My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
One of the things I love about listening to a podcast is the way in which it engages the mind. In addition to delivering sound, a podcast stimulates the imagination. Music sparks the mind and enables it to travel to other places that only you can imagine. Call it wakeful dreaming, call it freedom from within, call it your own private sanctuary of being. Historically, music has always served this function, originally as a stage public performance. But the advent of recorded music and radio back between 1900 and 1915 placed an added emphasis on personal listening. Personal listening was underscored by the marketing of headphones in the 1960s. This revolution in experiencing music was certainly understood by the companies marketing headphones. Slogans such as these appeared in magazines:
“Because, unlike speakers, the Koss K2+2 mixes all four channels in your head.”
“Beatlephones offer personalized listening. Hefty sound for those who want to hear it; quiet for those who don’t.”
“Hear Muffs, the first headphones designed for comfort while lying down—in a bed, on the couch, or on the floor.”
“Listening pleasure for you alone.” (Pioneer)
I also associate the private listening experience to that of composing electronic music. From the beginning of tape composition in the early 1950s, the creation of electronic music was largely a private experience; it creation was monitored on headphones and mostly realized for individual to share. Yes, there were and continue to be live performances throughout the history of electronic music, but the degree to which it is experienced by individuals, listening on headphones, is also significant.
Which brings us back to radio. The original tools for making electronic music were derived from radio technology. Early forms of tape music and performances were often broadcast live on the radio. Many composers have associated electronic music with radio in other ways, using the transformative sounds of raw radio broadcasts as a source of inspiration and content for their works.
Radio signals are always present, whether or not we are paying attention to them. They are a kind of skeleton key to the perception of time and space. Shortwave radio, which peaked in 1989 and has declined steadily since, once unlocked the door to global culture. As you scanned the radio dial you never quite knew what country or language, or type of programming was going to pop up. Whether you listened to shortwave or FM or AM broadcasts, radio signals can arrive unpredictably because of atmospheric conditions, the direction of the broadcast propagation, Sunspots, or even local electrical fields causing interference—whatever mysterious forces of nature you want to bring to bear on the conversation. But when you turn on that radio, and randomly explore the incoming messages, music, conversations, preaching, predictions, and other human phenomenon, you are connected with people who might otherwise be disconnected from your world, whether locally or at far distances all over the planet, people seeking some refuge in the sounds of the radio. This effect especially occurs at night, primarily because short and medium length radio waves, including AM, bounce back and forth between the ground and the ionosphere, propagating the signal farther and farther. This is because the ionosphere’s composition changes most drastically at night, when the Sun is absent, ionization of the atmosphere pauses, and electrons can accumulate freely in the lower atmosphere. It’s like a permeable wall off of which radio signals bounce.
For this episode, we’re going to immerse ourselves in the mysterious ambiance of radio broadcasts. We will feature works by Aki Onda, with whom I’ve become acquainted in the past few years. In episode 40 from May, 2021 we had an conversation and included his soundscapes made in several East Village public gardens. We are essentially pen pals but both lived in the East Village of New York at the same time where I became aware of his work as a sound artist. While he lived in the East Village for about twenty years, he has returned to his home base in Japan these days. Aki is devoted to the use of portable cassette recorders to capture sound and is often commissioned to create soundscapes around museum and gallery exhibits. We will some portions of a couple of his works:
“Transmissions From The Radio Midnight” and “Nam June's Spirit Was Speaking To Me.” These recordings were made in various cities around the world. Please refer to the podcast notes for the specific tracks.
In his notes for the Radio Midnight collection, Aki explained,
“The radio is like an ocean of language. It continuously projects a million chatterings happening simultaneously all over the world. This album captures and presents a tiny drop of this ocean, while the ocean itself flows onward—enormous, endless, infinite—for as long as the medium itself lasts. Isn’t that amazing?”
The project Nam June's Spirit Was Speaking To Me began while Aki was visiting the Nam June Paik (PYE-kuh) Art Center in South Korea in 2010 for a series of performances. He wrote that the project,
“Occurred purely by chance. The building was packed with Paik’s artwork and related material. I have always felt a close kinship with him as an artist and so it was a great opportunity to immerse myself in his works and ephemera. It was that night I made first contact, via a hand-held radio in a hotel room in Seoul. It was literally out of the blue. Scanning through the stations, I stumbled upon what sounded like a submerged voice and I began to record it in fascination. I concluded this was Paik’s spirit reaching out to me. The project continued to grow organically as I kept channeling Paik’s spirit over long distance and receiving cryptic broadcasts/messages. The series of seances, conducted in different cities across the globe, began in Seoul in 2010, and continued in Koln, Germany in 2012, Wroclaw (ROTE-swaff), Poland in 2013, and Lewisberg, USA in 2014. The original recordings were captured by the same radio which has a tape recorder, with almost not editing, save for some minimal slicing by and mastering.”
At the end of the program, we’ll will listen one of my first electronic music compositions from 1973. I realized this piece in the electronic music studios of Temple University in 1972 and 73. I embellished various loops and tapes of shortwave radio sounds recorded at home in my apartment with synthesis and modulation using the Moog Modular III synthesizer at in the Temple Music School. This was one of my first major explorations of shortwave radio sounds and although the piece is quite structured and edited, I still think it captures the enduring timelessness and fascination with radio space. I hope you enjoy it.
Radio Spirits in the Night
1. Aki Onda, “Part 1” (18:16) and “Part 2” (19:04) from “Transmissions From The Radio Midnight (2023 Dinzu Artefacts). Limited Edition 12" Black Vinyl. Limited to 200 copies. “for this album, I selected some of my favorite segments from the recordings made in ten-or-so countries over the span of roughly a decade, beginning in 2008. All of the fragments are presented just as they were captured. Since frequency behavior is often unpredictable, and since the act of catching waves was done manually, the recordings capture all sorts of incidental sounds, including various kinds of static noise and radio interference.” (Aki Onda).
2. Aki Onda, “Seoul” (2010, 20:37), “Köln” (2012, 3:32), “Lewisburg” (2014, 8:12), “Wroclaw” (2013, 7:49) from “Nam June's Spirit Was Speaking To Me” (2020 Recital). Includes 20-page art booklet including rare photographs of Nam June Paik from the set of Michael Snow’s film Rameau’s Nephew (1974), two essays on radio-wave phenomenon (by Onda and Marcus Gammel), and a remembrance of Paik by Yuji Agematsu from an interview conducted by Aki Onda.
3. Thom Holmes. “3 Open Windows, 1 Small Antenna” (1973 Private recording). I realized this piece in the electronic music studios of Temple University in 1972-73. I recorded various shortwave radio sounds at my apartment in Philadelphia, then edited and embellished it with synthesis and modulation using the Moog Modular III synthesizer at in the Temple Music School. I was a student of Paul Epstein at the time, and he asked several of us to join him for a performance on the WBAI Free Music Store, a program radio in NYC. I developed and sketched-out some vocal parts to sing along to the tape and Paul and my friend Ed Cohen joined me for the performance in NY. The lights were dim, the mood was quiet, and we soared along on the sounds on this piece over the airwaves. A recording of that radio broadcast exists somewhere in my storage but for this instance I present the tape piece alone. 24:53.
Opening background music: Thom Holmes, “Signatures Remixed” (2023), an extended version of a piece from my album Intervals (2017), based on the experience of listening to shortwave radio. 01:07:40. Listen to the complete work on my Soundcloud channel..
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.