Body, Sound, and Radio: Materiality and Textuality
The recorded sound work Funkenspiel (2005) is an electroacoustic sound art composition assembled in the tradition of Musique Concrète, made entirely from recordings of natural and human-generated radio transmissions. The source material includes recordings by the artist and found sound recordings, most notably shortwave radio transmissions of “number stations,” repetitious coded vocal messages without identified sources of origins. These clandestine broadcasts are thought to be dispatches to field operatives of various national espionage organizations, and their enigmatic nature piqued my interest and provided the starting point in this project.
Some themes that arise in the artwork include the interplay and significance of noise in a sonic environment and the metaphorical implications of the body/voice being awash in a constant flow of encoded information in radio signals. Noise, both in a literal and metaphorical sense, is central to this work and relates to my interests in mutation, emergent phenomena, and the chaotic perturbations it can cause. I find the interstitial areas in which information can emerge from the detritus of civilization interesting, and how the human brain seeks patterns in randomized fields of sensory information.
I also have a longtime love of the mystery of shortwave radio. When I was a youngster my father owned a 1960s vintage shortwave receiver, beautifully styled in a modernist aluminum enclosure. The strange noises and impenetrability of the international broadcasts coming from this device were both exciting and exotic. Listening to the international time signal, with its repetitive patterns and official pronouncements of the “exact” time, I imagined that I was a spy eavesdropping on top-secret government information. Later as a teenager in my first forays into experimental sound, I was involved in a performance group full of humor and anarchy. One particular piece was an improvisational composition for shortwave time signal, overdriven electric guitar, and hammer and steel percussion. It was these experiences that laid the groundwork for subsequent works such as Funkenspiel.
Funkenspiel promotional artwork.
The quality of the sound coming from shortwave frequency bands is enigmatic and polymorphous. According to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a blanketing, undifferentiated sound could be understood as without “module, the distribution of frequencies is without break: it is ‘statistical,’ a smooth sonic space without textures and having ‘fixed and homogeneous values’”(Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 478). At first listen, radio static embodies this type of uniform, unstriated acoustic space. But buried within the homogeneous sound field is a multitude of individual bursts of sound. Static (which is in actuality quite dynamic) is a dense, percolating, universal constant that only existed to humans with the invention of the radio receiver. This static, like much of what we call noise, has a sort of latent information encoded within it but is on a scale too large or diverse to comprehend. Engineers categorize noise as a ratio between signal (what is wanted) and interference (what is unwanted) as the signal/noise ratio.
In Funkenspiel, one tactic I utilized in compositional decision-making was extracting the smallest discreet events in this otherwise impenetrable and uniform sound field. When isolated, processed, and cleaned up a bit through digital tools, these sonic events can then be shaped and used much in the same way as instrument voicing in synthesis. I would then arrange these component sounds into a linear, time-based arrangement or in improvisational performance remixed accessing novel combinations of constituent parts on the fly.
The subject of noise and its multiple definitions and ramifications is central to this piece. Noise can also originate from both internal and external sources – internally, from components of a communication system, and externally from atmospheric, galactic, and human sources such as competing communication modes (Stanley 2005). Atmospheric conditions such as lightning modulate and mutate radio static, leaving a palimpsest of the conditions existent at the time. Galactic radio sources are both alive and primordial; they are the lingering radiation from the big bang, and the many nuclear machines such as our sun that are spread across the cosmos.
Noise can be a source of emergent information but can also be the voice of death. It brings disorder; it is the indecipherable and the disrupter and it represents the undoing of the carefully crafted veneer of technological civilization. Consider the so-called “Raudive Voices,” popularized by Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive. Also known as electronic voice phenomena (EVP), this is when the dead allegedly speak through electronic instrumentation, layered and obscured within the static. These voices reportedly speak in multiple languages at once and can be recorded quite readily with modest equipment around the 1500 MHz frequency of the shortwave dial. The veracity of these phenomena notwithstanding, the metaphorical implications are resonant. In his essay Principia Schizophonica, Whitehead equates these voices from beyond as indomitable death inherent in the disembodied voice, and the process of mortification in the utterance, “It is precisely this nervous, agitated and tireless play of unquiet spirits, these charmed pangs of the pneumatic impression, that sustains the contemporary custodial drive to polish the acoustic surface from the faintest grimy fingerprint of interference and noise” (Whitehead 1990).
Noise can be a reminder of our fallibility and frailty, and the fear of loss of control of our communication abilities. If we cannot communicate, we are alone, cut off from social reassurance and confronted with the isolation of death. We must speak to live in modern society, but with our breath goes our vital essence. As we broadcast we only mediate this death, with layers of imperfect electronic abstraction that bears a plentitude of folds for disorder to originate and manifest.
In considering noise, it is interesting to compare the traditional academics’ view of noise and the more recent acceptance of noise as a legitimate functional information source. Barthes considered noise to be the pollutant to listening, and by extension an impediment to the development of communication (Barthes 1985, 247). Kahn, in a more contemporary attitude echoing the sophistication of both producer and audience in a world now defined by audiovisual electronic media notes that, “The interesting problem arises when noise itself is being communicated, since it no longer remains inextricably locked into empiricism but is transformed into an abstraction of another noise” (Khan 1999, 25). Kahn’s point is that noise is the residue between the perceptual spaces of what we think we are hearing and what we know we are hearing. I capitalize on this in Funkenspiel; by choosing and assembling the source material I am redefining the mutable relationship between abstraction and empiricism in communication.
Noise can be both a tool of authority and a means to defy that authority. It is well known that noise has been used by the U.S. military both as a persuasive/torture device from Panama to Iraq. There are even nonlethal weapons going into use on the battlefield that utilize high-power sound waves. In contrast, from a structural point of view noise can be analogous to the agency in social change, rescinding the dominance of the established, ordered, and measured. Consider how the production of music, a most formalized aural media, is carefully crafted in both live and in recorded forms to control and mitigate noise. Noise sources (and by extension people who make noise) are controlled and curtailed by social norms and copyright law. Noise as a tool of rebellion corrupts the communicative signal and the subjugating act from authority, both with its dissolution of internal metrics and its effect on systems of reception. Because noise is without regulation and potentially incendiary, it is a political power due to its threat to totality. This can be applied to almost any human communication system and power relationship, due to its intrinsic lack of control. With the inherent chaotic nature of noise, “Successions of intervals of emotional expressiveness or social resonance are freer: productive and self-differentiating enough to liquidate the given, to scrap any appeal to obligatory stylistic norms or schemata that have acquired the job of enforcement” (Edwards 1998, 75).
Because it is the cheapest and most readily available form of electronic media, the radio broadcast continues to suggest an overlapping territoriality of influence between the social, mechanistic, and political realms. It is the most democratic electronic media in respect to accessibility to the most people globally, which is precisely why this old technology still has an important presence. The specific content of numbers stations is of interest because of its presumed direct relation to the nationalist power structures of origin. These power structures are embedded both in the content of the message, the modality of the broadcast, and the indecipherable totality of the code. The messages consist of series of spoken numbers in succession, tones, rudimentary musical fragments, and even regular bursts of static noise. Part of their insidiousness is that without a cipher key these codes are useless to the general public and can be easily overlooked or regarded as an anomaly by any who happen upon them.
The use of these sampled recordings of numbers stations broadcasts in Funkenspiel give a political overtone to the work. According to the British Department of Trade and Industry (corollary to the Federal Communications Commission), it is illegal for the citizenry to tune into and listen to numbers stations in the United Kingdom under the Wireless and Telegraphy Act (Irdial Discs 1997, 12). This points to Schafer’s characterization of the development of mechanized sound as a power relationship, that the producer of the sound is engaging in a form of psychological imperialism over those within hearing (Schafer 1993, 74-6). By removing these from their context is a form of subversion; Funkenspiel acts as a symbolic neutering of the clandestine communication systems of state governments, or the whispered directives of the powers that be.
The voice in radio, be it the familiar local D.J. or the anonymous dispatches of the numbers stations, is always disembodied; however, the voice is integral to the body on many levels and each human voice is unique. Certainly our brains initiate speech, but the lungs, throat, larynx and mouth make it manifest. By ontologically originating the voice not in the mind it is removed from the upper echelon: the realm of the sacred, intellect, and reason, and placed squarely in the base and vulnerable corpus. In this sense, Dada poet Tristan Tzara reterritorialized poetry from the social elite and from those who would sanitize it, revealing “the great secret: Thought is made in the mouth” (Kahn 1999, 290).
However, these relationships are inextricably tied; there cannot be voice without body, body without mind. Keller states that, “Radiophonically speaking, the disembodied voice emphasizes all the more the irresolvability of its nature in relation to the body that produces it, and of which is an essential, if contingent, component” (Keller 2001, 23). The cinema critic Michel Chion writes about the various incarnations of the acousmatic, (to whom he attributes Pierre Schaeffer as coining) as the sound heard without being seen, and specifically the voice as the acousmêtre (Chion 1991). A special sort is that of the radio-acousmêtre, in which the invisibility of the voice is absolute, “there’s no possibility of seeing them” (ibid.). Whitehead speaks about the power of the disembodied voice over the radio, from Orson Welles to Adolph Hitler, and its effect on the imagination. Likening it to a vibrating skeleton or phantom, the disembodied voice holds the promise of divine intervention “since we all desperately want to hear the voice of god…we long to hear the inner voice that is the voice of god, or maybe the devil” (Whitehead, 2003).
Shortwave radio, the low-fidelity, utilitarian sibling of commercial, metropolitan FM and AM stations is the unconscious voice, the specter of the spectrum. These frequencies have a poetic language that is mostly noise, punctuated by brief glimpses of the decipherable. It is akin to passing between the liminal boundaries of consciousness, like dozing off in a busy foreign railway station, occasionally rousing to the sound of a coherent voice. It is this phantasmagoria that I try to tap into with Funkenspiel, as if drifting in and out of coherency and conscious thought, producing a disorienting listening experience.
Aside from the sanctioned or legal broadcasts, a whole range of other sounds come through on shortwave. Incoherent noise, atmospheric interference, and surreptitious broadcasts develop into an intertwining text of natural and human generated sonic forms. Disruptive atmospheric conditions can obfuscate the message and the intentions of the broadcaster, but the interplay can also produce an entirely new temporal document. When imagined musically, these areas between random sonic events and expected regular rhythms are an indistinct gelatinous tide that seem to flow in and out of lyrical or metrical coherence. It is this power of noise to move amongst differing milieus, both materially and structurally, as Attali contends, “…noise does in fact create meaning: first because the interruption of a message signifies the interdiction of the transmitted meaning, signifies censorship and rarity; and second, because the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener’s imagination” (Attali 1985, 33). This release from context can, however, create a certain amount of mental confusion and sensory overload from conflicting information. We try to make sense of something and when we cannot, oft the brain releases itself from the obligation of rational thought. This can be a source of anxiety; it is once again this idea of creating a tension or conflict for the audience’s perceptual experience, which I have felt when listening to these sources and explains my interest in trying to recreate a similar experience through the work.
Over top of the sound patterns in Funkenspiel is a glossolalia of voices repeating numerical strings in multitudes of languages distorted and reworked to the point of incomprehension. There are similarities to the Russian Cubo-Futurist Alexei Kruchenykh who developed a “transrational, universal, and transmental language” called Zaum, “intended to return to the non-rational and primitive in language, thereby releasing it from the entanglements of meaning which had ‘killed’ it” (Wendt, 1998). In this system, language was reduced to the basic elements or phonemes, and the meaning of the speech was not directly tied to the vocalized symbol-sound. This was meant to free the language from the absolute constraints and dogmatic associations that repress uninhibited expression. In a Zaum-like manner, the nonsensical text of the spy agencies’ codes are further abstracted and taken out of context in the composition and render the messages powerless, their nationalist strategic agenda made impotent. The words and numbers are released from their meanings and associations while still retaining their sonic identity and character.
Graphical score of the first track of Funkenspiel in the audio editing software Pro Tools.
Anchoring the structures of the nine-recorded tracks of Funkenspiel are repeated cycles of percussive sonic events in varying amounts of distinction. All of the percussion-like sounds are assembled and looped, using individual sounds or chunks of pulsations. These bits and pieces of irregular length are strung together and layered making inconsistent timings. The pieces vacillate in and out of meter and rhythm, causing an unsettling tension within the temporal space. This opposition is pointed to in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: “Meter, whether regular or not, assumes a coded form whose unit of measure may vary, but in a noncommunicating milieu, whereas rhythm is the Unequal or the Incommensurable that is always undergoing transcoding” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 313).
Meter can become stagnant and rigid – it lacks soul, while rhythm is the unquantifiable that causes us to be uplifted by musical forms. Part of my intent with this work was to probe the differentiations of meter and rhythm, moving in and out of spaces that seem musical into those that are not. Within the work, there are points of consonant musicality but these are stilted by the unequal tempos inherent in the radio noises. While composing this work, I considered non-Western musical traditions that use longer phrasing and patterns, allowing repetition to occur over longer intervals, thus providing more complexities.
This project also incorporated several key ideas developed in the sound and radio art tradition, and combined existing elements both conceptually and materially for a novel approach. The verbal structures of the radio broadcasts invoke the tradition of sound poetry and experimental linguistics, displacing the direct meanings of verbal communication in favor of the inferential connotations in the sonic form. By the use of covert government broadcasts as source material, an exploration of the power relationships between the state and individual develops. The political implications of the source material, along with the interplay between noise and coherent information give the work a conceptual tension that compliments the stridency of its sonic character.
Working with similar concepts, Listening in at 1 R.P.M. (2007) is a kinetic sound sculpture that showcased in the Regina Miller Gallery for the MFA Thesis show. This work shares some sonic and conceptual ideas with Funkenspiel: extracting the information out of the morass of noise, redefining compositional method, and using noise as the content. Materially the piece resembles a radio broadcast tower, painted with the typical red and white scheme standing approximately 5 feet tall and positioned a few inches from a wall. At the top are two arms rotating like a propeller, approximately 6 feet in diameter. Mounted on these arms are four piezoelectric sensors that are dragged over the wall. Every slight imperfection in the surface is amplified and edited through the electronics contained in a surplus scientific instrument case on the floor. A repetitive composition of one-minute duration is played repeatedly. If the sculpture is repositioned, which happened several times throughout the exhibition, an entirely new “song” plays with a new sonic character. The gallery visitor could “listen in” through any one of four pairs of headphones that combined the signals into a monaural signal in each ear.
The first point of contact between this instrument and the wall are acrylic styluses attached to the piezoelectric sensors. These taper to a point and resemble a large blunt phonograph needle. The tabs themselves are made of polyester film encapsulating the piezoelectric elements; they are no more than ½ an inch wide and ¾ inch long, which are used industry and robotics for feedback sensors. When this bendable tab is flexed the piezoelectric effect occurs, generating a voltage by the mechanical stress that compresses the crystalline structure. This, combined with the microphonic action of piezoelectric devices converting vibration into sound, produces a range of static and screeches.
The electronics of the piece consist of a microphone pre-amplifier, a passive tone control circuit, a noise gate, and a headphone amplifier. These are fairly straightforward in their operation: the microphone pre-amp raises the output of the sensors to a certain useful level, the tone control accentuates certain frequencies for each of the tabs giving them each a more distinct sound, and the headphone amp merely mixes the signals and allows control over volume.
The noise gate is an off-the-shelf piece of pro audio equipment that allows only signals of a certain volume to pass through. This device defines much of the character of the sound. By adjusting the threshold of the incoming signal, a lot or a little sound level can come through. Without this, the sound would be a mass of noise with very little differentiation in character. The staccato pops, clicks and bursts of sound are the result of the gate editing out the quieter sounds as it goes. With full control over the duration and decay, I am able to precisely tune in the parts of the signal that I find useful – the information sifted from the noise, much like tuning a radio.
Listening in at 1 R.P.M., installation view (l.), and detail views of motor/hub assembly and arm with stylus.
In this idea of discriminating sounds, hearing and listening differ as degrees in refinement of the sense, from continual idle reception to an assertive cognitive act. “To hear is to simply receive and register what’s given; to listen is to correct and displace it. To listen is to simultaneously attend to what is present and what is absent” (Rasula 1998, 233). Listening encompasses far more than just hearing; it is a temporal and relational cognizance – putting the pieces together and reading between the lines. For close listening, an almost greater degree of concentration is necessary due to the prominence of vision. Roland Barthes characterized hearing as a physiological phenomenon of alertness – indexical and reactionary – and listening as a psychological act with at least two levels of discretion: hermeneutic deciphering, and a dialogical “inter-subjective space” (Barthes 1985, 245-6).
We have heard, and listened, differently through different periods of history. Kahn notes that phonography “heard everything – sounds accumulated across a discursive diapason of one sound and all sound, from isolation to totalization” (Kahn 1999, 9). This pattern has continued with ever-greater control and sensitivity over the manipulation of sound with technological advancements. Thus, electronic recording and reproduction allowed sound to become something it had not ever been before and develop into variations that were previously impossible.
Schafer hears the world similarly, but in a more fundamental octave – namely that the entire aural environment has changed drastically with the rise of technology. The “soundscape,” his term for our communal sonic environment – actual and recorded, inside and out – has become dense with unwanted, extraneous, and deleterious sound from the processes of industrialization and electrification. There is a monotony to industrialized sound, a continual hum of machinery that is “low-information, high-redundancy” and was not present in pre-industrialized society, where the “majority of sounds were discrete and interrupted” (Schafer 1993, 78).
This work translates the latent, randomized information existing in the wall surface and selectively individuates sonic events. Much like as if it were Braille, the piece highlights the distinctions between noise and information, and translates the tactile into the auditory. The common and banal surface of the gallery wall with its random dents and bumps becomes the score, with each seemly insignificant feature amplified and aurally reproduced. In this sense, the wall is the recording, like a vinyl record. It can be heard as a palimpsest unwittingly composed through years of use as an exhibition space. Every interaction between humans and this surface has been recorded and contributes to the character of the surface – the manufacture and installation of the gypsum sheetrock, the varying textures of paint dependent on temperature and humidity, and the holes and blemishes repaired with varying degrees of attention and skill. All of these interactions are materially embedded into this surface. By dragging one’s hand across the wall or viewed brightly lit at an oblique angle, we get some sense of the relative smoothness of the surface. But we cannot read this text, nor we do not get any qualitative information from it, which is what this artwork does.
It is in the process from hearing to listening that we ascribe value judgments to sounds based on various criteria – volume level, comprehensibility, intelligibility, and timbre, among others. How we define noise is a central to our perception of sound; it is the ultimate criterion to what we accept or reject in our sonic environment. That it has so many variations of definition is another problem with noise. When is a weed a weed? When it grows in the wrong place at the wrong time, or some absolute intrinsic value? Is it in potential use-value to an economy? Is it purely aesthetic choices? Noise can be an impediment to communication but it is also a mutation and perturbation, an opening of heterogeneous possibility in the programmatic field. From noise there can emerge entirely novel combinations of sound because it is unrestrained and resists control.
Translating and accentuating these features questions the difference between noise and information, which, depending on the information sought, can be a mutable description. Both Listening in at 1 R.P.M. and Funkenspiel utilize the trope of the radio, the undetectable energy that is all around us, to highlight the bounds of our perceptual senses. Both works are making information out of noise by careful selection, editing, and emphasis of certain aspects of the source material. In Funkenspiel, this was a matter of compositional decision; in 1 R.P.M. these decisions are the result of the form and function of the structure and electronics.
 A variation on “funkspiel” or “radio play,” a technique used in WWII with success by both German and Russian forces in which agents and transmitters are manipulated into treasonous activities; “funkenspiel” is literally “transmitter play.”
 I have since found out that this unit was a Braun T1000 designed by Dieter Rams and is in the design collection at MOMA.
 Cosmic events such as meteor showers can be easily detected by both FM radios and television: <http://www.space.com/spacewatch/leonids_spacewatch_021115.html>.
 “And he was left in a room soldiers blithely called The Disco, a place where Western music rang out so loud that his interrogators were, in Qutaji’s words, forced to ‘talk to me via a loudspeaker that was placed next to my ears’.” Source: “Disco Inferno” <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051226/bayoumi> (accessed May 9, 2007).
 “U.S. soldiers in Iraq have a new weapon for dispersing hostile crowds and warding off potential enemy combatants. It blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam. The equipment, called a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, is a “nonlethal weapon” developed after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships. Source: “U.S. Troops Have Sound Weapon” < http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040307-120634-6220r.htm> (accessed May 9, 2007).