It was once again in the hallowed halls of Bell Laboratories that the field of radio astronomy was born. Karl Jansky first detected radio waves emanating from the Milky Way in August of 1931. His discovery was a happy accident, one of those serendipitous coincidences born out of pure research and playful investigation. Yet Jansky had been around radio and playing with radio long before he showed up at Bell.
Born in what was then still the Territory of Oklahoma, his father Cyril M. Jansky was the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Cyril was passionate about physics, and named his son after Dr. Karl Eugen Guthe, a physicist and professor at the University of Michigan who’d been a mentor to Cyril. Cyril had been born of Czech immigrants in Wisconsin, and later returned to his home state where he retired as a professor of Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin.
Karl had a brother ten years older, Cyril Jr., a man who helped lift the United States into the radio age by helping to build some of the earliest transmitters in the country. His handiwork was on the early radio stations 9XM in Wisconsin and the 9XI in neighboring Minnesota, now stations WHA and KUOM respectively.
During WWI there had been a ban on civilian radio stations. In October of 1919 the ban was lifted and the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota applied for "War Department Training and Rehabilitation School" station licenses which they received. The “X” in both call signs designated them as experimental stations. The operation of 9XI was under the oversight of Cyril Jansky Jr. who was an electrical engineering professor at Minnesota.
In 1920 a one-kilowatt spark gap transmitter was installed at 9XI. Students used it to communicate with other amateur stations and university stations, such as their neighbors in Wisconsin where the set-up had also been overseen by Cyril Jr. As a service both stations provided weather forecast and market bulletins using Morse code. When the vacuum tube came along in 1921 they were able to start making audio broadcasts.
In the following years as the radio service became more codified, various types of licenses emerged with assigned wavelengths corresponding to whether the station provided entertainment or news and information. These changes were also reflected in the assigned call letters. The 9XI station had become WLB. The radio service was a major asset to the community when in 1922 a major snowstorm knocked out newswire services in the region. The Minneapolis Tribune asked the station's operators to help retrieve the day's news through a roundabout series of amateur radio relays, one station passing the news on to the next until it reached its destination. This type of radio relaying became a major tradition for ham radio operators. In the United States, the American Radio Relay League, the major organization and advocate for US hams, takes its name from just that tradition.
Karl Jansky grew up in this milieu and it’s no wonder he followed in the family footsteps to also become a physicist and radio engineer. He was attending the University of Wisconsin during the years when it had changed from operating as 9XM to WHA and it is very likely he was familiar with the equipment being used at the station. He graduated in 1927 with his BS in physics.
SIGNALS IN THE STATIC
Janksy quickly landed a job at Bell Labs and relocated himself to their site in Holmdel, New Jersey. Of the many things Bell Labs was interested in was the investigation of the properties of the atmosphere and ionosphere with the shortwave of the radio spectrum for use in trans-Atlantic radio telephone service.
It was early days yet in the study of propagation, noise, and everything that could affect a signal being transmitted to a distant place. Jansky’s job was to listen to the static that interfered with communication; in studying it he found signals where others may have only heard noise.
In 1933, five years before Orson Wells historic War of the Worlds broadcast, Jansky was able to pinpoint “Electrical disturbances apparently of extraterrestrial origin.” This was in fact the name of the paper he wrote on his findings. It all started out with an antenna he built.
Radio astronomy is like fishing, only instead of a pole you have an antenna to reel in the catch of distant transmissions. To do his research on atmospheric noise Karl built an antenna that was dubbed “Jansky’s Merry-Go-Round.” Mounted on a “turntable” of four Model-T Ford tires it could be rotated to determine the strength or weakness of a signal and thereby pinpoint it. It was designed to receive radio waves at a frequency of 20.5 MHz (wavelength about 14.6 meters). Next to this antenna there was a small shack that housed equipment including an analog pen-and-paper recording system that plotted the findings of the antenna.
For several months he recorded signals from all different directions and eventually he was able to categorize them. Within the noise he was able to detect thunderstorms. Close thunderstorms exhibited one set of characteristics and those far away exhibited another. Then there was a third sound he picked up, a faint steady hiss whose origins were unknown. This signal had a location of maximum intensity, rising and falling every day.
Initially he thought the hiss was from solar radiation, but he revised this initial theory after further investigation. He discussed the anomalous hiss with his friend Albert Melvin Skellett, an astrophysicist who also worked at Bell and whom later wrote a paper on the “Ionizing Effect of Meteors” and whose name appeared on many patents. Skellet looked at the data and noted that the time between the signal peaks was on an exact cycle: it restarted every 23 hours and 56 minutes. This time frame is a sidereal day, a time scale used by astronomers based on the rate of Earth’s rotation relative to the fixed stars. Armed with this knowledge he compared his observations with optical astronomy maps. He noted that the signal peaked when his antenna was pointed to the densest region of the Milky Way galaxy, in the Sagittarius constellation. Knowing that the sun was not a huge source of radio noise, he concluded that the cosmic hiss was being created by “gas and dust” in that far corner of the galaxy.
Jansky wrote up his findings in a 1933 paper titled “Electrical disturbances of apparently extraterrestrial origin.” His findings were also publicized by a New York Times article on May 5th of that year. Jansky called the sounds from space “star noise” and it was something he wanted to investigate further but he found little help. Radio was a completely new tool when applied to astronomy, and the astronomers of the time on the one hand didn’t see the ramification of its many potential uses. In the 1930s and 40s they were also hampered by the financial constraints of the Great Depression and following that, the war effort.
Meanwhile those overseeing Jansky’s work at Bell Labs didn’t see the point in his further investigation of “star noise”. They were looking for solutions to the problems affecting trans-Atlantic communication and didn’t want to sink further funds into something they couldn’t be sure would prove useful to their goal.
A small number of scientists and astronomers were interested in his research, but Jansky didn’t live long enough to see his contributions really take off. He died at age 44 in 1950 due to a heart condition. He was later honored by having his name appended to the unit used by radio astronomers for the strength (or flux density) of radio sources. Jansky noise was also named after him and refers to high frequency static disturbances originating deep within the cosmos. These are just a few of the ways his work has been remembered.
As for the emissions coming from the center of the Milky Way, in the 1950’s astronomers and astrophysicists thought it was made by electrons in a powerful magnetic field. Today the thinking is that the radio emissions are caused by ions in orbit around a Black Hole at the center of the galaxy called Sagittarius A*. Jansky, having pointed his antenna towards galactic center, also pointed others towards the possibilities of a field combining radio and astronomy.
THE HAM WHO MAPPED THE RADIO STARS
Grote Reber was an amateur radio operator (W9GFZ) and amateur astronomer who followed Jansky’s lead and combined his two hobbies to make great discoveries about the cosmos we inhabit. Having heard of Jansky’s work he applied for a job at Bell Labs because he realized this new field was the one for him but the Depression still had the countries resources drained and they didn’t have anything for him. So without waiting for grants or asking anyone else’s permission he built a parabolic receiving dish in his backyard in Wheaton, Illinois, and set out to do the work on his own.
The antenna or radio telescope he built was more advanced than even what Jansky had built with the funds from Bell Labs. It was made of sheet metal and shaped into a nine meter in diameter parabolic dish focused to a receiver eight meters above the dish, all connected to his radio gear. It was on a stand that could be tilted to various parts of the sky, but unlike Jansky’s it wasn’t on a turntable. Perhaps he should have hit up Ford for some spare tires. Reber completed his build in September 1937, and was able to keep radio astronomy alive during those fraught and lean years.
It took Reber three attempts before he detected a signal which confirmed the discovery of Jansky. The first time he was looking on the 3300 MHz frequency, and the second time at 900 MHz. Finally in 1938 he was successful in detecting signals from outer space on 160 MHz. In 1940 he made his first professional publication in the Astrophysical Journal and was contacted by Yerkes Observatory who offered him a position. He turned them down and kept walking his own path. He decided to make a radiofrequency sky map and was the first to do so. This was published in 1941 and expanded in 1943.
Reber continued to trawl the megahertz fishing for signals from the stars and he hauled in quite a catch. He researched, wrote, published, rinsed and repeated, the lone radio astronomer. Yet the body of work he created in the new field became a big bang for radio astronomy that exploded after WWII. A lot of the folks getting out of the service had been trained in radio, radar, and electronic communications in one way or the other, and many of these folks went on to pursue careers in some aspect of electronics. Some of them came home and built on the foundation of radio astronomy whose waters were first explored by Jansky and Reber.
Reber continued his quest to explore the mysteries of the stars and the spectrum. One mystery he tinkered with had to do with a standard theory surrounding radio emissions from beyond Earth which claimed they were caused by black-body radiation, or the thermal electromagnetic radiation, including light (of which radio is an invisible form), given off by all hot bodies. According to this line of thinking scientists of the time expected there to be a greater quantity of high-energy light than low-energy due to stars and other hot bodies in the cosmos. Reber dispelled this notion by showing that there was a vast amount of low-energy radio signals able to be detected with his radio telescope system. Later in the 1950s the idea of synchrotron radiation was used as an explanation for his mysterious measurements.
Reber was a man who liked to go his own way. As the field of radio astronomy grew some areas of research were growing crowded, so he decided to study a band of frequencies that weren’t getting much attention. He looked at the medium frequency range of signals around the AM broadcast band, those in the 0.5–3 MHz range. All those frequencies below 30 MHz bounce off the ionosphere, part of the reason they are able to be picked up in distant locations. To really listen for distant signals coming in from outside he needed to go somewhere that let those signals in.
He found such a place in Tasmania, where he moved after a brief stint surfing the spectrum in Hawaii, when he received some funding from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. There in the southernmost state of Australia in the southern hemisphere, on the long winter nights when the sun barely shows his face, the pesky layer reflecting the radiowaves would go de-ionize, allowing the long waves from the stars to be caught by his radio telescope. Tasmania was also low in manmade electrical interference and RF. This allowed his equipment to receive like a dream and detect faint signals that elsewhere might have been obscured by noise.
Just as hams and shortwave listeners go to quiet out of the way spots that have low levels of manmade RF for DXpeditions, Reber’s love of radio and astronomy took him to exotic places, all in the continuing search for the ultimate DX signals –those trans-plutonian transmissions from outside of our solar system, and perhaps even galaxy.
For the rest of his career and life Reber lived in Tasmania searching for signals from the stars.
RADARS PUZZLING EVIDENCE
During the war years there were some other explorations of radio astronomy happening below the radar, often being worked on by people involved in the field of radar. Radar had been shown to be a possibility for detecting objects as far back as Heinrich Hertz in 1886 when he showed that radio waves could be reflected off objects. The Russian physicist Alexander Popov developed a device for detecting distant lightning strikes in 1895. Ten years later the German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer demonstrated the use of radio to detect the “presence of distant metallic objects”, specifically ships at sea in distant fog. It was an invention that would have many practical uses. Many other radio experiments in direction finding and detection took place after this by excited investigators.
During WWII several nations were working on the problem of radar independently though not yet called as such as part of their search for tools and effective strategies against their enemies. James Stanley Hey was a British physicist who joined the Army Operational Research Group (AORG) after a 6-week course at the Army Radio School to support his country during the fight against the Axis powers.
Hey was tasked with one of those great traditions in radio: jamming, or rather ant-jamming in his case. Radio jamming is the intentional blocking or disrupting of a radio signal, often with another stronger interfering signal and is distinguished from natural sources of interference, and unintentional interference. It really got going as a method of miscommunication in WWII. Ground operators realized they could mislead the pilots of opposing forces by speaking in their language and leading them off in the wrong direction. Radar jamming uses the same principle, but the jammer sends out RF signals designed to interfere with those of other radar operators, saturating the enemy receiver with noise. Claude Shannon might have looked at it in terms of information theory: by increasing the noise in a system, the user has to work harder to lock on to a true signal. Jamming has also been extensively used in broadcast radio by oppressive regimes who don’t want the shortwave transmissions of other countries, such as when the United State’s station the Voice of America was jammed by the Soviet Union to stop their citizens from being able to listen. Broadcast jamming continues at the time of this writing in countries such as North Korea and China who want to keep outside transmissions, and outside messages, from entering their country.
Hey tackled the problem of German radar jamming and it led to discoveries relevant to radio astronomy. The Germans had been clever in their jams of Allied radar signals, leading to the escape of three German warships from the English Channel. Their signals had come off the French coast and interfered with those of the Allies. In February of 1942 Hey received reports of anti-aircraft radars being jammed in the 4-8 meter range of the spectrum. He found that the direction of maximum interference seemed to follow the path of the Sun. Following this lead he contacted the Royal Observatory and learned there was a very active sunspot. This led him to conclude that sunspots, which were already believed to emit streams of ions and electrons in magnetic fields of approximately 100 gauss, could also emit radio wave emissions in the meter-wavelength bands. After the war Hey continued his research in radio astronomy, working for the Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern.
Around the same time G. C. Southworth of the United States also found radio noise associated with the Sun in the centimeter portion of the spectrum. Southworth was a radio engineer who worked for AT&T starting in 1923 and eventually finished his tenure with them at Bell Labs where he retired in 1955. He is mostly remembered for his development of waveguides, but he was interested in all different aspects of radio and worked on other things such as ultrashort waves, the dielectric properties of water at ultrahigh frequencies, shortwave propagation, antenna arrays, earth currents, and radio astronomy. In 1950 he published his 675-page doorstopper of a tome, Principles and Applications of Waveguide Transmission. It was his nitty-gritty exploration of microwave techniques and it was while studying that range of the spectrum that he stumbled across signals from the sun.
Back in England, J.A. Ratcliffe was another man working on the radar problem during the war years who encountered emissions from the sun. After graduating from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in natural sciences in 1924 he started researching propagation under Edward Victor Appleton, a pioneer of radiophysics. Appleton was an assistant demonstrator in experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, part of the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge. Under Appleton’s tutelage Ratcliffe and M. A. F. Barnett figured out ways to understand the mystery of ‘fading’ radio signals. They investigated why transmissions faded from fixed stations that often happens at sunset. A few years later Ratcliffe became the head of a group at Cavendish whose purpose was to study how radio waves get reflected off the ionized layer in the upper atmosphere and the nature of that layer of atmosphere.
As part of Britain’s defense and signals intelligence they had built a network of anti-aircraft radar stations known as Chain Home that covered the eastern and southern coasts of the country. Various physicists and scientific types were assigned to spend a month at these stations. Ratcliffe was sent to one of these near Dover. Next he was made part of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) who sent him to work at a Chain Home Low site. The “Low” sites were designated as such to detect planes flying below the altitudes the regular Chain Home stations were able to pick up. This work took him all around to various sites during the war.
As the bitter years of war ended Ratcliffe was able to go back to Cavendish. The group had grown, and others soon joined in, including Martin Ryle from the TRE. Ryle ended up forming a section devoted to radio astronomy. Ryle and his colleagues developed further techniques for radio astronomy. The group went on to found the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in the 1950s.
Soon the techniques of interferometry were added into the mix. Optical interferometry had been used already by astronomers to get the resolution of a large telescope when using multiple smaller telescopes. The electromagnetic radiation collected at each of a number of separate small telescopes is combined to re-create the image that would have been obtained with the large telescope. This process is called “aperture synthesis”. The same principle can be used for any kind of wave be it light, sound or radio.
The first radio interferometer used for astronomical observation happened in Australia in 1946 by Jospeh Lade Pawsey, Ruby Payne-Scott and Lindsay McCready who used a single converted broadside array radar antenna at 200 MHz near Sydney. They had the idea to use radio waves reflected off the sea to produce an interference pattern. This specific technique became known as sea or sea-cliff interferometry. A radio detecting antenna was placed on top of a cliff to detect electromagnetic waves coming directly from the source and waves reflected off the surface of the water. The two sets of waves are combined to create an interference pattern such as that produced by two separate antennas.
Numerous radar users in WWII had noticed “interference fringes” or the way radar radiation returned and reflected off the sea from incoming aircraft. They exploited this to observe the sun at dawn with interference arising from its reflections off the ocean. Using a baseline of 200 meters they determined that solar radiation during a burst phase was much smaller than the solar disk itself and came from a region known to be associated with a large grouping of sunspots. From this work the group was able to lay out the principles of aperture synthesis and published their results in a 1947 paper.
A typical radio interferometry set up involves two or more separate antennas receiving radio waves from the same astronomical object and are joined to the same receiver. The antennas can be close together or spread very far apart. A variable delay device is used to compensate for the different times the waves come into the antennas. Another way interference patterns are created is by spacing the antennas in an attempt to make the waves interfere. The distance between them for interference depends on the wavelength and on the diameter of the source of the waves.
Back in Cambridge Martin Ryle was also working on radio interferometry. With Antony Hewish and others in the Cavendish group he developed the technique of Earth-rotation aperture synthesis at radio wavelengths. He and Hewish received a Nobel prize for this work and their other contributions to the field.
Later in the 60s and 70s computers became part of the equation and their number crunching power was applied to some of the complex math, often involving Fourier transformations, used in radio astronomy.
All of this research branched out into observing a plethora of celestial radio sources. New discoveries were made adding to humanities cosmological knowledge. Specifically a number of new classes of objects unobservable by optical telescopes including pulsars, quasars and radio galaxies were received out of the aether enabling astrophysicists, cosmologists, and others of their ilk to refine their knowledge. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was first detected using radio astronomy.
Meanwhile further developments in radar allowed it to be used to map our neighboring planets, and the whole toolkit of radio astronomy has been used to study everything from space weather and further observations of the sun. All of this has been used as fuel for the imagination of a number of musicians who continue to hear the music of the spheres.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
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Last month in the American Iconoclast / Great American Eccentrics series we looked at the work of Peace Pilgrim. This month we are going to listen to some stories with Ray Hicks, Bard of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
Respect is something I have for Ray Hicks, for the life he lived, the stories he told, the lives he touched. Lenard Ray Hicks August 29, 1922 – April 20, 2003) was a bard without ever calling himself a bard. He lived on Beech Mountain in North Carolina his whole entire life, knowing the land and its moods the way a long time married couple know each other. He was a storyteller, and a keeper of the Jack Tales, and these were his favorite to tell.
The most well known Jack tale is the one about when he goes and sells a cow to buy some magic beans. Instead of ending up in the poor house Jack climbs a huge beanstalk and comes face to face with a giant in the clouds. There are many more of these Jack tales besides the beanstalk story: Jack Frost, Jack the Giant Killer, Little Jack Horner, and This is the House that Jack Built just to a name a few. The stories are of Cornish and English progeny and were passed down as fairy tales, nursery rhymes, legends of the olden times.
Now Ray Hicks family had come to America in the 1700s and his great-grandfather on his mothers side was Council Harmon (1803-1896). Harmon's grandfather Cutliff Harmon (1748-1838) was believed to have brought the Jack tales to America when he came to settle. They found themselves in North Carolina, living deep in the hills where these stories, alongside the skills of instrument building (banjos, dulcimers' and more), distilling, foraging for food and medicine, were passed on from one generation to another. Ray grew hearing the stories and hearing the songs. The Harmon-Hicks family was also known for having a unique knowledge of old British ballads.
Living on the mountain, working on the land, knowing how to read the weather, knowing what tubers to eat when he was watching the cows up in the grazing patch, not even age ten. Hearing the stories whisper themselves to him as if by a wind on the mountain, seeing the hex signs his ma had painted on either side of the front door on the porch ceiling to keep out the ghosties, the knowledge percolated inside of him.
Sometimes when he was out on the land, tending to things, working alone, Ray would pull out his Franch harp from the front pocket of his overalls and start to play. Sometimes the birds would come and listen. Perhaps because Jack still a harp, and Ray was a kind of Jack himself, he was skilled at playing the French harp -the Harmon-ica.
Ray was experienced with old time ways of healing. A Granny Woman often came to the family when someone was sick or injured and to help deliver babies. She once saved Rays leg when it had been hit with a slop bucket thrown at him by his sister, after he stole some precious cake she was baking for her honey. The Granny Woman applied a poultice of wheat flour to his injury and it healed him. Later Ray became famous as being able to get rid of people's warts. People would even send him letters asking for help getting rid of their warts. He knew the formula and was able to do this even if they weren't sitting their together on his front porch for a spell.
Ray was a tall man, standing nearly seven feet. Perhaps some of the blood from the many encounters Jack had with giant folk had spilled into him.
When he spoke, he spoke as if from out of time. His peculiar dialect was a bit strange even for other Appalachian's. The Hicks and Harmon families had preserved in their speech many old English terms, some that had last seen regular use in the 15th century. He learned his stories the way other storyteller's do, by listening, copying and then developing the mastery to spin a yarn.
"I wasn’t teached. That’s the way I growed up a-talking. I learned my Jack tales mostly from my dad’s father, John Benjamin Hicks. My grandmother Julie told Indian, witch and haint tales, too. I’d set and pick the burrs out of the hanks as she spun, and listen. They were both well in speech.”
The Jack tales had changed somewhat after coming to America, just as the Ballads had. In the Appalachian versions the tale would often feature a sheriff in place of a king or nobleman.
To make his way in the world Ray worked as a farmer and mechanic. He kept to the ways of collecting herbs and plants, such as ginseng and many others, as way to make living.
The first time he told stories in public was in 1951. He'd been invited to speak to a classroom of students at an elementary school. Since that time his reknown as a teller of tales started to spread.
Ray married Rosa Violet Harmon, who had also grown up on Beech Mountain. They had five kids together and raised them in the same cabin he had grown up in.
He said his family was a family of talkers and that sometimes they talked just to try and out talk each other. Because talk was entertainment and that's what people did when they got together. Talked, sang, broke bread and talked some more.
In 1973 he was invited to perform at first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He was invited back many many times. This festival is considered to be a major point in the revival of storytelling, and the festival is still a going concern. It's very fitting Ray would have told his tales there in their first year.
Folk musician David Holt, who considered Ray to be one of his mentors said of him, " He was what we call an all day talker. He would start talking the minute you got there…start right in on a story. He had the most amazing accent, kinda talked way back in his throat. He’d say, “Jack seen a man comin down out of the woods with a great big head and he was knocking big trees down and hittin big rock boulders and wasn’t even hurtin’ a hair in his own head… he said, ‘Hello there. Who are ye?’ ‘ My name is Hardy Hard Head.’ ‘Well Hardy hard Head you must be…into my ship.’ ” By the end of the day he’d still be talking, telling you the story. You’d get up and say, “Ray, it’s gettin late, gotta go.” He’d follow you all the way up to the car standing in the road still telling the tale. You’d just have to put down the window, wave and say, “Ray, I’ll see you..love you” and drive off with him still standing there still telling the story in the middle of the dirt road."
Ray learned not to plan out his tale telling in advance. He called his style of story improvisation "unthoughted". “I learnt not to plan my stories. That’ll ruint you. I just tell the one that hits my mind when I hit the mic.”
In 1983 Ray was named a heritage fellow through the National Endowment for the Arts. He had to be dragged to Washington to receive the award from then vice-prez George Bush. And while he was unimpressed with the fast city ways of the nations capital, it was the one of many honors and awards given to him over the course of the rest of his life.
As Ray became famous for his gifts at telling tales, he turned down a lot of opportunities to be on TV shows and the like because he never wanted to travel farther from his home than it would take to get back the same day. He was so dedicated to his place in the world that he said no to these requests. Instead he often spoke to schools in the surrounding area. He also didn't go around talking about his ability. He had a humility about him that made it to where even some of his neighbors on the mountain and around the area didn't know the treasure they had living so close to home.
His home was important to him. It had been built in 1912 by his grandpa and with help from the extended family. He lived in it his whole life. Ray felt weird and odd when he went further afield.
Hicks died of prostate cancer at the age of 80 in 2003 and his wife followed him into the silent clearing of the woods in 2014.
There are many other great videos of Ray on youtube, including an hour long documentary called "Last of the Old Time Storytellers".
The biography of him by Lynn Salsi “The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: Keeper of the Jack Tales” is a great book for those who went to dig further. In a way it is really his autobiography. It’s his words that she recorded and collected over many years and then edited into cohesive life story. Reading it you feel like you are sitting with him and his family for a spell on his cabin porch underneath the hex sign painted there by his mother to keep out the ghosties, privileged to be listening to him tell his tale. It’s a true bardic transmission.
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The ancient philosophers and mystics of this world proposed the theory of the five elements and this theory is still seen at play, though transformed, in the science of the present day. From air, fire, water and earth we have gases, energy and heat, liquids and matter. The fifth element is the aether, the quintessence crowning the four other elements. And though science seems to have discarded the aether it is yet everywhere around us.
The early Ionian cosmologists thought there was an infinite and unbegotten divine substance, neither created nor ever to be destroyed, permeating the entire universe. Empedocles used the term elements and roots interchangeably, and the four classical elements had their roots in the divine everlasting substance. Combined in various ratios these four elements make up the physical universe.
Later Plato writing Timaeus of the air element said "there is the most translucent kind which is called by the name of aether.” His student Aristotle continued to explore the four elements, and introduced the fifth element in his book On the Heavens. Aristotle posited that there was another element located in the heavenly and celestial realm of the stars and planets. Aristotle considered this new element to be the first element, in that the other four elements had their origin and root in it. In his book he did not give it a name, but later writers commenting on his work started referring to this element as the aether, or fifth element.
The heavenly element of the aether was not the same as the four terrestrial elements. Aristotle held that it could not move outside of the natural circles made by the stars in their spheres. He related this idea of aethereal spheres to his observation of the planets and stars in their perfect orbits. The scholastic philosophers of the medieval era thought that the aether might change and fluctuate in density, as they reasoned the planets and stars were denser than the universal substance permeating the universe.
The theory of the five elements continued to spread throughout medieval times, transmitted and passed in particular among the alchemists who embraced the idea as part of their secret lore. The Latin name for the fifth element was the quintessence and this word can be found throughout the many alchemical treatises penned over the centuries. The idea of the quintessence became especially popular among the medical alchemists for whom aetheric forces became part of healing substances and elixirs.
Robert Fludd, the great 17th century hermetic philosopher, Rosicrucian, natural magician and follower of Paracelsus, claimed that the nature of the aether was “subtler than light”. In this he started to point to later ideas of the aether as a kind of catch all for a variety of electromagnetic phenomena. Fludd cited the view of Plotinus from the 3rd century who thought the aether was non-material and interpenetrated the entire universe of manifest reality and its various forms.
Isaac Newton, himself a devoted alchemist, used the idea of the aether as a way to explain his observations of the strict mechanical rules he was writing about in his works on physics. In turn the physicists of the 18th century developed a number of models for various physical phenomena that came to be known as aether theories, used to explain how gravitational forces worked and how electromagnetic forces propagated.
19th century scientist and successful business magnate Baron Dr. Carl von Reichenbach took up the study of the field of psychology in 1839 after making important discoveries in the fields of geology, chemistry, and metallurgy. If it hadn’t been for Reichenbach’s research in the physical sciences and his study of the properties of coal we wouldn’t have creosote, paraffin, or phenol which he developed the process for extracting. When he set out to tackle the field of psychology after striking it rich from his many patents and factories he discovered that people he termed “sensitives” were able to pick up on things the rest of us couldn’t. This often led the sensitive person to develop emotional and mental problems. But he also noticed these sensitives could sometimes see a force field around such things as a magnet.
This led Reichenbach to the works of Franz Anton Mesmer who had already been deemed a heretic by people like Benjamin Franklin and other members of the scientific establishment of the time. What Mesmer called Animal Magnetism, Reichenbach called Odic Force. Reichenbach was in turn denounced for his studies of this force which he observed as behaving in ways similar to yet distinct from magnetism, electricity, and heat. He wouldn’t be the last to be called a crank and a catamount for his investigation of the life force.
The two terms of Animal Magnetism and Odic Force would both have been recognized by metaphysicians, occultists and philosophers as the aether.
By the time Albert Einstein had introduced special relativity the aether theories used by physicists wer discarded among the scientific intelligentsia of the time. Einstein had shown that Maxwell’s equations, which form the mathematical foundation for form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits, did not need the idea of the aether for the transmission of these forces. Yet even Einstein admitted that his own theory could be thought of as an aether theory because it seemed to show that there were physical properties in the seemingly empty space between objects.
As the 20th century rolled on the idea of the aether continued to be propagated among theosophists, adherents of the new thought movement, and various other occultists. In 1907 the French philosopher Henri Bergson spoke of the Élan vital in his book Creative Evolution. Bergson used this concept as an explanation for evolution and development of organisms, which he linked closely with consciousness.
Psychologist Wilhelm Reich made his own discovery of the life force in the 1930s, which he called orgone. As a direct student of Freud, his concept of orgone was the result of work on the psycho-physiology of libido, of which he took an increasingly bio-energetic view. After Reich emigrated to the United States his attention increasingly turned to speculation about the nature of the universe, and ideas about biological development and evolution, even the weather. Reich was more at home in the mode of “natural philosopher” or “natural scientist” than in the ideologically strict compartmentalization that had occurred in the field of psychology.
Despite his documentation of the successful effects of orgone therapy, and his devices such as the orgone accumulator and cloud buster, Reich remained a heretic among doctors and scientists. He lost his teaching position at the New School in 1941 after telling the director he had saved several lives using orgone therapy. Due to his associations as a socialist he was arrested by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He continued to be persecuted throughout the 1950s. It’s an interesting story and too long to tell in detail for the present purposes, but suffice it to say through various injunctions the FDA destroyed his orgone accumulators and later burned six tons of his journals, books, and papers.
Then he was thrown in jail where he died. All because he was audacious enough to believe in, study, and experiment with the life force, what he called orgone, and what the ancients have called aether.
Those who haven’t been afraid to stand on the fringe and hang out in the margins, have continued to research and investigate the nature of the aether and various means for utilizing it. There is a lot of work and experimentation to be done, and the relationship between musical healing modalities, electronics and the aether promises to be an area full of vitality.
As a wellspring of creativity the aether continues to inspire musicians and composers. Robert Ashley asked the question “Will something of substance replace the Aether? Not soon. All the parts are in disarray.”
Ashley also said “Aether fills the void, as in not knowing when you might get a chance to hear somebody make music, or where is the nearest town where something might be going on… or whether you got the idea that wakes you up at night from the hard-to-hear part of what comes over the radio, or from something you read about in a magazine about electricity, or from something you just dreamed up.”
Artists, writers and musicians such as him have continued to think of the aether and tap into it as a prime source. The music of the spheres continues to inspire those of us down here on earth who do their best to translate it into new compositions. Musicians continue to look up to the stars as a source of creativity. They take that aetheric light from the stars into themselves to create new works that show our relationship with the rest of the cosmos.
Where do ideas come from? Transmitted over the aether they spill into the head of the artist, who is the vessel. They give voice to the aether. With the tools of radio, telecommunications, images and data from satellites and the sonic possibilities opened up by electricity, they have a lot of rich source material to translate the voice into compositions. This chapter explores some of these works inspired by the celestial realms.
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Is the universe itself oscillating just like the radio waves that travel throughout it? Does the universe grow and expand out of a Big Bang and crest into a large wave before collapsing back in on itself again into a Big Crunch, and out of that singularity is another universe created out of the Big Bang? In 1930 Albert Einstein briefly theorized just such an oscillating universe. As more and more black holes form over the passage of time in the expansion phase, their combined gravitational attraction eventually draws more and more matter into their orbits ending with another Big Crunch. In this cyclical theory an eternal series of oscillations means all possible forms of the physical universe, and all possible histories of earth would have a chance to play out with each new Big Bang, with each oscillating iteration.
Richard C. Tolman, a mathematician and physicist, was quick to point out though, how entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, was prohibitive of this cyclical theory. Entropy can only increase inside of a system, and this implied that successive cycles would grow larger and longer. Inevitable thermodynamic heat death was the only possibility according to Tolma. Meanwhile, tracing the same trend backwards in time the cycles before our present one would thus each have been shorter and smaller, culminating in the kickoff event of the Big Bang.
Yet the cyclical theory of an oscillating universe has much to lend itself. It fits neatly into spiritual ideas on the nature of cycles of time. As such it has been adopted by poets, artists and musicians, and new generations of scientist continue to try and find ways to make the theory work with the benefit of newer models, notions, and research.
This idea of an expanding and contracting universe oscillating between Big Bang and Big Crunch was one of the notions running through Stockhausen’s mind when he came to compose his ensemble piece Ylem in 1972.
The title of the piece, itself a strange, alien sounding word, has a strange story. Ylem was resurrected from Middle English by cosmologist Ralph Alpher, a student of George Gamow, a Russian American physicist and cosmologist who was an early advocate of the Big Bang theory. Alpher had stumbled across the entry for Ylem in Webster’s second dictionary where it was defined as being “the first substance from which the elements were supposed to have been formed.” It had gotten to Middle English by way of the Latin hylen, or hylem which had in turn came from the Greek ὕλη (hūlē, hȳlē) for "matter". In ancient times this primordial matter was conceived of as the cosmic egg, from which the universe itself was hatched.
The cosmologists and physicists of the 1930’s had re-adopted the ancient conception, and with the rediscovery of the word ylem, tied it back to the insights of the world’s elder philosophies.
Gamow and his colleagues posited that the ylem is what existed immediately after the Big Bang. They assumed that within this primordial substance were a large number of high-energy photons. In 1948 Alpher and scientist Robert Herman predicted that these red-shifted photons should still be able to be observed as an ambient cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMBR. Alpher and Herman thought the CMBR would pervade all of space at a temperature of 5 kelvins. In 1965 when CMBR was first detected the researchers found it to be not far off their predicted mark, at 3 kelvins.
Stockhausen played with these ideas in his composition, and used them to show musically the expansion and contraction of an oscillating universe. In the program notes for a performance that occurred on August 25, 1992 he wrote, “There is a theory about an oscillating universe in which we live: Every 80 billion years the universe explodes, pulls itself back together and then explodes a second time – thus ‘oscillating universe’. The original explosion, or also the primary material, is called ‘Ylem’. All the material that exists originated from a primary material, then expands, the expansion slows down, and then through increasing acceleration everything in the universe melts in fire and becomes the basic substance hydrogen, and then explodes again...
I cordially request that you pay attention to this expansion: how every instrumentalist gradually expands his tone-space and forms the individual tones more and more, so that every tone-space receives a new shape. Very much depends on the inventiveness of each individual musician: how he shapes the tones, how he distributes them within the deceleration and subsequently again during the acceleration. Let the whole have an effect on you, not just by the details.”
The instructions for Ylem are notated verbally. This imaginative piece would require the players to be familiar with Stockhausen’s aleatory and intuitive music practices. The conception is simple but the execution demanding. Ylem was written for a total of nineteen players, including four electric instruments who also use shortwave radios, five stationary instruments, and ten instrumentalists who are mobile, playing throughout the performance space. In the 1973 premiere the instruments consisted of electronium (accordion-synth), synthesizer, electronically-processed saxophone, electronically-processed cello, electric organ, piano, harp, cello, tam-tam (gong)/vibraphone, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin alongside the four shortwave radios.
At the beginning ten of the mobile performers stand close to one of the stationary instruments who creates an initial explosion of sound. These ten players then expand, moving throughout the hall or performance space, taking up positions around the audience as a galaxy of musical points. As they move in space, they also move in sound. They move away from the starting pitch determined by the initial musical Big Bang explosion, and the sounds are slowly attenuated.
This part of the performance takes about ten to twelve minutes, and just as the sounds move away from their initial starting pitches the volume and intensity of the musical attacks also starts to diminish as this universe of musicians reaches its point of greatest expansion. After a few minutes shortwave radio comes in briefly. At the same time short melodic groups start to form that become varied with an increase of glissando and trills. At this maximum point the players start chanting the word “Hu!”, an important seed syllable from Stockhausen’s work Inori. As the seed syllable is chanted the shortwave radio players start tuning across the bands again, in search of transmissions from the aether.
From this expansion point the musicians start to return to their starting point, pulled back in for the Big Crunch by gravitationally dense musicianship. Once they are all back in a second Big Bang or musical explosion occurs. The nine-fixed players at this point switch to portable instruments and join the mobile players from the first phase dispersing gradually out through the hall and then eventually out of the building all together as they continue to play. The recordings I’ve heard are reminiscent of some of the wild swing of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and just as cosmic. It’s in a mode that is as close to free jazz as it is to intuitive free form classical music.
For this work much is also required of the conductor. He or she must maintain extreme concentration even though he is not outwardly active. He must act as a medium between the musicians who have been instructed to maintain telepathic contact with each other. In his score the maestro writes, "YLEM is music which best succeeds when the players establish telepathic communication with one another (they play with eyes closed) and with a ‘conductor’ who listens with extreme concentration from the middle of the hall, but is not outwardly active." Perhaps the medium by which this telepathic communion is achieved is the aether or ylem itself, as mysterious and magical as the electromagnetic waves which permeate the universe.
The word Hu came from Stockhausen’s reading of The Sufi Message by Hazrat Inayat Khan where he writes:
“HU is the most sacred of all sounds.
The sound HU is the beginning and end of all sounds, be they from man, bird, beast or thing.
The word HU is the hidden spirit in all sounds and words, just like the spirit in the the body.
HU belongs to no language, but every language belongs to it.
HU is the name of the Most High, the only true name of God; a name that no people and no religion can claim as its own.
HU means spirit – MAN or MANA means mind.
A HUMAN is a man conscious of God, realized in God.
Human (German) – Human (English) – Humain (French).
HU, God, is in all things and beings, but it is Man by whom HE is known”
Hu had played a large role in climax of the prayer gesture piece of Inori. Furthermore, before Stockhausen even wrote Ylem, he had experienced it in a musical vision. This was not at all unusual for him as many of his compositions came to him in dreams and visions.
The composer writes, “Before I wrote the score I heard the following: A tone that was very strong and indescribably dense exploded. With its particles, the tone gradually expanded to three octaves lower and higher in the tone-space. The distances between the individual tones became more and more irregular, and also their durations – separated by pauses – became more and more differentiated. I also heard different timbres. The whole process lasted for a relatively long time, and the distances between the tones became larger and larger. Finally, this event achieved the complete range from the highest to the lowest tone.
Then I heard the syllable HU shouted, and this music, which had become very thin in the meantime – but still consisted of all extremes of dynamics and many different pitches and timbres – gradually pulled back together until it finally, after a long time, became inextricably dense, and this dense state, which I cannot describe other than by calling it compact tone-material, then exploded again and everything moved up one tone.”
He related the experience to the theory of the oscillating universe.
Perhaps the universe itself is a continuous infinite waveform. This idea has continued to be explored in different models by brane cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, and also in the Baum-Frampton model. As with many other cosmological models we know enough to know that we don’t know enough.
As inspiration for music it works perfect and I could listen to the oscillating universe again and again and again.
The Cosmos--Voyage Through the Universe series, New York: 1988 Time-Life Books
Oxford English Dictionary
Bernstein, Jeremy (1986). "Out of My Mind: The Birth of Modern Cosmology". The American Scholar. 5555 (1): 7–18
R. C. Tolman (1987) . Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Cosmology. New York: Dover.
Essay and Analysis of Ylem by Ed Chang:
Ylem: Stockhausen Edition 21
This edition of American Iconoclasts looks at the life of Peace Pilgrim.
I first came across the work of Peace Pilgrim when I was given a pamphlet about her life and work by an early, if brief, spiritual teacher I met in the summer of 1998. I still have the pamphlet, though it is now battered and beat up. The teachings housed within its humble stapled pages remain as timeless as ever. The example of Peace Pilgrim is one I have returned to time and again.
Peace liked to walk and she made a life of walking. Of walking and praying, walking and meditating. Walking in peace and spreading a message of peace. She truly walked with the Divine Universal Power -aka "G_D" to some. She was an American mystic whose sole purpose in life was to commune with Divinity, live a life of simplicity, and speak about inner and outer peace with anyone she happened to meet on her travels . And she traveled a lot. For 28 years she traveled back and forth across the United States, spreading her message.
She was born Mildred Lisette Norman on July 18, in Egg Harbor City, NJ, the eldest of three children. After graduating high school she worked as a secretary at Liberty Cut Glass Works in her home town while writing, directing and producing plays for the local Grange.
She did the normal things people usually do in some capacity or other. She continued to work. She fell in love and eloped with a man named Stanley Ryder in 1933. Five years later while hiking in the woods all night, a shift occurred. It was the onset of a fifteen year period of the gradual simplification of her life.
Before this walk she had "discovered that money-making was easy but not satisfying." So she went out one night "out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life," she began walking through the woods.
"And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, 'If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing.' That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself."
She started working for various peace organizations within this time, and became an avid hiker. When her husband enlisted in the army during WWII against her wishes she sought a divorce, which was finalized in 1945. This separation allowed her life path to truly blossom into one of complete unconditional service.
In 1952 she became the first woman to walk the entirety of the Appalachian trail in one season and was gifted with a vision of her becoming "Peace Pilgrim". The next year, after giving away all her possessions, she began her first cross-country pilgrimage. On Jan. 1 she set out from the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, CA., wearing a navy blue tunic with her new name. For the next 28 years she walked all around America, with a few forays into Canada and Central America.
From that point on Peace Pilgrim placed her life in the hands of divine providence and used her life as one of service. One of the things I find so inspirational about her life and pilgrimages was the complete trust and faith she had that she would be taken care.
She was minimalist before it was a buzz word. She didn't have money or possessions and relied on the kindness of strangers to eat, and drink or have a place to sleep. The only things she owned were her pants and tunic, that identified her to strangers and made conversations a little easier when someone approached her. Beyond that she only kept a toothbrush, comb, pen and map.
"I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don't even ask; it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody."
She often slept nights out in the wild and would at times be picked up for vagrancy. Every time she ended up in jail she felt it was part of the Creators master plan: there was inevitably someone she shared a cell with who she was able to reach with her words and change the course of that persons life.
By 1964 she had walked 25,000 miles for peace at which time she stopped counting the miles she continued to rack up. Her own words speak the truth of her experience.
"When I started out, my hair had started to turn to silver. My friends thought I was crazy. There was not one word of encouragement from them. They thought I would surely kill myself, walking all over. But that didn’t bother me. I just went ahead and did what I had to do. They didn’t know that with inner peace I felt plugged into the source of universal energy, which never runs out. There was much pressure to compromise my beliefs, but I would not be dissuaded."
Some things don’t seem so difficult, like going without food. I seldom miss more than three to four meals in a row and I never even think about food until it is offered. The most I have gone without food is three days, and then Mother Nature provided my food — apples that had fallen from a tree. I once fasted as a prayer discipline for forty-five days, so I know how long one can go without food. My problem is not how to get enough to eat; it’s how to graciously avoid getting too much. Everyone wants to overfeed me.
Going without sleep would be harder, although I can miss one night’s sleep and I don’t mind. The last time was September of 1977, when I was in a truck stop. I had intended to sleep a little but it was such a busy truck stop that I spent all night talking to truck drivers. The first thing after I went in, a truck driver who’d seen me on television wanted to buy me some food. I sat in a corner booth. Then truck drivers started to arrive, and it was just one wave of truck drivers after another that were standing there and asking me questions and so forth. I actually talked to them all night and I never did get to do any sleeping."
And so she led her life, eventually being asked to speak on radio, at churches, and on campuses. One such speaking engagement proved ever fateful. The woman who walked in every state of the U.S. and most of Canada was getting a ride to give a talk in Knox, Indiana. The car she was in was involved in an automobile accident and it took her life. But her life was not hers to live. She had given it in service, and was now off on her next adventure.
"Those who have overcome self-will and become instruments to do God's work can accomplish tasks which are seemingly impossible, but they experience no feeling of self achievement. I now know myself to be a part of the infinite cosmos, not separate from other souls or God. My illusory self is dead; the real self controls the garment of clay and uses it for God's work."
In a time of history when it seems that for so many attaining the rank of manager is the best they can do in terms of professional attainment it is fitting to remember the words of the song Dump the Bosses off your Back:
"Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are your clothes all patched and tattered?
Are you living in a shack ?
Would you have your troubles scattered?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are you almost split asunder?
Loaded like a long-eared jack?
Boob - why don't you buck like thunder,
And dump the bosses off your back?
All the agonies you suffer
You can end with one good whack;
Stiffen up, you orn'ry duffer
And dump the bosses off your back."
The managerial elite have for so long meddled in the affairs of those who got the actual work done they have forgotten the privilege and the tenacity of their position. The Karen's of the world may not believe in God or the plethora of God's and Goddesses that populate the multiverse but they certainly believe in managers. Their new slogan has been updated as, "No Gods, Only Manager's". And they will promptly ask to speak to one if you frack up their latte or avocado toast.
The work of Utah Phillips is an antidote to all that. Phillips was a bard of the railways, a revered elder of the folk music community, a keeper of stories and songs that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. He was also a member of the great Traveling Nation, the community of hobos and railroad bums that populates the Midwest United States along the rail lines, and was an important keeper of their history and culture.
Philips filled his life up with learning, with investigation, with activism, with storytelling, travelling and music. He was a labor organizer, card carrying wobbly, poet, musician, historian, keeper of the long memory of the people. He enjoyed studying Egyptology, the Runes of the Futhark, and linguistics in general; he was interested in chemistry; but most of all history (American, Asian, African, Mormon and world). As a keeper of the long memory history was the name of the game. And to that deep love he added many other practical skills in the areas of cooking, pickling, and gardening.
Utah said, "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."
If anything Utah Philips was a gardener of the working class imagination. He tried to keep the weeds of commercialism and corporate interest from colonizing the deep beds of labor songs, hobo and railroad lore, anarchist & pacifist philosophy, vaudeville music, and the many gifts and talents he accumulated through drifting. He got his love for vaudeville from his stepfather who managed the Lyric Theater in Salt Lake City. His exposure to the world of vaudeville became an important factor in his real world education as an American Bard.
He was a true knight of the road whose chivalry shined through in his music, actions and words. As a young man he hopped freight trains back and forth all across this wide country of ours. It was on these travels that he came face to face with himself, relying on his intuition, wits, and the kindness of strangers. He experienced the ultimate freedom that comes from having no home except the sky above his head, with nothing in his past to hold onto behind him, and nothing in his future except the next step along the ever forking and winding road. He experienced the mercy that came from a place beyond his own self as he faced the various difficulties of being a knight of the road. As he met various people he "discovered the dynamic struggle of people to organize themselves and demand a quality of life for themselves and those around them that provides bread yes, but roses too."
After tramping around the west for a spell Phillips made his way back to Salt Lake City where he met a man who changed the course of his life: Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement. Utah gave this man credit for saving him from a life of drifting. Utah started using his prodigious talents in the field of activism, public service, song and story. He help Hennacy establish a mission house named after American hero Joe Hill, and he worked there for the next eight years.
Another person who had a large influence on Utah was folksinger Rosalie Sorrels whom he met in the early 1950s, remaining friends with her throughout his life. Rosalie started playing some of the songs Phillips was writing and this lead to his music starting to spread.
This was followed by Utah's bid in 1968 for a seat in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. He received 2,019 votes in an election won by Republicon Wallace F. Bennett. In the bi-centennial year of 1976 he ran for president as a member of the Do-Nothing Party. Sadly, he did not win that election either.
When he finally left Utah in the late 1960s, he went to Saratoga Springs, New York, and became a regular fixture at the Caffe Lena coffee house. He played there for over a decade on a regular basis and was a beloved part of the community there. Even though he left Saratoga in turn, the coffee house became one of his regular stops for the rest of his career.
One of the best ways I've found to get to know Utah and his life's work was by listening to the archives of his radio show Loafer's Glory.
Loafer's Glory was originally broadcast from KVMR in Nevada City, California from 1997 to 2001. The broadcasts are a mighty "collage of rants, poetry, tales, and reminiscences mixed in with little known music and talk from over 1,000 tapes of everything under the sun, from tramping and labor (historic and contemporary ) to baseball and old friends... from unreleased Lord Buckley to animals, children, tall tales, Paul Robeson, and most of what you need to know about life on the open road... and always music."
Each episode is an education. Each episode opens a door onto some corner of history. As the man himself said, "It occurred to me that there are whole areas of our history that nobody knows about, kids, adults, people that went through public schools, they just don't know about it. I didn't because I had to go to my elders who gave me a better, truer picture, of who I am and where I really came from than the best history book I ever read."
Listening to Utah Phillips share his accumulated lore on these recordings from the airwaves is a mighty fine way to receive a transmission from this bard of the open road.
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“They just have a different reality tunnel, and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we are willing to listen.”
— Robert Anton Wilson
What if the predicaments of our age were better faced, not by vain imaginings of being bailed out by a vague someone “who will think of something” but instead by looking to the treasure trove of the past? We are currently stuck staring at a wall inside of a dead end reality tunnel. What if instead we retraced our steps backwards until new choices in the reality labyrinth opened themselves up again? What if we turned around and looked for another solution to solve the next section of the maze?
Now is as good a time as any to choose to use our abilities as mental time travelers and meta-historians to explore who and what got tossed aside into the discard bin of history.
Let us now turn our attention to all the good weeds that were pulled out in favor of cultural monocrops. What if we set up a shop where the best ideas of the past were glued together in a synthesized bricolage? What if the universities were shut down in favor of coffee houses and salons? The supposed trickle down effect of higher education would be returned, along with the student debt, in favor of drip brewed and percolated knowledge.
These are the voyages of the intellectual traveler discontent with empty promises of going to Mars. Hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972. Meanwhile Musk has polluted the light of the stars in exchange for making a mere Faustian gesture. Technocracy continues to offer only diminished returns and increased surveillance. Let the silicon crumble into the dust of Janus’ ossuary. Let us reach further back, but instead of going faster, let us take our time and pirouette around forgotten avenues and the dreams of canceled inventors to piece together and assemble a collection of artifacts and use them to re-energize local intransigent cultures.
There IS a way to escape the stuck needle of the same old shale conundrum humanity has acquiesced to. What is needed is a logic defying devolutionary leap backwards. The new old primitives of tomorrow will shake off the manacles of reason and scientism and will be much happier than you or me. With an injection of slack jawed optimism, an appreciation for possibilities hedged out and hedged against by the luxury elite we can comb through the entries of the history books that others are forgetting to read and find ourselves holding those ancient relics of heresy that can restore the balance between Law and Chaos throughout the multiverse.
So let us travel backwards through Janus' ossuary and see what and who might be resurrected from saturn's crypt and returned to the stream of time.
It is with this in mind that I introduce a new series of posts with the working title of Great American Eccentrics.
In looking backwards to the past for inspiration on how to live now, those of us in America can do well to read up on the lives of those who have flourished living eccentric, weird, individualists and iconoclastic lives. (If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
THE ICONOCLASTIC SHENANIGANS OF HENRY FLYNT
In the world of philosophy, art and music there is no one to compare Henry Flynt with. Henry Flynt is an original philosopher and opponent of traditional science and mathematics. He is also the guy who created the term "concept art" but thinks that what other people have called "concept art" isn't really "concept art". As a nihilist philosopher and cultural tinkerer he is also a proponent of Anti-Art. What a concept.
Flynt's conception of concept art was conceived for the proto-Fluxus book An Anthology of Chance Operations, co-published by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low. All of this evolved from his highly intellectual background in such fun subjects as logical positivism that he pursued as a teenager. Later when he went to college at Harvard and started hanging out with Tony Conrad he studied deep mathematics and started listening deeply to jazz and the music of John Cage. He'd been raised in North Carolina where he'd heard all kinds of hill music, but while at school he read (and probably listened to) The Country Blues by Samuel Charters. This book/album was to have a lasting effect on him. Armed with music and math he dropped out of college and went to New York to hang out with La Monte Young and take in the monthly concert series in Yoko Ono's loft.
All of these influences were brewing inside him and he crystallized them in his essay. The ideas were like lifeforms that grew out of cognitive nihilism and described an art in which the only material was concepts. Flynt drew exclusively on the syntax of logic and mathematics for his essay, and his concept art was meant to supersede both mathematics and the compositional and stylistic practices then current in the ever so "serious" art music circles. This thinker of deep thoughts maintains that for something to be considered concept art it has to be a critique of logic or mathematics in which the material itself is a linguistic concept. Since this quality is actually absent from most things that subsequently claimed to be "concept art", by his definition he says they are not concept.
Following this he moved on to hold a position as an anti-artist. Being an anti-artist isn't always the greatest career move, but in Flynt's case, it allowed him to forge his own path. To him the avant-garde, in associating with institutions such as MoMa, had become just another brick in the wall of the establishment. In 1963 he protested with Conrad and others against Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom he believed harbored totalitarian tendencies. In rallying and ranting against all this he created the neologisms veramusement and brend that he associated with pure instinctual recreation -art as an act of play pursued for its own sake outside of economic and market forces.
As part of Flynt's own recreation he liked to play music. His was an interesting mixture of contemporary compositional techniques, non-standard tunings alongside a healthy heaping of folk, country and blues music. Flynt was also student of classical Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath along with Young, Terry Riley, Don Cherry, Catherine Christer Hennix and a slew of others. Nath was a huge teacher of traditional raga and in particular the Kirana gharana singing style. Flynt took all this into himself and used it to play the strangest kind of hillbilly music I've ever heard. For these forays that merge the hollers of North Carolina with the dens of New York's freakiest musicians Flynt played guitar and violin and used tape techniques and a bit of minimalist sound processing. Some of his material has been recorded and released despite his anti-market stance. Albums like New American Ethnic Music, Hillbilly Tape Music, and Spindizzy are all worth checking out.
He also formed some bands in the 70's. NovaBilly was a rock, jazz, country and funk group. He also had the avant-jazz group Dharma Warrior that Catherine Christer Hennix and Arthur Russell were members of.
The work of Henry Flynt exists in its own orbit, forever on the fringe and over the edge of mainstream sensibility. If you find yourself in the mood for a bit of jazzed out minimalist country twang raga rock, you can do no better than seek out one of his recordings. If you should want some light reading to break open your head to the world of linguistic, mathematical and logical concepts his prolific essays on these and other matters are going to be what you want to dig into.
As the man said it himself, "A fully open mind could shatter the skull in both directions." I've found it quite pleasurable to open up my mind to his.
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As I sit in quarantine in a bunker on Howland Island my mind turns to my favorite things to occupy myself as the tedious days pass by. With the barrage of news misinformation and the deluge of disinformation it can be hard to stay positive and optimistic when all around me corporate and state surveillance collect my data to throw back at me in algorithm designed to make me buy. Yet happiness isn’t just a click away on the great big catalog of the Clouded sky. It isn’t a brand new Cadillac or the sound of cracking open a can of Pepsi. Happiness isn’t doing what the media tells me I should want to do. Questioning what my actual needs are versus mere or simple crybaby wants has also been known to cause cognitive and emotional dissonance once withdraw from corporate media is attained.
That’s how I first arrived on Howland Island in the first place. I’m not quarantined from covid-19 but from the media virius that has infected my thinking and way of life. Yet I’m lucky to have become acquainted with an antidote to mediated reality and that has been the music, radio and other media works of the multimedia collective known as Negativland. In this essay I want to share some of the joys I’ve had listening to Negativland over the years. They are one of the bright spots in the annals of American music and I want to open up their works for others who may need relief from the constant onslaught of sound bites and over interpreted reality. I’ve written about their Over the Edge (OTE) radio show in another piece, so here I am going to be focusing in on their studio albums.
Negativland are known best for their visceral reinterpretations of the media sphere. Their sample-based masterpieces, heavy on the spoken word, are gathered from every conceivable source: broadcast radio, television, movies, commercial and promotional recordings, homemade family tapes, old records, and found sounds from a plethora of obscure sources. In their most recent work they have taken to sampling the supersaturated mediasphere of the internet: podcasts, youtube, and who knows what all else. These snippets of words are handled with the same meticulous precision as a surgeon or forensic pathologist. The metaphor of pathology is an apt one as much of their creative energy has been used to dissect the psychotic and antisocial tendencies of gun toting capitalists, corporations, and media conglomerates. They’ve been at this game for four decades now. The time has taken its toll: in the last decade alone they have lost four members of their collective.
But who -and more importantly, where- is this Negativland of legend? What were their origins? How did they come to public prominence? And just what happened to snuggles? Walk over the edge with me into Negativland and you will find out the answer to all these questions and more. Settle in with a bottle of Nesbitt’s lime soda, and turn your radio ears, because you are about to be whisked away on a strange journey into some of the most Negative musical minds ever to cut a record in America.
It was out of the bowels of Contra Costa County that the beast first emerged. Two teenage kids had hatched a plan to rearrange the bric-a-brac of the media space into something more delightful, menacing, humorous, and true. Two highschool kids named Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons sat around listening to Neu! and looking for cheap kicks wherever they could get them found inspiration by looking at the everyday world with a skewed vision. They figured, being alive, and creative beings interested in sound they might as well make a record. And look where it got them today! Their self-titled album came out in 1980. They took the DIY approach of having it pressed and making and numbering the covers themselves.
For such pessimistic youth they were full of the necessary vim and vigor and pluck it takes to get shit done. Living on the edge of America, in California, they had no one to answer to artistically. Doing it themselves they had no one to answer to financially. Making records was just something they did. I’m glad they did, and you will be too, once you sit down and listen to the records.
But in a discography so vast and varied where do you start? Why not at the end, and work backwards to the beginning. By first listening to where they went, we can ultimately see the seed out of which they grew.
The World Will Decide (2020)
The World Will Decide is an album that steps away from reality to focus on our very human inability to define anything, even what so called reality is. This is the music of technology run rampant across irreality and surreality, a massage from the medium that keeps on instant messaging you.
This album asks all kinds of questions. Did that firefly really land on your finger? Would you like to be arrested? Does this app connect you to people, or replace them? Is this article an example of inauthentic behavior? Do people have to die?
We have to ask these questions now because sorting true from false has become a full time job, and not only in our own freak-fracking minds, but now that we live life alongside machines whose AI algorithms seek to collect all of the data, dada has become an objective response in the face of “too much”.
The Weatherman is back in his role of asking questions of Siri, Alexa and Ok Google, as a kind of lead singer vocalist, not to mention sound fanatic who has his house wired up with microphones. It’s a strange trip and only one the dumb stupid Weatherman could pull off. With lots of help from various cleaning supplies.
The second track on the album, “Content” sums up the total sourcecode from the album. “Once you have these inspirational provocations / your content / data whisperers will become the new messiahs / my content / to create ideas so contagious they cannot be controlled.” It’s the sound of a media vortex imploding in on itself, sucking everything in, and spitting it back out.
“Don’t don’t get freaked out” brings one of the central ideas of the album home: copying. Negativland has long questioned aspects of copying, being copied, copyright and copyleft. Now they are looking at the simulacra’s and avatars of ourselves occupying the online world. And the question of when we are online, who are we talking to, chatting with? Are these just other computers having copied humanity? Are they Russian web-bots posing as your friend from Alaska or Leeds, England? These are just some more of the questions that get copy and pasted around.
Jon Leidecker, Peter Conheim, David Wills and Mark Hosler, along with the rest of the band now only alive in their audio soundbites and errant memory, craft a slice of netweb media history that is so close to the cutting edge of technology and music that might even be danceable. The album features sound contributions from Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos among many, many others.
This album then is the false positive mirror image of 2019’s True False. A la la land, of densely sampled voices culled from the cloud, whose textures evaporate into music before drizzling back down on a landscape experiencing the drought of human to human interaction. On this record they’ve achieved breathtaking levels of jaw-dropping genius in turning popular internet memes and youtube conspiracy channels, truth-in-advertising and the American way into an hallucinogenic, non-stop traffic accident of commerce and hyper-reality. It’s funny – the way the horror channel is funny – and it’s genuinely satirical; I mean it doesn’t secretly love the thing it disembowels. Dense and excoriating. And technically sans pareil. In the world as it is today, now seems to be the perfect time to face up to Negativland’s aesthetic and acclimatize to it, while you can. No one does this better. Not even the people who do it for real.
All in all the extent of mined data, internet surveillance, and copies of humans talking to human copies on the internet is not nothing to get freaked out about.
True False (2019)
How did the band get to this point? And how did so many of the members end up dead? Some even had their ashes distributed as merch on the Over the Edge vol. 9 Chopping Channel release. It was after a searching and fearless moral inventory that they decided upon making an albumatic inquiry into the very nature of misinformation itself. FOX news hosts, ecoterrorists, and your own sanity are all on full display here in this voyeuristic jaunt through a deeply divided internet called America. This is the true negative reflection of 2020’s album of not the same name, The World Will Decide. Have you decided?
True False was also the bands 13th studio album. Perhaps it was this number that exposed them to all the luck they had in the recording process. It was also the first album of the band to have a lyric sheet, including not just words sang or spoken by band members, but all the lyrics from the samples themselves, all congealed into one harmonious beautiful mess.
Any fans of the group who have survived this long, and are actually still alive, able to listen to it, and aren’t just social media memories in a cloud-based afterlife, would recognize many of the familiar concerns and touch points that reach back further into Negativland’s earlier discography. Shootings, bees, the right's rules for radicals, climate control, dogs pretending to be children, the oil we eat, capitalism, and the right of every American to believe whatever they want to believe. All part of the new normal. “The Fourth of July” from Free is revisited. The nervous system of reality making all of us nervous is explored. Juxtaposing Occupy mic checks with US militia rallies the internal divides of the united states never sound so appetizing.
As the entrenched political beliefs of the alt-right and the ctrl-left cleanly flip sides in under a generation the esc-center starts to reveal itself as a viable third option. When you put the word 'True' next to the word 'False' a dichotomy reveals itself. Outside the binary world of digital computers other options exist. This album explores all of this, and songs like “Mounting the Puppy” make me glad I live in the Midwest and not Silicon Valley.
True False and The World Will Decide were the first two albums to be released following the passing of band members Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, and Ian Allen.
It’s All In Your Head (2014)
I was lucky enough to be able to see Negativland when they were touring the material used on It’s All in Your Head. This material itself had been pulled from the hours materials used by Don Joyce on his radio show Over the Edge, which was a parallel universe for Negativland that all of the band members participated in over the years, even though it was Joyce’s own distinct entity.
The concert for It’s All in Your Head was presented as an actual episode of Over the Edge. When my wife and I walked into the ballroom of the Southgate House for the evening we were given piñata blindfolds and encouraged to wear them during the performance so as to experience the music as an OTE episode. Before the band went on and during the intermission they even played the opening theme for the show, the Vangelis song “12 O’Clock “from the album Heaven and Hell. While the song is a touchstone of OTE, it was doubly fitting as a precursor to an evening that saw Negativland and Don Joyce in his guise as Dr. Oslo Norway, exploring the psychological and social ramifications of monotheistic religion, one of the bands favorite topics.
During the set familiar samples often appeared, notably from their hit song “Christianity is Stupid”. All of the material used from the 35 stops on their “Bible Belt Tour” was then taken into the studio to make this album. Here they questioned everything and even attempted to tackle the subject of why humans believe in God. A voice kept popping up out of the sonic debate declaiming “There is no gawwwwwd!”
Followed by the sound of exploding suicide bombers. Other topics included more Christianity, more Islam, more Judaism, more monotheism in general, neuroscience, 9/11, cola, war, shaved chimps, and the all-important role played by the human brain in shaping our own beliefs.
Physically, it was an ambitious release. The double CD was packaged inside of a bonafide King James Bible that had been repurposed into a "found" art object. Combined with the found sound of all the different voices, music, dialogue, and the sounds of their blistering Booper’s this album ends up as an uneasy essay. Listening to it is akin to reading a dense, intellectual and highly entertaining text. I find this to be the case in general with OTE episodes and their albums. I always come away from them having learned something, and questioning the matrix of man mediated religion.
Mark Hosler has always been one of Negativland’s key songwriters, and on Thigmotactic he wrote all the material but had some contributions from other members. It’s also the first album by the group to be entirely organized around songs. Songs are even one of the conceptual structures around which this album coalesces. The name is a reference to thigmotaxis, an instinctive reflex in response to physical touch, as mentioned in a passage from Ann Zwinger's book on the deserts of the southwest, The Mysterious Lands. The reference was about a desert lizard with this thigmotactic ability. Sentences from this section of Zwinger’s book are excerpted on the inside CD cover.
Though Negativland has specialized in creating mind bending audio collages, this album showcases their catchy side, their kitschy side, which does also appears at frequent intervals throughout their oeuvre. It’s a perfect escape from noise for those negafans who enjoy the other song oriented pieces from the band, such as the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song”, “Drink It Up”, and others. It also shows that Negativland aren’t afraid to twitch around and try other tactics, and do new things.
No Business (2005)
2005 was the 25th anniversary of the band’s first album. For this venture they wanted to explore and interpret the world of sampling from the copyrighted terrains they had so nobly trespassed on many times before. Yet there was something new to add to the mix, the record industry trying to put the kibosh on every music fans favorite internet fueled hobby: downloading.
According to the group “No Business is not only a term Negativland’s accountant can identify with, but is also a tenaciously pure attempt to make new music out of old, or old music out of new, whatever anyone cares to decide this dubious case may be. No Business may be a race with Walt Dizzy to commit legal suicide”.
Among the many tracks on this album are “My Favorite Things”, their reel-to-reel cut up of the song from the Sound of Music as sung by Julie Andrews. Here it is rearranged to say things that never would have come out of Julie Andrew’s mouth.
The elaborate release came with a very serious and stodgy 56-page essay about the cultural public domain. Also include was a rubber trademarked Copyright Whoopee Cushion. The enhanced CD also included a video of “Gimme the Mermaid”, from their Fair Use / Dead Dog Records book and CD release. The video for this gem of criminal music was made with a little help from a friend and former Disney animator who infringed on Disney by using Disney’s own computers to create and render it after hours when they weren’t looking.
This video was later included on their 2007 video retrospective Our Favorite Things which could also be viewed and listened to as a kind of greatest hits release. For these videos, Under 17 not admitted without adult, and might not be the best thing for people prone to seizures. For everyone else it’s a mesmerizing document of a prolific group of multimedia artists. (Videos from that DVD have been used in this post whenever possible.)
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (2002)
For Negativland there is no putting on the brakes of creativity. This album also came with a book of found material. It is also Negativland’s only purely instrumental album. Gone are the sampled and smeared voices. Gone are the surrepititiously sampled soundbites. For those familiar with the work of used car salesman Dick Goodbody, aka Richard Lyons, the album seems to follow a natural inclination. The book is actually a 64-page owners manual of material the group found on “scrapping” ventures at junk and auto wrecking yards. From these field trips they collected material out of the glove compartments, underneath the seats, and from the trunks of America’s disposed vehicles.
Disturbed is one way to look at this material. A negatively inclined voyeurism was also certainly part of it. For a glimpse behind the wheel it is an eye popping document.
The music on the CD could be described as ambient noise. There were no bass lines, no melodies, not a word of dialogue, no mangled singing, no beats to speak of. The Booper is present, and all manner of other sounds. Listening to it is akin to watching a car wreck in slow motion and is therefore perfect for fans of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, and those who enjoyed David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the book. Hell, couples who are into that sort of thing might even use this as a soundtrack for their lovemaking.
Deathsentences is the most fetishistic exploration of the dark side of car culture and driving the band have explored. These themes have popped up again and again in Negativland’s music, from the album Free to True False, and here are zoomed-in on in a focused and unique fashion.
This album was also the inspiration for Found Magazine, created by Davy Rothbart, after he got all juiced up from this essential release.
The ABCs of Anarchism [with Chumbawamba] (1999)
While the perfume of Dick Goodbody’s car tree air fresheners hung around Deathsentences, the strong scent of the Weatherman’s favorite 409 cleaner is all over this EP that explores the anarchistic philosophy of Alexander Berkman, the title being a nod to one of Berkman’s tracts.
The EP is a collaboration with British anarcho-punk band Chumabawamba. Whether or not they actually had anything to do with it, other than be sampled and have their name put on the album by Negativland is a matter up for debate. For fans of both groups it’s a match made in heaven (or hell) and the result is certainly one of the more unique audio documents from the group. It could have also just been a way for Negativland to get themselves into the larger record stores.
At the time ABCs came out, Chumbawamba had gotten themselves a major chart topper “Tubthumping” out and it was being blared on the radio. However Negativland were most certainly familiar with Chumbawamba’s foray from punk into sampling and techno in the early 90’s on the never officially released album Jesus H. Christ. Chumbawamba's Jesus H. Christ was meant to be released in the early 1990's (possibly 1991?) as their follow up to 1990's Slap!.
Christ was never formally released because it was a collage that combined original material with riffs, lyrics and choruses ‘poplifted’ from other bands’ songs, and Chumbawamba were unable to persuade either the copyright holders to grant permission, or distributors to handle a record that would have been vulnerable to multiple copyright claims. It’s not that hard to believe the band thought they could have distributed the album in the version they first recorded it. After all, Vanilla Ice used samples of David Bowie in “Ice Ice Baby”, and countless other artists had samples cleared and used. But perhaps because they were anarchists, and their message was critical of capitalism and other western social norms, their record label wouldn’t stand by it, and the artists they sampled wouldn’t agree to letting their material get used. In any case, the brick wall they faced forced them to re-record the songs in new arrangements that excluded (most of) the copyright material. It was eventually released in 1992 as Shhh, with all the samples removed, and the accompanying artwork contained images of the rejection letters the band recieved from their sample requests.
The first track of this collaborative EP is the 13-minute long "The ABCs of Anarchism" – a train hoppers romp through the twisted railyard of an often misunderstood political point of view. By the time you’ve finished experiencing this ride, you’ll know what the world of anarchism is, and what it is not. This track is a great way to experience the outdoors and discover if anarchism is something that you want, that you want, that you really, really want.
The second track, "Smelly Water", is where all the pop punk anarcho fun happens, alongside some creatures known as the Teletubbies. It’s a very liquid experience. The collaborative effort finishes off with “© is for Stupid”, where the Weatherman finds himself in a faceoff with none other than the cookie monster.
In 2000 Chumbawamba used Negativland’s 1989 Helter Stupid album as one of their main sampling sources for their album WYSIWYG, in a kind of reply to the ABC’s of Anarchism. WYSIWYG is a computer and hacking acronym for What You See Is What You Get, a system where editing software allows content to be edited in a form that resembles its appearance when printed or displayed as a finished product; it’s a perfect name for an album that has much to say about the practice of sampling and editing various forms of media, and a band that despite their success with “Tubthumping”, refused to be sucked in to the more vapid aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle.
Happy Heroes (1998)
The Happy Heroe’s EP came out of black hole a tube and into this universe from a parallel world and was originally crafted in the laboratories of C. Elliot Friday. It comes with a dose of Mertz so you can make up your mind, because too many choices is no choice at all! Alongside the Mertz tablet comes a generous side helping of corn, green beans, Orson Welles, and the cult of celebrity.
The team at One World Advertising who helped put together the 1997 album Dispepsi worked behind the scenes on this album. The use of celebrities in advertising goes full tilt boogie in the Re-Media Mega Mix of the song Happy Hero. This tune has an almost country-western vibe that casual listeners would find appealing. The lyrics, however, reveal a deep concern with how superstars and other famous people can be convicted of atrocious crimes—both public and private—while still retaining the naïve loyalty of a fan base who are always willing to overlook the fact that these people beat their wives, have sex with underage children, or commit murders.
One of the more chilling Negativland pieces is on this release, "OJ and His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole.” Sitting side by side with songs about canned peas, the whole thing makes for an essential audio platter. But you’ll have to make up your own mind about what it all means.
The album starts with a soda can being opened: the click of aluminum as the tab is pressed down, the tsssh sound of carbonation being released into the air, the hissing fizz of cola. It ends with the sound of the can being crushed and thrown to the ground with a rattle and clunk. In this caffeine-fueled, densely layered and politically charged audio collage, we are taken on a ride through the billion-dollar advertising campaigns for Pepsi and Coke, the vagaries of the cola wars, celebrity endorsements, and torture. With its catchy hooks, upbeat rhythms, and memorable lyrics, Dispepsi remains a great “pop” album.
On the cover and spine of the album the title “Dispepsi” is not displayed coherently. The letters making it up were discombobulated into anagrams including "Pedissip" and "Ideppiss." A 1-800 phone number was given in the liner notes that had a recording where the proper name of the album could be heard. All this was a safeguard, albeit a thin one, against trademark infringement and the possible law suits that might ensue had they shown the actual title. Amazingly enough this is one album the copyright critics didn’t get sued for.
While there are plenty of moments of noise, weird sounds, and chaotic collusions on the record, the majority of songs are marked by strong hooks and catchy melodies that get stuck in my head as easily as the advertising jingles they mimic and mock. I am glad Negativland are engaged in subverting corporate messages. They have spent so much time denouncing the culture of advertising that they have a thorough grasp of its mentality. This psychological knowledge could have been more profitably channeled towards selling useless products but instead they spent two and a half years crafting an album that has given me countless hours of pleasure. I listened to it repeatedly just after it came out, and I still put it on a few times a year even now. When initiating new listeners to the vast territory that Negativland has explored this is an album I always start with.
“Drink It Up” paints in the greater landscape of pre-packaged beverages with lines like “when Diet Rite to me is wrong, my Country Time’s expired, my Minute Maid is an hour long, my Maxwell House won’t get my wired, when my pet milk turns on me, and my Five Alive is dead…” on through numerous other permutations. Then the triumphant chorus rings in, “and my mind just turns to Pepsi, and I think of it a lot, my Swiss Miss wasn’t pure, and Kool Aid isn’t hot, when a wall of smoothies rough me up, I’ll turn to a bigger cup of Pepsi, drink it up.” One of the main themes on the album is the use of celebrities in advertising to sell products. This starts on “Why Is this Commercial?” with the voice of Michael J. Fox saying, “Hi I’m me, I’m using this to sell you this.” It loops and repeats, lodging deep in my mind. The song continues to describe the corporate policies that determine how advertisements tend to use African-Americans in only traditionally perceived roles that are by extension racist—hence Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima—that white people can remain comfortable with, but not in those that expand the parameters. It continues with a sample of athlete Herschel Walker and ends with a quote that Michael Jackson was paid five million dollars to star in two 90 second ads.
“The Greatest Taste Around” has a wonderful children’s rompous room beat as the voice of Dick Lyons, reads out fun lines like, “I got fired by my boss” and then a loudly sampled “Pepsi” interspersed, before saying “I nailed Jesus to the cross” all in a happy tone that makes me thirsty for soda. Another highlight of the album is “Aluminum or Glass: The Memo,” where the Weatherman poses as an ad exec coaching his underlings on how to shoot the perfect commercial, or what he calls “a heightened reality vignette.”
At times the music of Negativland can feel suffocating as it is so saturated with media samples. I can only imagine how painstaking the process assembling it all together was for the band, but it was certainly worth the effort. Other ambitious concept albums have floundered, this one remains strong, and its artistic statement ever more pertinent in a world flooded competing commercial messages. Dispepsi has a smooth and satisfying finish that has yet to go flat.
Fair Use (book) / Dead Dog Records (CD) (1995)
The CD that accompanied the Fair Use book was my initiation into Negativland. With classic cuts like “Gimmee the Mermaid”, and “Please Don’t Sue Us”, it tilted my brain toward a love for skewed audio and skillful appropriation. The CD is an extensive example of copying, pasting, editing it, taking whatever you can and using to create something of your own- plus a 26-minute “review” of the U.S. Copyright Act by Crosley Bendix, Director of Stylistic Premonitions for the Universal Media Netweb.
Among the many samples used are some from members of Chumbawamba talking about how Led Zeppelin didn’t want them to use their music, even though a lot of what Led Zeppelin had done was copied off of what black blues musician’s had done years and years before. The phrase “copying is a criminal act” is used to great effect.
The overwhelming (and very funny) text of Fair Use takes you deep inside Negativland’s legal, ethical, and artistic odyssey in an unusual examination of the ironic absurdities that ensue when corporate commerce, contemporary art and pre-electronic law collide over one 13-minute recording. In 1991, Negativland’s infamous U2 single was sued out of existence for trademark infringement, fraud, and copyright infringement for poking fun at the Irish mega-group U2’s anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In 1992, Negativland’s magazine-plus-CD "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" was also sued out of freaking existence for trying to tell the freaking story of the first freaking lawsuit. So there was no other possibility but for them to write Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, a 270-page book-with-CD to tell the story of both lawsuits and the fight for the right to make new art out of corporately owned culture.
The book presents the progression of documents, events and results chronologically, contains the suppressed magazine in its entirety, and goes on to add much more that has happened since, to illuminate this modern saga of criminal music. Also included is a (at the time) definitive appendix of legal and artistic references on the fair use issue, including important court decisions, and a foreword written by the son of the American U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
It’s hard to pick favorite’s from a band as gleeful and full of joy as Negativland. The album Free ranks up there with their best creations. It is a Freewheeling exploration of car culture, drunk driving, guns, bibles, more guns, more bibles, Cadillacs, liberty, freedom, the right to bare arms hanging out of an automobile after an accident on the freeway, torture, convenience stores, and the fact that freedom is waiting for you at the nearest 7-11. It’s also about shotguns, pistols, bayonets, knives, brass knuckles, submachine guns and an army.
Tracks like “The Gun and the Bible”, “We Are Driven” and “Our National Anthem” continue to hit home for listeners here in the land of the free, free to choose between Pepsi and Coke anyway. In the last song of the album the haunting truth that the tune for the “Star Spangled Banner” was lifted by Francis Scott Key from an old English drinking song in a blatant copyright rip off is revealed.
This was the first album to be self-released on their revived Seeland record label in the aftermath of their termination of association with SST following the bitter U2 disputes and lawsuits.
Guns is an EP that was created for a commission from NPR. It’s hard to underestimate the influence radio has had on Negativland’s music. The collection of audio media curated by the band over the years, including Don Joyce’s extensive archives that he built up for use on OTE, and all of the members deep skills in editing audio mean that their “musical essays” are perfectly suitable for transmission over the air and into listeners homes who could enjoy them as a theater of the imagination. And while some bands break new material while on tour, it has long been Negativland’s to work on their albums in progress over-the-air on OTE. Here a concise ballistic was formulated and aimed at NPR, as per their request.
The fact that the group continuously tackles difficult and controversial subject matter in a way that satisfies the intellect and does so with an ironic sense of humor is also one of the calling cards of the Negative generation. This EP was crafted before the Columbine shootings and the school shootings, and many other shootings like them had become a normal part of American life, much like the second amendment itself. It makes no statement over whether guns are good or bad, but presents material on six shooters, rifles, submachine guns, pistols, glocks and toy guns in a manner that lets the listener make up their own mind. In crafting this piece Negativland have shown that they are sharp shooters and gives ammunition to both sides of the gun debate.
Whoever sent Negativland the tapes of Casey Kasem cussing and screaming about a dead dog named Snuggles and a strange dedication request from a man in Cincinnati, Ohio was a genius. From these tapes, and Kasem’s belligerent quotes about the Irish band U2 saying “these guys are from England and who gives a shit?” a legend was born. When the song was released it put Negativland in the spotlight.
The two tracks include outtakes from American Top 40 host Kasey Casem over top of a parody of U2’s well known song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", including kazoos and extensive sampling of the original song. The song “Special Edit Radio Mix” version features a musical backing to an extended profane rant from aforementioned disc jockey lapsing out of his more polished and professional tone during a frustrating taping, which was captured by several engineers, who had been passing it around for a number of years.
In 1991, Negativland released this EP with the title "U2" displayed in very large type on the front of the packaging and "Negativland" in a smaller typeface. An image of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane dominated the cover.
U2's label Island Records was quick to throw a lawsuit at Negativland, claiming that placing the word "U2" on the cover violated trademark law, as did the song itself. Island Records also claimed that the single was an attempt to deliberately confuse U2 fans, then awaiting the impending release of Achtung Baby.
With the lawsuit in place the punk rocker Greg Ginn and head of SST record didn’t want to have to pay to help out the band, and so they kicked Negativland off the roster in a way that can only be described as cowardly and acrimonious. Another legal battle ensued between SST and Negativland. This case was settled when Ginn/SST agreed to fully release most of Negativland's masters (mainly their OTE series of cassettes) in exchange for completing work on a live album that had been planned long before the legal battles began, as well as keeping Negativland's three SST releases on the label for a short period. Funnily enough these copyright have since reverted back to Negativland who are now famous for the use of “copyleft” and “N©” on their releases. One bit of detournement they aimed at back at their former label took the bumper sticker "SST: Corporate Rock Still Sucks" and made it into "Corporate SST Still Sucks Rock"
Several artists had already left SST in the late 1980s so Negativland was in good company. By 1987, just a year after signing with the label, Sonic Youth had grown disenchanted with it. Guitarist Thurston Moore said, "SST's accounting was a bit suspect to us", and the group's other guitarist Lee Ranaldo criticized the label's "stoner administrative quality”. The band was also dissatisfied with Ginn's newer signings. Unhappy that income from their records was ultimately helping to fund "lame-ass records", Sonic Youth acrimoniously left the label and signed with Enigma Records in 1988. Dinosaur Jr left SST for Blanco y Negro Records in 1990. Frontman J Mascis said, "I like Greg Ginn and stuff, but they wouldn't pay you."
In the end leaving SST became a good thing for the group, as they rebooted Seeland Records to release and distribute their music on their own, fully embracing the DIY spirit displayed so strongly throughout their work and catalog.
Helter Stupid (1989)
The role of the hoax is fully embedded within the works of the band and Helter Stupid remains a fine example of the power of a press release and a prank. It was also a bloodshed moment. High on the feeling of their hit song “Christianity is Stupid” from 1987’s acclaimed album Escape from Noise, the band was finally feeling like things had taken a positive turn.
The band had arrived. They had made it. SST was distributing their album and the future was looking rosy. A tour would be in order to play their music live in front of all the fans they were earning across the alternative music scene. The success of the album on the network of college radio stations had earned them endearing groupies all across the land whose couches they could surf and sleep on during the tour.
Little did they know but they were only just then entering the world of trials and tribulations. For an inconvenient ax murder had set the stage for hijinks and shenanigans.
Fast-forward to the beginning of March 1988: Lyons is working nights as a security guard. Two weeks earlier a teenager named David Brom in Rochester, Minnesota had chopped up his family with an axe. The story was still all over the newspapers. An article in the New York Times had made brief mention of an argument over a cassette tape that Brom had been listening to that had somehow offended his deeply Catholic family. Brom's frequent arguments with his piously Catholic parents over what music he was allowed to listen to as a teen possibly led to his despicable deed.
Reading about the case Richard Lyons got the bright idea that the tragedy could become a source of Free publicity for the band. He was at work after all and was thus deeply bored. So he decided to dash off a press release, a media art form in and of itself. In his missive he created the fictional “Federal Official Dick Jordan” who ordered the group to stop and cancel all concerts pending an investigation into the role “Christianity is Stupid” may have played in the Brom murders.
Slowly Dick’s deft PR spin caused a trickle of stories to start appearing. The underground zines were first to propagate the tall tale and it eventually got picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. Once the virus had been released it could not be contained and the news media banged on their door-- with the band usually declining to comment and the reporters too lazy to fact check. Whatever band interviews commenced were sexed up and edited to fit the news.
Eventually their coup hit pay dirt when the local evening TV news for CBS wanted to run a story on the band. Negativland then had the genius to record the TV news segments about them and use the whole escapade as the basis for the first half of their next album, Helter Stupid, an investigation of the intersection of murder and music. The title cut is a sprawling inquiry into backwards masking, the Negative influence of heavy metal on impressionable youth, the ease with which the media can be manipulated and how that in turn manipulates the perceptions of those who take the media at face value.
It’s an album that raises thorny ethical questions. Don Joyce didn’t find any problem between the stunt and his conscience. “We always felt that anything out there in the mass media was fair game for artistic tampering. It didn’t seem to give us pause.”
Mark Hosler disagreed with his bandmate and expressed feelings of discomfort in “exploiting a real human tragedy.”
Many years later, Hosler would be confronted at a party in Olympia, Washington by a guy who went to school with David Brom. “This guy at the party was telling me how horrible we were for exploiting the murders and how our hoax affected their town,” he posted to an online message board that night. It seems that their hoax was more successful than the group could ever have imagined – to the extent that even in the town where the murders happened it remained widely accepted as the truth even many years later. “Our prank fueled the town and the parents’ fears that MUSIC was making their kids crazy and violent. This led to weird kids being kicked out of school (including the guy who was confronting me), being persecuted, beat up, etc.”
"Our act of creating a false association with such a tragedy will remain open to ethical interpretation," the band concluded in its liner notes for the 15th anniversary reissue of the Helter Stupid.
Side two of the album is an entirely different matter. It draws a lot of samples from "The Winning Score", a 1977 presentation by TM Century, producers of radio jingles and imaging. It was an expose on the collusion between record companies and radio stations, as well as commentary on the short sightedness of the imagination of those in radio who were then limiting their use of the medium (and still are for the most part) to formats that suck, playing music that sucks. Between jingles, commercials, and call-ins Negativland points the finger at the disc jockeys, record executives and radio stations who are only in it for the money.
Escape from Noise (1987)
1987 saw the release of their seminal (and best selling) fourth album Escape From Noise, which contained the track “Christianity is Stupid.”
About a year earlier Richard Lyons was crate digging in a Bay Area thrift store when he came across a record with the wonderfully off-the-wall title If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? It was a privately pressed recording of a feverish sermon by the Reverend Estus W. Pirkle. It presented a southern Baptists vision of a commie fueled apocalypse, a surreal narrative in which Communists take over America and set about brainwashing its citizens. In one particularly passage filled with brimstone and ire Pirkle foretells of loudspeakers throughout the country broadcasting the same message over and over again: “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!”
Pastor Dick and the other members of Negativland were immediately taken by the peculiar musical quality of Pirkle’s voice. “Not just what he was saying, but how he was saying it” Mark Hosler explained. The band knew right away, that like their Californian forebears, they had struck gold. So they created their own piece of what Hosler called “brainwash music.” Pirkle’s rant became the lead vocal for the piece amidst a dirge of thudding four-four beats and crashing guitars. The song became an anthem for an entire generation of misfits.
The original album came with a yellow bumper sticker with black letters reading "Car Bomb" the name of one of the albums many classic cuts. It also contained a booklet outlining the history of the band, along with photos of band members and reviews of previous releases. In the booklet, Crosley Bendix describes how Negativland's studio/apartment and recording equipment were destroyed in a two-alarm fire discovered by Hosler at 11:50 pm late on "Friday the 13th of February, 1987".
The fire started in Smart Laundry, a dry cleaning business located at street level below Negativland's apartment, 10028 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, California. When he saw flames leaping up past their kitchen window, Hosler yelled to his friend Tera Freedman in the next room to call 911 to notify the fire department. Hosler and Freedman collected the finished master tapes and artwork for Escape from Noise and quickly left the building, just as fire crews arrived. Cleaning solvents in the laundry accelerated the fire and caused extensive damage to the building before fire crews gained control. Afterward, the band grimly assessed the total destruction of the recording equipment and the materials from previous releases. Together, they traveled to Los Angeles to meet with SST executives (aka Greg Ginn) and "reaffirm their album commitment".
Escape from Noise is a gem of American underground music. With catchy tunes like the “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song” and more insidious cuts such as “Michael Jackson” and the humorous narration of the Weatherman on “The Playboy Channel” it truly has something for listeners of every stripe.
A Big 10-8 Place (1983)
A Big 10-8 Place was the groups third record and their first to be a concept album, a format they have more or less stuck to ever since. It was a tape splicing extravaganza that was three years in the making and came in a wrap-around sleeve with poster, bumper sticker, inspection cards, hand embossed inner sleeve, and a baggy of lawn clippings with a bright yellow HAM OPERATOR CONVICTED card inside the bag.
It's an audio odyssey through a day in the life in Contra Costa County, Negativland’s home turf. Made out of painstakingly assembled sounds and ideas, as sheer sound collage it remains unlike anything else they've ever made.
The 10-8 in the title will be familiar to radio geeks who’ve happened to cut their teeth rag chewing on the citizens band. If you hear a CB operator say "10-8" it's just another way to say "In service, and taking calls."
The lyrics and sound clips on the album make frequent reference to the CB and amateur radio hobby, as well as mischief like jamming. This was the first album of the band to feature the talents of Don Joyce, who coined the now familiar phrase “culture jamming” which was directly related to this album and the OTE broadcasts that went on to make up the JamCon ’84 release.
The phrase comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or as way of disrupting dominant frequencies with counter broadcasts. In a Crosley Bendix radio review featured on JamCon ‘84 Bendix stated, “As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skillfully reworked billboard... directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.”
Thus was born a practice Negativland pioneered and mastered.
The efforts of Ian Allen were also a major influence on this record and the band as a whole. “His impact, inspiration and influence on the group is impossible to overestimate,” the group wrote in a statement after his death at age 56. “There would be no group as we know it today, no Over The Edge radio show [on KPFA], no ‘culture jamming’ and no A Big 10-8 Place LP without him.”
“He was part of creating Negativland’s Points LP in 1981, introducing to the rest of us, on the track ‘BABAC D’BABC…,’ the idea of using tape splicing not just as a way to make loops and connect tracks but as a compositional tool unto itself. This revelation led to the exploration of this technique full-on in 1983’s A Big 10-8 Place, and he played a major role in the creation of that record and its unique packaging.”
Negativland also credits Allen for his contribution to the very concept of culture jamming. He also introduced the other members to artist and radio DJ Don Joyce who then became a member of the band. Allen was also an inspiration behind the collectives radio show Over the Edge.
It was Allen who pushed the band members in creative ways and suggested their 1983 LP should be a concept album. He also had a more unordinary influence on the group: “Ian was obsessed with the number 17, which is why it appears in various ways on so many Negativland projects and texts in the Eighties and Nineties.” He left this planet for the great culture jam of the beyond on January 17th, 2015.
The groups second album sees the group practicing with the forms that would become part of their basic toolkit: noise/music/text/loop pieces made in the bedrooms of California suburbs.
It also shows the influence of the group member David Wills, aka the Weatherman. David is an avid home recorder and had played with tapes and microphones since he was a kid. When he joined the group with then teenagers Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons he’d been working as a cable TV repairman, an occupation he held for a long time.
David is the quintessential radio, electronics, and recording nerd, and otherwise all around fascinating and strange individual who has OCD and obsessions with cleaning products. In his current home he has microphones wired throughout the house so he can make recordings from inside and outside at will. He has also been very interested in the radio monitoring and scanning hobby and collected many recordings off the airwaves that were used in various capacities on Negativland albums and on OTE.
So we return to the beginning with Negativland’s first release a project by some teenage kids bored in the suburbs and looking for something to do, something to make, something to create. Now their tactics and art practices are something any teen can do with a few clicks on their smartphone. The kind of sampling and appropriation of existing corporate cultural materials they pioneered in the audio realm is now being performed by grade school kids across the land who upload their creations to Youtube and other platforms.
This album also appeared on the infamous and influential Nurse With Wound list.
As Negativland enters their fifth decade as a subliminal cultural sampling service they are more than capable of making noise and of subverting mass media transmissions. That they do so without preaching a specific ideology allows them to find humor in all those things we usually don’t pay attention too, helping us to question the standard narratives, all the while laughing merrily along the way.
Need to hear even more Negativland? I can't blame you. Here is a two hour mix of Negativland's Top 40 Hosted by K. C. Cuss'em when he filled in for Ken Katkin on Trash Flow Radio back in November of 2019.
Not all the musicians who use radios to make music take the output from the transmission directly into the input of the mixing board or microphone to capture the voice of the aether. And not all of them used it as a source of direct audio sampling either. Some have trawled the megahertz and found inspiration in the voices they heard on the radio talk in shows, in the banter to be heard on the citizens band, and in the back and forth between hams in long distance rag chews over the shortwaves.
Paddy McAloon found so much inspiration listening to the radio, he created an entire album and the based the lyrical elements off of the various conversations he had heard and taped at his listening post. Paddy had been writing songs since he turned 13, but in 1999 at the age of 42, the ease with which he could write songs suddenly changed. Not from the level of his mastery of melody, hooks, and poetic pop lyricism, but on a physical level, when he suffered from the detachment of both his retinas one right after the other. Suddenly blind, he was bound to the house with nothing but free time.
Not only had Paddy been writing songs since he was 13, but he’d been in the habit of making chart topping albums with his band Prefab Sprout, started with his brother Martin, in Witton Gilbert, County Durham, England. The band played in a down on its heels gas station owned by their father, and were joined by a friend down the street, Michael Salmon drums, forming in 1977. Five years later after forging some musical chops they went into the studio to record their first single, Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone) with a b-side called Radio Love. The lyrics are seemingly innocuous but hide a tragic undercurrent, and it’s hard not to read an eerie prescience into the tune for Paddy’s later album Trawling the Megahertz. It starts with the static and whine of a shortwave set, and ends with the same, and the voice of a distant announcer.
“Requests for everyone / Love is on / Radio love is strong / Radio love / Shortwave for everyone / It was on the news, someone had drowned / She keeps hearing it over / All night long / All night long”.
All the years spent listening to everything from David Bowie, to Igor Stravinsky, to T. Rex, put the band in good stead as Paddy continued to refine his craft of songwriting. Having written most of his songs using guitar Paddy had a crisis around the instrument, thinking he’d exhausted it, picked up a Roland synth, and started using that to write songs with just as they were poised to start making albums. It was around this time that vocalist Wendy Smith was recruited for the band.
In 1984 came Swoon followed by 85’s Steve McQueen. This was followed by another string of album leading to Jordan in 1990. The band then went on hiatus until work began on Andromeda Heights, the last album to feature Wendy as vocalist. It was released in 1997.
Two years later Paddy’s retina detached, possibly from congenital factors. Repairing his eyes required extensive surgery and he was left blind and stuck in the house. Composing hunched over the keyboard had become impossible, and he was starting to twitchy, unable to work on new songs, and unable to read. Radio became his solace.
“I found all this frustating as I've been writing songs since 1971, and am subject to itchy, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if I cannot work. So, unable even to read, I passed the time by listening to and taping all kinds of T.V and radio programmes, concentrating on phone-ins, chat shows, citizen's band conversations, military encryptions - you name it, I was eavesdropping on it.”
McAloon found a lot of what he taped to be boring and banal, but within all the day to day chit chat of people talking on the air, he caught glimpses of the sublime, and started having moments of inspiration. In his mind he began to edit what he had heard into the spoken word lyrics for what would become his next album.
"Odd words from documentaries would cross-pollinate with melancholy confidences aired on late night phone-ins; phrases that originated in different time zones on different frequencies would team up to make new and oddly affecting sentences. And I would change details to protect the innocent (or guilty), to streamline the story that I could hear emerging, and to make it all more...musical, I suppose."
Using the snippets of radio conversation he had recorded, and further riffing off "mental edits" he’d made of these, he found the poetic moments within the plaintive complaints he heard on the radio and mixed these with things he had heard on various documentaries. A specific word like "ether" or "anesthetic" would strike him, and he started using these as launch points for his own writing. All the radio transmissions had been like a fertilizer, seeding his imagination.
“After awhile I got enough of these sentences and radio thoughts, and I thought, well, I’m not going to be able to finish the thought by listening to radio to find the words I need, so sometimes I’ll fill them in.”
He started writing musical parts to go with the words on his 1987 era Atari computer. Paddy had developed a philosophy of not wanting to use all the latest gear. “You find a piece of software you can use, you do it well, and then someone will tell you the computer you've got will break down, it's old now, you'll need to go over to a Mac. Let me tell you - I still use an Atari computer from 1987. I didn't like where the software went after that. Even on the Mac. I don't care how sophisticated it got - I knew how to use the old software in my limited way. And, finally, my eyes are not great. So I resent the learning curve with new equipment. I don't have Garage Band. I don't have a Mac. That’s what it is with me and old technology. I can't be bothered. Nor do I have the money to spend in the way I used to have. I don't have a massive guaranteed advance from a record company. I work very slowly by myself. BUT - I have a message on my studio wall that says: ‘Imagine that you crash landed on a desert island, but you've survived, you've walked away, and there's a small town there, with a recording studio, the recording studio is very old-fashioned. How thrilled would you be, having survived your plane crash and how thrilled you'd be for the most basic recording equipment?’ That's me. That's me in my home studio full of this old gear that's out of date that other people can laugh at.”
Working with the Atari computer to compose the title track on I Trawl the Megahertz, the limitations of the software gave the piece a form to materialize within and determined the length of the title track. “I spent a long time working on that just as a computer piece, using the same old rubbishy synth sounds. Do you know why it is as long as it is? This is a terrible thing to tell you! 22 minutes of music is the length you'll get on an Atari! That's a bad reason for it. But in the end when I figured out the structure of it was just gonna fall within what an Atari could do.”
The piece ends up being something of a movie to watch with your eyes closed, a narrative to listen to if you have been left without sight. Culled from the airwaves, it is also perfect piece to be played on the radio. While Paddy is mostly known for his pop songs, this long player of a track, is in a way akin to the kind of storytelling heard in the music Laurie Anderson and in the operas of Robert Ashley. It is so perfectly suited for transmission itself. While not a radio drama, it can be listened to as a radio drama, these kind of works could form the basis for revivification of radio drama, infused with specially composed music, and a delight to people to near and far, who happen to tune, out of the blue and right on schedule.
And though written on the Atari, the album proper ended up being recorded with a classical crossover ensemble, Mr. McFalls Chamber. Co-producer Calum Malcolm and composer David McGuinness helped Paddy to take his original MIDI versions and produce scores from them for the final recordings. The final result is an breathtaking excursion into neo-romantic chamber pop. Echoes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Leonard Bernstein swirl and coalesce with the tender reading of his poetic text by vocalist Yvonne Connors.
On the second side there are eight more tracks, mostly instrumental. I’m 49 is the only one to use samples of the actual recordings he’d made off the air to deliver a melancholic meditation on one man’s post-divorce mid-life crisis. At a time when Paddy had been suffering from the trials and travails of his own life, and the curveballs it had thrown at him, he plumbed the depths of our shared human condition, and found companionship and comfort in the voices that called out to him across the expansive aether.
Special thanks to One Deck Pete for reminding me of this story.
Read the rest of the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY series.
Paddy McAloon, I Trawl the Megahertz , Liberty EMI, 2003
Prefab Sprout, I Trawl the Megahertz (Remastered), Sony Music 2019
Another way Information Theory has been used in the making of music is through the sonification of data. It is the audio equivalent of visualizing data as charts, graphs, and connected plot points on maps full of numbers. Audio, here meaning those sounds that fall outside of speech categories, has a variety of advantages to other forms of conveying information. The spatial, tempo, frequency and amplitude aspects of sound can all be used to relay different messages.
One of the earliest and most successful tools to use sonification has been the Geiger counter from 1908. Its sharp clicks alert the user to the level of radiation in an area and are familiar with anyone who is a fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi zombie movies. The faster the tempo and number of clicks the higher the amount of radiation detected in an area.
A few years after the Geiger counter was invented Dr. Edmund Fournier d'Albe came up with the optophone, a system that used photosensors to detect black printed typeface and convert it into sound. Designed to be used by blind people for reading, the optophone played a set of group notes: g c' d' e' g' b' c. The notes corresponded with positions on the reading area of the device and a note was silenced if black ink was sensed. These missing notes showed the positions where the black ink was and in this way a user could learn to read a text via sound. Though it was a genius invention the optophone didn’t catch on.
Other areas where sonification did get used include pulse oximeters (a device that measures oxygen saturation in the blood), sonar, and auditory displays inside aircraft cockpits, among others.
In 1974 a trio of experimental researchers at Bell Laboratories conducted the earliest work on auditory graphing; Max Mathews, F.R. Moore, and John M. Chambers wrote a technical memorandum called “Auditory Data Inspection.” They augmented a scatterplot -a mathematical diagram using Cartesian coordinates to display values for two or more variables in a data set- using a variety of sounds that changed frequency, spectral content, and amplitude modulation according to the points on their diagram.
Two years later the technology and science philosopher Don Ihde wrote in his book, Listening and Voice: phenomenologies of sound, "Just as science seems to produce an infinite set of visual images for virtually all of its phenomena--atoms to galaxies are familiar to us from coffee table books to science magazines; so 'musics,' too, could be produced from the same data that produces visualizations." Ihde pointed to using the tool of sonification for creativity, so that we might in effect, be able to listen to the light of the stars, the decomposition of soil, the rhythm of blood pulsing through the veins, or to make a composition out of the statistics from a series of baseball games.
It wasn’t long before musical artists headed out to carve a way through the woods where Ihde had suggested there might be a trail.
There are many techniques for transforming data into audio dada. The range of sound, its many variables and a listener’s perception give ample parameters for transmitting information as audio. Increasing or decreasing the tempo, volume, or pitch of a sound is a simple method. For instance, in a weather sonification app temperature could be read as the frequency of one tone that rises in pitch as temperature and lowers as it falls. The percentage of cloud cover could be connected to another sound that increases or decreases in volume according to coverage, while wind speed could be applied as a resonant filter across another tone. The stereo field could also be used to portray information with a certain set of data coming in on the left channel, and another set on the right.
The audio display of data is still in a wild west phase of development. No standard set of techniques has been adopted across the board. Do to the variables of information presented, and the setting of where it is presented, researchers in this field are working towards determining which set of sounds are best suited for particular applications. Programmers are writing programs or adapting existing ones to be able to parse streams of information and render it according to sets of sonification rules.
One particular technique is audification. It can be defined as a "direct translation of a data waveform to the audible domain." Data sequences are interpreted and mapped in time to an audio waveform. Various aspects of the data correspond to various sound pressure levels. Signal processing and audio effects are used to further translate the sound as data. Listeners can then hear periodic components as frequencies of sound. Audification thus requires large sets of data containing periodic components.
Developed by Greg Kramer in 1992 the goal was to allow listeners to be able to hear the way scientific measurements sounded. Audification has a number of applications in medicine, seismology, and space physics. In seismology, it is used as an additional method of earthquake prediction alongside visual representations. NASA has applied audification to the field of astrophysics, using sounds to represent various radio and plasma wave measurements. There are many musicians who are finding inspiration in using the sets of data culled from astronomy and astrophysics in the creation of new works. It’s an exciting development in the field of music.
American composer Gordon Mumma had been inspired by seismography and incorporated it into his series of piano works called Mographs. A seismic wave is the energy moving through the Earth's layers caused by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, magma movement, large landslides and large man-made explosions. All of these events give out low-frequency acoustic energy that can be be picked up by a seismograph. A seismogram has wiggly lines going all across it. These are all the seismic waves that the seismograph has recorded. Most of the waves are small because no one felt them, little tiny waves called microseisms can even be caused by ocean waves hitting the beach, heavy traffic of rumbling semi-trucks, and other things that might cause the seismograph to shake. Little dots along the graph show the minutes so the seismic waves can be seen in time. When there is seismic activity the P-wave is the first wave to be bigger than the small normal microseisms. P waves are the fastest moving seismic wave and these are usually the first to be recorded by a seismograph. The next set of waves on the seismogram are the S-waves. S-waves have a higher frequency than the P-waves and appear bigger on the seismogram.
Mumma based the structure and activity of each Mograph around data derived from seismogram recordings of earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions. The seismograms he was looking at were part of cold-war research that attempted to verify the differences between various seismic disturbances. The government wanted to know if it was a nuke that had hit San Francisco or just another rumbling from the earth. For Mumma, the structural relationships between the way the patters of P-waves and S-waves traveled in time, and their reflections, had the “compositional characteristics of musical sound-spaces”. One of the strategies he used to sonify the seismograms into music was to limit the pitch-vocabulary and intervals in each work. This gave Mumma the ability draw attention to the complexity of time and rhythmic events within each Mograph.
With these themes in mind, listening to the Mograph is like hearing tectonic plates being jostled around, here hitting each other abruptly, and there in a slow silence that grinds as two plates meet. It is the sound of very physical waves rumbling through earth and stone and dirt, and beneath concrete, as interpreted by the piano, or pairs of pianos used in some arrangements. In making these pieces from seismograph data Gordon Mumma sketched a process for others to use in future works of sonification.
By the Code of Soil
Another down to earth sonification project deals with the soil beneath our feet. It started out as a commission for artist Kasia Molga from the GROW Observatory, a citizen science organization working to take action on climate change, build better soil and grow healthier food, while using data provided by the European Space Agencies Copernicus satellites to achieve their goals.
Kasia began her project by analyzing the importance and meaning of soil, and she looked at what is happening to the soil now and how that impacts farmers, urbanites, and well, everyone. She listened to the concerns of the scientists at GROW and spent a chunk time parsing the data from the GROW sensors and the Sentinel-1A satellite that is used to asses soil moisture across Europe.
In the course of her background work Kasia wondered how she could get important information about soil health out there to the largest number of people and she hit upon the idea of using a computer virus. The resulting project, By the Code of Soil, ended up working with peoples computers and smart phones. The program didn’t install any malware, self-replicate, or actually infect anyone’s computer, but rather worked as a way to interrupt those people who spend most of their time in front of screens and remind them of the real analog world underneath their feet.
She recruited a few other people to work with her on the project, tech artists Erik Overmeire and Dan Hett, and musician Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. Their project turns soil data into digital art that appears on a participants’ computer (downloaded as an app) whenever land-mapping satellite Sentinel-1A passes overhead.
The Sentinel satellite missions include radar and super-spectral imaging for land, ocean and atmospheric monitoring. Each Sentinel mission is based on a constellation of two satellites that fulfill and revisit the coverage requirements for each individual mission. This provides a robust dataset for researchers to access here on Earth. Sentinel-1 provides all-weather, day and night radar imaging for land and ocean services. GROW Observatory has gotten involved by deploying thousands of soil sensors all across Europe to improve the accuracy of the observations from the orbiting birds.
Kasia designed the video art for the piece. Twice a day the Sentinel-1 passes overhead in Europe and the artwork and sounds change in real time as driven by the data.
Kasia writes, “The artwork takes control of user’s computer for a minute or two in full screen mode. It manifests itself in a quite unexpected manner – that is it only will become visible on the computer when the Sentinel-1A satellite passes by the computer’s location – approximately twice within 24 hours but never at the same time of the day.” This is how it reacts like a virus, erupting unexpectedly (unless you happen to be tracking the movement of the satellite).
To portray the soil data visually Kasia started with a pixel and a matrix. She thought of these as single grains of soil, from which something else can be created and emerge. She used visual white noise, like that of a TV on station with a channel with no broadcast, to show a signal coming out of the noise when the satellite passes, activating the algorithm written for the piece. “Various configurations of the noise – its frequencies, shapes, speed of motion and sizes – reflect the moisture, light, temperature and texture of the land near to the participant’s computer based on its IP address.”
Meanwhile Scanner handled the sound design for the project. He took a similar approach as Kasia and looked at the granular aspects of sound. “Trying to score data was a seemingly impossible task. How to soundtrack something that is ever changing, ever developing, ever in flux, refusing to remain still. Most times when one accompanies image with sound the image is locked, only to repeat again and again on repeated viewing. By the Code of Soil refuses to follow this pattern. Indeed it wasn’t until I watched the work back one evening, having last seen it the previous morning, that I realized how alive data can really be.
The only solution sonically was to consider sound, like soil, as a granular tool. The sound needed to map the tiniest detail of alterations in the data received so I created sounds that frequently last half a second long and map these across hundreds of different possibilities. It was a like a game of making mathematics colorful and curiously one can only hear it back by following the App in real time. I had to project into the future what I felt would work most successfully, since I never knew how the data would develop and alter in time either. As such the sound is as alive as the images, as malleable as the numbers which dictate their choices. Data agitates the sound into a restless and constantly mutable soundscape.”
He spent many hours designing a library of sounds with Native Intstruments Reaktor and GRM Tools and then mapping them into families. These families of sound were in turn mapped onto various aspects of the data. With the data coming into the satellite from the sensors, and the data collected from the sensors feeding into the program, different sets of sounds and visuals were played according to the system.
The success of this project for Kasia Molga and Scanner has led to them working together again in creating another multimedia work, Ode to Dirt, using soil data as a source code, for content, and inspiration. In this piece “(de)Compositions bridges the source (input) and the data (output) through inviting viewers to take part in a multi sensory experience observing how the artwork - a fragment of the ‘land’ - changes through time - its form, sound and even smell - determined by the activities of the earthworms.”
READING MUSIC: LISTENING AS INFORMATION EXTRACTION
Many musicians know how to read sheet music. For composers it’s a basic tool. But what if average people learned how to read music, that is, listen to a composition and extract information from it as if it were a couple of paragraphs of text, or for really long works, a whole book?
It strikes me that this is a distinct possibility as the field of sonification grows. Just as we have learned to signify and interpret letters and words, we may eventually come to have another shared grammar of sound that allows people to listen to the music of data and interpret that text with our ears.
This new way of reading music as information has the possibility of transforming the field of radio as the imagination is opened up to new ways of receiving knowledge. It would be interesting to create radio that included sonified data as a regular part of news stories.
This project of mapping knowledge to sound is implicit in Hesse’s description of the Glass Bead Game. Sonification is another way to bring it about as a reality. Yet to make the most of this listening opportunity, to listen to music in a way analogous to reading a book, we will have to grow new organs of perception. Pauline Oliveros started the work of carving out new pathways for the way we perceive the world in her Deep Listening workshops, concerts and work in general. This work is being continued by her partner Ione, and others trained in the skills of Deep Listening. Kim Cascone has also taught workshops on the subject of what he calls Subtle Listening. Through a variety of meditation and other exercises Kim teaches his students how to “grow new organs of perception”. Perhaps through techniques such as these we may learn to listen to data in a way that engages the imagination and transforms it into knowledge.
Listening and Voice: A phenomenology of sound by David Idhe, State University of New York, 2007
David Tudor & Gordon Mumma, Rainforest / 4 Mographs, Sections X and 7 from Gestures, New World Records, 2006
Robin Rimbaud (project documentation sent in personal communication, September 29 2020)
Read the rest of the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.