Radiophonics, and how radio (almost) killed the video star

Radio and the broadcast voice has always inspired me throughout my life. But radio is more than just speech, music, plays, news and quizzes. It’s very much an artform in itself. Indeed radiophonics are familiar to many by way of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (who are still very much in action and look set for a busy future) and it’s an extremely powerful way of creating imaginative and invisible drama. The writer Samuel Beckett exploited advances in radio technology in the late 50s and early 60s in his plays ‘All That Fall’ and ‘Embers’, when he tore up the form, dividing listeners with his sonic tales of devastation and decay. In 1968, Karlheinz Stockhausen composed ‘Kurzwellen’ for shortwave receivers and live electronics, inspired by the idea of drawing in broadcasts from far away, but ensuring that the performers maintained a level of control in their choice of random materials. 

In strict contrast, ‘Imaginary Landscape No 4’ by John Cage (1951) for 12 radios literally fizzed and buzzed with the sound of radio waves as performers glided between stations, with speech bursting out or a spurt of Mozart, as Cage had absolutely no idea what sounds might emerge from the speakers every time. Interestingly Cage met with legendary synth designer Don Buchla early on looking to explore a keyboard that could play radio frequencies. 

In 1969 Holger Czukay of Can collaborated with Rolf Dammersto produce the truly astonishing ‘Canaxis’, featuring ‘Boat-Woman- Song’. Sampling a piece of choral music, a Vietnamese singer and so on, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. A singular emotive dreamworld is born and the use of this “found” voice gives a vulnerability and fragility to the recording. In many ways it connects to ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts‘ (1981), Brian Eno’s collaboration with The Talking Heads’ David Byrne, a masterpiece of transgressive music, a kind of African psychedelic vision. What stood out in these recordings was the use of found voices taped from broadcasts, featuring a crazy evangelist or Arabic singers of unknown origin. It was this very “otherness” that made the record sound so alien. 

Voices unearthed in this way take focus in the work of American media pranksters Negativland, whose work frequently satirises consumerism, and that of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire who employed tape recordings of voices of authority, control and information in increasingly disquieting ways. TG’s Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson would play conversations just out of hearing range, secretive and illicit, beneath the expansive earthy electronics. Chris Watson left Cabaret Voltaire and briefly worked with The Hafler Trio on their astounding 1984 debut album ‘“Bang!” – An Open Letter’, a recording filled with mystique and intrigue, with found sound, spoken word and a Dadaist approach to cut-ups and sonic engineering. Essential listening for open ears. 

In 1982 Brian Eno released his seminal album ‘Ambient 4: On Land’, an extraordinary work where he moved the focus from synthetic and electronic production to more mechanical and acoustic phenomena, swapping a synthesiser for pieces of chain and sticks and stones.The results were a kind of sonic compost, offering a sense of place, celebrating the fields and landscape of rural England in an otherworldly suggestion of dark figures traversing the land in a foggy mist. There is a genuine sense of terror in the woodlands in this recording, but for me it offered up another unique possibility, and all by chance. 

I received a vinyl copy of this for my 18th birthday and duly went straight to my bedroom to play it. Suddenly, and rather miraculously, these disembodied voices appeared on the recording, ghostly, ethereal, crackling through the soundscape. I was amazed at how Eno had incorporated these into his compositions in such a subtle and understated manner, adding to the sense of foreboding in the music. Playing the record again later that day revealed a complete absence of voices throughout the recording. Had I simply imagined these? Was this to be expected of an expanding teenage mind? 

The very next day I played another album and there were those voices again! No need to call a doctor then, and more significantly the realisation that in fact what I was hearing were CB radio transmissions from a neighbour, talking to her trucker boyfriend over the airwaves. My hi-fi system was acting as a kind of sophisticated radio receiver, drawing these signals down from the ether into my speakers. This surprising and unnerving appearance of found voices inside the music itself, constantly changing, had a lifetime effect on both my listening habits and production of music, so when I began scanning mobile phone conversations in my earlier works it was clearly a return to this chance encounter. 

Radio is often described as sound without borders. At best successful radio can offer up an immersive world for the listeners to lose themselves in a most alluring fashion. Free of the screen, you let your ears roam around this imaginary world, and let the sound take you into a lost world of fact and fiction, balancing on the borderlands of illusion and reality. 

I have been fortunate to have worked on countless BBC productions over the years. I uploaded a number of these to ubu.com over the years, all of which you can listen to here. There are versions of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, Sylvia Plath’s Three Women, my Valentine’s radio special, The Sounds of Love, and The Woman with the Fork & Knife Disaster. And, in some ways, I hope they that offer you a moment you lose yourself in. Tuning in, whilst simultaneously tuning out.

Radio is certainly here to stay. Podcasts are extremely popular and act as micro story telling, but it’s the the chance encounters on radio that can still provide the most joy for me. Sitting in an apartment in a strange city, switching on the radio and waiting for the airwaves to reveal the mood and spirit of the day. Now, that’s magic!

4 Comments

  1. This was a great read, thank you. Only yesterday I was thinking about how radio has evolved in the digital age, and those sources you used aren’t as available now with encryption and gape security. In some of my recent work I’ve been seeking narrative from found sources as the scanner, CB and short wave seems to have dried up. I’ve been looking at second hand micro cassettes with some level of success.
    Quick question, do you know if anything came out of the meeting between Cage and Buchla? Sounds like a good project to explore!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. There’s a vast amount of work that uses radio in it that I never touched on there of course.
      I’m not sure anything came of Cage and Buchla. As fas I know he wasn’t especially keen on such things 😀

  2. This is such an insightful piece about broadcasting! I love that story of you accidentally overhearing your neighbour whilst listening to your Brian Eno record! I wonder if that planted the seed for your future radio scanning practice in your creative mind? To me radio has other connotations, not so much as an art form, but rather as a valuable means to learn about new music and artists. I used to pick up the weekly charts folder at our local record store from when I was 8 years old or so and tape my favourite songs from the radio broadcast and would introduce them myself pretending to be the presenter. I’m so sad I had to chuck those tapes out when I moved home as I don’t remember many of those songs or artists anymore but they do represent a part of my childhood and initiated my everlasting love for music! And the funny thing is: I still listen to that very same Dutch radio station, even whilst living abroad 🙂

    • Oh I so wish for your sake you had kept some of those tapes too. I used to present ‘radio shows’ for my mum with my brother, where we would hide behind the sofa and play records and then pop our heads up and introduce the songs to our mum sitting in the room, then cue up another record and play it. Brilliant fun!

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