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  • Thom Holmes

Electronic Music from Radios

My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



For this episode, I shared some recordings from the Archive of works that were composed using radio sounds. If you were to create such a piece, how would you imagine that it could be organized? What process would you use to create a work of radio sounds as the musical instrument? How would you capture and record the sounds of radios? Let’s explore a handful of compelling works that did just that and the different approaches taken by their composers. This diverse set of experimental works will be presented in chronological order and include two versions of John Cage’s, Radio Music (USA 1956); Dick Raaijmakers, Ballade Erlkönig (Netherlands, 1967); Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kurzwellen (Germany, 1968); Michael Snow, Two Radio Solos (Canada, 1980); Philip Perkins, Radio Music (USA 1989); and Ann Hamilton, Mantle (USA, 1998). The approaches and practices of each of these composers turns the idea of radio inside out so that it is no longer a mere receiver of information from the outside, but a source of unique musical expression of its own.


John Cage

The first work we will hear is the ancestor of them all: Radio Music by John Cage. The piece was composed in 1956 during Cage’s first 7-8 years of composing using chance operations. He would conceive of a work and then use coin tossing techniques derived from the I-Ching to make choices and decisions for the work. This technique effectively removed any personal choices and emotional decisions from a composition. When I once spoke with him about whether this could be considered a random process or not, he told me that he didn’t believe there was such a thing as randomness, only a person’s idea of randomness. So, this process, by removing his personal choice from the composition, was his conception of randomness. In any event, many of his works composed in this way were closely timed as to the duration of individual parts as well as the overall work. In this case, Radio Music is intended to be exactly 6 minutes long. The instructions are simple: “To be performed as a solo or ensemble for 1-8 performers, each at one radio.” The associated score indicated 56 different frequencies between 55 and 156 kHz, notated with numbers, not on a conventional musical staff. All of these choices were made by chance operations so there is literally only an unintended uniformity to the composition. Cage indicated that the work was in 4 sections, to be programmed by the player or players, with or without intervening silences.” The score consisted of instructions for the four sections, each being similar to the others. For example, here is an excerpt from the instructions for the first section:

“Each tuning to be expressed by maximum amplitude. A _______indicates ‘silence’ obtained by reducing amplitude approximately to zero. Before beginning to play, turn radio on with amplitude near zero.”


The remainder of the score consisted of columns of numbers indicating which frequencies should be “played” on the radios, all selected by chance operations by Cage. One must also realize that the score was made in 1956 and related to frequencies then available only on the AM radio spectrum. Shortwave broadcasts were not considered, and FM was only a future development.


The instructions for performance were about actions that the player could take while interpreting the piece and bore no resemblance to musical notation. There is no recording of which I am aware from 1956 by Cage himself. But several renditions were realized over the years. We will hear two interpretations of Radio Music so that you can see how the piece can differ over time due to the availability of appropriate airwaves. The first is played by three musicians, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti, Juan Hidalgo, and Walter Marchetti, from an Italian recording made in 1974. This performance was made at a time when the suggested radio frequencies were still in use, although even then much of the radio spectrum was shifting to the FM dial. The Italian performers were dead serious about interpreting Cage. In their notes, which I translate clumsily into English, they say, “This piece rejects the fetish of exchange that nestles behind the cultural commodity” [of radio]. In their interpretation, each of three performers used a Panasonic multi-band portable Radio Model RF-1600 B receivers and recorded the work in real time of six minutes but they used the shortwave bands instead of the AM bands, after having transposed the frequencies from Cage’s score to a correspondingly narrow range of shortwave signals.


The second performance of Radio Music, described below, was recorded by American Philip Perkins in 1989, in his private studio. His realization of Radio Music is a good example of how a musician needed to adapt the score for the technology, and radio frequencies, of the times.


Dick Raaijmakers

The next work of radio music we will hear is a tape piece by Dick Raaijmakers called “Ballad Erlkönig” It was composed in 1966 based around the writing of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Raaijmakers notes he was somewhat reticent about describing the process of composition of this work. He did say that all of the sounds heard were derived from radio and telephone. One can assume from listening, that these were carefully organized and assembled, perhaps processed, using a tape studio. What Raaijmakers was more fascinated with was the effect of shortwave signals. He described the piece as taking “place in the poor man’s realm of formlessness, from where incomprehensible messages, couched in tiny signals, noises, rattles, notes, chores and voices, emerge in an unbroken stream.” In telling Goethe’s tale of an underworld King, a sick boy and his father, “it reproduces the ever-changing moods of the three in a paramusical meeting of the linguistically rich lines of Goethe on the one side with one the other hand the linguistically impoverished multi-interpretable signals from the domain of the ether.” He also indicated, somewhat vaguely, some of the parameters he kept in mind while composing the tape piece: “Ballad is characterized by the absence of both acoustic and cultural DEPTH. It has only LENGTH (= duration) and HEIGHT (= loudness).” All of which can be represented without prejudiced by the objective shortware signals that are at once connected yet disconnected from the human experience. Whereas Cage relied on chance to account for the sounds that appeared in his piece, without interjecting his taste or emotions, Raaijmakers” piece was carefully curated and edited for maximum, emotional impact and intended from the outset to be a fixed, complete work.


Karlheinz Stockhausen

Then, we have a seminal work, or at least a small part of it, from the innovative German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. We will hear an excerpt from Kurzwellen, an ensemble piece in which the musicians were asked to react to signals they received on randomly tuned shortwave radios. The ensemble instruments were piano, Electronium, large tam-tam with microphone, viola with contact microphone, 2 filters with 4 faders, and 4 short-wave receivers. The work could also be interpreted by a different combination of instruments. This piece differs significantly from his other famous shortwave work, Hymnen, which was essentially fully composed and fixed. In Kurzwellen, his ensemble was responding in real-time to cues they received from whatever shortwave sounds were in the air. “Each player,” continued Stockhausen in his composition notes, “has – in addition to his instrument – a short-wave receiver with which he receives the musical "material" to which he reacts: he imitates it, transposes it, and modulates it, playing together with the others in reciprocal reactions and intermodulations." Although Stockhausen often used the term “improvised” to describe what the ensemble was up to, they were at the same time guided as much by the score as by their own instincts.


During performance, each player was asked to quietly locate shortwave signals that corresponded to the degree of change prescribed in the score. Musicians were required to avoid passages of unmodulated spoken word or music while searching the airwaves. Stockhausen again, "The rhythm, timbre, melodic contour and envelope of an event played on an instrument should be as close an imitation as possible of the event to which one is reacting and transposed according to the prescribed degree of change. When and how often a player alternates between short-wave and instrumental events is left to his discretion. Completely unmodulated, realistic short-wave events should be avoided.” There is an elaborate score for the work written out in four parts for the four players and a combined score for the sound mixer, who was Stockhausen. As the sound mixer, Stockhausen could also apply audio filters to components of the mix. The score itself does not use musical notation but plus, minus, and equal symbols for creating 128 events based on what the individual musicians are hearing. The plus, minus, and equal symbols refer to the dynamics of the sound that can be played to accompany the shortwave signals—louder, softer, more rapid, etc.


Michael Snow

In 1980, Canadian filmmaker, musician, and composer Michael Snow recorded some music he improvised for shortwave radio. Each of the 2 Radio Solos are lengthy, around 30 minutes each. The energy of these works is kinetic and fast paced. Whereas both Cage and Stockhausen carefully scored their instructions for their radio works, Snow choses to improvise more in the spirit of a jazz player. He has a long-standing interest in improvised music and is a professional jazz pianist. In this work, Snow sits at a shortwave set and fine-tunes the frequencies to capture the drifting signals as they are received. You can feel the patience with which he caresses the airwaves, tweaking new sounds from in between other frequencies. One will notice that some of the sound becomes sped up. Rather than being a post-production manipulation, this was apparently due to the battery running low on the tape recorder while making the piece. To quote Snow from his notes, “There was no editing, no post-facto electronic alteration. The sounds were found by paying intense attention to fate tuning in and out and between stations, changing bands, bass, treble and volume. The tapes were made at night in a remote North Canadian cabin lit by a kerosene lamp.” This piece them, for radio, is more in the spirit of what most of us think of as improvisation—minimal rules, maximum listening, and interaction with the sound.


Philip Perkins

I had an interesting exchange with Philip around this piece. He and I have been acquainted since the days when I used to write about his sound works and albums in the 1980s. I recalled that he had done some radio pieces way back when and voila, I found one. His version of Cage’s Radio Music, released only on a cassette in 1989. Such a rarity. After stating that I was the first person to ever ask about my version of this piece, he explained in quite some detail the challenges of producing a piece designed for AM radio in the fifties more than thrity years later in the late 1980s. He bought the score and got permission to create a new version. Having decided to realize it himself, he decided to use his “primitive recording studio with an 8-track analog recorder, and “adapt the piece to what I could accomplish under those circumstances.” Philip continues, saying,

“Radio Music calls for 8 players with 8 radios playing at once. For my solo "studio" realization I used the 8 channels of my tape deck to perform the radio-tuning aspects of the 8 parts of the piece one after another. Having done this I thought that since I was having to compromise the original premise of the piece by performing the parts serially as overdubs instead of all at once, I should then take advantage of being in a studio and add aspects to the sounds that were only available in recording studios in those days. Thus each recorded radio 'bite" was subjected to a chance operation via dice throws that would have it be affected by the simple audio signal processing equipment I had on hand at the time. As I recall, the choices were: pan within the stereo field, reverb (fairly deep, to sound different from the reverb pop songs had on them already), slowed down (and thus pitch shifted), speeded up (ditto), bass or treble boost EQ, distortion (via a guitar pedal) and sample+loop. The low-budget sampler I had in those days would only record a few seconds of sound, and then could play it forwards or backwards while looping that sound. I played those loops to the durations specified in the score.”

So, in the end, he just didn’t’ record a bunch of random radio sounds but adapted the score as best he could while remaining true to Cage’s intent. He added that because the radio "landscape" had changed so much since Cage had composed this piece, “most of the more sonically interesting radio was now in the FM band.” So, Philip "translated" those AM frequencies specified in the score by Cage to FM frequencies by “roughly aligning the two bands and then seeing how far each of Cage's AM frequencies was from the low-end of that band, then tuning the FM radio to that same relative position.” …It was an interesting experiment for me to try while making a lot of truly live radio works with other players.” Rather than license the Cage piece again, he let the cassette release speak for itself and added his own radio works to the CD version of the album in place of Radio Music.


Of the works we’ve heard so far that use the radio as a musical instrument, there is one for which the radio sounds were selected by chance and the piece performed in real time; one in which shortwave radio signals serve as spontaneous inspiration for an ensemble of musicians being guided in their responses by a score; a third that was an improvisation in which the radio signal was the material itself, carefully tuned and played by a single musician; and a fourth which was a new interpretation of a work composed in the 1950s but adapted to the radio landscape and technology of 1980s.


Ann Hamilton

For our final example, we will turn to artist Ann Hamilton and her work Mantle from 1998.


Hamilton created Mantle as part of a site-specific art exhibit at the Miami Art Museum in 1998. The situation was interesting, and the radios were but one component. In the 3,500 square foot space, a 48-foot-long table covered with flowers was the main attraction. Recorded sound in the form of muffled and mechanical voices emanated from 30 loudspeakers buried in the flowers. High up on a shelf were thirteen shortwave radios all tuned to different frequencies and playing constantly. The sound of the shortwave was loud enough to blend with or mask the sounds coming from the loudspeakers among the flowers, disguising the sound sources to the visitor. Whereas Michael Snow’s piece was improvised in a real sense by his manipulation of the radio signals, Hamilton’s piece coexisted with the exhibit and played continuously without human intervention other than to occasionally tune-in radio signals. The recordings were made during a single day on hourly intervals to trace the changing shortwave tapestry that filled the room. This example represents yet another variation on the theme of the radio as musical instrument. In this case the radios play unattended, without any human intervention and the recording captures the moments that were unique to that day and time.


I will play the nine tracks released on CD to accompany the exhibit by the Miami Art Museum.


Playlist

1. John Cage, “Radio Music” (1956) from John Cage (1974 Cramps Records). Performed on radios by Gianni-Emilio Simonetti, Juan Hidalgo, Walter Marchetti. Each of these performers used a Panasonic multi-band portable Radio Model RF-1600 B receiver. 6:00


2. Dick Raaijmakers, “Ballade Erlkönig (1967)” from Ballad 'Erlkönig'/5 Canons (1981 Composers' Voice). Tape composition by Raaijmakers. Recordings realized in the studio of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. 23:33


3. Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Kurzwellen” (1968), excerpt from Festival 0f Hits (1970 Deutsche Grammophon). Composed By, Mixed By, Electronics, Filters, Potentiometers, Karlheinz Stockhausen; Electronium, Harald Bojé; Tamtam, Alfred Alings, Rolf Gehlhaar; Piano, Aloys Kontarsky; Electric Viola, Johannes G. Fritsch. This is the opening of this long work, excerpted for this strange collection of greatest “hits” by Stockhausen (you had to be in 1970 to understand this). Kurzwellen is a piece where the musicians need to improvise and react to signals they receive on randomly tuned shortwave radios. This is from the Cologne recording made in the Rhenus studio in Godorf for the Cologne Radio (WDR, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) on the 8th and 9th of April 1969 (53'30), which was record 2 of the original 2-record set. By the way, this ensemble also featured the Electronium Pi, made by Hohner beginning in 1952. It was a monophonic, electronic keyboard instrument and was an add-on instrument for the piano mounted under the keyboard, which is the model used by Stockhausen. His keyboardist, while Harald Bojé used the accordion-like model. 6:19


4. Michael Snow, “Short Wavelength, excerpt (1980)” from 2 Radio Solos (1988 Freedom In A Vacuum). Recorded August 1980. Short-wave pieces played on a circa 1962 Nordmende receiver. Reissued on CD in 2009. What I would call truly improvised; no score, no rules, just listening and responding with the radio. 15.18


5. Philip Perkins, “Radio Music” (1956) from Virgo Ramayana (And Other Works For Radio) (1989 Fun Music). From an obscure cassette released in 1992 of a studio recording made by Perkins in 1989. Note that the later CD-R reissue of this album did not include “Radio Music” but did include other interesting works including radio sounds. 6:00


6. Ann Hamilton, “Mantle” from recordings made at the Miami Art Museum in 1998 for an exhibit by the artists. This audio CD was made in Mantle on June 1, 1998, during a twelve-hour period. The tracks and timings are: 7:30am (4:20); 8:00am (4:19); 9:00am (3:01); 11:00am (3:01); Noon (4:16); 1:00pm (2:15); 3:00pm (4:28); 6:00pm (1:50); 7:00pm (3:27). Mantle was a 3,500 square foot, site-specific installation created by Ann Hamilton. It included over 60,000 flowers piked on a 48-foot-long steel table. Buried within the flowers 30 speakers emitted muffled voices and mechanical noises. Thirteen shortwave radios were placed high on a shelf. An attendant sitting by the window sewed together wool coats. 32:09


Background Music

  • Thom Holmes, “The World” excerpts (2015) for shortwave and processed sounds. 23:30

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.