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  • Thom Holmes

Numbers

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

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


The theme of this episode is numbers. Numbers as the titles of works, numbers used in calculating the way in which a work of music is created, or “numbers stations,” those mysterious shortwave signal sources that are apparently coded messages broadcast by various countries to communicate with espionage agents.


The works heard here are in no other way related other than by numbers. Let’s see if you can find something of interest in this electronic music that only the objective appearance of numbers can account for.


The first work is by John Cage. It is called “49 Waltzes For The Five Boroughs” from an album called The Waltz Project in 1981. Cage worked by using chance operations to make decisions about key aspects of his works. So, by the nature of his method, he worked strictly by the numbers. But the choices become even more complex when you consider how he applied these random choices to the matrix of sound sources available for a given piece. “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs for performer(s) or listener(s) or record maker(s)” is a case in point. Think of the numbers. The work translates a graphic map containing 147 New York street addresses or locations arranged through chance operations into 49 groups of three (consisting of five players each). Cage used “hundreds of coin tosses and the I Ching” to arrive at a “tapestry” of sound, combining hundreds of traditional waltz fragments. First realized by Cage in 1977, the recorded version heard here uses three pianists playing the waltzes plus other ancillary sound making devices plus pre-recorded environmental tapes made in various parts of New York.


The next track is by Timothy Sullivan and is called “Numbers, Names” from Computer Music From Colgate Volume 1 in 1980. This is a composition for a DEC PDP-10 minicomputer by Sullivan with percussion by Frank Bennett. The piece is based on the computer’s ability to create propulsive pulses or rhythms from coded, or numbered, sequences. Those patterns were then integrated with a part for an actual percussionist. It reminds me of the some of the work that Joel Chadabe did with the percussionist Jan Williams which we heard in a recent episode.


Speaking of numbers, I wanted to include some excerpts of from an instructional recording for learning Morse code because it relates to the numbers stations we will hear at the end of the podcast. So, we have Philip S. Gross, speaking from the recording International Morse Code: A Teaching Record Using The Audio-Vis-Tac Method from 1962.


What would a podcast about numbers be without hearing a track from Kraftwerk? On the album Computer World was a track called Numbers (in English). I have a live recording of this piece called “Nummern recordded Live in 1981 in Utrecht


You may recall an artist named Nik Raicevic, also known as Nik Pascal, who self-released several albums of spacey Moog Modular music in the early 1970s. Well, his very first album was called Numbers and he went by the pseudonym of 107-34-8933 which I think was a social security number. We will hear the track “Cannabis Sativa” from Numbers. Numbers was later released as an album called Head by Buddha records. The liner notes state this: “What is the sound of tomorrow? The sound of notes or the sound of numbers?”


Next, we dive into the universe of those mysterious numbers stations. A numbers station is a shortwave radio station characterized by broadcasts of formatted numbers, which are believed to be addressed to members of the espionage community operating in foreign countries. There are not many works of music derived around numbers stations, but in 1997, The Conet Project captured the sound of dozens of these on a 4-CD set called, “Recordings Of Shortwave Numbers Stations.” Numbers stations generally involved a person, either synthesized or actual, reading a pattern of numbers. These passages are often framed by simple electronic sound signatures and some are strictly devoted to Morse code. They are produced in many languages. The track included here is my edit of excerpted examples from the four-CD collection of numbers stations recordings from around the globe. This is what the raw numbers stations sound like.


I should add that the background music you are hearing right now is my remix of some of the Conet project tracks.


Inspired by the phenomenon of shortwave radio, I composed several works around this theme and released them as an album called Intervals in 2017. One of these tracks, “Numbers” is an electronic music composition using recordings of numbers stations as the primary source, combined with audio processing and synthesizers. I thought why not include that here.


If you would like to learn more about the history of electronic music, please read my book, Electronic and Experimental Music, published by Routledge in print or as an e-Book. You may also want to read my book about Sound Art, available from Routledge in 2022.


Episode 68

Playlist

1. John Cage, “49 Waltzes For The Five Boroughs” from The Waltz Project (17 Contemporary Waltzes For Piano) (1981 Nonesuch). Piano, Alan Feinberg, Robert Moran, Yvar Mikhashoff. Cage worked by using chance operations to make decisions about key aspects of his works. So, by the nature of his method, he worked strictly by the numbers. But the choices become multifaceted when you consider how he applied these random choices to the matrix of sound sources available for a given piece. “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs for performer(s) or listener(s) or record maker(s)” is a case in point. Think of the numbers. The work translates a graphic map containing 147 New York street addresses or locations arranged through chance operations into 49 groups of three (consisting of five players each). Cage used “hundreds of coin tosses and the I Ching” to arrive at a “tapestry” of sound, combining hundreds of traditional waltz fragments. First realized by Cage in 1977, the recorded version heard here uses three pianists playing the waltzes plus other ancillary sound making devices plus pre-recorded environmental tapes made in various parts of New York. 5:15


2. Timothy Sullivan, “Numbers, Names” from Computer Music From Colgate Volume 1 (1980 Redwood Records). Computer composition by Timothy Sullivan; Percussion, Frank Bennett. Created at the Colgate Computer Music Studio at the University Computer Center using a DEC PDP-10 with an on-line interactive system and a four channel digital to analog converter designed and built by Joseph Zingeim. 12:28


3. Philip S. Gross, excerpts from The International Morse Code: A Teaching Record Using The Audio-Vis-Tac Method (1962 Folkways). Including instructions and drills from the tracks “Numbers And The Alphabet,” “Learning The Numbers,” and “Numbers.” 2:23


4. Kraftwerk, “Nummern (Numbers)” from Live - Paris '76 & Utrecht '81 (2019 Radio Looploop). An unofficial release of a live performance in Utrecht, 1981. 3:37


5. 107-34-8933 (Nik Raicevic), “Cannabis Sativa” from Numbers (1970 Narco). Self-released album prior to this record being issued by Buddha in the same year as the album Head. Recorded at Gold Star Studio in Hollywood, where the Moog Modular Synthesizer was played by “107-34-8933,” aka Nik Raicevic. From the liner notes: “What is the sound of tomorrow? The sound of notes or the sound of numbers?” 17:55


6. The Conet Project, “Recordings Of Shortwave Numbers Stations” (1997 Irdial Discs). Original 1997 release reports the following at the end of page 15 of the booklet: "A complete set of recordings of all known Morse stations will also be posted in the fourth quarter of 1997". I don’t think that released ever appeared. The track included here is my edit of excerpted examples from the four-CD collection of numbers stations recordings from around the globe. 7:12


7. Thom Holmes, “Numbers” from Intervals (2017 Wave Magnet). A composition using recordings of numbers stations as the primary source, combined with audio processing and synthesizers. 5:57


Background music:

  • Numbers stations remix (Holmes) based on tracks found on “Recordings Of Shortwave Numbers Stations” by The Conet Project (1997 Irdial Discs).


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NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

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