a personal history
It's been a long one. In the 50's, our family didn't have TV, so we would often sit around in the evening, armed with a mug of tea and a muffin, listening to a radio play. That's definitely not the same experience as TV... Tele reduces the space in a room, radio expands it because you start to travel and you start to create those spaces and images that the broadcast sound unlocks. You can go anywhere (anywhere that makes a sound that is)... Radio was the first 'virtual reality' and it was subtle, sophisticated and unmeasurable from the start... unlike a modern computer game. Group listening goes on still in many parts of the world (a new wind up short wave receiver recently went on sale in South Africa... batteries are too expensive for populations living on the breadline) but for those in the Post Industrial societies, radio is mostly a one to one experience. And it is that miraculous form of communication that first inspired me. With my brother's help and the book 'Amateur Wireless', I made a crystal set in the year that sputnik went up. I would lie in bed hidden under the covers listening in trembling fear to 'The Hound of The Baskervilles', expecting any moment that the phantom dog would turn his attention on me (I can't think of a more personal communications medium that allows an artist, broadcaster or canine beast into the bed of its audience!) After that it was not long before I had a go at making my first radio piece on my other brother's brand new quatertrack Phillips tape recorder. Much to my amazement, the BBC weren't interested in broadcasting it! I had better luck some 14 years later when I was living in Birmingham and I got the chance to do a few things on a late night local BBC programme called 'Roots'. Working at night, we had the opportunity to rummage through 'the Archers' (the world's longest running soap) sound affects department... it didn't take too much imagination to make an LSD induced show. As it happened the station manager couldn't sleep that night so he thought he would give us a listen. Within seconds he had rang the anchor man for 'Roots' and told him to 'get those fuckers out of the studio'... we were replaced with a record.
Access to the radio improved considerably after I moved to Australia in the mid 1970's. Public radio had just started up there and one of the most important stations (still is) was 2 MBS FM. Throughout the day they broadcast a steady stream of classical music but after 11pm... the Station was transformed into the voice of alternative music. A number of shows dealt with the whole Kaleidoscope of contemporary music. Basically if you wanted to make radio you could do a crash course learning the equipment and then off to 'on the air' you went. At some stages there have been something like 5,000 volunteers involved in running 2 MBS... they've got their own mag too which they anachronistically insist on delivering by hand. Live broadcasts became quite regular and often involved improvising musicians and so called 'sound artists' (a term that makes my stomach turn). Alessio Cavallaro ran an extraordinary series dealing with everything from the Futurists to a live broadcast from The Alex Schlippenbach Trio (that was 1983 I think). I also remember collaborations with Rik Rue. This is a guy with his ear to the ground... sometimes literally. He once found a cassette lying in the gutter, it belonged to the Boomerang Cassette Club of Australia. The cassette was posted from one side of the continent to the other (like... er... BBBBOOmeranging) with the observations, philosophies, and rampant ravings of its members gradually being added to its 90 minutes duration. When it had been duly filled up with everyday stories of everyday folk, I supposed they ditched it and started a new one. Do it yourself/grass roots collaboration was of necessity the norm; for example, after a tour in Japan I was able to come back to Sydney with a mass of urban environmental recordings and we could make a sonic fantasy 'Tokyo Surgery' in 2 days at his house and broadcast it the next evening at 2MBS. Almost instant radio. For very instant radio I recall Ian Hartley (?) taking an ordinary transistor radio into the studio one night and broadcasting a particularly red neck programme (with suitable commentary & noise) instead of his own... simply by holding the trani in front of his mic while providing audio interference and holding forth at the same time. His assumption was that, since 2MBS and this other station were adjacent to each other on the tuning dial, some regular listeners to this other programme might tune to his programme, thinking they were tuned to the other programme, and get the version of the other programme with unlikely commentary, instead of the authentic version without unusual commentary... if you see what I mean. Then there was the night that 2MBS was invaded and taken over by a Sydney Prostitutes' Association demanding equal broadcast rights. The classical management put their foot down.Things were getting out of hand and life became a bit tenuous for the midnight to dawn shift after that event... but it's still going.
"This is Flying Doctor Radio calling Wallaboolla Base" rings the bell of quaint quintessential Australia in most euro heads. This along with the other cliché 'The School of The Air' keeps for most Euros the old worn and comfortable images of Australia as cultural wasteland. There is truth there if you look hard enough for it but these two images provide the key as to why Australia now is the most intensive and sophisticated user of new communications technologies along with the West Coast of America. 'The tyranny of distance' has been turned from the all encompassing disadvantage into the powerful mother of invention. (One of the software guys from Steim, Institute for live computer music, visited Australia last year and he came back amazed at the enthusiasm and level of activity going on there.) But one reason why Australia's isolated & disconnected culture hasn't fallen completely off the map in past years is because of the national Radio Network, The ABC.
Apart from fulfilling the usual socio-political functions, the ABC has come up with some of the most radical radio I've ever heard... anywhere. There are at present two programmes a week in the primetime listening spot, one 'New Music Australia' deals with new home grown music whether composed or improvised; the other 'The Listening Room' deals with experimental (mostly) work specifically made for radio. It has at least 30,000 listeners in the 5 main cities and no one actually knows how many in country towns. Not bad for an avant guard radio programme in a 'cultural desert'. It's almost impossible to be a creative musician in Australia and not have your work exposed to this quite loyal audience. There have been many uses made of the medium. I remember one simul broadcast organised by the Perth piano player Ross Bolleter...there were improvising musicians in radio studios in London, Berlin, Vienna, Sydney, and Perth... all hooked up and improvising together. An earlier simul broadcast (1980?) linked up Fairlight sampler players in Sydney, Tokyo and Toronto. The first version of my 'Shopping' project was performed with seven improvisers in Sydney, a choir joining in from Perth, a live chanting audience, and simultaneous nationwide broadcast. This kind of activity doesn't go on every week but it is common enough. Andrew McKlennan has been the supporter, if not instigator, of many such projects from artists such as Chris Mann, Warren Burt, Amanda Stewart, Jim Denley, Alvin Curran (his maritime piece for ship's horns on Sydney Harbour) and large scale (bring the exotic environment into your living room stuff) Installations from People like Les Gilbert and Bill Fontana. In the first half of the 1980's, The Relative Band Festival (International Improvised music organised by Jim Denley & myself) was consistently supported by the ABC at a time when even the word 'improvisation' was considered unclean by most of the Jazz and New Music establishment. If you listen to one of the Relative Band recordings from 1984, you'll hear an even more diabolical sound than some of the ones we were making... it's Andrew McKlennan singing along through the studio's public address system.
At the end of the 70's multi millionaire, Arctic Explorer, and legalized thug Dick Smith had a chain of cheap electronic shops all over Australia. You could build a radio microphone for $3.95. and a few hours of fiddling about. These radio mics were rather wild affairs and broadcast on a multitude of frequencies in addition to the one you had selected. I started to build them into some of my cheap chinese violins. The result was something close to the perfect weapon for the audio terrorist... a mobile radio station. With a range of half a block, the distorted signal from my radio violin could break into any neighbour's living room when their FM tuner was turned on. Apart from feeding the delinquent side of my personality I've always thought there must be some socially beneficial use for this technology... but what?
On the question of how to reach your friends as well as your enemies. I once played a concert for a 'housewifes' social club' in Tokyo. The owner told me proudly that he also ran a radio station for his 'women'. I asked him how far he was allowed to broadcast by law. When he said 500 meters, I thought that I'd misunderstood... surely 5,000 meters at least? No, 500 meters... and he had a membership of 20,000 housewifes. Work that out!
This is the antithesis of Radio Moscow in the days of the cold war. They used to broadcast on literally hundreds of frequencies in the vain hope that someone somewhere would listen to them. I used to sit in my loft in Berlin late at night ears glued to the radio, particularly shortwave which broadcast what later became known as the 'numbers stations'; Lists of seemingly random numbers delivered through the ether from governments to their spies, or so we thought. East and West Germany were very busy with these blatantly public yet secretive activities. But really, the universe of radio became much less interesting since the collapse of the East block. In Berlin both sides used to line up on the radio as well as on each side of the wall. For every kind of programme in the west, you had almost the identical version in the east... except the news was real different... in comparison to the west, the news from the East was only ever good news. The function of radio as propaganda was embedded even in the names of the radio stations. In West Berlin for example the two main stations were SFB (Free Broadcasting Berlin) and RIAS (Radio In The American Sector). And if you wanted a really good (you cannot be serious) laugh, there was always VOA (Voice of America). The BBC's World service line of 'look chaps, we're trying to be awfully fair' disguised their raison d'etre of course. As a member of the moscow Polit Bureau put it ' they (the BBC) are like a friendly, smiling visitor to your house that, you discover later, stole the small change out of your writing table draw when you weren't looking'.
Like political propagandists, I've also discovered with my own projects, if you want to rewrite the history of something (especially an iconic musical instrument like the violin), you can do a lot worse than pick the medium of radio. Apart from being accessible and cheap it parallels the nature of sound itself... always arriving and disappearing. How many times on listening to a radio programme have you said to yourself... did I hear that right, did he really say that? Then the moment's already disappeared into the ether. But the most important thing is, when the going gets tough, you can do it pretty well all yourself... write the script, make the music, direct any actors or musicians, do the mixes... it's a medium for the cash strapped 90's if anything is. It's great to work in a good studio but with the new digital portability, you can do it in your kitchen. Fits my gypsy existence too.
There is a road in Australia which is the only way to get from Sydney to Adelaide. This is not exactly 'outback' but it's certainly 'out there' by Euro standards. At one point you reach a kind of radiophonic Bermuda Triangle... the strangest things start to happen. Radio stations broadcasting from three different states start to compete for the same broadcast frequency on your dial... breaking into each other's broadcast, one after the other, very fast. At one stage there were three different guys trying to tell me what the time was... which was three different times of course.
Isn't that what radio's all about? Information. Even that can take on a surreal angle in the right context. In the mid 80's in Berlin, I listened gobsmacked as a suitably vacuous American new age voice intoned the wonders of Bulgaria on the English speaking channel of Radio Sofia. Intended to boost tourist fever for the country, a monologue (at a painfully slow Laurie Anderson type speed) was delivered... running something like this 'The longest unbroken piece of straight road in the People's Republic of Bulgaria runs between Plovdi and Dimitrovgrad, it is over one hundred kilometers long. The highest recorded tree in Bulgaria can be found to the east of the country near Kammtsjija, it is 37 meters high. The largest town in Bulgaria is Sofia, it has a population of 832, 576 . The smallest town in our country is Boechin with 17 registered inhabitants. Bulgaria has 15, 026 Kilometers of railway, it stretches from the Turkish Border in the south to the...' dead pan for half an hour. An official definitely got it wrong, whatever drives the disease of tourism , it's not that.
Most of the major pieces I've made for the ABC over the last 15 years have been recorded with the often brilliant John Jacobs as engineer. More than an engineer, he is politically engaged in the more subversive projects. In the early 90's after the Boom/crash of the Australian economy (thank you Reagan)... a doco was made asking people at random how they were dealing with the recession. John thought he would interview his mother who is a very skilled shop lifter... 'no I wouldn't dream of ripping off my local store, I just do the big ones like Woolies and DJ's' (kind of thing). Unfortunately a guy from the Confederation of Australian Business was tuned in... needless to say, the blood ran, sickening apologies were made, etc. But John kept his job... which sort of runs me in to the question of censorship. I've never been censored in Australia, in fact no one has ever even mentioned the concept to me. But I've been censored by other government radio stations on a number of occasions or more correctly put under extreme pressure to change a written text or idea. I made a piece called 'Violin Music for Restaurants' (something I used to do for a living) in which each table in the restaurant existed in a different time and place (with correspondingly different styles of music). One table consisted of J.C. and the 12 having their last tucker but instead of feasting the guys on bread and wine, I served them Dutch Stew (or Hot Pot if you prefer). According to the producer of the programme, the Catholic Church would make his life hell if that table got broadcast in its original version; that part of the restaurant would have to be closed down or at least mixed into vagueness... I confess to having acted like a real coward violinist in a restaurant... 'you don't like the tune lady? O.K. try this one'. As it happened my wished for employment finished at that station with the next production.
Another example that springs to mind was one of the children songs I re-wrote for the 'Eine Violine für Valentin' radio project. At the time Ausländerfeindlichkeit (hatred of foreigners) was rearing its ugly head in Western Europe again and I wanted to change the words to reflect that (one line went something like... 'Die Maus, die Maus die schreit Ausländer raus, raus, raus'). The producer told me that I was personally punishing him for being German and that he wouldn't allow it to go ahead. This one I wanted to fight... particularly because, unlike some other European countries, I have never had to face any xenophobic nonsense anywhere in Germany and Berlin remains my favourite open town in the northern hemisphere. But what to do? A Valentinesque and radiophonic solution presented itself. I used a censor buzzer everytime an offending word came up 'Die Maus, die Maus die schreit (buzz buzz buzz), raus raus raus'. no problem understanding my intention and the audience clearly got it. Did I say audience?
In the beginning there was radio and it was all live. Then there was recording. Then slowly more and more radio became pre-recorded... cleaner, safer... but the edge started to go off it. In recent years I have been trying to perform live radio for listeners and a public right there where the action is. In some ways it's a little like a peep show, particularly when the audience sees the performers running around the stage using (pre sound affect, sampling) sound affect gadgets like wind machines, specially constructed doors, windows, stairs, even mice, etc... like you are not really supposed to see all this chaos because we exist only in radioland... we're only in yer ears. In the same way some of the 'Shopping Project' performances have taken place in big shopping cities (the spookiest places when they are empty at night)... radio makes this Shopping City into any shopping city, into an eternal shopping city, into one covering the whole planet, into one right inside yer ear (sheer horror!).
The producer of two of these Shopping horror shows was Heidi Grundmann, quite the most remarkable person working in Radio. She has a regular programme at The ORF, Austria. With only a meagre budget but heaps of energy, she is the catalyst for the 10 years of radical Radio production and events. It would take a book to describe all her work in that time but I would like to mention the recent direction of her energies. With her partner Bob Adrian and over 70 other local artists/helpers/contributors she has put her programme 'Kunst Radio' on line... a concept of 'lateral radio' where sonic events take place simultaneously all over the world and listeners & performers alike can contribute, select, interfere with, contradict, ad infinitum. The project 'Rivers & Bridges' for Ars Elektronica last year certainly got people wired up with singer Akimi Tak'a screaming for everyone to shut up (didn't she realize that silence is a crime on radio!) and one member of the studio audience whispering constantly into the ear of one of the musicians 'That's rubbish, be quiet, that's rubbish, stop it, that's rubbish...' etc. Whatever aesthetic problems such an enterprise holds, Heidi's been bold enough to go out there and set it up so we all at least get a chance to see what this particular interactive wobbly is all about. Other stations in Australia, Germany & USA are following her. Certainly 'New American Radio' in New York gets a medal for perseverance... every week they offer free to the network of American public Radio a half hour experimental hörspiel piece... pieces of the quality of Shelley Hirsch's powerful 'O Little Town of East New York'. Now there is some way to go before high quality sound can be downloaded at speed from the internet (The 'Real Audio' programme sounds like shit) but it will arrive. One thing for sure, the market economy takes no prisoners and this might be the only way that radiophonic art can have a future. Any radical use of government radio (that is radio where the artist might get paid for the work) is now under the sword of economic rationalism... to be replaced with the usual newzak, weather and play lists... functional but no real relief for Mr. lonely average me thinks.
The world of radio is full of anarchistic people who look like the very twilight world they inhabit. 'Audio Box' at RAI (Italian Radio) is run by Pinotto Fava and Pino Saulo. The first time I met Pinotto, he was crouched in his office behind a precarious stack of reel to reel tapes, waving his hands in ceremonial gesticulation; across a smoke filled room I could just make out the figure of a uniformed policeman. 'He's being arrested' Pino casually mentioned as he shuffled past me.
But I see by the clock on the wall that we are coming to the end of this programme. So where to leave it... maybe where I still listen to a lot of radio... in bed. A few years ago a producer working at the ABC asked me if he could use some of my studio time for a rush project. No worries. I went off for a lunch break and came back some 2 hours later to find him flat on his back and fast asleep... recording himself. Nice work if you can get it! Eugene Chadbourne is also one of those annoying people who can sleep anywhere... unfortunately he snores like the rake. On our third tour together I threatened to turn him into radio if he didn't do something about it. He didn't... So on a particularly long eurotrainjourney, I clipped onto his nose a small pair of binaural microphones... possibly the world's first stereo snoring recording. 'You always get the best stuff out of me when I'm subconscious' he surmised. But one of the most enduring radio images of sleep that I have, comes from Kay Mortley who makes many of her pieces for Atelier Radiophonique (Radio France). She finished an epic production on 'Sheep' with her young daughter gradually drifting off into never never land... counting each sheep more and more slowly, more and more faintly... into blissful oblivion.
© jon rose 1994
Published by Resonance Magazine, London, 1997