Telstar: The Bird and the Birdsong
The music and flight of the birds has long remained an inspiration to the human musician. It is impossible to know how many ancient musicians mimicked the notes of their fluting from the songs of the birds, or just how many folk songs have been inspired by birds. In Western classical music birdsong has been used from Jehan Vaillant in the 14th century to Oliver Messiaen in the 20th with his masterful Catalogue d'oiseaux ("Catalogue of birds") for solo piano. As rock ‘n roll became the default soundtrack for the youth of the 60’s, the birds found their way into that genre of music as well. So did the chirping mechanical birds that fly around the earth in elliptical or geosynchronous orbit. Yes, I’m talking about satellites.
Since they first took flight above our atmosphere the birds have been inspiring humans with their own songs. Telstar, written and produced by studio maverick Joe Meek and performed by the Tornadoes was one of the first and followed the launch of its namesake satellite in 1962. The cut remains a recognizable classic with its jangly yet triumphant song lines. It is the soundtrack to space age communication. And Joe Meek was the perfect producer for the song. No one else could have recorded it to the same effect, or put the same effects on it in the studio. That’s because Meek was a firm believer that our space brothers lived on the moon and elsewhere in the solar system, and he saw the launch of the satellite as a stepping stone, part of humanities glorious ascent to the stars.
"This was one of the first sci-fi-influenced pop songs," observed Tim Wheeler of the Irish alt-rock band Ash. "For its time it was so futuristic and it still sounds pretty weird today." Indeed the song is timeless, while the technology that inspired it has been outgrown and superseded by new generations of sats. The first two Telstar satellites still orbit the earth as techno relics, great grandpas of space/time communication. They would be lonely if not for all their engineered offspring. But how did they get out there, into orbit, and what about that strange bird, a man named Joe Meek whose song came to dominate charts?
Telstar 1, the first of a new breed of communications satellites, launched on top of a Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962. It lived up to the star in its name via the successful transmission through the vacuum of space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and telegraph images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed. Another “first” in this story is the fact that it was also the first space launch to be privately sponsored.
Another exceptional product created by AT&T and the researchers at Bell Labs. Project Telstar was also part of a multi-national agreement, in a spirit similar to that of ham radio that encouraged cooperation and communication between nations. Besides AT&T, Bell Labs and NASA in the U.S. other key players were: GPO (United Kingdom) and the National PTT (France) tackling experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean. Six ground stations were built in six countries in order to track and converse with the bird. There was one in the US, France, the UK, Canada, Germany and Italy. The American ground station, Andover Earth Station, was built by Bell Labs in Andover, Maine. The BBC was the international coordinator and their ground station was at Goonhilly Downs in southwestern England. The BBC, as international coordinator, used this location. The standards 525/405 conversion equipment necessary for the project filled a large room and was researched and developed by the BBC and located in their TV Centre in London.
Any project of this size needs a team to see it birthed from the dream and into reality. Headquartered in Bell Labs John Robinson Pierce helmed the project and Rudy Kompfner invented the special traveling-wave tube transponder while James M. Early designed the transistors and the solar panels. Those panels drank in the sunlight to keep the bird alive and capable of generating 14 watts of electrical power.
Telstar’s single transponder had an innovative design. Because of all they were trying to accomplish, it needed to be able to relay data, a single television channel, or multiplexed telephone circuits. As Telstar traveled on its orbit it around the earth it also spun and needed an antenna array around its own midsection or "equator" to provide continuous communication with Earth in the microwave portion of the spectrum. These small cavity antenna elements received 6 GHz signals and relayed them back to down to one of the six ground stations. Meanwhile the transponder converted the frequency down to 4 GHz and amplified the power of the signal before pushing it into Kompfner’s traveling-wave tube for omnidirectional retransmission via an adjacent array of larger box-shaped cavities. Telstar also had a helical receiving antenna which caught the telecommands from the ground stations.
Telstar completed its elliptical orbit every 2 hours and 37 minutes. This is in contrast to the 1965 Early Bird Intelsat which was geostationary. This made transatlantic transmissions via Telstar similar to the way a ham would work a bird, though with a bit more leeway in terms of time. The engineers had about 20 minutes in each two and a half-hour orbit when the bird was over the Atlanatic Ocean to make the connection and the tracking antennas had to be very accurate. The tracking antennas also had to be very big and powerful because the receiving antennas were not. The brains at Bell Labs created a horizontally polarized conical horn antenna with parabolic reflectors at the mouth to re-direct the beam. These beasts were 177 feet long and a special steering system was designed and built for them by Morimi Iwama and Jan Norton. All of this was housed in a radome the size of a 14-story office building. One of these was located at the Andover station in Maine while another was in France at Pleumeur-Bodou. The antenna at the Goonhilly Downs station in Great Britain was a conventional 26-meter-diameter parabolic dish.
After all this work the space age gizmo got pressed into service and relayed its first test transmissions, a tv picture of a flag outside Andover Earth Station to Pleumeur-Bodou on July 11. Twelve days later the first public live transatlantic signal was broadcast. The video was shown on Eurovision in Europe and in North America on the big three, NBC, CBS, ABC and up north on the CBC. The program featured Walter Kronkite and Chet Huntley in New York, and Richard Dimbleby of the BBC in Brussels, and showed pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.
President John F. Kennedy was supposed to have given the very first remarks of the broadcast but the signal was acquired before he was ready. Instead the lead-in time was filled with a short segment of a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The batter, Tony Taylor, was seen hitting a ball pitched by Cal Koonce to the right fielder George Altman. From there, the video went on a journey, switching first to Washington, DC; then to Cape Canaveral, Florida; to the Seattle World's Fair; then to Quebec and finally to Stratford, Ontario. The Washington part included the now prepared Kennedy and he talked about the price of the American dollar, which was causing concern in Europe. Kennedy denied that the U.S. would devalue its currency and this had the galvanizing effecting of strengthening the dollar in the world markets. "We all glimpsed something of the true power of the instrument we had wrought," Walter Cronkite said later.
Continuing its impressive run of “firsts” Telstar 1 made the first satellite telephone call between U.S. vice-president Lyndon Johnson and the chairman of AT&T Frederick Kappel later in the evening. Next it successfully transmitted faxes, data, and both live and taped television, including the first live transmission of television across an ocean from Andover, Maine, US, to Goonhilly Downs, England, and Pleumeur-Bodou, France. In August 1962, Telstar 1 became the first satellite used to synchronize time between two continents, bringing the United Kingdom and the United States to within 1 microsecond of each other (previous efforts were only accurate to 2,000 microseconds). Telstar 1 also relayed computer data between two IBM 1401 mainframe computers. The test, performed on October 25, 1962, sent a message from a transmitting computer in Endicott, New York, to the earth station in Andover, Maine. The message was relayed to the earth station in France, where it was decoded by a second IBM 1401 in La Gaude.
As a communications device that was birthed during the Cold War, its death was caused by advances in Soviet technology and testing. Just the day before it was launched. Telstar 1 was born during the Cold War and it died less than a year old due to the testing of military technology. Just one day before Telstar 1 launched the U.S. exploded a high-altitude nuclear bomb called Starfish Prime. This energized the Earth's Van Allen Belt where Telstar 1 went into orbit. The surplus of radiation in the belt combined with further high-altitude nuke blasts. Of course the Soviets were also in on the game. In October one of their tests overloaded Telstar's transistors and they couldn’t be brought back to life. It had handled over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions before its untimely demise. The bird was resurrected by a clever hack in early January 1963, but additional radiation associated a return to full sunlight once again caused the transistors to die, this time forever. Telstar 1 became a silent key on February 21, 1963.
Yet even after its death, the bird had been a major success and lives on in the legacy of children and grandchildren that came after it to inhabit Earth’s orbital space with its floating shell. But before these other upstart birds could bask in the glory, Joe Meek made a song that gave the satellite a shot at immortality.
No other musical writer/producer could have made the song Telstar. Meek was suited to the task in a number ways. In the same way that the satellite showed off a number of “firsts” Joe was the same in the realm of the studio engineer. He was the first to use distortion on a recording as an intentional technique because fuzzy guitars sound so dope. Before Brian Eno made the concept popular he thought of his studio as an instrument in itself and was an early proponent and developer of sampling, overdubbing and the extensive use of effects such as reverb, echo, and delay. He worked on 245 singles; 45 of these ranked in top fifty charts.
As a kid Meek had a pronounced interest in electronics, and even had something of a ham shack, utilizing his parents garden shed as a space to work on circuits and various electronic projects. In this space he spent his hours working on components, building radios, and the region’s first working TV set. As a young man he worked as a radar technician during his national service time spent in the Royal Air Force. This further cemented his abilities at working with, building and modifying the latest gizmos, but also contributed to his fascination with aviation and outer space exploration. In 1953 he got a gig working for the Midlands Electricity Board. The resources made available to him through the company allowed him to continue developing his interest in all things electronic. A big fan of pop and rock music, he was developing an interest in sound recording and music production. His work for the Electricity Board enabled him to acquire a disc cutter and he produced his first record.
From there Joe went on to get a job as a bona fide audio engineer at an independent production company that worked on programs for Radio Luxembourg. In the mid-fifties he started showing his technical chops on cuts like Ivy Benson’s Music for Lonely Lovers, and using compression techniques and modifying the piano sounds on Humphrey Littleton’s jazz single Bad Penny Blues. This became a hit number and he started scoring more work as an engineer. He worked with a variety of different acts and partnered up with different studios and labels such as Landsdowne Studios and SAGA Records. In 1960 William Barrington-Coupe left SAGA and started an independent label with Meek, Triumph Records.
Joe Meeks' inability to actually play a musical instrument or write notation never stopped him from realizing his musical dreams. As Nigel Ayers says, “You don’t have to learn anything to do art or music. You learn by doing them. They are the most natural things to do in the world”. To help him write songs he had the help of musicians. Dave Adams, Geoff Goddard and Charles Blackwell were all in his corner and worked with him to transcribe the crazy melodies that burned through his head, the songs he would sing and hum to himself, the songs he would give to the world. Now with his own studio he had full creative reign when producing and cutting his own tracks to wax. Besides his manic imagination one of the things that set him apart from other producers and engineers of the time was the way he searched out the right sound for a song, and not afraid to get dirty in the process. Distortion, reverb, compression, echo, whatever was needed to give the song that extra bit of pizazz, he threw into the mix with wild results. He was able to fit his technical skills and repertoire of effects to whatever was at hand. He loved rock ‘n roll and it is evident in the way you can hear his unique sonic signature on every song he produced.
It was in the space of his beloved studio that he was able to give free reign to his creative genius, and from it was born the album I Hear a New World. Rod Freeman & the Blue Men as the players who helped bring it to life, but it was mostly just Joe getting them to do his bidding. Another energy besides his love of music was poured into what seem deem was the first concept album ever made; that was his obsessiveness about outer space, space travel, and aliens. It was 1959 and Joe really believed that “little green men” as extraterrestrial life forms were alive and well in the universe, and probably on the moon or a nearby planet. As such I Hear a New World is a sci-fi space record, which to some may sound just like a radiophonics sound effects record with pitched up chimpunks style voices singing little marches and ditties. The reality is that it is a sonic masterpiece, a voyage to an alien planet and the listener is transported there by the wizardry of the studio maestro. A handful of these songs came out as EPs, or were reworked onto other albums he was making. Joe never got the pleasure of seeing it make the waves it would in later decades. The full masterpiece of I Hear a New World only existed in a few scattered white label copies made by the record company. In 1991, 24 years after Joe’s violent and tragic death, it finally got a full LP release. Since then it has since gained a large cult following, and its opening and eponymous number was my opener during the years I hosted the radio show On the Way to the Peak of Normal.
Due to the vagaries of the music business, and Joe’s increasingly unstable temperament, Triumph Records collapsed as a going business concern, despite the number 1 hits Joe had produced. Demand for some of their songs remained high but as an independent it was often difficult to get enough copies of a 45 made. Other obstacles included managing distribution networks. In the end running a business wasn’t Joes strong point. He was much better suited to be in the studio.
The end of the label didn’t stop Joe’s ambition or keep him from making records though. He set up shop in a studio he built and dubbed RGM Sound. As one of the first home studios all the equipment was in his three-story flat above a leather company at 304 Holloway Road. It was in this legendary space where Telstar was hatched, and later nudged out of the nest to achieve flight, and hit number 1 on the charts.
The instrumental was launched on the radio waves and in the record shops in December of 1962, just as the satellite it was named after was experiencing its technical difficulties due to all the bombs the superpowers were exploding in the atmosphere. Telstar soared to number one in the US Billboard Hot 100 that month and also number one in Meek’s home country on the UK singles chart. It remained in the US charts for sixteen weeks and in the UK for 25. It is still heard with fondness or even religious zeal by Meek devotees to this day.
What gave Telstar some extra appeal was the use of a Clavioline or Univox (the two were possibly overdubbed together in the mix) as the lead keyboard instrument carrying the thrilling melody. Invented by the French engineer Constant Martin the Clavioline consisted of a keyboard and a separate amplifier and speaker unit. The keyboard usually covered three octaves, and as any engineer would like, it had a number of switches. These altered the tone, added vibrato, and provided other effects. The Clavioline used a vacuum tube oscillator to produce a solid buzzing waveform, almost a square wave. Using high and low-pass filtering, as well as the vibrato, it could be made to sound very unique. Its amplifier also lent to its signature tone with deliberate distortion, something Joe would have loved.
It’s hard to believe it but Joe Meek was a man ahead of his time. His life ended too soon under tragic circumstances that have been well documented elsewhere. Instead of focusing on the mess he made, I like to think of the beauty he left behind. Telstar is just one of the many gems he put into musical orbit.
References & Resources:
Joe Meek: I Hear A New World CD, 2001 RPM
Telstar :communication break-through by satellite by Louis Solomon, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1963.
The Legendary Joe Meek: The Telstar Man by John Repsch, Cherry Red Books, 2001
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of the Q-Fiver.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Announcement: The Radiophonic Laboratory goes Shortwave
DJ Frederick’s Free Radio Skybird returns to the shortwaves on Sunday August 4th 2019 via http://www.channel292.de/ on 6070 kHz at 1900 UTC (8pm UK time).
With a mixture of features and music, the hour transmission will include our friend One Deck Pete’s “Soul on shortwave” and my own first episode of the Radiophonic Laboratory on Shortwave! I'm so stoked to have a segment on this show, presenting some of the material I've been writing about. #freeradioskybird
What will you do while you are sojourned here, exiled on this planet? And who, and what, will you listen to? Having a plan can help you get the most out of this life, before you return home.
You may plan out your years, months, weeks, and days. You may have made plans for your education, or your next career move. You may have a physical fitness regime and a plan for the pursuit of spiritual arts such as prayer and meditation. You may have plans for your work time and for your free time, yet the thing it all can be boiled down to, is time and space. Having a plan helps you get the most out of the finite time and resources you have available to you during your brief visit to this incarnate world. After all this is only a place of temporary residence.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR OF THE MUSICAL MANSION
As part of your stay here you’ll want to take advantage of this thing called music. The study of music is essential to understanding your place in space and time, and the phenomenon of space and time in general. It is also a balm against the wounds you are sure to endure from being a part of this world, but not of it, not a permanent resident. It can also be an ecstatic and exultatory celebration of the body and what lies beyond the body; for music is a doorway, and each passage of music becomes a hallway of the gods. Music creates a way for the liminal precession between the many doorways in the house of many mansions. The right song can prepare you for the place that is being prepared for you. But are you prepared to experience all that music has to offer?
For the sake of your everlasting sanity and salvation you would be remiss to not execute a plan for listening. Have you ever even thought about having a listening plan? Music only exists as sound vibrations moving through space in time. Even a recording is only a recording until the play button is pressed. Live music can only be heard when the listeners and performers meet at the interzone of a shared venue. If you enjoy radio programs these generally recur on a specific frequency on a specific day of the week and a specific time of the day. Therefore time and space must be allotted in order to fully experience the vibrational medicine of music. This is what a listening plan is for, to assist in your navigation of the musical multiverse, all its hallways, its many rooms, doors, and yes, even secret passages.
You may say that you have no thought of time, for who knows where the time goes? Sitting before the hearth of the winter fire you may still be dreaming. But dreams require action. Don’t let the lost chord, the last chord slip away.
It was the great bard of hardcore music, Henry Rollins, who said, “I think music makes people better. I don’t think you can have too many records, go to too many shows, listen to too much music.”
Are you ready for this journey? Then lift up your lantern and the way will be lighted.
LISTENING BY THE LIGHT OF THE LAMP
In this missive we will talk about the why and how of a listening plan and offer suggestions for formulating a listening plan tailored to your own specific frame. All the while room will be made for the allowance of serendipity to show her face and uncover new corners of the musical library previously hidden from view. In the creation of a listening plan we also ask for the intercession of divine providence in directing our efforts in the spirit of unconditional service. Often as humans we do not know what is best for ourselves or for others so allowing space for insight and intuition to give shape to our investigation of music in time will guide us to those things we need to hear. All the while allowing, at times and in due time, for those things we simply want to hear.
Just like any other plan, creating a listening plan can help you maximize the value, enjoyment, and satisfaction you get from music. And once you have learned the music, once the vibrations have modulated you, in body and soul, you will be forever changed. The magic music may have moved through time, and through your body, but through the study of music and disciplined listening, the melody will have remained. The true songs that speak to you from across the waters of the deep time, you will now be able to recall, for they have been planted in the soil of memory. Like foraged seeds gathered on a voyage, they will grow alongside you, as good friends. You can go to them for companionship in times of need. And like plants, some songs are annuals, some perennial, and some are weeds.
In time this repertoire of song will serve many purposes. From the library of music you will draw forth sustenance and learning for many other works. You can be demodulated but you can also be remodulated. Knowing how a certain piece of music modulates you is a key to a more conscious awareness of the uses of music in all its forms.
In this manner the songs that are true to your own soul will cluster around you, swirling around you as a moebius strip, gracing you with knowledge and protection.
A PLAN IS FOR THOSE WHO WILL BE WISE
Do not be fooled into thinking that the only agenda embedded within popular music is entertainment. Unless you want to be enslaved by another man, you must create a system of your own. Rather than lazily tuning to corporate radios prefix menu of music in service to money, or darting from one internet generated algorithmic playlist to another, you have a system — usually a list of a artists and genres for determining what you’ll listen to next. Creating this plan is a way of side-stepping what you will be served without one. In this way you can leave musical gullibility behind and enter the banquet prepared by Wisdom in her seven pillared hall.
In an early interview for a television program in the Netherlands David Tibet spoke about the negative side of pop music. “People listen to pop music just for an easy way out, just for enjoyment of the most shallow and tedious type really. The problem with western music, contemporary western music, is that it offers nothing but shallow pleasure, petty enjoyment, and the promise of dancing the night away, and drinking, fucking, picking people up, all completely pointless things to do.”
While I am on the whole in accord with Tibet, I do think the jingle jangle of pop has a place. Pop is often a rest-stop between sojourns into classical or kraut, and punk can be a respite before and after jazz. Easy listening is there to soothe the nerves after noise or the dischord of hardcore. Pop is the sweet dessert at the end of the meal, proper in its place, but if eaten too much and at the wrong times will spoil the appetite for the bread and wine of musical nourishment.
Preparing and following a listening plan will help you get the nutrition needed for growth. Chewing on bubblegum will then be an option, but its saccharine and artificial sweetness will never will only be there as a treat after the meal, instead of the main course. Even if you do not follow the plan, it is there for you as a guide and a place to seek refuge in times of doubt or need. Bathing in the light shed of your listening sessions will help you return to the world rested and restored. Careful listening, and partaking of the fruits of that listening, will even add years to your life.
CREATING YOUR LISTENING PLAN
Whether your plan is for a specific composer, artist or band, say all of Lou Harrison’s works or the entire discography of Lou Reed, or simply broader topics and genres within music, such as ambient music of the mid-80’s to mid-90’s, or music made for instruments tuned with just intonation, a listening plan guides your musical efforts and keeps you from stagnating in a swamp of digital marketing and wasting valuable headphone and hi-fi time being pulled along on the path of least resistance. You know how it is: listening to whatever youtube music video is queued up next or right in front of you, whatever the computer at the radio station decides to play, whatever pop song challenges you the least and keeps you idly entertained.
Having a listening plan doesn’t mean you’re only listening to just the list. Any given week, I’m probably going through 5-10 albums, some of which are part of a larger plan and agenda I’m following. For me in the past year it has involved selections from Stockhausens Klang cycle of chamber works; a tumble into the fervent British anarcho-punk from the early 80’s and recurring deep dives into 1960’s folk-rock and the German Krautrock of the 60’s and 70’s. Maybe every other album is just for fun, and every other album is part of your plan. And maybe every third time you go down a musical rabbit hole for a genre or topic you just wish to explore for its own sake, to familiarize your ears with its major artists and themes. Areas I’ve had a taste of that I’d like to further explore are Japanese experimental rock music, the folk music of Scandinavia, and various strains of American folk music. Then there are the never ending and always shifting sands of ambient fog. I can always lose myself in that desert. I can always let myself drift through that pulsing fog. And there is so much ambient music, new and old that I can always be refreshed by the solace ambient and drone music provide. Sonic keys to calm. No chemicals required.
Another part of creating a listening plan is to make room for keeping up with musicians and bands you are already a fan of and who are still creating new works. Adding those new albums to your playlist is an exciting way to see how artists grow, change, and sometimes stagnate. The latest album by Low at the time of this writing, Double Negative, is such an album that was part of my listening plan by way of the fact that I like to keep up with their new releases and see where they go next. Double Negative found the trio buried in the world of the studio glitch. It was very much like the negative side of something else they might have already made, an example of disintegration and decay through multiple exposures. By listening in time with an artist you can watch the artistic integrity of musicians grow, or sadly, disappear due to the influence of money, fame and the call of the market. Sometimes you can see an artist reemerge after a slump and make a bid for further glory as Johnny Cash did with his American recordings, no mixes for cash necessary.
FURTHER BENEFITS OF PLANNED LISTENING
Most people love and are passionate about music as teenagers and on into early adulthood. As the grind of time works on them, their passion for music grows dull. They stop keeping up with what is new or fail to investigate the plethora of recorded music from the past still available for listening. If you strive to be a lifelong listener, your musical education doesn’t end once you become an adult. Neither does the evolution of musical styles stop when the favorite genre from your youth becomes a corpse on display in the cultural funhouse. Listening is not only for entertainment, but to further the education of your soul. Having a plan for musical investigation will keep you in the mindset of being a lifelong devotee to art made with sound. Do not grow deaf but open your ears to the bounty now available. The grind of time will become an asset in sharpening your senses, including your sense as a listener.
Having a plan keeps you disciplined in your listening habits. Your listening should absolutely be edifying, consoling, energizing and relaxing in turns. But having a plan will keep you listening to music on a regular basis, even on a granular basis. When you see a list of albums you’re trying to absorb you’ll be motivated to actually put the needle down on the turntable, or put the disc in the slot, and get in your 45, 80, or 160 minutes of listening per day. Writing a list to listen to also helps keep you focused on what is queued up next. The first four letters of listening are l i s t and writing a listening list will help you put the polish on your older favorites while you continue to expand your musical knowledge, taste, and experience with new material. A list can help you make music that is new to you a priority, whether it is actually new, or old, such as the ballads and songs collected by Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax on their trip through the South. When you do go back and listen to a perennial favorite your ears may hear it anew, refreshed, and more nuanced from exposure to other songs and styles. You might here how it is indebted to other songs from other times, or how it occupies a unique space within a genre. Or, as you listen, you begin to perceive the fragrant perfumes of the composers soul embedded within a song.
I work at a library with access to thousands of recordings in classical, jazz, rock, electronic, folk, gospel, country, and world music. I also catalog those CDs and vinyl records, alongside many books, so listening to new materials is often part of the job. I am extremely grateful to be doing this as part of my work. But once those materials are cataloged and sent out into the system they are then available to be borrowed by patrons. I encourage you to use a library system if you have access to one because it is the most cost effective way to enjoy the productions of time. Make time to list, visit, listen, collect, reflect. Music and books should not just be checked out from the library, but eaten, snorted, internally absorbed.
Another reason to visit the library is so you can browse through the collection with your whole body, hands and eyes. When you are dealing with a physical item, it is much less disposable and therefore much less forgettable. Brett McKay elaborated on this in article exploring the heft of culture. “Culture of the cloud is, in theory, supposed to expose you to new books, music, and movies that you’d enjoy thanks to complex algorithms that make suggestions based on the books, music, and movies you’ve consumed before. And I have indeed discovered new things to entertain myself thanks to these algorithms. But these algorithmic suggestions never brought me any real delight for two reasons: First, they exclude things that aren’t at all related to what I’ve previously consumed — things I don’t know I’m interested in, because I don’t yet know they exist! Second, I know the discoveries I make through the algorithms aren’t true discoveries in the proper sense; a discovery doesn’t feel like a discovery if it’s dropped in your lap. Programmatic serendipity isn’t serendipity at all.”
-And later “Perhaps the biggest issue with digital content, is that no matter what you’re reading or listening to, another option for your entertainment resides but a finger swipe away. You’re reading a book on your Kindle, and get the itch to check Instagram; you’re listening to one song on Spotify, and if it’s just a hair off from perfectly fitting your mood, you shuffle to the next, and then the next. When you’re reading a physical book, there’s nothing else within its pages competing for your attention. When you’re listening to an album on vinyl, it’s a hassle to skip a song, so you take it in as a whole. When you grapple with culture you can heft, you consume that culture in a less fragmented way.”
When you take music seriously, and as something fun that has the potential to have spiritual and transformative properties, you began to carve out the physical space and time to see where it can fit into your life to improve the quality of your existence.
‘TIS THE SEASON
Speaking of time, which music cannot exist without, it is helpful to think of the when for listening to what. Therefore in music there is a time. For every purpose under heaven there is a song to be plucked on the strings of the lyre. Music is seasonal, though in the west, it has become less so. Though it is December as I write this, I am not thinking of the oleaginous substance known as Christmas music currently oozing out of speakers all across the land. I’m thinking of the ways a good listening plan takes into account the turn, turn, turn of the seasons.
Classical Indian Music is deeply connected with the major cycles of nature, the cycle of day and night, the cycle of the seasons, perhaps even the cycle of birth and death. This association of ragas with seasons is a specialty of the Hindustani music of North India and not-so-much the Carnatic music in the south of continent. The musical thinkers of India began associating certain types of raga with certain seasons in the Middle Ages. In the 11th century it was King Nanyadeva, who recommended that the Hindola raga is best to played and heard in springtime, Pancama in summer, Sadjagrama and Takka during the monsoon season, and that Bhinnasadja is best in early winter, while Kaisika is best in late winter. Sarngadeva went further in the 13th century and started to associate raga with rhythms of each day and night. He conceived that pure and simple ragas were best for early morning, mixed and more complex ragas to late morning, skillful ragas to noon, love-themed and passionate ragas to evening, and universal ragas to night.
Perhaps in Western music we would need to look to the church Catholic or Orthodox with its liturgical calendar and the way various hymns & plainsong were used in religious orders to see something similar. Lots of classical music has been written for the time of vespers, by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alvin Lucier for instance. Preliminary searches turn up less music for the times of lauds, matins or compline.
In Stockhausen's work we see this fascination with time and cycles in Sirius and Tierkreis and the way these can be performed by starting on the appropriate zodiac sign/month when it is being performed. Then of course the great depth he brought to exploring the themes of each day of the week in LICHT, and then the hours of a day in KLANG.
At the beginning of the day I try to listen to a little music before I go in to work. These morning music moments are often something of a spiritual nature. For instance I may listen to some canticles or plainchant that comes down to us from St. Hildegard von Bingen back in the 12th century. Or I may listen to a wordless ambient piece of music by Steve Roach or Brian Eno as I drink my coffee and prepare for the day. Later at work I’ll listen to something from one of the artists I’m currently investigating or from a genre I’m exploring. A few nights a week I’ll also play some albums I’m interested while working on writing projects. I’ll also have some CDs to listen to in the car when I’m not monitoring a ham frequency or listening to a favorite broadcast radio station. Other times are reserved for quite. Times of quiet are just as important in the study of music and in the development of deep and active listening.
When developing a plan for listening the seasons can be taken into account. In the fall and winter I tend to listen to more folk music of various stripes. In the spring and summer I allow myself to indulge in songs with heavy pop hooks, while also on the lookout for driving music for weekend getaways and road trips. Think about how you can shape your listening habits to the changing of the seasons.
THE MUSIC PUSHER
Having a list also helps push you through albums or artists you wouldn’t otherwise give the time of day. Yes, your times of active listening should be enjoyable and rewarding. Hating what you are listening to won’t make you a bigger fan of music. Sometimes it’s worth listening to a song or album or staying at a concert you aren’t super in love with. You may find a part of it redeeming or you may find you’ve learned something useful despite the ordeal. At the very least you’ll know better what you like and what you don’t.
Every once in a while I come across an album I will want to have heard. To get there, I obviously have to listen to it. And sometimes those albums — even if the lyrics are good and I’m enjoying the music on a level — can be a bit of a slog. It’s sort of a strange phenomenon, but maybe you can relate. For me most recently, that has been Fugazi’s In on the Kill Taker. I’m a big fan of their other records and I recently picked this one up used. I know the original sessions were done with Steve Albini but those recordings didn’t take that well, so they re-recorded it with another engineer. I know it is considered a classic by Fugazi fans and I know objectively that the craftsmanship of the songs is amazing. The band craft tight punchy songs as well as any I’ve encountered. But I got stuck about halfway through the album and haven’t been able to finish it. It just sometimes takes a lot of mental energy to keep going with an album. I want to be someone who has listened to all of Fugazi’s albums, but that one still sits on my shelf, waiting.
I also want to be someone who has listened to all 29 hours of the seven operas of the LICHT cycle. In this music there is one opera for each of the seven days of the week. I’d like to listen to them all in the sequence of a week, on the day of the week each opera is written for, and that requires planning, effort and time. After the effort of acquiring all the music, and armed with a listening plan I will be able to immerse myself in Stockhausen’s mystic soundworld and be able to experience in just a week’s time what took the composer twenty-six years between 1977 and 2003 to write and form. This week I’m working my way through all 8-discs of Autechre’s NTS Sessions.
Having a listening plan makes the choice of what to listen to next easier. We live in a time of choice fatigue. We make so many choices each day. A plan comes in handy by eliminating choice. In the pursuit of musical acumen the decision of what record to listen to next will be made simpler when working from a plan. Sticking to a plan will also enable you to master a musical subject. This is perhaps my favorite part of having a listening plan. There is a case to be made for having a breadth of general musical knowledge, but having mastery in a single area provides satisfaction and confidence. When one area is mastered it makes it easier for you to go and tackle another area of learning.
So how do you achieve mastery? One way is certainly by listening deeply in a single area and time of music. Whether driven by your personal passion and obsession or a need to know music on a deeper level because of some aspect of your career or life, having a listening plan is a surefire way to deepen your knowledge base. Listening provides a sense of accomplishment. Just as your body feels more limber after a hike, your soul will feel supple when it has been modulated by the music of the spheres.
Here are some places to find some music lists and listening. Online there are a gazillion curated playlists for every available genre or mood. I recommend picking out a few sources for these playlists and visiting them periodically, especially as they relate to the exploration of particular genres. NPR’s website and the bandcamp website both provide good guides. Tiny Mixtapes also has a fine selection of mixes on specific themes, as well as music reviews and news. The Quietus has regular features on various genres and artists, and Brainwashed.com features weekly reviews.
Here are some further areas of inquiry:
Add the entire canon of a single musician/band/composer to the list. Do you love Erik Satie or Sun Ra or David Bowie? Listen to everything they ever made in chronological order if you’re feeling bold. Searching out the rarer items will also be a rewarding challenge. You could also choose a producer/engineer such as Joe Meek and Steve Albini. Another idea is to go through as much of the Nurse With Wound list as you can acquire. It will be a fun task.
33 1/3. The 33 1/3 books are short books about albums published by Bloomsbury. Essentially they are creating a canon that can be discussed and debated. Use the 33 1/3 books as a guide for listening. Reading them is cool too. My favorites from the series are Throbbing Gristle’s Twenty Jazz Funk Greats by Drew Daniels, Pretty Hate Machine by Daphne Carr, and Soundtrack from Twin Peaks by Clare Nina Norelli.
Listen through some historical category, such as French madrigals or hard bop or grunge. Dig into those in more specific ways. Then read something about the artists and styles and time. You get the idea.
Since antiquity music has been a refuge when no other refuge existed. When no other medicine was available the vibrational medicine of music has been used to drive out melancholy vapors from the brain. As Pauline Oliveros said, “listening is presence” and it will help you get your head out of your past.
Having made your plan don’t confuse it with the music itself, only use it as a tool whose vibrations allow you to travel to places as yet unknown.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.