaine, heroin, etc.). It has since broadened out of those specific spheres.
Peer pressure is a real thing though, whether subtle or overt, and soon I abandoned the philosophy and embarked on a program of what I thought was the expansion of consciousness through the systematic derangement of all the senses. Through all the years of drinking that followed, the idealism inherent within the Straight Edge philosophy was there in the back of my mind, as conscience that had been put on mute. All these years later as I return to the philosophy I find it still has much to offer our Western society plagued with rampant drug and alcohol abuse.
The term Straight Edge itself came from a song of the same name by Minor Threat. The lyrics, full of the self-righteous vehemence of youth, remain just as powerful today as when they first wrote it in Washington D.C. in 1981.
“I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and fuck my head / hang out with the living dead / snort white shit up my nose / pass out at the shows / I don't even think about speed / that's just something I don't need / I've got the Straight Edge! / I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and smoke dope / 'cause I know that I can cope / laugh at the thought at eating ludes / laugh at the thought of sniffing glue / always gonna keep in touch / never gonna use a crutch / I've got the Straight Edge!”
The song launched a revolution. It was a reaction to the hedonism so often found within the punk scene. The Ramones had sang the polar opposite in their song : “Now I wanna sniff some glue / Now I wanna have somethin' to do / All the kids wanna sniff some glue / All the kids want somethin' to do.”
Of the many things punk rebelled against, boredom might be at the top of the list. One way to combat boredom is to take drugs to excess. This seemed to be especially true of those who had embraced the nihilism that also permeated the subculture. But not all punks thought seeking oblivion through the obliteration of consciousness was the best strategy for coping with their existential vexations. Some thought not taking drugs was the real rebellion. Some thought that not getting drunk and blitzed out of your mind was a more productive option. They did have something better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews.
In the song Bottled Violence, Minor Threat took aim at violent drunks. “Get your bravery from a six pack / Get your bravery from a half-pint / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Bottled violence / Lose control of your body / Beat the shit out of somebody / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit.”
A Straight Edger preferred to develop their inner bravery. It came from resisting the allure of mindlessness that accompanied drinking and drugging. It allowed them pursue other forms of meaning when they could have just accepted the status quo.
Though the core of the Straight Edge philosophy is to refrain from smoking, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, some took it further. They also included not indulging in casual sex, or eating meat as part of their lifestyle. Some even nixed caffeine, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs. For various people there were various gradations. For most of the people in the scene it wasn’t about telling other people what to do as much as it was about taking control of your own life. It remains a relevant strategy.
Control yourself, control your mind, and other people have a harder time controlling you.
Straight Edge is sometimes abbreviated as sXe and the X used as a symbol for the lifestyle.
Journalist Michael Azerrad traced the use of the X symbol back to the band the Teen Idles. The D.C. group embarked on a brief West Coast tour in 1980. One of the gigs they were to play was at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, an important stop for touring bands, and a venue where Frisco locals the Dead Kennedys often played. When the band showed up club management was alarmed to discover that they were actually still teens, or at least under the legal drinking age and technically weren’t supposed to even be in the club.
The management compromised, not wanting to lose out on whatever bit of money the young punks could help rake in, and besides they were already booked. As a way of showing the staff not to serve them any booze they marked each of the band members’ hands with a large black X. When the band came back home to D.C., they suggested the system to other local clubs and venues as a way to get teenagers in to see the bands without being served alcohol. This in turn sparked another movement within the punk scene where some bands, many of them hardcore or straight edge, would only play at “all ages” venues.
Later that year The Teen Idles released their Minor Disturbance album. On the cover were two hands with black Xs on the back. This album sealed the deal and the mark soon became associated with the Straight Edge lifestyle. The practice of marking the hands of underage kids with an X at clubs and music venues continued to spread around the country.
One of the members of Teen Idles happened to be a guy named Ian MacKaye, another was Jeff Nelson. They went on to form Minor Threat and from there the Straight Edge subculture continued to grow and evolve.
It is for all these reasons that the Straight Edge movement always gets traced back to Ian MacKaye, even if he is hardly the first person to have been an abstainer. The sentiment had been bubbling up in the scene but he gave it a name, and the symbol of the X that was also adopted. In an interview for the documentary Another State of Mind MacKaye said “When I became a punk, my main fight was against the people who were around me — friends".
When he was 13 he had moved from D.C. to Palo Alto, California for nine months. When he came back home his friends had started drinking and drugging. He remarked, "I said, 'God, I don't want to be like these people, man. I don't fit in at all with them.' So it was an alternative." MacKaye also noted that the symbol "wasn't supposed to signify straight edge—it was supposed to signify kids. It was about being young punk rockers... it represents youth". In later years MacKaye has often spoke about how he never intended for Straight Edge to even be a movement, but the symbol X and the name stuck. People were inspired and it took on a life of its own. Perhaps Perhaps through the clarity of Straight Edge and clean living people can retain –or regain- some of the vibrancy of youth into adulthood.
The philosophy can be seen as a direct and practical response to the excess in the culture of the late 1970s and early 80s when it arose: cocaine, sleeping around, big spending. Sex wasn’t just getting your jollies off, but a connection to another person. Living without the filters and numbness and distortion imposed over the nervous system by drugs was a way to better connect with reality –and if you didn’t like the reality you found yourself in, you then had energy to go do something about, whether it was starting a band, making a ‘zine, creating a venue, or some form of direct action. Being Straight Edge was a path to meaningful activities for those who embraced the practice.
Looking at the 2020’s ahead of us and all the decades of industrial strength drug abuse behind us we still have the same problems. Only Fentanyl may be what is in the headlines now, instead of ludes, coke, crack or ecstasy. As a culture in systemic decline drug abuse is just one of the symptoms, and a temporary escape or refuge for those who would numb themselves against what is often a harsh reality. I can’t judge what another person chooses to do with their bodies. I know many people who are just social drinkers or weed smokers and I have no problem with it; I just don’t happen to be one myself. I’m also in favor of decriminalization and legalization. Prohibition causes more problems than it ever cured.
Yet I think there is a place within Green Wizardry for Straight Edge. The Green Wizard who is clean, or has gotten clean, will be better able to cope with life on its own terms. They also may be in a better position to help guide those neighbors, friends, or associates who happen to be suffering from an addiction, whether it comes from knowledge of twelve step recovery programs, or some other way of getting and staying sober.
Everyone needs an edge in life after all. As the economy overshoots sending citizens into free fall, as colleges continue to cater to corporations over true scholarship, as the environment undergoes permutations unknown to our eldest living relatives, it is necessary to sharpen whatever edge we have. If we wish to live conscious lives of volition, if we wish to have needs and desires met, and seek to bring dreams into reality in a world full of suffering, having our own edge will help us to stay positive. People who aren’t medicated or numbed are in a better position to use their willpower to do their work in the world, in spite or despite what everyone else is doing.
Straight Edge people have a lot more time on their hands. Free from chasing the next buzz or oblivion they have the energy to pursue plans that can impact their life and the lives of the people around them. This is very different from the fall out folks in the midst of substance abuse create in the wakes around them. These activities can provide purpose in the face of chaos and corruption.
At my last work location in the heart of downtown Cincinnati the number of out-of-work people, hanging out stoned, drunk at noon, some OD’ing from time-to-time in the public bathrooms, shows the degree of despair at play in America. This dispirited depression is egged on by an endless negative news cycle, and a seeming lack of choices in this land where too many choices is no choice at all. Instead of cultivating an edge for discomfort, it has been blunted by blunts, numbed by the latest craft brew or mass produced malt liquor, and anesthetized by opioids. On the other end of the drug spectrum are the crystal meth stimulants driving the brain into overdrive, chasing a cascade of conspirinoid thoughts that make even the most jaded netizen of conspiracy theory darkwebs look surprisingly sane.
In this liquid environment of binge eating and binge watching the latest reality reruns or sports spectacle an alternative exists: the Straight Edge and stoic alternative to sharpen the senses of the mind, body and soul in face of commodified decadence being shilled by the managerial class.
In 2013 MacKaye gave a talk at the Library of Congress. Speaking of his youth in the ‘70s he said, “In high school, I loved all my friends, but so many of them were just partying. It was disappointing that that was the only form of rebellion that they could come up with, which was self-destruction.”
Self-construction is the path offered by Straight Edge.
Within the larger punk subculture there was often a lot of open hostility directed towards Straight Edgers. Some of it was just brash reactions against people who came off as self-righteous, holier than thou, or even militant. I remember being made fun of when I had adopted it; and as I’ve been sober these past four years, having changed my habits and behavior, I have noticed the way some people treat me different than before. Going against the grain is a small price to pay for the many gains and transformations that have occurred from straightening my ways.
As Minor Threat sang in the song Out of Step “I don't smoke / I don't drink / I don't fuck / At least I can fucking think / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / Out of step with the world!”
Writing on the influence and legacy of the scene author Nina Renata Aron says, “ask anyone who came of age in the straight edge hardcore scene what it did for them, and they’re likely to tell you it saved their life. Those who’ve seen loved ones fall victim to addiction and its attendant miseries feel the scene spared them various forms of regret, anguish, or worse. More than that, it gave them something to believe in.”
Straight Edge is an antidote. It is Narcan for the individual soul in an overdosed society.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azzerard, 2001
Straight edge: How one 46-second song started a 35-year movement by Nina Renata Aron
Curious how to be Straight Edge? Read this handy guide: How to Be Straight Edge
Read the rest of the Down Home Punk series.
In 1988, the same year Negativland was pioneering the concept and practice of the Teletour, another maverick experimental music composer produced a radio concert like no other before or since. His name is Alvin Curran and the piece in question was his Crystal Psalms, a concerto for musicians in six European nations, simultaneously performed, mixed and broadcast live in stereo to listeners stretched from Palermo, Italy to Helsinki, Finland via six separate but synchronized radio stations.
The name of the radio concerto came from an event that Curran wanted to commemorate with the solemnness it was due; Kristallnacht otherwise known as Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass. It had happened fifty years before the broadcast on November 9th and 10th in Germany. This was the date of the November Pogroms when civilian and Nazi paramilitary forces mobbed the streets to attack Jewish people and their property. This horrendous event was dubbed Kristallnacht due to all the broken glass left on the ground after the windows of their stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.
On Kristallnacht rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. They ransacked and set fire to homes, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This was the opening prelude before the sick opus of the Third Reich’s genocide. It was Hitler’s green light, ramping up his twisted plans. The Third Reich had moved on from economic, political and social persecution to physical violence and murder. The Holocaust had begun.
The year before the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht a number of cultural and arts organization had begun making plans for a series of worldwide memorial events. Alvin Curran was in on some of these conversations. Curran had long been part of a vanguard group of ex-pat American composers living in Italy. He was also a founding member of the collective acoustic and electronic improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva, sometimes known as a Million Electron Volts or simply MEV. They formed in Rome in 1966 and are still active today.
Started by three young Americans with Masters degrees in music composition from Yale and Princeton, MEV combined an Ivy-League classical pedigree with a tendency towards musical anarchism. Just as their music often involved chance operations, or the use of random procedures, the members of the group met by chance (or was it Providence?) on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome in 1965. Without scores, without conductors, they went like bold explorers into the primeval past of music, and its future. Curran says of the band, “….Composers all, nurtured in renowned ivy gardens; some mowed lawns. They met in Rome, near the Cloaca Maxima—and without further ado, began like experimental archeologists to reconstruct the origins of human music. They collected shards of every audible sound, they amplified the inaudible ones, they declared that any vibrating object was itself ‘music,’ they used electricity as a new musical space and cultural theory, they ultimately laid the groundwork for a new common practice. Every audible gurgle, sigh, thump, scratch, blast, every contrapuntal scrimmage, every wall of sound, every two-bit drone, life-threatening collision, heave of melodic reflux that pointed to unmediated liberation, wailing utopias, or other disappearing acts—anything in fact that hinted at the potential unity among all things, space, and times—were MEV’s ‘materia prima.’”
Curran draws from this same ‘materia prima’ as a prolific musician and composer and by the 1980’s had an established solo career. At the time of this writing that solo career is now long and storied. Crystal Psalms is just one of his many innovative works. It is also just one of a number of pieces he created specifically for radio. To my knowledge it is the most technically complex of the pieces he has written for radio.
Crystal Psalms was unique in its conception and required hard dedicated work to pull off. Perhaps that is why these kind of radio events are rare. Of course their rarity could also be due to the lack of imagination on the part of the corporate media that dominates the airwaves. The project brought together over 300 people, including musicians and technicians, in six major European cities. These musicians and technicians, separated into groups at these six locations, could not see or hear what was happening at the other locations. Yet together they performed as a unified ensemble to realize Curran’s score. In commemorating a dark and destructive moment of human history Curran demonstrated our creative possibilities for international artistic and technological collaboration.
Curran organized the concert in the fall of 1987 at a meeting in Rome. The producers from each of the six radio stations were there. These included Danmarks Radio; Hessicher Rundfunk, Germany, ORF, Austria; Radio France; RAI, Italy; VPRO, Holland. The RAI in Rome was chosen to be the main technical center, and HQ, probably due to the fact that this was the facility closest to the composer. Alvin wrote the music between May and September at his home in Poggidoro, about an hour drive outside the city.
The score was written for six groups of complementary ensembles –one group at each station in each country. These ensembles consisted of a mixed chorus (16-32 voices), a quartet of strings or winds, a percussionist and accordionist. Each of these six groups was conducted independent of each other. And even though they were separated by large distances in space, each of the ensembles played in time together. To accomplish this a recorded time track was heard by each conductor that kept them all synchronized.
Besides the live music, pre-recorded tapes were also used. These tapes were filled with the sounds of Jewish life. Among those heard was the ancient shofar (a ritual ram's horn that has been a mainstay in Curran’s music), recordings of the Yemenite Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the “Wailing” Wall). Other sounds on the tape included children from Roman Jewish orphanage, recordings of many famous Eastern European cantors sourced from various sound archives. Curran even included sounds from his family. He recorded his young niece singing her Bat Mitzvah prayers and his father singing in Yiddish at a family get-together. Birds, trains, and ship horns make appearances. But throughout it all is the sound of breaking glass. Meanwhile the live chorus is singing fragments from the Renaissance Jewish composers Salomone Rossi from Italy and another named Caceres from a famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Curran also used choral fragments from versions of the Jewish liturgy composed Lewandowski and Sulzer in the 19th century.
Crystal Psalms is made up of two long sections, 24 minutes, and 29 minutes. tructured in two contiguous sections. In the first there is a ton of percussion created from fallen and thrown objects. Amidst all these heavy sounds he used an 18-voice polyphonic structure to weave an increasingly dense texture from the musical fragments being carried by each "voice". As these fragments repeat the weave is brought ever closer together.
In the second part elements from the pre-recorded tape are more apparent. It moves from one moment to the next, one location or place in time before jumping to something else. Curran says, “Here tonal chords are anchored to nothing, innocent children recite their lessons in the midst of raging international chaos.” Idling cars, Yiddish lullaby’s, are separated by glass breaking, and all undergirded by moments on the accordion, organ and fiddles. A familiar melody will quickly disappear when blasted by noise. A solemn choir sings amidst the sound of someone shuffling through the debris. Fog horns drift in and out as telephones go unanswered. The listener with an ear for classical music will recognize bits of Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” turned into a menacing loop. At the end of it all, the cawing of menacing crows, a murder of crows, who have come feed off the destruction.
Curran writes of his piece that “There is no guiding text other than the mysterious reccurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet and the recitation of disconnected numbers in German, so the listeners, like the musicians, are left to navigate in a sea of structured disorder with nothing but blind faith and the clothes on their backs -- survivors of raw sonic history.”
The event of the radio broadcast was for Curran a very special moment. In creating it, this experience of human artistic and technological collaboration, existed for him alongside the memory of the inhuman pogrom memorialized on its 50th anniversary. Curran say, “By focusing on this almost incomprehensible moment in our recent history, I do not intend to offer yet another lesson on the Holocaust, but simply wish to make a clear personal musical statement and to solicit a conscious act of remembering -- remembering not only this moment of unparalleled human madness of fifty years ago, but of all crimes against humanity anywhere anytime. Without remembering there is no learning; without learning no remembering. And without remembering and learning there is no survival.”
The radio concert was a one off event, never to be performed live again. However recordings from each of the stations involved were made and in 1991 Alvin remixed these into an album. Writing about all of this I’m reminded of something the American folk-singer and storyteller Utah Philips said in regards to memory. “…the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go.”
Let us remember then, the stories in history, personal or global, we would do well not to repeat and those other stories where people work together towards a common good. Just as this day is the product of all our past actions, so tomorrow will be built on what we do today.
Crystal Psalms, New Albion records, 1994
This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Q-Fiver, the newsletter of the Oh-Ky-In Amateur Radio Society.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Most people who go to see underground music, myself included, are for the most part jaded about the music, the bands, the scene, man. If you’ve been around independent music long enough there is a good chance you’ve frequented the bars, basements and other performance spaces where these bands play. As such playing at these types of venues only reaches the damaged ear drums of those who would have been their anyway. The terminal music junkies and bar flies eager to get their fix of distortion.
For bands who are interested in reaching a wider segment of the population and new audiences going on tour isn’t necessarily the answer. Besides, for broke or struggling independent musicians tours are costly and time consuming. Vans filled with a bunch of music freaks who haven’t bathed in a few days, and who get really sweaty on stage when playing the drums, get smelly. Especially when mixed with the smell of half-eaten, carry out burritos. When the local hipsters don’t offer up a pad to crash at, the cost of motel rooms adds up, as do the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken that grease the wheels and keep the band on the road.
As an experiment in media and technology and as a way to get around these problems the pioneering experimental music group Negativland created a phone fidelity device that allowed them to play live music from their home studio into their humble home telephone and broadcast the concert on radio stations all over North America and in England. The Teletour was born.
A radio audience is different from those found at the aforementioned hipster venues. They represent a much larger cross-section of the listening public and is a bit closer to the actual reality of the population. The Teletour allowed them to reach an audience who probably never would have stepped into a Negativland show or go to the places they play when they do perform on stage.
Their first series of broadcast telephone concert known as the Teletour were performed over a period of two weeks in 1988. In total this consisted of about 20 one-hour concerts from their home studio into various community and college radio stations. Twenty-concerts in two weeks provided a lot of exposure and entertainment to the audiences who heard them. Each of these concerts was transmitted with their homebrewed phone fidelity device. Negativland appeared on the air in about 20 cities, from points as distant as Hawaii and England, all while ensconced in their Bay Area studio.
The simple elegance of the idea was received with enthusiasm by the stations and their audiences. The motto for the Teletour was "From Our House to Yours," and summed up all the attractions of bypassing the usual formulas for touring. Most bands touring in the traditional way would have a difficult time playing just one gig a day. Without having to tear down, set up and drive to the next city, a lot of the pressures exerted on touring bands were made moot. Although Negativland has continued to perform live in clubs and other venues (I got to see them at the Southgate House in 2006) the Teletour remains, even all these decades later, a fresh alternative to the over-beaten path of the tour van grind. The Teletour also complimented Negativland’s close relationship with radio work as discussed in last month’s article on their KPFA radio show Over the Edge. I do think the Teletour could be taken up by other musicians and radio stations today who want to continue exploring and refining the technique.
The magic of radio reaches into the unique personal space of the listeners own environment. As such the Teletour is well suited to the kind of cerebral levels of thought and stream of consciousness associations evoked by Negativland and other electronic musicians who make heavy use of sampling. For the group, there was also something super appealing about their sounds being carried electrically over the phone and going out over a radio station in some places they may never have even visited in person, to be picked up by the unsuspecting ears of a random listener. This allowed for an element of real immediate and surprise and delight to occur for those who happened to tune across the dial and listen to a kind of radio and music they may have never heard before.
The Teletour also allowed Negativland to travel across vast distances at incredible speeds. They were able to jaunt between separate and isolated locations in short amounts of time. During the Teletour they were able to play several different time zones in the same evening. This way of touring also saved them money. The Teletours didn’t cost the band a dime while giving them exposure.
The rules they made for Teletouring were simple. Negativland played for free. The receiving radio station only had to pick up the tab for the long-distance phone call. Each show lasted about one hour. Negativland incorporated the station's legal ID into the show so that concerts could continue uninterrupted. They also sent out posters to participating stations in advance to promote the broadcast.
All of this evolved from a bit of homebrewed tech that connected their studio mixer to a normal phone line and transmitted the sounds over the line with improved audio fidelity. Phone companies do rent out high-tech and high-fidelity lines for concert transmissions; these are on the whole prohibitively expensive for the kinds of musicians who also have to hold down day jobs. Negativland made our own version. This box was originally built by David Wills (the Weatherman) in connection with Negativland's radio show, Over the Edge as explored last month.
When the Weatherman wasn’t at the studio with Don Joyce he would call in to the show. He soon cooked up a method for increasing the fidelity of his call into the station. Don Joyce realized that his phoned-in material had sharpness and clarity different from the other phoned-in material. The Weatherman had hooked the output of a small mixer up to his device, and then to his phone. This setup allowed him to send a variety of sources (cassettes, instruments, microphones, etc.) directly into the phone line with a significantly enhanced frequency range. This phone fidelity device does not exactly produce high fidelity, but it does create a surprising improvement in highs and lows, and provides enough depth for effects such as reverb to work well.
Having built the phone fidelity device the Weatherman spread the tech around to several of the other regular callers to OTE. The band eventually realized that it was a no brainer to use this technology to perform over the phone at remote stations as a group. In 1987 they arranged the first experiment with a college station in British Columbia, and about a year later embarked on the first full-scale Teletour. Their record label at the time, SST, set up about 20 concerts at college stations all across the country to occur over a two week period. They also arranged one concert for the BBC outlet in Sussex, England.
Negativland found the Teletour to be an entirely positive experience. Playing live anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat with few expenses seems like a great idea for independent bands but for some reason it hasn’t caught on. If you would like to experiment with this little piece of empowering technology, the plans are included here, as Negativland has freely distributed these the past three decades. I think it is time for today’s independent musicians to coordinate some air time with community and college or even shortwave radio stations and bring the Teletour back to life.
How To Build A Phone Fidelity Device
The parts listed here have Radio Shack catalog numbers… I’m sure anyone who wants to build this can find their equivalent.
Audio Isolation Transformer with 1:1 turns ratio, 600 ohm impendance
($3.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 273-1374)
1/4" Phono jack ($1.99 for 2, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-155C)
RCA-style phono plugs ($2.19 for 4, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-384)
Modular Dual Jack Extension Cord ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-363)
2-outlet Modular Adaptor ($4.79, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-357)
Modular-to-spade 12" line cord ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-391)
OPTIONAL: Telephone wiring box ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-343)
Wall mounting box ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-341)
How to build the device:
Plug the male end of the Dual Jack Extension cord into a wall phone jack. (You can also use a 2-outlet Modular Adaptor.)
Plug a standard phone into one jack on the Dual Jack Extension Cord, and plug the Modular-to-Spade Line cord into the other jack.
The Modular-to-Spade Line Cord should have four wires: yellow, black, red, and green. Put tape on the ends of the yellow and black wires, as these are not needed. Connect the red wire to the red wire from the Audio Isolation Transformer, and connect the green wire to the yellow wire from the the Audio Isolation Transformer. (No need to solder, just make sure the wires are attached securely, e.g. with alligator clips if you don't know how to solder.)
Connect the black and white wires from the Audio Isolation Transformer to the terminals on the 1/4" phono plug (it doesn't matter which wire goes to which terminal.) (You can also use an RCA-style plug, depending on the type of wire coming from the output of the mixer or stereo.) Again, there is no need to solder necessarily.
Now plug a mono output line from the mixer or stereo into the phono jack, and you are ready to go! (You can also use a tape deck or CD player as sound input.)
OPTIONAL: Since your device might be fragile (particularly if you did not solder the connections) you may wish to place the core of the setup inside of a box of some sort. I use a Telephone Wiring Box. This also has little screws and posts inside which I use to secure connections.
How to operate the device:
When you are calling into the radio, the trick is to use the telephone line ONLY FOR SOUND INPUT, NOT for listening to the radio. Therefore, you should put headphones on which are plugged into the radio to listen to yourself when you are on the air.
Unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack, so that only the telephone is plugged into the Dual Jack. You should get a dial tone when you pick up the phone.
Using the telephone plugged into the Dual Jack, dial the number you want to call.
When you hear that the other end's phone is ringing, plug the Modular-to- Spade Line Cord back into the Dual Jack.
Once the device is reconnected, try outputting sound from your mixer. You should be able to hear the sound by listening to the telephone which is connected to the other side of the Dual Jack. If you hear sound, you should hang up the phone, put on your headphones, and wait until you are on the air. (When you hang up the phone, the line will NOT be disconnected, as you still have a line running into the other jack which is acting as a phone itself. If you do not hang up the phone, the device will still work, but the signal may not be as strong.) If you do not hear sound through the telephone, your device is probably not connected properly.
When you are done, make sure you unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack. Otherwise, the line will remain connected, just as if you left the phone off the hook.
TIPS: Once you get on the air, try adjusting the level and EQ on your sound. You want to be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that you are distorted or drowning out the ambient sound. You should realize that you are going to lose a lot of the sound at lower frequencies. You can boost the bass on your mixer/stereo, but still be aware that low-frequency sounds are not going to come out very clearly. Mid and high frequency sounds (under about 15 kHz) tend to come out best. IF YOU WANT TO GO IN STEREO, you need two phone lines, and two devices as above. Then you need to get both lines on the air at once! I use a computer with automatic-dialing software to make it easier to get through.
Good luck, and have fun!
This article originally appeared in the January edition of the Q-Fiver:
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Financial distress and its attendant challenges in the coming Long Descent will cause a lot of people to scramble to meet their needs. Clothing is one of those needs. Most humans like to look good and feel good about themselves and others. Dressing smartly with the resources available is one to create a sense of control in your life. In a world with tight restrictions of income, expressing yourself in the way you dress is one way to be poor with style.
Recently on the Ecosophia blog and here on the Green Wizards website the topic of “Being poor with style” has come into discussion.
What does being poor with style mean?
To me it directly relates to the LESS equation outlined by John Michael Greer in his book Blood of the Earth where LESS stands for Less Energy Stuff and Stimulation. The word style itself has one origin in the word stylus, the tool engravers would use to render drawings and texts. So style is something a person can read or see; style is an aesthetic impression on the senses, primarily visual. In the modern western sense style almost exclusively has to do with how a person dresses and how they decorate their home. So for the Green Wizard who has adopted a “down home” approach to their work being poor with style is an appropriate response to the crisis of our time. This response brings together a personal sense of aesthetics in living that emphasizes cutting back on having a huge wardrobe, unnecessary plastic junk and clutter in the home, while having entertainment that stimulates the imagination rather than wrecking and distorting it, all while curbing energy consumption. All of these things can be done in different ways, all while still looking good and being presentable.
Though style does encompass home décor that will be looked at in a future article; here we will be looking at the world of clothing and dress.
A Green Wizard could be anyone, anywhere. The practical knowledge of systems thinking, appropriate tech skills, and the entire corpus of ecotechnic knowledge can be stored within any human vessel no matter their size, shape or exterior look. Nor does it matter what clothes are draped over the physical form in question. A bag lady shuffling down broken sidewalks with her shopping cart may contain within her a vast library of knowledge on how to survive through scavenging and skill. She is practiced in living outside the system and on the fringes of acceptable society. She knows how to get by under harsh conditions and could be a teacher to someone who has never been thrust into that situation. The woman in the smart business suit seen on the bus ride home from downtown may be going back to her own urban household where she tinkers with solar water heating systems, wood stoves, and backyard rabbit hatches, turnip patches, all while brewing beer in her bicycle garage. The welder or construction worker in his heavy Carhartt or Dickey’s clothes may have a system in place to heat his home by burning used motor oil and thereby cut their cost and reliance on the commercial energy grid. These Green Wizards may all be in different social classes but they are Green Wizards just the same.
Being a Green Wizard is determined by what a person does and knows more than how they look, or even what they may do to earn a living in the financial system, in as much as they are still a part of that system.
Yet there might be some advantages to adopting a Green Wizard dress code of sorts, of learning how to be stylish on the cheap. There is some truth in the saying “clothes make the man” –or woman—and depending on what your goals as a person and Green Wizard are, a certain way of dressing may further or inhibit the accomplishment of those goals. Aside from the practical considerations of appropriate clothing for the labors and weather of the day, there is also the matter of dressing to conform or rebel against the normative standards imposed by society.
Peak oil writer and financial collapse commentator James Howard Kunstler has been a devout critic of the standard dress of the typical American male. In particular he has criticized the slovenly look of fat men in cargo shorts wearing leftover t-shirt’s with corporate logos or something that says, “I love cornhole” or “I’m with stupid” –effectively announcing their own stupidity and making it easier for the rest of us to know they aren’t the kind of person we prefer to hang out with.
Back in 2011 James wrote, “Europe is arguably worse off money-wise, more broke, flimsier, crapped out, crippled, and paralyzed. Sad, because in outward appearance Europe is – how shall I put this? – better turned out than America. Europe is a fit, silver-haired gentleman in a sleek Italian suit and a pair of Michael Toschi swing lace wingtips, holding a serious-looking Chiarugi leather briefcase. America is pear-shaped blob of semi-formed male flesh, in ankle-length cargo shorts, a black T-shirt featuring skull motifs, tattoos randomly assigned (as if by lottery) to visible flesh, a Sluggo buzz-cut, and a low-rider sports cap designed to make your head look flat. In other words, he lacks a certain savoir-faire compared to his European cousin. But both are broke. Neither has any idea what he will do next – though, for the American, it will probably involve the ingestion of melted cheese or drugs (or both). When the European collapses, a certain air of delicacy will attend his demise; the expired American will go up in flames in a trailer and they’ll have to sort out his remains from the melted goop of his dwelling-place with a front-end loader.” [https://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/the_amazing_dissolving_nation/]
He goes deeper into the subject on an episode of his podcast where he discusses tattoos. “He thinks the fierce looking tattoos on young Americas are actually a sign of how deeply insecure we are as a nation. They’re also a form of ‘non-conformist-just-like-you’ consumerism… hip hop costuming… has invaded the mainstream and has made young men look like oversized babies and violent clowns.” [ https://kunstler.com/podcast/kunstlercast_29_tattoos/ ]
Kunstler also took up this theme in his World Made By Hand novels where the religious group that came to his fictional town of Union Grove set up a haberdashery and homemade clothing store. American’s used to have a grand style copied by other countries all around the world. So how did we get so sloppy? How can it be that we do not care enough about how we look that we walk around in public wearing little more than undergarments? It seems certain sectors of America have adapted to being poor, but have forgotten how to do it with style.
(I also do have sympathy and understanding for those people whose choices in clothing are predicated on first having enough money to buy a meal. I also understand the modern primitive movement and how getting tattooed can help you belong to a modern tribe –or gang.)
I of course respect a person’s right to choose how to dress as they please, because in the end, it’s really none of my business. Yet in America today it seems that people have often forgot that one of the purposes of dressing in a stylish way is to please others. The way you look can be a source of delight for the people who encounter you. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said, “Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.”
Brett McKay the editor and main author at the Art of Manliness website wrote, “There are many ways that dressing well will benefit you personally. When you look sharp, you feel better about yourself, make a great first impression, and interact with others more confidently, all of which helps you build relationships and become a more influential man. Research shows that when people perceive you as more attractive, they assume other positive qualities about you as well (the so-called ‘halo effect’), and even find you more persuasive. One’s style is also simply a chance to express one’s personality and taste.
While dressing well can thus be self-serving (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are also more altruistic reasons to care about one’s appearance. Dressing for other people can in fact be just as, or an even more compelling, reason to do so.
The idea of dressing for others is not likely to strike the modern mind very agreeably. As we pride ourselves on believing we are individualists, who don’t care what anyone else thinks, the idea of choosing clothes with reference to other people may smack of conformity.
But when I speak of ‘dressing for others,’ I do not have in mind acquiescence to societal codes (which hardly still exist), where the end is merely fitting in. Rather, I am forwarding an idea of dressing well as a freely chosen service — a gift one willingly gives to others.”
[This applies as much to woman as men. The full article can be found here: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/dressing-for-others/ ]
In a society undergoing the painful process of collapse, the added touches of dressing well, and doing so cheaply, could be a nice touch that uplifts the individual and the people around them, helping them to live a flourishing life even as we deal with problems, challenges and predicaments. Even for those of us on the strictest of budgets could afford to have a bit more sartorial flair. It might also be possible to spread the Green Wizard meme through what I will now call “appropriate aesthetics”.
What might appropriate aesthetics look like? I think for a start bioregional and economic considerations would come into play. Certain ways of dressing would be more suitable in some physical environments than others. The avoidance of man-made materials is also a consideration. Wearing plastic is hardly green. Maybe through the creation of an appropriate aesthetic it could also come to be seen as tacky. The style of punk rockers and hippie earth muffin types might also inform the look or at least the philosophy. Maybe not by what is worn, per se, but by where it comes from: Thrift stores, free benches, clothing swaps, etc.
70-75% of my own clothing comes from second hand sources. Shirts, sweaters and jackets are the easiest things to come by in thrift stores or as hand me downs. I’ve had less luck with jeans and pants in the right size but still do find some at the thrift store. The main things to buy new are socks, underwear and some shoes. A good pair of boots and a good pair of dress shoes could last decades if taken care of. The dress shoes may only be worn a few times a year for funerals, weddings and other special occasions such as job interviews. The boots if you get a good enough pair may be more of an investment, but can be re-soled when the time comes, and last just as long. I still have the same pair of nice leather dress shoes I bought sixteen years ago and expect them to continue to last.
Dressing from what is found at the thrift store can also be ethical. It is one way to curb participation in buying new material that was made by people in sweat shops. When you buy at the thrift store you also help to keep some folks from the lower and underprivileged classes employed. And as Green Wizards know it is also a way to save our own funds while enjoying the flows cast off by others. Then you can use some of the money you saved to buy new products that are American made or created in the local economy by a small artisan.
As the economy goes through its inevitable gasps, flits, and starts now is a good time to build a wardrobe that will last and serve your goals. So gather up the family and head on over to the local thrift shop, St. Vincent De Paul, Goodwill or other charity and see what strikes your fancy. It’s easier than you think to look good on the cheap. In doing so you might just give your own sense of well being a boost and bring some joy to others.
Radio is a form of technological high magic. There is something inherent about the radio medium itself that by way of its magic stimulates the imagination; whether it’s a bit of long distance DX captured on the ham bands, tuning in to a remote shortwave station via another remote web SDR, a weekly net on 2 meters, or a broadcast transmission on a community FM station doesn’t matter. All these different ways of using radio share in the mystery.
For broadcast radio itself, it is a literal theater of the imagination. Voices, sounds, and music edited together in a pleasing or thought provoking way have transport the listener to a region accessible no other way. Thinking of all the possibilities radio has it is a real shame that broadcasting in its commercial aspect long ago fell into such a well-worn, predictable and boring rut. The songs heard on the air when tuning across the dial have been played so many times there are almost no grooves left on the records. Talk radio is also not exempt. No matter what a person’s political persuasion may be, pundits on both sides of the aisle trot out the same plodding talking points time and again, no matter the issue at hand. It often makes me wonder what the heck the point of all the uninspired and placid propaganda blasted across the spectrum actually is; maybe it’s just a form of anti-thought to occupy the minds of hungry commuters and consumers.
Broadcast radio can be so much more than what it has become. And to be fair, there is a lot out there in the ether that breaks the mold and stranglehold put on the medium by commercial interests and market forces. To find these programs, you have to dig them out of the mud, and tune around to alternate frequencies. You have to search out the community stations, the low-power stations, and even the pirate stations, namely those stations not beholden to mammon, to find programs that are willing to break the self-inflicted format categories typical of commercial radio and take you over the edge into territories that have remained largely unexplored on the air.
These outlier shows are able to take risks that move the form forward without fear of reprisal. No one is paying them to be taste shapers by playing particular songs and they have no one to offend when exercising their freedom of speech because there are no image sensitive sponsors paying the bills at these stations. The next several articles in the Rad Lab will be concerned with the arts of transmission and the way innovators in broadcast radio have advanced the medium to show what it is really capable of moving beyond the narrow bandwidth imposed by advertising.
OVER THE EDGE
One such show holds the record for being the longest running block of free-form audio collage in the history of radio. The show is Over the Edge (OTE) on KPFA in Berkely, California. It was hosted by Don Joyce, a member of the experimental group Negativland, from 1981 until his death in 2015. The radio show and the band had close ties and there was a lot of overlap between the show, and the band, with many of the members frequently participating in the program making it hard to talk about the show without delving into the band.
Negativland started in 1979 and though Joyce was a full performer and credited member he started OTE before he had met or been asked to join the band. The group was not the show and the show was not the group. It was however a match made in Contra Costa County due to the passion the original line-up had for found sound, collage and experimental music. Joyce’s own enthusiasm in those areas made the fusion of Joyce with Negativland a force multiplier for their many activities and gave them regular access to the very media they sought to rearrange.
Since its beginning in 1981 OTE and Don Joyce stood far from the maddening crowd. It was a time when TV had killed the radio star. The glass teat had reached a point of ascendancy as the main cultural medium and influencer. Cable TV upended this even further and soon MTV positioned itself as the primary pusher of music and youth culture.
It didn’t stop Don Joyce however (his initials are DJ after all). Though trained as a painter with a Masters degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, he loved the radio medium, from old time radio to offshore pirates. His favorite radio show was Bob and Ray and he was also inspired and influenced by the work Firesign Theater. Out of this love he was able to create such a large body of work that other radio producers, DJs and programmers, have long been left in the dust. Many can only hope to catch up with his prowess and acumen.
Over the Edge is a live mix of collaged audio material sourced from all across recorded media: records, tapes, and CDs and not just music but audiobooks, lectures, self-help cassettes, recordings of other radio shows, sound bites from film and TV, homemade recordings and everything and anything else imaginable. Alongside these Don Joyce and Negativland made many specially prepared recordings for the program, wrote scripts and performed skits on the air.
It could have all been just a mess of noise if not for the guiding hands of Don Joyce at the helm. Each week to guide the course of the three-to-five hour over-night show Don would have a theme. The audio samples were all related to and congealed and coalesced around the subject matter. This sometimes makes listening to an episode of the show like attending a lecture with many alternating viewpoints approaching the same subject from different angles. The source material itself was edited and mixed in such a way that it often sounded as if it was commenting on the other source material in the mix.
Alongside the themes Don would play a variety of different characters as hosts of the show with many Negativland members also playing or being recurring characters. Part of this aspect came from the strong influence of Bob and Ray and Firesign Theater. These included cultural critic and director of stylistic premonitions Crosley Bendix, Dr. Oslo Norway, the media and radio historian Izzy Isn’t, and the tycoon founder of the Universal Media Netweb C. Elliot Friday. Other characters played by other Negativland members included the used car salesman Dick Goodbody, Dick Vaughn, a fan of underappreciated 1970’s music, the Weatherman and the Clorox Cowboy, among a slew of others.
Here is how Don described the show himself. "OTE's weekly themed mixes are made live and spontaneously on the air from a variety of formats and equipment used to do live sound cut ups and collage while mixing, including the frequent use of the now long dead analog technology of radio broadcast cart machines. On each themed episode of OTE there is a plan and there is no plan. Existing within the parallel universe of the Universal Media Netweb, the OTE mix consists of found sounds of many kinds from many sources put together on the run as the continuous audio collage progresses, along with live electronics (often from our Boopers [a homemade sound device built by the Weatherman from repurposed transitor radios and oscillators, ed.]), live sound processing, and all sorts of reccuring themes, topics and characters. Some of the shows involve all of Negativland, while some involve others outside of our group who participate semi-regularly. Beyond those, there are regular solo show broadcasts by Negativland member Don Joyce, who is the FCC license holder and responsible for filling the radio slot each week. All in all, if you like Negativland, you will like these shows, no matter who is involved, as they all maintain a ‘Negativ’ touch based on our live mixing techniques. OTE often employs ‘Receptacle Programming,’ which means you. Phone callers are punched into our mix with no warning. Call 510-848-4425 to deposit your programming. When your phone stops ringing, you’re on the air. Don’t say 'hello'."
The receptacle aspect of the show added to the interest level of the listeners and made it a participatory program. Regular listeners became regular participants helping to co-create the show. They called in to and play their own samples and music into the receptacle of the radio. This level of audience participation in radio had never been done in quite that way on the air anywhere else. The phone calls into the studio gave the show an element that was unpredictable even to Don. With multiple lines coming in several callers could be on the air together at once. Don would add echo effects to their voices and otherwise mess with their sound, panning some to left and others to the right. If he didn’t like what a caller was adding to the mix he just hung up on them. This aspect of the show created a real sense of community around OTE.
In some ways the receptacle radio aspect was like a weekly ham radio net, albeit with different FCC regulations and a totally different feel, but similar in that it was a group of people communicating over the air, just using phones. In that respect it was also similar to the chat rooms or party lines phone phreaks used to hang out and talk to each other on, yet different. Being in Berkeley, it should come as no surprise that it took on some of the character of the California counterculture as well as some of the character of the kind of people who stayed up real late at night to listen to free form radio. One word characterizes this motley crew radio freaks: creativity.
All of this might sound just a tad chaotic, and it was. Yet students of chaos theory have long known that there is an underlying pattern, a blueprint of order within what might otherwise appear to be random. The untrained ear may hear the swirling debris and detritus culled and recycled from the mediasphere as unconnected, but careful listening reveals a constellation carefully stitched together across the duration of the broadcast. Perceiving this pattern requires a kind of relaxed concentration. The reward for engaging with OTE at this level goes beyond its inherent entertainment value and into the realm of an education on whatever theme or topic Don Joyce had picked for the particular episode. He was the conductor and directed the flow and course of the mix, all the while allowing others to interact with it by dialing into the receptacle.
Don Joyce was a master of the combinatorial art. He had a unique talent for teasing out permutations from a wide variety of sources, arriving at an eventual synthesis and amalgamation. His canvas was the radio and his vast pallet was a gargantuan library of all the media he collected over his life. On OTE he showed again and again that all media concepts are nothing but combinations of a relatively small number of simple sound bites, just as words are combinations of letters. He was able to express both truth and absurdity, and the absurdity in truth, via the appropriate recombination of sounds and words, which he in turn decomposed into strange ideas and new ways of thinking by their unusual juxtapositions. Through the use of artistic intuition his combinations exposed hidden logics.
Some of the themes he tackled over the years spanned more than one show and included long series of shows on How Radio Was Done (a history of broadcasting from its first days into the 90’s), How Radio Isn’t Done (all the things we could do but mostly don’t), UFOs, the Universe, All Art Radio, the Time Zones Exchange Project, Advertising Secrets, Music Is…, the Fake Bacon Breakfast Loop… and many, many others.
Don Joyce lived a simplified life. He had a minimal income and spent his time creating a free radio show that was on a non-commercial station for which he did not get paid in financial dividends. The band Negativland had never been something that earned a lot of money either. Both were labors of love and gave back other rewards.
Joyce died of heart failure in Oakland, California on July 22, 2015 at the age of 71. He was cremated, and the band packaged two grams of his remains with the first 1000 CD copies of Negativland's 2016 album The Cutting Edge Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel. 750 of his O.T.E. and live show Fidelipac audio carts were also sent along with those ashes. Don's remains became a viral story on the internet. It was the way he would have wanted to be remembered.
Don Joyce left behind 941 three-to-five-hour-long episodes of OTE from his own personal air checks. That's over 3200 hours of live radio he recorded. Some of the early shows of OTE are still missing, but exist out there somewhere, in the memory of the eternal ether. The Internet Archive has graciously hosted all of the extant recordings of the program. These are available to listen to here: https://archive.org/details/ote
And even though Don is gone Over The Edge and Receptacle Programming continues to exist, evolve, and is still broadcasting each week on KPFA FM. Musician and latter day Negativland member Wobbly (John Leidecker) took over the reign of the program after Don’s death. Wobbly had been a frequent guest and participant on so many OTE shows it was a natural fit. OTE lives on in a new era.
At the end of each show Don would play a sample of a woman reading a quote attributed to surrealist artist Man Ray, "To create is divine. To reproduce is human." The quote sums up Joyce’s approach to making radio art. He reproduced, retouched, reexamined, retransmitted the mass produced material our media saturated society threw by the wayside. It may not have been divine, but in doing so he touched and humored our humanity.
Before Sirius XM was launched St. GIGA existed in an orbit of its own, an orbit that broadcast its content in harmony with the movement of the Pacific tides. The Japanese company became the first Satellite Digital Audio Broadcast Corportion formed as a subsidiary of the satellite TV company WOWOW. Transmission tests commenced on November 30, 1990 and regular transmissions started at the end of March, 1991. The company adopted a commercial free broadcasting model but to listen to St. GIGA you needed a subscription. The subscription was worth the money though, because the soothing content of their programs was like nothing else before or since. With a receiver set to 11.8042 GHz the pioneering satellite radio station known as St. GIGA took listeners on a gentle journey of ebb and flow.
When parent company WOWOW decided to expand into the realm of radio they knew they would need some help. As business executives they were all in agreement that they weren’t cool and knew nothing about music. To come up with the name they solicited a poll to everyday “persons on the streets” and St. GIGA was selected. Yet they remained in the dark about what to put on the air. They were in need of a creative director to format the content of the satellite service and the searchlight landed on Hiroshi Yokoi. Yokoi had just worked on the popular J-Wave FM station founded in 1988 and which still broadcasts today on 81.3 mhz in Tokyo.
Yokoi was considered an innovator in the field, as was J-Wave. J-Wave's slogan is "The Best Music on the Planet," and the programmers aren’t mere DJs, they are known as "navigators" or nabigētā, and they guide listeners on voyages of discovery. J-Wave’s music could be considered to be the equivalent of top 40 but one of their innovations was the use of hundreds of different jingles to separate programs from commercials. These jingles are played at the same decibel level and are variations on a single melody; the jingles and give the station a unique sonic signature and identity. In 1994 J-Wave also moved to being simulcast via satellite and some of its programs became syndicated on various community radio stations throughout Japan. Due to his work on J-Wave the execs at WOWWOW thought Yokoi would be a good fit for St. GIGA.
Soon after he signed on Yokoi crafted a radical and artistic proposal for the station concept. The men in suits who controlled the money reacted with skepticism. Yet after a few months of traditional broadcasting the executives adopted Yokoi's concept for a probation period. Later he was given full discretion to shape the programming and future course of St. GIGA.
What Yokoi had in mind was a “Tide of Sound.” The concept was quite revolutionary. To tie in with the concept, the station motto became, "I'm here. — I'm glad you're there. — We are St.GIGA." This was a tip of the hat to Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan in which the alien life forms called harmoniums communicate using only the phrases "Here I am" and "So glad you are." Yokoi was also influenced by writer Kevin W. Kelley's book The Home Planet. Kelley’s book was a collection of color photographs taken in space capturing the beauty of planet earth. The photos were pared with personal accounts of the experience of seeing earth from space by astronauts and cosmonauts. These two influences formed a communication methodology that broke new ground in the world of broadcasting.
As part of Yokoi’s concept the St. GIGA broadcasts followed no externally fixed program schedule. It was not based on a solar calendar week, where a certain show would recur every Sunday at 7 PM. Instead Yokoi had the genius to base the transmissions around a tide table. Themes for broadcasts were based on a cyclical motif and tried to approximate the current tidal cycle according to the Rule of Twelfths throughout a 24-hour day.
The Rule of Twelfths is an approximation to a sine wave curve. The formula can be used as a rule of thumb for estimating a changing quantity where both the quantity and the steps are easily divisible by 12. It has been typically used for estimating the height of the tide. The rate of flow in a tide increases smoothly to a maximum halfway point between high and low tide, before smoothly decreasing to zero again. The rule is also used to make predictions on the change in day length over the seasons.
Tidal changes are non-linear. This means that in the first hours of a tidal shift the tide might not rise or fall very much, yet as the cycle progresses the rising or falling will accelerate through the mid hours. The Rule of Twelfths applies to the semidiurnal tide - a tide having two high waters and two low waters during a tidal day, which is exactly what happens in most locations. The semidiurnal tide period lasts for a period of 12 hours and 25.2 minutes from low to high tide, and then repeats back to low tide again. The full and new moons also have effects on the tide, as do the first and third quarter moons.
The transmissions of St. GIGA followed this pattern in a unique way, mimicking the swell of the tides and the course of the moon. With his “Tide of Sounds” broadcasting process the end of one show and the beginning of another was not demarcated or clearly defined as folks are used to hearing on the radio. Instead, gradually, using the Rule of Twelfths songs of one genre would flow into and intersperse with songs and material from the prior genre until the new genre, just like a high or low ocean tide, became predominant. Yokoi designed it this way so that listeners could relax into waves of sound "like a baby sleeps in the womb." These "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts operated under the awesome principle of "No Commercials, No DJs, No News Broadcasts, No Talk." If only more radio stations would follow this principle and ethic. Of course this absence of commercials and talk was only possible because the service was subscription based.
Besides the timing of the broadcasts the content was also informed by St. GIGA’s tidal and lunar oriented schedule. It was heavy on ambient music, smooth jazz and field recordings from the natural world. One of the programs was called “Tide Table” and featured live environmental sound broadcasts of waves crashing on the ocean shore. The "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts often featured high-quality digital recordings of nature sounds accompanied by spoken word narration by the "Voice." The part of the "Voice" was played by a number of notable Japanese poets and actors including Ryo Michiko among others. "Voice" performances often consisted of all new poetry composed specifically for the show.
Ambient music, environmental sound recordings and poetry? It sounds perfect. I wonder what other funding models might be developed to breathe new life into this kind of innovative broadcast format? It seems like this mode could be set up and used by low-power community FM or AM stations, or on Part 15 compliant hobby broadcasting stations.
Due to the popularity of the environmental sound recordings and the overall library of material they played, St. GIGA was able to fund field recording trips to collect “biomusic” a term that includes bird songs, whale songs, dolphins, or the sounds of other animals and plants in their natural landscape. Biomusic recording artists were sent to places such as England, the Canary Islands, Mikonos, Venice, Bali, Tahiti, Martinique, Hanson Island (BC), and Maui, all to capture and create and transmit new worlds of sound for the listeners.
Ambient musicians were also commissioned to create original albums and works for the satellite station. Kim Cascone, under his Heavenly Music Corporation moniker, made and released the album Lunar Phase for broadcast from the bird. The album includes the song “St. Giga” and was released in 1995. It was from listening to this record that I learned of St. GIGA in the first place and went on to track down some of the recordings from the station that fans have made available on youtube. The Heavenly Music Corporation was a perfect fit for St. GIGA because the music is both heavenly, and in this instance, came down from the heavens.
The satellite gained something of a cult following and fanzines such as BSFan Journal and G-Mania sprang up to write about the music and report on the allied ambient, mood, and electronic scene in Japan.
St.GIGA also released CDs of their music on their own label and the popular American ambient label Hearts of Space (also a fabulous late night radio show). A number of thematic books were published at the high tide of the satellites popularity including the multi-volume St.GIGA Stylebook and Current of dreams: An introduction to St.GIGA programming. This contained the full text of Yokoi's original concept proposal. Later books included Trends in Dreaming - St.GIGA's Hiroshi Yokoi's General Office.
Despite all this by the mid ‘90s the company was in financial trouble. The popularity of the satellite had peaked and was starting to flow back into the ocean. The market for ambient and related forms of music was not as strong as had been initially anticipated. Plus there was the pesky problem of a financial recession in Japan. Then there was the related issue of strapped consumers not wanting to invest in the expensive antennas and tuners needed to pick up the broadcasts. So St. GIGA formed a partnership with Nintendo. Because that’s what you do if you are a popular Japanese satellite radio company in financial trouble. At this point Nintendo had become the largest shareholder in the company and with their influence the Tide of Sound broadcasts were cut back in order to bring some of their own programming on board.
With the video game company kicking them some dough, they started to broadcast digitally encoded games to owners of the Super Famicoms system between the spring of 1995 and the summer of 2000.The Super Famicom was the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo made an accessory component to work with the Super Famicom called the Satellaview. This was a satellite modem never released in America or Europe. The Satellaview allowed the users to connect to St.GIGA. During a special segment called Super Famicom Hour game data was broadcast. During this transmission people could download games to the Satellaview's internal memory or an optional Memory Pak. Super Famicom Hour actually lasted from noon to two am, so it took away a good chunk of time from St. GIGA’s original programming.
Unlike other services offered by competitors the Satellaview did not have online multiplayer capabilities. This was due to the one-way nature of commercial satellite radio. Despite this limited amounts of data could be sent back through the radio connection. The service featured numerous quizzes and other competitions which required players to send their answers back up to the bird
Another new service related to the games was called SoundLink. CD-quality sound was streamed through the St. GIGA satellite connection to accompany real time play of video games such as the three versions of BS Zelda. The SoundLink included a fully-voiced "narrator" who would guide and give helpful hints and advice to the players throughout the game. Because the SoundLink required a live broadcast of music with a voice track, some games could only be played at the time of transmission. After the last broadcast of the SoundLink data was over, that game could never be played ever again. Some time-sensitive games were split into separate transmissions on different days to allow for the play of longer games.
Due to the rewritability of the cartridges and the fact that SoundLink broadcasts were streamed live and not downloaded during the noon-2AM Super Famicom “Hour” time slot, and because the games have never been rereleased by Nintendo, they have become extremely rare. Yet some can be played in partial emulation. This has been achieved by the extreme level of devotion and skill in this corner of high-geekdom. The subculture of collectors and game enthusiasts have exerted much effort engaged in electronic archaeology by extracting old data from heavily rewritten data cartridges in order to try to reproduce these games via emulation.
SoundLink also featured a type of enhanced magazine. This functioned as a mashup of a radio drama mixed with images and text. Unlike all other Satellaview content, SoundLink content was only available for an additional fee of ¥600 a month.
As St.GIGA’s tide continued to ebb out it broadcast talk shows and entertainment news programs about celebrity idols, as well as a variety show. The shows were slotted to match the schedules of video game and pop culture addicted students as the station's audience had shifted radically, much to the disappointment of its original devotees, the ambient music fans. Before long the station had ceased transmissions of all "Time & Tide" programs including the much-admired Tidal Currents show. Fan publications such as BSFan Journal became replaced by ‘zines that focused on the video game content. Towards the end of its life St.GIGA had focused all of its energies on Satellaview transmissions.
Until 1999 the Satellaview service was controlled by both St. GIGA and Nintendo. After 1999 St. GIGA was the sole controller of the service, as Nintendo broke its partnership with the radio station due to a dispute. However, the service was only turned off in 2000. By 2001 St. GIGA was nearly bankrupt.
Around this time Yokoi the director had also been stricken with cancer. After his death in March of 2003 St.GIGA was rechristened Club COSMO under the leadership of Shinichi Matsuo. Broadcasts continued until October 1, when the company was forced to sell its licensing rights to World Independent Networks Japan Inc. (WINJ). WireBee immediately began bankruptcy procedures, and all recording instruments and 241 tapes of nature sounds were auctioned off at open market for a total divided sale price of ¥5 million.
St. GIGA had reached low tide. It is my hope that it and Hioroshi Yokoi, the man who made it so brilliant, remains in orbit in a heavenly and oceanic musical realm.
Read the other articles in the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY serie.
Migration and homelessness caused by climate change and economic collapse in the coming Long Descent will be a huge social challenge. We must think now how we will deal with it when it comes. To do that we should first look at the history of squatting over the last two centuries for some context of squatting in an urban environment. This is the second in a series of articles on the subject of "Down Home Punk"
If you live in a city you’ve seen the specter of homelessness.
Unless you are totally tuned out, indifferent and clueless, you probably understand that the chain of events that has led a person or a family to life on the streets has not been in their complete control. The rise and fall of the wheel of fortune, the ebb and flow of the tides of fate can be both boon and bane. It is not up to us to judge how people end up in the circumstances they inhabit. It will probably also never be up to us influence how they react and respond to the hand they have been dealt. Yet within each hand of cards life has given a person, there are certain plays and arrangements which can be made to make the most of a situation.
For the increasing homeless population of the world there is an opportunity to be found in something else industrial society has so carelessly discarded: buildings and home. Chances are, if you live in a city you have seen abandoned buildings boarded up somewhere (or everywhere), with knee high weeds surrounding the yard. Maybe you’ve even snuck into one of these empty houses, looking for ghosts, or as a dare or a cheap thrill, or perhaps just because you like exploring the ruins society has littered around us. The banks may see these empty homes as liabilities. In the eye of a green wizard, or anyone who doesn’t like to see things go to waste, these houses are resources.
Environmentalists have long taught the practice of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Occupying an abandoned home is a way to do all three. It also seems like an obvious solution to the housing crisis in America. It’s quite unfortunate that obvious solutions aren’t always embraced by the System. They would rather seek some baroque way, involving lots of forms and red tape, to keep their fingers in the pie. Meanwhile space is wasted and homes left unoccupied suffer from the lack of care and grow sick with decay. Urban planners have a word for that and they call it ‘blight’.
Anyone who takes off the blinders provided by the infotainment industrial complex can see the sickness and decay at work, despite the new shopping centers being built next to the new shoddy suburbs planted on top of old uprooted trees. The world is awash with refugees, migrants, folks who have been displaced, folks who have been discarded from the official narrative in way or another. Where do they all go? There is a strong possibility that many of them will become squatters. It is quite fortunate that they don’t have to wait for permission to find a place where they can take shelter, make a life, make a home.
In his 2004 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Robert Neuwirth reported on his visits to cities Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. At the time of his writing it was estimated that there were roughly 1 billion squatters around the world, and that by 2030 that number would double to 2 billion. The squatters he reported on lived in all manner of conditions including shantytowns, favelas, shacks, and other improvised structures. His study was isolated to third and second world countries. It can be surmised that as the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations descend the staircase of catabolic collapse, the number of squatters and squatter neighborhoods in large “first world” cities will begin to rise.
Squatting is a response to circumstance and need and both existed in Berlin after WWII. By the end of the war it had endured 363 bombing raids, each one chipping away buildings that had been built in the 19th century. When the city was divided into two during the Cold War, new buildings were erected on both sides of the wall. These were called neubauten. These soulless, modern, purely functional buildings sat amidst others in serious states of disrepair.
The population of Berlin had also been sharply reduced by the war. Before WWII it had housed five million. In its aftermath, there were only three million. The vacant buildings left behind went on to become the squat-homes of a generation of young Germans deeply steeped in the counterculture, a post-war generation who rejected the values of their elders who had been complicit with the holocaust. Young college students could live there almost for free and they “declared squatting the natural response to a city on the edge of nowhere”. These students gathered together in masses, mobilized by being in close proximity with each other in the squats. In 1968 rioting ensued.
After the riots European squatting culture blossomed in West Berlin in the 1970’s. The city was ripe for the kind of intellectual and artistic fermentation about to take place there. It had already seen so much destruction that something was bound to emerge from the ruins.
The first formal squatting communes in Berlin were organized in 1971 in Marianneplatz in Kreuzbeurg. In S. Alexander Reed’s book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, he writes, “at any moment in the late 1970’s 150 unlawfully occupied squats operated in West Berlin, mostly in or near Kreuzberg. Just south of the Spree River and separated by the wall from the East Berlin borough of Friedrichschain, Kreuzberg was an impoverished, ugly part of Berlin. Those who lived there were generally vagrants, students, or Turkish immigrants who had come to Germany for postwar work rebuilding the country. Young anarchists and socialists took over entire streets and parks in the corners of West Berlin. Any given squat would house between eight and fifty people, either living rent free or paying a low-lease, sometimes attending the Berlin State School of Fine Arts or the Technical University, but fundamentally acting on anti-establishment rage. The numbers were too great for the police to control: phone trees powered by hacked communications lines enabled these young people to assemble by the thousands within an hour. The organizational soundness of the culture afforded an artistic scene complete with cafes (the Rote Harfe was a favorite), discos and makeshift libraries. Berlin’s constantly changing cast didn’t impede the microcosm’s day-to-day life, but instead, change was built into the scene’s basic operation. Indeed, a student’s political shift or change of drug habits might mean moving from, say, Albertstrasse 86 to Weinerstrasse 25. Some squats were ideologically dogmatic; others offered non-stop partying.”
Berlin was one of the cities where industrial music originated via the band Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings). They used custom-built instruments made out of whatever metal scraps they could find laying around alongside building tools combined with standard musical instruments to make a rough punk music mixed with noise. Their early music was as harsh as the sound of modern industry, with Bargeld's vocals shouted and screamed above a din of banging and scraping metal percussion. It was the sound of civilization falling.
Yet the punks weren’t satisfied to just sit back and let life pass them by, they responded, they participated, they acted. They did something, they did anything, and it was better than doing nothing. Taking action is part of the punk mindset. As Steve Ignorant of Crass put it in a 1997 interview, “There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.”
What if the large number of unemployed people in the United States got creative instead of on opioids? What if instead of passively accepting what life has doled out, people reacted with the sense of primacy and immediacy embodied by the punk movement? Something new might emerge from the ashes of our failing state.
Since the Great Recession there have been increased numbers of people in the U.S. squatting in foreclosed homes. I predict that Detroit will become the first North American city to have whole neighborhoods of squatters on par with Berlin in 1970s and the cities Robert Neuwirth visited when writing Shadow Cities. A lot of people are already squatting there. According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city's abandoned properties, squatters occupy more than 3,000 home, in a city where 43,000 remain vacant. These vacant homes are a cause for concern among residents. Some try to adopt abandoned houses on their block in an effort to contain the spread of blight and structural decay. If a squatter moves in and actually works to improve the property, as many do, it can be a win-win for everyone.
Some folks in Detroit go a step further and homestead the vacant buildings, using them as spaces to grow food, raise chickens, and engage in other regenerative activities. Mark Covington decided to plant a community garden on one site as a way to deter the people who were using it as an illegal dump. In 2008 he had started by working three properties and by 2018 was creatively reusing twenty-three, having gotten some help along the way from neighborhood kids and other volunteers.
Taking over abandoned land and spaces is a logical response to dire situations. It may even be preferable to government sanctioned housing projects. It may also become necessity when rich people take over neighborhoods they were formerly afraid to even visit.
In Glasgow, Scotland folks living in the neighborhood of Gorbals have also had a long struggle with poverty. In the 1970’s the situation was harrowing. The city blocks in the district were semi-derelict. Young mothers lived in rat infested tenements where rainwater pooled on the floors. The non-profit group Shelter had made strides since that time in improving the living conditions of the people but there continues to be shortage of affordable living as the process of gentrification takes over places once seen as undesirable. “…at the end of last year  Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.”
Detroit and Glasgow are only two examples among a plethora where blight has set in and continues to spread.
One solution to housing problems is to squat and if you’re going to squat it might as well be in style, albeit cheap, salvaged, scrounged and grungy style. Punkers already know how to live grungy on the cheap, so why not take a few tips from those who have done it intentionally, from people who have avoided the rush to collapse by living that way now?
Enter the punk house, a place where members of the punk subculture dwell together, as a way to pool resources, and cut back on their participation in the financial system. Protection and safety is another reason to band together. In places like Detroit where the entire city system is under stress, law enforcement is underfunded and understaffed. Human predators seeking human prey have been known to hunt and kill in the derelict landscape.
A punk house doesn’t have to be a squat though; it could just be a low-rent house or space. What ties one punk house to another is a shared ethos for a communal/common living space, frugal living, a DIY lifestyle, and individuals contributing to a home economy. What makes one punk house different from another are specific aesthetics and tastes of the individuals living there for genres and subgenres of music (i.e. hardcore, thrash, black metal, dub). A greater variance is the ideologies some punk houses are organized around: vegan and straight edge, for example, or carnivorous hedonistic revelers for another. Some may be anarchist, while others are apolitical with many examples along such a spectrum.
Penny Rimbaud, co-founder of the punk band Crass wrote on his motivation to found the communal style artist sanctuary Dial House, “Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”
Living together is nothing new for most of the world. It was a simple matter of course before the Cold War and the advent of the nuclear family. Multigenerational family living arrangements were a norm. Then the bomb exploded that sanity, and the boom economics of the American empire at its peak made it possible for individuals to be able to afford to live on their own and in smaller groups. The number of multigenerational homes was in overall decline in America from 1950 to 1980 when it went from 21% to 12% of the population. Now it’s on the upswing again thanks to the hole the Great Recession ate in Americas pocketbook. In 2016 it hit a record of 64 million people, back up to 20% of the population.
Even in the age of the nuclear family blood is still thick. Those who choose the Down Home Punk option and make a go at shared living arrangements may choose to bring in their blood, but I imagine there will also be a mixture of old friends and newcomers. We live in a time when many people have abandoned their hometowns for the allure of upward mobility. From these scattered tribes new weaves of extended, blended, multigenerational families will emerge. Different folks will simmer together in the stew pot of circumstance and need.
As a family they have a better chance of taking over an empty home, retrofitting it, rehabbing it, and eventually through the rites of the squatter, taking over legal ownership of the property. In a world made harsh, and in a world made by hand, whatever legal powers of state and law remain will be happy that gardens have been planted and homes on the brink of falling apart will have been made livable again.
The time exists now for right action. The time exists now to take a step. We don’t have to wait.
Penny Rimbaud of Crass offers just a smattering of possibilities awaiting those who are willing to take action. “Quite apart from direct action, there are things that we can do within the existing social structures that will weaken those structures while at the same time helping ourselves and each other. We can open up squats and start information services for those who want to do the same. We can form housing co-ops and communes to share the responsibility of renting or even buying a property. In places where we already live, we can open the doors to others. We can form Tenant Associations with neighbours and demand and create better conditions and facilities in the area. We can form gardening groups that squat and farm disused land, or rent allotments where we can produce food for ourselves and others that is free from dangerous chemicals. We can grow medicinal herbs to cure each other’s headaches. We can create health groups where we can practice alternative medicine, like herbalism and massage that create healthy bodies and minds rather than drugged-up robots that are the results of conventional medicine. Maybe we can learn to love and respect each other’s bodies rather than fearing them. We can form free schools where knowledge can be shared rather than rules laid down. Education, rather than being State training in slavery, can become a mutual growth and true enquiry into the world around us, a place where everyone is the teacher and everyone is the pupil.”
Though we may face the limitations of the natural world, and stumble against obstacles of our own making, we will still be able to tap into the supply of imagination. Availing ourselves of this resource we can begin to make adjustments to the predicaments of our age. All we have to do is put in the required hard work to make those adjustments real.
[This article first appeared on the Green Wizards website: http://greenwizards.com/node/906 ]
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, 2004.
Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Steve Ignoratnt, interviewed bySid and Zillah (Rubella Ballet): https://youtu.be/IgNToZnyslE
Families Squat In Abandoned Homes As The Housing Crisis Grips Detroit by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, huffington post article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/detroit-housing-crisis-abandoned-homes-sq..., retrieved in July and August of 2019.
For another view read: Dead bodies, wild dogs, squatters in government-owned Detroit houses by Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2018/07/19/squatters-detroit-land....
Furthermore there is even a book about how to get by in Detroit due to its lack of services. It’s titled DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services by Kimberley Kinder, University Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today by Hope Whitmore https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bjyg9/nick-hedges-scotland-slums-288
The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.