On the bus ride home from work the other day I overheard an interesting conversation. Two guys were talking about their experiences in and out of prison, with the courts, with probation, with the criminal justice system in general. The two fellows talked about how the elevators at the justice center were broke for days on end, and how because the elevators were down, visitors weren’t allowed in. Not being able to see friends and family made their stay all the more miserable. As I sat there listening in I thought it sounded right on target, par for the course with societal collapse. As local governments lose funding for repair of public buildings, it makes sense that our jails might not be first on the list to get fixed.
One comment really stuck with me though. When the guy said he knew four dudes who OD’d on fentanyl while he was in the slammer, I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked.
People on the street are dying from this stuff. Now it seems so are the people who get picked up off the street by the police and thrown into jail for possession. Now they can OD from the convenience of their jail cell. I guess those cavity searches aren’t going so well.
Being on the wrong side of the law hasn’t really been part of my experience. Unless you count the one trip I made to juvie for stealing cough syrup, or the time I got a slap on the wrist by a judge for some graffiti I got caught carving onto a picnic table at a park. Then there was the time I got a misdemeanor at age twenty-four when I contributed to the delinquency of a minor by buying my disabled, then nineteen year old cousin some booze. I hadn’t actually expected him to actually chug the rum. I panicked when he started falling out of his wheelchair due to being in a quick drunken stupor. I couldn’t handle the situation and had to call 911 for assistance. I did the wrong thing, then I did the right thing, and I got a hefty fine. My cousin and I are still real close, and he doesn’t blame me for the incident. I do accept the responsibility for the part I played.
So unless you tally the times I’ve gotten caught breaking the law, I’ve been a law abiding citizen.
My own history with alcohol and drugs is rather checkered, as you might be able to guess from the incidents above. There were other ‘incidents’ if my addled memory serves me right. One thing I’m grateful for is that I never graduated to shooting up. Several of my close friends and some other cousins did when we were all at college together in the years around the turn of the millennium. Some of them are still in the throw of those addictions now, and one is homeless living on the streets of San Francisco. I remember being offered heroin with the caveat “We’ll shoot you up. We know what we are doing.” When I review that memory it’s one of the times I’m happy to suffer from anxiety because that was just one of the times when my neurotic fears have protected me from things so much worse.
But just because I didn’t shoot up doesn’t mean I didn’t do a bunch of other stupid shale, and waste a lot of time from age fourteen until I finally gave up alcohol and marijuana at age thirty-six. By that point they’d stopped working, and had been interfering in my life long enough. I didn’t hit rock bottom per se, but I hit a bottom, and was only compelled to quit when faced with a barrage of pain. It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
It’s kind of ironic that I took the path into drugs in the first place. When I was first getting into punk music I was in adamant opposition to all that. I blasted the hardcore sounds of the band Minor Threat on my Walkman, and I was influenced by their lyrics and by the mentorship of an older vegetarian Straight Edge punk who lived down the street. He turned me on to so much good music via his mixtapes. Around that time I claimed to be Straight Edge too.
Straight Edge is a philosophy that emerged from within the punk rock, hardcore and skateboarding subcultures whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational/non-prescribed drugs (marijuana, MDMA, LSD, cocaine, heroin, etc.). It has since broadened out of those specific spheres.
Peer pressure is a real thing though, whether subtle or overt, and soon I abandoned the philosophy and embarked on a program of what I thought was the expansion of consciousness through the systematic derangement of all the senses. Through all the years of drinking that followed, the idealism inherent within the Straight Edge philosophy was there in the back of my mind, as conscience that had been put on mute. All these years later as I return to the philosophy I find it still has much to offer our Western society plagued with rampant drug and alcohol abuse.
The term Straight Edge itself came from a song of the same name by Minor Threat. The lyrics, full of the self-righteous vehemence of youth, remain just as powerful today as when they first wrote it in Washington D.C. in 1981.
“I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and fuck my head / hang out with the living dead / snort white shit up my nose / pass out at the shows / I don't even think about speed / that's just something I don't need / I've got the Straight Edge! / I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and smoke dope / 'cause I know that I can cope / laugh at the thought at eating ludes / laugh at the thought of sniffing glue / always gonna keep in touch / never gonna use a crutch / I've got the Straight Edge!”
The song launched a revolution. It was a reaction to the hedonism so often found within the punk scene. The Ramones had sang the polar opposite in their song : “Now I wanna sniff some glue / Now I wanna have somethin' to do / All the kids wanna sniff some glue / All the kids want somethin' to do.”
Of the many things punk rebelled against, boredom might be at the top of the list. One way to combat boredom is to take drugs to excess. This seemed to be especially true of those who had embraced the nihilism that also permeated the subculture. But not all punks thought seeking oblivion through the obliteration of consciousness was the best strategy for coping with their existential vexations. Some thought not taking drugs was the real rebellion. Some thought that not getting drunk and blitzed out of your mind was a more productive option. They did have something better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews.
In the song Bottled Violence, Minor Threat took aim at violent drunks. “Get your bravery from a six pack / Get your bravery from a half-pint / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Bottled violence / Lose control of your body / Beat the shit out of somebody / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit.”
A Straight Edger preferred to develop their inner bravery. It came from resisting the allure of mindlessness that accompanied drinking and drugging. It allowed them pursue other forms of meaning when they could have just accepted the status quo.
Though the core of the Straight Edge philosophy is to refrain from smoking, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, some took it further. They also included not indulging in casual sex, or eating meat as part of their lifestyle. Some even nixed caffeine, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs. For various people there were various gradations. For most of the people in the scene it wasn’t about telling other people what to do as much as it was about taking control of your own life. It remains a relevant strategy.
Control yourself, control your mind, and other people have a harder time controlling you.
Straight Edge is sometimes abbreviated as sXe and the X used as a symbol for the lifestyle.
Journalist Michael Azerrad traced the use of the X symbol back to the band the Teen Idles. The D.C. group embarked on a brief West Coast tour in 1980. One of the gigs they were to play was at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, an important stop for touring bands, and a venue where Frisco locals the Dead Kennedys often played. When the band showed up club management was alarmed to discover that they were actually still teens, or at least under the legal drinking age and technically weren’t supposed to even be in the club.
The management compromised, not wanting to lose out on whatever bit of money the young punks could help rake in, and besides they were already booked. As a way of showing the staff not to serve them any booze they marked each of the band members’ hands with a large black X. When the band came back home to D.C., they suggested the system to other local clubs and venues as a way to get teenagers in to see the bands without being served alcohol. This in turn sparked another movement within the punk scene where some bands, many of them hardcore or straight edge, would only play at “all ages” venues.
Later that year The Teen Idles released their Minor Disturbance album. On the cover were two hands with black Xs on the back. This album sealed the deal and the mark soon became associated with the Straight Edge lifestyle. The practice of marking the hands of underage kids with an X at clubs and music venues continued to spread around the country.
One of the members of Teen Idles happened to be a guy named Ian MacKaye, another was Jeff Nelson. They went on to form Minor Threat and from there the Straight Edge subculture continued to grow and evolve.
It is for all these reasons that the Straight Edge movement always gets traced back to Ian MacKaye, even if he is hardly the first person to have been an abstainer. The sentiment had been bubbling up in the scene but he gave it a name, and the symbol of the X that was also adopted. In an interview for the documentary Another State of Mind MacKaye said “When I became a punk, my main fight was against the people who were around me — friends".
When he was 13 he had moved from D.C. to Palo Alto, California for nine months. When he came back home his friends had started drinking and drugging. He remarked, "I said, 'God, I don't want to be like these people, man. I don't fit in at all with them.' So it was an alternative." MacKaye also noted that the symbol "wasn't supposed to signify straight edge—it was supposed to signify kids. It was about being young punk rockers... it represents youth". In later years MacKaye has often spoke about how he never intended for Straight Edge to even be a movement, but the symbol X and the name stuck. People were inspired and it took on a life of its own. Perhaps Perhaps through the clarity of Straight Edge and clean living people can retain –or regain- some of the vibrancy of youth into adulthood.
The philosophy can be seen as a direct and practical response to the excess in the culture of the late 1970s and early 80s when it arose: cocaine, sleeping around, big spending. Sex wasn’t just getting your jollies off, but a connection to another person. Living without the filters and numbness and distortion imposed over the nervous system by drugs was a way to better connect with reality –and if you didn’t like the reality you found yourself in, you then had energy to go do something about, whether it was starting a band, making a ‘zine, creating a venue, or some form of direct action. Being Straight Edge was a path to meaningful activities for those who embraced the practice.
Looking at the 2020’s ahead of us and all the decades of industrial strength drug abuse behind us we still have the same problems. Only Fentanyl may be what is in the headlines now, instead of ludes, coke, crack or ecstasy. As a culture in systemic decline drug abuse is just one of the symptoms, and a temporary escape or refuge for those who would numb themselves against what is often a harsh reality. I can’t judge what another person chooses to do with their bodies. I know many people who are just social drinkers or weed smokers and I have no problem with it; I just don’t happen to be one myself. I’m also in favor of decriminalization and legalization. Prohibition causes more problems than it ever cured.
Yet I think there is a place within Green Wizardry for Straight Edge. The Green Wizard who is clean, or has gotten clean, will be better able to cope with life on its own terms. They also may be in a better position to help guide those neighbors, friends, or associates who happen to be suffering from an addiction, whether it comes from knowledge of twelve step recovery programs, or some other way of getting and staying sober.
Everyone needs an edge in life after all. As the economy overshoots sending citizens into free fall, as colleges continue to cater to corporations over true scholarship, as the environment undergoes permutations unknown to our eldest living relatives, it is necessary to sharpen whatever edge we have. If we wish to live conscious lives of volition, if we wish to have needs and desires met, and seek to bring dreams into reality in a world full of suffering, having our own edge will help us to stay positive. People who aren’t medicated or numbed are in a better position to use their willpower to do their work in the world, in spite or despite what everyone else is doing.
Straight Edge people have a lot more time on their hands. Free from chasing the next buzz or oblivion they have the energy to pursue plans that can impact their life and the lives of the people around them. This is very different from the fall out folks in the midst of substance abuse create in the wakes around them. These activities can provide purpose in the face of chaos and corruption.
At my last work location in the heart of downtown Cincinnati the number of out-of-work people, hanging out stoned, drunk at noon, some OD’ing from time-to-time in the public bathrooms, shows the degree of despair at play in America. This dispirited depression is egged on by an endless negative news cycle, and a seeming lack of choices in this land where too many choices is no choice at all. Instead of cultivating an edge for discomfort, it has been blunted by blunts, numbed by the latest craft brew or mass produced malt liquor, and anesthetized by opioids. On the other end of the drug spectrum are the crystal meth stimulants driving the brain into overdrive, chasing a cascade of conspirinoid thoughts that make even the most jaded netizen of conspiracy theory darkwebs look surprisingly sane.
In this liquid environment of binge eating and binge watching the latest reality reruns or sports spectacle an alternative exists: the Straight Edge and stoic alternative to sharpen the senses of the mind, body and soul in face of commodified decadence being shilled by the managerial class.
In 2013 MacKaye gave a talk at the Library of Congress. Speaking of his youth in the ‘70s he said, “In high school, I loved all my friends, but so many of them were just partying. It was disappointing that that was the only form of rebellion that they could come up with, which was self-destruction.”
Self-construction is the path offered by Straight Edge.
Within the larger punk subculture there was often a lot of open hostility directed towards Straight Edgers. Some of it was just brash reactions against people who came off as self-righteous, holier than thou, or even militant. I remember being made fun of when I had adopted it; and as I’ve been sober these past four years, having changed my habits and behavior, I have noticed the way some people treat me different than before. Going against the grain is a small price to pay for the many gains and transformations that have occurred from straightening my ways.
As Minor Threat sang in the song Out of Step “I don't smoke / I don't drink / I don't fuck / At least I can fucking think / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / Out of step with the world!”
Writing on the influence and legacy of the scene author Nina Renata Aron says, “ask anyone who came of age in the straight edge hardcore scene what it did for them, and they’re likely to tell you it saved their life. Those who’ve seen loved ones fall victim to addiction and its attendant miseries feel the scene spared them various forms of regret, anguish, or worse. More than that, it gave them something to believe in.”
Straight Edge is an antidote. It is Narcan for the individual soul in an overdosed society.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azzerard, 2001
Straight edge: How one 46-second song started a 35-year movement by Nina Renata Aron
Curious how to be Straight Edge? Read this handy guide: How to Be Straight Edge
Read the rest of the Down Home Punk series.
In 1988, the same year Negativland was pioneering the concept and practice of the Teletour, another maverick experimental music composer produced a radio concert like no other before or since. His name is Alvin Curran and the piece in question was his Crystal Psalms, a concerto for musicians in six European nations, simultaneously performed, mixed and broadcast live in stereo to listeners stretched from Palermo, Italy to Helsinki, Finland via six separate but synchronized radio stations.
The name of the radio concerto came from an event that Curran wanted to commemorate with the solemnness it was due; Kristallnacht otherwise known as Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass. It had happened fifty years before the broadcast on November 9th and 10th in Germany. This was the date of the November Pogroms when civilian and Nazi paramilitary forces mobbed the streets to attack Jewish people and their property. This horrendous event was dubbed Kristallnacht due to all the broken glass left on the ground after the windows of their stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.
On Kristallnacht rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. They ransacked and set fire to homes, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This was the opening prelude before the sick opus of the Third Reich’s genocide. It was Hitler’s green light, ramping up his twisted plans. The Third Reich had moved on from economic, political and social persecution to physical violence and murder. The Holocaust had begun.
The year before the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht a number of cultural and arts organization had begun making plans for a series of worldwide memorial events. Alvin Curran was in on some of these conversations. Curran had long been part of a vanguard group of ex-pat American composers living in Italy. He was also a founding member of the collective acoustic and electronic improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva, sometimes known as a Million Electron Volts or simply MEV. They formed in Rome in 1966 and are still active today.
Started by three young Americans with Masters degrees in music composition from Yale and Princeton, MEV combined an Ivy-League classical pedigree with a tendency towards musical anarchism. Just as their music often involved chance operations, or the use of random procedures, the members of the group met by chance (or was it Providence?) on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome in 1965. Without scores, without conductors, they went like bold explorers into the primeval past of music, and its future. Curran says of the band, “….Composers all, nurtured in renowned ivy gardens; some mowed lawns. They met in Rome, near the Cloaca Maxima—and without further ado, began like experimental archeologists to reconstruct the origins of human music. They collected shards of every audible sound, they amplified the inaudible ones, they declared that any vibrating object was itself ‘music,’ they used electricity as a new musical space and cultural theory, they ultimately laid the groundwork for a new common practice. Every audible gurgle, sigh, thump, scratch, blast, every contrapuntal scrimmage, every wall of sound, every two-bit drone, life-threatening collision, heave of melodic reflux that pointed to unmediated liberation, wailing utopias, or other disappearing acts—anything in fact that hinted at the potential unity among all things, space, and times—were MEV’s ‘materia prima.’”
Curran draws from this same ‘materia prima’ as a prolific musician and composer and by the 1980’s had an established solo career. At the time of this writing that solo career is now long and storied. Crystal Psalms is just one of his many innovative works. It is also just one of a number of pieces he created specifically for radio. To my knowledge it is the most technically complex of the pieces he has written for radio.
Crystal Psalms was unique in its conception and required hard dedicated work to pull off. Perhaps that is why these kind of radio events are rare. Of course their rarity could also be due to the lack of imagination on the part of the corporate media that dominates the airwaves. The project brought together over 300 people, including musicians and technicians, in six major European cities. These musicians and technicians, separated into groups at these six locations, could not see or hear what was happening at the other locations. Yet together they performed as a unified ensemble to realize Curran’s score. In commemorating a dark and destructive moment of human history Curran demonstrated our creative possibilities for international artistic and technological collaboration.
Curran organized the concert in the fall of 1987 at a meeting in Rome. The producers from each of the six radio stations were there. These included Danmarks Radio; Hessicher Rundfunk, Germany, ORF, Austria; Radio France; RAI, Italy; VPRO, Holland. The RAI in Rome was chosen to be the main technical center, and HQ, probably due to the fact that this was the facility closest to the composer. Alvin wrote the music between May and September at his home in Poggidoro, about an hour drive outside the city.
The score was written for six groups of complementary ensembles –one group at each station in each country. These ensembles consisted of a mixed chorus (16-32 voices), a quartet of strings or winds, a percussionist and accordionist. Each of these six groups was conducted independent of each other. And even though they were separated by large distances in space, each of the ensembles played in time together. To accomplish this a recorded time track was heard by each conductor that kept them all synchronized.
Besides the live music, pre-recorded tapes were also used. These tapes were filled with the sounds of Jewish life. Among those heard was the ancient shofar (a ritual ram's horn that has been a mainstay in Curran’s music), recordings of the Yemenite Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the “Wailing” Wall). Other sounds on the tape included children from Roman Jewish orphanage, recordings of many famous Eastern European cantors sourced from various sound archives. Curran even included sounds from his family. He recorded his young niece singing her Bat Mitzvah prayers and his father singing in Yiddish at a family get-together. Birds, trains, and ship horns make appearances. But throughout it all is the sound of breaking glass. Meanwhile the live chorus is singing fragments from the Renaissance Jewish composers Salomone Rossi from Italy and another named Caceres from a famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Curran also used choral fragments from versions of the Jewish liturgy composed Lewandowski and Sulzer in the 19th century.
Crystal Psalms is made up of two long sections, 24 minutes, and 29 minutes. tructured in two contiguous sections. In the first there is a ton of percussion created from fallen and thrown objects. Amidst all these heavy sounds he used an 18-voice polyphonic structure to weave an increasingly dense texture from the musical fragments being carried by each "voice". As these fragments repeat the weave is brought ever closer together.
In the second part elements from the pre-recorded tape are more apparent. It moves from one moment to the next, one location or place in time before jumping to something else. Curran says, “Here tonal chords are anchored to nothing, innocent children recite their lessons in the midst of raging international chaos.” Idling cars, Yiddish lullaby’s, are separated by glass breaking, and all undergirded by moments on the accordion, organ and fiddles. A familiar melody will quickly disappear when blasted by noise. A solemn choir sings amidst the sound of someone shuffling through the debris. Fog horns drift in and out as telephones go unanswered. The listener with an ear for classical music will recognize bits of Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” turned into a menacing loop. At the end of it all, the cawing of menacing crows, a murder of crows, who have come feed off the destruction.
Curran writes of his piece that “There is no guiding text other than the mysterious reccurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet and the recitation of disconnected numbers in German, so the listeners, like the musicians, are left to navigate in a sea of structured disorder with nothing but blind faith and the clothes on their backs -- survivors of raw sonic history.”
The event of the radio broadcast was for Curran a very special moment. In creating it, this experience of human artistic and technological collaboration, existed for him alongside the memory of the inhuman pogrom memorialized on its 50th anniversary. Curran say, “By focusing on this almost incomprehensible moment in our recent history, I do not intend to offer yet another lesson on the Holocaust, but simply wish to make a clear personal musical statement and to solicit a conscious act of remembering -- remembering not only this moment of unparalleled human madness of fifty years ago, but of all crimes against humanity anywhere anytime. Without remembering there is no learning; without learning no remembering. And without remembering and learning there is no survival.”
The radio concert was a one off event, never to be performed live again. However recordings from each of the stations involved were made and in 1991 Alvin remixed these into an album. Writing about all of this I’m reminded of something the American folk-singer and storyteller Utah Philips said in regards to memory. “…the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go.”
Let us remember then, the stories in history, personal or global, we would do well not to repeat and those other stories where people work together towards a common good. Just as this day is the product of all our past actions, so tomorrow will be built on what we do today.
Crystal Psalms, New Albion records, 1994
This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Q-Fiver, the newsletter of the Oh-Ky-In Amateur Radio Society.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Most people who go to see underground music, myself included, are for the most part jaded about the music, the bands, the scene, man. If you’ve been around independent music long enough there is a good chance you’ve frequented the bars, basements and other performance spaces where these bands play. As such playing at these types of venues only reaches the damaged ear drums of those who would have been their anyway. The terminal music junkies and bar flies eager to get their fix of distortion.
For bands who are interested in reaching a wider segment of the population and new audiences going on tour isn’t necessarily the answer. Besides, for broke or struggling independent musicians tours are costly and time consuming. Vans filled with a bunch of music freaks who haven’t bathed in a few days, and who get really sweaty on stage when playing the drums, get smelly. Especially when mixed with the smell of half-eaten, carry out burritos. When the local hipsters don’t offer up a pad to crash at, the cost of motel rooms adds up, as do the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken that grease the wheels and keep the band on the road.
As an experiment in media and technology and as a way to get around these problems the pioneering experimental music group Negativland created a phone fidelity device that allowed them to play live music from their home studio into their humble home telephone and broadcast the concert on radio stations all over North America and in England. The Teletour was born.
A radio audience is different from those found at the aforementioned hipster venues. They represent a much larger cross-section of the listening public and is a bit closer to the actual reality of the population. The Teletour allowed them to reach an audience who probably never would have stepped into a Negativland show or go to the places they play when they do perform on stage.
Their first series of broadcast telephone concert known as the Teletour were performed over a period of two weeks in 1988. In total this consisted of about 20 one-hour concerts from their home studio into various community and college radio stations. Twenty-concerts in two weeks provided a lot of exposure and entertainment to the audiences who heard them. Each of these concerts was transmitted with their homebrewed phone fidelity device. Negativland appeared on the air in about 20 cities, from points as distant as Hawaii and England, all while ensconced in their Bay Area studio.
The simple elegance of the idea was received with enthusiasm by the stations and their audiences. The motto for the Teletour was "From Our House to Yours," and summed up all the attractions of bypassing the usual formulas for touring. Most bands touring in the traditional way would have a difficult time playing just one gig a day. Without having to tear down, set up and drive to the next city, a lot of the pressures exerted on touring bands were made moot. Although Negativland has continued to perform live in clubs and other venues (I got to see them at the Southgate House in 2006) the Teletour remains, even all these decades later, a fresh alternative to the over-beaten path of the tour van grind. The Teletour also complimented Negativland’s close relationship with radio work as discussed in last month’s article on their KPFA radio show Over the Edge. I do think the Teletour could be taken up by other musicians and radio stations today who want to continue exploring and refining the technique.
The magic of radio reaches into the unique personal space of the listeners own environment. As such the Teletour is well suited to the kind of cerebral levels of thought and stream of consciousness associations evoked by Negativland and other electronic musicians who make heavy use of sampling. For the group, there was also something super appealing about their sounds being carried electrically over the phone and going out over a radio station in some places they may never have even visited in person, to be picked up by the unsuspecting ears of a random listener. This allowed for an element of real immediate and surprise and delight to occur for those who happened to tune across the dial and listen to a kind of radio and music they may have never heard before.
The Teletour also allowed Negativland to travel across vast distances at incredible speeds. They were able to jaunt between separate and isolated locations in short amounts of time. During the Teletour they were able to play several different time zones in the same evening. This way of touring also saved them money. The Teletours didn’t cost the band a dime while giving them exposure.
The rules they made for Teletouring were simple. Negativland played for free. The receiving radio station only had to pick up the tab for the long-distance phone call. Each show lasted about one hour. Negativland incorporated the station's legal ID into the show so that concerts could continue uninterrupted. They also sent out posters to participating stations in advance to promote the broadcast.
All of this evolved from a bit of homebrewed tech that connected their studio mixer to a normal phone line and transmitted the sounds over the line with improved audio fidelity. Phone companies do rent out high-tech and high-fidelity lines for concert transmissions; these are on the whole prohibitively expensive for the kinds of musicians who also have to hold down day jobs. Negativland made our own version. This box was originally built by David Wills (the Weatherman) in connection with Negativland's radio show, Over the Edge as explored last month.
When the Weatherman wasn’t at the studio with Don Joyce he would call in to the show. He soon cooked up a method for increasing the fidelity of his call into the station. Don Joyce realized that his phoned-in material had sharpness and clarity different from the other phoned-in material. The Weatherman had hooked the output of a small mixer up to his device, and then to his phone. This setup allowed him to send a variety of sources (cassettes, instruments, microphones, etc.) directly into the phone line with a significantly enhanced frequency range. This phone fidelity device does not exactly produce high fidelity, but it does create a surprising improvement in highs and lows, and provides enough depth for effects such as reverb to work well.
Having built the phone fidelity device the Weatherman spread the tech around to several of the other regular callers to OTE. The band eventually realized that it was a no brainer to use this technology to perform over the phone at remote stations as a group. In 1987 they arranged the first experiment with a college station in British Columbia, and about a year later embarked on the first full-scale Teletour. Their record label at the time, SST, set up about 20 concerts at college stations all across the country to occur over a two week period. They also arranged one concert for the BBC outlet in Sussex, England.
Negativland found the Teletour to be an entirely positive experience. Playing live anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat with few expenses seems like a great idea for independent bands but for some reason it hasn’t caught on. If you would like to experiment with this little piece of empowering technology, the plans are included here, as Negativland has freely distributed these the past three decades. I think it is time for today’s independent musicians to coordinate some air time with community and college or even shortwave radio stations and bring the Teletour back to life.
How To Build A Phone Fidelity Device
The parts listed here have Radio Shack catalog numbers… I’m sure anyone who wants to build this can find their equivalent.
Audio Isolation Transformer with 1:1 turns ratio, 600 ohm impendance
($3.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 273-1374)
1/4" Phono jack ($1.99 for 2, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-155C)
RCA-style phono plugs ($2.19 for 4, Radio Shack Cat. # 274-384)
Modular Dual Jack Extension Cord ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-363)
2-outlet Modular Adaptor ($4.79, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-357)
Modular-to-spade 12" line cord ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-391)
OPTIONAL: Telephone wiring box ($6.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-343)
Wall mounting box ($1.99, Radio Shack Cat. # 279-341)
How to build the device:
Plug the male end of the Dual Jack Extension cord into a wall phone jack. (You can also use a 2-outlet Modular Adaptor.)
Plug a standard phone into one jack on the Dual Jack Extension Cord, and plug the Modular-to-Spade Line cord into the other jack.
The Modular-to-Spade Line Cord should have four wires: yellow, black, red, and green. Put tape on the ends of the yellow and black wires, as these are not needed. Connect the red wire to the red wire from the Audio Isolation Transformer, and connect the green wire to the yellow wire from the the Audio Isolation Transformer. (No need to solder, just make sure the wires are attached securely, e.g. with alligator clips if you don't know how to solder.)
Connect the black and white wires from the Audio Isolation Transformer to the terminals on the 1/4" phono plug (it doesn't matter which wire goes to which terminal.) (You can also use an RCA-style plug, depending on the type of wire coming from the output of the mixer or stereo.) Again, there is no need to solder necessarily.
Now plug a mono output line from the mixer or stereo into the phono jack, and you are ready to go! (You can also use a tape deck or CD player as sound input.)
OPTIONAL: Since your device might be fragile (particularly if you did not solder the connections) you may wish to place the core of the setup inside of a box of some sort. I use a Telephone Wiring Box. This also has little screws and posts inside which I use to secure connections.
How to operate the device:
When you are calling into the radio, the trick is to use the telephone line ONLY FOR SOUND INPUT, NOT for listening to the radio. Therefore, you should put headphones on which are plugged into the radio to listen to yourself when you are on the air.
Unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack, so that only the telephone is plugged into the Dual Jack. You should get a dial tone when you pick up the phone.
Using the telephone plugged into the Dual Jack, dial the number you want to call.
When you hear that the other end's phone is ringing, plug the Modular-to- Spade Line Cord back into the Dual Jack.
Once the device is reconnected, try outputting sound from your mixer. You should be able to hear the sound by listening to the telephone which is connected to the other side of the Dual Jack. If you hear sound, you should hang up the phone, put on your headphones, and wait until you are on the air. (When you hang up the phone, the line will NOT be disconnected, as you still have a line running into the other jack which is acting as a phone itself. If you do not hang up the phone, the device will still work, but the signal may not be as strong.) If you do not hear sound through the telephone, your device is probably not connected properly.
When you are done, make sure you unplug the Modular-to-Spade Line Cord from the Dual Jack. Otherwise, the line will remain connected, just as if you left the phone off the hook.
TIPS: Once you get on the air, try adjusting the level and EQ on your sound. You want to be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that you are distorted or drowning out the ambient sound. You should realize that you are going to lose a lot of the sound at lower frequencies. You can boost the bass on your mixer/stereo, but still be aware that low-frequency sounds are not going to come out very clearly. Mid and high frequency sounds (under about 15 kHz) tend to come out best. IF YOU WANT TO GO IN STEREO, you need two phone lines, and two devices as above. Then you need to get both lines on the air at once! I use a computer with automatic-dialing software to make it easier to get through.
Good luck, and have fun!
This article originally appeared in the January edition of the Q-Fiver:
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Financial distress and its attendant challenges in the coming Long Descent will cause a lot of people to scramble to meet their needs. Clothing is one of those needs. Most humans like to look good and feel good about themselves and others. Dressing smartly with the resources available is one to create a sense of control in your life. In a world with tight restrictions of income, expressing yourself in the way you dress is one way to be poor with style.
Recently on the Ecosophia blog and here on the Green Wizards website the topic of “Being poor with style” has come into discussion.
What does being poor with style mean?
To me it directly relates to the LESS equation outlined by John Michael Greer in his book Blood of the Earth where LESS stands for Less Energy Stuff and Stimulation. The word style itself has one origin in the word stylus, the tool engravers would use to render drawings and texts. So style is something a person can read or see; style is an aesthetic impression on the senses, primarily visual. In the modern western sense style almost exclusively has to do with how a person dresses and how they decorate their home. So for the Green Wizard who has adopted a “down home” approach to their work being poor with style is an appropriate response to the crisis of our time. This response brings together a personal sense of aesthetics in living that emphasizes cutting back on having a huge wardrobe, unnecessary plastic junk and clutter in the home, while having entertainment that stimulates the imagination rather than wrecking and distorting it, all while curbing energy consumption. All of these things can be done in different ways, all while still looking good and being presentable.
Though style does encompass home décor that will be looked at in a future article; here we will be looking at the world of clothing and dress.
A Green Wizard could be anyone, anywhere. The practical knowledge of systems thinking, appropriate tech skills, and the entire corpus of ecotechnic knowledge can be stored within any human vessel no matter their size, shape or exterior look. Nor does it matter what clothes are draped over the physical form in question. A bag lady shuffling down broken sidewalks with her shopping cart may contain within her a vast library of knowledge on how to survive through scavenging and skill. She is practiced in living outside the system and on the fringes of acceptable society. She knows how to get by under harsh conditions and could be a teacher to someone who has never been thrust into that situation. The woman in the smart business suit seen on the bus ride home from downtown may be going back to her own urban household where she tinkers with solar water heating systems, wood stoves, and backyard rabbit hatches, turnip patches, all while brewing beer in her bicycle garage. The welder or construction worker in his heavy Carhartt or Dickey’s clothes may have a system in place to heat his home by burning used motor oil and thereby cut their cost and reliance on the commercial energy grid. These Green Wizards may all be in different social classes but they are Green Wizards just the same.
Being a Green Wizard is determined by what a person does and knows more than how they look, or even what they may do to earn a living in the financial system, in as much as they are still a part of that system.
Yet there might be some advantages to adopting a Green Wizard dress code of sorts, of learning how to be stylish on the cheap. There is some truth in the saying “clothes make the man” –or woman—and depending on what your goals as a person and Green Wizard are, a certain way of dressing may further or inhibit the accomplishment of those goals. Aside from the practical considerations of appropriate clothing for the labors and weather of the day, there is also the matter of dressing to conform or rebel against the normative standards imposed by society.
Peak oil writer and financial collapse commentator James Howard Kunstler has been a devout critic of the standard dress of the typical American male. In particular he has criticized the slovenly look of fat men in cargo shorts wearing leftover t-shirt’s with corporate logos or something that says, “I love cornhole” or “I’m with stupid” –effectively announcing their own stupidity and making it easier for the rest of us to know they aren’t the kind of person we prefer to hang out with.
Back in 2011 James wrote, “Europe is arguably worse off money-wise, more broke, flimsier, crapped out, crippled, and paralyzed. Sad, because in outward appearance Europe is – how shall I put this? – better turned out than America. Europe is a fit, silver-haired gentleman in a sleek Italian suit and a pair of Michael Toschi swing lace wingtips, holding a serious-looking Chiarugi leather briefcase. America is pear-shaped blob of semi-formed male flesh, in ankle-length cargo shorts, a black T-shirt featuring skull motifs, tattoos randomly assigned (as if by lottery) to visible flesh, a Sluggo buzz-cut, and a low-rider sports cap designed to make your head look flat. In other words, he lacks a certain savoir-faire compared to his European cousin. But both are broke. Neither has any idea what he will do next – though, for the American, it will probably involve the ingestion of melted cheese or drugs (or both). When the European collapses, a certain air of delicacy will attend his demise; the expired American will go up in flames in a trailer and they’ll have to sort out his remains from the melted goop of his dwelling-place with a front-end loader.” [https://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/the_amazing_dissolving_nation/]
He goes deeper into the subject on an episode of his podcast where he discusses tattoos. “He thinks the fierce looking tattoos on young Americas are actually a sign of how deeply insecure we are as a nation. They’re also a form of ‘non-conformist-just-like-you’ consumerism… hip hop costuming… has invaded the mainstream and has made young men look like oversized babies and violent clowns.” [ https://kunstler.com/podcast/kunstlercast_29_tattoos/ ]
Kunstler also took up this theme in his World Made By Hand novels where the religious group that came to his fictional town of Union Grove set up a haberdashery and homemade clothing store. American’s used to have a grand style copied by other countries all around the world. So how did we get so sloppy? How can it be that we do not care enough about how we look that we walk around in public wearing little more than undergarments? It seems certain sectors of America have adapted to being poor, but have forgotten how to do it with style.
(I also do have sympathy and understanding for those people whose choices in clothing are predicated on first having enough money to buy a meal. I also understand the modern primitive movement and how getting tattooed can help you belong to a modern tribe –or gang.)
I of course respect a person’s right to choose how to dress as they please, because in the end, it’s really none of my business. Yet in America today it seems that people have often forgot that one of the purposes of dressing in a stylish way is to please others. The way you look can be a source of delight for the people who encounter you. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said, “Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.”
Brett McKay the editor and main author at the Art of Manliness website wrote, “There are many ways that dressing well will benefit you personally. When you look sharp, you feel better about yourself, make a great first impression, and interact with others more confidently, all of which helps you build relationships and become a more influential man. Research shows that when people perceive you as more attractive, they assume other positive qualities about you as well (the so-called ‘halo effect’), and even find you more persuasive. One’s style is also simply a chance to express one’s personality and taste.
While dressing well can thus be self-serving (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are also more altruistic reasons to care about one’s appearance. Dressing for other people can in fact be just as, or an even more compelling, reason to do so.
The idea of dressing for others is not likely to strike the modern mind very agreeably. As we pride ourselves on believing we are individualists, who don’t care what anyone else thinks, the idea of choosing clothes with reference to other people may smack of conformity.
But when I speak of ‘dressing for others,’ I do not have in mind acquiescence to societal codes (which hardly still exist), where the end is merely fitting in. Rather, I am forwarding an idea of dressing well as a freely chosen service — a gift one willingly gives to others.”
[This applies as much to woman as men. The full article can be found here: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/dressing-for-others/ ]
In a society undergoing the painful process of collapse, the added touches of dressing well, and doing so cheaply, could be a nice touch that uplifts the individual and the people around them, helping them to live a flourishing life even as we deal with problems, challenges and predicaments. Even for those of us on the strictest of budgets could afford to have a bit more sartorial flair. It might also be possible to spread the Green Wizard meme through what I will now call “appropriate aesthetics”.
What might appropriate aesthetics look like? I think for a start bioregional and economic considerations would come into play. Certain ways of dressing would be more suitable in some physical environments than others. The avoidance of man-made materials is also a consideration. Wearing plastic is hardly green. Maybe through the creation of an appropriate aesthetic it could also come to be seen as tacky. The style of punk rockers and hippie earth muffin types might also inform the look or at least the philosophy. Maybe not by what is worn, per se, but by where it comes from: Thrift stores, free benches, clothing swaps, etc.
70-75% of my own clothing comes from second hand sources. Shirts, sweaters and jackets are the easiest things to come by in thrift stores or as hand me downs. I’ve had less luck with jeans and pants in the right size but still do find some at the thrift store. The main things to buy new are socks, underwear and some shoes. A good pair of boots and a good pair of dress shoes could last decades if taken care of. The dress shoes may only be worn a few times a year for funerals, weddings and other special occasions such as job interviews. The boots if you get a good enough pair may be more of an investment, but can be re-soled when the time comes, and last just as long. I still have the same pair of nice leather dress shoes I bought sixteen years ago and expect them to continue to last.
Dressing from what is found at the thrift store can also be ethical. It is one way to curb participation in buying new material that was made by people in sweat shops. When you buy at the thrift store you also help to keep some folks from the lower and underprivileged classes employed. And as Green Wizards know it is also a way to save our own funds while enjoying the flows cast off by others. Then you can use some of the money you saved to buy new products that are American made or created in the local economy by a small artisan.
As the economy goes through its inevitable gasps, flits, and starts now is a good time to build a wardrobe that will last and serve your goals. So gather up the family and head on over to the local thrift shop, St. Vincent De Paul, Goodwill or other charity and see what strikes your fancy. It’s easier than you think to look good on the cheap. In doing so you might just give your own sense of well being a boost and bring some joy to others.
Radio is a form of technological high magic. There is something inherent about the radio medium itself that by way of its magic stimulates the imagination; whether it’s a bit of long distance DX captured on the ham bands, tuning in to a remote shortwave station via another remote web SDR, a weekly net on 2 meters, or a broadcast transmission on a community FM station doesn’t matter. All these different ways of using radio share in the mystery.
For broadcast radio itself, it is a literal theater of the imagination. Voices, sounds, and music edited together in a pleasing or thought provoking way have transport the listener to a region accessible no other way. Thinking of all the possibilities radio has it is a real shame that broadcasting in its commercial aspect long ago fell into such a well-worn, predictable and boring rut. The songs heard on the air when tuning across the dial have been played so many times there are almost no grooves left on the records. Talk radio is also not exempt. No matter what a person’s political persuasion may be, pundits on both sides of the aisle trot out the same plodding talking points time and again, no matter the issue at hand. It often makes me wonder what the heck the point of all the uninspired and placid propaganda blasted across the spectrum actually is; maybe it’s just a form of anti-thought to occupy the minds of hungry commuters and consumers.
Broadcast radio can be so much more than what it has become. And to be fair, there is a lot out there in the ether that breaks the mold and stranglehold put on the medium by commercial interests and market forces. To find these programs, you have to dig them out of the mud, and tune around to alternate frequencies. You have to search out the community stations, the low-power stations, and even the pirate stations, namely those stations not beholden to mammon, to find programs that are willing to break the self-inflicted format categories typical of commercial radio and take you over the edge into territories that have remained largely unexplored on the air.
These outlier shows are able to take risks that move the form forward without fear of reprisal. No one is paying them to be taste shapers by playing particular songs and they have no one to offend when exercising their freedom of speech because there are no image sensitive sponsors paying the bills at these stations. The next several articles in the Rad Lab will be concerned with the arts of transmission and the way innovators in broadcast radio have advanced the medium to show what it is really capable of moving beyond the narrow bandwidth imposed by advertising.
OVER THE EDGE
One such show holds the record for being the longest running block of free-form audio collage in the history of radio. The show is Over the Edge (OTE) on KPFA in Berkely, California. It was hosted by Don Joyce, a member of the experimental group Negativland, from 1981 until his death in 2015. The radio show and the band had close ties and there was a lot of overlap between the show, and the band, with many of the members frequently participating in the program making it hard to talk about the show without delving into the band.
Negativland started in 1979 and though Joyce was a full performer and credited member he started OTE before he had met or been asked to join the band. The group was not the show and the show was not the group. It was however a match made in Contra Costa County due to the passion the original line-up had for found sound, collage and experimental music. Joyce’s own enthusiasm in those areas made the fusion of Joyce with Negativland a force multiplier for their many activities and gave them regular access to the very media they sought to rearrange.
Since its beginning in 1981 OTE and Don Joyce stood far from the maddening crowd. It was a time when TV had killed the radio star. The glass teat had reached a point of ascendancy as the main cultural medium and influencer. Cable TV upended this even further and soon MTV positioned itself as the primary pusher of music and youth culture.
It didn’t stop Don Joyce however (his initials are DJ after all). Though trained as a painter with a Masters degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, he loved the radio medium, from old time radio to offshore pirates. His favorite radio show was Bob and Ray and he was also inspired and influenced by the work Firesign Theater. Out of this love he was able to create such a large body of work that other radio producers, DJs and programmers, have long been left in the dust. Many can only hope to catch up with his prowess and acumen.
Over the Edge is a live mix of collaged audio material sourced from all across recorded media: records, tapes, and CDs and not just music but audiobooks, lectures, self-help cassettes, recordings of other radio shows, sound bites from film and TV, homemade recordings and everything and anything else imaginable. Alongside these Don Joyce and Negativland made many specially prepared recordings for the program, wrote scripts and performed skits on the air.
It could have all been just a mess of noise if not for the guiding hands of Don Joyce at the helm. Each week to guide the course of the three-to-five hour over-night show Don would have a theme. The audio samples were all related to and congealed and coalesced around the subject matter. This sometimes makes listening to an episode of the show like attending a lecture with many alternating viewpoints approaching the same subject from different angles. The source material itself was edited and mixed in such a way that it often sounded as if it was commenting on the other source material in the mix.
Alongside the themes Don would play a variety of different characters as hosts of the show with many Negativland members also playing or being recurring characters. Part of this aspect came from the strong influence of Bob and Ray and Firesign Theater. These included cultural critic and director of stylistic premonitions Crosley Bendix, Dr. Oslo Norway, the media and radio historian Izzy Isn’t, and the tycoon founder of the Universal Media Netweb C. Elliot Friday. Other characters played by other Negativland members included the used car salesman Dick Goodbody, Dick Vaughn, a fan of underappreciated 1970’s music, the Weatherman and the Clorox Cowboy, among a slew of others.
Here is how Don described the show himself. "OTE's weekly themed mixes are made live and spontaneously on the air from a variety of formats and equipment used to do live sound cut ups and collage while mixing, including the frequent use of the now long dead analog technology of radio broadcast cart machines. On each themed episode of OTE there is a plan and there is no plan. Existing within the parallel universe of the Universal Media Netweb, the OTE mix consists of found sounds of many kinds from many sources put together on the run as the continuous audio collage progresses, along with live electronics (often from our Boopers [a homemade sound device built by the Weatherman from repurposed transitor radios and oscillators, ed.]), live sound processing, and all sorts of reccuring themes, topics and characters. Some of the shows involve all of Negativland, while some involve others outside of our group who participate semi-regularly. Beyond those, there are regular solo show broadcasts by Negativland member Don Joyce, who is the FCC license holder and responsible for filling the radio slot each week. All in all, if you like Negativland, you will like these shows, no matter who is involved, as they all maintain a ‘Negativ’ touch based on our live mixing techniques. OTE often employs ‘Receptacle Programming,’ which means you. Phone callers are punched into our mix with no warning. Call 510-848-4425 to deposit your programming. When your phone stops ringing, you’re on the air. Don’t say 'hello'."
The receptacle aspect of the show added to the interest level of the listeners and made it a participatory program. Regular listeners became regular participants helping to co-create the show. They called in to and play their own samples and music into the receptacle of the radio. This level of audience participation in radio had never been done in quite that way on the air anywhere else. The phone calls into the studio gave the show an element that was unpredictable even to Don. With multiple lines coming in several callers could be on the air together at once. Don would add echo effects to their voices and otherwise mess with their sound, panning some to left and others to the right. If he didn’t like what a caller was adding to the mix he just hung up on them. This aspect of the show created a real sense of community around OTE.
In some ways the receptacle radio aspect was like a weekly ham radio net, albeit with different FCC regulations and a totally different feel, but similar in that it was a group of people communicating over the air, just using phones. In that respect it was also similar to the chat rooms or party lines phone phreaks used to hang out and talk to each other on, yet different. Being in Berkeley, it should come as no surprise that it took on some of the character of the California counterculture as well as some of the character of the kind of people who stayed up real late at night to listen to free form radio. One word characterizes this motley crew radio freaks: creativity.
All of this might sound just a tad chaotic, and it was. Yet students of chaos theory have long known that there is an underlying pattern, a blueprint of order within what might otherwise appear to be random. The untrained ear may hear the swirling debris and detritus culled and recycled from the mediasphere as unconnected, but careful listening reveals a constellation carefully stitched together across the duration of the broadcast. Perceiving this pattern requires a kind of relaxed concentration. The reward for engaging with OTE at this level goes beyond its inherent entertainment value and into the realm of an education on whatever theme or topic Don Joyce had picked for the particular episode. He was the conductor and directed the flow and course of the mix, all the while allowing others to interact with it by dialing into the receptacle.
Don Joyce was a master of the combinatorial art. He had a unique talent for teasing out permutations from a wide variety of sources, arriving at an eventual synthesis and amalgamation. His canvas was the radio and his vast pallet was a gargantuan library of all the media he collected over his life. On OTE he showed again and again that all media concepts are nothing but combinations of a relatively small number of simple sound bites, just as words are combinations of letters. He was able to express both truth and absurdity, and the absurdity in truth, via the appropriate recombination of sounds and words, which he in turn decomposed into strange ideas and new ways of thinking by their unusual juxtapositions. Through the use of artistic intuition his combinations exposed hidden logics.
Some of the themes he tackled over the years spanned more than one show and included long series of shows on How Radio Was Done (a history of broadcasting from its first days into the 90’s), How Radio Isn’t Done (all the things we could do but mostly don’t), UFOs, the Universe, All Art Radio, the Time Zones Exchange Project, Advertising Secrets, Music Is…, the Fake Bacon Breakfast Loop… and many, many others.
Don Joyce lived a simplified life. He had a minimal income and spent his time creating a free radio show that was on a non-commercial station for which he did not get paid in financial dividends. The band Negativland had never been something that earned a lot of money either. Both were labors of love and gave back other rewards.
Joyce died of heart failure in Oakland, California on July 22, 2015 at the age of 71. He was cremated, and the band packaged two grams of his remains with the first 1000 CD copies of Negativland's 2016 album The Cutting Edge Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel. 750 of his O.T.E. and live show Fidelipac audio carts were also sent along with those ashes. Don's remains became a viral story on the internet. It was the way he would have wanted to be remembered.
Don Joyce left behind 941 three-to-five-hour-long episodes of OTE from his own personal air checks. That's over 3200 hours of live radio he recorded. Some of the early shows of OTE are still missing, but exist out there somewhere, in the memory of the eternal ether. The Internet Archive has graciously hosted all of the extant recordings of the program. These are available to listen to here: https://archive.org/details/ote
And even though Don is gone Over The Edge and Receptacle Programming continues to exist, evolve, and is still broadcasting each week on KPFA FM. Musician and latter day Negativland member Wobbly (John Leidecker) took over the reign of the program after Don’s death. Wobbly had been a frequent guest and participant on so many OTE shows it was a natural fit. OTE lives on in a new era.
At the end of each show Don would play a sample of a woman reading a quote attributed to surrealist artist Man Ray, "To create is divine. To reproduce is human." The quote sums up Joyce’s approach to making radio art. He reproduced, retouched, reexamined, retransmitted the mass produced material our media saturated society threw by the wayside. It may not have been divine, but in doing so he touched and humored our humanity.
Before Sirius XM was launched St. GIGA existed in an orbit of its own, an orbit that broadcast its content in harmony with the movement of the Pacific tides. The Japanese company became the first Satellite Digital Audio Broadcast Corportion formed as a subsidiary of the satellite TV company WOWOW. Transmission tests commenced on November 30, 1990 and regular transmissions started at the end of March, 1991. The company adopted a commercial free broadcasting model but to listen to St. GIGA you needed a subscription. The subscription was worth the money though, because the soothing content of their programs was like nothing else before or since. With a receiver set to 11.8042 GHz the pioneering satellite radio station known as St. GIGA took listeners on a gentle journey of ebb and flow.
When parent company WOWOW decided to expand into the realm of radio they knew they would need some help. As business executives they were all in agreement that they weren’t cool and knew nothing about music. To come up with the name they solicited a poll to everyday “persons on the streets” and St. GIGA was selected. Yet they remained in the dark about what to put on the air. They were in need of a creative director to format the content of the satellite service and the searchlight landed on Hiroshi Yokoi. Yokoi had just worked on the popular J-Wave FM station founded in 1988 and which still broadcasts today on 81.3 mhz in Tokyo.
Yokoi was considered an innovator in the field, as was J-Wave. J-Wave's slogan is "The Best Music on the Planet," and the programmers aren’t mere DJs, they are known as "navigators" or nabigētā, and they guide listeners on voyages of discovery. J-Wave’s music could be considered to be the equivalent of top 40 but one of their innovations was the use of hundreds of different jingles to separate programs from commercials. These jingles are played at the same decibel level and are variations on a single melody; the jingles and give the station a unique sonic signature and identity. In 1994 J-Wave also moved to being simulcast via satellite and some of its programs became syndicated on various community radio stations throughout Japan. Due to his work on J-Wave the execs at WOWWOW thought Yokoi would be a good fit for St. GIGA.
Soon after he signed on Yokoi crafted a radical and artistic proposal for the station concept. The men in suits who controlled the money reacted with skepticism. Yet after a few months of traditional broadcasting the executives adopted Yokoi's concept for a probation period. Later he was given full discretion to shape the programming and future course of St. GIGA.
What Yokoi had in mind was a “Tide of Sound.” The concept was quite revolutionary. To tie in with the concept, the station motto became, "I'm here. — I'm glad you're there. — We are St.GIGA." This was a tip of the hat to Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan in which the alien life forms called harmoniums communicate using only the phrases "Here I am" and "So glad you are." Yokoi was also influenced by writer Kevin W. Kelley's book The Home Planet. Kelley’s book was a collection of color photographs taken in space capturing the beauty of planet earth. The photos were pared with personal accounts of the experience of seeing earth from space by astronauts and cosmonauts. These two influences formed a communication methodology that broke new ground in the world of broadcasting.
As part of Yokoi’s concept the St. GIGA broadcasts followed no externally fixed program schedule. It was not based on a solar calendar week, where a certain show would recur every Sunday at 7 PM. Instead Yokoi had the genius to base the transmissions around a tide table. Themes for broadcasts were based on a cyclical motif and tried to approximate the current tidal cycle according to the Rule of Twelfths throughout a 24-hour day.
The Rule of Twelfths is an approximation to a sine wave curve. The formula can be used as a rule of thumb for estimating a changing quantity where both the quantity and the steps are easily divisible by 12. It has been typically used for estimating the height of the tide. The rate of flow in a tide increases smoothly to a maximum halfway point between high and low tide, before smoothly decreasing to zero again. The rule is also used to make predictions on the change in day length over the seasons.
Tidal changes are non-linear. This means that in the first hours of a tidal shift the tide might not rise or fall very much, yet as the cycle progresses the rising or falling will accelerate through the mid hours. The Rule of Twelfths applies to the semidiurnal tide - a tide having two high waters and two low waters during a tidal day, which is exactly what happens in most locations. The semidiurnal tide period lasts for a period of 12 hours and 25.2 minutes from low to high tide, and then repeats back to low tide again. The full and new moons also have effects on the tide, as do the first and third quarter moons.
The transmissions of St. GIGA followed this pattern in a unique way, mimicking the swell of the tides and the course of the moon. With his “Tide of Sounds” broadcasting process the end of one show and the beginning of another was not demarcated or clearly defined as folks are used to hearing on the radio. Instead, gradually, using the Rule of Twelfths songs of one genre would flow into and intersperse with songs and material from the prior genre until the new genre, just like a high or low ocean tide, became predominant. Yokoi designed it this way so that listeners could relax into waves of sound "like a baby sleeps in the womb." These "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts operated under the awesome principle of "No Commercials, No DJs, No News Broadcasts, No Talk." If only more radio stations would follow this principle and ethic. Of course this absence of commercials and talk was only possible because the service was subscription based.
Besides the timing of the broadcasts the content was also informed by St. GIGA’s tidal and lunar oriented schedule. It was heavy on ambient music, smooth jazz and field recordings from the natural world. One of the programs was called “Tide Table” and featured live environmental sound broadcasts of waves crashing on the ocean shore. The "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts often featured high-quality digital recordings of nature sounds accompanied by spoken word narration by the "Voice." The part of the "Voice" was played by a number of notable Japanese poets and actors including Ryo Michiko among others. "Voice" performances often consisted of all new poetry composed specifically for the show.
Ambient music, environmental sound recordings and poetry? It sounds perfect. I wonder what other funding models might be developed to breathe new life into this kind of innovative broadcast format? It seems like this mode could be set up and used by low-power community FM or AM stations, or on Part 15 compliant hobby broadcasting stations.
Due to the popularity of the environmental sound recordings and the overall library of material they played, St. GIGA was able to fund field recording trips to collect “biomusic” a term that includes bird songs, whale songs, dolphins, or the sounds of other animals and plants in their natural landscape. Biomusic recording artists were sent to places such as England, the Canary Islands, Mikonos, Venice, Bali, Tahiti, Martinique, Hanson Island (BC), and Maui, all to capture and create and transmit new worlds of sound for the listeners.
Ambient musicians were also commissioned to create original albums and works for the satellite station. Kim Cascone, under his Heavenly Music Corporation moniker, made and released the album Lunar Phase for broadcast from the bird. The album includes the song “St. Giga” and was released in 1995. It was from listening to this record that I learned of St. GIGA in the first place and went on to track down some of the recordings from the station that fans have made available on youtube. The Heavenly Music Corporation was a perfect fit for St. GIGA because the music is both heavenly, and in this instance, came down from the heavens.
The satellite gained something of a cult following and fanzines such as BSFan Journal and G-Mania sprang up to write about the music and report on the allied ambient, mood, and electronic scene in Japan.
St.GIGA also released CDs of their music on their own label and the popular American ambient label Hearts of Space (also a fabulous late night radio show). A number of thematic books were published at the high tide of the satellites popularity including the multi-volume St.GIGA Stylebook and Current of dreams: An introduction to St.GIGA programming. This contained the full text of Yokoi's original concept proposal. Later books included Trends in Dreaming - St.GIGA's Hiroshi Yokoi's General Office.
Despite all this by the mid ‘90s the company was in financial trouble. The popularity of the satellite had peaked and was starting to flow back into the ocean. The market for ambient and related forms of music was not as strong as had been initially anticipated. Plus there was the pesky problem of a financial recession in Japan. Then there was the related issue of strapped consumers not wanting to invest in the expensive antennas and tuners needed to pick up the broadcasts. So St. GIGA formed a partnership with Nintendo. Because that’s what you do if you are a popular Japanese satellite radio company in financial trouble. At this point Nintendo had become the largest shareholder in the company and with their influence the Tide of Sound broadcasts were cut back in order to bring some of their own programming on board.
With the video game company kicking them some dough, they started to broadcast digitally encoded games to owners of the Super Famicoms system between the spring of 1995 and the summer of 2000.The Super Famicom was the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo made an accessory component to work with the Super Famicom called the Satellaview. This was a satellite modem never released in America or Europe. The Satellaview allowed the users to connect to St.GIGA. During a special segment called Super Famicom Hour game data was broadcast. During this transmission people could download games to the Satellaview's internal memory or an optional Memory Pak. Super Famicom Hour actually lasted from noon to two am, so it took away a good chunk of time from St. GIGA’s original programming.
Unlike other services offered by competitors the Satellaview did not have online multiplayer capabilities. This was due to the one-way nature of commercial satellite radio. Despite this limited amounts of data could be sent back through the radio connection. The service featured numerous quizzes and other competitions which required players to send their answers back up to the bird
Another new service related to the games was called SoundLink. CD-quality sound was streamed through the St. GIGA satellite connection to accompany real time play of video games such as the three versions of BS Zelda. The SoundLink included a fully-voiced "narrator" who would guide and give helpful hints and advice to the players throughout the game. Because the SoundLink required a live broadcast of music with a voice track, some games could only be played at the time of transmission. After the last broadcast of the SoundLink data was over, that game could never be played ever again. Some time-sensitive games were split into separate transmissions on different days to allow for the play of longer games.
Due to the rewritability of the cartridges and the fact that SoundLink broadcasts were streamed live and not downloaded during the noon-2AM Super Famicom “Hour” time slot, and because the games have never been rereleased by Nintendo, they have become extremely rare. Yet some can be played in partial emulation. This has been achieved by the extreme level of devotion and skill in this corner of high-geekdom. The subculture of collectors and game enthusiasts have exerted much effort engaged in electronic archaeology by extracting old data from heavily rewritten data cartridges in order to try to reproduce these games via emulation.
SoundLink also featured a type of enhanced magazine. This functioned as a mashup of a radio drama mixed with images and text. Unlike all other Satellaview content, SoundLink content was only available for an additional fee of ¥600 a month.
As St.GIGA’s tide continued to ebb out it broadcast talk shows and entertainment news programs about celebrity idols, as well as a variety show. The shows were slotted to match the schedules of video game and pop culture addicted students as the station's audience had shifted radically, much to the disappointment of its original devotees, the ambient music fans. Before long the station had ceased transmissions of all "Time & Tide" programs including the much-admired Tidal Currents show. Fan publications such as BSFan Journal became replaced by ‘zines that focused on the video game content. Towards the end of its life St.GIGA had focused all of its energies on Satellaview transmissions.
Until 1999 the Satellaview service was controlled by both St. GIGA and Nintendo. After 1999 St. GIGA was the sole controller of the service, as Nintendo broke its partnership with the radio station due to a dispute. However, the service was only turned off in 2000. By 2001 St. GIGA was nearly bankrupt.
Around this time Yokoi the director had also been stricken with cancer. After his death in March of 2003 St.GIGA was rechristened Club COSMO under the leadership of Shinichi Matsuo. Broadcasts continued until October 1, when the company was forced to sell its licensing rights to World Independent Networks Japan Inc. (WINJ). WireBee immediately began bankruptcy procedures, and all recording instruments and 241 tapes of nature sounds were auctioned off at open market for a total divided sale price of ¥5 million.
St. GIGA had reached low tide. It is my hope that it and Hioroshi Yokoi, the man who made it so brilliant, remains in orbit in a heavenly and oceanic musical realm.
Read the other articles in the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY serie.
Migration and homelessness caused by climate change and economic collapse in the coming Long Descent will be a huge social challenge. We must think now how we will deal with it when it comes. To do that we should first look at the history of squatting over the last two centuries for some context of squatting in an urban environment. This is the second in a series of articles on the subject of "Down Home Punk"
If you live in a city you’ve seen the specter of homelessness.
Unless you are totally tuned out, indifferent and clueless, you probably understand that the chain of events that has led a person or a family to life on the streets has not been in their complete control. The rise and fall of the wheel of fortune, the ebb and flow of the tides of fate can be both boon and bane. It is not up to us to judge how people end up in the circumstances they inhabit. It will probably also never be up to us influence how they react and respond to the hand they have been dealt. Yet within each hand of cards life has given a person, there are certain plays and arrangements which can be made to make the most of a situation.
For the increasing homeless population of the world there is an opportunity to be found in something else industrial society has so carelessly discarded: buildings and home. Chances are, if you live in a city you have seen abandoned buildings boarded up somewhere (or everywhere), with knee high weeds surrounding the yard. Maybe you’ve even snuck into one of these empty houses, looking for ghosts, or as a dare or a cheap thrill, or perhaps just because you like exploring the ruins society has littered around us. The banks may see these empty homes as liabilities. In the eye of a green wizard, or anyone who doesn’t like to see things go to waste, these houses are resources.
Environmentalists have long taught the practice of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Occupying an abandoned home is a way to do all three. It also seems like an obvious solution to the housing crisis in America. It’s quite unfortunate that obvious solutions aren’t always embraced by the System. They would rather seek some baroque way, involving lots of forms and red tape, to keep their fingers in the pie. Meanwhile space is wasted and homes left unoccupied suffer from the lack of care and grow sick with decay. Urban planners have a word for that and they call it ‘blight’.
Anyone who takes off the blinders provided by the infotainment industrial complex can see the sickness and decay at work, despite the new shopping centers being built next to the new shoddy suburbs planted on top of old uprooted trees. The world is awash with refugees, migrants, folks who have been displaced, folks who have been discarded from the official narrative in way or another. Where do they all go? There is a strong possibility that many of them will become squatters. It is quite fortunate that they don’t have to wait for permission to find a place where they can take shelter, make a life, make a home.
In his 2004 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Robert Neuwirth reported on his visits to cities Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. At the time of his writing it was estimated that there were roughly 1 billion squatters around the world, and that by 2030 that number would double to 2 billion. The squatters he reported on lived in all manner of conditions including shantytowns, favelas, shacks, and other improvised structures. His study was isolated to third and second world countries. It can be surmised that as the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations descend the staircase of catabolic collapse, the number of squatters and squatter neighborhoods in large “first world” cities will begin to rise.
Squatting is a response to circumstance and need and both existed in Berlin after WWII. By the end of the war it had endured 363 bombing raids, each one chipping away buildings that had been built in the 19th century. When the city was divided into two during the Cold War, new buildings were erected on both sides of the wall. These were called neubauten. These soulless, modern, purely functional buildings sat amidst others in serious states of disrepair.
The population of Berlin had also been sharply reduced by the war. Before WWII it had housed five million. In its aftermath, there were only three million. The vacant buildings left behind went on to become the squat-homes of a generation of young Germans deeply steeped in the counterculture, a post-war generation who rejected the values of their elders who had been complicit with the holocaust. Young college students could live there almost for free and they “declared squatting the natural response to a city on the edge of nowhere”. These students gathered together in masses, mobilized by being in close proximity with each other in the squats. In 1968 rioting ensued.
After the riots European squatting culture blossomed in West Berlin in the 1970’s. The city was ripe for the kind of intellectual and artistic fermentation about to take place there. It had already seen so much destruction that something was bound to emerge from the ruins.
The first formal squatting communes in Berlin were organized in 1971 in Marianneplatz in Kreuzbeurg. In S. Alexander Reed’s book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, he writes, “at any moment in the late 1970’s 150 unlawfully occupied squats operated in West Berlin, mostly in or near Kreuzberg. Just south of the Spree River and separated by the wall from the East Berlin borough of Friedrichschain, Kreuzberg was an impoverished, ugly part of Berlin. Those who lived there were generally vagrants, students, or Turkish immigrants who had come to Germany for postwar work rebuilding the country. Young anarchists and socialists took over entire streets and parks in the corners of West Berlin. Any given squat would house between eight and fifty people, either living rent free or paying a low-lease, sometimes attending the Berlin State School of Fine Arts or the Technical University, but fundamentally acting on anti-establishment rage. The numbers were too great for the police to control: phone trees powered by hacked communications lines enabled these young people to assemble by the thousands within an hour. The organizational soundness of the culture afforded an artistic scene complete with cafes (the Rote Harfe was a favorite), discos and makeshift libraries. Berlin’s constantly changing cast didn’t impede the microcosm’s day-to-day life, but instead, change was built into the scene’s basic operation. Indeed, a student’s political shift or change of drug habits might mean moving from, say, Albertstrasse 86 to Weinerstrasse 25. Some squats were ideologically dogmatic; others offered non-stop partying.”
Berlin was one of the cities where industrial music originated via the band Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings). They used custom-built instruments made out of whatever metal scraps they could find laying around alongside building tools combined with standard musical instruments to make a rough punk music mixed with noise. Their early music was as harsh as the sound of modern industry, with Bargeld's vocals shouted and screamed above a din of banging and scraping metal percussion. It was the sound of civilization falling.
Yet the punks weren’t satisfied to just sit back and let life pass them by, they responded, they participated, they acted. They did something, they did anything, and it was better than doing nothing. Taking action is part of the punk mindset. As Steve Ignorant of Crass put it in a 1997 interview, “There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.”
What if the large number of unemployed people in the United States got creative instead of on opioids? What if instead of passively accepting what life has doled out, people reacted with the sense of primacy and immediacy embodied by the punk movement? Something new might emerge from the ashes of our failing state.
Since the Great Recession there have been increased numbers of people in the U.S. squatting in foreclosed homes. I predict that Detroit will become the first North American city to have whole neighborhoods of squatters on par with Berlin in 1970s and the cities Robert Neuwirth visited when writing Shadow Cities. A lot of people are already squatting there. According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city's abandoned properties, squatters occupy more than 3,000 home, in a city where 43,000 remain vacant. These vacant homes are a cause for concern among residents. Some try to adopt abandoned houses on their block in an effort to contain the spread of blight and structural decay. If a squatter moves in and actually works to improve the property, as many do, it can be a win-win for everyone.
Some folks in Detroit go a step further and homestead the vacant buildings, using them as spaces to grow food, raise chickens, and engage in other regenerative activities. Mark Covington decided to plant a community garden on one site as a way to deter the people who were using it as an illegal dump. In 2008 he had started by working three properties and by 2018 was creatively reusing twenty-three, having gotten some help along the way from neighborhood kids and other volunteers.
Taking over abandoned land and spaces is a logical response to dire situations. It may even be preferable to government sanctioned housing projects. It may also become necessity when rich people take over neighborhoods they were formerly afraid to even visit.
In Glasgow, Scotland folks living in the neighborhood of Gorbals have also had a long struggle with poverty. In the 1970’s the situation was harrowing. The city blocks in the district were semi-derelict. Young mothers lived in rat infested tenements where rainwater pooled on the floors. The non-profit group Shelter had made strides since that time in improving the living conditions of the people but there continues to be shortage of affordable living as the process of gentrification takes over places once seen as undesirable. “…at the end of last year  Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.”
Detroit and Glasgow are only two examples among a plethora where blight has set in and continues to spread.
One solution to housing problems is to squat and if you’re going to squat it might as well be in style, albeit cheap, salvaged, scrounged and grungy style. Punkers already know how to live grungy on the cheap, so why not take a few tips from those who have done it intentionally, from people who have avoided the rush to collapse by living that way now?
Enter the punk house, a place where members of the punk subculture dwell together, as a way to pool resources, and cut back on their participation in the financial system. Protection and safety is another reason to band together. In places like Detroit where the entire city system is under stress, law enforcement is underfunded and understaffed. Human predators seeking human prey have been known to hunt and kill in the derelict landscape.
A punk house doesn’t have to be a squat though; it could just be a low-rent house or space. What ties one punk house to another is a shared ethos for a communal/common living space, frugal living, a DIY lifestyle, and individuals contributing to a home economy. What makes one punk house different from another are specific aesthetics and tastes of the individuals living there for genres and subgenres of music (i.e. hardcore, thrash, black metal, dub). A greater variance is the ideologies some punk houses are organized around: vegan and straight edge, for example, or carnivorous hedonistic revelers for another. Some may be anarchist, while others are apolitical with many examples along such a spectrum.
Penny Rimbaud, co-founder of the punk band Crass wrote on his motivation to found the communal style artist sanctuary Dial House, “Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”
Living together is nothing new for most of the world. It was a simple matter of course before the Cold War and the advent of the nuclear family. Multigenerational family living arrangements were a norm. Then the bomb exploded that sanity, and the boom economics of the American empire at its peak made it possible for individuals to be able to afford to live on their own and in smaller groups. The number of multigenerational homes was in overall decline in America from 1950 to 1980 when it went from 21% to 12% of the population. Now it’s on the upswing again thanks to the hole the Great Recession ate in Americas pocketbook. In 2016 it hit a record of 64 million people, back up to 20% of the population.
Even in the age of the nuclear family blood is still thick. Those who choose the Down Home Punk option and make a go at shared living arrangements may choose to bring in their blood, but I imagine there will also be a mixture of old friends and newcomers. We live in a time when many people have abandoned their hometowns for the allure of upward mobility. From these scattered tribes new weaves of extended, blended, multigenerational families will emerge. Different folks will simmer together in the stew pot of circumstance and need.
As a family they have a better chance of taking over an empty home, retrofitting it, rehabbing it, and eventually through the rites of the squatter, taking over legal ownership of the property. In a world made harsh, and in a world made by hand, whatever legal powers of state and law remain will be happy that gardens have been planted and homes on the brink of falling apart will have been made livable again.
The time exists now for right action. The time exists now to take a step. We don’t have to wait.
Penny Rimbaud of Crass offers just a smattering of possibilities awaiting those who are willing to take action. “Quite apart from direct action, there are things that we can do within the existing social structures that will weaken those structures while at the same time helping ourselves and each other. We can open up squats and start information services for those who want to do the same. We can form housing co-ops and communes to share the responsibility of renting or even buying a property. In places where we already live, we can open the doors to others. We can form Tenant Associations with neighbours and demand and create better conditions and facilities in the area. We can form gardening groups that squat and farm disused land, or rent allotments where we can produce food for ourselves and others that is free from dangerous chemicals. We can grow medicinal herbs to cure each other’s headaches. We can create health groups where we can practice alternative medicine, like herbalism and massage that create healthy bodies and minds rather than drugged-up robots that are the results of conventional medicine. Maybe we can learn to love and respect each other’s bodies rather than fearing them. We can form free schools where knowledge can be shared rather than rules laid down. Education, rather than being State training in slavery, can become a mutual growth and true enquiry into the world around us, a place where everyone is the teacher and everyone is the pupil.”
Though we may face the limitations of the natural world, and stumble against obstacles of our own making, we will still be able to tap into the supply of imagination. Availing ourselves of this resource we can begin to make adjustments to the predicaments of our age. All we have to do is put in the required hard work to make those adjustments real.
[This article first appeared on the Green Wizards website: http://greenwizards.com/node/906 ]
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, 2004.
Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Steve Ignoratnt, interviewed bySid and Zillah (Rubella Ballet): https://youtu.be/IgNToZnyslE
Families Squat In Abandoned Homes As The Housing Crisis Grips Detroit by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, huffington post article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/detroit-housing-crisis-abandoned-homes-sq..., retrieved in July and August of 2019.
For another view read: Dead bodies, wild dogs, squatters in government-owned Detroit houses by Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2018/07/19/squatters-detroit-land....
Furthermore there is even a book about how to get by in Detroit due to its lack of services. It’s titled DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services by Kimberley Kinder, University Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today by Hope Whitmore https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bjyg9/nick-hedges-scotland-slums-288
The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
The mohawk I had as a teenager is long gone. The army jacket I wore, with lighter clips and band names and patches scrawled all across it is buried and dead. The clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis are not ratted, and I’m not tatted, and no safety pin is in my nose, yet the movement that inspired me as a teenager continues to live on in my blood, and I continue to derive power from the legacy of the punk rock subculture and its various offshoots. I still love Crass but I have to side with the Exploited on this one and say “punks not dead”.
Punk is not dead. Its DNA lives on in a variety of mutated forms, just as the original aesthetics associated with the movement have grown, changed, or been dropped and new aesthetics adopted. The philosophy embedded within the punk subculture is still thriving and has the potential to form a core response to crisis of our times.
That is what this series of articles is all about: how the mindset, practices, and toolkit of the punk rock subculture can be applied to solving some of the problems humanity will face in the hard years of economic, ecological, and societal collapse that are now standing down the barrel at us in the present. As a subculture at odds with the Establishment the punk rockers developed workarounds and hacks for getting their ideas, words, art, and music out into the world on the cheap. They developed networks of support and communication that enabled the subculture to thrive in the absence, and without deference to, corporate handouts and support. I think that reviving and breathing new life into those methods now can be a useful adjunctive to the revival of the appropriate technology toolkit being done by enterprising green wizards.
In John Michael Greer’s book Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, And Other Hands-On Skills From the Appropriate Tech Toolkit he lays out three ways the appropriate tech toolkit was put together into some basic lifestyle options. He writes, “Back in the heyday of the appropriate tech movement…there were at least three distinct ways that the basic toolkit tended to be put to work, each with its esthetic and typical lifestyle choices. To the best of my knowledge no one gave names to them at the time, and that’s a gap that needs filling. For our purposes they can be called the New Alchemy, Down Home Funk, and Retrofit modes of green wizardry.” [i]
The purpose of these articles is to propose a variant on the Down Home Funk mode, which is what I call the Down Home Punk mode. In doing so I’ll explore some of the specific tools and techniques the punkers have used to accomplish their goals without selling out to the corporate overlords. Other people have already covered the history of the punk subculture much better than I have. I don’t have the space and won’t attempt to trace its origins and history here. I will be using examples from the history of the punk subculture to flesh out how some of that gear can be used to the green wizards advantage as civilization climbs down the stairs to a future dark age.
Punk is by its very nature a mutt, and as Amyl and the Sniffers say in their song “some mutts can’t be muzzled”. This mongrel breed is essentially urban and grew out of the subcultural ashes left behind by the hippies and beats. In some respects punk rock was a revolt against the failure of hippiedom. In other ways it was an outgrowth of the same impetus present in many post WWII subcultures: a revolt against consumer society and the ethos of “the Man”.
One of the touchstones of the movement is a refusal to ask “the Man” or other authorities for permission. If you want to do something or make something, go ahead and start. It is this willingness to get to work and get your hands dirty that is part and parcel of being a Down Home Punk. The punk work ethic was forged as a weapon against the complacency of consumerism, a tool to batten the hatches against the storms of inner resistance. To a punk the only authority is yourself.
In an interview Penny Rimbaud of the band Crass speaks of the slogan the group popularized: there is no authority but yourself. “You can’t look to any authority but yourself, and neither can you be ruled by any authority but yourself. Even those who acknowledge [the phrase]… they say, ‘I can’t exist properly because the police are such pigs or laws are so… but whose accepting the police, or whose accepting the laws? You are, so it’s your responsibility, it’s not their responsibility, it’s your responsibility. So there is no authority but yourself and what that simply means is, don’t look to others, and don’t be cowed by others. Don’t be fearful of others. That’s their business, not yours. And it is only because people don’t simply look at life in that way to realize that they are the only authority, they are choosing to buy into, or not buy into, because they don’t realize that, that people live fearful lives. You don’t have to feel fear, it’s just something, you know, you buy into.” [ii]
I think this attitude, or what I’ll call mindset, indigenous to the punk rock subculture, is something of particular usefulness as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. People in general suffer from a paralysis of volition. It is something I struggle with: the ability to choose and direct my own life and go down a path that hasn’t been decided for me by algorithms and advertising. In this brief window of life people can’t afford to drive blind, or be driven, blind.
It is also necessary to claim our own authority in matters that are regional to global in scale. In his essays and books John Michael Greer has shown with repeated analysis how the environmental movement in particular, and the political left in general, have failed at their own stated or implicit objectives. The reason he has given for their failure can be summarized as the unwillingness of individuals to practice what they preach and to live a lifestyle that is actually predicated on the values they publically espouse. It is hard to believe someone really gives a flying frack about the environment when they jet set about the globe dumping huge amounts of carbon and pollution into the atmosphere. It is hard to believe someone wishes to be free from the damages caused by consumer society when they do nothing to offset their consumption by practicing the habit of production. By teaching the Do-It-Yourself ethic and the idea that there is no authority but yourself, countless youths and adults who were inspired by punk became the producers of their own culture and decided to live in ways that reduced the strain mainstream society places on the systems that support life.
Punk gave permission to just get on with it, take action and do things. As the top-down resources and infotainment began to dwindle the Do-It-Yourself/There-is-No-Authority-but-Yourself mindset will become ever more applicable and necessary. Things we may have paid others to do for us in the past we will choose to do ourselves, as much for the personal satisfaction as for the financial solace. As industrial civilization continues to wane, as society spirals downwards individuals and allied groups will need to just get on with it. This is something the punk mindset can inspire and teach.
This series will look at a number of aspects of the punk rock movement, how it played it out, and what worked within it historically and how that can be adapted for use by the aspiring green wizard, with our without the safety pins.
First is a look at the punkhouse, or the shared living spaces created by punks to cut costs and pool resources so they could work and consume from the System less and do more of what they wanted, often creative projects. A number of specific and influential punk houses, and the cultures and legacy created around them will be explored. This section will also offer some thoughts on squatting, a rite of passage for many punks, and look into how squatting and group living can be useful tools for coping with homelessness and housing crisis. Some of the examples here will be Dial House, Positive Force, ABC No Rio, and other squats and spaces.
Next we will look at the sustainable and ethical business models created by enterprising punks such as Ian Mackaye and his work with Fugazi and Dischord Records, and the work of Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio Studios. The way they handled the financial side of having a band, record label and music studio show that fair and just prices can be charged for products and entertainment all while providing a living for the workers. Green wizards with a craft or service will be able to use these as models for starting their own businesses, whether full time or a side hustle.
Another section will explore the communication techniques of the punks that were honed in the days before the internet. The punk rock scene had a resilient and robust subculture of interconnected local scenes. People were able to communicate with each other, book tours, make pen pals and friends, all through small, independent fanzines and homegrown record labels and venues. It was an analog network that existed below the radar and made extensive us of the postal system.
Still another section will examine the fusion of folk and punk. I will look at how punk rock is an urban folk movement and look at examples of how the music itself has drifted into folk over the past decades. Other elements of punk culture as folk culture will be explored. This last bit dovetails neatly with John Michael Greer’s original naming of one mode of Green Wizardry as Down Home Funk. That mode is characterized by “reviving the technologies of the preindustrial past.” This fits in with the egalitarian ideals of the punk movement and ties it to “the folk”. Preindustrial tech is tech that potentially anyone can use, and that the down and out and broke and common people can afford or make. These are techs that can be scrounged, dumpster dived, rebuilt, repurposed. The Down Home Funk option embraces regional flair and variety in its tools, but they are tools that have been tested and prove to work. By fusing the appropriate tech of our folksy forebears with the additional kit built up around the punk mindset individuals can begin the process of reclaiming their own authority and autonomy and live a good and noble life during the decline of western civilization.
[P.S.: Additional subjects and areas are sure to come up as I work on this project, so consider the above outline in the introduction as a sketch that will be brought into greater relief as this project is carved out, over time. And it will take time, but I will work to get essays out as I can between other writing projects I am also committed to. As always, thank you for reading. –Justin Patrick Moore, Cincinnati, Ohio August 26, 2019.]
[i] Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, And Other Hands-On Skills From the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, New Society Publishers (September 3, 2013)
[ii] Video produced by Noisey website and published on February 28, 2017. Retrieved quote from on August 23rd 2019. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM8jTQjY3d4
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.