Though humble in format, Christine Hume’s recently published chapbook Hum offers readers a deeply polyphonous enquiry into hums and humming that begins inside her own voice, body and childhood (including the breaking/wiring of her “jutting” jaw), and then roams through philosophical and poetic territories that include everything from high school bleachers (hummer central) to Zug Island, and then on the Erinyes and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Contrary to certain fashionable academic philosophies that carry a false ring for anyone who actually works with voices creatively, Hume understands how the voice begins in the ear. Finding one’s own frequency amidst the din of the mother radio and other similarly dense signals requires a secretive gathering of one’s own strange and severe harmonies, a process that may become riddled with noise and interference, all of which then becomes embodied, in both life and text, through the endless echolocation of the self.
Below, a sequence of excerpts from this beautiful and brave little book, in the counter-vibrational zones of adolescent resistance against family suppression, dislocation and trauma (images added):
The poet-philosopher Christine Hume is among the most radiophonic writers I know, though all her castaways have appeared on the page. She first struck my ear (and rattled every bone in my body) with her Shot, a fearless exploration of the night and all its related dark places, inside and out. Since then, I have also read, and read aloud, her explorations of wolf howls; decipherings of the winds that caress us and then spook us (Ventifacts); and then her most recent chapbook, the extraordinary Hum, that I will celebrate for Netarterians in a different post. For now, here is the transcript of an email dialogue that unfolded over the past two months:
GREGORY WHITEHEAD It is not enough to say that you write for the ear — it is more that you write for the air. So many of the lines in Shot crackle and pop like short wave transmissions, creating an experience of reading that is more psycho- kinetic than acoustic, let alone literary: rocking me, riddling me. I’m reminded of the lines from Jack Spicer, the poet as a counterpunching radio, and the spirit of radio jabs through everywhere in these texts, as subject, yes, but even more in the sparking electrical aesthetic of the flow, in the pops and gaps between the pages. Where does your affinity for radio begin, and where (or how?) has it taken you?
CHRISTINE HUME I love the sexiness of the radio, the desire it mines via distance, the intimacy of audition, especially in the dark or when alone. But I am a listener. Even when I’m writing (or reading), I am mostly listening to the words as if spoken. My sounds don’t channel the beyond or anything but a body.
Some part of my voice went underground very early and a fractured perversion of it sometimes steals through, holds within it the unsayable and uncontrollable. I don’t want to recapitulate ancient history—a woman physically possessed and spoken through by the divine or demonic other, in oracular and ecstatic speech— but to speak, actually aloud, was often forbidden when I was a child. While others were having polite conversation, I was digging a ditch for speech. My voice doesn’t come when you call or go where I send it. It’s haphazard, serrated, bunched, unruly. It is physically interior, like a mobile, leaky, contorted organ. I am thus a bad ventriloquist. I cannot impersonate myself—or a self—well. That’s probably why I sound like technology!
I’m writing a long essay on my voice as a kind of ticky blurt, a vital ornament (organment?), an excessive psychokinesis fused to literacy and physical trauma. At some point while I was writing Shot, I lost hearing in one of my ears. I couldn’t locate sounds; I was lost in their terrifying nowhereness. As Beckett says, “A voice come to one in the dark.” And it’s not always clear it it’s coming from inside or outside.
Some of Shot’s intensity of sonic play and echo might be a performance like trying to figure out what I was hearing, a guessing at and extending of sense. Various mishearings and mondegreens make a composite understanding. Coming back around to your question, I associate radio with night, which is where Shot takes place, and I wanted to be disembodied voice for a hynagogic state. I wanted to be a hynagogic jerk!
“Writing for the air” is mind-bogglingly rich. The abyss is full of air, and air is not nothing. Irigaray brings this to light: air’s ubiquity and all-pervasiveness makes us forget about it. And air carries so much that we can’t consciously detect—poison, electrical hums, radio signals. I’m curious about your writing—do you conceptualize it in relation to air? How do you hear the differences between text and script as you write, or do you?
GW Writing radio has always been an act of listening to the wind, writing with my ears, though this process is never anything but a guess or an intuition, since there is nothing to be pinned down. The word ventriloquism descends from ventus, which may sound like wind yet means something closer to the belly. The swirls and rips between belly and electromagnetic winds create our human consciousness at the same time they open up into that terrifying gape, and when we enter into that space, as you do so fearlessly in Shot, the experience can be harrowing, even life-threatening; no wonder you lost hearing in one ear.
I, too, associate radio with night in so many vibratory ways, including the mining of desire that you mention, mining alterity and the self into a strange psychic union, out of the dark. There is that lovely quote from Bachelard, “if our psychic radio engineers are poets concerned for the welfare of humankind, tenderness of heart, the joy of loving, and love’s voluptuous trust, then they will lay on splendid nights for their listeners.” Yet such nights are never without risk, on either side of the temporary psychosis of radiophonic pleasure.
So writing-radio nights, yes, and also language pressed underground; my radio life began as an adolescent exploring the town’s sewage/storm tunnels in the hours after midnight, an experience that provided an early sniff of being in the flow of a metaphor. My neighborhood friends and I would sing “spells” down there in the muck, incantations that echoed through the tunnels. We imagined they would bubble up to surprise the town folk during their most private moments, and this remains among my aspirations for radio art.
CH I celebrate the “improved etymology” of vent as air/belly, connecting ventifacts and ventriloquy. Jean-Pierre Brisset believed that homophony between different words indicated that they were holding hands underneath the table. To G.M. Hopkins, words that rhyme seek to find one another and live together on the page and in the air. A riff can ring so right.
That’s an incredibly mythic story, in the tunnels, and also a terrifically bawdy one — an underground wind percolating up from the bowels of the city to haunt and hector. Did you pass a waterfall of nightmares and condemned wanderers down there? I’m reminded of the dozens of dwarfs coming up from trapdoors in the floor to entertain the guests. They apparently or apocryphally lived in 21 subterranean chambers of Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga’s palace in Mantua, Italy.
Or in my own neck of the woods, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead at the MOCAD is a faithful replica of his childhood home in Westland, Michigan, except for a basement of bunker-like rooms that can only be reached by a series of metal ladders and uncomfortable tunnels. This is private, destabilizing space—it does not meet any kind of safety code and it does not feel like human space—that Kelley intended for “rites and rituals of an aesthetic nature.” As it was being built, a construction worker reportedly got lost, and with no cell phone connection, spent unnerving hours looking for a way out. Underground structures draw us into a space-time cyclone, a perfect condition for spells, memory, and simulated memory. Remember the stories from the McMartin Preschool, where some believed childcare workers engaged in strange, often violent rituals involving witches and all manner of flying as well as sexual abuse in tunnels below the school? That was in the 1980s, it took a hold of Kelly’s imagination.
GW Can you say more about your own language, as it went underground? I remember when I first encountered your poems, I had such a strong visceral sense of physical wildness, the far north, wolf howls in the wind; territory that captivates, thrills and sometimes devours.
CH As a child I listened out for a voice that I could inhabit. The hallucination of sound/voice emitting from text allowed many voices inside, some of them bubble up and then form a kind of feedback loop. As Steven Connor says, the “voice makes itself solid by its self-relation.” I feel that relation most intensely when I’m writing (rather than, say, public speaking), and once I tune in, that voice fully seduces me. How do you—as a psychic radio engineer—get through the static? In the midst of a drunk circumpolar whirl, I am verging on hibernation. I’m writing myself into an untidy hole here.
And speaking of the underground, that’s the place archeologists look for resonant objects. When I was 12, I developed a hum, barely audible and non-volitional but persistent. Maybe I was secreting a fantasy body, or trying to rewire my voice, blocking out my family, or simply haunted. It was an underground sound in any case: a volley from the vibratory nether-reaches with the side-effect of alienating any human nearby. No one heard it as embodied intelligence or as extra-semantic expression, as I prefer to think of it now. Before this hum developed, I was raised in the manner of don’t-speak-unless- spoken-to. I was accustomed to hearing myself talk silently. Internally language pinballed and simmered, but to answer your question, my body mostly contained my language.
Tell me about the narrative construction of Potato-God-Scarecrow; I’m interested in how you contained it via animal architecture.
GW The beaver lodge, as a space of flow, and also as a space of impedance, and sanctuary. I have spent many pleasurable hours observing activity around lodges, hoping if I hung around long enough, mama beaver might wave me inside. And then there is the beaver herself, figure of dispersed intelligence, reminding us that we must think with our tails as well as our brains; and this conception of neurobiology appears to have guts, according to the Damasios and others. In any event, this sort of ambiguous narrative in a flow with widely dispersed impulses and signs, strange hybrid thought- feelings or feeling-thoughts, all moving ahead with an “engineering” whose purpose may remain unfathomable — that’s the only sort of narrative structure that makes sense to me anymore.
CH Yes, entering into Potato-God-Scarecrow stimulates a fully embodied intelligence, if we think of intelligence as it should be thought of in the widest possible sense, to include more somatic processes of knowing and responding, often engined by, as you put it, unfathomable purpose. The work slips in subliminally, with direct access to the unconscious, and awakens our syntactic/sinew understanding.
Your sonic translation of the beaver lodge is both watery and woven. The architectural hollow of the lodge is what keeps us interested; like you, we yearn to be invited inside of the (narrative) structure. This entrance is damned, unavailable to us, but the space must be maintained imaginatively or our desire ends. We weave connections around a mysterious and deliberate vacancy. Each voice launches an impression; each voice modifies, misapprehends, and remotivates a connection, where connection is a verb. The associative power you call out in your listeners can be startling— I’ve often taught this piece to students who have never encountered this specialized (but not localized) kind of intelligence. I can’t help think of Dead Letters, of which, if I may quote what I have written elsewhere, suggests that how we know things is less rational and more instinctual, in the mode of the auditory unconscious, despite our best efforts. Potato-God-Scarecrow though pushes beyond centralizing metaphors and lets synapses rhizomatically roam freely.
This narrative structure mirrors the medium, the void between transmission and audition of radio itself. Here Emily Dickinson pipes up:
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and ’twill yawn the more— You cannot solder an Abyss
At least one of the formats for dissemination of Potato-God-Scarecrow is cassette tape. Archaic and technically inefficient, the cassette tape seems ripe with nostalgic reenactment. The OED removed “cassette tape” from its concise version in 2011. Is the difficulty of the format part—can’t go viral on the internet—of its appeal for you?
GW Oh yes, the same reason I love vinyl, commercially obsolete and thus more fully available for art, though nowadays both vinyl and cassettes are back in favor, so the OED may have to reconsider its deletion. And yes, for my ears, the sorts of linear, seamless ABC structures you hear in abundance on NPR do not ring true to the dispersed and ambiguous spirit of the medium – way too much solder. I can well imagine Emily D. as a late night freestyle radiophonista, playing the gaps to perfection – she would fully understand the sexiness of radio, and everything else.
Extraordinary, your childhood hum – embodied intelligence of the most subversive sort, vibrational resistance, along the frequency range of what you mentioned earlier, “psychokinesis fused to literacy and physical trauma,” the hum that allowed you to survive the Hume? It would seem your sort of hum may share a border with animal howls, as you have such a finely tuned ear for howling; recently you wrote about the “Beau Geste Effect”, where the one simulates the many, a “perceptual magic” also present in your writing. Throughout so much of your writing I sense winds of vigilance, hunger, survival. When you write about wolf howls, it seems so beautifully personal, as if you know that vibrational space very well. The hum creates one sort of fantasy body, and the howl a second, and those two do love to tango, no?
CH I hadn’t thought of it until later, but yes, howl and hum taxonomize together, akin also to my daughter’s colicky hours upon hours of inconsolable crying, which morphed into years of song, scat, and whistling. These sounds are as originless as Aristotle’s she-goats of Cephallania, who “do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds; but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes.” When you drink the wind’s whipped up urgencies, your lungs are empty. You can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs, which isn’t there. A sentence could be “Stop.” Or it could be “Breathe.” There is no air. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Let others toss out whatever comes to mind, let them throw out the garbage, throw caution to the wind. When a she-goat of Cephallania howls, it comes from nothing, and it means everything.
These are vibrational spaces of no-origin or clear purpose. They are rhythmic reservoirs that open up meaning way beyond the puny capacities of semantics. They exist outside our economic and exchange systems, and they open up utopian liberatory dimensions. They shock us into an amplified, expanded sense that ricochets around the anarchic and the sublime. A plurality blows through, and the edges rattle.
As Netarterians know, I retain a special fondness for the humble medium of analog broadcast radio, no matter how often it may be dragged into the mud puddles of reactionary blather. I also retain a particular fondness for those precious few stubbornly creative radiomakers who, against all odds, continue to explore the strange poetics of radio space through performance and (re)composition.
Enter the brilliant, soulful soundings of Anna Friz, most recently casting forth her vivid, gentle yet deeply provocative Radiotelegraph, in transmissive concert with Jeff Kolar’s indispensable Radius platform :
DP What was the genesis of your residency at the Skaftfell Center in Iceland; how did you conceive the idea for this broadcast? Can you briefly describe the telegraphic history, dating to 1906?
Anna Friz I applied for the Skaftfell residency in the summer of 2012, knowing only that I needed a break from urban life in the south, and that I had more methodological than thematic concerns in mind. Specifically, I was interested to deepen a creative engagement with place, to see how new work could spring from cultivating daily practices or habits, and to stay away from all talk of deliverables and known outcomes. This broadcast germinated very gradually in the months leading up to my arrival in Iceland: I was invited by Jeff Kolar at Radius to make a new work, and it seemed that would be a perfect fit to my time in a little art shack on the east coast of Iceland. This summer I picked up an ARRL (American Radio Relay League) 1957 training manual for “Learning the Radiotelegraph Code”, and determined one of my new habits would be to work on verbal morse code. A little more research revealed that Seyðisfjörður was the site of the first trans-oceanic telegraph cable connection between Iceland and Europe in 1906. The line was then expanded across Iceland to 14,000 telephone poles, so telegraph and telephone were carried in tandem across the island, voice and morse. The call letters were TFY (TF for Iceland, Y for Seyðisfjörður). There is an excellent Technical Museum of East Iceland here in town, which has functional models of the telegraph machines used for years at the station. As in many places, telegraph operations offered opportunities for women to work as well, and the job of operator held some prestige as an essential service requiring rigorous training.
DP What are the sources for the actual coded text?
AF The text refers to the daily loss of light after the solstice, and is a little inspired by reading translations of Icelandic sagas, where a lot of collective action, for good or for ill, takes place after nightfall. I was also aware of the text needing to speak to two very different geographic circumstances, that of this northern village on the edge of the Arctic Circle and the huge metropolis of Chicago further south, but for it not to be a warning. The beacon tells that long nights are coming, but we will not be alone. It’s the basic promise and premise of a signal, however faulty, asking and declaring: who’s there? I am here.
DP Here, and yet not here; and that ambiguity is something you have embraced throughout much of your work. Even when the voice is “real”, there is a fictive vibe in the air, and that’s where the play begins.
AF Yes, from early pieces about the ‘little people in the radio’ to more recent radio plays, I tend to make a familiar voice ambiguous by blurring the circumstances of its origin and placement. Here by doing verbal morse code I hope to blur the roles of operator and machine, while I’ve tried to introduce a more organic sensibility into the landscape of signals and oscillators in which I’ve set the morse code beacon. How far is far away, in space and time? The lovely thing about radio is that a voice can be so present and so unknown at the same time.
DP From a performance perspective, how did you train/shape your voice to emulate the telegraph so persuasively, in rhythms and pulsed consistency– what were those rehearsals like? I love how you manage to capture both the “personality” of the machine while also retaining a strong sense of your own voice, your own persona.
AF I have previously made work around the subject of the first wireless transmissions of the human voice by Reginald Fessenden (“Somewhere a voice is calling”, created with Peter Courtemanche aka Absolute Value of Noise, 2006-7), and part of that process included voicing a sloppy little bit of spoken morse code. I’ve always wanted to revisit verbal morse code, and coming here to Iceland I had some ambitious idea of becoming fluent in morse in two months. Turns out radiotelegraph operators trained longer and harder than that, so my ambitions were quickly replaced with respect for the signal operators of yore. Instead of fluency I focused on training my voice for morse delivery–developing a vocal ‘fist’ as it were. The goal is not to think of the individual letters so much as syllables and words. Beginning with the letters E (dit) and T (dah), practically every character is composed through combining other characters, so each character must have its own rhythm to be decipherable, and spaces between characters and words must be regular. All of this quickly turns into musical practice. The handbook recommended a metronome, but I just practiced combinations while out picking blueberries on the hillside.
Most importantly, I didn’t want my voice to turn into a machine, nor the telegraphy to be entirely usurped by the poetics of the voice. I recorded myself in a small empty room in order to harness the ambient reverb in service of making my ‘dits’ more precise, and my ‘dahs’ more smooth. You can hear the lightbulb popping the cold, my intake of breath, the room cutting in and out. The code is being generated some place by someone, it just can’t be seen.
DP You reference the use of “electronics and radio signals” – can you say a bit more about those sources, and how you selected them? At times, I imagine I hear mournful cetaceans in the mix — airborn whales, or? How much of the sound bed is composed, and how much randomly generated through the process itself?
AF I do have an ongoing intention of making whale radio, so I’m pleased you mentioned cetaceans. The fjord here in Seyðisfjörður is narrow and deep, framed on each side by imposing if minimalist mountains. Wind and weather blow down the pass and out into the fjord, a small river flows past my window overlooking a massive hillside. These give the impression of both ceaseless movement and of timelessness. It’s easy to imagine a slower, deeper pace of communication as undertaken by giants mammalian or mountainous.
The electronic passages were created on my Tetrax, a cottage-built and very tactile electronic instrument designed by Ciat-Lonbarde in Baltimore. I created two parts on separate mornings in response to the landscape and the feeling here. The shortwave signals were recorded my first week here in a windstorm. The little bit of harmonica arrived last, once the voice parts were bedded down in their environment of composed and accidental signals. All of the parts were made separately from one another, and were placed together with very little adjustment at the end.
On air, broadcast on small transmitters, the composition is always nestled in a certain amount of ambient radio noise, little whispers and distortions. I know this environment well after years of experiments, so I try to keep things a little sparse to better work within these in situ circumstances.
DP Iceland is a highly aural/oral culture where specific spaces are very “vocal”, resonant with spirited vibes: in this piece, there is almost the sense of you mediating (as electropsychic medium?) the landscape, above all where the land meets the water.
AF The landscape is very resonant here, as the hills have their own particular acoustic properties underfoot as well as producing powerful echos around the fjord. As local rumour has it, there are a few special stones here that move across the fjord of their own volition, and emanate fields of influences on the town. There is an ineffable this-worldly magic about the place, which I was consciously heeding and improvising with.
DP The “twitchiness” of telegraphy survives inside the medium of radio, and is part of what makes radio so “hot”; the “itchy finger” that can pull the trigger or tickle the ribs. So much of your work has the very rare quality of both pulses, giving a sense that is both slightly ominous or even threatening, yet retaining a lovely almost delicate sense of vulnerability and humor.
AF Media can be actants in all sorts of events–quotidian, extraordinary, poetic, militaristic, sadistic. For radio this history is close to the skin, and morse code is a particularly fascinating example of just that. I always think of the mad mix of timpanists learning to imitate the style and ‘fist’ of enemy radiotelegraph operators during WWII after the Allies had cracked the Axis Enigma code, and so on. Music and murder, all in one. The last telegram was sent in India this year, so perhaps its a fitting time to continue to employ morse code to such gentle purposes.
DP I am intrigued by your notion of radio history as close to the skin — can you say about that, and about the very carnal/corporeal nature of your radio poetics?
AF An ongoing point of interest and expression for me has been embodied intelligence, whether that be in the qualities of voice or gesture, or in the materiality of (often low fidelity) media such as radio stations detuned, or worn records, or walkie talkies exceeding the capacity of their small speakers. I’m surely influenced by my youthful feminist education, which resisted the notion of a mind/body split while validating the intelligence and practices of lived, embodied experience. I understand things and people to operate in a continuum in Hertzian space: radios themselves, like most simple electronics, are highly responsive to physical circumstances such as position, proximity, and atmosphere; bodies also. This sensitivity to fields of influence make radio and bodies delightful and corruptible.
DP As far as you know, was there a live audience for the broadcast in Iceland? What sort of response did you get? Feedback? And in Chicago? How has this residency changed or deepened your understanding of broadcast, and of the radiophonic voice?
AF I’m not sure who else is listening, aside from friends who contacted me. No real way to know. Sometimes it’s enough that people in an area know that there is intermittent pirate activity, as it makes them listen to the radio at other points with more curiosity, with the expectation that they could be surprised. My goal in Iceland was to find and nourish daily practice, so more than anything, undertaking the daily transmission at sundown has been a contemplative activity for me, to be aware of the fast fade of daylight here (losing 8 minutes a day); to sit still and notice the change in light each day, the enormous variations in ambience, mood, and weather. For instance, tonight is the final cast, and the entire sky is orange, brilliantly lit as the sunset behind the mountains ignites thin low clouds. It’s otherworldly, like the town is an outpost on another planet. The beacon sends back to busier climes, lone voice but not lonely.
Silence Radio is a project sponsored by l’Atelier de création sonore radiophonique , a Brussels-based independent public-funded organization founded in 1996. ACSR’s main purpose is to help beginning producers and artists with their first projects in the realms of creative radio and audio. ACSR is also responsible for a festival named Radiophonic, whose last edition was in 2007, yet with a welcome resurrection promised for November 2013.
To the attention of Netarterians: the extraordinary work of Karinne Keithley Syers, an artist-philosopher in the very best of senses; that is, one who uses all her senses.
While doing a bit of ruminative slogging through the dense sediments of the web several years ago, during one of those many times when I had the impression that creative brain activity on the planet earth had ceased, I encountered Keithley Syer’s Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal. After listening to the entire series I still wanted more, but the basement went dark.
Perhaps a wired bird reached her ear with my request, for it seems Ms. Keithley Syers has recently renewed her mole cabal excavations, available for a very modest fee:
For an illuminating interview with Ms. Keithley Syers, carry on to Desperado Philosophy for Severe Harmony.
On this, the John Cage Centennial, I offer Netarterians Leave it or Double it, a bit of radiophonic fungus produced on invitation from Transmission Arts, with its premier broadcast on WGXC a few days ago.
In fruiting the fungus, all I knew from the outset was that I would aim for a duration of 33:33, and that I would use translated excerpts from the Turin newspaper La Stampa as source material – reviews regarding the 1959 appearance of a young American composer named John Cage on a very popular Italian television quiz show, Lascia o Raddoppia. I was careful not to practice or rehearse the texts in any way, but to confront them in a single take, with no way to correct mushroom pronunciation mistakes.
My most extended personal conversation with Cage transpired in 1989 at an unlikely location: Skywalker Ranch. I noticed that Cage was not eating the catered food; he had his own little dish of brown rice and mushrooms. This led to a fantastic comic conversation about mushrooms, and I have since come to believe that his foraging expertise and his fascination for these strange organisms offer fresh ways to understand Cage’s philosophy of composition.
The performance he gave at Skywalker (How to Get Started) used the decompositional process of voicing a passage, then playing a recording back into the room while voicing a second section, and so on, gradually creating a rich fungal compost of words, ideas, and decay. The Skywalker auditorium was thus gradually transformed into a mush-room. This would be my structure as well, though performed in private, only made public through the radio broadcast. Each little mention in La Stampa receives its own generation, regardless of length.
Additional tracks are improvisations played by me on bowed cigar box guitar, plucked psaltery and gently thrummed turntable. I kept post-performance shaping to a minimum, and let myself be guided if not by the I Ching than by the whispers of Hermes, and by the forager’s disposition, so present in the art of John Cage.
I first came across a sampling of Sharon Charde’s poetry completely by chance, while browsing through a local women’s magazine. I was instantly struck by the disarming directness and documentary detail in poems that dared to articulate the unspeakable loss of her son Geoffrey while a student abroad, under circumstances that remained obscure, with no known witnesses. At the bottom of the page, there was mention of a forthcoming reading at a library nearby, which I attended. As Sharon read, I was once again moved by the calm precision she was able to bring to the most terrible scenes, and by the rich polyphonies that gave subtle dimension to such a raw wound:
- That evening confirmed my sense that her poems, written across three decades, comprised an important body of writing that deserved a wider audience. Fortunately, Sharon agreed to the idea of a BBC radio adaptation, and generously provided me with Geoffrey’s own journals, photographs and documents, as well as many supplementary stories and recollections, some of which I then incorporated into the script. Since her writings obliterate the idea that grief unfolds in tidy linear stages, I became increasingly committed to the fundamental truthfulness of an unresolved narrative structure, where the traumatic moment of the fall remains vivid, through to the very last sound.
We considered many actresses to give voice to the play, though my first choice was always Anne Undeland, who brings an open spirit of brave simplicity and deep insight to everything she does. I knew that Anne had recently performed a one woman show based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and she has worked with me on a number of other radio plays, including The Loneliest Road. As it happens, she also lived in Rome during the 1980s, and knew the Trastevere neighborhood where Geoffrey had lived, which helped bring the story fully into the present.
For music and sound design, I had in mind the image of a precious Roman mosaic that I had let slip from my hands, and thus it was left for me to piece it together again. There would be jagged edges to be sure – imperfections – and sometimes the edges might cut fingers. To achieve this acoustically, I improvised to recordings of Anne’s voicings on mandolin, bowed psaltery and a cigar box guitar, and then added a variety of sounds to the mix, including the snapping of twigs and the crushing of dry leaves.
I knew Geoffrey liked Simon & Garfunkle, and that he had used a quote from the song “Old Friends” in his High School yearbook. Though I never actually play the song, those chords and rhythms were certainly on my mind as I slowly assembled the final montage.
- The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul. Margaret, in Richard III
In a brief statement first published on Edge in March, 2005, dramatist Richard Foreman released an impassioned cri de coeur into the flow:
The notion that hyperconnectivity creates a diminished subjectivity and reduces the depth of individual intellectual experience has been taken up by several others, most notably by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, in which he persuasively outlines how web-based discourse and enquiry impacts our neurobiology: flattening cognition and emotions, thereby hollowing out our capacity for moral judgement and empathy. In what for me is the most significant passage in the book, Carr references the important work of Antonio Damasio, whose experiments suggest that such judgements and evaluations are inherently slow. As Carr writes:
In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental processes of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation”.
In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger argues that our traditional conceptions of authoritative knowledge, and of Foreman’s complex inner density, all derive from qualities and limitations intrinsic to the printed page and book, and that as we pass into “the expertise of clouds”, the nature and structure of knowledge production fundamentally changes. Thus we must rethink our understanding of intelligence within the context of networks, “where the smartest person in the room is the room.”
I have no argument with Weinberger, as far as he goes. Indeed, his skillful discussion of how networks dissolve traditional power structures within academia and bureaucracies strikes me as accurate and illuminating. Yet strong as he is when discussing the impact of the web on scientific knowledge in particular, he evades the deeper dimensions of Carr’s critique, particularly regarding the “nobler instincts” of moral consciousness.
The worm of conscience needs a rich and dense soil to sustain its penetrations; the lifelong self-examination that is essential to our humanity. What sort of soil does webbed intelligence offer to the worm? Is the network Too Big To Gnaw? Weinberger’s final chapter focuses on those qualities that make for good netizens, urging us to open access; provide hooks; link everything; include everyone; teach everyone. Laudable as such normative behaviors may be, what about those pesky ancient questions of virtue, justice and wisdom; the conduct of a good life, and the character of a civilization? Or perhaps the new structure of knowledge production is “too smart” for such old fashioned aspirations?
Towards the end of his book, Nicholas Carr writes:
What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become. In the 1950s, Martin Heidegger observed that the looming “tide of technological revolution” could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” Our ability to engage in “meditative thinking,” which he saw as the very essence of our hunanity, might become a victim of headlong progress. The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive at the Concord station, drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. The “frenziedness of technology,” Heidegger wrote, threatens to “entrench itself everywhere”.
It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that entrenchment. We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.
Returning briefly to Foreman and his theater: Over the years, I have had several occasions to witness the feverish lumberjacking taking place inside the darkened chambers of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric theater. Several of the devices used by Foreman to clear cut the dead wood of previous achievements from our assembled sensoria, including rapid and sudden changes in the intensity and volume of light and sound, all too closely resemble the sort of brutal wood chipping of existential platforms developed by the CIA (among others) within the Total Theater of “no touch” psychological torture.
On each occasion of my own attendance, I left Foreman’s theater of sensual and cognitive disorientation feeling exhausted, rather than illuminated; pacified, rather than provoked; flattened, rather than engaged. Come to think of it, I left his theater as less of a person, and more of a pancake. Could it be that the Ontological-Hysteric theater anticipated and represented for its audience Heidegger’s frenziedness of technology, the final stage of which Foreman now decries? The gods pound on our heads, and play with us all.
By the rules of Grandmother’s Basket, whereby each new item must begin with the last letter of the previous item:
John Pike pepper sprays Elizabeth Warren
who pepper sprays Nancy Pelosi
who pepper sprays Imogen Heap
who pepper sprays Paloma Picasso
who pepper sprays Obama
who pepper sprays Angela Merkel
who pepper sprays Larry King
who pepper sprays Gretchen Morgenstern
who pepper sprays Neil Diamond
who pepper sprays Donald Trump
who pepper sprays Peter Pan
who pepper sprays Nancy Sinatra
who pepper sprays Andy Murray
who pepper sprays Yasmina Reza
who pepper sprays Amy Grant
who pepper sprays Tiger Woods
who pepper sprays Sarko
who pepper sprays Oliver North
who pepper sprays Harry Belafonte
who pepper sprays Eugene Ionesco
who pepper sprays Oscar Wilde
who pepper sprays Ernesto Che Guevara
who pepper sprays Andy Warhol
who pepper sprays Linda Blair
who pepper sprays Ron Paul
who pepper sprays Lou Dobbs
who pepper sprays Steve Wozniak
who pepper sprays Kim Jong
who pepper sprays Gareth Bale
who pepper sprays Eunice Wong
who pepper sprays Gwyneth Paltrow
who pepper sprays Wen Jiabao
who pepper sprays Oprah
who pepper sprays Her Majesty
who pepper sprays Yoko Ono
who pepper sprays Omar Khayyam
who pepper sprays Me
And cheers to all Netarterians for the coming year, which promises to be another wild one.
I have a deep affection for a format that diminished to the brink of extinction during the early years of the digital age, yet a format now happily making something of a comeback: the audio cassette. My first studio consisted of two Superscope cassette recorders and a cheap Sony microphone, rigged up to create lengthy odes to phonic decay, bouncing tracks between the two machines while simultaneously adding mike voices or noise until I reached a satisfying reduction of entropic mud.
Most of these early experiments have been lost to posterity, and possibly that is all for the best, but this rare surviving fragment should give the general idea. Since most radio stations were rather hostile to the notion of broadcasting such cryptoacoustic ephemera even during graveyard hours on a Tuesday night, the notion of “cassette radio” (prototypical podcast, but with more soul) became widely circulated, enabled by post office intermediation. Every day, strange packages would appear stuffed into my rather cramped loft mail box in NYC; packages that would often be adorned with bits of cloth, or hand cut stamps, or wrapped in ribbons, or even (once) chicken wire.
The packages themselves were often fabricated from recycled shoe boxes or other consumer flotsam. I became friends with my neighborhood postman, a friendship which undoubtedly saved some of the more aggressively undeliverable packages from the Dead Letter Office. Inside the packages, there would often be more layers of wrapping and concealment, and then finally, the cassette itself – hand colored, painted, smeared, scratched and sometimes unplayable.
By 1990, all of this networked activity and output was referred to by Robin James as Cassette Mythos, but it would be wrong to retroactively impart too much conscious coherence to the scene. The dispersed, casual and even random quality of the exchanges (mostly barter) was a large part of what made it so appealing, as did the raw sensual nature of the artifact.
Hand made cassettes may have lacked commercial mojo, but they possessed an abundance of character, and cassette culture was thereby populated by a lively assortment of appealing characters whose ideas and aspirations did not quite conform to other channels. Some of these characters produced labels that celebrated the cassette aesthetic, though they also often
released vinyl as well. Among the vast array of enchanting untergrund labels, one in particular caught my ear: Banned Production, under the direction of a prolific, generous and brilliant individual (male or female I did not know) who for many years I knew only by the initials AMK, though his cover has been blown for at least a decade: AMK, aka Anthony King.
In any event, it seems that for some people, downloading audio pancakes from itunes just does not cut it, with cassettes one again beginning to appear along the vibrant edges of the electroacoustic universe. Banned Production appears very much in the thick of the renaissance, assembling an enviable stable of contributors, a veritable Who’s Who of Legendary Audio Experimenters you might never have heard of.
I titled my most recent radio castaway Potato God Scarecrow, billed as a freely associative radiophonic disorder in the approximate shape of a beaver lodge, and now also available as a Banned Production cassette. Like beavers, cassettes are paradoxical critters. Both have experienced near extinction, yet survived against the odds precisely because of their oddness, and their remarkable ability to complicate monocultural flow, whether riverine or digital. May they both live long and prosper.
Dipping too deeply into the viscous gunk of L’Affaire DSK might threaten to clog the Netartery and provoke cardiac arrest, yet having performed a bit of scrabble anagram research on the lettric sequence D,o,m,i,n,i,q,u,e,S,t,r,a,u,s,s,K,a,h,n, it would be churlish of me not to share my findings, as I am quite certain that DSK will eventually live up to his full nomological potential:
Squanders Inmost Haiku
Something le grand seducteur does with apparent regularity.
Outrank Maidens? Squish.
Internal IMF memorandum sent from the desk of DSK to all male employees.
Unromanised Squash Kit
Uncircumcised description of DSK’s genitalia.
Honkie Marauds; Squints
DSK on the French Riviera without sunglasses.
Squire’s Damnation Husk
DSK’s hindquarters after six months of hard time.
Quirkiest Shaman Sound
A speech given by DSK’s bon ami, BHL.
Antiquaries Mosh Dunks
DSK’s favorite activity at his Club Privé .
Unhandiest Squirm Soak
DSK in the shower, on Riker’s Island.
Squished Murk Sonatina
Music selected by DSK for his third wedding.
Qua Disharmonies Stunk
Reaction of guests to DSK’s wedding music.
Suitor Quashes Mankind
So long as they are female muslims from l’Afrique Noir – pas de problème!
Tarnished Squamous Ink
Residue left by DSK’s pen, found on carpets inside the world’s best hotels.
Humanoid Snake Squirts!!!
Typical NYC tabloid headline during le Joli Mai in the year 2011.
© Gregory Whitehead 2011
A few days ago, the publisher of the excellent print journal PAJ invited me to contribute to PAJ 100. The question: what do you still believe in, through all the riptides of the past decades? Since I doubt there is much overlap between the readers of PAJ and Netartery, I thought it might be of interest to post my response here as well, with a few ancillary web links.
My first major radio play Dead Letters* had its premier broadcast in 1985, offering public radio listeners an hour of voiced bodies or ghosts of bodies that are hard to figure, hard to name. The broken memory of an ancient war story bleeds into the Elena Makropulos paradox of immortality while the crazed smear of Hitler’s bunker signature dances a jitterbug with the blackened phantom fingers of a young pianist, and while the hand of Judy Garland singing You Go To My Head reaches out to touch Napoleon’s dried and withered penis, the private property of a New York urologist.
Taken by themselves, such stories may seem fated (fingered) for the Dead Letter Office, unable to be delivered or returned. Yet when rubbed up against each other in consort, the bits and bites create a colloquium whose keynote themes are discovered, rather than announced. No preening host, and no smarmy theme or sentimental pretense. Simply an invitation to drift, ruminate and make connections where a split second before there had been nothing but bafflement and darkness. Utopian aspirations, to be sure, but I still believe in the pure power of free association, and since Dead Letters still receives copious airplay a quarter century later, perhaps there is something to it.
In those early days, I embraced analog broadcast radio as my ideal creative home because the airwaves seemed to vibrate with the same qualities I sought to capture in my own plays, and in my own thinking: indeterminacy, fragility of signal, random access, tension between public and private, ambiguous borders, modulating rhythms, complex polyphony, and a pulse rate set by a wild heart.
Such qualities drive the digital data miners nuts, and the assorted masters of corporate media would love to see the stubbornly unruly spaces of analog broadcast foreclosed upon, and eventually demolished, like the communal squats of Kreutzberg. They will fail, because for every data miner with an ice pick, three radio pirates are born into the airwaves. Nonetheless, for the past decade or so I have certainly been conscious of sending work into a space that many have forgotten, written off, or even condemned.
Potato God Scarecrow, completed only a few weeks ago, offers up a media philosophy quite resonant with Dead Letters, though this time shaped into the acoustic figure of a beaver lodge. I am fascinated by the neurosensual implications of the North American beaver, an artist engineer whose creative capacity is not centralized within its tiny brain but dispersed from head to tail.
To my mind, such capacity has significant implications for narrative structure, and somewhere in the middle of the intricately beavered wetlands, along one of those rich edges where a few loose blazes suggest bright neural pathways cutting through dense limbic muck, a voice says, We have these many many many many mysteries and it’s mainly the mysteries that enthrall me when I’m walking along. A few things I know where they came from, most I don’t.
It is still mainly the mysteries that enthrall me, too, and I still believe in the poetic vitality of edges, which is where the mysteries reside. Edges between eros and thanatos, seduction and oblivion, order and chaos; between sense and nonsense, facts and fables, the living and the dead; between the lover’s whisper and the warrior’s scream. Friction among all these edges still creates ample energy to float my canoe among the beaver lodges.
And yes, I still believe in the power of radio to create community, even for an hour or two, and to feed the imagination with nutrients not offered elsewhere, and I believe that offering such a feast remains a worthy mission for public broadcasting in particular. Diversity is always desirable, and that includes poetic and aesthetic diversity. When we drop these qualities to the bottom of the pecking order, we crush our capacity to imagine a viable future for our mysteries.
A few days before I am writing this, a body codenamed Geronimo was scrubbed clean, wrapped in a white sheet, zipped into a bag, and slipped into the Arabian Sea. A few days before that, another body was scrubbed clean and wrapped in white as well, but this first body pursues a destiny as distant from the codenamed corpse as Buckingham Palace from Fort Sill, Oklahoma . With these two bodies in play, the essential question for the poet, the playwright and the philosopher remains: how do we get from the first white sheet to the last?
* A complete transcript was published in PAJ 41 (1992). Though I conceived Dead Letters as a new kind of radio play, the source materials were gathered via documentary interviews, including one with PAJ editor Bonnie Marranca, who contributed her interpretation of the voice, hands and body of Judy Garland.
Gregory Whitehead is a writer, sound poet, playwright and radiomaker. Potato God Scarecrow will be broadcast as part of Radiophonic Creation Day 2011.
Radiauteur – a new web magazine dedicated to radio art is now live online.
Dedicated to radio art, the transmission of conceptual sounds and voiced thoughts, Radiauteur was launched to become a web magazine for academics and artists from all over the world to publish their work. In addition to this, Radiauteur aims to become an online platform for the dissemination of past, present and future praxis – an Ariadne’s thread for radio art to reach an audience as wide as possible.
Radiauteur is a non-profit initiative kindly supported by the Centre for Cultural Studies and the Department for Media and Communications of Goldsmiths, University of London. http://www.radiauteur.com
We have included radio stations (and podcasts) which either broadcast radio art or are radio-art-friendly, and open to contributions. Please feel free to suggest any other stations you might know of.
We are currently still updating our database of radio artists. If you would like to be featured on our website please send us a short bio, a link to a personal website/page and a sample of your work. We are also working on setting up an online radio playing exclusively radio artworks. If you would like your pieces to be featured please send them in mp3 format to info[at]radiauteur[dot]com
Call for papers and radio artworks:
The subject of the first issue of Radiauteur is ‘Freedom’. Abstracts and proposals for artworks (found sounds, field recordings, radio experiments and installations, collages, readings, interviews, etc) should be submitted by the 31st of March and final articles and pieces by the 30th of April.
The first issue of Radiauteur will be published online on the 1st of June 2011.
All queries should be sent to: info[at]radiauteur[dot]com
In 1980, as I took my own first forays into the wilds of electromagnetic schizophonia, bouncing twisted walkie talkie tracks between two battered Superscopes, Captain Beefheart released an album that would deeply impact my understanding of the wired up human voice and its seductive tangle of paradox and possibility: Doc At The Radar Station.
Suddenly, here was a fully charged songbody that contained within its convoluted nervous system the same double edged vibe I was sensing both on tape and in the air: the lucid paranoia of the electrified persona, with its modulating potentials for revelation, wounds or oblivion; the juiced immersion with some other entity, some other ethereal field, floating somewhere close to the gods — though maybe it was just some scrambled cipher left behind by an unscheduled sparagmos.
I had been listening to the Magic Band for many years before then, with a transistor radio tucked beneath my pillow, Trout Mask Replica, cross rhythmic incantations for the shocked disembody — but song/poems like Telephone took signature Beefheart out-thereness and injected it straight into the bone marrow of the lone schizophonic self. At the radar station, the rips and crackles became very personal, no longer out there, but in here.
And I strangled
And I ripped the cord
And I saw the bone
And I heard these tweetin’ things
N twinkling lights
N there was nobody home
Where are all those nerve endings coming out of the bone?
Don Van Vliet , aka Captain Beefheart, died yesterday at the age of 69.
With the proliferation of audio webstreams and all sorts of digital smart boxes calling themselves radios, we need to ask, well, if these streams are becoming ever more fluent, then what space is being drained? When someone asks me, as they do, often, if I love Pandora, well, what sort of bugs are they asking me to love?
- Radio poesis flows from the edges, some of them very fragile and sensitive, and occasionally they may even swell or bleed. Edges between signal and noise. Edges of frequency and range, both of which implicate edges of power and politics. Edges between attraction and repulsion; between Eros and Thanatos, or utopia and oblivion; the double edged ambiguities of sender and receiver caught in their limbic limbo dance. How low can we go?
As any biologist will confirm, edges are very often the key to the vitality of an ecosphere. Without edges, exchanges of energies (be they hoots, howls or body fluids) are rapidly and perhaps terminally diminished.
When I bemoan the lack of poetic or aesthetic diversity on public radio (whether CBC, NPR, BBC or wherever), I am bemoaning the lack of edges. Instead of program streams that celebrate lively & liminal qualities such as fluid ambiguity and slippery murk, qualities that give heart and truth to the medium, we hear nothing but tight and tidy pitter patter, which in an infinitely messy cosmos (well expressed within the human species) serves up the ultimate deceit.
The BBC reports that the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Princess Elettra, has been shocked by the derelict condition of her father’s former factory in Chelmsford, England. Once providing a makeshift studio for the very first radio broadcast intended purely as entertainment, the factory has now become a local shooting gallery and residence of last resort — undoubtedly still offering an abundance of cross corporeal transmissions.
Guglielmo was evidently quite fond of the name Elettra, giving it to both his daughter and his yacht, which doubled as a floating laboratory for his lifelong investigations into the vagaries of maritime wireless communication. SOS, as in Save Our Ship or Sink Our Ship? History has heard plenty of both.
The first entertainment broadcast beamed forth on June 15, 1920, featuring the voice of Dame Nellie Melba, who gave her name to toast and to a peach dessert. Opening with a rendition of “Home! Sweet Home!”, the broadcast was confirmed as having been clearly received from as far away as Newfoundland, and was even recorded by wireless enthusiasts in Paris.
A quite entertaining video documentary of Melba’s performance can be found here. From all accounts, the broadcast was a great success, the one complaint being that the strength of the signal obliterated all other wireless transmissions in the vicinity, a strength that contrasts notably with Marconi’s first attempt at transoceanic wireless on December 12, 1901, centering around the infamous letter “S”, dot dot dot. Did Marconi actually hear the S, up there on Signal Hill, or did he hear what he wanted to hear, amidst the crackle of cosmic interference?
In any event, one wonders what is to become of the derelict factory, given that Elettra, for all her horror at the state of decay, does not appear eager to twitch a single noble finger towards purchasing the property. I suspect that the market for luxury flats is not exactly on fire in Chelmsford, and of course, the English, like Americans, don’t really fabricate much of anything anymore, not even Melba toast. But whatever the future brings, it is clear that the good ship Marconi at Chemsford has been forever dismasted.
But what’s the message?
A few years ago, I co-produced a documentary for BBC Radio 3 that set out to follow the watery migrations of bits of Gospel tossed into the ocean by bottle evangelists. Like the bottles themselves, we soon found ourselves in deeper waters, and the program gradually shifted into a more global meditation on the planetary postal delivery system formed by intersecting ocean currents:
A retired oceanographer named Curt Ebbespeyer has become possibly the world’s foremost expert in reading the strange and unruly texts that wash ashore around the world each day. By tracking various categories of flotsam and jetsam, he is also able to guage the relative health of the postal conveyor belts, the sub currents that together remind us that we are all truly connected via the flows of Okeanos. Over the years, Ebbesmeyer has tracked everything from vast flotillas of Nike sneakers to potentially lethal depth charges.
Now let’s shift focus to the two large floating dump sites for discarded plastic:
Needless to say, these enormous globs severely gum up the flow of global mail, with consequences that remain unknown.
OK, so with the stage set, let us imagine that the oil gushing forth in the gulf is a sort of cosmic ink, and let us further imagine that it enters the postal delivery system via the Gulf Stream, an event that may only be a few weeks in the future. Finally let us imagine that this vast quantity of ink eventually finds a suitable surface upon which to leave its mark: the twin sheets of plastic garbage.
The resulting text creates the world’s most spectacular dead letter, an ominous message that cannot be delivered nor returned, a text as strange, violent and inscrutable as the hulking corpus of The White Whale.