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.
Gesang der Jünglinge
There is a mystery in the sounds of the vowels. There is a mystery in the sound of the human voice as it is uttered from the mouth and born into the air. And there is a mystery in the way electrons, interacting inside an oscillating circuit, can be synthesized and made to sing. Karlheinz Stockhausen set out to investigate these mysteries of human speech and circuitry as a scientist of sound, using the newly available radiophonic equipment at the WDR’s Studio for Electronic Music. The end result of his research was bridged into the vessel of music, giving the ideas behind his inquiries an aesthetic and spiritual form. In doing so he unleashed his electroacoustic masterpiece Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) into the world.
Part of his inspiration for Gesang der Jünglinge came from his studies of linguistics and phonetics at the Bonn between 1954 and 1956, with his mentor Werner Meyer-Eppler. The other part came from his spiritual inclinations. At the time of its composition Stockhausen was a devout Catholic. His original conception for the piece was for it to be a sacred electronic Mass born from his personal conviction. According to the official biography, he had asked his other mentor Herbert Heimert to write to the Diocesan office of the Archbishop for permission to have the proposed work performed in the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. The request was refused on grounds that loudspeakers had no place inside a church. No records of this request have been uncovered, so this story is now considered apocryphal. There are doubts that Eimert, who was a Protestant, ever actually brought up the subject with Johannes Overath. Johannes was the man at the Archdiocese responsible for granting or denying such requests and by March 1955 had become a member of the Broadcasting Council. It is likely Heimert and Overath were associates. What we can substantiate is that Stockhausen did have ambitions to create an electronic Mass and that he experienced frustrations and setbacks in his search for a suitable sacred venue for its performance, one that would be sanctioned by the authorities at the church.
These frustrations did not stop him however from realizing his sound-vision. The lectures given by Meyer-Eppler had seeded inspiration in his mind, and those seeds were in the form of syllables, vowels, phonemes, and fricatives. Stockhausen set to work creating music where voices merged in a sublime continuum with synthetic tones that he built from scratch in the studio. To achieve the desired effect of mixing human voice with electronics he needed pure speech timbres. He decided to use the talents of Josef Protschka, a 12-year old boy chorister who sang fragments derived and permutated from the “Song of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace” in the 3rd book of Daniel. In the story three youths are tossed into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. They are rescued from the devouring flames by an angel who hears them singing a song of their faith.This story resonated strongly with Stockhausen at the time. He considered himself to be a fiery youth. Still in his twenties he was full of energy, but was under verbal fire and critical attack from the classical music establishment who lambasted him for his earlier works. Gesang der Jünglinge showed his devotion to the divine through song despite this persecution.
The electronic bedrock of the piece was made from generated sine tones, pulses, and filtered white noise. The recordings of the boy soprano’s voice were made to mimic the electronic sounds: vowels are harmonic spectra which may be conceived as based on sine tones; fricatives and sibilants are like filtered white noise; and the plosives resemble the pulses. Each part of the score was composed along a scale that ran from discrete events to statistically structured massed "complexes" of sound. The composition is now over sixty years old, yet the synthetic and organic textures Stockhausen pioneered for it are still fresh. They speak of something new, and angelic.
Stockhausen eventually triumphed over his persecution when he won the prestigious Polar Music Prize (often considered the "Nobel Prize of music") in 2001. At the ceremony he controlled the sound projection of Gesang der Jünglinge through the four loudspeakers surrounding the audience.
These breakthroughs in 20th century composition practice wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of the WDR in creating an Electronic Music Studio and promoting new music on their stations.
As the world caught wind of the work being done at the WDR’s Electronic Music Studio, other radio stations and broadcasting corporations followed suit. NHK (Nippon HosoKyokai) in Japan built their electronic music studio in 1955, directly modeling it on the one at WDR. In 1958 the BBC created their famous Radiophonic Workshop. (I blame starting to watch Doctor Who as a ten year old, with its strange soundtrack and incidental music, for what became my lifelong fascination with electronic music.) The studio at NHK was just over ten years old when they invited Stockhausen over to work there and create two pieces for their airwaves.
When he arrived in Japan Karlheinz was severely jet lagged and disoriented. For several days he couldn’t sleep. That’s when the strange hallucinatory visions set in. Laying awake in bed one night his mind was flooded with ideas of "technical processes, formal relationships, pictures of the notation, of human relationships, etc.—all at once and in a network too tangled up to be unraveled into one process.” These musings of the night took on a life of their own and from them he created Telemusik.
Of Stockhausen’s many ambitions, one of them was to make a unified music for the whole planet. He was able to do that in this piece though the results sounded nothing like the “world music” or “world beat” genre often found on CD racks in coffee houses and gift shops. In the 20 minutes of the piece he mixed in found sounds, folk songs and ritual music from all over the world including the countries Hungary, Spain, China, Japan, the Amazons, Sahara, Bali and Vietnam. He also used new electronic sounds and traditional Japanese instruments to create what he called "a higher unity…a universality of past, present, and future, of different places and spaces: TELE-MUSIK." This practice of taking and combining sound sources from all over is now widely practiced across all genres of music in the form of sampling. But for Karlheinz it wasn’t simply making audio collage or taking one sample to build a song around it. Even though he used samples from existing recordings to make something different, he also developed a new audio process that he termed intermodulation.
In his own words he speaks of the difference between collage and intermodulation. “I didn’t want a collage, I wanted to find out if I could influence the traits of an existing kind of music, a piece of characteristic music using the traits of other music. Then I found a new modulation technique, with which I could modulate the melody curve of a singing priest with electronic timbres, for example. In any case, the abstract sound material must dominate, otherwise the result is really mishmash, and the music becomes arbitrary. I don’t like that.” For example he used "the chant of monks in a Japanese temple with Shipibo music from the Amazon, and then further imposing a rhythm of Hungarian music on the melody of the monks. In this way, symbiotic things can be generated, which have never before been heard"
Stockhausen kept the pitch range of Telemusik piece deliberately high, between 6 and 12 kHz. This is so that the intermodulation can project sounds downwards occasionally. He wanted some of the sections to seem “far away because the ear cannot analyse it” and then abruptly it would enter “the normal audible range and suddenly became understandable". The title of the piece comes from Greek tele, "afar, far off", as in "telephone" or "television". The music works consistently to bring what was “distant” close up. Cultures which were once far away from each other can now be seen up close, brought together by the power of telecommunications systems, new media formats, new music. By using recordings of traditional folk and ritual music from around the world Stockhausen brought the past brought up close and into the future by mixing it with electronics.
To accomplish all this at the NHK studio he used a 6-track tape machine and a number of signal processors including high and low-pass filters, amplitude modulators and other existing equipment. Stockhausen also designed a few new circuits for use in the composition. One of these was the Gagaku Circuit named after the Japanese Gagaku orchestra music it was designed to modulate. It used 2 ring-modulators in series to create double ring-modulation mixes of the sampled sounds.12 kHz was used in both the 1st and 2nd ring-modulation, with a glissando in the 2nd ring modulation stage. Then music was frequency-filtered in different stages at 6 kHz and 5.5 kHz.
Writer Ed Chang explains the effect of the Gagaku Circuit: “For example, in one scenario the 1st ring modulation A used a very high 12 kHz sine-wave base frequency, resulting in a very high-pitched buzzing texture (for example, a piano note of A, or 0.440 kHz, would become a high 12.440 kHz and 11.560 kHz).The 2nd ring-mod B base frequency (in this case with a slight glissando variation on the same 12 kHz base frequency) has the effect of ‘demodulating’ the signal (bringing it back down to near A). This demodulated signal is also frequency filtered to accentuate low frequencies (dark sound).These 2 elements (high buzzing from the 1st signal and low distorted sounds from the 2nd) are intermittently mixed together with faders. By varying the 2 ring-mod base frequencies and the 3 frequency filters, different effects could be achieved. This process of modulation and demodulation is what Stockhausen means when he says he was able to ‘reflect a few parts downwards’.”
The score was dedicated to the Japanese people and the first public performance took place at the NHK studios in Tokyo on 25 April 1966.
Telemusik prepared Stockhausen for his next monumental undertaking, Hymnen (Anthem) made at the WDR studio. The piece had already been started before Telemusik but he had to set it aside while in Japan. Hymnen is a mesmerizing elaboration of the studio technique of intermodulation first mastered at NHK in Japan. It is also a continuation of his quest to make a form of world music at a time when the people around the planet were becoming increasingly connected. To achieve this goal he incorporated forty national anthems from around the globe into one composition. He had collected 137 anthems in the process of composing the piece, by writing to radio stations in those countries and asking them to send recordings to Germany. The piece has four sections though it was first slated for six. The last two never materialized. These anthems from around the world are intermodulated into an intricate web of sound lasting around two hours long. Thrown into the kaleidoscopic mix are all manner of other sounds produced from sine wave generators, shortwave radio, his voice speaking, and many others. Whenever I listen to Hymnen the sounds of the music from different nations reminds me of someone tuning across the shortwave bands. In the audio spectrum and in the radio spectrum borders and boundaries are porous, permeable. And that is one of the things I love about amateur radio: the sharing of good will between women and men from all across the globe, our signals reaching each other across space to make the formerly distant close. Hymnen ends with a new anthem for a utopian realm called "Hymunion". Perhaps it can be reached through the shared communion that comes from truly listening to each other.
John Cage's composition Imaginary Landscape No. 4 wasn't the end of his engagement with the use of radio as a sound source. In fact his imagination, now glowing like a hot tube, was just getting warmed up. I will turn to his next experiments shortly, but I wanted to dwell for a moment on his earliest radio work, that I overlooked in last month’s article. I had quite forgotten about Cage's involvement with the Boy Scouts in Los Angeles in the early 1920's . It was during this time period that his fascination with radio was sealed. His father had built a crystal set that could be plugged into an electric light system. For his effort it got his father listed in the city directory as a "radio engineer" though he had been more recently famous for his work on submarines. Cage sr. had invented parts and systems for subs that helped keep them level and also a system for running the engines on gasoline instead of batteries, which increased the speed of the subs. His father's flair for invention seemed to have been passed on to Cage jr. As a Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts John got the idea of hosting a scouting program on the radio. First he obtained permission from his organization, and then he approached LA station KFWB who rejected his proposal. He next took his idea to KNX, and they gave the show the green light. It broadcast weekly on Friday afternoons. John at the time had considered himself destined to be in the ministry as his grandfather had been. As such he began each program with ten-minutes of oratory from a local religious person, be they minister, rabbi, or priest. The rest of the show was devoted to singing Scout songs over the air, sometimes with John accompanying his fellows on the piano. Other topics included such favorites as building fires and tying knots. KNX is still on the air on 1070 kHz in L.A. as one of the original clear channel stations, blasting a non-directional 50,000 watts. KNX had begun with a humble 5-watts when amateur Fred Christian put it on the air as 6ADZ. It was from these small beginnings, and his first taste of the airwaves, that he built on as a composer, presenter, experimenter, creating works for radio and incorporating radios themselves into a number of works.
After Imaginary Lanscape No. 4 Cage's next piece involving radio was written for a television program. His piece, Water Walk, lasts about three minutes and consists of many small actions relating to water. He timed each of his sound making actions to the precise second required by the score using a stop watch. Written for such fun sound making things as gong with water gun, and crushed ice in electric mixer, it also includes five radios and a piano. He stopped at the radios and adjusted frequency and volume, then released steam from a kettle, and plinked a few keys on the piano. Water Walk appeared live on television twice, first in 1959 in Milan, on the show Lascia o Raddoppia, an Italian version of the then popular Double or Nothing Game Show. Returning back home he got the chance to share it with American audiences on I've Got a Secret in 1960.
Six years down the road came Variations VII that was presented on two of the nights of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering that paired artists, musicians and performers with engineers from Bell Labs in presenting new works fusing technology to contemporary art practices. The 9 Evenings was the first in a series of projects that came to be known as E.A.T., or Experiments in Art and Technology. This was the first organized large scale collaboration between artists, engineers, and scientists. Some of the engineers included Max Mathews (whose work was included previously in this column), Bela Julesz, Billy Klüve, John Pierce, Manfred Schroeder, and Fred Waldhauer, alongside many others, around 30 in total. There were 10 artists involved including Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman. The collaboration between the artists and engineers produced a number of "firsts" for technology in the theater. Some were specially-designed systems and equipment. Others repurposed existing gear in innovative ways. Closed-circuit television and television projection was used on stage for the first time; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound; a fiber-optics camera picked up objects in a performer's pocket; and portable wireless FM transmitters and amplifiers transmitted speech and body sounds to loudspeakers. The performances took place between October 13-23, 1966 at New York's 69th Regiment Armory, at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street. Around 1000 people attended each evening.
The engineering side for Cage's piece was overseen by Cecil H. Coker whose primary area of focus was acoustic research, specializing in articulatory speech synthesis. Coker, with two colleagues, wrote the first software text-to-speech program in 1973. Coker had worked with Cage before on the piece Variations V helping to develop a system of for using photoelectric cells to provide lighting and randomly triggered sounds. Variations VII was considerably more involved though it still used photoelectric cells as a key component for triggering sounds.
In composing Variations VII, Cage used no previously prepared sources of music. It consisted only of "those sounds which are in that air at the moment of performance." Part of the elaborate set up included ten telephone lines installed to the Armory and kept open at various locations in New York City. Some of the places they were connected to included Luchow's restaurant, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, The New York Times press room, Merce Cunningham’s dance studio, and one next to fellow composer Terry Riley's turtle tank. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage's sound manipulation system, and from there to a dozen loudspeakers, one ceiling speaker. He also used 20 radios, one tuned to the police department dispatch), 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters. Oscillators and a pulse generator were other sound sources. Rounding it all off were a dozen household appliances such as blenders, fans, a juicer, and washing machine, wired with contact microphones. If that wasn't enough sounds from four wired body parts, heart, brain, lungs and stomach were included in the unpredictable mix. The entire set up stood on a platform with equipment stretched across two long tables. Cage, David Tudor and three other musicians moved around between the rows twisting knobs, plugging and unplugging cords and circuits, and flipping switches. Adding further randomness to the mix were the 30 photocells and lights mounted at ankle level around the performance area. These activated and triggered different sound sources as the performers, and audience who came in close to watch, moved around the set up.
Video artist Naim June Paik compared the roaring noise of Variations VII to a Niagra Falls of sound. Nothing like it had ever been heard before. And since so many of the sounds came from live sound sources an exact sound replica can never be recreated. Paik also considered to be Cage's masterpiece performance in the realm of electronic music.
The Maker and Hacker movements have had a great success in continuing to build relationships between the technically minded and the artistically minded. Ham radio has different restrictions imposed on it by the FCC. However it seems to me that somehow Hams could still work in creative ways with artists and musicians, and continue to forge vital connections between art and technology.
Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012.
Reception: the radio works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, by Alana Pagnutti, Smith and Brown, 2016.
The development of telecommunications technology and electronic circuits had a major impact on the creation of new musical instruments from the very beginnings of the field. But it was only in 1951 that a composer first got the idea that the radio itself could be used as a musical instrument. Since then the use of radio as a source for live, unpredictable sound, music, and voice has become commonplace across the genres of contemporary classical, and the various styles of electronic, rock and pop music. The next several installments of the music of radio series will explore some of the key composers and pieces of music that used radios as the primary instrument. Using the radio as an instrument has become part of what composer Alvin Curran has called "the new common practice" or grab-bag of themes, principles, and methods being used to create the sonic backdrop of the landscape that everyone now inhabits in this age of electronic multimedia.
"It's not a physical landscape. It's a term reserved for the new technologies. It's a landscape in the future. It's as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass." John Cage wrote this about his series of Imaginary Landscape compositions that first began in 1939 with No. 1, written for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano, and cymbal. It was potentially the first piece of electroacoustic music ever composed. The turntables played test tones. Some were constant, others had a sliding pitch. From the very beginning the piece was envisioned for radio, to be performed for either live or recorded broadcast. Since Cage had been a boy, he had been fascinated by the medium. Born in 1912 broadcasting was still in its infancy when it first reached his ears. Radio was so new anything could be done with it. The lackluster formats most common on the broadcasting portions of the spectrum now could well use an injection of the wonder the medium held in those first few decades.
Imaginary Landscape No. 1 was written while Cage held a teaching position at the Cornish School in Seattle. The school had been founded by Nellie Cornish, who had received some education in radio technology from Edward R. Murrow when visiting him at the CBS station in New York. In 1936 she created at Cornish the first school for radio technology in the United States. The studio at the school was equipped with the latest broadcasting and recording gear. It was there that Cage first began to experiment with the use of electrical sounds for musical purposes. At that time he was deep into writing percussion music and he began incorporating the sounds of radio and oscillator frequencies into these pieces. Reporting on Imaginary Landscape No. 1 the Seattle Star wrote that it was a "staccato roar of radio static and ghastly, ghostly whistles with intermittent shrieks". While this might have terrified listeners of the time, anymore people take such music as a matter of course, paying it no mind, especially when it is used in such things as the soundtrack or incidental music in film and television.
In 1941 Cage had found himself spending a large part of the year in Chicago. It was here that his interest in radio music continued to grow. Around this time he had published an article "For More New Sounds" in the journal Modern Music. In this essay he wrote about the similarities to be found between the materials used to create sound effects in radio studios and the instruments in the percussion wing of an orchestra. One of his interests was to bring radio sound-effects to the concert hall. He wrote, "organizations of sound effects, with their expressive rather than representational qualities in mind, can be made. Such compositions could be represented by themselves as 'experimental radio music'". That same year he got to work with the poet Kenneth Patchen in creating a radio play for CBS. The first draft of the musical score was scrapped by the sound engineers however. Some of the sounds he wanted to create, such as the escape of compressed air were too expensive to produce for the program, he was told. After some revisions he eventually gave CBS something they considered acceptable. The resulting piece by Cage and Patchen, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, was broadcast on May 31st, 1942. The surreal text by the poet was mixed with sounds of telephones, crying babies, rain, foghorns and Cage's metallic percussion instruments. In 1942 he also wrote No. 2 and 3 in the Imaginary Landscape series. No. 2 was written for tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion's roar and amplified coil of wire. No. 3 required musicians to play tin cans again, muted gongs, audio frequency oscillators, variable speed turntables with frequency recordings and recordings of generator whines, amplified coil of wire, amplified marimbula (a Caribbean instrument similar to the African thumb piano), and electric buzzer.
Imaginary Landscape No. 4 was first performed in 1951 and is scored for 12 radios played by 24 musicians, two on each radio, one to control the tuning, the other to control the volume. It is a great example of indeterminate music. The only guarantee about the piece is that no performance of it will never be heard the same way. This is guaranteed because John incorporates chance operations to determine how much the dials of each radio are to be turned by each performer. The novelty of each performance is also guaranteed by the nature of radio itself. Depending on the place and time of a performance, the things coming out of the radio speakers are going to be different. During its premier concert at Columbia University's McMillin Theater those in the audience heard the word "Korea" over and over again, as well as snippets of a Mozart violin concerto, news about baseball, static, and silence. The performance took place around midnight and many of the stations in New York had already gone off the air for the night. Of course the silence never bothered Cage, who considered in an integral part of the experience. He had said that "silence, to my mind is as much a part of music as sound."
Listening to a recording of this piece from 2008 reveals the prevalence of country music and commercials. Voices come in and say things like "60 percent off" and read the weather and the latest buzz words in the news cycle. Many people listening today might be as confused about the "musical" quality of such a piece as they were back in 1951. But what John Cage has done is to ask people to tune in and experience the unpredictable sounds and signals coming in from the radios and from the world, as a form of music.
The Imaginary Landscape compositions came to a close with No. 5 a work for magnetic tape recorder and any 42 phonograph records. This piece in the series was written in the same year as he began work on Williams Mix, for eight simultaneously played independent quarter-inch magnetic tapes, that became the first piece of octophonic music. As John Cage continued to compose until his death in 1992, he continued to work musically with new technology, including early computer music compositions in the 1960's. A number of other composers and musicians have taken a vast amount of inspiration from Cage's work with radio and continued to build on it. These will be explored in further transmissions.
A lot of these recordings are available to listen to on the wonderful UbuWeb:
Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012
In wireless communications spread spectrum radio is a transmission technique where the frequency of the signal is intentionally varied. This gives the signal a much greater bandwidth than if its frequency had remained constant. In the conventional transmission and receiving of signals, the frequency does not change over time, except for small fluctuations due to modulation. The signal is kept on a single frequency so two people communicating can exchange information, or so a listener in the broadcast bands knows exactly where to go to find his favorite station.
That is all fine and dandy for typical uses of radio. But as radio has developed the inventors and researchers who expanded the state of the art found a couple of hitches that made it problematic for certain types of signals to remain parked on one frequency. The first was interference caused by deliberate jamming on the desired frequency. This category also included other non-malicious interference coming from transmissions on nearby frequencies. The second issue with using only one frequency in a communication is when the information being transmitted is of a sensitive nature. Constant-frequency signals are easy to intercept. The military and others can make use of codes and encryption to veil transmissions on single frequencies, but codes can be broken. Radio researchers found that another layer of communication security could be added by the use of frequency-hopping which was the first technique established in spread spectrum radio.
Though attributed to multiple inventors, the first patent for frequency hopping was granted to actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil in 1942 for their "Secret Communications System" that was designed to protect Allied radio-guided torpedoes from being jammed by the Axis powers. Both Hedy and George are most remembered for their main fields of activity, movies and music, but they each had a touch of the polymath inside of them, and their other passions allowed them to make a significant advance in the radio arts.
Hedy was born in 1914 in Vienna and started training in the theater as a teenager in the 1920's. By the age of eighteen she had married her first of six husbands. Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl was a wealthy ammunitions manufacturer whose weapon systems later gave her inspiration for the patent. During this time she had started a career in film in Czechoslovakia with the 1933 film Ecstasy which became controversial for its frank depictions of nudity and sexuality. Hubby Mandl got a bit ticked off by these movie scenes and attempted to stop Hedy from continuing her career as an actress. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me she claimed that she was kept virtually a prisoner in their Austrian castle home. She wrote, "I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife.... He was the absolute monarch in his marriage.... I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own". And Hedy had a keen mind with natural talent for science and invention.
Both Mandl and Lammar had Jewish parents, but Mandl also had business ties with the Nazi government, to whom he sold his weapons. Mussolini and Hitler were among those who attended the lavish parties Mandl hosted at their Schloss Schwarzenau castle. Hedy would accompany him to his meetings where she got to associate with scientists and professionals involved in military technology. It was at these conferences where her interests in inventing and applied science were first sparked.
As her marriage grew unbearable she decided to flee to Paris where she met movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who was scouting for talent. With all the trouble brewing in Europe he found it easy to persuade her to move to Hollywood where she arrived in 1938 and began work on the film Algiers. She was in number of other popular feature films, including I Take This Woman (1940), Comrade X (1940), Come Live With Me (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and her most famous role in Cecil B. Demile's Samson and Delilah (1949). After starring in the comedy My Favorite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope her acting career started to peter out.
It was during the height WWII and her career when she was also grew bored with acting. Hedy had complained that the roles given to her required little challenge in terms of technique or the delivery of lines and monologues. Mostly the films she had starred in cast her for her beauty rather than her talent and ability. Stifled by the lack of more demanding roles she found an outlet for her intellectual capacities through the hobby of tinkering and inventing which was nurtured by her friendship with aviation tycoon Howard Hughes.
Lamarr had some ideas about using radio controlled torpedoes in the war effort. To help her in its implementation she eventually tapped composer George Antheil, who had also found success in Hollywood scoring films. Antheil had been a part of the Lost Generation, and like many of his contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, he had moved to Europe after the horrors of the first World War to live a bohemian and artistic life amidst the cafes and salons of Paris in the 1920's. It was during this time period when he composed his best known work Ballet Mecanique. It began its life as an accompaniment to the Dadaist film of the same name made by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, with cinematography by Man Ray. The techniques Antheil developed in this composition were to be key to the success of his shared frequency hopping patent.
Ballet Mecanique was scored to use a number of player pianos. He described their effect as "All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary." There are no human dancers. The mechanical instruments are what make it a ballet. Antheil's original conception was to use 16 specially synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren and three airplane propellers. There were a number of difficulties involved in this set-up that broke away from traditional orchestral arrangements. The synchronization of the player pianos proved to be the largest obstacle. Consisting of periods of music and interludes of relative silence created by the droning roar of airplane propellers. Antheil described it as "the rhythm of machinery, presented as beautifully as an artist knows how."
Besides composing Antheil was a writer and fierce patriot. He was a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and wrote a book of predictions about WWII titled The Shape of the War to Come. He also penned a newspaper column on relationship advice that was nationally syndicated and he fancied himself an expert on the subject of female endocrinology. His interests in this area was what first brought into contact with Hedy. She had sought him out for advice on how she might enhance her upper torso. After he proposed that she could make use of glandular extracts their conversation turned to the kind of torpedoes being used in the war.
Lamarr was herself a staunch supporter of her adopted country, though she didn't become a naturalized citizen until 1953. Using knowledge she gained from her first marriage with the munitions manufacture she had the insight that radio controlled torpedoes would excel in the fight against the Axis powers. However the radio signals could easily be jammed and the torpedo sent off course. Working with Antheil she devised their "Secret Communications System".
The action of composing for the player pianos helped Antheil with one of the aspects of creating their system, which had a striking resemblance to the still top secret SIGSALY system. It is best described in the overview of their patent number 2,292,387: "Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent. Furthermore, we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist, of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional player piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations, and in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals. Furthermore, records of the type described can be made of substantial length and may be driven slow or fast. This makes it possible for a pair of records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, to run for a length of time ample for the remote control of a device such as a torpedo. The two records may be synchronized by driving them with accurately calibrated constant-speed spring motors, such as are employed for driving clocks and chronometers. However, it is also within the scope of our invention to periodically correct the position of the record at the receiving station by transmitting synchronous impulses from the transmitting station. The use of synchronizing impulses for correcting the phase relation of rotary apparatus at a receiving station is well-known and highly developed in the fields of automatic telegraphy and television."
Although the US Navy did not adopt their technology until the 1960s the principles of their work continue to live on and are now used in everyday devices such as Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Spread spectrum systems are also used in the unregulated 2.4 GHz band and on some walkie-talkies that operate in the 900 MHz portion of the spectrum. Other spread spectrum techniques include direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS), time-hopping spread spectrum (THSS), and chirp spread spectrum (CSS).
In 2008 Elyse Singer wrote the script for an off-Broadway play, Frequency Hopping, that features the lives of Lamarr and Antheil. It won a prize for best new play about science and technology. Hedy and George's pioneering work eventually led to their posthumous induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Ecstasy and Me by Heddy Lamarr
The Bad Boy of Music by George Antheil
George Antheil, Ballet Mecanique: Digital Re-creation of the Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927, Conducted by Maurice Peress, Music Masters Inc. 1992.
In last month's episode I explored the genesis of the first song uttered by a computer, Daisy Bell, and how that song ended up in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this last installment on the history of speech synthesis I'll track the use of the vocoder in popular music on up to its implementation into the DMR radios that are currently a big buzz in the ham community.
In 1968 synth wizard Robert Moog built the first solid state vocoder. Two years later Moog built another musical vocoder, working with Wendy Carlos. This was a ten-band device inspired by Homer Dudley's original designs. The carrier signal came from a Moog modular synthesizer. The modulator was the input from the microphone. The brilliant application of this instrument made its debut appearance in Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange, where the vocoder sang the vocal part from the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the section titled "March from a Clockwork Orange" on the soundtrack. It's something I could sit down and listen to on repeat over and over while enjoying a fine glass of moloko velocet. This was the first recording made with a vocoder and I find it interesting that the two earliest uses of speech synthesis for music ended up in films made by Kubrick. The song "Timesteps", an original piece written by Wendy, is also features on the soundtrack. She had originally intended to include it as a mere introduction to the vocoder for those who might consider themselves "timid listeners" but Kubrick surprised Wendy by its inclusion in his dystopian masterpiece.
Coming down the road in 1974 was the classic album Autobahn by the German krautrockers Kraftwerk. This was the first commercial success for the power-station of a group. Their previous three albums had been highly experimental, though well worth an evening of listening. Kraftwerk's contribution in the popularization of electronic music remains huge. Besides using commercial gear such as a Minimoog, the ARP Odyssey, and EMS Synthi AKS, Kraftwerk were dedicated homebrewers of their own instruments. Listening to the album now I can imagine the band soldering something together in the back of a Volkswagen Westfalia as they cruise down the highway at 120 km/h on to their next gig.
Three years later in 1977 Electric Light Orchestra released the album Out of the Blue, much to the delight of discerning listeners everywhere. There is nothing quite like the music of ELO to lift me up out of the melancholy I often find myself in during the middle of winter when spring seems far away. "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Sweet Talking Woman" are songs that toggle the happy switches in my brain. When I hear them things brighten up. This is in no small part to the judicious use of the vocoder. ELO was in love with the vocoder and it can be found littered across their recordings. (As a bit of a phone phreak another favorite cut is "Telephone Line".)
During the 1980's the vocoder started being used in the early hip-hop and rap groups. Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from WWII to Hip-Hop notes the echo of history in the vocoders use alongside two turntables for the SIGSALY program and how DJs use two turntables to mix and scratch phat beats while a rap MC will drop lyrics over top of the sounds being produced by the vinyl, sometimes processing those vocals through the vocoder. The use of the vocoder continues to present times on hip-hop and jazz fusion albums such as Black Radio (1 & 2) from Robert Glasper Experiment.
While the vocoder was enjoying great success in the entertainment industry, its use in telecommunications was still ticking away, though a bit quieter, in the background. Since 1970's most of the tech in this area has focused on linear-predictive coding (LPC). It is a tool used for representing the spectral envelope of a digital signal of speech in compressed form, using the information from a linear predictive model and is a powerful speech analysis technique. When it came out the NSA were among the first to get their paws on it because LPC can be used for secure wireless with a digitized and encrypted voice sent over a narrow channel. The early example of this is Navajo I, a telephone built into a briefcase to be used by government agents. About 110 of these were produced in the early '80s. Several other vocoder systems are used by the NSA for encryption (that we are allowed to know about).
Phone companies like to use LPC for speech compression because it encodes accurate speech at a low bit rate, saving them bandwidth. This had been Homer Dudley's original intention with his first vocoding experiments back in the 1930's. Now LPC has become the GSM standard protocol for cellular networks. GSM uses a variety of voice codecs that implement the technology to jam 3.1 kHz of audio into 6.5 and 13 kbit/s of transmission. Which is why to my ear, smart phones, for all the cool things they can do with data, apps and GPS, will never sound as good with voice as an old school toll call on copper wires. LPC is also used in VoIP.
LPC has also been used in musical vocoding. Paul Lansky created the computer music piece notjustmoreidlechatter using LPC. A 10th order derivative of LPC was used in the popular 1980s Speak & Spell educational toy. These became popular to hack by experimental musicians in a process known as circuit bending, where the toy is taken apart and the connections re-soldered to make sounds not originally intended by the manufactures. This technique was pioneered by Cincinnati maker and musician Q. Reed Ghazala into a high art form. Reed's experimental instruments have been built for Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson's Pat Mastalotto, Faust, Chris Cutler, Towa Tei, Yann Tomita, Blur and many other interesting musicians. And not so interesting ones (to me) such as Madonna. A future edition of The Music of Radio will cover his work in detail, but a lot can be found on his website anti-theory.net.
Finally vocoders are utilized in the DMR radios that are currently gaining popularity among hams around the world. In Ohio the regional ARES groups are being encouraged to utilize this mode as another tool in the box. DMR is an open digital mobile radio standard. DMR, along with P25 phase II and NXDN are the main competitor technologies in achieving 6.25 kHz equivalent bandwidth using the proprietary AMBE+2 vocoder. This vocoder type uses multi-band excitation to do it's speech coding. Besides it's use in DMR the AMBE+2 is also used in D-Star, Iridium satellite telephone systems, and OpenSky trunked radio systems.
From what I've heard I didn't really care for the audio quality of DMR, as on cell phones. My ears would rather dig through the mud of the HF bands than listen to the way speech is compressed in these modes. I think the vocoder is better suited to musical studios where it can be used for aesthetic effects. However with the push to use these in ARES, and needing something to play with at OH-KY-IN's digital night on the fourth Tuesday of the month, I do plan on taking the plunge into DMR. And when I do I will know that every time I have a QSO using the DMR platform I will be taking part in a legacy starting with Homer Dudley's insights into human vocal system as a carrier wave for speech. A legacy that stretches across the fields of telecommunication, cryptology and popular music.
Chip Talk: Projects in Speech Synthesis by David Prochnow, Tab Books, 1987.
...and some other research on the interwebs.
Speech synthesis confers a number of benefits to technology end users. It allows individuals with impaired eyesight to be able to operate radios and computers. For those who cannot speak, and who may also have trouble using sign language, speech units such as the device employed by Stephen Hawking allow a person to communicate in ways unthinkable a century ago. For these individuals speech synthesizers play an integral role in adding quality to their day to day lives. On our local repeaters synth voices make announcements about nets and club events, and speech synths read the weather on the NWS frequencies. Beyond these specialized uses, one of the ways everyone can share in the joy of chip talk is through the medium of music.
The IBM 704 was the first computer to sing. It was first introduced in 1954 and 140 units had sold by 1960. The programming languages LISP and FORTRAN were first written for this large machine that used vacuum tube logic circuitry. Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) physicist John Larry Kelly coaxed the 704 into singing Daisy Bell aka A Bicycle Built for Two using a vocoder program he wrote for the 704.
Lovely as the a cappella computer was, it was deemed in need of instrumental accompaniment. For this part of the song the expertise of fellow BTL employee Max Vernon Mathews was sought out. Max was an electrical engineer whose first love of music enabled him to become a pioneer in electronic and computer music. In 1954 he wrote the first computer program for sound generation, MUSIC, also used on the IBM 704. The accompaniment to the voice portion of Daisy Bell was programmed by Max in 1961 using the IBM 7090.
The IBM 7090 was the transistorized version of the 709 vacuum tube mainframe. The 7090 series was designed for "large-scale scientific and technological applications." The first of 7090's was installed in late 1959 at a price tag of close to $3 million. Adjusted for inflation the price today would be a whopping $23 million buckaroos. Besides its musical capabilities, the 7090's other accomplishments included being used for the control of the Gemini and Mercury space flights. IBM 7090's were also used by the Air Force for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System up until the 1980s. Daniel Shanks and John Wrench used it to calculate the first 100,000 digits of pi. Yet none of the above uses compare, in my mind, to the beauty of the IBM 704 joining forces with the IBM 7090 on the song Daisy Bell.
Another computer, HAL 9000, still gets most of the credit for this electronic version of Daisy Bell. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, happened to be visiting his friend and colleague John Peirce at BTL when John Larry Kelly was making his demonstrations of speech synthesis with the IBM 704. He was so fascinated by witnessing this computational marvel that six years later he wrote that version of Daisy Bell into his screenplay, as sung by HAL in the middle the machines climactic mental breakdown. The song was on the vinyl platter "Music from Mathematics" put out by the Decca label a handful of decades ago (listen to video above.)
Daisy Bell went on to have a notable reprise for the Commodore 64 when Christopher C. Capon wrote his program "Sing Song Serenade". The sounds for his version were played direct on the hardware by rapidly moving the read/write head of the computer. . The resulting audio was emitted from the floppy disk drive.
Max Mathews continued to make strong contributions to the humanities in the realms of music and technology. In 1968 he developed Graphic 1, a graphical system that used a light pen for drawing figures that could be converted into sound. In 1970 Mathews developed GROOVE (Generated Real-time Output Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment) with F. R. Moore. GROOVE was the first fully developed music synthesis system for interactive composition and realtime performance. It used 3C/Honeywell DDP-24 (or DDP-224) minicomputers.
An algorithm written by Mathews was used by Roger M. Shepard to synthesize Shepard Tones. These tones (named after Roger) consist of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When the base pitch of the tone is played moving upward or downward, it is known as the Shepard Scale. Playing this scale creates an auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet seems to get no higher or lower. It is the musical version of a barber pole or of the Penrose stair, a type of impossible object in geometry, made famous in the drawing Ascending and Descending by M.C. Escher.
Max also made a controller, called a Radio-Baton and Radiodrum, used to conduct and play electronic music. Developed at BTL in the 1980s it was originally a kind of three-dimensional mouse. The device has no inherent sound of its own, but produces control signals that are used to trigger sounds, sound-production, effects and the like. The Radio-Baton is similar to a theremin. Magnetic capacitance is used to locate the position of the conductors baton, or mallets in the case of the drum. The two mallets are antennas transmitting on slightly different frequencies. The drum surface, also electronic, acts as another set of antennas. The combination of these antenna signals is used to derive X, Y and Z, and these are interpreted according to the assigned musical parameters.
Many of these mainframe musical programs are now available in the program Max that can run off a laptop.
Besides the use of Daisy Bell in the soundtrack for 2001, director Stanley Kubrick used a wide range of work by modern composers. The piece Atmospheres written by Gyorgy Ligeti in 1961 was used for the scenes of the monolith and those of deep space. Ligeti's earlier electronic work Artikulation, though not used in the film, shares an interesting connection to some of the ideas behind speech synthesis. Artikulation was composed in 1958 at the Studio for Electronic Music of West Deutsche Radio in Cologne with the help of Cornelius Cardew, an assistant of Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose works involving shortwave radios will be explored in time). The piece was composed to be an imaginary conversation of multiple ongoing monologues, dialogues, many voices in arguments and chatter. In it Ligeti created a kind of artificial polyglot language full of strange whispers, enunciations and utterance.
Music from Mathematics: Played by IBM 7090 Computer to Digital Sound Transducer, Decca LP 9103.
Gyorgy Ligeti: Continuum / Zehn Stucke fur Blaserquintett / Artikulation / Glissandi / Etude fur Orgel / Volumina, Wergo 60161, 1988.
This installment continues the exploration of the development of speech synthesis. So far I've investigated the invention of the Vocoder and how it was used in the SIGSALY program in WWII. In this episode I explore the other side of the speech synthesis coin, speech recognition. Without the ability for machines to recognize speech on the one hand and the ability to synthesize it on the other, the wunderkind of today's consumer electronics, Siri, Dragon and Alexa, would not be possible. With both in place humans can now speak, and sometimes yell with exasperation, to a wide range of interconnected devices and our smart phones and Echo Dots will speak back to us. As developments in Artificial Intelligence take off the little computer in your pocket soon speak up for itself and yell back.
In a way it could be said that speech recognition systems began in the 19th century when sound waves were first converted into electrical signals. By 1932 Harvey Fletcher was researching the science of speech perception at that temple of telecommunications, Bell Laboratories. His contributions in this area showed that the features of speech are spread over a wide frequency range. He also developed the articulation index to quantify the quality of a speech channel. Articulation indexes are used in measuring the effectiveness of hearing aids and in industrial settings. Harvey is credited with the invention of an early electronic hearing aid, and is notable for overseeing the creation of the first stereophonic recordings and live stereo sound transmissions, for which he was dubbed the "father of stereophonic sound".
Interest in speech recognition didn't end with Fletcher. In 1952, over half a century before Siri or Alexa could respond to a voiced question of where to find the best noodle shop in town (or when the end of the world will be), AUDREY was on the scene. She derived her name from her special power: Automatic Digit Recognition. She was a collection of circuits capable of perceiving numbers spoken into an ordinary telephone. Due to the technological limits of the time she could only recognize the spoken numbers of "0" through "9". When the digits were uttered into a mic on the handset AUDREY would respond by illuminating a corresponding bulb on the front panel of the device. It sounds simple, but this marvel was only achieved after overcoming steep technical hurtles.
S. Balashek, R. Biddulph, and K. H. Davis were the creators of AUDREY. One of the obstacles they faced was to craft a system capable of recognizing the same word when it is said with subtle variations. The spoken digit "7" for example, when said multiple times by even one person is subject to slight differences. Duration, intonation, quality, volume and timing all change the sound of the word with each individual utterance. To recognize speech amidst all these variables AUDREY focused on the sound parts within the words that have the most minimal variation. In this way the machine did not need to have an exactly spoken match. Roberto Pieraccini put it this way, saying there is less variety "across different repetitions of the same sounds and words than across different repetitions of different sounds and words."
The exact matches came from the part of speech known as formants. A formant is a harmonic of a note that is augmented by the resonance of the vocal tract when speaking or singing. The information that humans require to distinguish speech sounds can be represented in a spectrogram by peaks in the amplitude/frequency spectrum. AUDREY could locate the formant in the spectrum of each utterance and use that to make a match.
AUDREY also required that there be pauses between words. She couldn't isolate or separate individual words when said in a string. In addition designated talkers had to be assigned, talkers who could produce the specific formants, otherwise she might not recognize a digit. For each speaker the reference patterns of the formants drawn electronically and stored within her memory had to be fine tuned. Yet despite all the limitations around her use, the researchers proved that building a machine capable of recognizing human speech wasn't a pipe dream.
AUDREY was expensive because she was state of the art and all analog. The six-foot high relay rack she kept occupied with all her vacuum-tube circuitry required a lot of upkeep. And she drew a lot of power that really hiked up the electric bill. The invention never really went anywhere in terms of being used as a tool in Ma Bell's vast monopoly. It could have been used by toll operators or wealthy customers of the telephone to voice dial, but manual dialing was simple, fast, and cheap.
Creating a system that had uniform recognition of words as uttered by multiple people was a dream that had to be fulfilled by other researchers down the line. They built on the sweat equity and foundation of those who went before. The fact that a machine can be made to decipher strange human vocalizations at all is sheer wonder. While others may be fond of Siri, Dragon and Alexa it is AUDREY who will always remain in my heart.
The Voice in the Machine: Building Computers That Understand Speech by Roberto Roberto Pieraccini, MIT Press 2012
This edition of the Music of Radio continues to explore developments around electronically generated speech. Homer Dudley, an engineer and acoustics researcher who worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL), made significant contributions to this field beginning with his invention of the Vocoder and Voder. The development of these two instruments was detailed in last month's column. Now I will turn my attention to how the Vocoder was employed in encrypting the transmissions of high ranking officials during WWII for the SIGSALY program. SIGSALY, by-the-way, is simply a cover name for the system and is not an acronym.
In 1931 BTL had developed the A-3 scrambler that was used by Roosevelt and Churchill, but the security of this device was eventually compromised by German's at a radio post in South Holland who had been intercepting the Prime Ministers telephone calls. The A-3 had worked with the Trans-Atlantic Telephone by splitting speech up into different bands, but it wasn't difficult to reassemble as the Germans proved in 1941, making the situation surrounding communications security to become intolerable to the Allies.
In 1942 the Army contracted BTL to assist with the communication problem and create "indestructible speech" or speech that could withstand attempts at code breaking. From this effort the revolutionary 12-channel SIGSALY system was born. To create SIGSALY workers sifted through over 80 patents in the general area of voice security. None of these fit the needs of the allies, but Homer Dudley's Vocoder did and formed the basis of the system. For SIGSALY a twelve-channel Vocoder system was used. Ten of the channels measured the power of the voice signal in a portion of voice frequency spectrum (generally 250-3000 Hz). Two channels were devoted to "pitch" information and whether or not unvoiced (hiss) energy was present. The Vocoder enciphered the speech as it went out over phone or radio. In order to be deciphered at each end of the conversation an audio crypto-key was needed. This came in the form of vinyl records.
From the standpoint of music history it is interesting to note, as Dave Tompkins did in his book How to Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder fromWWII to Hip-hop, that the SIGSALY system employed two-turntables alongside the microphone/telephone. The classified name for this vinyl part of the operation was SIGGRUV. The turntables were used to solve the problem of needing a cryptographic key. They played vinyl records produced by the Muzak Corporation, a company famous for the creation of elevator music. The sounds on these records weren't aimed at soothing weekend shoppers or people sitting in waiting rooms. Muzak had been contracted into pressing vinyl that contained random white noise, like channel 3 on an old television set. The noise was created by the output of very large mercury-rectifier tubes that were four inches in diameter, and over a foot high. These generated wide band thermal noise that was sampled every twenty milliseconds. The samples were then quantized into six levels of equal probability. The level information was converted into channels of a Frequency Shift Keyed audio tone signal recorded onto a vinyl master. From the master only three copies of a key segment were made. If these platters had been commercial entertainment masters thousands would have been pressed from its blueprint. If any SIGGRUV vinyl still exists, and for security reasons they shouldn't have, those grooves are critically rare.
It had to be insured that no pattern could be detected so the records had to be random noise. If the equipment had somehow been duplicated by the Axis powers, the communications would still be uncompromised as the they required the crypto key of the matching vinyl, required at each terminal. This made the transportation of these records, via armored truck, the most secure since Edison invented the Phonograph. Just as the masters were destroyed after making three keys, each vinyl key was only ever to be played once, as operators were instructed to burn after playing. The official instruction read, "The used project record should be cut-up and placed in an oven and reduced to a plastic biscuit of 'Vinylite'". As another precaution against the grooves falling into enemy hands the turntables themselves had a self-destruct mechanism built into them that could be activated in case a terminal was compromised. Thinking of all this sheds new light on the idea of a DJ-Battle.
Keeping the turntables at two different terminals across the globe synchronized was another technical hurdle that BTL overcame. If a needle jumped or the system went out of synch only garbled speech was heard. At the agreed upon time, say 1200 GMT, operators listened for the click of the phonograph being cued to the first groove. The turntables were started by releasing a clutch for the synchronous motor that kept the turntable running at a precise speed. Fine adjustments were made using 50-Hertz phase shifters (Helmholtz coils) to account for delays in transmission time. The operators would listen for full quieting of the audio as synchronization was established. Oscilliscopes and HF receivers were also used to keep systems locked to international time.
A complete SIGSALY system contained about forty racks of heavy equipment composed of vacuum tubes, relays, synchronous motors, turntables, and custom made electromechanical equipment. In the pre-transistor era all of this gear required a heavy load of power so cooling systems were also required to keep it all from getting fried. The average weight of a set up was about 55 tons.
The system passed Alan Turing's inspection (if not his test) as he had been briefly involved with the project on the British side. On July 15, 1943 the inaugural connection was established between the Pentagon and a room in the basement below Selfridges Department Store in London. Eventually a total of twelve SIGSALY encipherment terminals were established, including some in Paris, Algiers, Manila, Guam, Australia and one on a barge that ended up in the Tokyo Bay. In the year 1945 alone the system trafficked millions of words between the Allies.
To keep all of this operational a special division of the Army Signal Corp was set up, the 805th Signal Service Company. Training commenced in a school set up by BTL and members were sent to various locations. Their tasks required security clearances and a firm grasp on cutting edge technology which they were tasked to operate and maintain. For every eight hours of operation the SIGSALY systems required 16 hours of maintenance.
In putting the system together eight remarkable engineering "firsts" were achieved. A review conducted by The Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers in 1983 lists them as follows:
1. The first realization of enciphered telephony
2.The first quantized speech transmission
3.The first transmission of speech by Pulse Code Modulation (PCM)
4.The first use of companded PCM
5.The first examples of multilevel Frequency Shift Keying (FSK)
6.The first useful realization of speech bandwidth compression
7.The first use of FSK - FDM (Frequency Shift Keying-Frequency Division Multiplex) as a viable transmission method over a fading medium
8.The first use of a multilevel "eye pattern" to adjust the sampling intervals (a new, and important, instrumentation technique)
To do all these things required precision and refinement in new technology. SIGSALY has left the world with a rich inheritance that spans developments in cryptology, digital communications, and even left its mark on music.
How to Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder from WWII to Hip-hop: The Machine Speaks by Dave Tompkins, Melville House, 2010
SIGSALY: The Start of the Digital Revolution by J.V. Boone and R.R. Peterson, retrieved at:
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.