BY George Pendle in Frieze | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Radio Daze

Experimental Radio

BY George Pendle in Frieze | 09 SEP 02

Although it had its genesis in the 19th century, the immediacy of radio ensures its continuing relevance. Radio attacks the human ear, what Douglas Kahn in Wireless Imagination (1994) called 'not just another hole in the body but a hole in the head'.

Such an entrée to the human psyche has allowed Marshall McLuhan's 'tribal drum' to be, both unintentionally and intentionally, the source of mass paranoid delusions. On 24 August 1924 the planet Mars passed unusually close to the earth; civilian and military transmitters alike were shut down to leave the airwaves open for possible Martian signals. Freak noises abounded - probably sferics or meteorological interference - that were interpreted by many as an unfathomable alien language. Orson Welles' War of the Worlds hoax in 1939 saw Midwest townsfolk flee in terror from what they thought was an imminent invasion by the same Martians they had tried to contact 15 years earlier. But it was the Nazi propagandists who exploited the sonorous immediacy of radio to the greatest effect, allowing Adolf Hitler, as he put it in a radio speech of 1936, to 'go my way with the assurance of a somnambulist'.

Allied to the seductive qualities of radio is its ease of application. The guerrilla nature of radio broadcasting - from resistance broadcasts during World War II to the pirate and micro radio stations of today - has meant that anybody can invade the ear canals of thousands of people with the most basic equipment. Brennan McGaffey's Audio Relay (2002) project for Temporary Services in Chicago saw him create just such an insurrectionary device, an easily transportable solar-powered transmitter and archive that allows musicians, sound artists and documentary makers to broadcast from all over the globe.

Such on-the-lam concerns have been eschewed by Resonance 104.4 FM, a radio station set up by the London Musicians' Collective (LMC) as London's first art radio station, which is attempting to be the drum for the art tribe to gather around. Its daily listings provide strange listening, mixing the work of Swedish sound art pioneers Sten Hanson, Ake Hodell, Öyvind Fählström and Rune Lindblad, with guided tours of pirate radio stations, a Kraut-Rock hour, sound works based on field recordings from nearby galactic sources using radio astronomical technology, and the musings of Professor Bernard von Grous on the latest developments in the underwater excavations of civilizations discovered off the coasts of Cuba and India.

Yet by far the most curious and suitably radiophonic section to appear on the station is Chris Cutler's 'Out of the Blue' recordings, broadcast every evening between 11.30 and midnight. These collections of ambient noise siphoned off from the world in real time range from Toys 'R' Us in Times Square to the inside of a refrigerator in Kobe.

That such a programme should appear on Resonance FM is not all that surprising - the LMC recently released Your Favourite London Sounds (2001), a CD containing everything from 'Mind the gap' announcements on the underground and the bell on the Number 73 bus to the sound of morning post falling through a letter box. Yet Cutler's transient, insubstantial soundscapes hark back to the earliest aural experiments specifically tailored to the medium of radio.

In 1929 Hans Flesch, the founding director of Berlin Radio Hour, declared, 'we need to fashion not only a new medium but a new content as well: our programme cannot be created at a desk'. Swept up in the creative enthusiasm that seems to envelop every new technology, Flesch had experimented with 'sound portraits' of cityscapes and wanted to both demonstrate and celebrate radio's ability to move effortlessly and convincingly across time and space. To do so he commissioned experimental filmmaker Walter Ruttmann's audio montage Weekend (1930), a collection of words, music fragments and noises from a Berlin weekend, all captured on an optical film soundtrack. Indeed, Ruttmann prefigured John Cage's 'Future of Music' lecture of 1937, by announcing in 1929 that 'everything audible in the world becomes material'.

Ever since then the ambient and accidental, both unedited and manipulated, have seemed radio's truest forms. They alone seem to follow Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pino Masnata's dictum stated in La Radia (1933) that radio should utilize the white noise found between stations, allowing it to be a 'pure organism of radio sensations'. The results can be seen in forms as diverse as Cage's use of radios as instruments in Imaginary Landscapes Nos. 1 and 4 (1931 and 1951), and in the exquisite 'found' sounds of The Conet Project (1997): random, unregistered, short-wave transmissions consisting of strange female voices repeating numbers, or using long abandoned phonetic alphabets, that are believed to be signals for undercover spies in foreign countries.

It is thus strange to see that both Cage and Cutler had been anticipated long before Ruttmann's original experiment. In Guillaume Apollinaire's story The Moon King (1916) the author describes a traveller, seeking shelter from a storm in the subterranean passages of a mountain, who happens upon a room in which sits none other than King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Bemusement at the presence of a supposedly deceased member of Teutonic royalty in the labyrinthine bowels (or, more fittingly, the labyrinthine ear) of a mountain soon turns to amazement when the traveller sees that the king is playing a strange keyboard instrument.

'The flawless microphones of the king's device were set so as to bring in to this underground the most distant sounds of terrestrial life. Each key activated a microphone set for such and such a distance. Now we were hearing a Japanese countryside. The wind sighed in the trees - a village was probably there, because I heard servants' laughter, a carpenter's plane, and the spray of an icy waterfall. Then another key pressed down, we were taken straight into morning, the king greeting the socialist labour of New Zealand, and I heard geysers spewing hot water.' Provided with cityscapes from across the world, the narrator watches as the king raises the volume levels of all his microphones and escapes from his entombment amid the wondrous bliss of white noise.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.