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.
Even in the strange and eccentric world of the ham radio operator, Fred Judd G2BCX (1914–1992) was something of an outlier and maverick. Fred designed two well-known antennas, the Slim Jim and the ZL Special. Both of these are now antenna standards. Fred was also an advocate of early British electronic music, inventing or modifying the tools he needed to make this adventurous music along the way. G2BCX was the quintessential tinkerer; a man who loved audio, radio, and the new possibilities for music being opened up by the careful application of capacitors.
As a radar technician in the armed forces during WWII Fred had the opportunity to develop his electrical aptitude and became a full blown engineer. After the war he found a spot working for the Kelvin Hughes company where he researched and developed marine radar devices. To this day Kelvin Hughes continues to create navigation and surveillance systems.
Fred was a man of strong ambition, and the day job in electronics wasn’t enough to keep him satisfied. As part of his side hustle he wrote articles for hobbyist magazines on radio and the new remote control models coming to market. The first of his 11 published books hit the shelves in 1954. When Amateur Tape Recording (ATR) magazine was launched in 1959 he joined the staff as technical editor and wrote on all kinds of topics connected to tape, electronics and hi-fi.
The slim jim antenna for which G2BCX remains famous among hams is itself a variation on the J-Pole. The J-pole is at the time of this writing a 110 year old design, first invented by Hans Beggerow in 1909 for use on Zeppelin airships. In that regard, the J-Pole, commonly made of copper, can also be considered a steampunk antenna. Trailed behind the airship, the J-Pole was made of a single element, one half wavelength long radiator with a quarter wave parallel tuning stub for the feedline. By 1936 this design had been refined into the J configuration and given the J Antenna name in 1943, now just called a J Pole.
Fred introduced his J-pole variant in 1978. He derived the name from its slim profile and the J type matching stub (J Integrated Matching). It has similar performance and characteristics to a simple or folded Half-wave antenna and identical to the traditional J-pole construction. Judd found the Slim Jim produces a lower takeoff angle and better electrical performance than a 5/8 wavelength ground plane antenna. Slim Jim antennas made from ladder transmission line use the existing parallel conductor for the folded dipole element.
The ZL special antenna came from another variant Judd made, this time on the 2-element horizontal phased array created by George Prichard ZL3MH –hence the name ZL Special in tribute to Prichard’s work. L.B. Cebik, W4RNL has written up a detailed analysis of this design at: http://www.antentop.org/w4rnl.001/mu5a.html.
It can be presumed that when Fred wasn’t at work, or on the air as a ham, he was engaged in another aspect of his electronics hobby: making circuits sing. He also wrote one of the first how-to books in the world for making electronic music in 1961, titled Electronic Music and Musique Concrete. It included circuit diagrams alongside practical do-it-yourself tips. (A copy of this tome is available from the Public Library of Cincinnati along with his Radio and Electronic Hobbies book.)
Around this time he also promoted the creation of electronic music via lectures and demonstrations at amateur tape recording clubs all around Britain. As an editor and writer for the Amateur Tape Recording magazine he had access to these clubs and lots of street cred within them. Fred started putting out 7” records of electronic music which were made available through the magazine. Judd was also the editor of Practical Electronics magazine. Chris Carter was an avid reader of both of these magazines and spent time building a lot of the circuits Judd published. Chris Carter went on to be a founding member of Throbbing Gristle, the first industrial music band. Chris continued to innovate in electronic music with his wife Cosey Fan Tutti as Chris & Cosey and latter Carter Tutti.
As any sci-fi movie or old-time radio show buff will know, one of the things electronic music is perfect for is making sound effects, and Fred became adept at making his own. Have you ever flipped around on the tube and come across the strange sci-fi puppet show Space Patrol? Broadcast in 1963 on the ITV network it was the first on British television show to have a composed electronic music soundtrack running throughout the whole series. Fred made those sounds himself using the techniques of tape manipulation, loops and tone generators in his home studio in London.
The Castle record label and its sister label Contrast issued a range of sound effects discs that he made in his studio, including 3 discs of electronic music. These tracks were later issued by library label Studio G, who specialized in providing stock music and sounds, on the Electronic Age album.
Fred also prototyped and built his own synthesizer. This simple voltage controlled, keyboard-operated unit was used to generate, shape and switch electronic sounds. The feat was small but impressive as it predated the Synket, Moog and Buchla synths.
Fred was also interested in the visualization of electronic sounds. One can imagine he knew his way around an oscilloscope and other test equipment. His tinkering in this area led to his Chromasonics system. By running a pulse generator and amplifier into a modified black and white tv that had a high speed color scanning wheel placed in front of the screen Judd was able to make trippy abstract patterns that moved in accordance with the sound input from oscillators or tape recordings. At the 1963 Audio Fair in London he demonstrated Chromasonics with much acclaim, but interest from electronics firm Stuzzi never made it to commercial development.
From the late 1970s Judd continued to operate as a ham from his home in Cantley, Norfolk. Towards the end of his life, he built several detailed reconstructions of early electrical devices including a Wimshurst machine and Edison phonograph. He was honoured by the University of East Anglia for constructing a working replica of apparatus used by Heinrich Hertz, but it seems that none of this equipment, the Chromasonics apparatus or his experimental music-making machinery has survived. He became a silent key in 1992.
In 2010 all of his remaining original quarter inch tapes have been cataloged and deposited with the British Library Sound Archive. In 2011 Ian Helliwell made a documentary on Judd called Practical ElectronicaA retrospective album gathering together as much of his experimental music as can be located, titled Electronics Without Tears was released by the Public Information label. It also contained an official biography of Judd written by Helliwell. It is available from their bandcamp page at: https://publicinformation.bandcamp.com/album/electronics-without-tears.
Here is a short bibliography of books by Fred C. Judd:
Radio control for model ships, boats and aircraft. London: Data publications, 1954.
Electronic music and musique concrète. London : N. Spearman, 1961.
Tape recording for everyone. Blackie, 1962.
Radio and electronic hobbies. London: Museum Press, 1963.
Circuits for audio and tape recording. Haymarket Press, 1966.
Electronics in music. London: Spearman, 1972.
Amateur radio. Newnes Technical Books, 1980.
Two-metre antenna handbook. Newnes Technical, 1980.
CB radio. Newnes Technical, 1982.
Radio wave propagation : (HF bands). London : Heinemann, 1987.
Electronics Without Tears, Public Information, Biography by Ian Helliwell
This article originally appeared in theJune 2019 issue of the Q-Fiver. (All the articles in the Radiophonic Laboratory series have appeared first in various issues of the Q-Fiver.)
“Are you sitting comfortably?” These were the only words uttered by the legendary master of Industrial music before his one hour performance at the COSI Planetarium on May 26. As soon as the lights were turned out, the seats began to vibrate and shake from the intense rumble of sub-bass and low-end sound frequencies. Lift off had been achieved.
My grandson Lucas was sitting next to my wife Audrey. When he said “Grandma, I’m scared” I got scared. Was it really such a wise thing to have brought a seven year old to a concert by the pioneer of the Dark Ambient sub-genre? Lustmord’s live shows are known for being very loud. Granted, we all had ear plugs in, but Lucas’ ears hadn’t yet been exposed to all the damaging noise I had already subjected mine to. With Audrey’s hand around Lucas, he quickly settled down. He might have even fallen asleep during the show. The abstract video projected on the Planetarium ceiling certainly helped to induce a state of hypnosis in myself as I let Lustmord’s vast, sonorous, and pulsing undertones flood through my body.
Part of the reason I had wanted to see this show in particular was due to the work Brian Williams, the man behind Lustmord, had done on his most recent album, Dark Matter, released on the Touch label in 2016. The sounds on that record had all been derived from an audio library of cosmological activity that he had collected for ten years between 1993 and 2003. On the liner notes he wrote, “While space is a virtual vacuum, it does not mean there is no sound in space. It exists in space as naturally occurring electromagnetic vibrations, many well within the range of human hearing while others exist at different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and these can be adjusted with software to bring them within our audio range. The recordings of these interactions in space come from several different environments including radio, ultra violet, microwave and X-ray data and within these spectra a wide range of sources including interstellar plasma and molecules, radio galaxies, pulsars, masers and quasars, charged particle interactions and emissions, radiation, exotic astrophysical objects, cosmic jets and flares from magnetars." Brian had gathered this material from a variety of sources including NASA (Cape Canaveral, Ames, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Arecibo), The Very Large Array, The National Radio Astronomy Observatory alongside a number of educational institutions and private contributors throughout the USA.
To be able to hear recordings of these emissions was intriguing enough for me. To hear what an artist of Lustmord’s caliber did with them on his album was a revelation. Hearing versions of that material live in a planetarium with video projections of the cosmos was a great experience. It has often been said that the study of astronomy is a humbling experience. One of the things astronomy can teach is the smallness of man. The personal problems we so often obsess over, when seen under starlight, feel less pressing. Astronomy also builds character by showing us the transience of both our sorrows and joy in the dance of galaxies. As Lustmord puts it “Everything that has ever been observed by man, even with our most sophisticated instruments, amounts to less than five percent of the Universe.” Do what we will, our hasty minutes fly. When compared to the life of a star we our lives are just eye blinks. Meditating on the fragile mortality of the body and our place in the cosmos to me isn’t a cause of despair, but rather a tool for helping me to focus on what I do and say and think today. It is a reminder to not take for granted the limited amount of time I have been allotted for granted.
Lustmord further explains that, “approximately sixty-eight percent of the Universe is unseen dark energy and approximately twenty-seven percent is unseen dark matter. We have yet to discover what dark matter is, and only know the things it is not. Although it has not been directly observed, its existence and properties are inferred from its effects on visible matter, its influence on the Universe's large-scale structure, and its effects in the cosmic microwave background.”
The sound of the record was one of desolate rumbling. It had no high points, no low points, no climax or resolution. It is a music of celestial loneliness that gives a shape to what it might feel like to be on an interstellar voyage far away from home: there are other things out there in space, but they aren’t nearby, and the very cosmological activity we find so beautiful in pictures and imagery, when seen up close is violent and deadly. While the album does start and stop, it could have been infinite. It could have gone on forever. Listening to this places you in the void between the stars. That’s a great place to visit, but for all the wonder and majesty of the universe, I’m glad I’m not a cosmonaut. I’m thankful my place in the creation is this verdant earth.
At the concert Lustmord drew material from across the breadth of his forty year discography. I could hear elements from his various records recombined in new ways. Included in the mix were sounds and sequences I recognized from Dark Matter. Experiencing his music live was very different than when I play his albums on my home stereo. While I have good bass response in my speakers, the low-end at the show was something else altogether. One of the reasons I wanted to go was to get the full impression of his powerful subharmonics in the flesh.
Though overtones occur naturally with the physical production of music on instruments, undertones and subharmonics must be produced in unusual ways. Whereas the overtone series is based upon the multiplication of frequencies, the undertone series is based on their division. There are several different ways to create subharmonics and undertones. Composers Mari Kimura, George Crumb and Daniel James Wolf have written works for violin or string quartets that require the musicians to bow their instruments with enough pressure to create pitches below the lowest open string of the instrument. This intense pressured bowing causes the sound waves to modulate and demodulate from the resonating horn of the instrument with frequencies corresponding to subharmonics. At the Lustmord concert the subharmonics were produced by the amplification of his deep bass audio signals through the loudspeaker system.
At times during the show, it was as if I felt the shaking of the chairs and vibrations within my body to be more powerful than the tones that I heard with my ear. This had a kind of grounding effect on me. Even if some of the source material was derived from cosmic sources, and the video projections showed glittering gas nebulas and colorful fields of stars, the deepness and acute pressure of the sub-bass was a full body experience. As the music wound down to a close, the room felt stable again. We were no longer inside a super collider.
When the one hour show was over I asked Lucas how he liked it. He was nonchalant having survived the experience.
“It was boring,” he said. “The guy didn’t even sing.”
Who doesn’t like listening in to a conversation being held by two people nearby? Who doesn’t take secret delight in overhearing a snippet of information being mouthed from across the room? Anyone who has enjoyed monitoring local police, fire and utility frequencies, and even cell phone conversations before they were encrypted knows the secret pleasure that comes from electronic eavesdropping. Scanner radios, SDRs and even the humble Baofeng can offer the discrete listener hours of aural voyeurism. Radio traffic picked up during these sessions of signal intelligence and information gathering can be recorded with ease via a simple setup; and what is received and recorded may be transformed and put to artistic purposes.
This is exactly the method used by Robin Rimbaud, a British electronic musician born in 1964 who works under the name Scanner because of his use of the device in his early live performances and recordings. Tapping the airwaves, he mixed the indeterminate radio and cell phone signals into the electronica he was making, and by doing so found himself a name.
What is being picked up on the scanner will always be something evocative of the time and place where the frequencies were scanned. It is site specific. It is time specific. The people on the other end don’t necessarily know they are being listened to. They didn’t consent to be eavesdropped on, except by pressing the push to talk button. They didn’t sign a waiver allowing their voices to be recorded, mixed with music, and preserved for posterity on vinyl and CD. Robin Rimbaud, as Scanner wasn’t interested in getting their permission. What he was interested in was avant-garde literature, cinema and music. While earning a degree in Modern Arts at Kingston University in Surrey, England he formed the music group The Rimbaud Brothers with another bloke named Tony Rimbaud who was also a student (though they weren’t actually related). They started releasing cassette tapes in the early 80’s, and later turned into a trio when Chris Staley joined up, becoming Dau Al Set.
These cassette tapes were to prove important. The Peyrere compilation tape he put out in 1986 featured the work of Nurse with Wound, Derek Jarman, Current 93, Coil and Test Dept, cinching his alignment with the British experimental music scene. All these tapes prepared him for his work as curator of the Ash International record label, a subsidiary label of Touch Music out of London. His first debut as Scanner was released on Ash International in 1992.
This first self-titled Scanner album contains just under an hour of intercepted cell phone conversations of unsuspecting callers captured by his police scanner. As such, some of the material Robin Rimbaud picked up and put to record is enough to make you blush. I confess that when I first heard of police scanners as a thirteen year old skateboarding punk rocker the idea of being able to listen in to a juicy cell phone call was an exciting prospect. As was the idea of being able to hear the cops come bust us for skating at a certain site on the radio and leave before they got there.
Robin Rimbaud got into scanning on accident. He says, “As for the scanner device itself, it was purely by chance that I discovered it, since a friend was part of a hunt saboteur group and they would use it to listen in to the local police,” Rimbaud said. “I immediately saw the potential and intrigue of being able to access these private spaces and incorporate them into these exploratory soundscapes I was producing at the time. I was especially drawn to the fact that the recordings were so intimate, so clear, yet abstract in nature. One had to imagine who these people were you [are] overhearing, where they were, what kinds of lives they led, although the nature of their conversations often clearly explained this! So I began using these live voices and recordings inside the music I was producing and adopted the name of the machine I was using to create the work.”
The window of opportunity for tapping into this telephonic underworld was short-lived however. Back in the day when those rigs were analog the ability to sit on the freqs used by the telcos was a built in feature. Now it is illegal to monitor cell calls (unless you happen to work for the NSA). The companies making the scanners were under fire from the telcos. The telcos were putting pressure on Congress. So when the bill was sent up to Capitol Hill a new law was passed prohibiting scanners sold after a specified date from receiving the frequencies allocated to the Cellular Radio Service. Later an amendment was added to make it illegal to modify radios to receive those frequencies. There are Canadian and European unblocked versions available, but it is illegal to bring them into the U.S. Does that mean it is illegal to build your own scanner radio that can pick up cell calls…? Well, all that’s moved to digital now anyways and would be difficult to pick up (unless you happen to work for the NSA).
What about cordless landline phones? Frequencies used by early cordless phones at 43.720–44.480 MHz, 46.610–46.930 MHz, and 902.000–906.000 MHz are still around in some people’s homes and might be picked up by scanners but it’s still illegal to do so. And with all these scanners around most cordless phone makers moved their sets up to 2.4 GHz systems that make use of spread-spectrum modes which adds another layer of security.
The idea of listening in to what others consider private conversations brings us into the realm of ethics. Are radio listeners being nosey, butting their heads where they don’t belong? I think it is a mistaken notion that radio communication privacy can be achieved by declaring certain radio transmissions illegal to monitor and banning radio receivers capable of receiving ‘prohibited’ transmissions. This belief is rooted in a common misconception about the public nature of radio waves themselves. Courts have held that there is no privacy implied while transmitting on the public airwaves. To really eavesdrop in the smartphone centric world of today it might be better to be able to intercept text messages; hypothetically speaking of course. Texting isn’t my favorite thing, so why anyone (other than the NSA) would want to read a bunch of emoji’s is beyond me, lol.
Yet I do understand the desire to listen in, to gather intelligence, and to monitor, to eavesdrop. It can be exciting. Some of what you can grab off the air is just plain mind boggling. Robin Rimbaud understands this as well. He continued to release music on the Ash Interntational label, working closely with Mike Harding of Touch on the first dozen releases. These included Scanner², Mass Observation, Blind, and Runaway Train. [Some of these can be listened to on the artist’s bandcamp site: https://scanner.bandcamp.com/]
All have their merits but this last recording is a real gem, and was already famous when it was in circulation among railway operators before it got released to the experimental music crowd. The Runaway Train album consists of the unedited, un-doctored real-time recording of the radio contact between Alfie, controller of the railway line in New Brunswick, Canada and the engineer Wesley, on March 9, 1948, as the engineer lost control of his train to its ultimate derailment. This entire drama was taped as it happened and is insane with tension. While his colleagues work calmly and professionally to prevent a derailment, Wesley bravely remains on board. 55mph becomes 70mph. The dialogue between Wesley, and Alfie, grows charged as each minute passes. As the train hurtles on threatening the unsuspecting communities it passes through, as well as its crew. At 95mph, with a doctor and ambulance standing by, Wesley faces disaster. Suddenly the line goes dead. Can Wesley survive?
This tape had been circulating among CN and VIA Rail employees and a copy eventually reached the father of a man named Brian Damage. Brian got the tape from his dad and shared it with his friend Robin Rimbaud who was looking for unusual field recordings to put out on his Ash International label. Ash released it in 1994 (Ash 1.9) as a one-sided record in an edition of 500 copies, with an additional 500 pressed the following year. [You can listen to this one yourself on bandcamp at: https://phycus1.bandcamp.com/album/runaway-train]
Listening to this recording now, over seventy years after it was first captured off the radio is still a dramatic edge-of-your-seat listen. On a psychological level, it showcases the way humans are predisposed to focus in on the tragedy of others, to tell stories of death, demise, and destruction. Just the other day at the time of this writing I turned on my radio to see what traffic I could catch from local police and fire departments after a plane crashed into a home in Madeira. The same thing is at work when I slow down to look at an accident while driving. Our radios and scanners simply extend the reach of our observation. The allow us to listen in to the drama of human life as it unravels around us in real time.
The weird thing is that for the people involved the tragedy continues long after our scanners are turned off. In the case of train engineer Wesley, even though he walked away from the accident with his life intact, his 43 year career was over, and the pension that had been promised him was in limbo. The whole aftermath of his story was documented in the press and collected by Daniel Dawdy on the webpage: http://www.cwrr.com/Lounge/Feature/runaway
Now that I’m not reasoning like a teenager anymore my motivations for monitoring radio frequencies are different. It isn’t to evade the police. For one, cops and skaters get along better these days and there are designated spots where it is legit to have a street session. For another it’s fascinating to learn how radio traffic is handled during small and large emergencies. As a ham learning how to communicate clearly on the air is a skill that could come in handy if ever my skills are needed for the greater good of the community. Listening in is one way to develop that skill.
Magnetic Lemniscate: A Brief History of the Tape Loop
Sometimes, if the day has been hectic, when I get home I just want to kick back, relax and put on a record. Or a cassette. I still have hundreds of hours of music stored on tape, one of the finest mediums of storage ever invented. This privilege of being able to listen to recorded audio is unique in human history, and my ability to soak in the musical glow from my hi-fi system with my feet propped up and my head in my hands was built on the sweat of many researchers. The phonograph, loudspeaker and microphones all proclaimed that the age of audio had arrived. The promises made by this tech only cracked the door ajar. There was still a bolt in place on the other side barring further entry. The invention of magnetic tape recording proved to be the golden skeleton key responsible for unlocking the door to the studio of the audio engineer, and from there many other rooms in the mansion of new media.
Inside the tape studio it is possible to cut. Splice. Rewind. Fast forward. Edit. Create a new sequence for creative playback. The practice of recording and editing audio using magnetic tape was an obvious improvement over the previous electro-mechanical methods. The leap in audio fidelity alone was a dramatic feat. Further, it allowed for new practices of editing. It allowed for repetition, a key aspect of music, and so the loop was born. Splice. Snip. Audio on magnetic tape had established itself as simply superior. The analog tape recorder made it possible to erase. Audio mistakes could be fixed at less cost by recording over a previous recording, something not possible on the shellac and vinyl based medium of the phonograph. The edit turned into an art form as tape had the advantage of being cut. Spliced, it could be joined back together in an endless profusion of edits. Music could be rearranged, deranged, or removed.
From 1950 onwards magnetic tape quickly became the standard medium for audio master recording in the music and broadcast radio industries. This led to the development of hi-fi stereo recordings for the domestic market. If the day has been hectic, just kick back with some Les Baxter or the exotica of Martin Denny and let it transport you away from the work of the daily grind. Now in hi-fidelity, and turning at 33 1/3 rpm, longer songs and longer sounds mean more time to chill in the lounge. Sonically edited the album now offered to audio engineers the same plasticity of arrangement known to film directors. The many new combinations available became mind boggling and cinematic.
When I think of tape, I think primarily of its role in audio and video storage. I think of the way it revolutionized sound recording, reproduction and broadcasting. It allowed radio, which had always been broadcast live, to be recorded for later or repeated airing. I think of how I sat with a radio and it’s built in cassette player to tape those late night radio shows. To be listened to again and again. But there was also data storage on tape. Remember tape drives? They were a key technology in early computer development, allowing unparalleled amounts of data to be mechanically created, stored for long periods of time, and rapidly accessed.
When I think of tape I think of iron oxide. It’s on tape and it’s also in your blood. It’s the stuff responsible for giving it that bright red color. It’s the stuff that holds the memory of a recording on the tape making it magnetic. The memory is in the blood. Iron oxide stores the genetic memory of music. Editing a tape splices the DNA of sound. Perhaps it is this magnetic resonance of the iron oxide, a shared connection with a vital and elemental force that has given tape such a place of prominence in electronic music. Perhaps it was the way the tapes could be manipulated, slowed down, sped up, chopped up and put into new patterns, which made tape such a dream. This medium of preservation and creation is in the very blood of electronic music.
With the invention of the tape loop the dream of creating infinite music was realized. The use of the pause button had been put on hold. Tape loops are spools of magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound when played on a tape recorder. Sound is recorded on a section of magnetic tape and this tape is cut and spliced end-to-end, creating a circle which can be played over and over again, continuously, over and over. This is usually done on a reel-to-reel machine, though industrious lo-fi recording artists have been known to rig their own cassette tapes into loops. The loop originated with the musique concrète work of Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s. He used the simultaneous playing of tape loops to create phrase patterns and rhythms. Musical experimentalists continued to explore the possibilities of this method on through the 1950s and 60s. Devotees of the tape loop included Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Brian Eno.
The medium is perfect for creating phase patterns, rhythms, textures, and timbres. When the speed of a loop is accelerated to a sufficient degree a sequence of events originally perceived as a rhythm now is heard as a pitch. The variation of the rhythm in the original recording produces different timbres in the sped up sound. Tape can also be slowed down, causing the music to drop in pitch and for sounds to be stretched. Tape was also used to create echo systems. The first delay effects were made using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reels by shortening or lengthening the loop of tape and adjusting the read and write heads, to create an echo whose time parameters could be adjusted. This delayed signal may either be played back multiple times, or played back into the recording again, to create the sound of a repeating, decaying echo.
Being the pioneer he was Stockhausen made extensive use of loops in Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56) and Kontakte (1958–60) and he used the technique for live performance in Solo (1965–66). Steve Reich was the composer to use the technique the most, specifically in his "phasing" pieces Come Out (1966) and It's Gonna Rain (1965).
In the realm of popular music it was used to great effect in the 60’s and 70’s. Think of the psychedelic music of the Beatles on the White album and of its use in the progressive rock and ambient genres. A standard loop on a standard reel-to-reel is at most a few seconds long. This is not enough for some composers. To create a longer loop a standard practice was to use two reel-to-reels or for even longer stretches of tape, to run them around mic stands, or even door knobs. Perhaps the best known album made with this technique was Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: Ambient 1. This recording ushered in the vast and sprawling genre of ambient. In creating his 1978 landmark Eno reported that for one song, "the tape loops was seventy-nine feet long and the other eighty-three feet".
Enter William Basinski
Texas born Basinski is a classically trained clarinetist who studied jazz saxophone and composition at North Texas State University in the late 1970s. At the age of twenty in 1978 he became inspired by the techniques of Steve Reich and Brian Eno and started the process of developing his own musical vocabulary using old reel-to-reel tape decks. Basinski experimented with short looped melodies. When played against themselves the loops created a pleasant feedback. Working with this discovery he created his singular meditative, melancholy style within the drone and ambient genres.
Basinki’s first release was Shortwave Music. First created in 1983, it wasn’t released until 1998 when Carsten Nicolai's Raster-Noton label put it out in a small vinyl edition. It was followed by his shortwave magnum opus The River. Basinski writes, "As a young composer in the early 1980’s I was experimenting with tape loops: recording and mixing them with sounds coming from the airwaves. The idea was to capture music out of the ether. In NYC, there was a very powerful radio station, I can’t remember the call letters, but it was the station that played American popular standards….that is, the ‘1001 Strings’ smoothed out, de-syncopated versions of the American popular standards: what was commonly referred to then as Muzak, or ‘elevator music’. In those days, there was no Prozac, only Muzak to smooth out the seams and ease the tension of hectic neurotic life in the mid-late 20th century. At any rate, this station was so powerful, it could be picked up by simply running a wire across the floor, so frequently I was picking up background transmissions in my recordings. Since it was inevitable and I had no choice in the matter, I began experimenting with recording off the radio small loops of string intros, outros and interludes randomly in my primitive studio in Brooklyn. I would then slow them down a couple of speeds and as if peering into a microscope, to see what I could discover beneath the glossy surface. Frequently, these loops held great depth and melancholy. This appealed to me greatly and I created a vast archive of these loops to later experiment with. I am still using this archive to this day.”
Having this library of ‘found’ material became very important to his work, as it became the basis for many future albums and releases. Something else he found at a thrift store was also important, the machine that would provide his radio static. “I bought a wonderful old Hallicrafters shortwave radio at the Goodwill around the corner and began listening to that. The sounds coming from this magical device were awesome. The idea that one could hear transmissions from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ or Japan or London was thrilling and mysterious. The waves of shifting static and interstellar particle showers were mind-boggling to a young man who grew up in the shadow of the space race.
I was having a problem with a 60 Hz ground loop hum in my recordings. I had no idea what was causing it at the time…probably our fluorescent lights…just that it bothered me and I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. So I decided to try to mask it with the shortwave radio static. I would set the Hallicrafters on a pleasing in-between-stations setting teeming with showers of sparkling static and record live while mixing my loops. The results were extraordinary. The Hallicrafters would sometimes shift focus as if responding to the music coming from the loops. Occasionally a distant station from the Middle East perhaps, would slide into range just for a moment like a lingering column of cigarette smoke swirling slowly in a spotlight. I was very encouraged and excited. I didn’t know if I was really a composer, or if this was music, but to me it was magic! I loved it and was in my laboratory every night after work, like Dr. Frankenstien, just waiting to see what fascinating and strange sounds would bubble up next. The results of this period of experimentation were the Shortwave Music pieces and ultimately, the 90 minute masterwork of the series, The River. It would be over 25 years before these pieces would be released to the public."
Even though it wasn’t until the late 90’s that his music saw release on a label Basinski remained very active in the NYC music scene. He was a member of many bands including the Gretchen Langheld Ensemble and House Afire. In 1989, he opened his own performance space, "Arcadia" at 118 N. 11th Street. In the 1990s he helped put together many intimate underground shows at his space for artists like Diamanda Galás, Rasputina, The Murmurs, and Antony as well as his own experimental electronic/improvisation band, Life on Mars. In 2000, he made a film titled Fountain with artists James Elaine and Roger Justice.
In August and September 2001 Basinski started work on what would become his most recognizable piece, the epic four-volume album The Disintegration Loops. The album is made up of old tape loops whose quality had degraded. In an attempt to salvage these loops by recording them onto a digital format, the magnetic iron oxide ferrite on the tapes slowly crumbled. With each pass of the tape over the head on the reel-to-reel deck more and more of the iron oxide fell off. The loops were allowed to play for extended periods as they deteriorated further, with increasing gaps and cracks and spaces in the music. These sounds were treated further with a spatializing reverb effect to further enhance their haunting aura. Basinski was able to capture the sound of their disintegration and the results were beautiful and stunning. The disintegration of these tapes was made all the more poignant as he finished his work on them on the morning of 9/11. Basinksi sat on the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn with friends listening to the finished project as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The artwork that accompanies the album features stills of footage he shot of the NYC skyline in the aftermath of the attack. In September 2012, the record label Temporary Residence reissued the entire Disintegration Loops series as a 9xLP box set, marking the project's 10-year anniversary as well as its impending induction into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The creation of the Disintegration Loops was something of an accident, timestamped by their own destruction and the terrible tragedy of 9/11. The four albums are perfect as a reminder of the beauty to be found in imperfection, as a reminder of our own transience, of our own ultimate disintegration, of how the iron oxide in our blood will once again return to dust.
Live wires :a history of electronic music by Daniel Warner, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, England, 2017.
William Basinki’s website: http://www.mmlxii.com
At the Osaka ’70 world expo Takeisha Kosugi was creating environmental sound works as a commissioned artist. This was the same year Karlheinz Stockhausen and his ensemble were creating an oasis of musical calm and exultation within the spherical auditorium at the world expo, playing pieces like Spiral and others utilizing shortwave radio. The space/time coordinates for technology and experimental music were in perfect alignment at the expo. Born in 1938 Kosugi already had considerable experience with musical antics by the time 1970 arrived. His exploration of diverse sound worlds and his humorous antics continued until his death on October 12, 2018 at the age of 80.
In 1958 Kosugi was a student of musicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was there that his apprenticeship and final mastery for creating experimental sound worlds began. Joined by fellow student Shukou Mizuno he founded a collective improvisation ensemble. When they participated in a dance festival at the Tokyo Dance Institute they donned the name Group Ongaku. It translates into English as Group Music and is a simple description of their practice. Many more of the group's few performances were at dance concerts, symposiums and festivals, but they also performed at recitals of music by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono, the two leading lights of Japanese experimental music in the world scene at the time. They also performed at member Yasanao Tone's one man exhibition at the Minami Gallery. This connection to world of dance and the visual arts would follow Kosugi the rest of his life. He was later a key collaborator in Merce Cunningham’s famous dance company. Group Ongaku played radical music and it soon established them as an essential component in Japan’s post-war music scene.
As early practitioners of collective improvisation they attempted to create acoustic sound spaces that corresponded to the actual time & space they played in. Violin was Takeisha Kosugi’s primary instrument. The other members of Group Ongaku played cello, drums, guitar, and saxophone as well as using their voices and whatever else happened to be lying around nearby. Usually there was a radio nearby and whatever they could tune in off the bands became a part of their improvised sets. This is evident on the “Automatism” recording from 1960 (released by the Hear Sound Art Library in 1996. The members were also fans of the tape recorder. The recordings they put to tape were further manipulated and added into the mix during their live shows.
If you listen to it and it sounds strange and chaotic I’d agree with you. The thing about collective improvisation is that it takes practice and is a skill set that must be learned. The listener who judges the results based on previous exposure only to pop and rock music may think it is all just noise. An appreciation of jazz will have the listener better prepared for what might be encountered in the forays of Group ONGAKU, but they may still be left bewildered, apparently abandoned in a wilderness where loud predators lurk behind every menacing sound. The different voices of the instruments may appear disconnected; but there is a unity, like a golden thread, amidst all the howling. There is a method to the apparent madness of inchoate gurgling that churns alongside sax squelches, vacuum cleaners, and violin scrapings. This is the soundtrack for a generation waking up and coming into adulthood after the devastation of the Nagasaki nightmare, their memories forever burned in the aftermath of Hiroshima. In their early twenties and full of the vigor of youth is it not to be expected that their experience, when translated into music, the language of pure emotion, shows signs of chaos and rage?
Yet they were firmly in the zeitgeist of the time even if they were removed from centers of musical innovation in the west. The sounds they made shared a common goal and direction with other contemporaries such as John Cage with whom Kosugi would later formed a close friendship. Audiences in Japan did not hear the work of those such as Group Ongaku, Cage and Stockhausen with the same revulsion and outrage as often happened on opening nights in Europe and America. Steeped in the traditions of Zen Buddhism and the Shinto religion felt more at ease with the random, non-linear, and abstract acoustics they created. Which isn’t to say they were adored as much as the Japanese bands who brought rock and roll into their hearts and made it their own, but only that their existed a level of understanding from their countrymen.
Listening to these recordings now, over fifty years after they were made, they sound remarkable and are right at home in the canon of twentieth century improvisational and experimental music. The work Kosugi did with Group ONGAKU formed a strong foundation for his later journeys with his next band the Taj Mahal Travelers, and his ongoing work as a solo artist.
THE TAJ MAHAL TRAVELLERS
The efforts of Group Ongaku gradually wound their way down. Throughout the rest of the 60s it served the needs of individual composers within the group as a way to have a ready ensemble able to play their work. Ready to embark on a new project Kosugi pulled together the members of the Taj Mahal Travellers in 1969. His recruits were from the ranks of the younger generation of Japanese. They had grown up with rock and roll and jazz. Their minds had been turned on the moment they had tuned in their radios and they were ready to drop out. Standard musical instruments were played by the Travelers, but the way they played them was very not standard. For the most part the instruments used were acoustic, such as the santur (an Iranian hammered dulcimer), harmonica, tuba, tympani, trumpet. Others were electrically amplified such as Kosugi’s violin. Ryo Koike also amplified his double bass, but he is remembered more the way he played with it sitting flat on its back across the ground. Straddled across the top his bass the way he bowed his instrument was very sensual. A Mini Korg synthesizer was also a part of their set up. Besides playing mandolin Michihiro Kimura was also the resident tree branch shaker. As Julian Cope noted about this unusual instrument “Kimura appears to have spent much of the early ‘70s shaking a tree branch in a wide variety of obscure locations around the world.” Other instruments in this vein were “voices, stones, and bamboo winds.” Trying to hear those on their extant recordings is part of the magic and the mystery. The Taj Mahal Travelers had made themselves a promise to play “wherever a power supply was available” and their sound had an emphasis on heavy electronic processing. The use of delay effects and echoes congealed the array of their instruments into a swirling cosmic gel.
It is undoubted that the Taj Mahal Travellers were infused with the psychedelic spirit of the day. Yet group leader Kosugi put forth a valiant effort to make sure they were not confused with being a mere commune of music making hippies. In their first year they played a series of shows at Shibuya’s Station 70 club and the stage was taken over by revelers who wanted to contribute to the music making. They jumped up onstage, even though they hadn’t been invited, thinking it was some kind of “happening” or “be-in”. Yet the sound of the Travellers wasn’t intended to be a free for all among whoever wanted to participate. Rather it was an improvised exploration of sonic geography between dedicated musicians who were united in a singular aim. After these initial performances Kosugi took pains to only book his band at places such as art galleries or the kaikan culture-halls.
The group took a break over the summer when Kosugi went to Osaka for to perform as a solo artist at Expo ’70. He became friends with Stockhausen and the members of that group and was inspired by their day long performances in the specially designed spherical auditorium. With these experiences fresh in his mind at the end of Expo ’70 he was ready to get to work with the Travelers again. Some of the band still insisted on trying to play at rock venues, which Kosugi resisted. Their collective destiny changed when they were asked to play a dawn-to-dusk concert at Oiso Beach. This experience gave the groups the modus operandi they needed to succeed. Throughout the rest of their career they continued to perform outdoors for the most part, playing their strange music on beaches and hilltops. Their music consisted of improvised drones composed and long spontaneous passages reflective of the deep meditative presence they occupied within the unique space/time of coordinates of each specific performance. The group continued to play at beaches, and on mountains and were also invited to play at Shinto temples. Between 1971-2 they went on a tour where they played in majestic locations in the Netherlands, Germany and England, before heading on to Iran and India where they played at the Taj Mahal itself, before coming back home to Japan. From 1972-74 they spent a good deal of time both on the road and in the studio. The names of their recorded songs reflect their process, such as “Taj Mahal Travelers between 6.20 and 6.46pm” or “Taj Mahal Travelers between 7.50 and 8.05pm”. They are snapshots of what was played by a certain group at a certain place at a certain time.
After making two albums with his band Takeisha returned to the studio in September of 1974 to make a solo album. Catch Wave is a piece he wrote for processed violin, voice, radios and oscillators. It is available for listening in the extensive cultural archives of Ubu.com at http://www.ubu.com/sound/kosugi.html. The first side of the LP arrives like a beam from a strong station. With the antenna pointed it gets a bearing on the transmitting station and comes in full quieting. As only good radio and good music can do, Catch Wave transports you to another world, one of endless shimmering undulations. The rising of the waves of the radio and the oscillator, and a prevalent wah-wah-wah and whirr-whirr-whirr of mysterious origin are mixed in with the floating see-saw of the electric violin. The entirety of the piece creates an immersive mysterious sound world. The waves build and then fall back again into nothing. The piece takes up the entirety of two-sides of a slab of wax. It is the kind of signal I always want to tune right into. It is kind of wave I always want to catch.
Japrock sampler: how the post-war Japanese blew their minds on rock ‘n roll by Julian Cope, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007
Holger Czukay was another musician who was fascinated with the sounds of shortwave listening. He brought his love of radio and communications technology on board with him when he helped to found the influential krautrock band Can in 1968. Shortwave listening continued to inform Czukay’s musical practice in his solo and other collaborative works later in his career. It all got started when he worked at a radio shop as a teenager.
Holger had been born in the Free City of Danzig in 1938, the year before the outbreak of World War II. In the aftermath of the war his family was expelled from the city when the Allies dissolved its status as free city-state and made it become a part of Poland. Growing up in those bleak times his formal primary education was limited, but he made up for it when he found work at a radio repair shop. He had already developed an interest in music and one his ideas was to become a conductor, but fate had other plans for him. Working with the radios day in and day out he developed a fondness for broadcast radio. In particular he found unique aural qualities in the static and grainy washes of the radio waves coming in across the shortwave bands. At the shop he also became familiar with basic electrical repair work and rudimentary engineering. All of this would serve him well when building the studio for Can. In his work with the band he not only played bass and other instruments but acted as the chief audio engineer.
He spoke about this time, and his fascination with the mystery of electricity, in an interview. “When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I didn't know if I wanted to become a technician or a musician. And when you are so young you think the one has to exclude the other. So in the very beginning I thought I am sort of a musical wonder-child, and want to become a conductor and that was very very serious, but there was no chance to get educated as I was a refugee after the war. And then, suddenly, electricity. Electricity was such a fascinating thing - it was something. And then I became the boy in a shop who carries the radios to repair them and carries them back again. That was so-called three-dimensional radio, before stereo. There was one front speaker in the radio and at the side, there were two treble speakers which gave an image of spatial depth. I must say these radios sounded fantastic.”
In 1963 at the age of twenty-five he Czukay decided to pursue the musical side of his vocation and begin studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Cologne Courses for New Music. This is where he met up with Irmin Schmidt, another founding member of Can, who was also a student of Stockhausen’s. As much as Can itself was one of the guiding forces of Krautrock, or Kosmiche music as it was also called, a broad style of experimental rock music developed in Germany in the late 60s. Krautrock was for the most part divorced from the traditional blues and rock and roll influences of British and American rock music scenes of the time. Krautrock featured more electronic elements and contributed to the further development electronic music and ambient music as well as the birth of post-punk, alternative rock and New Age music. Stockhausen himself could be thought of as one of its chief instigators, a kind of Godfather of the genre. This was due not only to his influence as a teacher of German musicians, but because of his pioneering work with the raw elements of electronic music itself at the WDR studios.
Eccentric British rock musician and author Julian Cope discusses the importance of Stockhausen’s composition Hymnen in his book Krautrock Sampler. He considered that piece in particular pivotal to the whole Krautrock movement. It’s release had “repercussions all over W. Germany, and not least in the heads of young artists. It was a huge 113 minute piece, subtitled ‘anthems for electronic and concrete sounds’. Hymnen was divided up into four LP sides, titled Region I, Region II, Region III and Region IV.” In a previous column I had discussed this piece of music as an early attempt at creating ‘world music’. With its sounds of shortwave receivers and electronics it plays anthems from various countries in an attempt to unify them. What he did with the German anthem, ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ had a liberating effect on young Germany, who had grown up under the shadow of the worst kind of nationalism. Cope writes of the German publics reaction, “The left-wing didn’t see the funny side at all and accused him of appealing to the basest German feelings, whilst the right-wing hated him for vilifying their pride and joy, and letting the Europeans laugh at them. Stockhausen had just returned from six months at the University of California, where he had lectured on experimental music. Among those at his seminar’s were the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and many other psychedelic musicians. Far from snubbing the new music Stockhausen was seen at a Jefferson Airplane show at the Filmore West and was quoted as saying that the music ‘…really blows my mind.’ So whilst the young German artists loved Stockhausen for embracing their own rock’n’roll culture, they doubly loved him for what they recognized as the beginning of a freeing of all German symbols. By reducing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ to its minimum possible length he had codified it…Stockhausen had unconsciously diffused a symbol of oppression, and so enabled the people to have it back.”
Czukay’s time studying with Stockhausen was as important to the development of Krautrock as was Hymnen itself. In fact while Stockhausen was working on Hymnen at the WDR studio during the day, Holger Czukay and the other members of a pre-Can group, the Technical Space Composers Crew, would go in and use the equipment at night to record their own album Canaxis. In the piece ‘Boat Woman’s Song’ some of Czukay’s early pioneering use of sampling can be heard. The proto-ambient pieces of music on this record were painstakingly assembled from tape loops and segments of a traditional Vietnamese folk song. In an interview Czukay spoke of the experience. “When Stockhausen left for home, we had a second key and went in and switched everything on. We went in and Canaxis was produced in one night. In one night the main song ‘Boat Woman Song’ was done. I prepared myself at night at home, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so in four hours the whole thing was done.” David Johnson helped Czukay and Rolf Dammers engineer the album. “He knew the studio a bit better than me. He was engineering a bit, switching on stuff, copying from one machine to another…and that was okay. In four hours the job was done.” The music on Canaxis is eerie and beautiful and haunting. It is both a part of this world, but also not of it. It seems as if it has come to us from beyond, and some fifty years later it still sounds fresh, as all timeless music does.
Stockhausen influenced Czukay in other ways. It hadn’t originally been Czukay’s intention to become a rock musician. He was more interested in classical music, which he thought was the best, with a definite leaning towards it’s avant-garde. “Therefore I went to Stockhausen as he was the most interesting person. Very radical in his thoughts. With the invention of electronic music he could replace all other musicians suddenly: that was not only an experiment; that was a revolution! I thought that is the right man, yeah? So I studied with him for about three years. Until I finally said, if a bird is ready to fly, he leaves his nest and that is what I have done.”
After leaving the nest Holger became a music teacher in his own right as a way to make a living. Later he was able to work full time as a musician, because as he often joked, he was married to a rich woman. Teachers always learn from their students though and his were teaching him about the rock and pop music of the time, playing him records of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd's stood out to him, as did the song I am the Walrus by the Beatles. Czukay fell in love with that masterpiece of psychedelic pop. In particular he loved the way bursts of AM static and the sound of tuning between stations had been used for a musical effect at the end of the cut.
All of these influences and elements would fused together in his work with Can, a project begun while he was still a teacher. Irmin Schmidt’s mark on the band was equally massive, and he was just steeped, if not more, in the 20th century avant-garde, but exploring his contribution is not in the scope of this article. For most of his time in the band, Czukay played bass, but toward the end he gave up that instrument altogether in favor of a shortwave radio. He speaks about Stockhausen’s influence in making this switch.
“A shortwave radio is just basically an unpredictable synthesizer. You don’t know what it’s going to bring from one moment to the next. It surprises you all the time and you have to react spontaneously. The idea came from Stockhausen again. He made a piece called ‘Short Wave’ [‘Kurzwellen’]. And I could hear that the musicians were searching for music, for stations or whatever, and he was sitting in the middle of it all and the sounds came into his hands and he made music out of it. He was mixing it live – and composing it live. He had a kind of plan, but didn’t know what the plan would bring him. With Can, I would mix stuff in with what the rest of the band were playing. Also, we were searching for a singer and we didn’t find one – we tested many, but couldn’t find anyone – so I thought: ‘why not look to the radio for someone instead? The man inside the radio does not hear us, but we hear him.’” This he used without additional effects. “The radio has a VFO – an oscillator – where you can receive single side-bands, which means just half of the waves and you can decode it – it’s like a ring modulator. And that’s more than enough. The other members of Can were very open to these unpredictable uses of instruments, especially in the early days.”
His work with radios in a musical setting was a way for him to bring in energies from outside the band into their work. In his own words, “I looked for the devices to bring a different world into the group again and they had to react on that. That was the idea, working with a radio or working with tapes or working with a telephone. I even had this idea that with a transmitter, we could transmit and receive things back again. Or to call up people like today's radio shows where people call up or you call people. This sort of interaction I wanted to establish. But the group was not interested in this. So I finished with Can and went my own way. And here, I really followed this. I was working on that for a few years (with Can) but then I found it that it wasn't fun anymore. I continued alone then worked with other people.”
Can had a great run as a band from 1968 to 1979. Afterwards Czukay continued to flourish with his solo recordings, including albums like Radio Wave Surfer. The methods he developed for using radio as an instrument he termed radio painting. He continued to make solo albums and collaborate with other musicians on various project throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. He died of unknown causes on September 5, 2017.
All of this tells you the who, what, where, when and why. But to get the full experience I invite you to blow your mind by listening to Stockhausen, Can, Holger Czukay, and other crispy Krautrock bands! There is no better place to start than with Hymnen, the Can discography.
Krautrock Sampler: one head’s guide to great Kosmische muisk 1968-onwards by Julian Cope, Head Heritage, 1996.
Starting in the early 1960s Karlheinz Stockhausen composed several instrumental works which he called "process compositions". These did away with traditional stave notation and instead used symbols including plus, minus, and equal signs that indicated the successive transformations of sounds that were otherwise unspecified or unforeseeable by the composer. In this way he brings elements of improvisation into the fold of Western classical music where the strict adherence to a fixed score left little room for interpretation by musicians. The scores in his process pieces don’t dictate specific notes or ways of playing but rather specify the way a sound is to be changed or imitated. Taking a cue from his studies of information theory Stockhausen created a way of writing music that is similar to computer programming. The program “determines the way information is processed while leaving the choice of information to be processed to the individual user.” (Maconie 1990, 156-157)
Stockhausen’s process pieces include Plus-Minus (1963), Prozession (1967), Kurzwellen, and Spiral (both 1968). Eventually they led to the text based processes of his intuitive music compositions in the cycles Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) and Für kommende Zeiten (1968–70).
Kurzwellen (Short waves), the third of the process pieces also marks the beginning of Stockhausen’s magnificent voyage using shortwave receivers as a medium for musical transportation. The formal procedures in Kurzwellen (and the others) are fixed. Stockhausen thinks of these not as fixed in the way Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is a fixed piece that will sound the same to a greater or larger degree from recording to recording or performance to performance. Only the processes themselves are fixed. These are indicated primarily by plus, minus, and equal signs and constitute the composition.
Yet the sound materials themselves, like the knobs on the tuners, are variable. The process scores can be followed and bring about very different results each time they are played and yet somehow still sound similar. The sound material coming in from the shortwave radios is unpredictable. Yet the prescribed processes themselves can be heard from one performance to another as being "the same". These developments in musical theory and practice make live performances and new recordings exciting events.
The sounds coming in from the radio are what they players use as source material for the process of transformation as indicated by the score. Each player has a radio at their station. Stockhausen writes, “An undreamed intensity of listening and of intuitive playing is reached – and shared by all co-players and listeners – through the concentration of all players on unforseeable events coming from the realm of short-waves, in which one only very rarely knows who composed or produced them, how they came into being or from where, and in which all possible acoustic phenomena can appear.”
In practice the performers search for desirable sounds on the radio. These are for the most part the more abstract and noisy sounds found in the spectrum. Then they replicate those sounds on their instruments and transform them by using variations in register, volume, duration or rhythmic density. There are additional instructions in the score for players to form synchronous duo, trio and quartet events, where players play together in tandem, or alternatively trade short events with one another.
Part of the reason Stockhausen proscribed shortwave receivers rather than just the AM and FM broadcast band receivers most often used by John Cage is that they pulled in sounds from around the world. This played into his idea of creating a kind of world music. Shortwave also has a rich variety of sounds that allows the musicians greater freedom in finding sound material transform.
He continued to use shortwave radios in the pieces Spiral, Pole for 2, and Expo for 3. Writing of Spiral the composer says, "Doesn't almost everyone own a short-wave receiver? And doesn't everyone have a voice? Wouldn't it be an artful way of life for everyone, to transform the unexpected (which one can receive on a short-wave radio) into new music - i.e. into a consciously-formed sound process which awakens all intuitive, mental, sensitive and artistic faculties, and makes them become creative, so that this awareness and these faculties rise like a spiral?!"
Expo is kind of the penultimate of these pieces, though it shares close similarities with Spiral and Pole, differing mostly in the number of players. All can be heard as being part of the same family of process pieces using shortwave radio. Expo was written for Stockhausen's 1970 stay in Japan at the World Fair in Osaka ("EXPO '70"). For the Fair Stockhausen designed a large spherical auditorium that was then developed by his collaborator Fritz Bornemann. Outfitted with 50 loudspeakers the audience was literally surrounded on all sides by sound. Karlheinz was able to control the movement of the sound mix around these speakers, moving the audio vertically and horizontally. Sometimes he created rising and falling spiral motions using what was termed a "rotation mill". There were also various balcony stages and platforms as the podium that gave the works peformed there further spatial dimension. For 183 his crew of twenty performed daily from 3:30 to 9pm. With breaks for individual musicians I’m guessing. The German pavilion became one of the main attractions at Expo '70.
These pieces represent a kind of music where both musicians and listeners must surrender completely to the process without worrying about the outcome. As humans this “not worrying about the outcome” of an action or a path taken can be a brutal challenge. These works embody a philosophy that has the effect of helping me to worry less about outcomes in my life. Process music as applied to my life gives me a sense of freedom from the outcome of an action. This allows me to be more present with the action itself as it happens, whether it is writing, radio, or some other activity. Listening to process music reminds me that I need to surrender to what I am doing in the moment. Surrender is difficult. Part of the joy to be found in the arts is submitting to how they grasp hold of us. Listening itself becomes a transformation.
To the amateur radio or SWLing enthusiast the sounds of Kurzwellen will be familiar. The static crashes and buzzes, warbling of telemetry, announcers in multiple languages and mysterious numbers stations are sweet nectars of sound for the radio hobbyist. Listening to these recordings is like drinking a fine wine. I prefer it served in a darkened room with ears open to the world.
http://stockhausenspace.blogspot.com/ (plus/minus series of articles)
The works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, by Robin Maconie, 2nd edition.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.